LGBTQ History: The Case for Oral Histories

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Last month, lesbian poet and essayist Cheryl Clarke opened a virtual memorial service for Black lesbian Philadelphia-based writer Anita Cornwell with a passage from Cornwell’s groundbreaking book “Black Lesbian in White America.”

Cornwell wrote, “So, what would my life have been like if I had not become a Gay womin? I don’t exactly know, but I am damn sure glad I will never have to find out.”

It’s a telling quote that encapsulates the importance of telling stories from before Stonewall. Without Cornwell’s own memoirs and an oral history interview conducted for the William Way Center Archives with historian Dr. Marc Stein, there wouldn’t be an understanding of what it was like to be a Black lesbian in the 1940s and 1950s.

Cornwell, who died in May at 99, was one of the first Black lesbian activists many Philadelphia LGBTQ+ people knew of in the early years pre-Stonewall. She consistently showed up at LGBTQ events over several decades, often wearing purple and lavender — colors she said were signature lesbian colors. Cornwell was a member of Daughters of Bilitis and one of the founding members of the Philadelphia chapter of Radicalesbians.

The first out Black lesbian to publish her work in the mainstream as well as lesbian publications, Cornwell’s early work appeared in The Ladder and Negro Digest in the 1950s where she was openly identified as a lesbian — a groundbreaking act at that time. In 1983, Naiad Press published her work “Black Lesbian in White America.”

Cornwell had suffered from dementia for some years, which made doing more oral history with her impossible. But her longevity and the maddening fact of the inaccessibility of her memories due to her illness also serves as a clarion call to prioritize oral histories among LGBTQ+ elders.

Mostly everyone learned Zoom during the pandemic, which means it isn’t even necessary to do these histories in person — they can be done across miles or continents, like a recent Queer Forty interview with Joan Nestle, writer, activist and co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, now living in Melbourne, Australia. Nestle turned 83 in May.

Born in the Bronx in 1940 and raised there and in Queens by her mother, at 17, Nestle began to hang out in Greenwich Village at lesbian bars, coming out as a “proud  femme” in 1950s New York City queer culture. She’s written about her own life as a femme in the 1950s and 1960s — a time from which we still have so few personal histories.

A pivotal role in Nestle’s life has been that of lesbian historian. Co-founding LHA a half century ago, nurturing it in her New York apartment for years into a project that has grown and expanded to become this incredible compendia of lesbian memorabilia, artifacts, books and history, that role — she’s still on the board of LHA — is critical. And now in that role, Nestle said she’s reaching out to “all the known lesbian archives in the United States, to lesbian and queer museums” on a list she was given to “fight back against the fascists” who are banning books.

Nestle said, “I’m drafting a letter to form a defense committee, so we can have a public presence in this conversation. Because we are the cherishers of this culture, we are the holders of these books. Thousands of books at the Lesbian Herstory Archives that they would burn if they could.”

This passionate statement from the 83-year-old Nestle is a call to arms — and a reminder that there is a whole generation of LGBTQ+ people who have this rich history from the eras before Stonewall that we must tap into.

There is a dearth of material about how LGBTQ+ people lived in the U.S. prior to Stonewall. There are some superb gay and lesbian historians — Martin Duberman, Jonathan Ned Katz, John D’Emilio, Bonnie Zimmerman, Esther Newton, Kevin Mumford and Lillian Faderman among them — but there are huge gaps: many of the histories that we have remain largely white, male and middle class.

The role of oral history in shifting that paradigm cannot be overstated. This is where the voices that have been suppressed can be elevated and heard. The Oral History Hub is attempting to do that: “co-creating a ‘usable past’ for LGBTQ+ people in the present.” This project states “LGBTQ digital oral history is an emerging field built by dedicated activists, historians and archivists across the web. This hub acts as a growing resource for oral histories practitioners and the public.”

Diversity is highlighted among the dozens of projects already archived by the Oral History Hub: African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project, AIDS Activist History Project, ACT UP Oral History Project, Chicago Leather Archives and Museum Oral History Project, Country Queers, Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project, Trans Activism Oral History Project, San Francisco ACT UP Oral History Project, Queer Appalachia Oral History Project, Ozarks Lesbian and Gay Archives Oral History Project, Okanagan QueerStory and the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change Oral Herstory Project. 

Among the most expansive collections are the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Herstories Audiovisual Collections. LHA has about 3,000 oral histories, most not online; a search under “oral history” on the site yields 257 hits, including digitized audio from the Kennedy/Davis Buffalo lesbian oral history project of the late 1970s/early 1980s. The NYC Trans Oral History Project has 89 audio interviews with NYC trans people, in archival partnership with the New York Public Library. The audio is online with no transcripts. 

The LGBTQ Religious Archives Network’s Oral Histories Collection has 60+ oral history interviews with LGBTQ+ religious figures, a project of the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry in Berkeley, California. And Philadelphia historian Dr. Marc Stein has added the Philadelphia LGBT Oral History Project, which consists of 24 oral history interviews conducted by Stein in the early 1990s for his first book, about Philadelphia’s lesbian and gay history from the 1940s through the 1970s; transcripts only, no audio.

The breadth of these projects and the stories they illuminate highlight how much LGBTQ+ history has yet to be collected and explored. But as the loss of Cornwell and so many other iconic figures in the LGBTQ+ community attest, the pre-Stonewall clan is aging and dying out. Which makes collecting their stories all the more critical and a vital element of LGBTQ History Month.

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