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OurStory Scotland

... recording the stories of the LGBT community in Scotland

Archiving Heritage Oral History Storytelling Drama Exhibitions Research
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Our Stories Our Selves:
An Archive for the LGBT Community

Have you ever felt left out in the various versions of history presented in books, museums and documentaries? Have you ever tried tracing family history and found that we are not there, we don't figure, we are invisible? If so, you'll be interested to learn of a new project that aims to gather and present the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

At the Glasgow LGBT Centre, we are starting up a project to record stories and images from the lives of our community. Oral history and reminiscence work has been carried out with many communities, but it is rare with LGBT people. The last century has seen extraordinary changes in the way we live our lives, and older people in particular have priceless experience of what it has been like to live through those changes. We are interested in stories of LGBT people at all stages of their lives, but we are making a special effort to contact older people who have so much to tell us about their experiences over a lifetime of remarkable transformation.

Collecting people's stories is not a simple task. We shall need volunteers who are willing to undergo training in this kind of work, to ensure the safety and security of everyone involved, to operate recording equipment, to develop skills and sensitivity in interviewing, and to establish awareness of the issues of ethics and confidentiality that are inevitably raised by work of this kind - especially in our community.

A collection of stories is a fundamental part of representing our lives for ourselves, by ourselves, but how can we make sure that the stories are preserved and accessible? Taped interviews will require indexing. Ideally they would be transcribed. There is also a need for safe storage of the material that we collect - whether stories, images or artefacts. Photographs can be a powerful way of conveying the atmosphere of a place and time, and there are many other personal items that can give the sense of a location, event or era: badges, hats, T-shirts and items of fashion that might express an identity through the styles and conventions of the time.

One of our first events will be an exhibition with a strong visual aspect, that is further emphasised in the theme devised by Glasgow artist Jim Campbell: Becoming Visible. Participating in the exhibition would involve submitting a photo or object that represents an important event in your emerging sexuality. Rather than simply hanging the works on the wall, the exhibition will take the form of an installation and will encompass several art forms, including music that brings back memories of a particular time and place.

Part of the inspiration for this type of exhibition comes from the work of the French artist Christian Boltanski. The notes for a recent Kansas City project Our City/Ourselves: Portrait of a Community describe Boltanski as spending his artistic life working with the most ephemeral of materials - newspaper clippings, photographs, found snapshots, clothing, candles, light bulbs, old biscuit tins - to examine and to mark our transitory lives. The aim is to form an expanding, growing, living archive, that makes a profound statement about community identity. The Kansas City exhibition focused on the idea of arrival - how we came to belong to the community. For us this is often seen in terms of our coming out, becoming visible, arriving as a recognised member of our community.

For archiving projects with the LGBT community, North America also provides some excellent examples, as in the National Archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender History in New York and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

Closer to home, there are several projects in the UK (see links). One of the most highly developed of these is the Brighton Ourstory Project. They collect stories, photographs and artefacts, and have informative, fascinating and beautifully produced publications. One of these is Daring Hearts: Lesbian and Gay Lives of 50s and 60s Brighton. In this book forty lesbians and gay men speak openly about their experiences, whether amusing, sad, erotic, poignant or defiant. They remind us of an era when disclosure was especially difficult and risky. For gay men, even living together in private could land you on the wrong side of the law: your own house could be raided, rooms examined to check that you had single beds, and bed-linen taken away for forensic examination. The Brighton Ourstory Project has brought stories like these to light, and has not only published them in book form, but has also organised themed exhibitions and theatrical performances based on episodes in the lives of the LGBT community. The performances have been enormously effective and often deeply moving.

In Scotland we are very fortunate to have the Lesbian Archive & Information Centre. This was originally set up in 1984: after many years as a London-based resource the collection moved to the brilliant Glasgow Women's Library in 1995 where it continues to develop and expand. A local project on LGBT lives is just beginning in Edinburgh in association with City of Edinburgh Museums and the Living Memory Association. This is a reminiscence project, and connects with the kind of work undertaken by the Age Exchange Reminiscence Centre in Blackheath, London. This Centre is itself starting a project with their local LGBT community, with the aim of bringing stories to theatrical performance through the Age Exchange Theatre Trust.

These projects in Scotland and England are highly supportive of our work, that has its base in Glasgow and will develop into national archive resources for Scotland. A crucial area for cooperation is simply the exchange of information, so that different projects can learn from each other, can move towards computer software compatibility in information storage and retrieval, and can collaborate in archiving, publication, exhibition and performance.

A further area for collaboration is research. Through research on LGBT archiving and reminiscence projects, we aim:

  • to investigate what LGBT archiving work has already taken place in Scotland, and to encourage links and exchange of information between different projects
  • to explore the benefits and difficulties of setting up LGBT archives, and to put together practical advice and guidance for similar projects
  • to apply this research in the practical development of LGBT archives in Scotland
  • to consider how identities and relationships are managed in situations of social exclusion, especially where disclosure threatens to exacerbate such exclusion
  • to consider the forms in which accounts of lives can be expressed and published: this involves working on the forms of recording, interpreting, expressing, publishing, exhibiting and performing accounts of lives.

Archive projects with the LGBT community are particularly important because we have not only been excluded from full participation in our society, but we have also been written out of history - silenced and made invisible. This is apparent not only in the state records, figures, statues and museums of official history, but also at the family level. Our relationships have mostly been omitted from the family photograph album, from the monumental inscriptions and from the family tree. Indeed, if you try to put a same sex partner into computer software used to draw up a family tree, you will find that the partner has to change sex to be included! Only heterosexual partners are admitted, and even they are termed spouses. One way of subverting this is to draw up alternative family trees, recognising all the wonderful diversity of our friendships and connections, whether actual, historical or mythical, including the relationships that have achieved recognition alongside those that are deemed illegitimate - all the support we have achieved from our community and beyond. In this way we can construct a new sense in which 'we are family' - heretics beyond the bounds of heredity. We plan to have workshops on alternative family trees, which could be the subject of a fascinating exhibition.

Having our stories and ourselves recognised can have great benefits. Some individuals find that, for the first time, their stories are heard and their value acknowledged. This in itself can be self-affirming or even therapeutic. Many beyond our community are unaware of the things we have to go through. Our stories provide vital material for people training in the social services and for those who aim to develop inclusive social policy with genuinely equal opportunities for all. Personal stories can have a wider social and political impact.

What can you do if you are interested in participating in our archiving project? If you think you might like your story to be told, perhaps alongside photographs that sum up a time in your life or that celebrate a valuable relationship, then contact us. If you would like to volunteer for any of the work of recording, transcribing or archiving, or if you are just interested in discussing the project with us, again do get in touch. If you know of others who might be interested, please let them know and encourage them to contact us. We especially welcome contact with people who might not figure in the usual LGBT meeting places. Our stories will reveal ourselves as a wonderfully diverse community.