Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In the News: Windy City Times

The pleasures and perils of LGBTQ history
by Joe Franco

As part of the American History Association's recent conference in Chicago, a great deal of discussion was devoted to the emerging interest in LGBTQ history. An early-morning panel discussion Jan. 8 confronted many of the problems and the successes with LGBTQ history and its dissemination to the popular masses. Lauren Jae Gutterman, the panel's moderator and a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, started the group's discussion.

Professor Kevin Murphy, with the University of Minnesota, discussed his recent tribulations when putting together an oral history of the Twin Cities, saying, "We collected over 100 oral histories of the Twin Cities LGBTQ community. Historians, sociologists, geographers and ethnologists tried working together but found it difficult to create a work that would make their work interesting to the masses." The resulting book, Queer Twin Cities, was not well-received by the media or the intended target audience. Murphy admitted that not even the local Minneapolis gay press reviewed the book after its 2011 release. He said that it was "heartening to see the localized interest in GLBT history" but that, ultimately, the work seemed to alienate readers.

Professor John D'Emilio, with the University of Illinois-Chicago, brought more problems with LGBTQ public history to the table. He is co-director of a website called that was originally envisioned to be "Wiki-like" in that anyone could submit entries with constant updating from others. "The problem," said D'Emilio, "is that almost nobody submitted any content. Ultimately, there just was never going to be enough interest and enough content to build up steam."

D'Emilio believed the upcoming re-design of the website would help: "We want to abandon the 'Wiki' concept and make the content more transparent for the user." D'Emilio's solution for making LGBTQ public history more accessible through the web involved the use of individuals and more popular features that were user-friendly. He admitted that this was absolutely imperative that academics learned to speak in a language that made what they had to teach and say more accessible.

Professor Don Romesburg—an assistant professor at Sonoma State University and a curator for the recently opened GLBT History Museum (the first full-scale, stand-alone facility of its kind in the United States) in San Francisco—reported on a definite success in the LGBTQ-history scene. Worldwide attention focused on the opening of the facility, prompting Romesburg to joke, "Britney Spears was at our museum."

Tens of thousands of individuals have visited the museum since its opening last January. "We've had 2,000 new Facebook 'Likes' and 100 new members in our first year alone," said Romesburg. The museum is unique in that it resisted a chronologically linear model in its layout. "The arrangement was about demonstrating belonging and making power present," said Romesburg about the museum's success. The museum's success, seen in light of the failure of other queer-history initiatives, certainly begs the question, "What did the GLBT History Museum do differently?" Romesburg theorized, "We tried to welcome everybody. The construction of a museum means that we matter. It's relevant, important and meaningful."

The discussion ended with Joey Plaster, a graduate student at Yale, and Rev. Megan Rohrer, a Lutheran minister who works with at-risk and impoverished LGBT youth of the Castro and Tenderloin neighborhoods in San Francisco.

Their work with the queer youth is not unlike Boystown's unprecedented problems this past summer. The gentrified Castro wanted the gay youth out of the neighborhood. A concerted effort among the residents, shop owners, bar owners and politicians began to form.

Ultimately, Plaster and Rohrer used history as a way of mobilizing the disenfranchised queer youth. They used the imagery of the 1960s to propel the voices of the neighborhood queer youth. Rohrer said that "the use of tactile GLBT historical artifacts was more than enough motivation for the queer youth to spring into action." She added, "When an individual gets to see and touch something historical, something from the past, this alone is transformative."

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