Doing Queer History

My birthday last month and the death of my biological father on the day I turned 54 invariably have me thinking about my own clock ticking.  As I get older, I am coming to understand how my part as queer rememberer is moving beyond voracious researching to the increasing role I need to play as a teacher, both in and outside the classroom.

This semester I am fortunate to be teaching, for the second time around, a version of Advanced Women’s Studies that serves as the capstone course for the LGBTQ Studies minor offered through the Center for Gender in Global Context at Michigan State University.  I title the course Doing Queer History.

In the course I have my students do queer history using various approaches to understanding, uncovering, preserving, and conveying the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer past.  These include: doing queer history as historians; doing queer history as oral historians; doing queer history as archivists; doing queer history as museum curators; and doing queer history as historic preservationists.

To best learn by doing, we focus much of our attention on the local LGBTQ past: at MSU, in the Lansing area, and elsewhere in Michigan.  This not only allows hands-on engagement with primary sources but also affords the opportunity to discover stories that have been silenced or forgotten.

Mostly I want students to understand how they can contribute to lasting knowledge.

I sought to create a syllabus both demanding and fun.

For an overview of U.S. LGBTQ history, we read Leila Rupp’s A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America coupled with Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, now in a revised second edition.  Besides readings, we watch several documentaries, including Before Stonewall, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, and Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100.

Shorter readings explore some of what has been published to date about Michigan LGBTQ history.  These include “The Postwar Sex Crime Panic” by George Chauncey, “’A House Where Queers Go’” by Roey Thorpe, “Gay Ann Arbor Purges by Dan Tsang, “Revisioning Ann Arbor’s Radical Past” by Karen Miller, “Engendering Space” by Marlon Bailey, and my own “Gay Organizing in the ‘Desert of Suburbia.’”  We also delve into excerpts related to Detroit and Ann Arbor from Finn Enke’s Finding the Movement and Miriam Frank’s Out in the Union.

For an understanding of earlier LGBTQ life and activism on campus, I assign April Allison’s “A Rich Heritage,” a chapter from the 1992 institutional self-study Moving Forward: Lesbians and Gay Men at Michigan State University.

I also stress the importance of first-person accounts, using texts by Philip Bockman, Beth Brant, Julie Enszer, and Holly Hughes, as well as poems by Terri Jewell and Don Mager.

The collection Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History edited by Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio N. Roque Ramírez provides the basis for our discussion of doing LGBTQ oral histories.  Various other readings relate to the processes of archiving and museum curation, from Estelle Freedman’s “‘The Burning of Letters Continues’” and Craig Loftin’s “Secrets in Boxes” to Lisa Duggan’s “‘Becoming Visible’” and Don Romesburg’s “Presenting the Queer Past.”

We listen to a number of podcasts, as well, such as the “Prom Night” episode of Sexing History, the episode about Oliver Sipple from RadioLab, a StoryCorps Detroit podcast about “House, Techno, Raves and Voguing,” and JD Samson exploring “The Last Lesbian Bars” on Broadly.

Borrowing heavily from a model created by my colleague Helen Veit, assignments are submitted to student blogs that are part of a class website.  Among the major assignments are a documentary film review, a primary source analysis, and a t-shirt project where students solicit information—and in some cases t-shirts themselves—for LGBTQ-themed t-shirts that will become archived in Special Collections in the Michigan State University Libraries.  The t-shirts will also be photographed for inclusion in dazzling online gallery Wearing Gay History created by Eric Gonzaba.

The final project entails producing an original, polished podcast based on original research that relates to the content of the course.  These do not necessarily have to have a Michigan focus, but more local stories will be easier to find sources for.

I’ve been intent on having students get their hands on archival documents, yellowing newspapers, and other actual artifacts to get a sense of the materiality of queer history.  Early on we paid a visit to MSU’s Special Collections, where education and outreach librarian Ruth Ann Jones made available an array of materials for the students to inspect.

Guest speakers have added immensely to our explorations.  Daniel Land, director of America, You Kill Me, a documentary in-the-works about Jeffrey Montgomery, shared his insights on filmmaking.  He was joined by Jeffrey’s brother John.

Lansing-area lesbian activist and icon Penny Gardner came to share some of her life experiences, gripping students’ attention with stories about working as a Playboy bunny to feed her kids and coming out into radical feminism in her 50s.

And Ann Arbor trans activism André Wilson recounted the role Wilson played in securing protections and health benefits as part of the Graduate Student Employees’ union contract with the University of Michigan in 2005.

Perhaps most fun and, I hope, most engaging, is our upcoming field trip.

This Saturday, April 7th, we venture to Detroit to see local queer life and culture first hand.  First stop is Menjo’s for a live panel discussion, Our History in the D, which explores Detroit gay life and nightlife in the 1960s, ’70s, and ‘80s.  We close the night out at Gigi’s famed and long-running Cabaret showcase hosted by Nikki Stevens.

I’m so grateful to get to teach such a course!

Please come by Menjo’s at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday if you have a chance.

Tim Retzloff

 

One thought on “Doing Queer History”

  1. HI, I AM A 79 YEAR OLD GAY MALE. I CAME OUT AT 14 YEARS OLD. I HAVE FOND MEMORIES OF DETROIT IN THOSE YEARS AND MANY OF THE EVENTS IN MY LIFE. I MET MY SPOUSE WHEN I WAS 21 IN A BAR IN TOLEDO ON NEW YEARS EVE. WE HAVE NOW BEEN TOGETHER FOR 58 YEARS. I JUST READ THAT GILBERT IS GOING TO BUILD ON THE OLD SITE OF THE HUB GRILL AT FARMER AND BATES WHERE ALL THE YOUNG GAYS HUNG OUT IN THE 50’S. I RECENTLY DROVE AROUND DOWNTOWN AND COULD’NT BELIEVE ALL THE CHANGES. WE HAVE LIVED IN THE SUBURBS SINCE THE 67 RIOTS AND SELDOM GET INTO DOWNTOWN. YOUR COURSE SOUNDS STIMULATING.

    Like

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