Power through Pride: Emma Frank preserves LGBTQ history through literary research
This story is part of a continuing series that features leaders at USF during Pride Month.
When presented with the opportunity to conduct research on LGBTQ literature, senior English literature and history major Emma Frank knew she wanted to inform the public about the impact historically marginalized queer authors have had upon contemporary literary culture.
Frank conducted extensive research across multiple online databases, archives and social media posts over several months in search of queer cultural artifacts. Although the process often required her to prioritize research over her coursework, she said she felt a sense of responsibility to educate students and faculty on queer authors given the rise of LGBTQ awareness in recent years.
“At first, the intention of my project was to create a digital exhibit out of underutilized materials in the collection, which led me to choose not to study the 20th century because while it’s a very important part of queer history, it’s also important to recognize that so much happened before then,” she said.
“While the idea was that I was supposed to try to create a project using underutilized materials, I decided to instead take initiative and make a project based on literature that has not been generally known by the public, literature that has been underrepresented.”
Despite being primarily motivated to conduct research on LGBTQ culture for a deeper historical understanding, Frank said the catalyst for her advocacy was growing up with parents who weren’t accepting of the community. In an attempt to develop her own beliefs, she said she often found solace by engaging with queer young adult novels.
Getting her parents to accept her research focus required a considerable amount of time, patience and education, according to Frank. While she has encountered many influential professors and mentors throughout the course of her research, she said her father has stood as one of her primary sources of motivation.
“Although I’m inspired by quite a few people in my life, my dad is one of the biggest for sure,” she said. “I grew up very conservative and so he was very much a conservative guy, but he’s gotten so comfortable with everything now that I’ve started this research and that it has led to so many good opportunities.
“It has started so many good conversations that probably wouldn’t have happened or that I would not have been competent enough to hold five years ago before starting college. He stands as such a big support now in my life and I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
Taking classes during her freshman year that explored different perspectives of the LBGTQ community was something Frank said influenced her decision to begin historical research into marginalized communities.
Over the course of her position as a digital humanities intern, Frank has participated in various research projects as a member of the library special collections team, where she has been able to access thousands of archival records and journal volumes on LGBTQ history.
For LGBTQ studies library operations coordinator Sydney Jordan, Frank’s passion to educate library visitors on queer history has made her an invaluable asset to their workplace. Whether it be offering historical knowledge to guests or presenting at research conferences to attract prospective donors for the library’s special collections, Jordan said Frank’s love of research can be better understood as a love for people.
“I love Emma’s ability to see issues from multiple perspectives and never stop questioning and interrogating the limits and systemic exclusions that can exist within the information profession and academia,” she said.
“Much of her work has been focused on social justice, conscious editing and restoring agency to queer and historically marginalized groups. She’s very dedicated to making resources on these topics accessible and relevant in response to the needs and values of communities being served.”
Efforts to honor marginalized queer authors can be shown throughout Frank’s online Queer Life and Literature in the 19th Century exhibit, which debuted in April 2021. The presentation, which is still accessible to the public, contains story maps of queer historical events and literary works between 1800 and now.
Viewers are able to read analyses of various novels, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula and the poetry of Sapphos. However, Frank added the presentation also holds her own personal message. When designing the project, she said she hoped people would be able to understand that her research came not only from an academic perspective, but from her insights as a fellow member of the LGBTQ community.
“To me, this has meant finding ways in my everyday life to weave queerness into my research and in that sense, it has been such a fantastic way to make this my own and make it feel like more than just an assignment. People have to read this, understand something about you afterward and as a researcher, you have to be vulnerable,” she said.
“Being able to research LGBTQ history and work on projects like this is almost like a way to celebrate myself alongside that part of history. Even if no one’s going to read it, even if it’s going to be seen by only a handful of people, it really feels like I have left people a part of myself.”
Curator of digital collections Amanda Bozcar said that in addition to Frank’s efforts for inclusivity, her contributions to LGBTQ research have been greatly appreciated by the academic community. She said Frank’s research has not only reached academics at USF, but received attention and acclaim from researchers at many other institutions.
Frank hopes to find a research position after graduation to continue her work on uncovering the history of marginalized communities. She said while homophobia can be deterring, the acceptance she has received from her mentors and peers makes her hopeful for the future of LGBTQ rights.
“Sometimes people ask me why I do this kind of research and I try to treat it as a conversation, which is reaffirming in a lot of ways because I get to show people my research and the research of those that came before me. You can’t possibly sit and say this isn’t a valid thing to study because it obviously is,” she said.
“I have been really lucky to find people in academia who have been encouraging and pushed forward projects similar to my own. It’s nice to not only recognize what this kind of research has allowed me to do, but how it has allowed me to respond to people that question its significance.”