The 2013–14 academic year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cornell’s Human Sexuality Collection. While the archive ruffled some feathers when it was founded, it now boasts some 10,000 volumes and other materials used by scholars from all over the world.
Cornell's pioneering Human Sexuality Collection turns twenty-five
By Beth Saulnier
The two small, black-and-white photographs show a sweet-faced man who looks to be in his late teens or early twenties; he's young enough, in any event, to sport a smattering of acne across his cheek and chin. He's neatly dressed—three-piece suit, stiff-collared shirt, pocket handkerchief, lapel pin—and his hair is coiffed in the style of the day, shorn high at the sides and floppy on top. In the left-hand image he's in profile, eyes turned heavenward; in the right one, he stares directly into the camera with a classic deer-in-headlights expression. The longer you look at the tiny photos, the more startled and frightened he seems.
Of course, it's impossible to know for sure what this young man was feeling—but the context makes it easy to surmise. The images are mug shots from December 1918, when one Franklin Koch was arrested in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The charges: "sodomy and buggery."
Viewing his mug shots in Kroch Library makes you wonder what became of poor Mr. Koch—whether he served time, lost his job, got beaten up, was rejected by his family. Inevitably, it also prompts thoughts of how different his life would have been if he'd been born a century later. While homosexual acts were crimes in Pennsylvania in Koch's day, this spring the state became the nineteenth in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage. The man who was slapped into cuffs for consensual sex could have shopped for an officiant on EngagedGayWeddings.com.
According to the University Library's Brenda Marston, such musings are exactly what the creators of "Speaking of Sex" were aiming for. The exhibit, which opened in February and runs through mid-October, celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cornell's Human Sexuality Collection, a milestone the University marked with events throughout the 2013–14 academic year. "We were unique in having an archival focus and in documenting the social movements related to sexuality," says Marston, who has served as the collection's curator since shortly after its inception. "We were pioneering both in giving prominent attention to lesbian and gay history and also in documenting sexuality broadly—saying it's important to look at all the different margins of sexuality and the kinds of sex that have been considered deviant. We were interested in transgender rights before a lot of other people, because our focus is looking at what is excluded and how new communities are forming and defining themselves."
"Speaking of Sex," on display in Kroch's main gallery, offers a glimpse into the depth and breadth of the Human Sexuality Collection—an archive that boasts some 10,000 volumes and other materials comprising more than 1,430 cubic feet of storage space. There's a 1926 advice book quaintly titled The Question of Petting. A 1955 "Dating Ladder" that prescribes five rungs of social interaction, topped—naturally—by engagement and marriage. A 1997 copy of Roberts' Rules of Lesbian Break-Ups. The Fifties-era pulp novel Odd Girl, touted as "the revealing story of life and love among warped women." Turn-of-the-last-century photos and postcards of same-sex couples and cross-dressing performers. An 1813 edition of Henry Fielding's The Surprising Adventures of a Female Husband. A program from the musical La Cage Aux Folles. The Beginner's Guide to Cruising. A poster from the 1973 X-rated romp Campus Girls, "in color for ladies and gentlemen over 21." A sticker promoting the San Francisco chapter of ACT UP ("200,000 dead from AIDS—Had Enough?"). A box of nudist-themed napkins. Buttons supporting abortion rights and opposing sodomy laws. Cards advertising sex workers, from a "shemale transvestite" to a gal named Maria who boasts "the best nipples in London." One spare, handwritten slip of paper bears a phone number and a promise: "Kinky But Kind."