Introduction to the Philadelphia LGBT History Project
by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2009. All rights reserved.
In 1992, when I was a Ph.D. history student at the University of Pennsylvania, I began work on my doctoral dissertation, which I decided would focus on the history of relationships between lesbians and gay men in Philadelphia from the 1940s to the 1970s. Much of my research consisted of searching for references to same-sex sexuality in Philadelphia (and other) newspapers and magazines; reading the gay and lesbian newsletters, magazines, and newspapers that began to be published in the 1950s and 1960s; looking for references to Philadelphia gay and lesbian bars and other meeting places in old gay bar guides; and examining local, state, and federal government documents that touched on the lives of lesbians and gay men in Philadelphia. I also made use of the taped and videotaped oral histories that local activist, journalist, writer, and archivist Tommi Avicolli Mecca had given to the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Archives. In 1993, I began a series of oral history interviews of my own, most of which I completed before I finished my 1994 Ph.D. dissertation ("The City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: The Making of Lesbian and Gay Movements in Greater Philadelphia, 1945-1972"). Over the next few years, I did several more interviews before finishing City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2000 and, in a second edition, by Temple University Press in 2004.
Before conducting my interviews, I learned a great deal about oral history methodology by reading scholarly books that made use of oral histories, talking with senior scholars who did interviews as part of their research, and visiting the Columbia Oral History Office, which provided me with a set of helpful articles and guides. As I note in my book, I interviewed a total of forty-three people, twenty-four of whom were men and nineteen of whom were women. One of the men and one of the women identified themselves to me as straight; I interviewed the former because he was a lawyer for a leading Philadelphia gay activist in the 1960s (who had subsequently died) and the latter because she owned and managed a gay bar. Of the forty-three, ten were born in the 1910s and 1920s, fifteen in the 1930s, and eighteen in the 1940s and early 1950s. One identified as Cuban American, one as Asian American, eight as African American or black, and thirty-four (including the Latina) as Euro-American or white. As I observe in my book (page 20), "while 27% of Philadelphians and 16% of Greater Philadelphians were designated 'non-white' by the census of 1960, 21% of the lesbian and gay narrators would be similarly categorized."
I identified individuals willing to be interviewed in multiple ways: through gay and lesbian newspaper and newsletter articles, letters, and advertisements about my project (with contact information provided); through my work as a volunteer with the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives and my involvement in various LGBT, AIDS, and queer activist groups; through my efforts to contact publicly visible gay and lesbian activists from the period I was studying; and through word of mouth and the assistance of mutual friends and acquaintances. I had particularly close connections to two of my lesbian narrators: I had lived with one in a West Philadelphia group house several years earlier and the other was the long-time partner of my Ph.D. supervisor.
My goal was to interview a broad cross-section of gay and lesbian Philadelphians, roughly approximating Philadelphia's ethnoracial demographics, aiming for equal numbers of men and women, finding members of different age and generational cohorts, including people with diverse class backgrounds and material circumstances, and ensuring good representation of both activists and non-activists. At an early stage of my work, I realized that if I interviewed the first individuals who volunteered, I would end up with a group of oral history narrators who were predominantly white middle-class gay men who became active in the gay community in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Concerned about what this would mean for my study, I began declining offers of assistance by potential oral history narrators who had these characteristics and searching more actively for other types of narrators.