Lesbian singer's archive captures pre-internet gay life

Two Nice Girls
The archive of lesbian musician Gretchen Phillips, co-founder of the trailblazing band Two Nice Girls, sheds light on what it was like to be gay in the 1980s, and is now a part of Cornell University Library's Human Sexuality Collection.

The archive of lesbian musician Gretchen Phillips, co-founder of the trailblazing band Two Nice Girls, sheds light on what it was like to be gay in the 1980s – before the internet helped create communities and at a time when gay lives were rarely visible.

Now part of Cornell University Library’s Human Sexuality Collection, the video recordings of Phillips’ shows, reviews and news articles, fan mail and more that Phillips collected over three decades will be available to researchers interested in everything from late 20th-century music to popular perceptions of sexuality.

“Imagine a time long before Ellen DeGeneres came out, when hearing a woman sing a love song using the pronouns ‘she’and ‘her’ was a big deal,” said Brenda Marston, curator of the Human Sexuality Collection in the library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. “While many women were looking for subtle clues that lesbians existed, Gretchen and her bandmates were outrageous and emphatic, not coy, about lesbian love. Their lyrics opened doors for people, and their audiences discovered community at their performances.”

Phillips’ archive provides a comprehensive account of her musical career, from her 1981 arrival in Austin’s punk scene and her first visit to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to ongoing work, including an appearance as a zombie lesbian folksinger for Killjoy’s Kastle, a lesbian haunted house in Toronto in 2013 and in Los Angeles in 2015.

The collection includes digitized files of every extant recording – more than 63 hours in total – of Phillips’ performances from the early 1980s to 2016.

The reception to Two Nice Girls was mostly positive, Phillips said, with glowing reviews in mainstream media and music venues eager to book them since “they loved our crowd, because they wouldn’t trash the bathrooms and they tipped well.”

“We were kind of critical darlings. It’s interesting to see what the women journalists had to say, but also what the guys had to say,” Phillips said. “It was really eye-opening at the time, how hungry men were for another perspective on the world.”

In the years before the internet, the band’s music and shows provided a way for some otherwise-isolated women to find community.

In 1991, a fan wrote, “How wonderful it is to listen to music that celebrates our diversity. Hearing your songs makes me feel like I really do fit into this world somewhere. You’ve got guts to write music about bisexuality. It took me 20 years to open my closet door just a crack (I’m 36 and just coming out); and though I wish I could be very open about this part of me, I just don’t have the courage yet. As I listen to your music and immerse myself more in the lesbian and bi communities, my strength grows, and I get really excited about being queer!”

Phillips’ archive will complement the library’s growing collections on queer and other human rights movements, along with significant collections on music-based cultures such as hip-hop and punk, said rare books and manuscripts curator Katherine Reagan.

“We are preserving the collections of underground and marginalized peoples,” Reagan said.

Melanie Lefkowitz is staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.

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