Been there, done that, we got the T-shirt

Posted: March 30th, 2018 | Featured, Out of the Archives | No Comments

By Archives Staff | Out of the Archives

About 1,600 T-shirts reside in Lambda Archives. Although the mission statement of the organization is “to collect, preserve and teach the LGBT history of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and Northern Baja California, Mexico …” there are a few exceptions. The bisexuality collection is international in scope. The collection of pulp fiction books likewise knows no regional boundaries.

The T-shirts and textiles collections also are beyond the usual geographic limits. There are many shirts that are local in nature: one from the first “Walk for Life” (now renamed AIDS Walk—and the Archives has T-shirts from most of those annual events); shirts from almost every San Diego Pride, including the special ones for staff, board members and volunteers; shirts from the political campaigns that elected Christine Kehoe and Toni Atkins to the State Assembly, and failed to elect Neil Good to City Council many years earlier; shirts that were used to promote FilmOut presentations and Diversionary Theatre productions; shirts from Tijuana Pride and from numerous groups that wore matching shirts in their Pride contingents; and shirts for businesses including The Wing Cafe which, as its T-shirt proclaims, was a “Feminist Coffeehouse and Gallery” that at one time was located on B Street.

In 1988, one of the many themes of San Diego Pride T-shirts in the archives (Photo courtesy of Lambda Archives)

There are shirts from early advocacy and social group the Gay Academic Union (so early that the shirts do not say “Gay,” only “GAU” so those in the know would know, but would not out anyone who wanted to keep their secret. There are shirts for many sports clubs including many for Front Runners’ events over the decades of its existence.

A T-shirt in remembrance of the history of Stonewall and a call for action. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Archives)

Beyond those regional souvenirs, there are many that commemorate statewide fights: “The Briggs Initiative—rotten to the core” and a shirt custom made by Joseph Panwitz for a local group protesting Proposition 8.

There are T-shirts from Prides far and wide, many donated by Doug Moore, all of which have been photographed by the great team at San Diego State supervised by Lisa Lamont and can be viewed on its website: Viewers of the site can vicariously visit Prides from Atlanta and Wichita to Tel Aviv and Amsterdam.

After the Pulse Night Club shooting, many Major League Baseball teams around the country held special nights commemorating the tragedy and sold shirts with team logos in rainbow colors to raise funds for the victims and their families. Former Padre and friend of the Archives, Billy Bean, donated some of the shirts from those events.

Lately, a dedicated Lambda Archives volunteer has been reprocessing the collection shirt by shirt, refolding them to better protect and preserve them and checking for duplicates and proper labeling against the database.

In addition to shirts, the Archives textiles collection also contains the first of the giant rainbow flags that flew at the corner of University Avenue and Normal Street. After it was faded and worn, the Hillcrest Business Association made sure the Archives got the original flag to be preserved in an acid-free box in a climate-controlled room.

The collection also holds uniforms, including one from John Graham, the first openly gay member of the San Diego Police Department; the Navy uniform worn by Autumn Sandeen when, along with other veterans, chained herself to the White House fence to protest “don’t ask, don’t tell”; Army uniforms that once belonged to local attorney and activist Bridget Wilson; and one belonging to one of the first people to fight the military on its policies concerning gays —Perry Watkins.

A custom T-shirt made by Joseph Pantwitz for a local group protesting Proposition 8. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Archives)

There are hats from Pride, Diversionary Theatre productions, and AIDS Walk, and from companies including Budweiser and Absolut advertising to the gay community (usually in rainbow colors).

Having photographs of all the cloth items in the collections allows researchers to view them without having to touch them. Of course, touching anything wears it down just a tiny bit. But when called for, the actual items are pulled out as when Front Runners wanted to display some of its shirts at its anniversary party.

Properly preserving the clothes and other textile items in the care of the Archives is just another way to ensure that this rich LGBT history is still around for future generations.

— Lambda Archives, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to collecting, preserving and teaching the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Diego and the Northern Baja California region, is located at 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. To learn more, stop in or visit their website at

Leave a Comment