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Texas A&M University acquires the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture
by Megan Smith
Photo by Mark King

It’s quite rare to meet someone who you can instantly tell is genuine down to their core. But when I met Houstonian Don Kelly, I instantly knew he is one of the few. In early February, I sat and chatted with Kelly in his humble studio apartment—the walls filled with colorful drawings, paintings, and other memorabilia. But if I had been sitting in the same spot only months earlier, I wouldn’t have just been surrounded by art, but by more than 8,000 queer books, magazines, newspapers, comics, and more. At 74 years old, Kelly touts one of the most impressive collections of LGBTQ books and published materials in the nation—a collection that was recently acquired by Texas A&M University’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives.

A retired civil servant of 36 years and an openly gay man all of his life, Kelly has always been a lover of books. He was initially inspired to start his collection after discovering author Anthony Slide’s book The Lost Gay Novels, which discussed 50 novels from the early 20th century that told stories with gay themes and characters. “I thought by collecting the listed titles, I would have a fun and interesting project which would allow me to reflect on the gay condition, and maybe tell me something about myself,” Kelly says. Over the next year, he collected first editions of 48 of the 50 books listed.

One thing led to another, and soon Kelly was collecting everything from campy pulp fiction to AIDS literature to some of the first gay periodicals. In reference to the latter, Kelly laughs and adds, “They’re so sleazy.” What started out as a strictly gay male collection has since expanded to include lesbian, bisexual, and transgender literature as well. When asked how he finds and purchases each new acquisition for his collection, Kelly laughs again and says, “I had to learn to use eBay. I’m a technological dinosaur.”

I tend to disagree, however, when I see the digitized version of Kelly’s collection (which totaled 8,070 titles at press time) that he has meticulously organized and put online using the website LibraryThing. Kelly has scanned the cover of each and every item in his collection, labeled each published work with tags to better categorize them, and added notes next to each title that has a special feature such as an inscription by the author. “If I didn’t have LibraryThing, I wouldn’t have even attempted this collection,” he says. The database reveals that Kelly’s collection boasts 1,843 titles that are signed and 213 that feature an inscription by a gay man to another gay man, known as “gay associations.” He notes that he’s been complimented on his virtual collection by numerous collectors worldwide.

The most recent additions to Kelly’s collection are copies of some of the early gay newspapers, including an almost complete run of the first gay tabloid, New York’s Gay Power. He has also been acquiring early self-published queer zines, which have become popular, high-priced items among collectors.

The most notable items in his collection—as well as Kelly’s favorites—are three copies of Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson’s (who wrote under the pseudonym Xavier Mayne) The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life. Known as “the first great defense of homosexuality in English,” only 125 copies of Intersexes were ever printed. It is one of only seven books that are monitored by a complete census of their whereabouts (others include the First Folio of Shakespeare, the Gutenberg Bible, Audubon’s Birds of America, Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the King James Bible, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass). Just 34 of these original copies were accounted for as of 2011. With each copy costing anywhere from $3,000 to $7,500 on average, Kelly’s copies are definitely the most valuable in his collection.

After collecting for several years, Kelly started running out of space to house the collection in his small apartment. Not much of a cook, Kelly even found himself using his kitchen pantry as a place to store books. “The place was just packed with them,” he says. “It was all over.” He decided it might be time to find a buyer.

In September 2012, when the collection was just over 3,000 books, Kelly put an ad in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide announcing the sale of his collection. In response to this ad, Kelly received inquiries from Harvard, the Smithsonian, the GLBT History Museum of Central Florida, and the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. However, Kelly was very adamant about selling the collection as a whole, and these establishments were only interested in acquiring certain parts.

It was not until Texas A&M University contacted Kelly a few months later that he received his first real lead. The university asked Kelly to come make a presentation to some of its LGBT faculty and staff—one that was extremely well received, he says. Although the interest was there, the acquisition fell through at the time due to budgetary issues.

Between then and November 2013, however, the university drafted a funding proposal in a second attempt to purchase the collection. The university received an outpouring of letters written by students, faculty, community members, and alumni—including Houston’s Judge Phyllis Frye—supporting the acquisition. “Even high-schoolers were writing these letters of support,” Kelly says. Four librarians then came down to view the collection in person, Kelly says, and told him, “It’s a done deal.” “I shall always be grateful to the committee of LGBT faculty members I met who warmly welcomed me and assured me that my collecting accomplishments were of immense value to our LGBT heritage—so much so that it brought tears to my eyes,” he says.

It may surprise some that such a historically conservative university like Texas A&M would be where this important queer collection (deemed the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture) would land. But times are changing for the Aggies, according to Cushing Library staff. “The university has been doing a lot of work on improving diversity efforts, and this is a really good step toward that,” says Lauren Schiller, library specialist and co-curator of the LGBT archives at Cushing Library. “[The university is] putting their money where their mouth is,” adds Kevin O’Sullivan, Cushing’s outreach and public services curator. “A collection like this can make a really big impact here. It’s making a big splash already, and it means a lot to the community here—to the LGBT community and to the community at large.”

As part of Texas A&M’s GLBT Awareness Week sponsored by the university’s GLBT Resource Center, Cushing Library opens its new Lives. Liberation. Love. exhibit, featuring materials from Kelly’s collection, on April 1. The date chosen is also significant because it marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Gay Student Services v. Texas A&M University case, which forced the university to recognize a gay student group on campus. “The process of acquiring this collection was among the most satisfying since I have come to Texas A&M,” says David Carlson, dean of the university libraries. “With just this single collection, the University Libraries becomes one of the premier collections in the country for scholarly LGBT literature.”

The event, which is free and open to the public, begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Sterling C. Evans Library. Speakers will include Cushing Library Director Francesca Marini, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Karan Watson, Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity Dr. Christine A. Stanley, Carlson, and Kelly. Guests are then invited to view the exhibit in Cushing Library’s Wendler Gallery, with a reception to follow in the first-floor lobby.

As for Kelly, he plans on continuing to collect. Since Texas A&M purchased his collection, Kelly has acquired over 2,000 additional published materials—all of which he has donated to the university at no extra cost. “I do it for all the gay people I’ve known in my life,” Kelly says. “For all the prejudice that I’ve felt and I know they’ve felt. For all the people who died of AIDS and for all the people who are still dying from addiction. It’s also not just for the gay community, but for the larger community as well, so they understand more about the gay community. As long as I’m alive and as long as I’m able, I’ll continue to do it.”

What: Opening of the Lives. Liberation. Love. exhibit, featuring materials from the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture
When: April 1, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M University, 5000 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843
Details: People with physical disabilities planning to attend the event are asked to contact Rebecca Hankins at [email protected] or 979.845.1951 so that accommodations can be made.

See photos from the opening of the Lives. Liberation. Love. exhibit, featuring materials from the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture, below. Photos by ©Texas A&M University Libraries and Rich Lo.

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Megan Smith

Megan Smith is the Assistant Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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