Ohio LGBTQ History Revealed: Kent State SURE Project Leads to Niche Discovery

What started as just a tip from an archivist quickly captured the attention and imagination of a Kent State University professor and their student.

Senior Psychology Major Alex Moir and Lauren Vachon, an assistant professor of LGBTQ studies, realized that what they were reading was a 130-year-old love letter between two women, a rare artifact of queerness from that era.

Moir is one of many students who participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program in 2023. Alongside mentor Lauren Vachon, the two were determined to investigate Ohio’s LGBTQ history and were led to the story of Georgia Hopley through a tip from an archivist at Ohio History Connection (a non-profit historical society) of a possible undocumented queer romance.

While a queer history section of the Ohio History Connection online archive exists, it has not yet identified Hopley for inclusion. However, after reviewing only a small amount of Hopley’s collective belongings, Moir and Vachon discovered the distinct possibility of a queer relationship.

Who was Georgia Hopley?

Portrait of a younger Georgia Hopley
Portrait of a younger Georgia Hopley (Photo courtesy: Ohio History Connection)

Georgia Hopley, born in 1858, gained notoriety as a prominent newspaper editor in Ohio. Her father was an editor of the Bucyrus Evening Journal. As a member of a national suffragette organization, she was very accomplished as a journalist and later became the first female prohibition officer in the US.

Moir and Vachon concluded that in Hopley’s 20s she seemed to have multiple relationships with suitor men from similarly affluent newspaper families, but she only shared interest with a couple of them—uncaring of the rest. Moir and Vachon had even uncovered a newspaper clipping of Hopley’s wedding to a man at 26, but when she got left at the altar, she went into hiding for a week.

Hopley kept everything, from bills, receipts, grocery lists, and to what Vachon discovered—a multitude of romantic letters signed by a woman named Lilian alongside another unidentified woman in her 30s.

“When I finally found a letter that I was sure was romantic to Georgia Hopley, it felt like being in a movie,” Vachon said, “It felt very momentous, like it was really in front of me. I was holding the love letters from 1894, 1901, it felt so real."

Due to the threat of ostracism or violence that could result from being openly gay in the 1800s-1900s, Lilian and Hopley followed a common trend of many queer women by harboring a tight-knit, secret homoerotic relationship disguised as friendship. Lilian and Hopley talked about sharing rooms, beds, kissing and even exchanging lockets. Their relationship became long-distance as Hopley pursued journalism, but the pair never failed to use various intimate pet-names such as “darlingest” and others shown in the letters.

Older portrait of Georgia Hopley
Older portrait of Georgia Hopley (Photo courtesy: Ohio History Connection)

“I think it’s really exciting that we found something that wasn’t swept under the rug by history, and now we get to tell her story 130 years later,” Moir said. “I think it is so important to study LGBTQ history to firstly see how far we’ve come, and second to show that we’ve always been here. A lot of these stories get erased by history because (romantic female relationships) were not desirable, especially back then.”

As a psychology student, Moir never expected to get so into LGBTQ history.

“While I don’t plan on going into a research-based field, I would love to continue research into LGBTQ history as to further progress education about the community,” Moir said.

“This is only the beginning of this journey, but we do know for sure that there is queerness,” Vachon said.

About the SURE Program

The SURE program is always looking for more applicants. For anyone interested in gaining research or field experience in the summer of 2024, check out the current program information.

“I feel like I got a lot of archival research experience out of my time this summer, especially being able to go to the museums and archives and go through the boxes with Lauren to put together pieces of these untold LGBTQ histories.” Moir said.

“My advice for anyone who wants to apply to the SURE program is to first of all, do it,” Moir said, “It’s super fun and a great way to get into contact with more faculty and delve deeper into the programs you’re interested in.”



Letter 1 Page 1 of Lillian’s Letter to Georgia
Letter 1 Page 1 of Lillian’s Letter to Georgia Hopley (Photo courtesy: Ohio History Connection)
Letter 3 Page 14 Letter to Georgia Hopley from Lillian
Letter 3 Page 14 Letter to Georgia Hopley from Lillian (Photo courtesy: Ohio History Connection)

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Media Contacts: 
Lauren Vachon, 330-672-0324, lvachon@kent.edu
Jim Maxwell, 330-672-8028, JMAXWEL2@kent.edu

POSTED: Tuesday, February 20, 2024 03:53 PM
Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2024 04:37 PM
Lexi Moses