by Libby Sears
When I enrolled in this course, I hadn’t the slightest intimation what “oral history” was, or how it was relevant to queer historical discourse. When I discovered that we would have to conduct an interview with a notable queer resident of Austin, I considered dropping the class, as inorganic meetings produce an immense amount of anxiety for me. Despite my initial fears and doubts, Dr. Gutterman masterfully guided us all through a well-planned and engaging survey of queer history in Austin, oral history methodology, and interview training in order for us to gather our own bit of oral history. This course has been a challenging yet wonderful introduction into the realm of oral history, as well as the field of American Studies at large. My experience in this course has caused me to reflect on the academic security blankets to which I have clung so tightly throughout my time in college, and has truly forced me to embrace more discomfort in the name of learning.
Our first unit of the course largely focused on queer history in the United States during the 20th century, with an emphasis on the time around Stonewall and the loosely-dated Gay Liberation era. These readings provided a vital foreground for our examination of Austin’s queer history, and I appreciated the perspectives that the authors brought to their historical examinations. One reading that has stuck with me is Nic John Ramos’s “Poor Influences and Criminal Locations: Los Angeles’s Skid Row, Multicultural Identities, and Normal Homosexuality,” in which the author artfully describes the interplay between sexuality, class, politics, and mental health along Skid Row in LA. As we moved into Austin’s queer history, Eric Jason Ganther’s MA thesis “From Closet to Crusade: The Struggle for Lesbian-Gay Civil Rights in Austin, Texas, 1970-1982” was vital for me to understand not only the social and political mores of Austinites of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but also how to write about people still living through their own histories. I often find myself thinking back to the chapters we read in class and marveling at how useful they were to gather information on the first lesbian dance in Austin, which I wrote about for my timeline entry. This unit of the course has really impressed the importance of local history upon me, and I have found myself countering my personal distaste for this city with the rich history of those who may not have always been front page news.
Indeed, learning about the queer history of Austin was very empowering and truly made it a little easier to be excited about the course’s main project: the interview.
Before our interviews could take place, we first had to learn about how to actually conduct them. In addition to a vast selection of helpful readings on the subject, particularly on oral history interviews of queer individuals, I especially enjoyed our many class visits with oral historians from across the country. Meeting with archivists from the Austin History Center allowed me to understand how to properly research not only my interview subject, but also the city of Austin in general. The combination of practical advice, scholarship, and poignant reflections from scholars such as Dr. Kevin Murphy, and Dr. Jason Ruiz—among many others— truly enhanced my understanding of oral history as a living, breathing act of service not only to academia, but also to the queer community as a whole. During this unit, the notion of the interview became less of an amorphous cloud of fear and more like a clear—yet still frightening—checklist of things to do and not to do. The ethical matters of the subject weighed heavily on my mind, but hearing one anecdote of Dr. Ruiz’s in which he asked a personal question in a public place oddly brought me great solace. The methods by which oral history is collected are imperfect and imprecise and personal by nature, so inevitably there is the possibility of error.
As we transitioned from methodology into actual interview tactics, my worries grew more concrete, while simultaneously my interview confidence began to appear. This allowed me to give what I believe was a very well-rounded interview with notable poet, writer, Doris Duke Performing Artist, playwright, and all-around-fantastic human being Sharon Bridgforth. Gleaning from the methodology afforded by the readings—notably “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses” by Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack—I was able to begin to envision myself giving an interview that was not centered on me, which was a major fear of mine right up until Sharon and I actually completed our Zoom call. Throughout our interview, I was awestruck by Sharon’s presence both as an interview participant and as a very obvious artist. It was this admiration and interest that both spurred nerves but also kept me alert during the interview, trying my best to come up with questions relevant to her previous answers. Sharon’s experience in Austin certainly highlighted the centrality of community in the queer experience here in Austin, as well as in the scholarship we read in the beginning of the course, such as “Lesbian Survival School” and “Don’t We Die Too?” Sharon mentioned multiple times that the queer community—particularly the queer community of Color—took care of its own because no one else would. Her sobriety, her activism, her growth as an artist all flourished in part due to the community that she had here in Austin—her allgo family, fellow artists like Marsha Anne Gomez and other Austin creatives, and her wife Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones.
So much of oral history seems to be simply to listen and to wait—actions that can seem grueling to an overeager participant such as myself. But building these vital skills has empowered me to not only gather the history of my father’s family in this manner, but has also allowed me to become a more well-rounded student and classmate. The value of community within queer spaces—including our virtual classroom—has become so apparent as I’ve navigated through the various preparatory assignments, spoken with Sharon Bridgforth, and listened to my classmates’ presentations. During this course, I’ve learned so much about the processes through which oral historians gather their information and present it to the world, and so much of that hinges on this sense of community—who to select for the interview, what to capture, where to store the transcript, when to use it for research. This course has taught me so much about leaning into that sense of community, knowing that I am not alone.
My name is Libby Sears, and I am a recent graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. I majored in American Studies, and completed an honors thesis within the major concerning the intersection of gender, sexuality, race, and class on unwed teenage motherhood in midcentury America. I hope to return to this area of study within the next few years, whether that be through the pursuit of a doctorate or simply independent academic inquiry. My involvement in Dr. Gutterman’s Preserving Austin’s Queer History course really ignited a desire to delve further into archives, libraries, and the spoken stories of others in order to gain greater insight in to the larger queer community here in Austin, as well as across the country. In the immediate future, you can find me debating graduate school, enjoying novels again, and stage-managing my dog’s Instagram career.