Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Out of the Closet

“There’s just some magic in truth and honesty and openness.” Frank Ocean
The Oral History Review put out a special issue entitled “Listening to and Learning from LGBTQ Lives.”  It contains both an article and a book review by former IUN professor Anne Balay.  The article, entitled “Surprised by Activism: The Effects of One Oral History on its Queer Steel-Working Narrators,” mentions how Anne’s book “Steel Closets” empowered some of the steelworkers she interviewed to successfully petition for the United Steelworkers International (USW) to pass a resolution at its constitutional convention condemning workplace harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Anne also described a book party at her Miller residence (Toni and I attended) and how after a few minutes of initial awkwardness, “the words started flowing”:
  One narrator was standing near the refrigerator in the kitchen just talking, when another narrator with whom he had worked about 30 years before came in.  They looked at each other, said, “You?”  “Yeah.  You?”  And the stories poured out.
  At one point, the doorbell rang.  It was “Bernard.”  When I showed him the book, he hugged it to his chest and breathed. He smiled, sighed, and then he talked to people.  He never put the book down, even while eating.  He talked for a long time to Susan, who is recently out and engaged to my friend Melissa. Susan later told me that she had no idea until then what it meant to be gay – the struggles and the toughness – or why and how my work mattered.
  I wandered out to the back deck to tell the narrator “Harriet” why I had named her after my mother, who died during my last round of edits, and why it had meant so much to me to have her there, in my house, in this world.  Like my mother, she had been raped, and, also like my mother, she had a raspy, sardonic tone of voice and a storytelling style which turned that incident, and the rest of life’s struggle, into an escapade of which she was the hero, though relentlessly self-mockingly so.
  When I walked back into the living room, “Wanda” and “Nate” were deep in conversation.  A 50-something involuntarily retired white bear and a 20-something black stud still in the mill were sharing stories and sharing tears. Hours went by. I could not shut these people up.  “Gail” told my daughter stories she had not told even me; for example, she told about how she welded together the toes of her supervisor’s work boots because, although he let his own boots deteriorate, he forced laborers to get new boots if their steel toes protruded at all.
  Several of my students showed up: queer ones, straight ones, one with a queer steelworker parent, all greatly moved by the stories, the pain, and the laughter.  The air was electric with solidarity and joy.  Everybody exchanged contact information, promised to stay in touch, and said they left feeling lighter and less fearful, not just about work, but about the future.
       above, Haverford photo; below, Anne when woking as an auto mechanic
Reviewing “Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer History” by Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, Anne concluded:
  Oral history sees itself as carrying the torch of community history and activist scholarship forward, as making history transformative, immediate, and engaged. Bodies of Evidence argues that it does so best when it is collaborative and when it remains theoretically alert to the dialectical nature of collaboration.  We are making ourselves, and making our field, just as much as we are making history.  If and when we do so queerly, we can collect data and allow data to collect us, shape us, shake us up.  The stories and analyses in this important volume often do just that.

I called Anne to congratulate her on the article and for including a description of the gathering at her house.  She replied that she almost didn’t include those paragraphs.  One thing so refreshing about her pursuit of insights as an oral historian is that she doesn’t worry about conforming to how others go about their task, yet is open to ways to improve how she does practices the craft.

When I was auditing Anne’s Gender Studies course, a student told me she was bisexual.  I replied that I was questioning (the Q in LGBTQ).  In a sense the answer was misleading since I was not questioning my sexual orientation or gender identity but rather my previous views and misconceptions about gay, lesbian, and transgender people.  I learned more in that class than any I ever had as a student. More than anyone since historians William H. Harbaugh and H. Samuel Merrill, she turned me on to new perspectives.

I learned from OHR editor Kathryn L. Nasstrom that Oral History Association executive director Cliff Kuhn (above) passed away of a heart attack at age 63.  He taught at Georgia State, was a big supporter of the Southern Labor History Archives, and author of Contesting the New South Order: The 1914-1915 Strike at Atlanta’s Fulton Mills” (2001).  I loved talking with him at conferences, and he was keenly interested in my oral history interviews with steelworkers. Especially memorable was his introduction for speaker Studs Terkel at an OHA meeting some 20 years ago in Milwaukee.  Married with two sons, Cliff evidently loved to cook and play charades.
 Sandro Portelli

In the Oral History Review I found a reference to a 1970s UCLA Gay Student Union publication called the Gayzette and frequent mention of the world’s preeminent oral historian Alessando Portelli, who believed that orality worked as a methodology for marginalized groups and always involved taking sides.  In “What Makes Queer Oral History Different” authors Kevin P. Murphy, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Jason Ruiz used this sexually suggestive quote by the Italian sage: “There seems to be a fear that once the floodgates of orality opened, writing (and rationality along with it) will be swept out as if by a spontaneous, uncontrollable mass of fluid, amorphous material.”  I first met Portelli at a Labor Studies conference in Youngstown, Ohio, where he revealed that his first impression of America, doing research in Appalachian coal country, was of all the roadkill.  At International Oral History Association conference sessions he famously doodled on scraps of paper, souvenirs much prized by his devotees.

Among the performers profiled in Kathleen B. Casey’s “The Prettiest Girl on the Stage Is a Man: Race and Gender Benders in American Vaudeville” (2015) is Julian Eltinge (1881-1941), who began impersonating females on stage around age ten.  He starred on Broadway in various musicals, billing himself simply as “Eltinge,” and performed in 1906 at the Palace Theater in London for King Edward VII, who presented him with a white bulldog. In his vaudeville act Eltinge often removed his wig at the end of the show, surprising many in the audience.  While he adopted a hyper-masculine veneer offstage, many contemporaries suspected he was gay.  In one of his monologues, about a comic who flopped, Lenny Bruce employed a line about the house manager saying: “I believe Julian Eltinge left a wig here in the closet many years ago.”

A package came from Jim Satkoski in California – four CDs by the Head and the Heart (THATH) of live concerts.  He’d learned over the holidays that I was into them and wrote that he saw the Seattle group on Austin City Limits in 2014.  The CD of THATH’s concert at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., leads off the “Cats and Dogs.” Its chorus goes:
          Cats and dogs and rooster calls
Telephones and pay phone stalls
They take away (la la la la)
The lonely days (la la la la)

At bridge Chuck Tomes asked how were things at IUN. I told him about a huge IU grant to, among other things, digitize our audio tapes, including many interviews I conducted with Gary mayor Richard Hatcher. Judy Selund mentioned that her Monday bridge partner was 97 and the sharpest player in the room.  The woman recently lamented that she’d given up driving.

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