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Queer Oral History Project Debuts Stories

The results of a year-long, innovative project to record the stories of Utah’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents age 30 and over debuted this summer at the Salt Lake City Main Public Library—coincidentally on the same night that a California judge struck down the state’s controversial Proposition 8.

Because of the larg-scale celebration taking place on the Utah State Capitol’s lawn, project co-director David Alder said that only about 25 people showed up to see highlights from the 14 interviews comprising the Queer Oral History Project. Alder and his friend Jeremy Yamashiro, the Utah Pride Center’s HIV prevention youth program coordinator, have been working on the project since November 2009, traveling around the state to conduct, record, edit and transcribe hours of footage from gay men, lesbians, transgender women and a lone bisexual (in the interest of full disclosure, the writer of this article was one of the subjects).

Although Alder admitted that the crowd was a little smaller than he would have liked and did not stay long after because of the Capitol rally, he said that he and Yamashiro were pleased with the results.

“People liked it,” he said. “They learned some new things about the community.”

The duo launched the project last year in order to form bridges between older gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Utahns and teens and 20-somethings. In an interview with QSaltLake last year, Alder said that he and Yamashiro were worried that today’s queer youth lacked role models, just as previous generations had.

“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,” Alder said at the time. “… In some ways I feel frustrated that straight people, being that they’re in mainstream 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.”

The total ‘mentors’ interviewed for the project was 17 people. Of these, three were cisgender (non-transgender) women, one was a trans woman, and the rest were gay men. All were white and only one identified as disabled. None, said Alder, identified as HIV positive.

“We ideally would like to have had a greater representation of communities of color and with intersectionalities,” said Alder, referencing, for example, to the fact that most of his subjects were non-disabled and came from a roughly similar class background. The homogeny, he said, was partly because the project largely relied on word-of-mouth and referrals to get the word out, meaning that people spoke to their friends who often had several traits in common with them.

“The project doesn’t completely represent the community in Utah because it’s such a small sampling,” he said. “But it raised the awareness of how important it is to continue the work.”

In addition to wanting a more accurate representation of Utah’s queer community, the men had also wanted to interview far more than 17 people for the project.

“When we originally wrote the proposal for the project we were hoping to have 100 done in a year, but the amount of work it took to do these interviews was substantial,” he said. “It was much more than we had anticipated,” especially as both he and Yamashiro had to work other jobs while collecting the footage.

“If we did it again, we’d have a single location and have people come to us, and hold interviews once a week to make the process more streamlined and accessible,” he said.

And the pair has said that they would like to do the project again. They are looking at applying for a grant from the Utah Humanities Council this fall and for grants offered by other local foundations.

Alder estimates that they would need roughly $25,000 to carry the project into another year, money that would cover video equipment, travel, and the substantial amount of time the two put into managing the footage.

He added that the project could also go smoother by giving people in the community a way to get involved, and youth in particular. If the project happens again, he said that he would like to see youth from the Utah Pride Center’s youth activities center, the Tolerant Intelligent Network of Teens, conduct the interviews.

“The connection is made immediately that way [between youth and older generations],” he said.

Even though the Queer Oral History Project was smaller than either Alder or Yamashiro had hoped it would be, Alder said that the two were touched and enriched by their work.

“My observations about the project were that it was great to be able to work with my best friend on it. He and I would spend hours on the project talking about what we gained from it as youth hearing the voices of previous generations,” he said. “Even if no one [would have seen the interviews], we felt it was of tremendous value to us, to tap into previous generations’ experience of what the life was like.”

Of course, they weren’t the only ones who were moved by the interview clips shown during the presentation. Alder noted that a straight man from another presentation about the project, held in June, said he could sympathize with the way some interviewees felt like outcasts in Utah’s conservative, religious culture.

“He had left the LDS Church as well, and even though he’s not gay, he felt that sense of alienation existed for him as well,” said Alder.

The Queer Oral History Project is an affiliate program of the Utah Pride Center. To donate to it directly, mention the project’s name in the comment space of checks or online donations to the Utah Pride Center. To view complete interviews visit vimeo.com/qohp.

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