I’m always told that I should write my memoir, but I think anyone coming from my era has stories to tell. Stories of clubs that were hidden away with no signage, stories of the friends we lost to a mysterious disease, stories of liberation and pride, nights spent dancing until the sun came up at after hours clubs, and going away for the weekend to women’s only campgrounds like SisterSpace. Sometimes it was like being a member of a really cool secret society.
These are just some of the things that come to mind growing up as a little lesbian here in the city of Brotherly Love. Luckily, we have places like the archives at William Way where our collected memories are held, but this week we add to it by talking to a millennial who has made it a mission to collect lesbian history one anecdote at a time. EPHEMERA: A Lesbian Memory Hotline is a phone bank where lesbian, wlw (woman loving woman), or sapphic individuals in Philadelphia can call and leave a story. Nia Benjamin is a Black agender organizer, administrator, performance and multimedia artist, and the person behind the concept, website, and design for the project.
So tell me a little about yourself; where are you from?
Well, I am originally from the Caribbean. My parents are from the Virgin Islands, but I grew up in Florida.
Which of the islands did you grow up on?
My parents are from St. Thomas, which is one of the commonwealths of the US, and I was born in Puerto Rico, so I have a kind of mixed experience with those places. But hurricanes brought us stateside so most of my childhood was spent in West Palm Beach, Florida.
What do you remember of island life?
I don’t really remember anything from there when I was little but I hope to make the journey at some point and spend some time with the small bit of family that I have there. What I do remember of the islands was the feeling of being part of a larger system of people. I came from a place where everyone was like, “Oh, you’re Sherry’s kid or Gary’s kid?” So there was a sense of familiarity on the islands that I didn’t find in Florida but that I do find here in Philadelphia.
What did the folks do?
My parents both work in shipping, my dad was a very specialized mechanic and my mom worked with freight and cargo. They both work for the same company and have been doing that for most of my life.
Wow, that’s impressive that they can work and live together and haven’t killed each other.
What traits do you think you got from each of them?
I was strangely just talking about this with someone. I had to go back to Florida recently because my grandmother on my mom’s side passed away. Because of some cultural differences and actual distance, I’ve had a limited relationship with a lot of my family, but when I was back there and feeling really solidly like an adult, I was struck by how everyone in the family had something they were really passionate about. All very different things. I have an aunt who’s a lawyer, an uncle who’s very connected to his faith, another uncle who runs a radio station. My mom used to do paper crafts and my dad would build scale models of airplanes. So everyone has a thing that they find joy and comfort in. And I feel that I’ve definitely continued that through my arts practice and cultural work. I’m very passionate about what I do as well, and that’s with everything I do whether it’s for money or not.
Were you shy or outgoing as a child?
Definitely outgoing. I was a kid who learned comedy as a sort of armor. I was bullied a lot when I was young so I found that having a lot of interesting facts and being knowledgeable and resourceful and funny were things that helped me get through. I naturally found the arts and there I found people similar to me. I was also a kid who felt deeply and was very empathetic. Any time I saw an unhoused person I would make my parents stop. I was the kid giving other kids my lunch if they didn’t have anything and wanting everyone to feel like they belonged and were okay. [Smiling] That’s still me now.
And why were you being bullied?
I am a fair skinned Black person even though both of my parents are Black, and I went to an arts school in a neighborhood that had a low socioeconomic status but also a cross section of a lot of white kids with means whose parents wanted them to get into the arts. In that space, I kind of stuck out because, this sounds really pedantic, but I wasn’t white enough to hang out with the white kids but I wasn’t Black enough to hang out with the Black kids. I think a lot of it was my racial presentation and how the kids I was around perceived that, the way that I was coded within the larger school structure. All this was before we were having more nuanced discussions about ethnicity and colorism and all of that, especially racial issues in Florida.
[Sigh] Oh, Florida.
I know! Go ahead, we can say it, it’s a very racist state. [Laughing] Every time I tell someone that I’m from Florida, they’re like “Woah, Florida” and I’m like, “I know, I feel the same way.”
So you escaped Florida and came to Philadelphia for school.
Yes, I went to the University of the Arts and studied acting. I’m a classically trained actor. I went through that conservatory, and after I graduated I started working at the Leeway Foundation. Working at Leeway radicalized me in a good way. I learned a new way to relate to community and art and find a space for myself. I owe a lot of who I am now to working with the artists at Leeway. I’ve been here in Philly for almost 11 years now.
What was your journey as a queer person?
[Laughing] I think I’m part of the “Ally to Out” pipeline. I went to school with a lot of people who were grappling with their gender and their sexuality before we had the media and the resources out there to support that journey. I was always looking at them and thinking, “Hmmm, there’s something here…” but ignored it. I think I always kind of knew I was queer, that I related to queerness or at least to “otherness” as a concept. [Laughing] I never had a grand coming out but when I was younger I think a lot of my earliest relationships were with girls. I identify as non-binary so a lot of it for me is like “whatever”, but at that time I was having these moments with girls but there were other… well, for a while my favorite movie was “Brokeback Mountain”. In fact I’m literally using a “Brokeback Mountain” Mousepad as we’re talking [picks it up to show me].
I love it.
Ha, I even have a cowboy tattoo, so I think there was always something kind of tumbling inside me about what are the other possibilities of how to be, but once I went to college I was so focused on school that relationships didn’t matter to me. Then I took a moment to say, “Wait a minute, there’s a whole world to explore and I think I’m pretty fluid about gender and sexuality” and so queer is the space that I can hold. Most of my friends and I are pretty solid in a community made up of queer and trans people and I feel very held and loved by them.
What about the family, because finding ourselves is one thing, sharing that with the family is another.
Yeah, it’s a journey we’re still going through. I’ve been doing a lot of personal research on queer and trans narratives from Caribbean culture and they’re so strong and potent and powerful with a lot of ritual and ceremony, so I’m trying to find myself in relationship to systems and structures that my family can understand. The queer and trans awakening that we have been experiencing in America hasn’t quite caught on yet in the islands in the same way.
Yes, I know in some places like Haiti and Jamaica it can be frightening and dangerous. The homophobia is just…
Good word. Though I guess the same can be said of Russia and a lot of countries.
Totally. It’s sad, I often think of all the queer people I could have known, family members, friends, etc., had it been more accepted in the culture.
Let’s talk about the Lesbian Memories project. I understand that it came out of Intercultural Journeys, which is something that the wonderful poet Denise Frohman is a part of.
Yeah, so my connection is two-fold. I work for Denise as her personal assistant and I’m also the Director of Creative Projects at Intercultural Journeys. I’ve been following Denise as she’s been doing research for her project, Esto No Tiene Nombre, which has to do with the oral histories of Latina lesbian elders and women over 50. We spent lots of time visiting the archives at the William Way Center which I loved because of my own personal curiosity about queer history. As a millennial it’s easy to take the community for granted, but hearing women in their 50’s through 80’s talk about a time when “I didn’t know anyone who was like me, or if I did it was between the hours of 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.” is powerful.
It seems like a no-brainer to say how much lesbian history has defined a lot of the queer movement. But even when I was growing up it seemed historically secondary to the work of gay men, especially with the AIDS crisis which was such a world re-aligning moment. But think about all the women who were supporting these men and the coalitions that were built. There were so many moments when I thought, “it seems there are a lot of spaces here with things that were left out.” Denise’s projects aims to fill in some of those spaces, and the hotline came out of that. I’m sort of anti social media even though we use it, but one day I was talking with a co-worker and we said, “What if we created a hotline?” It seemed like a kind of analog version of archiving history. We call it EPHEMERA: A Lesbian Memory Hotline – a collective memory bank for lesbian, wlw, or sapphic individuals in Philadelphia. The use of the word Ephemera came out of having the privilege and honor of being able to touch the artifacts in the archives from people who were like me – and unlike me – who lived lovely, abundant and queer lives here.
How does it work?
We have a hotline, and people can call and simply tell a story or relate a memory. Later, I upload them to the website where people can click on different icons and hear the stories. You can do it anonymously if you like.
What’s a favorite story that’s been posted?
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but one that comes to mind is a woman talking about how she went into a bar, the Toasted Walnut, and there was an older butch woman that she met at the bar while waiting to meet a friend. The woman said, “I don’t believe it’s just a friend” and taught her how to fold a cocktail napkin into the shape of a rose in case it turned out to be a date. Another story that’s not posted yet was about a band of lesbians who came together after a rare hurricane hit Philadelphia and got food and supplies to those in need Robinhood style. It’s a good way to think of lesbian culture not just in terms of sex and desire but of community and organizing and what you can accomplish when you are enabled to be yourself.
In a full circle moment, I think the way I first found the community was literally going to a phone booth, looking through the Yellow Pages under Gay & Lesbian and the first thing I saw was a listing for the G&L hotline. It was a starting point for a lot of us.
I’m happy you said that, because someone asked where we came up with this and it actually was from seeing an ad in the archives that said, “Lesbian Hotline” with a phone number. So it’s cool to see that they were used, it’s definitely something we wanted to tap into.
Nice, okay, random questions. Best and worst sports moments?
I went to soccer camp as a kid because I was a huge nerd and we had a soccer team. One game I scored a goal, I don’t remember anything else, but that was my best moment. My worst? I took one tennis lesson and I hit the instructor right in the crotch with the ball and decided then and there that tennis was not my sport.
If you could ask your cat Socks a question, what would it be?
I would ask him if there’s a small Victorian boy trapped inside him, because he seems to be the reincarnation of some tuberculosis struck boy from London in the 19th century.
Who would you contact in a séance ?
Oscar Wilde. Talking about queer youth, in middle school my favorite book was “Picture of Dorian Gray.” I think it reconfigured my entire genetic makeup.
I love to sing.
What was something you learned during your research that surprised you?
Just learning what a huge mecca Philadelphia was for the LGBTQ community but how little has been documented of the lesbian community that was very active. Groups like Dyketactics who did protests and were dragged out of city hall by their hair, a raid that happened in Philadelphia a year before Stonewall, things that happened here that my generation doesn’t know about. A lot of them were spearheaded by women of color and between racism and misogyny, a lot of the stories haven’t been told. And I was surprised to find out how many of these women are still around! I’d read all about something historical and someone would say, “Yeah, she lives in Bryn Mawr now.” Living in a time when our rights are being turned back, as a young queer person getting to know elders who lived a life of resistance, and struggled and paved the way, is really humbling. We need to all be connected to these intergenerational stories to keep us going.
To submit a story or find more information go to: www.lesbianmemoryhotline.com/.