“These women were irrepressible,” Roey Thorpe remembers.
In 1992, while a doctoral student at Binghamton University, Roey interviewed two dozen Detroit-area lesbian and bisexual women for her planned dissertation. Although Roey did not finish the dissertation—choosing a path of activism rather than academia—she mined these vital oral histories for two pioneering articles.
Her essay “‘A House Where Queers Go’: African American Lesbian Nightlife in Detroit, 1940-1975” was published in the 1996 volume Inventing Lesbian Cultures in American edited by Ellen Lewin. “The Changing Face of Lesbian Bars in Detroit, 1938 to 1965” appeared in the 1997 collection Creating a Place for Ourselves, edited by Brett Beemyn (now Genny Beemyn). Both books are still in print.
It’s been 25 years since I first met Roey. On the way to the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation with my friends Dan and Skater Dave, we stayed overnight in Ithaca, New York. I interviewed Roey there for a profile in Between The Lines, barely a month after the newspaper began.
Four years later, when what we affectionately call “the Beemyn book” came out, Roey and I did a joint presentation at Affirmations Community Center in its old location in the Pioneer Building down the block from its current home. Although we’ve been in touch on Facebook, I last talked with her was when we did a panel for the NGLTF Creating Change conference held in Detroit in 2008.
For this blog post, Roey recently spoke with me by phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. I asked her to reflect on the project and her time as a graduate student seeking out older lesbians willing to recount their lives.
“For me it was profoundly moving to hear their stories and to record them,” she says.
Many of the women Roey met told her that they didn’t know if they had a story that mattered. “They then proceeded to talk for hours,” she says. They revealed a largely forgotten world of bars and house parties and early forays into local lesbian activism.
“One of the people I interviewed was Ruth Ellis,” Roey recalls. “Now there’s a center named after her. It was really great to see her recognized as a trailblazer.”
The 49 women and one man she interviewed (Charles Alexander offered his recollections) were all born between 1899 and 1951. These included Beth Brant, Billie Hill, Margaret Lorick, Alice G. Miller, and Gay Whiteside, now all deceased. If not for Roey and her cassette recorder, their stories might be lost to us.
Current events have prompted Roey to remember the women she met anew and revisit the past realities they shared with her first-hand. “I think about people especially now, in this moment of growing attention to racism,” she says.
Pointing out the entrenched racial segregation that defined the geography of Detroit during the 1940s and 1950s, Roey recalls some African American lesbians asking her in 1992, “How will you find white lesbians? Do you think there are some?”
Roey is still astonished by the stark racial divide that kept black and white lesbians apart. “They didn’t even know each other existed,” she says.
Another story that lingers for Roey is of a gym teacher whose same-sex relationship of more than 20 years ended and she couldn’t tell anyone. The break-up devastated the woman and yet she had to endure her loss all on her own because of the closeted life she was compelled to live.
All these interviews are now part of the Rochella Thorpe Oral History Files preserved in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University. The cassettes have been digitized and are available to researchers who make the trek to the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Roey is saddened that more people are not able to hear the stories, that they, so far, cannot reach a wider audience.
She also laments the friction and contradiction she experienced between the requirements of academic life demanding that scholars parse and analyze and her own desire to simply capture stories that people will want to hear and letting authentic lesbian voices speak for themselves.
As someone from a blue-collar background, Roey was also frustrated by some of the strictures and class dynamics of graduate school.
Since deciding against an academic life, Roey has had a long career as a leader in the LGBTQ movement and the push for marriage equality. In 1994, she was elected as an out lesbian to the Ithaca City Council and served as the city’s acting mayor.
After moving to Portland in 2001, she headed the advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon. She later worked as Director of State Services and Director of Advocacy Programs for the Equality Federation, a group that partners with organizations across the U.S. to push for legal protections for LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
Roey is currently self-employed as a consultant.
“I took the right path for me,” she says.
Although her path veered to activism rather than scholarship, her 1992 oral history interviews left an indelible imprint on her and on her understanding of LGBTQ life, politics, and community.
A big framed picture of Ruth Ellis hangs in her home. Roey chuckles and shares that Ellis was “not an easy person to interview,” noting that the iconic elder, age 93 at the time, was “not interested in the past” but was “only interested in the future.”
Roey also relishes that she came to know Ellis “not the way other people think about her” in terms of her courage and the pioneering role she played in the community. “I remember Ruth drinking beer and checking out girls and the conversations outside research,” Roey says.
While her deep encounters with lesbian and bi foremothers feel “like a million years ago,” Roey is struck by their continued presence in her consciousness.
“It’s funny how often I think about the women I interviewed,” Roey says. “It feels like they’re there.”