Unexpected Lessons from a Small LGBTQ Oral History Project

By Barbara Lau

It started with a continuing studies class I was teaching at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. It was my hope that our class would delve into Durham’s long history of LGBTQ activism.  The class didn’t make it; only 3 students signed up and one dropped out after our first meeting. But the three of us—one photographer and two oral history interviewers—decided we wanted to move ahead and see what we could learn.

We recognized the limitations of our number and we were determined to outline a “doable” project that was both a good use of our time and a fruitful first step. We decided we could together commit to researching, conducting and transcribing three interviews. We found making a list of potential interviewees quite easy; our lesbian community, in particular, has a deep legacy of activism. On the other hand narrowing our list felt impossibly difficult.

Our compromise was to interview people in harmony, pairing people from different generations who were active in similar arenas like religion, arts and culture, politics or education. I have always been very hesitant to interview people in groups, even small ones. One story so often dominates or inhibits the other but we decided to give it a try.

We created a parallel format, outlining questions that would be addressed to one person and then the other. We wanted to know how each person came to live in Durham, how their work or interests reflected and impacted LGBTQ rights and what changes they had witnessed in the climate and life of Durham’s LGBTQ community.

What initially felt like a dodgy compromise turned out to be a brilliant plan. We were able to interview more people. We gained valuable insights about how the LGBTQ community has changed over time by hearing stories often set decades apart. And our format invited conversation between the interviewees, many of whom didn’t know each other well before our recorded conversations. Also to our benefit, the interviews sometimes followed lines of inquiry we hadn’t even considered or prompted the sharing of valuable stories, reflections and analysis we hadn’t asked them about.

I love this idea of unexpected lessons. We collected richer, deeper interviews, laid groundwork for future relationships between the interviewees and witnessed fantastic observations made by interviewees about each other. If you are in a similar situation, this might be an option for your project as well.

Barbara Lau is Director of the Pauli Murray Project, part of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute in Durham, North Carolina. You can reach her at (919) 613-6167 or at balau@duke.edu.