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social sciences

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Oral History  
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Oral history is a method for obtaining insight into the processes and dynamics of social history by interviewing people who participated in or were affected by those processes. By documenting the lives and endeavors of ethnic minorities, immigrants, women, and labor movements, it has given a voice to traditionally marginalized populations. It has been an especially effective tool for lifting the curtain of invisibility from glbtq history.

The Emergence of Oral History

Oral history came into its own as a valid approach to historical research in the last half of the twentieth century and was popularized through the work of Studs Terkel and George Plimpton. Because it is derived from individuals' memories--sometimes decades after the events being discussed--it has had to overcome the stigma of being subjective and inaccurate with detail. Its practitioners rightly point out that human behavior is more a product of people's perceptions of events than of the events themselves. Thus, oral history investigates the processes by which individuals accord significance and react to the social forces taking place around them.

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Oral history is distinguished from other forms of personal recollection, such as diaries and memoirs, by the fact that it is a record of spoken conversations, and thus has a spontaneity and immediacy often edited out of written works. A collection of taped interviews and transcripts is the resulting product. These may be further processed into edited publications or multimedia presentations and ultimately deposited in an archive or library.

Uses of First-person Accounts

Oral history has had a significant role in overcoming the invisibility surrounding gay and lesbian lives. The 1977 film by Peter Adair, Word Is Out, was constructed from interviews with 26 gay men and women. For many viewers it was their first experience of seeing gay men and lesbians interviewed in full light, without overtones of shame or stigma.

Modern gay history has benefited substantially from first-person accounts. Eric Marcus in Making History (1992) tapped the recollections of more than fifty individuals for a selective look at the gay rights movement between 1945 and 1990. David Isay's 1990 radio documentary Remembering Stonewall dramatically conveyed the first-person viewpoints of some of the participants.

Allan Bérubé's research on the participation of gays and lesbians in World War II military and factory settings, Coming Out under Fire (1990), and J.T. Sears' examination of glbtq experiences in the south during the Cold War and Civil Rights eras, Lonely Hunters (1997), both drew substantially from first-person accounts. Kennedy and Davis's interviews with 45 women were the primary source material for their study of the blue-collar lesbian community in Buffalo, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (1993).

Two important chroniclers of gay life in New York, George Chauncey and Charles Kaiser, incorporate oral history with archival research, as do Marc Stein for Philadelphia and Gary Atkins for Seattle. Robert Rothon and Myron Plett have created an interesting online collection of gay men's stories from Vancouver.

Life-history interviews provide the main text for two interesting collections. In Growing Up before Stonewall (1994), Peter Nardi, David Sanders, and Judd Marmor create psychological profiles to illustrate how eleven gay men of the pre-Stonewall generation made sense of their identity. In Gay Old Girls (1998), Zsa Zsa Gershick's interviews with nine elderly lesbians provide rare glimpses into lesbian life of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

British viewpoints are collected in publications by the Hall-Carpenter Archives and Lisa Power's history of an activist group, No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles (1995). For Canada, Michael Brown uses oral history in his study of AIDS activism in Vancouver, Replacing Citizenship (1997); and Michael Riordan, in Out Our Way (1996), addresses the experiences of rural gays.

Anthologist Juanita Ramos found oral history an effective way to include the perspectives of U. S. Latina women who did not consider themselves writers. A recent work in Spanish by Norma Mongrovejo addresses lesbian concerns relative to gay male and feminist influences in Latin America. Eric Wat, in The Making of a Gay Asian Community (2002), focuses on the need of Asian-American gay men to define their own identity.

Oral history can also be used to reconstruct the atmosphere of glbtq venues, as in Don Paulson's portrait of a drag cabaret, An Evening at the Garden of Allah (1996), or to compile a collective portrait of a community over time, as in Ruth Pettis's account of Seattle, Mosaic 1 (2002). Other topics that have been addressed through recorded interviews are the AIDS crisis (Bayer and Oppenheimer), lesbian and gay teachers (Kissen), and women's music festivals (Morris).

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