By Nichole Barns and Scott Seyforth
With the summer issue of the Oral History Review just around the corner, we are bringing you a sneak peak of what’s to come. Issue 43.1 is our LGBTQ special issue, featuring oral history projects and stories from around the country. To dig more into the issue, we sat down with Scott Seyforth and Nichole Barnes to talk about their article, “‘In People’s Faces for Lesbian and Gay Rights’: Stories of Activism in Madison, Wisconsin, 1970 to 1990.” Drawing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LGBTQ oral history archive, their article offers a rethinking of the common stories we tell about the trajectory of LGBTQ rights and activism, showcasing the important role of university towns and the Midwest in shaping queer history.
The archive contains over 200 hours of oral history interviews. In sitting down to actually write the article, how did you decide where to start?
Well, one thing that we really wanted to address is that a lot of the history of queer liberation hasn’t been told, especially in the Midwest. The queer liberation mass-movement happens everywhere, not just on the coasts. But from reading the history books, you’d think queer Midwesterners weren’t doing much. The article addresses some of these gaps, showing how queer politics evolved in Madison, from very early in the days of queer liberation. Drawing on the interviews we have done with many of the participants in this history, we’re able to let them speak back to history and highlight their accomplishments.
Another big thing we really wanted to do with the article was to highlight the varied holdings of the university that go so far beyond just institutional records. Many people would never expect the university archives to have such a broad collecting scope so we wanted to let people know that there’s more here for those who want to come and explore it. Really, in the article, you’re just getting a glimpse of what the archive has collected so far.
A big part of that problem goes straight back to the way that queer history is remembered. You would assume that New York or San Francisco would have great queer collections – and they certainly do – but there’s history here in the Midwest. Queer culture doesn’t come solely out of the coastal cities, but also from places like Madison, where people are making really interesting change in their communities. During the same time period as this article, the early 1970s, other Midwestern cities with university populations are producing really interesting change. Places like Champaign/Urbana, Ann Arbor, and the West Bank of the University of Minnesota await study, to name just a few.
Having been active in the project for years, could you talk about some of the challenges you’ve come across, either in conducting the interviews or in writing up the article.
Some of the very first people interviewed for the oral history project were people who were politically involved. They were some of the most “out” and the most public. They didn’t mind telling their story; in fact they had been doing so for decades. They were also the most well-documented, in newspapers and other sources at the time. So, when we went to write the article, the history of local political involvement was one we could tell in a conventional manner using oral histories and traditional documentation. On the one hand, we are telling an unexamined history—and on the other hand, we are replicating the common problem of telling the history of the most privileged. The project is still collecting materials that will allow future researchers to illuminate diverse aspects of the local community, uncover hidden truths, and engage broadly in telling local stories.
Working on the article has offered an intimate portrait of the way history is constructed. Memories are so malleable, and getting to hear as the past is recreated in an interview has been incredibly instructive.
Many LGBTQ people grow up thinking they don’t matter, and their stories should be kept hidden, so I imagine this is a problem faced by other people doing similar projects. How have you been able to get people to participate?
“LGBTQ individuals oftentimes internalize society’s silencing of history. It can be validating to have someone come and interview you about your life, your activism, and your efforts toward equality.”
For so many of the people interviewed, just having somebody sit and listen for an hour or two is an absolute gift. LGBTQ individuals oftentimes internalize society’s silencing of history. It can be validating to have someone come and interview you about your life, your activism, and your efforts toward equality. At times, narrators weren’t prepared for the way that doing something seemingly so simple as an interview would interrupt the secrecy, denial, and omission of LGBTQ history for individuals.
It’s amazing how willing people are to share once you just offer them a space to talk. In the best oral histories, the interviewer fades quickly into the background, offering a really light touch when needed, but mostly just letting the interviewee share their life.
This might be a good place to pull back and talk about the future of the project, which you allude to in the article. How did the oral history project develop into the Madison LGBTQ Archive?
You know, the oral history project had this problem where we would interview somebody and at the end they would say, “Hey, I’ve got all this great stuff here! Why don’t you take it too?” And, of course, we absolutely wanted to hold onto it, but we simply didn’t know where to put it. We were talking earlier about how little LGBTQ history gets preserved, and here we were, early in the oral history project, seeing this problem in action. After a number of years racking our brains and asking around to different local archives and agencies to see who could house the materials, we finally decided it might make sense to start it at the university archives and have it be connected to the oral history project.
The oral history project has been really instrumental in establishing the LGBTQ archive. Many of our first collections came directly from the people we had interviewed. We could finally go back and say, “Remember that stuff you wanted to give us? Bring it over!” Additionally, the work we had done with the oral history project helped to secure funding, since we could point to those as proof that we were serious and that the funds wouldn’t be squandered. Having already built some relationships with members of the community, we were able to hit the ground running. We continue to try and build community involvement in the project, from the funding to the outreach, to the people involved in putting it all together. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at how receptive many members of the community have been towards the project. People are excited to finally have a chance to tell their stories in this way.