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Jim Kepner: Two Pioneers Remember

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Tributes by Barbara Gittings & Randolfe Wicker

Barbara Gittings and Randolfe Wicker, among the foremost East Coast pre-Stonewall pioneers of the gay and lesbian movement, prepared the following remarks to be delivered at a Memorial Celebration for the West Coast's Jim Kepner on May 22, 1998 in the auditorium of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The celebration was sponsored by ONE Institute/ International Gay and Lesbian Archives.

Barbara Gittings:

My life partner Kay Lahusen and I were simply astonished when we first met Jim Kepner in 1963 at his home in Los Angeles. We saw books, books, BOOKS, and files, files FILES, from floor to ceiling!

Jim and I clicked immediately. I too was a gay book buff, because in 1950 when I needed to learn about myself and what it meant to be gay, there was no one I could ask, so I instinctively turned to books.

Jim's library impressed us, but so did his dedication to activism, which we shared, and his passion for chronicling our movement.
kepner2.jpg - 81.73 K Barbara Gittings at Jim Kepner's Memorial Celebration in Los Angeles in May.
The author George Eliot in her novel Middlemarch said, "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts." I think of Jim's great legacy as those unhistoric acts, in the sense that his work wasn't headlined in the mainstream press, seldom even in gay/lesbian chronicles.

Jim was a sweet and low-key person who kept on plugging at his dream, never abandoning it, always tending it. The notion of burn-out wasn't in his cosmos. And even when his health faltered, Jim didn't.

Jim put his time and energy and what little money he had into creating a better life for us, and he took the change he created as its own reward.

kepner3.jpg - 36.13 KTo Kay and me, Jim seemed self-effacing in many ways. In 1983, the gay group in the American Library Association put on a program at the annual librarians' conference called "Why Keep All Those Posters, Buttons, and Papers? The Problems and Rewards of Gay/Lesbian Archives." Jim Kepner was one of our speakers. I needed publicity photos for the flier to promote the event.

Jim didn't have a publicity photo. The picture he sent was a tiny snapshot and in the picture Jim is, appropriately, submerged in papers.

The last time I saw Jim wasn't a gay movement event. I was visiting in Los Angeles, and Jim took me to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. Naturally we oohed and ahhed together over the exotic rare books and manuscripts, but Jim also proved an enthusiastic guide to the specialty gardens around the library. A man of many interests and wide knowledge.

What a legacy Jim has given us—worth having a hell of a celebration for! So here we are tonight, ancient activists and some newer ones, for a grand hurrah.

Jim, we love you, we honor you.

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Pre-Stonewall gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists, posing for an unofficial event photo, gather in Los Angeles to honor West Coast gay-rights pioneer Jim Kepner.

Randolfe Wicker:

Tonight we celebrate the memory and accomplishments of pioneer gay journalist, historian and Archives founder, Jim Kepner.

Jim was a warm, wise and wonderful human being, a personal friend who impressed and inspired me from that first day we met during the summer of 1959.
kepner4.jpg - 16.99 K Randolfe Wicker

This event, hosted by ONE Institute, International Gay and Lesbian Archives, honors all those who lit candles in the darkness and brought us together as a people.

Today, young homosexuals,--'our children'—truly "OUR children"—know that there are others like themselves, that they have a place in this world, that there is a community for them.

We who have participated in this social cultural and communal birth of our people know the importance of preserving and passing along the lessons of history.

This was Jim Kepner's work. This is his legacy.

He would want us, as we sit here comfortably in this great hall, to remember Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld who founded the world's first gay liberation group in Germany in 1897.

Dr. Hirschfeld made great strides socially and politically. He forged the first links between the political struggles for equal rights for both women and gays. Like Jim Kepner, Hirschfeld gathered materials and founded a library and archives.

But in the 1930s, Hitler's Nazis burned Hirschfeld's library headquarters and sent many known homosexuals to the death camps.

Like the Jewish people, we too cry out: "NEVER AGAIN!"

kepner5.jpg - 17.30 KA pioneer like Jim Kepner, I'd like to think, neither dies nor fades away. Through his creation, the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, he lives on in our hearts, in our minds, in our community.

Our work is not over. It has just begun. We American gay liberationists must continue the work of Kepner and Hirschfeld—helping gay people everywhere take pride in their identity, find freedom and security in their every day lives.

Today, in countries like India and Russia, our brothers and sisters are fighting the same social, political and legal battles we've successfully fought these last fifty years.

With Jim Kepner and Magnus Hirschfeld as the wind beneath our wings, let us help them make our history their history. Let the bells of gay freedom ring.

© 1997-98 BEI