Documenting QUEER COMMUNITY Histories: WHOSE HISTORY IS IT?

What does it mean to be a member of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or
queer (LGBTQ) community? When did LGBTQ community history begin?
Where do queer communities differ? How do we broach these questions to
document communities’ experiences? And significantly, why is it important to
document the histories of those who are defined as LGBTQ?
These represent some of the questions raised during “Documenting Queer
Community Histories,” a free, four-part public education seminar CLAGS held this
summer. The seminar was taught by David Serlin, a member of the CLAGS Board of
Directors and a professor at the University of California at San Diego. Each session
was attended by upwards of fifty people. Some students were already well versed in
LGBTQ history and theory, while others came with little or no prior knowledge.
People utilized the class to inform books they were writing, films they were making,
research and advocacy they were undertaking, or to gain inspiration and guidance
for future projects. The controversial themes of time, identity, location, and method
in queer community documentation were woven throughout the readings and
discussions.
The seminar began with the theme of time. Professor Serlin problematized the
popular notion that the 1969 Stonewall riots represented the “birth” of the modern
U.S. LGBT movement. Rather, he encouraged the class to critically examine whether
Stonewall is the beginning of a movement, or one of many significant moments, or
a moment that has greater or lesser significance for different communities. In an
analysis of lesbian and gay African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, for
example, historian Eric Garber argued that understanding watershed moments and
significant time periods requires understanding historical context. Thus, while
Stonewall can be perceived as a turning point in LGBT history, it should be
understood in connection with other social and economic factors. John D’Emilio’s
important 1983 article “Capitalism and Gay Identity” complements Garber’s thesis
by considering a longer historical perspective for LGBTQ history; he argues that the
U.S.’s shift from an agricultural to a market economy created living conditions that
made possible the growth of modern queer identities. From this perspective, the

development of capitalism, not Stonewall,
represents the birth of the LGBT movement. As
both the readings and discussions demonstrated,
queer community histories must be constructed
with recognition that definitions of time are
subjective and significantly impact how we
understand ourselves. Tracing the LGBT
community’s birth to a riot against repression
critically informs how we imagine our community
today, i.e. historically disempowered outsiders who
must fight for justice.
Throughout the seminar, participants returned to
perhaps an even more basic challenge to
documenting queer community histories: whose
history is told? Indeed, is talking about the history
of a “community” even possible? Shifting
definitions of sexuality, geography, identity and
behavior impact what narratives are included and underscore that history is always
dynamic, interpreted by contemporary concepts, local definitions, and those in a
privileged position to speak. For instance, as historian Peter Boag argued in his book
Same-Sex Affairs (2003), although transient and working-class men in urban northwest
cities like Seattle and Portland in the early twentieth century did not identify as gay,
they were regularly having sex with other men. There is a place for these men in a
community documentation project, yet we cannot easily project modern or
mainstream chronologies onto their regional and historic identities and behaviors. In a
similar vein, guest lecturer Carlos Decena, a professor at Rutgers University, critiqued
the dominant queer genealogy. Decena described his search for something deeper
than recognition of LGBTQ community diversity; in his work, he is attempting to focus
on an analysis of non-dominant narratives. His own research focuses on centering
queer men of color and de-centering the white, urban gay male subject. With these
issues, we see that normalizing notions of “community” are useful in some ways and
yet highly problematic in others.
The final class in the seminar addressed one of the most complex questions for queer
community documentation: what, exactly, do we document? This discussion
crystallized through a conversation with another guest lecturer, Jeanette Ingberman,
the director of Exit Art in New York City and co-curator of its recent exhibition,
“Homomuseum.” For “Homomuseum,” Ingberman solicited work about a hero or
moment that has influenced LGBTQ culture. This project raised several questions.
When we move into the abstract realm of art, what constitutes queerness? Can
anything be interpreted as queer if it is created by, in this case, a queer artist? Or do
we need overtly queer imagery to have a “queer” subject? What would infuse an
event or object with meaning that would render it “queer”? What role does artistic
production or visual presentation play in the process of queering art?
The seminar ended on a high note as participants described their projects to each
other and exchanged contact information for keeping in touch. As the seminar series
ended, we didn’t have all the answers, but it was clear that striving for innovative and
ethical ways to document queer community histories was an important endeavor that
would continue.

Jessica Stern, MSc, LGBT Researcher for Human Rights Watch, was a consultant based at the National Gay and
Lesbian Task Force while participating in this seminar. Nicholas Ray, MA, is a policy analyst at the National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force. They loved this seminar – where else could you get a free, open-to-all resource like this
– and express their appreciation to CLAGS for providing it!