Archivists are the unsung heroes of the historical profession. They are made all the more special by the fact that in the lesbian and gay archives sector most are unpaid, or underpaid. Theirs is a true labor of love.
Doing research in volunteer-run archives means that services can be patchy. You rely on the goodwill and good humor of others, and luck and happenstance can have as much to do with your research results as a good method and thorough approach.
When I first began contemplating same-sex marriage as a research topic, I contacted the Lesbian Herstory Archives. As luck would have it, the volunteer archivist on duty that day was worked particularly hard to provide detailed answers to researcher’s questions. When I asked if the Archives had any material on lesbian weddings before 1980, she found a variety of newspaper clippings and suggested other parts of their collection where I might look. She also chatted up a few of the long-time Archives volunteers and workers, women whose participation in the local lesbian scene went back to the 1960s and ’70s New York community. One of them suggested I contact Daisy de Jesus.
A search of the online phone directory got me nowhere. Four years later, I tried again. Her name appeared in a news story about a wedding expo for same-sex couples. The journalist identified where she and her partner lived and I was able to use that information to track her down. In 2012 we sat down together for an interview in her office on Broadway.
In the late 1960s, Daisy was known in the local lesbian bar scene as the woman who conducted marriage ceremonies. It started simply enough. One day two of Daisy’s friends told her that they wished they could get married. “I’ll marry you!” Daisy blurted out. And so she did.
The Broadway Central bar where she hung out was terrifically noisy, so she always conducted ceremonies in the hotel lobby.
“But you had to be quick,” she said. “The bouncers would come and kick you back into the bar.”
Daisy married couples for four years. She stopped when she began dating a woman who was possessive of her and resented her constant interaction with other women. Not long after she became involved in Salsa Soul Sisters, a feminist group of women of Latina and African American heritage interested in alternatives to the bar, to butch-fem practices, and to relationship conventions such as marriage.
Daisy’s story reveals how same-sex couples found ways to marry each other at a time when homosexuals were seen as deviant, as immature, and as incapable of forming meaningful, lasting relationships. I would never have been able to document it and share it with you now were it not for the commitment of archivists. That young archivist is named Lisa Cohen, and it is to her we owe this story.