People have been telling the stories of their history since the dawn of time; one doesn’t need to look further than the paintings on a cave wall to find that this is true. Within biological or legal families, we are often told our history as a way of creating identity. We grasp on to, for example, national heritage and trace the family tree back for generations. In the GLBTQ community, however, there isn’t a family tree to search through public records for information. Much of that history isn’t written as it was once taboo and under the table.
“My nuclear family often relates family history through storytelling. With my queer family and community, that tradition of passing along knowledge is not developed,” says Rebecca Lawrence, the founder of Telling Queer History. “Queer people often feel isolated, even in cities like Minneapolis with lots of organizations focused on LGBTQ lives, because we struggle to find our lineage, people like us, or feel like we are the first ones in the fight. We have so much history that is buried by homophobia and/or shame that it is important to tell our current, personal histories and how they relate to past histories.”
The same sentiment rings true with the group’s participants. Rosanna Hudgins, a featured speaker for TQH’s last meeting, shared a saying that she uses often: “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you stand and you’re likely to repeat old mistakes.” The need is there for members of the GLBTQ community to share their otherwise unheard personal histories in order to create a collective history.
Telling Queer History (TQH) is a series of gatherings based on sharing stories in an open, informal, and participatory format meant to connect queer communities, queer history, and generations. Following the introduction of a featured speaker, participants break into small groups to share their own stories before coming back together as a large group to share insights and highlights from their discussions. In the past, featured speaker topics have ranged the gamut from race, class, and privilege, to organizing in communities of color.
Lawrence started the group out of desire to connect to the collective queer history while working on the marriage amendment campaign. “I felt a divide between my ‘queer community’ and the LGB and allies that worked on the campaign,” she says. “I wanted to know more about why some people have been fighting for marriage and others put their efforts toward other things.”
The idea gained speed in December 2012 during the Equality and Justice Summit as Lawrence heard her uncle, Dan Hawkins, share about his experience losing so many of his peers during the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis. She says, “I realized how much history was lost with those lives and how much was shaped by that loss.”
Hudgins echoed those sentiments, citing that it’s too important that we hear and share our history. As a community organizer herself, Hudgins reminisces about the great work done in the GLBTQ community “back in the day.” She says, “I don’t think that a lot of the progress we’ve made so far would have been possible without the efforts made then. And the story is sadly incomplete. The activism by GLBTQ people of color is greatly under represented. There are some who are being heard from now, but it’s been a slow process to record and preserve this history.”
After capturing unique images at the moment of victory inside the staff room with Minnesotans United For All Families, Lawrence was invited to archive the images at the Tretter Collection. A tour of the collection in January of 2013 cemented in Lawrence the need to learn and share more GLBTQ history with a wider community. A project such as this is clearly near and dear to the people behind the Tretter Collection, as they were co-sponsors (along with Twin Cities Pride) of YesterQueer, a smartphone app that maps out local GLBT history. Now, meeting regularly (the second Sunday of every month), TQH operates as an independent, volunteer-driven gathering, resulting in various locations with Madame of the Arts and Quatrefoil Library as TQH’s mainstays.
The true crowning glory of the gatherings, however, are the wide range of participants. Averaging 25 to 35 attendees, people represent a spectrum of ages (anywhere from age 16 to 70), genders, cultures, sexuality, etc. Lawrence assures that there are constant efforts to engage multiple communities. “Our goal with these gatherings is to have people who wouldn’t have a space to share, do that here,” she says. “Our common identity is under the queer/LGBT umbrella but sometimes that is all we share, until we start telling our histories. Once we share our histories, we often find commonalities we didn’t expect to exist.”
Sharing these personal histories is, no doubt, a touchy subject, but Lawrence puts any nerves at ease. With a certain level of confidentiality, attendees can be confident in knowing that what they share with the group will remain in the room, but Lawrence points out a distinct difference: what is learned may be shared, just with the absence of personal stories.
She also notes that allies in the community shouldn’t shy away from attending the gatherings either. Every event publicity states: “Allies are welcome to join, listen and volunteer. Hearing our stories is a great way to be an ally, allowing and assisting us in having the space to tell our stories is a way to be an advocate.”