Philadelphia LGBT History Project, 1945-1972

From OutHistory
Revision as of 15:53, 17 February 2010 by LaurenGutterman (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to navigationJump to search

Introduction to the Philadelphia LGBT History Project

by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2009. All rights reserved.

Professor Marc Stein. Image from

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.

There are ongoing debates and discussions by those interested in oral history about the importance and the significance of personal and political disclosure by interviewers, in both the interview process and in published work that uses oral histories. I certainly believe that my social location–as a white, gay-identified, middle-class, Jewish, Ivy League graduate student and graduate–influenced my easier access to white middle-class gay male narrators who became active in the gay community in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So did my age and generation; I was born in 1963, which meant that my youngest narrators were approximately a decade older than I was while my oldest ones were nearly forty years older. All of these factors influenced the content of the interviews as well, as did the fact that I was born and bred in New York, went to college in Connecticut, and lived for four years after graduating from college in Boston, which meant that I was a relative newcomer to Philadelphia when these interviews were conducted (having moved there in 1989). But the nature of that "influence" is not always as straightforward as it might seem. For instance, while I often felt quicker rapport with my Jewish and my activist narrators, I also often developed quicker rapport with my lesbian, as opposed to my gay, narrators, which replicated patterns in my social life.

One of the most difficult issues I faced in the interview process was how to handle disclosure about my gay identity and my sexual history. During this period of my life, I identified strongly as gay. I began to have sex with men in the early 1980s, came out as gay in the mid-1980s, worked as the coordinating editor of Boston's Gay Community News in the late 1980s, and intended to focus my research on gay and lesbian history when I began graduate school in 1989. All of that said, I also had a long history of having sexual relationships with women as well, and my primary (though open) relationship from 1991 to 1994 (when many of my interviews were conducted) was with a woman (who identified as "not straight"). I was quite conflicted about whether to disclose my heterosexual relationship and history to my narrators and consulted widely with oral history experts and academic colleagues, whose advice varied considerably. On the one hand, the interviews were not (primarily) about me and some of the people I asked for advice argued that my identity and my history were irrelevant. On the other hand, I thought it was likely that most of my oral history narrators would assume that I was gay, either because they had encountered me in contexts where most people were gay or because the common assumption in the 1990s (and to some extent still today) was that straight people were not interested or would not pursue research projects in gay and lesbian history. I was concerned that some of those who assumed that I was gay (which I regarded as a correct assumption) and assumed that I only had sex with men (which was not correct) might not want to talk with me, or might talk with me differently, if they knew about my past sexual history and my current primary sexual relationship. In the end, I decided that before the taped component of the interview began, I would make it my practice to make clear that my narrators could ask me anything they wished about my personal or professional life if they wanted to do so before the taped part of the interview began. I typically repeated this offer more than once and I committed myself to revealing my heterosexual history if there was a question that even remotely related to this subject. Only rarely did my narrators ask me anything after I offered to answer their questions and even more rarely (fewer than five times) did they ask a question that led me to reveal my history of sexual relationships with women. No one withdrew from the interview process or expressed concern about this. I did not notice a difference (which does not mean there wasn't a difference) in the contents of the interviews based on whether my heterosexual history was discussed before the taped part of the interview began.

In almost every case, I initially made arrangements via telephone for when and where the interview would take place. Most of the interviews took place in Greater Philadelphia, but one took place in central Pennsylvania, three in California, one in Greater Boston, and three in New York City. I indicated that the interview would likely last two to three hours (except for the one with Richard Schlegel, who was enthusiastic about doing a longer interview) and that I had been told that it was best to interview people in locations where they felt most comfortable, which was typically in their homes. Most of the interviews took place in the narrators' homes, but several took place elsewhere. There was only one instance in which I was concerned about my personal safety in a potential narrator's home. This was in Philadelphia and there was something about the initial telephone conversation that gave me pause. This was the only case in which I made a prior arrangement with my roommate to call her about thirty minutes after my scheduled arrival at this man's house. When I called, I happily reported that all was well, though ultimately this narrator did not agree to be interviewed on tape.

In our telephone conversation, I introduced the five or six topics that I would be interested in covering (including coming out, participation in gay/lesbian cultural life, and involvement in gay/lesbian activism) and emphasized that we could also cover other topics if they wished. I had been told that it was best to not build the interview around a detailed and long list of specific questions but rather to outline a set of broad topics and then engage in rather open-ended conversations about each of the topics. I also explained in our telephone conversation that I would be asking them to sign a standard permission form (which I produced based on a template provided by the Columbia Oral History Office) that would give us both rights to use the interview material until their death and then the rights would be mine alone. (Only one person added a condition to the permission form, stipulating that I would need to ask permission to use specific quotations from our interview in published work.) I noted as well that I intended to deposit the interview tapes after I finished my research to an appropriate library or archives (which I have not yet done). I explained that they could choose to have me use a pseudonym and that they could select the pseudonym if they wished. I also told them that my hope was to produce a complete transcript of the interview, which I then would share with them. If they wished to make any corrections or clarifications, they could do so and I promised to deposit both the original version and their corrections and clarifications in the library/archive that I selected. I repeated much of this when we met for the interview. Then we together filled out a two-page biographical information form (with sections devoted to their family, residential, and work histories) and the permission form before the taped part of the interview began.

Over the last several years, I have come to the conclusion that my oral history interview transcripts could be a valuable internet-based resource for others interested in LGBT history. I decided to begin with narrators who have died. (This helps explain why all of the posted interviews thus far are of men, as it seems that many more of my male narrators have died.) My intention for the future is to ask permission of living narrators before adding their transcripts to this site. The transcripts posted on this site are edited versions of the originals. There are several reasons for this. There are different schools of thought about how to do oral history transcripts. At one extreme, some oral history practitioners indicate every "um," "oh," sound, and pause in their transcripts. At the other extreme, some produce a heavily edited version of the original. My original transcripts fell somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, indicating each "um," "oh," and "you know," as well as laughter, sounds indicating assent, and repeated words. I learned in doing my original transcripts that most of us, in our spoken language, not only use many "ums" and "you knows" but also routinely repeat words and regularly construct long sentences in which we interrupt ourselves repeatedly and begin new sentences before we have finished the last ones. Some of my narrators were quite disturbed when I showed them my original transcripts, fearing that I would be publishing long excerpts of the unedited transcripts in my book, which was never my intention. Still, I got the strong sense from the conversations that ensued that most of my narrators would prefer that I edit the transcripts to remove "ums," "you knows," and repeated words. I have done so, and I have also occasionally edited the original transcripts for purposes of clarity and comprehension.

As you will see, each transcript is preceded by a short account of how I came to interview the particular individual and a reproduction of the biographical information that I obtained before the taped component of the interview began. I also use these brief introductions to note any other significant information that I think would be useful to readers, including information about when and how the individual died, where further information can be obtained, and whether I think there are reasons to have any concerns about the accuracy of the information conveyed in the interview. I strongly encourage readers of these transcripts to consult with other primary and secondary sources to obtain other perspectives on the stories shared in these interviews. At times, the information and interpretations conveyed are at odds with the information and interpretations presented in other sources (including other interviews, printed sources from the period under discussion, or published work by me or other scholars). All sources of historical information should be read with a critical eye; oral histories are not an exception to this rule. Readers should keep in mind that in each interview transcript they are encountering one person's interpretation at a particular moment in time, one person's memories of events that may have occurred many years earlier, and one person's way of telling a story. Some experts in oral history argue that oral histories tell us more about the period when the interview takes place than they do about the period being discussed. I certainly agree that the intervening years greatly influence how we remember the past. For example, the rise of feminist ways of thinking and speaking in the 1970s may well have influenced the stories my narrators tell about the 1950s and 1960s. For these and other reasons, I have adopted the practice of thinking of my oral history narrators as experts looking back on the past. In my published work I try to signal this understanding through the tenses that I use. For example, in my published work I might say that in our interview Barbara Gittings notes that in the 1950s she went to gay bars dressed as a boy. In any case, these interview transcripts are now available for multiple uses. I ask only that readers use these transcripts with care, consideration, and respect. I remain deeply grateful to my narrators for spending time and sharing their stories with me and I hope you will be appreciative as well.

Index to LGBT Oral History Interviews