Lenn Keller, founder of the Bay Area Lesbian Archives, has died at age 69.
“She was surrounded by her community and caretakers and passed away on her own terms,” Alex Austin, a friend of Keller’s as well as an attorney who represented her pro bono, told the paper. Austin called Keller “generous and one of the smartest people that I knew.”
Keller started the archive in 2014, putting out a call for stories and donations of material relating to lesbians’ experience in the San Francisco Bay Area. But the collection “is not just for the lesbian community and it is not just for the queer community,” she told the Reporter in 2015. “I feel it is for everybody.”
It is now billed as “the largest major archive on the West Coast dedicated to preserving and promoting lesbian and feminist history and culture,” the Reporter notes. It “includes posters, fliers, and other memorabilia,” according to the paper.
The Bay Area already had extensive collections of historical LGBTQ+ materials at the GLBT Historical Society and the San Francisco Public Library's GLBT Archival Collections. But Keller said there was a dearth of material on lesbians, and her collection aimed for a regional rather than a national focus, so she did not see it as competing with the others.
The collection she and her colleagues have amassed is held in two climate-controlled storage units in Oakland, and the archive operators’ goal is to have a building to house it permanently, where it will be accessible to the public.
Keller was born in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and moved to New York City after high school. There she “found communities of artists and Black radicals,” notes a 2019 profile of her from Bay Area TV station KQED. She discovered a passion for photography and filmmaking, and she honed her skills after moving to the Bay Area in 1975. She received a degree in visual arts from Mills College in Oakland in 1984.
“She and her camera became inseparable. … Keller developed a style that was intimate, yet still full of the energy and exuberance of the events she documented,” including Pride parades and other LGBTQ+ events, according to KQED. She told the station, “If I didn’t have my camera, people would often remark.”
The archive “is a continuation of the same documentary impulse that spurred Keller’s photography — and later, her films: a desire to record the contributions of the underrecognized individuals participating in an extraordinary moment in history,” the profile notes.
Friends and fellow activists are remembering her warmly. “A mentor and a force, she will very much be missed,” SF Pride officials said in a recent newsletter, according to the Reporter.
The archive’s Facebook page described her as “an extraordinary person who touched many lives” and “a proud butch lesbian … committed and determined to preserve and protect lesbian history.”
No memorial service has been announced.