In 1983, Valda Lewis moved to New Orleans and began working at a Randall’s Record Shop on Toulouse Street importing and selling British punk rock music. Here in New Orleans, she found the freedom to be her true self, a lesbian, that proved so elusive in her hometown of Rayleigh in Essex County back in England.
After Randall’s, she took a job bartending and met her first partner, Loretta Mims. The lesbian bar scene was vibrant in those years, and one of its luminaries was Charlene Schneider, owner of the legendary Charlene’s. Charlene and Valda became friends and in 1986, Charlene “dragged” Valda to a meeting of the New Orleans City Council. The Council was considering a non-discrimination ordinance to protect lesbian and gay city employees.
The ordinance did not pass that day, and it would be a long fight before finally being adopted in 1991. Before the ordinance was voted down, the Council heard testimony from the public. Many spoke in support of the measure but even more testified against it. One woman, a Christian, testified that God had revealed to her that militant, radical homosexuals had met secretly in San Francisco and, for reasons she did not explain, the wicked conclave chose New Orleans as the first city to implement their diabolical plan to usher in the downfall of Western Civilization.
Valda was astounded at the misinformation and downright ignorance on display at the Council meeting as the ordinance was being debated. Resolved to do something to clear up the prevalent misunderstanding of homosexuality, she and Loretta began producing a television show called Just for the Record. She recalls: “We needed a better image.”
Just for the Record was a weekly cable access television show produced on cable channel 49 from 1987—1993, and was New Orleans’ first LGBT television show. It covered both local and national topics of interest to the gay and lesbian community. The shows ranged from 30—60 minutes. In addition, Lewis and Mims also published a monthly newsletter of the same title from 1989 to 1993. After the show’s run, they produced another show called Queer Street Live, which ran for thirteen weeks.
Valda fell in love with the camera while producing these shows, and began recording other events relating to the LGBT+ community. A sampling of what she recorded includes four annual conferences of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, the second HIV/AIDS Regional Summit, the thirteenth National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference, the National Commission on AIDS “Sex, Society, and HIV” Hearings, several Bourbon Street Awards contests, Armeinius and Amon Ra Carnival Balls, and just about anything else queer related that was happening in New Orleans.
After her relationship with Loretta ended, Valda began dating Shelley Hamilton, who served as Pastor of the New Orleans Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). The couple left New Orleans in 1993 when Hamilton took a position as Pastor of the MCC in Dallas. In Texas, Valda encountered the same type of homophobia she found in New Orleans. When the MCC there tried to purchase a building for their 1,600+ strong congregation, one church official told them he would rather “burn the building” than sell to gays and lesbians.
In 1995, they moved to Wichita to take over the MCC there. While in Kansas, Valda earned a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies and Communication. During her course of study, she fell in love with Dr. Dorothy Miller, a member of the Women’s Studies faculty (the two never had a class together). She would later obtain another Masters Degree in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research. Since 2002, Valda and Dorothy have lived in Cleveland, Ohio.
Lewis and Mims’ pioneering television show, Just for the Record, will be honored later this year at the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana’s annual Oracle Gala. Last year, the Archives Project awarded a grant to the Amistad Research Center to digitize Just for the Record. Each year at the Oracle Gala, the LGBT+ Archives Project recognizes an individual or organization that has made a substantial donation of material that chronicles LGBT+ history to an area library, museum, or archival repository. In addition to remarks by Valda Lewis herself, clips of the show will be featured at the Gala.