Lenn Keller: Recording lesbian history and community
A light of the LGBTQ world has died with the passing of Lenn Keller, a black lesbian photographer, historian, archivist, and founder of the Bay Area Lesbian Archives, last December 16.
In an announcement posted by the Bay Area Lesbian Archives last December 17, Keller succumbed at the age of 69 to cancer at her home in Oakland, California.
The Bay Area Lesbian Archives, an organization that documents lesbian history in San Francisco, said Keller’s death was a “profound loss to our community.”
In a separate post, Keller’s friend Sharon Davenport said Keller “was loved and cared for when she passed at home.”
Lenn Keller’s legacy for the community
Keller is known for founding the archive in 2014. Aside from holding a massive collection and an event for exhibits, the group also teaches archiving workshops and hosts community meetings.
In a Facebook post, the group said, “Lenn Keller was an extraordinary person who touched many lives.
“A proud butch lesbian, Lenn was committed and determined to preserve and protect lesbian history in the Bay Area. We will miss her deeply,” they added.
Rebecca Silverstein, a close friend and co-curator of the archive, said: “Lenn knew she was living in an extraordinary time, that these weren’t just women who happened to be attracted to each other.”
“It was a completely different vision of how to live in the world, and she just knew that these things were important to hold on to,” Silverstein said.
A black lesbian growing up
Keller was born in 1951 in Evanston, Illinois from a family of sharecroppers. Their family lost their house to foreclosure so they moved to a low-income housing in a Chicago suburb.
While studying at a nearly all-white high school, she said: “I was basically exempted from having to date, because it was at a period in time when white boys didn’t date black girls.”
“Racism saved me from compulsory heterosexuality,” she added. She went on to graduate at the New Trier High School in Winnetka, one of the few black students in her classes.
After graduating from high school, she ran away from her home in 1968 with her best friend to New York City, where she was taken in by a group of black artists. It was there she got her first camera.
In 1975, she moved to San Francisco. Keller said she had heard about the liberated lesbians in Santa Cruz: “It was during this time when women were all about doing things we’ve been told our whole lives that we can’t do.”
Coming out to the community
With her daughter, she moved to Berkeley where she worked at Berkeley Recycling and volunteered at the Pacific Center LGBTQ community center.
In 1984, she graduated from California’s Mills College with a bachelor’s degree in visual communication.
Living among a group of like-minded women, she came out as a lesbian. But this cost her relationships back home.
“Everybody had a story about being rejected, which is what made our communities very tight,” she said.
She added, “By living in collective households, we created surrogate families. We took a lot of care, especially around holidays, to make sure everybody had a place to go.”
Through the eyes of Lenn Keller
She participated in the protests, documenting their movement’s rise with her camera. Throughout her life, she amassed a massive collection of event flyers, meeting notes, newsletters, videotapes, and photographs.
She said, “People were driven by a vision, not just to be accepted as lesbian and gay. We were trying to literally change the world.”
Despite having problems with housing and being displaced several times, she managed to hang onto her collection.
“I just started collecting little things here and there. We lived in a collective household and we were all involved in things and we’d go to events,” she said.
After she almost lost her collection due to her illness, she was helped by friends to protect and organize it with a fundraising campaign. This led to the official formulation of the Bay Area Lesbian Archives.
In an interview The Chronicle in 2018, Keller said: “This history is very important, not just for posterity, but it’s important for us now.”