Queer Oral History Project Wants Your Story

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The United States has changed a lot for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the 40 years since the Stonewall Riots kicked off the gay rights movement as we know it today.

So much, in fact, that David Alder said he noticed a generation gap between young gay and transgender people and those who came out between the late 60s and the early 80s “if they ever did.” And while gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth are coming out at younger and younger ages (13-14 being about the current average), Alder worries that they’re doing so without something their predecessors also lacked: mentors.

“One thing I felt like I’ve been missing is having a role model of sorts,” said Alder. “There really isn’t a clear tradition of mentoring youth who are coming out of the closet in how to negotiate the world when it comes to incorporating sex into identity. … In some ways I feel frustrated that straight people, being that they’re in main stream culture, have an entire system where they have this kind of support. They have the flow chart of how life is supposed to go at this age, or at this point you do this, these are the cues you follow. We don’t have that as much.”

In order to address that lack Alder and his best friend Jeremy Yamashiro, the Utah Pride Center’s HIV Prevention Youth Program Coordinator, have started the Queer Oral History Project, which aims to collect the personal histories of Utah’s gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people for posterity, and for generations living now.

“A few months back we tossed around this idea: what if we did something where we’re gathering an ethnographic record of the community in the [Salt Lake] Valley and what it’s been through,’ said Alder, who quit his job in order to run the project full time. “I’ve been fascinated by what we’ve experienced in the last three decades or more to create an open and inclusive environment where it’s relatively safe for queer people to come out of the closet now.”

Although Utah’s queer community has boasted a number of historians in the past and currently — most notably Ben Williams, who writes QSaltLake’s “Lambda Lore” column — no one, said Alder, had ever attempted a project as the one he and Yamashiro have in mind. The two are currently scheduling two hour blocks of time to interview gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, groups and couples who want to tell them what Utah’s community was looking like “throughout the range of Stonewall to Matthew Shepard,” or from the 1969 riots to Shepard’s world-changing murder in 1998.

“I think that there are a great number of people in this community dying to tell their story about what this city has gone through,” Alder said, noting that the valley has seen three incarnations of the Utah Pride Center and the departure of several prominent leaders for other states and countries.

“We’ve lost a lot of the collective wisdom and experience that has come from that [people moving away],” he said. “What we’re trying to do is capture as much of that story of our community as soon as we can because we don’t know who else is going to leave or who else we’re going to lose.”

Currently, Alder and Yamashiro are looking for individuals aged 30 years and older who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or a straight ally and who called the Salt Lake Valley home for at least a year between 1969 and 1998. Ideally, the two would like to collect at least 100 one to two hour video and audio interviews, which Alder said they can do in homes or public spaces of the subject’s choosing. Interviewees may use their real name or a pseudonym, depending on “how much visibility they want to have,” said Alder, noting that the project will be part of the public record.

As one of the conditions for the grant money the project has received, these interviews must be transcribed. Alder is hopeful that members of the younger generation will volunteer for this task.

“The experience of having youth transcribe these will be a great way for wisdom to be imparted to a new generation,” he said.

Ultimately, Alder and Yamashiro will create a 30-40 minute documentary featuring highlights from some of the stories. They hope then to show the film publicly and hold a discussion period after for viewers to “discuss the nature of the community and its evolution.”

Although the project is affiliated with the Utah Pride Center, Alder said it is independent financially, which gives him and Yamashiro the ability “to ask for funding, in-kind donations and sponsorships and to have the proper structure we can use for advancing this [project].” So far, they have received a $2,000 grant from the Center and are planning to ask other institutions for funding in the following months.

To advance the project even further, and to enrich the history it covers, Alder said he and Yamashiro asked Williams to serve as advising secretary because of the countless hours he had spent compiling “pages and pages of local history.”

“If there’s a person that’s the go-to guy for community history, it’s him,” said Alder, adding that Williams has helped them understand how the national gay rights movement first appeared in the Salt Lake Valley.

“[For example], we found out from Ben that it wasn’t until the early to mid 90s that the AIDS crisis hit Utah,” he said.

When the project is completed, Alder said he hopes that it will be useful to all people in the community, and its youth in particular.

“I feel like if we get this generational gap bridged, the younger generation will be able to move forward much more informed and with a sense of perspective on where we’ve been,” he said.

Alder and Yamashiro are looking for volunteers to assist with transcribing, video editing, marketing, outreach and fundraising, as well as monetary donations. To volunteer time or money or to schedule an interview, email them at queerhistoryproject@gmail.com.

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