AHA 2012: “The Pleasures and Perils of LGBTQ Public History”

January 12, 2012 in Conference Reports by David Palmer

“The Pleasures and Perils of LGBTQ Public History”

American Historical Association Annual Conference
Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Report by Lauren Jae Gutterman

Held bright and early Sunday morning, “The Pleasures and Perils of LGBTQ Public History” was one of the last panels of the 2012 AHA conference. Panelists included Kevin P. Murphy, Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota; John D’Emilio, Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Don Romesburg, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University; Joey Plaster, a first-year student in Yale’s American Studies Ph.D. program, and Pastor Megan Rohrer, Candidate for Doctorate of Ministry from the Pacific School for Religion. Lauren Jae Gutterman, a doctoral candidate in History at New York University, organized the panel and served as moderator. One of the panel’s overarching themes was the difficulty of engaging public audiences who often desire a purely positive, “It Gets Better” telling of LGBTQ history, while maintaining a scholarly and political commitment to a more inclusive, critical, and complicated queer past.

Kevin Murphy’s paper, “Sexuality and the Cities: Interdisciplinarity and the Politics of Queer Public History,” discussed Queer Twin Cities (2010), a collaboratively written book based on a collection of around 100 oral history interviews with residents of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. While the writers intended their book to reach a public audience, surprisingly Queer Twin Cities has not been reviewed in any of the Twin Cities’ gay newspapers, and its sales have been underwhelming. Murphy pointed to several issues that may be behind the book’s failure to engage the local LGBTQ community members. The book’s tone is uneven: while some essays are clearly and accessibly written, others are more theoretical pieces that could be found in a scholarly journal and may have turned off non-academic readers. Local community members had trouble with the book’s content as well as its style. Murphy explained that two essays in particular inspired angry responses from the community. The first argues that gay gentrifiers in Minneapolis are part of an effort to revitalize the city without challenging racial discrimination or economic inequality, and the second, reveals how Target—a major sponsor of the Twin Cities’ AIDS walk—has helped produce a shortage of public funding for HIV/AIDS medications. Murphy fears the book may have alienated, rather than engaged, its intended audience.

John D’Emilio, Co-Director of OutHistory.org—a website on LGBTQ U.S. history created by Jonathan Ned Katz—addressed similar problems involved in engaging a broad community of LGBTQ public history “consumers.” Some of OutHistory.org’s issues are unique to the project’s digital medium. As many users have conveyed to D’Emilio, OutHistory.org is confusingly designed, which makes its valuable and original content all but impossible for users to access. And while Katz modeled the site after Wikipedia, D’Emilio believes that the MediaWiki platform has fundamentally failed. LGBTQ history is simply too narrow a topic to attract the mass community of users needed to make a wiki website work. These issues can be addressed with a redesign of website (which will hopefully go live in October), but the solutions to other challenges facing OutHistory.org remain unclear. Even though Katz imagined that the general public would be the primary producers of LGBTQ history on the website, in fact, academics are the authors of most of OutHistory.org’s content. Like Murphy, D’Emilio acknowledged that it is not easy for scholars to put aside their professional language—to step outside the “abyss of academic professionalism”—and write for a broader audience and he questioned whether or not it will be possible for a scholarly-driven website to attract large numbers of visitors.

While Murphy and D’Emilio turned a critical eye on their public history endeavors, in “Going Viral with Brick-and-Mortar Queer History: Opening the GLBT History Museum,” Don Romesburg celebrated the unforeseen, international media attention and more than 15,000 visitors the recently opened GLBT History Museum has attracted. Showing pictures of some museum highlights—a collection of matchbooks from gay bars, a sex toy display, an exhibit about the divisions between sex-positive and anti-porn lesbian feminists, the male physique magazines of a Japanese American man interned during World War II—Romesburg argued that the GLBT History Museum is successfully meeting queer museum studies scholars’ demands to demonstrate belonging in multiple and contradictory ways, and to make plain the way structures of power operate. Still, the Museum does face challenges: some of the media attention its opening generated has been hostile, fundraising is not easy, and the Museum would not be possible without its committed corps of volunteers. Romesburg closed by emphasizing the importance of an independent GLBT History Museum that is not beholden to a more powerful, well-established institution that could censor exhibits (seen most recently with the Smithsonian’s “Hide/Seek” show), or enforce a less complex, progressive narrative of gay history.

Finally, in “Queer Histories of San Francisco’s Tenderloin,” Joey Plaster and Megan Rohrer discussed their Vanguard Revisited Project, a collaboration between the GLBT Historical Society and Rohrer’s WELCOME: A Communal Response to Poverty. The Vanguard Revisited Project was both a community organizing endeavor, and an attempt to directly intervene in linear histories of LGBTQ life that leave out those who don’t fit into the conventional story of progress and pride. Vanguard was an organization originally founded in the 1960s by street youth protesting police sweeps, lack of housing and employment opportunities, and laws criminalizing homosexuality in San Francisco. Vanguard Revisited—which met weekly between February and June 2011—encouraged queer homeless youth in San Francisco today to see their lives as linked to those activists who contested social stigma and economic inequality in the city decades ago. Plaster and Rohrer conducted oral history interviews with Vanguard Revisited’s participants, and helped them create a zine that blended the artwork and writing of Vanguard activists past and present. Rohrer stressed the project’s success and longevity, as many of those involved with the project last year still consider themselves to be part of the “Vanguard group” and continue to agitate for queer homeless youth in the shelters and in the Castro.

Though there were only around 10 people in attendance, the papers sparked a lively debate among those queer scholars, teachers, and documentarians present about the urgent need for LGBTQ public history projects and the issues involved in building them. In the ensuing discussion, audience members shared their own challenges practicing public history, and offered suggestions for and critiques of the four projects the panel highlighted. One audience member, in particular, raised questions about the ways that the GLBT History Museum may be collaborating in a repurposing of the gay past for the benefit of the local tourist and real estate industries. Rohrer countered that, surprisingly, the GLBT History Museum has become somewhat of a haven for the queer homeless youth the Vanguard Revisited Project served because their stories and images are highlighted in the exhibits, and because it is one of few places in the Castro where they can get in for free. Perhaps most importantly, this panel pointed to the need for greater collaboration and sustained communication between LGBTQ public historians.