Bold Lifestyles: Truman alumnus plays part in preserving LGBTQ history

Tanner Williams, a Truman State University alumnus, has spent the last two years working to preserve the history of The Diana Foundation, the oldest continuously active gay organization in the U.S. 

During those two years he contributed to a book, a 65-year history of The Diana Foundation. Williams helped lead the project and is also credited with writing the five-year epilogue. Tomorrow at 11 a.m. Williams will be visiting library administration to donate two copies of the book to Pickler Memorial Library, where he says he spent many hours during his time at Truman.

“I’m excited to give a couple copies to my alma mater,” Williams said. “Right now we have a list of about 41 museums and archives across the world that we’re going to be sending books to. Our goal is to get up to about 150 books donated.”

Williams said he enjoyed his time at Truman and he loves The Diana Foundation, so when Truman did its brick campaign for the new Sandra K. Giachino-Reavey Sesquicentennial Plaza, he bought a brick and opted to have The Diana Foundation on that brick. 

The reason, he explained, was that he wanted to connect two things that are important to him and have shaped his life. He came out as a gay man while at Truman and expressed that he felt supported by the campus community. 

“There’s few places in the world where you feel at home. I feel at home at Truman and I feel at home at the Diana,” Williams said.  

How did you get started writing this book?

“This project really started 10 years ago back with my friend John Heinzerling, who is the coach of the book project committee. 10 years ago they were celebrating their 56th anniversary of the organization and a writer for OutSmart Magazine, which is Houston’s largest LGBT[Q] magazine, was assigned to write a 1,500 word article to promote [The Diana Foundation] awards show and gala. The writer, Brandon Wolf, became very curious about this organization. Following that year he did continue to research and he discovered that The Diana Foundation was actually the oldest active gay organization in the United States. There was energy at the organization at the time to do some research and he was hired by an independent group of Diana members to write a 30,000 word manuscript and he delivered on that. The idea from the independent group of members was to publish a book and share our story. Like most things in small volunteer, small group settings, it lost some energy and the manuscript was kind of shelved. My friend John was a persistent man — he never wanted to give up on his dream — so two years ago I finished my presidency at The Diana Foundation, and I was thinking about what’s my next step and I knew the importance of the stories, so I teamed up with John and we spearheaded a fundraising campaign and I took up the efforts of getting the book edited and designed. Brandon Wolf’s manuscript went through the first 60 years and when I finished my presidency we were getting ready to celebrate our 65th anniversary. Including the five-year epilogue brought the book up to current events.”

What was the writing process like for the book?

“So much history — gay history — has been lost. Many people died from the AIDS crisis and many things just get tossed out and thrown away. Brandon talks in his author notes about his struggles of trying to track down people who were still alive back in the ’50s and he finally made some of those connections. It was a lot of storytelling, it was a lot of research. There were many videos of some of the big awards shows, hundreds of interviews, tons and tons of photos. Also trying to figure out who knows the people in these photos and where did all of this take place. I received a very large box of film negatives and I’m like, ‘How do I look at these?’ I know writing the epilogue, it was not so hard to write that, because a lot of it was about my time as a member and my time as president. That was easy because people were alive and it just happened. For Brandon to do his work, he actually found a couple people who attended the very first party in 1953 and he was able to have those interviews. One of them, she just passed away last month so if we were to begin writing this book today it would be incredibly difficult.”   

How did you get involved with The Diana Foundation?

“I moved to Houston in 2007. Houston has a lot of historic institutional organizations in the community. I think through some of my interactions I met some of my friends who just happened to be members of the organization and I was invited to a party and I enjoyed the company of the people. I went to one of the Diana award show gala events and I loved it. So in wanting to get involved in the community, or get to know people, I chose The Diana Foundation as an opportunity to be part of my community. When I heard the stories there was no written book for me to read and people would tell me stories. I was like, ‘This is amazing. I want to be a part of this.’ I soon became a membership chair, trying to recruit folks and educate people on the history and I helped build the organization back up to its full 100 members. During that time, I became president. I was actually first vice president and the president currently serving passed away unexpectedly, so I took over for three years.”

What does The Diana Foundation do and why is it significant in its community?

“If you look at the history when the organization started in 1953, Eisenhower had just become president and he signed an executive order to go after all federal gay contractors, gay employees. You couldn’t be out anywhere publicly, especially Houston, Texas. So what you could do is you could have house parties. The Diana Foundation was a way for people to actually come together and be gay together and put down their gaurd and be social without fear of police raiding a bar or [people] feeling attacked or judged in public. The Diana Foundation has provided the seed money for many large organizations — we helped start AIDS Foundation Houston. We helped start many health service organizations to respond to the AIDS crisis. For one organization we helped provide seed money for Pet Patrol, which is an organization that helps people who are dying of AIDS to still be able to take care of their pets. You can come together in a social way and you can work together to give back. I think there’s a big heart in that.”

Why is The Diana Foundation important to you?

“My bonds of friendship with the individuals. I care a lot about the people around me. The history is also important, not just because it’s cool to say we’re the oldest organization. When you read the book and you hear the stories about what was going on in the community through the decades and what was going on with individuals who were participating in The Diana Foundation at the time, I think it’s important. I feel humbled that I get to be a gay man and out and open because of the foundations layed by so many people before me and the battles that other people fought and for the things that folks persevered through. It took a lot of work to break down barriers and change hearts and minds. It took a lot of work and a lot of time and people went through hell. People still are today. I’m not going to paint a rosy picture that things are all of a sudden amazing for folks, but life is definitely easier today because of how people decided to live out loud or live out years ago.”