The Importance of the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture
Learn more about Kelly, his collection, and the importance of housing these invaluable resources at Texas A&M University.
By Rachel Knight ‘18
When Texas A&M University acquired the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture, rare LGBTQIA+ documents, journals, literary works, and more invaluable resources were carefully preserved and made available to the masses.
Public access to the Don Kelly Collection is shifting the narrative of LGBTQIA+ support on campus and informing research across the country through the College of Liberal Arts/Cushing Library Don Kelly Research Collection Fellowship.
We talked to the fellowship selection committee to learn more about Kelly, his collection, and its important role in research. Their insights are awe-inspiring, eye opening, and at times delightful.
Who is Don Kelly?
Don Kelly was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1940, and one might say he’s been serving others ever since. He moved to Texas more than 50 years ago to join the U.S. Air Force and serve his country. After earning a Bachelor of Arts from the University of St. Thomas and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Kansas in 1967, he began a professional career in city government. He worked as a city manager, director of regional services, and executive director in various departments in east Texas. After serving his fellow Texans for 35 years, he retired in 2000.
Though retired, Kelly is still serving others. He loves talking to scholars and fellows who use the Don Kelly Collection at Texas A&M. When he learns of something that might help them in their research, he tries to find it and donate it to the collection in Cushing Memorial Library.
Rebecca Hankins of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program and area studies curator at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, said Kelly doesn’t give himself enough credit for his service.
“At the opening of the Lives, Liberation, Love exhibition of Don Kelly’s collection at Cushing, Kelly said, ‘I am not a scholar, librarian, or book dealer, I am a 74-year-old gay man who has had a life-long love and passion for books,’” Hankins recalled.
Francesca Marini, associate professor and programming and outreach librarian at Cushing Memorial Library, agrees that Kelly’s description of himself is too humble.
“[He] is an activist and a historian for the community,” Marini explained. “He is a very strategic, well-researched and organized collector, who has found some very rare items.”
Kelly doesn’t just talk to students and scholars — he goes out of his way to meet them, according to Kris May, associate editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography, which is housed in the English Department at Texas A&M University.
“Don travels from his home in Houston to A&M to attend talks and meet with scholars interested in LGBTQIA+ literature, history, and culture,” May shared. “He genuinely enjoys meeting and interacting with students and scholars.”
Shifting Power and Amplifying Voices!
Texas A&M has a history of struggling to represent diversity. African Americans were not permitted to fully enroll at Texas A&M until 1963, and women were not granted full enrollment until 1970. Though these are possibly the university’s best-known struggles with diversity, the history of LGBTQIA+ activism on campus played an influential role in shaping civil rights across the country.
In 1976 John Koldus, who was the vice president for student affairs, denied an application from the Gay Student Services (GSS) to be a recognized student organization. His reasoning was that GSS was not consistent with the philosophy and goals of the university. The next year, GSS filed a lawsuit against the university. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of GSS, but the ruling was appealed by the university to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, the lower court’s decision was left intact.
The outcome of the case, known as Gay Student Services v. Texas A&M University, ultimately required universities nationwide to recognize and provide financial support to gay student groups under the First Amendment. Cushing Memorial Library maintains and preserves the records of the legal challenge with documents, flyers, papers, and writings of what is now the LGBTQ+ Pride Center.
While the case was a victory for the LGBTQIA+ community nationwide, it shed light on Texas A&M’s lack of support for LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, and staff. Many of the contributors to this story have worked hard throughout their careers to change that.
When Hankins found the Don Kelly Collection listed on the Archives and Archivists listserv in September 2012, she immediately recognized the value the collection could bring to Texas A&M, and began reaching out to colleagues to help bring the collection to the university.
“There were two people that I consulted with in Cushing when I heard about the collection: Michael Jackson and Lauren Schiller, both staff members and part of the LGBTQIA+ community,” Hankins said. “They were instrumental in helping me make the argument to our director at the time, Dr. Larry Mitchell, that we needed the support of the wider academic and LGBTQIA+ community. Dr. Kris May and I had been longtime friends and members of the local radio station, so he was the next person to contact.”
May remembers several faculty members from the Queer Studies Working Group leaving the university due to the lack of a welcoming environment for LGBTQIA+ people on campus. He saw acquiring the Don Kelly collection as a way to change this narrative.
“Acquiring the Kelly Collection would be a visible, positive step forward and would show that A&M is serious about making its campus more welcoming for LGBTQIA+ communities,” May explained. “The Kelly Collection would also raise the visibility of Texas A&M as a campus that was serious about queer studies and providing resources to scholars around the world.”
May worked with fellow faculty members to compose one of the 18 letters of support for acquiring the Don Kelly Collection. He also worked with LGBTQ Aggies, which is a student group he advises, to compose a letter explaining how the collection would positively impact the student body.
“This letter made the argument that students would benefit from the collection in their own research for classes,” May shared. “Additionally, the Kelly Collection built upon an excellent local and campus LGBTQIA+ collection that students interested in queer studies had used for many years.”
After almost a year and a half of hard work to gather support and funding for the collection, members of the library, archive, administration, faculty, staff, students, and community rejoiced as the Don Kelly Collection officially found its new home at Texas A&M. Housing the Don Kelly Collection at Texas A&M provides a means to facilitate a change in the conversation on LGBTQIA+ issues.
“We have shifted the power dynamic; other narratives are now on display,” Marini explained.
“LGBTQIA+ communities are now speaking in their own voice and sharing the power. This collection can be used to educate and start conversations, which will sometimes be difficult or uncomfortable, but will enable us to grow together, so that everyone can live their lives openly and without fear.”
And the results are tangible. In 2014, Texas A&M was ranked 11th on Princeton Review’s list of most LGBTQIA+-unfriendly schools in the nation. Two years later, according to Hankins, Texas A&M was ranked among the top ten friendliest.
Housing the Don Kelly Collection on campus says that all histories are important and it allows all histories to be examined, studied, and acknowledged.
“It’s also an opportunity to tell stories from the viewpoint of the individuals that make up that community. They can tell their own stories because we have that history,” Hankins said. “It can’t be distorted because we have records that can validate their stories, their voices, their views.”
Supporting the Don Kelly Collection Fellowship
In partnership with Texas A&M University Libraries/Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, the College of Liberal Arts proudly supports the Liberal Arts/Cushing Memorial Library Don Kelly Research Collection Fellowship.
Fellows from across the country are selected once a year to spend between two weeks and two months working on their research in Cushing Memorial Library using the Don Kelly Collection. The fellowship provides a stipend of $750 per week. Fellows are expected to acknowledge the Fellowship in both print and other publications. Those who spend four weeks or more at the Cushing Library are required to give a public lecture or presentation on the topic of their research at Texas A&M.
“The fellowship helps those who may not otherwise be able to afford to travel to and stay in Bryan/College Station to work in the collection for an extended period,” May explained. “The fellowship is specifically for scholars who are at an early stage in their career.”
In addition to helping those who need the most financial help to fully access the collection and conduct research, the fellowship raises positive awareness of both the Kelly Collection and Texas A&M’s role in preserving LGBTQIA+ history, art, and literature.
“As the [fellow’s] research is published and shared, word gets out about the Kelly Collection and what Cushing has to offer, which draws more scholars to the collection,” May said.
College of Liberal Arts Dean Pamela Matthews has been a supporter of both the Kelly Collection and the Kelly Collection Fellowship since she served as interim dean of the college. She helped bring the Don Kelly Collection to campus and continues to actively support the fellowship with her own philanthropic support.
Leroy Dorsey, associate dean for inclusive excellence and strategic initiatives, said the fellowship fits the college’s mission to explore the human experience — in all its diversity — from both humanistic and social science perspectives.
“The Don Kelly Collection Fellowship is an important keystone to the college’s ability to promote meaningful dialogues, respectful interactions, and a more inclusive environment; its use, prominence, and success frames the college’s commitment to serving all the people of Texas,” Dorsey shared.
About the Collection
As a social activist who spent most of his life collecting gay literature and publications to help understand the history of gay people, Kelly’s collection is his legacy. The collection contains an array of rare and unique materials Kelly aptly described as broad, but in-depth.
Hankins pointed out that archival LGBTQIA+ materials provide lenses for looking at topics that interrogate and construct new scholarship. The primary materials challenge researchers to arrive at wider notions of sexuality, homosexuality, and same-sex desire.
Though many of the materials in the Kelly collection are from the 1950s and 1960s, which is relatively young for archived materials, they are still extremely rare and remarkable.
“The number of serials and pulp novels in the collection have attracted a lot of interest,” May said. “Receiving many of these items in the mail in the 60s and 70s was risky, given laws about mailing and receiving ‘obscene’ materials in the mail. It was risky to possess many of these items, and so the fact that the Kelly Collection has so many of them (especially complete runs of some serial titles) is amazing.”
Marini said the significance of the Don Kelly Collection goes beyond what we might think initially. It includes rare magazines and serial publications, ephemeral materials (like newsletters and fliers), among other rare finds.
“You will be surprised to discover how much of our history and culture really are LGBTQIA+ culture,” Marini shared. “So many famous writers were part of the community: Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Shakespeare. The Don Kelly Collection speaks to the complexity of life and shows how we all have multiple identities and passions. The Collection displays monumental works in literature, activism, social justice, pop culture, and entertainment.”
Collections like Kelly’s contribute to minimizing bias in the university’s archives and recorded history. They help shape what people think of the past and give a voice to points of view that have not always been well-represented. As Kelly pointed out, by virtue of this collection, Texas A&M, Cushing Memorial Library, and the College of Liberal Arts provide a platform for the sometimes-reviled and much-undervalued publications that have been the only source of reassurance and identity for many people over the years.
“We are saying that all histories are important,” Hankins shared. “[We’re allowing] all histories to be examined, studied, and acknowledged.”