The Bryan Knedler Collection
By Kieran Robertson
Recently the Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI) received an exciting new collection from former Ohio native, Bryan Knedler. We are incredibly eager to dive into the collection, as there is so much to learn from Knedler’s documentation of his own life and all of the organizations and Ohioans he affected.
Knedler grew up in Marysville, Ohio, before beginning his education at the Ohio State University in 1977. Here he became a very active member of OSU’s Gay Activist Alliance (GAA). During this early post-Stonewall era, OSU’s LGBTQ+ student groups often served the Columbus community as a whole. First Ohio State had the Gay Liberation Front, and then the Gay Activist Alliance, which served students and engaged in activism.
When Bryan walked into his first Alliance meeting in 1978, he remembers the first person he saw being Stefan Luebkemann, standing on a chair and speaking on some issue or another. Bryan and Stefan became friends, and eventually Stefan would serve as the subject of Bryan Knedler’s Master’s Thesis exploring “Performance and Power in the Gay Male Community.” Stefan performed frequently as Victoria, and spoke to Knedler on tape as his drag persona.
The Gay Activist Alliance managed a speaker’s bureau, a telephone hotline, and a week of awareness building events each year. They shared office space with a small Lesbian group on campus, as most other student groups refused to share with them. During their week of events each year, the Gay Activist Alliance also sponsored Gay Blue Jeans Day. No one really knows where Gay Blue Jeans Day came from, but Bryan did save a few articles from the Lantern, OSU’s student newspaper, speculating about its purpose:
“The person that has to wear something different to avoid speculation is exposed on a small scale to the oppression we feel every day of our lives. Those that mistakenly wear jeans that day may share a little bit of our recurrent anxiety.”
“…if the standard dress on campus was a three-piece suit, this would be an excellent idea…. Blue jeans day is merely an exercise in foolishness by a naïve group of people who blindly wish to believe they have the support of the campus.”
“When nobody cares about the event, it will be discontinued, said Knedler, adding, those who ‘freak out’ have made Blue Jeans Day a success.”
The Gay Activist Alliance also helped fly a banner at 15th and High that read “Someone you love is gay” and included the Alliance’s phone number. This hotline was available for members of the community, but also for their family and friends, to call and ask for advice. This banner, hand painted on Bryan’s kitchen floor, is now a part of the GOHI collection.
When the banner was on display, the Alliance would screw Plexiglas over the banner to protect it, but items were still thrown at the Plexiglas. Similarly, during freshman orientation, the Alliance used Plexiglas to protect their display. Eventually they chained the display down, after it was thrown into the Olentangy River.
Knedler remained on campus during graduate school, but became less involved in the Gay Activist Alliance. However he didn’t stop making change. Knedler and his partner became the first non-married couple to openly live together in university graduate student housing. He also started a class project to record oral histories with community elders, eventually becoming engaged with the SAGE project. Bryan’s original tapes are part of his collection. Because of their importance in documenting voices of the community pre-Stonewall, we are currently working to have them digitized. (We will be sure to share more on the blog when this work is complete!)
Once leaving the university, Bryan remained connected by forming a Gay Alumni group called Buckeye GALA. Through this experience he also got in contact with fellow alum, Samuel Steward. Knedler’s collection will help bring Steward’s important story to GOHI as well.
As an archivist processing and cataloging this collection, I am thrilled by just how much information has been made available for us to preserve. However, I have also been interested in some of the larger themes that have stood out to me as I read through the collection. In particular, I am intrigued by the scrapbook that Knedler kept during his time at Ohio State University. When I flip through its pages, I see stories of duality that may feel familiar to many in the LGBTQ+ community.
For example, throughout the scrapbook, you can find letters congratulating Knedler on his grades and placements on the Dean’s list. In one such letter, the Dean even handwrote an extra note to congratulate Knedler for his achievements in Latin.
However, there is also an entire page dedicated to an article from the Lantern that leads, “Brian [sic] Knedler lost three roommates when he ‘came out of the closet’ and admitted his homosexuality during his fourth quarter in Taylor Tower.” As the RA explained it, “’ Some couldn’t accept the fact that they could be friends with a gay person.’”
The university could be a place for study and advancement, while also holding discrimination and homophobia on campus. Much of this scrapbook documents Knedler’s work to do away with this duality, and make the campus a better place. In fact, in the same article, he is quoted as saying, “’If everybody who is gay would say so to our friends…our problems would be over. If everybody would do that, we could change our stereotypes.”
On a page of his 1978 calendar that he pasted into the scrapbook, Knedler notes that in the span of one week he turned 20, came out to his parents, celebrated Thanksgiving, and protested Anita Bryant. However in this week he also noted a “psych report due,” a party (with a question mark), and of course, the annual OSU vs. Michigan Game. Just this one page of a calendar illustrates so many themes common in coming out stories: family, navigating a holiday, engaging in activism. We can also see the duality of continuing to experience typical freshman milestones while conquering the personal milestone that is coming out.
One of the most thought-provoking parts of the scrapbook is that it holds both positive pieces created by members of the gay community, and news articles detailing the hate coming from the outside world. Just flipping through the scrapbook can create back and forth feelings of belonging and alienation. For example, on one page we can find an article titled “Ohio State U Gay Group Loses Antigay Complaint Against Bible Group” as well as a program from Columbus Pride in 1983. The information in this scrapbook is priceless, but the emotions it evokes are equally important for helping us understand the past.
We are excited to continue sharing parts of the Knedler Collection with you. It contains countless stories, and information ready for researchers to use for many years to come. Should you be interested in viewing the collection, you can make an appointment to visit the Archives & Library, here. Also keep a lookout for the Oral History section on our GOHI website. Once we finish digitizing Bryan Knedler’s oral histories, we will post there about how to access them.