What began as an oral history project by several graduate students and faculty at the University of Minnesota has become a groundbreaking collection of personal stories combined with historical and political analysis called the Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project, a publication from which, Queer Twin Cities, is being released this fall. Over 100 local GLBT persons were interviewed for this extensive project, which celebrates the release of the publication on Friday, October 22 at 501 Cedar Avenue (above the Nomad World Pub) in Minneapolis.
Kevin Murphy, associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota and one of the editors of Queer Twin Cities, said that the project began around 2002. “A number of us were interested in doing research about the history of sexuality in the Twin Cities,” he said, “but we noticed there wasn’t much scholarship on the topic.” While the Tretter Collection is a nationally recognized archive of GLBT materials, housed at the U’s Andersen Library, Murphy said the collection lacks oral testimony. For that reason, Rod Fergeson, a professor in the American Studies Department, initiated the oral history project with two collaborators who were then graduate students at the U, Jason Ruiz and Dortha Troesten.
Initially a summer research project, the project broadened very quickly as more graduate and undergraduate students joined to participate in the research. Over the course of five years, the researchers conducted over 100 interviews. “We became a larger study group,” Murphy said. “We met very often and discussed what we were finding.” Speakers would come and speak to the group, and they would discuss similar projects that were happening in other cities. “A number of people joined us,” Murphy said, “not necessarily from the history program, but from other disciplines.”
Ultimately, the project moved toward the creation of an anthology “so people could write on topics that interested them most,” Murphy said. The majority of the authors were graduate students, which gave many of them an opportunity to publish and also learn new research methods. There are a total of 14 authors represented in the anthology.
Murphy said that he learned a number of things working on the project, including that the Twin Cities historically had a very active political community. “There are lots of examples of radical activism here that predated Stonewall,” he said.
The researchers also found that the Twin Cities housed a social scene and a bar scene that was particularly expansive in the post World War II years, and that the scene seemed to have less repression than members of the GBLT community were experiencing in other parts of the country. “There was less police interest in closing down bars,” Murphy said. One chapter of the book, written Amy Tyson, argues that police were more concerned with people who cross dressed (when they were not performing) than with sexual behavior.
One of the graduate students who worked on the GLBT Oral History Project was Michael David Franklin, who continued the research of Dortha Troesten on the trans community after Troesten moved back to her native Norway. Franklin joined the project in late 2004, helping Troesten conduct interviews.
“It was awesome to be in contact with people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise—particularly older transgender people,” Franklin said. “People whose everyday life wouldn’t take them into the same space that it takes me.” Franklin would go with Troesten to people’s houses, where he said he got a different kind of education than what he was getting in his classes. Franklin said the experience “forced me to think more about the process of making oral histories, and how it brings people together in unexpected ways.”
Franklin was struck by how different people’s experiences were. For example, while one transgender individual was hugely involved in the activist scene, spending a lot of time at lesbian coffee shops in the 70s and 80s, and was involved in activities by Lesbian Avengers, another transgender individual spent that same time period alternating between her dual lives as a successful businessman who attended female impersonation burlesque shows at the Gay 90’s (which at that time catered primarily to a straight audience) while keeping her trans identity private. “There’s a huge disparity between the different lives,” Franklin said. “It paints a disjointed but compelling picture of the Twin Cities.”