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Where we rise: LGBT oral history in the Midwest and beyond

In early March, ABC released a much-anticipated mini-series that followed a group of activists who played important roles in the emergence of LGBTQ political movements. The show, When We Rise, was based in large part on a memoir by veteran activist Cleve Jones. While the series tells a compelling story, it is necessarily limited by its 8 hour runtime, focusing predominantly on the work of people in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet, as we have noted on the blog before, queer history happens everywhere, and oral historians are working to make this history visible. Today we continue our series on oral history and social change by highlighting the diversity of queer life and activism, exploring oral history projects from around the U.S.

The Midwest may not have had moments that grabbed national headlines like Stonewall or the rise of Harvey Milk, but it is home to pioneering moments of activism and community building. When Kathy Kozachenko was elected to Ann Arbor’s city council in 1974, she became the first out LGBTQ person elected to public office in the United States. The Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor holds oral histories and archival collections of local queer life throughout the 20th century, as well as the records of the Human Rights Party, the organization that sponsored Kozachenko’s historic candidacy.

In Madison, Judy Greenspan ran for school board in 1973, the same year as Harvey Milk first began his political career. Neither Greenspan nor Milk won their campaign, but both would help to shape the progression of LGBTQ politics. The University of Wisconsin-Madison holds interviews with and ephemera from Greenspan, as well as an archival collection that spans nearly a century of queer life. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Transgender Oral History Project and the Milwaukee LGBT History Project document even more of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ past.

The Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project, at the University of Minnesota, used its recordings to produce a book that explores a wide variety of queer histories. The book calls into question many assumptions about the story of LGBTQ activism as it has been told on the coasts, asking what this history looks like when it adopts an alternative geographic focus. Last year we spoke with Jason Ruiz, one of the project’s collaborators, about both the project and an article he had co-written for the OHR which asked what makes queer oral history different.

Chicago has its own unique queer history, and the Closeted/Out in the Quadrangles project holds more than 90 interviews on LGBTQ life at the University of Chicago. Both the Leather Archives & Museum and Chicago Gay History provide additional oral histories, along with videos, that document the lives of a wide variety of LGBTQ Chicagoans.

Outside of these northern cities, universities and community groups have mapped out an even more complicated landscape of queer life. The Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives at Missouri State contains both oral histories and archival collections. The Queer Appalachia Oral History Project at the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas’ Under the Rainbow: Oral Histories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Queer People in Kansas, and the Queer Oral History Project at the University of Illinois all provide invaluable oral history collections that depict the lives and struggles of queer people around the South and Midwest. The Brooks Fund History Project, at the Nashville Public Library, focuses on Middle Tennessee, exploring the contours of queer life before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The geographically disparate Country Queers project includes stories from rural communities across the country, from the deep south to the mountain west.

AIDS activism dominates one entire episode of ABC’s miniseries, and is a major focus of many LGBTQ oral history projects. The New York City focused ACT UP Oral History Project provides a rich history of an organization that has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS activism, and its recordings were the basis for the 2012 documentary, United in Anger. Both the National Institutes of Health and the University of California San Francisco have documented the experiences of medical professionals who played key roles, especially in the beginning of the epidemic. The oH Project: Oral Histories of HIV/AIDS in Houston, Harris County, and Southeast Texas has a growing collection of recordings about the local response to AIDS and the experiences of Texans. The African American AIDS History Project includes an oral history project on AIDS activism, as well as a sprawling collection of materials about AIDS in African American communities.

Moving outside the U.S., the LGBT Oral History Digital Collaboratory, located at the University of Toronto, is working to create a hub for queer oral history collections across the world, providing researchers and community members easy access to a wealth of information. In 2015 we spoke to Elspeth Brown from the Collaboratory, on the importance of working together in preserving queer history.

This short list is by no means a comprehensive overview of LGBTQ oral history projects, but it provides a taste of the diversity of stories that define this history. Queer history continues to happen everywhere, and the growing number of projects that document and preserve this history will enable the creation of new, more complex version of the vast queer past.

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People from Madison, WI at the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Image courtesy of the UW-Madison Archives.

Recent Comments

  1. Jerry Pritikin

    I’m 80, and been in the front line of the gay rights movement for 50 years. Like many Chicagoan’s and other mid-west cities at the beginning of the 60s, I left and moved to S.F. because it was taboo to be gay back then. I arrived in S.F. at the tail end of the Beat era,then the Hippies,Summer of Love and the War protesters and among them were many gays. To start the 70’s, I moved between the Haight and the Castro. The Castro was a changing working class neighborhood in the Eureka Valley. I was a Photographer and publicist that Specialized in gay own businesses. Politics was also changing… and I counted Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone as friends. I played in the first gay sponsored softball league in the country. In almost every movement… were people who found a home in San Francisco. The city was not always gay friendly, however many barriers were broken and in time the same thing happened in most of the big cities.

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