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Safe spaces then and now in WNC LGBTQ+ history

The brick front of O.Henry's with a pride flag, purple flowers, evergreens and patio seating.
Charlie Smith.
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Initially called the Skylight Room, O.Henry's has been a safe space to gather for the LGBTQ community since the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Malaprops bookstore opened in downtown Asheville. Owned by out lesbian, Emöke B’Racz, it became a sober safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. In an interview with the WNC LGBTQIA+ Oral Histories Archives, Allison Scott shared the complexity of existing in Western North Carolina in that era.  

"I remember talking to people who had been to Malaprops, y'know, we'd all look for the queer book section and these authors and stories that would resonate with us," said Scott. "But people would talk about how scary it was, even parking somewhere and walking to the store itself, down the street, down the sidewalk. So, yes, it's important -- critically important to have that space, but people still have to traverse from somewhere to get to that space and that can be a danger -- a dangerous zone, a dangerous time for many people."

Through the large glass windows of Malaprop's bookstore in downtown Asheville, books are on display and the store's sign hangs int he middle.
Charlie Smith.
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Malaprops became a safe and sober place for LGBTQ people to gather in Asheville, through traveling there could be dangerous.

UNCA's LGBTQIA+ Oral Histories Archives was launched in 2019. The archive currently has nearly 40 interviews with local community members and donated materials that go as far back as 1987.

Another historical site is Asheville is O.Henry’s. The bar originally opened in the 1970s as a deli. Then after starting to serve drinks in the evening, the venue evolved into a disco spot. To this day it is an LGBTQ+ bar and still hosts popular drag brunches.

Dr. Amanda Wray is the founder of the LGBTQIA+ archives. At a recent talk with Western North Carolina Historical Society, she explained that today, people find a community with the folks they spend time with, including personal examples and referencing the historical archives

“LGBT people are everywhere y’all. They’re everywhere! There’s something beautiful about that, that we are looking for each other, we want to find each other even if it is somewhere rural,” Dr. Wray said.

The WNC LGBTQIA+ Oral archive is accessible through UNC Asheville’s special collections website.

Charlie Smith is a senior at UNC-Asheville, graduating in August 2022 with BA in Creative Writing, specializing in creative non-fiction.