Lenn Keller, Black Butch Lesbian Photographer, Dies at 69

Lenn Keller at work with her camera.
Lenn Keller

Lenn Keller, a Black lesbian photographer and founder of the Bay Area Lesbian Archives, a group documenting lesbian history in San Francisco, died on December 16. She was 69.

Keller succumbed to cancer while hunkered at home in Oakland, California, reports Datebook, the San Francisco Chronicle’s arts and entertainment guide.

Keller started the Bay Area Lesbian Archives in 2014. The organization’s massive collection isn’t just a place for exhibits, but also teaches archiving workshops and hosts community meetings.

The co-curators of the archives announced Keller’s death on December 17. The group said this is a “profound loss to our community.”

Founder of Bay Area Lesbian Archives dedicated her life to documenting queer communities of color

“Lenn Keller was an extraordinary person who touched many lives,” they wrote in a Facebook post. “A proud butch lesbian, Lenn was committed and determined to preserve and protect lesbian history in the Bay Area. We will miss her deeply.”

Lenn Keller in 2017.LennKeller.com

Keller was born in 1951 in Evanston, Illinois, according to a biography posted on Women Artists of the American West. The multi-hyphenate filmmaker-photographer saw identity as a major part of her work. At a young age, Keller recognized her passion for the arts.

“I spent endless hours laying on the living room floor poring over Life magazine,” wrote Keller in a autobiographical summary on her own website. “Looking at beautiful black and white images that stimulated my imagination, emotions, and curiosity about people from all kinds of cultures around the world.”

A couple of years later, Keller wrote, she ran away from her suburban home just outside Chicago. She was taken in by a group of Black artists in New York City.

“It was there that I had my first exposure to Black intellectual culture, live jazz, the darkroom, and independent filmmaking,” Keller wrote.

In 1984, she graduated from California’s Mills College with a bachelor’s degree in visual communication.

Keller’s wide-ranging work centered on queer Black women and people of color generally. Her exhibition, “Gender Warriors,” highlighted the violence and discrimination facing masculine-presenting women. She also presented “Fierce Sistahs!,” which displayed four decades of photographs and paper collections chronicling the activism and art of Bay Area lesbians of color.

Keller’s work was also a pivotal part of the group show “Queer California: Untold Stories, an exhibit that debuted last year at the Oakland Museum of California.

Advocates and curators alike regard Keller as a griot of Black lesbian culture.

“As a photographer she chronicled vital lesbian and activist communities, especially those that included Black, Indigenous, and people of color lesbians in the Bay Area in the 1980s and ’90s,” said the show’s curator Christina Linden, in a statement to Datebook.

Even as an acclaimed “proud butch lesbian,” Keller struggled with society’s strict gender norms — and the ever-growing barriers it imposed on her identity.

“There’s still a lot of discrimination, particularly against LGBTQ folks who are gender-nonconforming,” Keller told OaklandSide in an interview. “I don’t think the war has been won. We still have to come up with strategies on how we’re going to survive and navigate this society.”

Datebook reports that a virtual memorial will be held for Keller on January 31. Bay Area Lesbian Archives plans to announce the details on its Facebook page, the report said.

To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter.