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Queering oral history

In their substantial essay from OHR 43.1 on the peculiarities of queer oral history, authors Kevin Murphy, Jennifer Pierce, and Jason Ruiz suggest some of the ways that queer methodologies are useful and important for oral history projects. Moving between Alessandro Portelli and recent innovations in queer theory, the piece offers both practical and theoretical suggestions about what oral historians can learn from queering oral history. This week on the blog we bring you an interview with contributor Jason Ruiz, who explains some of the motivations behind the project, the erotics of oral history, and how others can build on the successes of the Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project.

In the article, you draw a really productive distinction between identity politics and the politics of sexuality, explaining that doing so can help get beyond some of the problems with identity based research. Can you talk about the issues or conversations that helped to make the importance of that distinction clear?

We started the Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project about a decade ago, at a time when a lot of us in graduate school were learning to critique identity categories—something that seems so obvious to students today. We had countless conversations about how to collect and explore sexual histories and the personal histories of people who identify as queer or sexually marginal in any way without reifying categories like “gay” or “lesbian.” For example, just calling ourselves the Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project was a huge compromise, since so many of us personally rejected a gay or lesbian identity and would have called ourselves “queer.” But we also wanted a name for the project that would be legible by older queer people and, to be honest, funders too, and so “GLBT” made sense for us­­ on a practical level.

Another one of the important aspect of the queer methodology you lay out is the erotics of oral history, or the role desire can play in the process of creating oral history. How have you productively navigated desire within interviews?

This is something that I think about a lot and have written about in a chapter in Bodies of Evidence, edited by Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio Roque-Ramirez. And of course, some of the early and seminal works in the field, such as Esther Newton’s and Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, address the oral historical encounter as a potentially erotic one, so I’m not exactly the first to make note of this. Part of what I argue in the Bodies of Evidence piece is that it was much easier for me to get gay-identified men discuss sex with me than it was to elicit those kinds of narratives from women. This has to be due in part to the fact that erotic spark between the gay-identified men I interviewed and me and/or my intern was an undercurrent in many of our interviews. When those men shared details of their sexual pasts with us, they mostly relished all of the fun that they had had. And I can’t deny that they shared some very hot stories with us. Oral history isn’t only about people bearing witness to big historical shifts or patterns or tragedies, it’s also about—and much is revealed by—the fun romps and sexy secrets our narrators can tell us about.

Given those limitations and possibilities, can you give some pointers to people interested in doing similar oral history projects?

First and foremost, form a team. A large-scale oral history project has a lot of moving parts and many hands make light work. One of the most important aspects of our work with the Twin Cities project was that our team was pretty diverse in terms of academic field and institutional standing. This was, I think, a great strength for us, so I’d also advise those launching a new project to go beyond their own fields and assemble a team that is as intellectually diverse as possible.

Second, take a look at all of the great models out there. I recently chaired a panel at the Organization of American Historians that featured the excellent and quite varied work of the Queer Newark Oral History Project, the University of Minnesota’s Transgender Oral History Project, and StoryCorp’s OutLoud Project. These three endeavors are all really different from one another, but, taken together, provide a wealth of ideas about how to collect and interpret oral histories. When we were starting the Twin Cities project, we looked to oral history projects that had very little to do with sexual identities and practices since there were so few out there at the time, but today there are many more wonderfully inspiring and provocative models from which anyone interested in starting an oral history project can draw.

Finally, I’d suggest that the designers of a new project just have a ton of fun. I know that not all projects explore light or amusing topics, but I found the interview process to be a very fun process, even when the subject matter was very serious. I just taught a queer studies class at Notre Dame that required the students to collect and interpret an oral history for their final project, and I couldn’t emphasize to them enough that it’s a privilege and so much fun to get to meet with a stranger and ask them a wide variety of questions about their lives. Sure, it’s also exhausting, but the only way to counteract that fact is to have fun with your project.

Is there anything you couldn’t address in the article that you’d like to share here?

We wished that we could have name-checked so many more of the innovative and exciting oral history projects currently underway, but there was, of course, not enough room to do so. On a personal note, I wish that I could have gone more deeply into some of the artistic endeavors that we mention in the piece. Right around the time that essay was published, I was lucky enough to see Anna Deveare Smith talk and perform live at St. Mary’s College in Indiana near where I live. When I saw how Smith interpreted her interviewees’ words on race relations in America and helped deepen my understanding of historical events like the L.A. Riots, I cringed at how much more I could have written on her remarkable work and others like it, such as E. Patrick Johnson’s work (which we do discuss in the essay but which I have not been fortunate enough to see in person).

Many of our readers likely have your book, but for those who don’t, could you discuss some of the interventions you make there?

Queer Twin Cities speaks to a broad and diverse history of sexual difference in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and environs, but does so from a distinctly queer point-of-view. Whereas we had to make the compromises that I describe above in launching the project and collecting oral histories, it is in the interpretation of those histories that our intellectual perspectives really became clear. This was, for many of us, the fun part: we were able to take the incredible stories that our oral history narrators shared with us and interpret them from the intellectual perspectives in which we were all immersed. I’m proud that we, the editors, and the authors, were able to interpret oral histories in the ways that felt intellectually vital and provocative to us. This is also part of the work that we Kevin Murphy, Jennifer Pierce, and I try to do in the piece for the Oral History Review. In that essay, which is a natural extension of our collaboration on Queer Twin Cities, we lay out an argument for how queer studies has and should influence the oral historical endeavor, and explore a variety of methodological, historical, and interpretive frameworks that make queer oral history different.

Featured image: Minneapolis I-35W Bridge • Rainbow Colors • Twin Cities Pride by Tony Webster, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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