Oral history implicitly and perpetually faces the challenge of bridging the divide between the observer and the observed, between academic theory and a community’s experiences of reality. However, many oral history projects, both in training and practice, still adhere closely to traditional interview structures and methods. As a result, recordings that rely more heavily on improvisation or free-flow narration can be off-putting to some academics. But evidence from recent projects I have been involved in suggests a more fluid setup can hold significant benefits for historians of sexuality. Since 2012, an ongoing Edinburgh-based project I run in collaboration with OurStory Scotland has been trying to bridge those divides via experimental ‘storytelling sessions’.
OurStory Scotland is a charity that collects queer oral history testimonies from across the country and archives them with the Scottish National Library and the National Museums (Scottish Life Archive). This work was recently nominated for a Scottish LGBTI Award. Since its inception in 2002, OurStory Scotland has mainly interviewed an older demographic, often in rural locations, specifically to access hidden LGBTQ lives. In order to widen the scope of interviewees, we decided to use my ties to the Edinburgh University Feminist Society, student welfare representatives, and liberation groups and piloted an initial ‘story sharing’ session at the University of Edinburgh. The location and new networks used prompted a more diverse turnout in terms of age, race, and ethnicity, as well as attracted a large number of international students, whose contributions added a valuable dimension of cultural context and comparison.
At this first session, unsure of what to expect, we erred on the side of experimental, consciously situating ourselves at the intersection of academia, archiving, and communal storytelling, with a changeable and adaptable framework. Drawing on existing networks, through both OurStory and University of Edinburgh political groups, we invited participants of all genders and sexualities to come along and share personal stories. We set a deliberately broad theme of Beyond the Straight and Narrow, drawing on the notion of chosen families, emphasising that the commitments we make and aspire to have long transcended the idea of a nuclear family, and that LGBTQ people were among the pioneers of alternative family – and relationship – models. We were curious to see what stories and experiences attendees would share, and how the collective environment we were attempting to create would inflect and impact on that storytelling. Given that traditional oral history research is undertaken ‘in private’, with just the interviewee and interviewer (ideally only one of each!) present, the idea of asking people to tell deeply personal and potentially sensitive stories from their lives in front of an audience seemed a bold one. Who would show up? Would anyone share?
In fact turnout exceeded our expectations, and most of our events had around 50 people in attendance. The audience consisted mostly of students in their early to mid-20s, although the oldest contributor was nearly 70. In line with good oral history practice, it was crucial for us to make sure everyone present understood the aims of the event, and – particularly – what would happen to the recordings after the session. To that end we explained the process of archiving and copyright agreements. The governing ground rule was that everyone was encouraged to speak, but there was no pressure to do so.
A solitary chair and microphone at the front of the room faced out onto the audience, seated in rows. The chair by the microphone remained vacant until someone decided to step up and share spontaneously. One act of sharing often encouraged another; notably, most contributors began their story by stating that they had not planned to share anything that day, but that they had been moved by a previous story, and encouraged by the supportive atmosphere in the room. Often, the chair remained empty for a few minutes between speakers, as audience members found the courage to get up and contribute. The recording ran from the beginning of the introduction to the end of the last contribution, without pause. The recordings from all sessions are to be deposited intact, without cuts or edits, to maintain as much context as possible.
Following the success of the first session we have held several other events, each tackling a different broad theme. Another 2012 session hinged on Coming Out. The third session, titled Love out of Bounds, was the first session to be officially linked with LGBT History Month Scotland, in 2013. By coincidence that event took place the day after the House of Commons vote on marriage equality was passed overwhelmingly with 366 votes to 161. The session considered loves that are ‘outside the box’ in a wider sense: relationships that did not meet the expectations or approval of friends, family, or wider society. A further session on Self-governing Bodies featured in Edinburgh University Students’ Union’s first ever official LGBT History Month celebrations in 2014. The idea originally came out of the heated debate around reproductive rights, including access to birth control and abortion, but also adoption and IVF, especially in the context of queer parenting. The most recent session, early in 2015, focused on questions of Transit and Transitioning, inviting participants to speak about moving, changing, and migrating between identities as well as places they call home. Where many traditional oral history projects search for clear-cut answers, our emphasis remains on raising questions and building and highlighting connections. Our approach is intersectional, with a strong activist slant, hoping to strengthen solidarity between participants.
Notably, contributors covered much more than just the explicit queer theme of each session. Instead, they linked their experiences to wider issues around sexual health and sex education, survival of and recovery from sexual violence and incest, body image, chronic physical and mental illness, as well as ethnicity and race, weaving a colourful narrative fabric. Not only did this make the sessions fascinating and moving, it was also significant in shaping the recordings, as it facilitated a rare depth and breadth of discussion of the many factors that play into personal histories of sexuality. It allowed contributors to speak from the liminal spaces that are informed by academic theory as well as personal experience and activism, but exist in a no-man’s-land between the three. Instead of singling out LGBTQ issues, they become the lens through which a wider range of non-normative experiences can be examined. The sharing of these complex, intersectional and deeply personal narratives in a public setting is miles away from the traditional image of the one-to-one oral history interview, held in private.
In terms of academic research and archival representation, these shared stories must be understood as one collectively woven narrative: a dialogue of experiences, as one act of public sharing triggers another, and contributors link their memories to previously shared ideas or questions. This makes them markedly different from many oral history setups that focus on an individual (or group) approached by a researcher to tell a specific story. In this case, the method is basically the reverse: the aim is to encourage a wide range of takes on each theme, and to connect previously unconnected trains of thought. The public and communal environment enables participants to witness and appreciate each others’ stories in the moment of telling. This gives an immediacy to the aurality of oral history, even more compelling than hearing the voice speaking out from an archive.
The recording events fostered community networks and their ties to research institutions both on and off-campus. Opening with an introduction to the archives that would ultimately hold the recordings gave the participants confidence and created a sense that their contributions and experiences were valued enough to be formally preserved. It also served as a way to introduce non-historians to the work of archives, libraries, and organisations like OurStory Scotland.
The atmosphere we created builds on existing conventions around safe space and ideas of communal trust. At least half of the contributors knew a handful of people in attendance, either through private friendships, through past communal discussions or activities, or both. It is likely that the format would not work as well if all participants were total strangers, as this would eliminate the underlying feeling of familiarity and trust. However, if participants knew each other too well, it would make for something more akin to a reminiscence session, so it was crucial to also have those in attendance who had few or no personal ties, and who showed up alone. Retaining this stimulating balance is vital. The act of sharing individual stories in this particular environment shapes a new, collective memory that is simultaneously preserved – a snap shot of an activist community, an emotional and ultimately empowering experience that strengthens community ties. Where oral historians often grapple with how to honour an interviewee’s sense of authorship of their story, these sessions succeeded in creating a sense of communal authorship. The format allows for the collection and preservation of vibrant, relevant stories, while also allowing the speakers to experience immediate emotional reactions and feedback from an audience that is unconnected to the recording and preservation process, and unfettered from any research agenda, unlike the traditional oral history interviewer.
After one of the sessions, a contributor reflected:
I really enjoyed the communal atmosphere. (…) It feels really rare to get that sense of unity manifesting so quickly in a group. And it reinforced, for me, that everyone is interesting and has a story to tell, which is something (…) we’re pretty strongly encouraged to forget. It made me sad though, in a way. Because I felt like so much of what creates this bond between marginalised people comes from how we all feel hurt and oppressed by patriarchy, and I’d rather I felt connected to people for our good stuff than our shared experiences of feeling put down. It makes me sad that oppression knits us together, though I’m glad something does.
In this spirit, I certainly feel the sessions have been a great success and I would enthusiastically encourage other (oral) historians of sexuality to consider trying out less formal, more experimental set-ups for their recordings. Such innovative methods may be of particular use to researchers who have personal and activist ties to the communities they are researching, as I do. These sessions have been an opportunity for me to remain professional in my research and archiving methods while nonetheless providing space for immediate emotional engagement with the people who so generously share their time and experiences for the sake of research.
Author’s note: This article came out of a paper presented at the 1st National Festival of LGBT History in Manchester in February 2015. Unfortunately, the respective OurStory recordings are currently not yet accessible through the Scottish Life Archive.
Alva Traebert is a queer-feminist activist and Sociology PhD student, with a background in Gender History, based at Edinburgh University. Her research explores intersectional Queer identities in Scotland, while her teaching (in the UK and Germany) focuses on complex social inequality. She also works as a freelance trainer on issues around structural inequality and gender-based violence, and co-organises the Edinburgh Gender History Network. Most of her activist projects have been located at the intersection of academia and community work, such as the queer storytelling sessions she has hosted and recorded for OurStory Scotland, a charity collecting and preserving LGBT life stories that was nominated for a Scottish LGBTI Award in 2015. She is also Chair of Edinburgh Women’s Aid.
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