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Digital Archives | Listen to the Voices

BY ON January 11, 2017

Making Gay History Podcast LogoThis post, which inaugurates the DigitalArchives stream on this blog, was written by Eric Marcus, Editorial Director of Making Gay History

I’m not a religious person, not even vaguely spiritual.  But the explanation that makes the most sense to me for how I wound up producing a weekly podcast drawing on recordings I made almost thirty years ago is this:  the people I interviewed wanted to tell their stories in their own voices and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.

In 1988 I was a young journalist starting work on an oral history book about the LGBT civil rights movement.  I don’t remember why, but I asked Jay Kernis, my colleague at CBS News who was one of the creators of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition,” what kind of equipment the reporters at NPR used.  I can only guess that I thought my interviews could have value one day and that I might as well use broadcast quality equipment to record them.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2015.  I’d just been forced out my job at a suicide prevention non-profit and I did what you do when you’re trying to get back on your feet.  You review your assets, have lots of conversations, and figure out what you’re going to do next.  And that’s when it occurred to me that it was time to revisit the 300 hours of interviews I’d conducted for my 1992 book, Making Gay History, an oral history of the LGBT civil rights movement.  There was my asset.  Next question:  What can I do with it?  The first thing I had to do was listen.  And when I did I was transported back in time and the voices of these extraordinary people who changed the course of history urged me to tell their stories again.  

Then following a series of introductions I met two incredibly smart women who were developing LGBT-inclusive K-12 curricula through their non-profit organization History UnErased.  I mentioned my audio archive and they suggested using short excerpts from some of the interviews to anchor middle- and high-school lesson plans.  Next I asked my neighbor, Sara Burningham (who happens to be an independent audio producer) if she could cut some tape.  She could.  But as we started work, it became clear that the voices wanted more time.  And we wanted more people to hear them.  

Another moment put us in a room with Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of podcast production house Pineapple Street Media (Women of The Hour, Still Processing, With Her).  Jenna has been an ardent supporter and mentor for the project.  So with financial support from the Arcus Foundation and the help of our friends at the New York Public Library we launched the Making Gay History podcast this past October in time for LGBT History month.

One of my favorite episodes from our first season features life partners Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, leading voices in the early LGBT civil rights movement and a pair of the most cheerful revolutionaries you’ll ever hear.  They were self-described gay rights fanatics, who challenged the status quo with passion, determination, and an indestructible sense of humor.  Listening to their voices again after all these years, I’m instantly back in their cozy living room in Philadelphia.  There’s a kettle on the stove and Barbara is calling to Kay for a desperately needed cup of coffee.  I hope you’ll join us and have a listen, because they have stories to tell and they want you to hear them—in their voices.

Eric Marcus is the author of a dozen books, including Making Gay History:  The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights and is co-author with Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis of the #1 New York Times bestselling Breaking the Surface.  His collection resides at the New York Public Library in the Archives and Manuscripts Division.  The NYPL also houses the collection of Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen.

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