The LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library (LIAL) has a new interim director, Madde Hoberg.
The former executive director Aiden Bettine founded LIAL in 2020 while working on the Transgender Oral History Project of Iowa. Bettine, then an archivist at the University of Iowa, realized there were no LGBTQ-specific collecting development policies in archives across Iowa.
Rising COVID-19 cases felt reminiscent of the 1980s AIDS epidemic to Bettine, who feared that an entire generation of queer stories could again be lost.
Since then, LIAL has grown, bringing in new leadership members and volunteers, adding new programming, traveling across the state, and moving from the dark basement in the Wesley Center to the second-floor haven at the PS1 Close House.
But in July, Bettine announced that he accepted a position at the University of Minnesota as the curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, a national and international collection of LGBTQ history, centered around the upper Midwest and Twin Cities area.
“While we were like, ‘Dang, we’re excited for you!’ We’re also kind of like, ‘Dang, this is a lot of change that has to happen,’” Hoberg said.
Bettine is still involved from afar, though he doesn’t have the same formal title. Hoberg texts him frequently to ask questions and get advice. He’s a walking “repository of knowledge.” But Bettine has left a long shadow behind him and a palatable absence.
“Aiden put a lot of work into building a team that cared. That’s part of his legacy here,” said Veronica Armstrong, LIAL’s youth education coordinator. “We’re not going anywhere.”
LIAL quickly absorbed the impact of Bettine’s announcement. The organization never had a strict leadership hierarchy, so that aseismic structure could stand firm without its founder.
Hoberg, who is also the archives coordinator, became the interim director, and some director responsibilities were spread out to other team members. The change has been “intense” and “exhausting.”
“It is definitely very rewarding to kind of work with different people and make sure people feel supported and valued,” they said.
Hoberg is a Sioux City native. After their parents divorced, they moved to Arizona with their mom and brothers. But Hoberg didn’t like Arizona. They decided to move to Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and English departments.
After undergrad, they pursued a Master’s in library and information sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While working on a practicum project, they met Ann Kreitman, LIAL’s associate director. Kreitman introduced them to Bettine, and Hoberg decided to work on the project at LIAL. After finishing it, Bettine invited them to join the leadership team.
Working as the archives coordinator and interim director requires a decent amount of labor, they said. But the director role feels familiar. Hoberg is a libraries annex associate at UI, where they do a little bit of everything.
“It’s kinda like that,” they said. “Instead of being like, ‘Hey, give me your stuff.’ and then I organize your stuff, it’s much more like dealing with events, making sure that everybody else on the team is doing OK and feels like they’re well supported.”
Whether as director or archivist, it’s rewarding work. Hoberg enjoys building relationships with donors across the state, helping them realize how important their stories are. Queer life in Iowa is just as important as the queer omphaloi in Chicago, New York or San Francisco, they said.
“Your voice is valuable. And I think a lot of times people don’t even know it,” Hoberg explained. “A lot of times people think, ‘I’m not seen, so I’m not worth anything, and not worth being seen.’ And it’s a lot of work to be like, ‘No, but you are.’ I see you, and it is worth being seen, and worth preserving for future generations.”
Their favorite item in the archives comes from a donated scrapbook filled with newspaper clips, letters and photographs. One picture shows Tracy Bjorgum, the first man to apply for a same-sex marriage license in Iowa.
In 1976, Bjorgum, a 20-year-old UI student, and Kenneth Bunch, a 24-year-old custodian, tried to get married in Johnson County, the Des Moines Register reported. They were denied. They tried in Polk County a few weeks later and again were denied. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) unsuccessfully sued on their behalf, but they chose not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid setting a harmful precedent.
Bjorgum died from AIDS in 1989 at the age of 32, but materials from his life — pictures of drag performances and pride marches, letters and documents — are preserved in the archives.
“I was almost in tears when we got this,” Hoberg said while holding a black-and-white portrait of Bjorgum. “For whatever reason I’m constantly just enamored with this picture. So, this is probably my favorite thing in the whole archives.”
Craig Esbeck, the first donor to the LIAL archives, hopes stories like his will live on. Esbeck grew up in rural Iowa, in a town near Grinnell before moving to Tipton. His father was a veterinarian and his mother a stay-at-home mom.
“I’ve been very grateful for the opportunities that being a gay person in the United States in my lifetime has afforded me,” he said. “With all the challenges, it’s still been primarily joyful and fun and interesting and engaging.”
Esbeck came out to his parents in college around 1977, but his father wasn’t surprised. After moving away, Esbeck had written letters to a family friend. Today he isn’t sure why he wrote those letters. But Esbeck liked talking to him, and he felt homesick.
One day, this man told his father, “Your son is gay, and I know because I’m gay too.” He’d lived a closeted life, got married and had kids. But he saw that Esbeck would live a different life, and his father would need to support him.
“To me, that’s a remarkable story,” he said. “That’s something worth sharing.”
Esbeck taught primary school in rural Iowa and was an openly gay teacher. Instead of an oppressive environment people might expect, he connected with many open-minded people. There are misconceptions about gay life in Iowa, he said. His story is more complex and multifaceted than people might assume.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, while I’m living in Minneapolis, I would tell people I’m from rural Iowa, and they think, ‘Oh, it must have been terrible being gay there,’” Esbeck said. “And, well, it had its challenges, but actually there was a lot of really good things about it, too.”
While he sometimes felt isolated and out-of-place, Esbeck thinks that friction helped shape him into the person he is today. He stressed that life in Iowa wasn’t easy, but neither was life in Minneapolis.
At the time, LGBTQ culture was insular and separatist, he said. They lived in the gay neighborhood, went to the gay bookstore, ate at the gay restaurants. His friend group was a mix of lesbians and gay men. But in the mid-’90s, Esbeck decided to join the Peace Corps.
He went to Uganda and had to live closeted again for the next 20 years. He started an instructional design company and later worked with local language groups to develop literacy in native languages, especially through creating children’s storybooks.
He watched from across the waters as the LGBTQ landscape rapidly changed in America. He saw cases like Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned sodomy laws across the country, be decided from afar.
In some ways, Esbeck feels like an outsider. Younger generations have more resources and opportunities to express themselves and find their peer groups. He can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to date boys in high school.
Esbeck moved back to the U.S. in 2014, one year before Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage.
“Coming back to this world that changed, and trying to find a place in that world, was not easy,” he said.
While living abroad, Esbeck left piles of boxes and personal artifacts with his brother. In 2021, his brother told him to collect his stuff. Esbeck hadn’t seen or thought about those boxes in decades, and he was struck by its potential historical value.
A friend suggested he reach out to Bettine. Esbeck wasn’t sure if he would be interested in his old letters and stories. But Bettine greeted him with enthusiasm and excitement, it helped him realize how important those stories were.
“It just makes me happy to know that this story has a chance to survive. It’s not just going to end up in a box,” he said. “The work of LIAL is helping me to sort of understand the arc of my life and what it’s meant.”
For the first time since leaving America, Esbeck has found a place for himself at LIAL. And that’s the whole point, Hoberg said, to build and sustain a community. LIAL is “crucial” to helping people from different generations and backgrounds understand their own experiences and to gather together.
“We want to honor what Aiden started and honor what he has built. And I think a big part of that is just like keeping it going and keeping it growing,” Hoberg said. “It feels like family, and I’m not just gonna walk away from family.”
LIAL has expanded in recent months. They’re getting an intern this fall and plan to create a youth education position, in addition to onboarding new volunteers. They’re also searching for more people of color to join the board, which is primarily composed of “white academics” at the moment.
They’ve increased programming over the summer with events like Queer Threads, the Queer Writers Group, Queer Storytime for Kids 5 and under, Board Gayme Night, and so on. Esbeck himself leads regular astrology events. He hopes that more people from the older generations get involved with LIAL.
“I also want to make sure that this continues, because so many people in the community rely on it. And so, it wasn’t something that we wanted to see just kind of disintegrate,” Hoberg said. “And there are enough people, I think, that had a lot of faith and belief in the organization.”
LIAL accepts archival material, library and financial donations through its website. People who donate through Patreon will receive behind-the-scenes content. People can also sign up to volunteer and join the Discord server.