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Queer Art, Queer History, and Queer Activism: Using the Arts to Inspire LGBTQ Storytellers

Rachel Barton | September 11, 2017

At a remote campsite some 40 miles northwest of Roanoke, Virginia, a group of teens and young adults scan over character sketches and throw around ideas for short skits about local transgender history. The five different character sketches are based on real testimonials—taken largely from oral history interviews—by trans* people who lived and worked in Roanoke during the latter half of the 20th century.

Leading the workshop is myself and another volunteer from The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, a community-based history initiative that researches and shares the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations in Southwest Virginia. We have come to Diversity Camp, a weeklong retreat for LGBTQ kids, teens, and young adults sponsored by The Roanoke Diversity Center, to engage young queer people about local queer history. However, rather than use textbooks, we’re using theater.

These skits and character sketches are part of our “Living Trans History” theater workshop. This interactive program encourages participants to read through and discuss anonymous testimonials from transgender and gender-nonconforming people in Roanoke’s history, and then act out short performances based off of their lived experiences. Before the campers break out into small groups to write their skits, they discuss similarities and differences between their lives and those of the transgender narrators.

Like the people from the character sketches, many of the campers identify as transgender, genderqueer, or gender non-binary, and most of them were born and raised in Roanoke, a quiet southern railway hub known more for mountains and bluegrass music than queer history. But there are also important differences: we urge the campers to consider what it might have been like being gender-nonconforming in the 1950s or ‘60s, a time before internet and cell phones, when the term “transgender” did not even exist. With these thoughts in mind, the campers assemble their skits, blending historical narrative with bits and pieces of their own experiences as queer millennials coming of age in the modern South.

When it comes time for the groups to stage their performances, one camper drapes a pink, white, and blue transgender flag over his back and does a triumphant sashay. The next group performs an interpretive dance about a transgender woman escaping from an abusive brothel. Another group elects not to perform a skit. Rather, they question aloud about whether these stories are truly theirs to tell. This leads to a group discussion about how historians are storytellers, and how important ethical storytelling is when it comes to studying queer history, especially when that history belongs to people who have been marginalized and silenced by mainstream society. As the workshop draws to a close, one camper points out that the struggle for trans acceptance and gender liberation continues to this day. These stories are, in fact, still actively unraveling in the lives and experiences of the campers, many of whom have their own stories about struggle and empowerment. The lines between past and present blur, as do the demarcations between history, art, and activism.

For The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, this theater workshop is just one aspect of a broader “Arts Initiative” that aims to engage the public with historical thought in unorthodox ways. The Arts Initiative was established in the fall of 2016, and since then it has produced a number of unique initiatives that co-mingle LGBTQ history with theater, writing, and the visual arts. The most recent of these initiatives is an original, entirely volunteer-produced LGBTQ History Zine.

Published this past summer, the Zine’s broad “LGBTQ History” theme inspired poetry, nonfiction, short stories, collages, and drawings about everything from national queer history to personal narratives about what it’s like to come out to family and friends. As an outreach tool, the Zine works well because it’s made to be picked up and read in public spaces: on coffee shop tables, in college common rooms, and inside LGBTQ community centers. It also attracts a different kind of audience than those who attend the History Project’s more traditional historical programs, such as our archives collection, our oral history catalogue, and the LGBTQ library we manage.

People who might never come to an archive exhibit can, instead, see LGBTQ History come alive through a poem, picture, or performance. By merging with art, historical knowledge becomes more accessible and, often, more personal. Within the pages of a Zine, the connection between past/present and historical/personal are brought to life in electric detail. A collage created by one of the History Project’s cofounders, Gregory Rosenthal, splices together images of modern transgender rights activists with old bylines from The Roanoke Times about the city outlawing “Market Queens.” A couple pages over, a poem by a local transgender teenager describes the feeling of gender dysphoria that comes after looking at old childhood pictures, and the fear of being labeled a “pretender.”

At a “Living Trans* History” workshop I led earlier this year with a group of local high school students, one genderqueer youth reenacted a scene in which a transgender teenager tries on her mother’s clothes for the first time. To me, the skit was more about the student seeing themselves within the narrative than merely recreating it. The finalized artwork was as personal as it was historical.

As an artist turned amateur queer historian, I believe that art is an invaluable resource within all communities. Art brings people together; it enables us to tell our stories and to preserve the stories of others. I never thought of art as a vehicle for historical inquiry until I saw the way people could use art to viscerally and emphatically connect with the past. In doing queer public history, The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project is committed to the labor of bringing history into communities and encouraging communities to interact with it; to bring it “to life.”

Archives, oral history interviews, libraries, and re-creative events play a vital role in this work, but art has a place at the table, too. After all, poems, paintings, and statues become historical artifacts. For as long as they exist, they carry historical weight and significance. As we strive to pay homage to the past while building a more-inclusive, equitable future, I look to art as a possible unifier; a force which makes past and present seem more similar than disparate, and illuminates the vital connection between the two.