By Monica L. Mercado
“That was my radio show!” narrator David Goldman exclaimed, looking at copies of classified ads placed in the University of Chicago’s student newspaper during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was an undergraduate student. Goldman, a retired math teacher and one of the founders of the gay liberation movement at the University of Chicago, recently contributed his story to the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) research project Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles: A History of LGBTQ Life at the University of Chicago. During his interview, Goldman spoke at length about coming out in the late 1960s and gay student organizing at the University in the early 1970s. His interview is just the first of many we at CSGS hope to collect from LGBT alumni, faculty, and staff over the next two years.
Building on the success of a previous oral history and exhibition project documenting the experiences of women at the University of Chicago, Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles speaks to a vibrant and growing partnership between the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the University Archives at Special Collections Research Center, one aimed at building archival collections in gender and sexuality studies. With support from CSGS’s undergraduate oral history internship program and archives-based undergraduate seminars (created specifically for the Closeted/Out project), we expect to deposit more than one hundred oral histories to the University Archives by 2015.
While scholars have documented the University of Chicago’s rich and numerous contributions to the academic study of homosexuality, we actually know very little about the experiences of LGBTQ individuals and communities who have passed through the campus gates. Filling that knowledge gap is our team of undergraduate student interns, who bring an important dose of energy, enthusiasm, and insider knowledge about campus life to the Closeted/Out interviews. Molly Liu, a fourth-year Biology major who first trained in oral history methods for an African history course, notes:
The loose, undirected format of oral history means that I get to hear people’s stories without needing to dig for any particular piece of information, and in doing so I’ve felt like I’ve understood these people in some way. Their words about gay identity, the University, and Chicago in particular have given me a lot think about. Plus, it’s very fulfilling on a personal level to talk to LGBTQ alumni who are happy and successful.
Kelsey Ganser, a fourth-year History major who is completing an internship with the project while working on her senior thesis in Russian history, reflected on both the academic and personal value of her work:
Working [on the project] has given me the skills to conduct oral history interviews, which are frequently overlooked in my history courses. As a young queer person, through the project I have been able to connect to my history in a way that was never available to me before. The pleasant and easygoing interviews help me feel how strong and welcoming the gay community is, and the difficult ones help me appreciate how far we have come. I had never met an adult gay person until I came to college, so discovering our history through the life stories of other LGBTQ people has been hugely important for the development of my identity. In this regard, I don’t think I can overstate how much this project has influenced my personal understanding of queer identity and history.
Molly, Kelsey, and our other student interns have also found themselves working on the front lines of gathering new archival donations for Special Collections Research Center. As Cal State scholar David A. Reichard has discussed in the Oral History Review article “Animating Ephemera through Oral History: Interpreting Visual Traces of California Gay College Student Organizing from the 1970s,” oral histories not only help us interpret student ephemera, they also help us collect it. Our interns have returned from their interviews with photos, event flyers, stickers, zines, and promises of future loans and donations to the Closeted/Out project. Their friends and classmates have offered to save materials documenting current feminist and queer organizing on campus. And the courses we offer in conjunction with the Closeted/Out project have also brought new undergraduate users to Special Collections Research Center, where they find archivists and librarians eager to help them explore an activist and social history of LGBT life.
As our students continue to interview, we also begin work on plans for a campus exhibition showcasing our findings, scheduled for the Spring of 2015. Shortly thereafter, the LGBTQ oral history collection will be available to researchers at Special Collections Research Center.
Monica L. Mercado is a Ph.D. Candidate in U.S. History at the University of Chicago and a dissertation fellow at the University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, where she is a coordinator of the Center’s public history initiatives. Before coming to Chicago, Monica worked in exhibitions and programs at the Museum of the City of New York. You can find her musings on women’s and LGBT history, teaching, and Chicago’s unpredictable weather at @monicalmercado.
The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview, like them on Facebook, or follow the latest OUPblog posts to preview, learn, connect, discover, and study oral history.