by Erin Akins
My history with Austin is short but meaningful. Here, I began my career as a graduate student, grew immeasurably both personally and professionally, and started living openly as a trans woman. Austin has become an important part of my life, but Austin has its own history too, and it was waiting for me when I arrived. In the early months of my fourth semester as a graduate student, Dr. Lisa Moore approached me about working on an ongoing LGBTQ+ oral history project as a Graduate Research Assistant. At first, I was merely honored (if a bit nervous) to have been considered, and while I was excited to be a part of something bigger than myself, I didn’t realize then just how important this project is.
The project was born in part from Dr. Lauren Gutterman’s spring 2021 course “Preserving Austin’s Queer History.” After the first time Dr. Gutterman taught the course, she realized that there were many grassroots efforts already in existence working on documenting LGBTQ+ history. In discussing how the LGBTQ Studies Program could support the project and share its resources beyond the students in just one class, Moore and Gutterman realized that they needed to consult with this broader community of activists and local historians to see what they needed and wanted from their own efforts and from a potential pooling of those efforts in a larger project sponsored by LGBTQ Studies.
For instance, one of the most visible and longstanding queer organizations in the state got its start in Austin: allgo, a statewide network dedicated to supporting queer people of color. Kelle’ Martin, the Executive Director of allgo, and María Limón, a founding member of allgo, were active participants in the stakeholders’ meeting. Susan Post, founder and owner of Austin’s iconic feminist bookstore, Book Woman, brought her expertise from nearly forty years of holding space for queer events in the store’s various locations over the years. Also present were art historian Dean Carpenter Turner and writer Dennis Paddie, who had previously worked on The Memory Project, which prior to the pandemic had begun archiving Austin LGBTQ+ history at the Austin History Center. Another attendee, Scott Hoffman, had worked with the Austin History Center to establish an LGBTQ+ resource guide in 2012. Richard Bondi described his work as a board member at Embrace Austin, an organization that seeks to network and build connections between LGBTQ+-centric businesses and LGBTQ+ people throughout the city. Lisa Scheps founded the Ground Floor Theater, which focuses on producing works of historically underrepresented people, and is also a founder of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, an organization dedicated to supporting gender-diverse people in Texas. Austin is teeming with organizations, movements, and individuals seeking to support LGBTQ+ people and history.
Everyone attending the event was invested; like me, they had their own winding paths, including many of the same struggles and emotions that I experienced myself (and many that I have yet to experience). They all wanted the same thing—to make sure that LGBTQ+ history in Austin, a history that they helped weave, that had their DNA in it, was not lost to time. The conversations ranged from logistics—how do we find people to interview, how do we interview them, how do we store the information, etc.—to responsibility, such as how we ensure diversity and inclusion in the project, particularly for LQBTQ+ people of color whose histories are disproportionately more likely to be pushed to the margins. One major point of emphasis was the need to not only dwell on the pains of systemic oppression, but also to illuminate the joys of being queer and living openly and authentically. In telling this history, the group agreed that a balance should be struck that reflects the full range of queer experience. There was a lot to consider, and it was clear that there were so many stories under the surface, so much culture and history that is integral to who we are not just as individuals, but as a collective movement striving for our liberation; we could not afford to lose these stories.
I was sixteen when I first came out as trans. It was 2013. One night, I hurriedly typed a nervous four A.M. text to my mom, who was out of town visiting family, and then sleeplessly waited six hours for her response. Growing up in a deeply conservative town in the Texas Panhandle, I struggled to come to grips with my identity, and that text marked only the beginning of a long, winding road towards living authentically—a road on which I am still laying bricks. The nine intervening years between that text and my second (and final) coming-out sketch a unique but familiar story of denial, love, heartbreak, and the ever-present struggle for self-acceptance.
Even several months into my transition in 2022, lasting peace eludes me; I attend classes in the literal shadow of the Texas Capitol, the building where legislators passed one of the biggest attacks on the rights of trans youth in several years—joined, of course, by similar measures in states all around the country. Likewise, the state legislature in Florida has attacked the rights of educators like me to live openly and authentically without fear of retaliation from administrators. My story, and others like it, is a complicated history of balancing the tension between the joy of authentic self-expression, and the pain of systemic oppression.
On the day of the stakeholders’ event, I arrived first—a few minutes before others came to help set up the venue. I was mere weeks into presenting full time as a woman, and I rarely went anywhere in public that was not a classroom or a grocery store. I was uneasy and still finding my bearings. The guests trickled in over the course of the morning, and eventually we were all seated and introducing ourselves. What unfolded in front of me was a rich and diverse group of LGBTQ+ people living in or connected to Austin, all sharing pieces of their story and their connection to this city, and their dedication to activism and the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights in Austin, in Texas, and beyond. Each expressed their commitment to the project, which involves researching, collecting, and recording the histories of Austin’s LGBTQ+ elders.
After introductions, the attendees were divided into small groups to discuss how they might contribute to the project and the various directions we might take in finding and documenting this history. As people began to share their ideas and perspectives, I slowly realized what an opportunity it was to be in the room. While I offered some of my own thoughts, I mostly listened and absorbed. Writer Toby Johnson said that “it is important to research the involvement of people of color in the LGBT community” and remarked that considering intersectionality was essential when documenting the stories of LGBTQ+ people. Johnson later added that “there is a gap between Stonewall and the 1990s” and that it was important to document the explosion of culture in the interim. These histories, as he put it, must not be “lost in the shadows” of the AIDS pandemic. Activist María Limón stated that the project should “emphasize the generational and intergenerational healing nature of this work, fuel as healing to move our agenda of liberation forward,” a sentiment which was echoed by several over the course of the discussion. Many pointed out the many problems facing the documenting of this history; much of it was hiding. Much of it was already slipping away, not written down or recorded anywhere. Executive director of allgo Kelle’ Martin noted that we would need to work hard to fill in the gaps in time, race, ethnicity, class, and gender representation, which meant not only finding out who to interview, but also what sorts of questions would be asked, and how we would create questions that centered the important intersectional aspects of each individual’s story. Others recognized that, once documented, access to this history would be important—where it would be stored and displayed so that those for whom this history is important could find it and interact with it. The challenge was to locate and invite new voices to the table. After the discussion, Dr. Moore reminded the group that “what we’ve done is already enormous” adding that “it is still so rare to get queer people together”—something she hoped the project could help change going forward.
Participating in this meeting was the experience of a lifetime. When I came out, I was irrevocably thrust from the shelter of my old identity. In several ways, experiencing the wave of rhetorical and legislative attacks early in my transition was disorienting and isolating, and I often questioned if in being myself I had forfeited comfort and stability. My cisgender friends, who are tremendously supportive allies and for whom I am immeasurably grateful, nevertheless could not fully appreciate the pains of these attacks. In that room, the pain of that loneliness began to dissolve. That is one of the reasons for this project; to tell LGBTQ+ people who who may be reckoning with those feelings of isolation, and tell them in no uncertain terms that they are not alone, that there are people who understand them, and a history that they are now a part of. Their stories matter and make a difference. They build the pressure, and pressure moves the needle.
When I left that meeting, I realized there was so much I did not know, so much that I was now a part of, and there were entire worlds to discover and stories waiting to be told. Even as we work to collect the history that has already happened, our history is still ongoing, and as much as this project is about documenting the past, it is also about persevering into a better future; the road to liberation is long and winding, and we are still laying bricks.
Erin Akins (she/her) is a PhD student in English at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also serves as an assistant instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing. Her research focuses on the representation of kingly authority as well as the interplay between authority and sexuality in early modern history plays. Erin is also passionate about advancing queer art and enjoys writing poetry in her spare time.