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Grinnell College students are collecting interviews with LGBTQ Iowans for oral histories project

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Illustration by Bernadette Hornbeck

June 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City, an event that catapulted the struggle for LGBTQ rights into the public consciousness. Of course, this struggle did not begin with Stonewall, or end with any law or Supreme Court decision — nor is LGBTQ history limited to high-profile protests in big cities.

A dedicated group of Grinnell College students and their professor are seeking to discover and preserve LGBTQ history in Iowa by recording testimonials and making these recordings publicly available for future generations.

In January, Professor Abram Lewis and the 10 students enrolled in his upper-level seminar “Queer Oral Histories” started LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa, a student-led initiative supervised by Lewis with the goal of establishing a local record of LGBTQ life in Iowa.

Lewis, a relative newcomer to the Hawkeye State, is a postdoctoral fellow teaching oral history research and gender and sexuality studies. He is also a co-founder of the NYC Trans Oral History Project.

The team recognized that in many non-coastal regions like Iowa, there’s not the same kind of visibility or institutional focus around LGBTQ issues compared to states like New York and California.

“There is a pretty robust LGBT community life and historical memory in Iowa,” Lewis said. But, “That memory and knowledge is under-documented,” especially in small towns and rural areas.

With this in mind, Lewis and his students focused in on the rural area between Iowa City and Des Moines. There are no “rigid geographical boundaries” for the project, and researchers “welcome participation by LGBT Iowans at large,” according to their website.

For most if not all the students involved, the project was their first foray into oral history research. The challenges seemed daunting at the beginning, but according to Lewis, they have accomplished impressive work through their efforts.

The students took the lead on all aspects of this project. They hung up posters, created flyers, made phone calls, drove across the state, arranged meetings, recorded interviews and posted content on the website and Facebook page.

Each student was initially tasked to interview at least eight people. Interview subjects are referred to as narrators, and the interviews, which usually last for two hours, are conducted with individual narrators or a group of narrators known as a “memory circle.”

To date, they have conducted more than 50 interviews with LGBT Iowans and those with close ties to that community. Through the unique lens of each narrator, listeners are offered insights, giving depth and humanity to the existing historical record.

Narrators who shared their stories include people of color, working-class people, trans people, activists involved in LGBTQ issues dating back to the 1970s, LGBTQ people in local politics and a few Grinnell students and faculty members.

Kevin Kopelson in 2010. — Stotzer/Wikimedia Commons

One narrator is Kevin Kopelson, a retired University of Iowa English professor born in New York City and living in Grinnell. Author and recipient of numerous academic awards, Kopelson was active in the “gay reading groups” in the 1990s.

Rick Miller of Des Moines, a lifelong Iowan involved in LGBTQ activism since the 1970s and ’80s, also shared his story. Miller “has a wealth of knowledge and memory of the history of LGBT activism and organizing in the Des Moines area,” according to interviewer Hannah Miller (no relation).

The 70-year-old Miller’s story would no doubt resonate with many Iowans. He was born in Sac City, a town of 3,500 in northwestern Iowa.

“When I was in high school, I realized I was attracted to boys, and this was not going to be good,” Miller told Hannah Miller. He only knew one gay person — a man in his 20s — when he was a teen. Neither, of course, could be open about their identities.

When he went to the University of Northern Iowa, he found a sizeable, if still closeted, gay community and began to explore his identity.

“I actually continued to date girls, when I was in college,” Miller said. “One of them was a hometown girl, and after going to a counselor for some time, I really came out. I was really forced to tell her that I was gay. When I called her to tell her I needed to tell her something important — notice I didn’t say ask her something important — I think she probably thought I was going to ask her to marry me. Instead, I told her I was gay.”

“There were lots of tears. We both knew it was that this was going to change both our lives forever.”

Miller came out to his parents after that. They were shocked and upset. Seeing their reaction, he promised them he’d stop being gay. His parents accepted this, and never mentioned it again.

Interviews conducted with their fellow Grinnell students reveal other aspects of LGBTQ life. Kyle Lindsey, who is originally from Maryland, relates his experience as a young black man finding a home in the queer community in Grinnell. Ben Nguyen talks about his identity in the context of being the son of immigrants and a first-generation college student. The interview with Grinnell senior Esther Hwang shows that some things haven’t changed much since the 1960s, when Rick Miller was young.

“She could be queer,” Hwang said of her best friend when she was growing up in Peoria, Illinois, “but she loves her parents too much. She’s too scared also.”

The narratives collected by the students span generations, and they range from deeply personal recollections to reflections on the role played by local communities in the national fight for equal rights.

There were some surprising threads connecting the stories, students found. One particular incident came up in multiple interviews.

In 1977, popular entertainer turned homophobic crusader Anita Bryant traveled the U.S. on behalf of the Save Our Children campaign, which attempted to roll back the gains made by the LGBTQ community by supporting initiatives which would legalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Having mostly focused her campaign in southern and Midwestern states, it wasn’t long before Bryant brought her hateful rhetoric to Iowa. That same year, during an Oct. 14 press conference in Des Moines, a gay activist from Minnesota named Thom Higgins pushed a pie into Bryant’s face.

The event lit a spark under Iowa’s LGBTQ community, Hannah Miller, a third-year gender, women’s and sexuality studies major, said. “I had never heard of this before, and it was really interesting to hear about the impact of this event from people who were actually there, or who were involved in the organizing that came out of that.”

In addition to recording stories, the students in the program took a class field trip to see queer country music bands Lavender Country and Paisley Fields perform in Iowa City. Some of the members of the bands joined a memory circle a few days later, where they discussed the intersection of queerness and country music.

For these 10 students, all of whom are members of the LGBT community, it was not long before the project seemed less like academic coursework and more like a passion project for the ages.

Second-year student Evan Hurst, a gender, women’s and sexuality studies and Spanish major, was assigned to create an Iowa LGBTQ oral history timeline for the initiative’s website in addition to conducting interviews and outreach.

“Before this class, I really only knew surface-level information about queer history that mostly consisted of Stonewall and the AIDS crisis,” Hurst said in an email to Little Village.

While putting the timeline together, Hurst discovered most of the recorded history of LGBTQ issues in Iowa centers around Iowa Supreme Court rulings: the repeal of the anti-sodomy law in 1978; banning discrimination based on sexual or gender identity in 2007; and legalizing same-sex adoption in 2008 and same-sex marriage in 2009.

“The history I found was mostly institutional,” Hurst said, “but there was a lot of documented LGBT life via student initiatives at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa back in the 1970s.”

The Oral History Association notes, “Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”

Despite this, the significance and value of oral history has been downplayed by some academic entities because it allows people to keep their distinctive outlook and does not “develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge” by Institutional Review Board standards.

Hurst said oral history is important when studying the LGBTQ community, because “too often, researchers do not give the participants the space to tell their own story, and the stories of LGBT people in rural communities have already been consistently silenced, ignored or invalidated.”

“I hope that the interviews we’ve collected and the ones still to come fortify a community identity here in central Iowa,” Hurst said. “It’s hard to be visible as LGBT, especially in rural areas, but that doesn’t mean LGBT life doesn’t occur here.”

Hannah Miller said collecting stories for LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa has shifted her relationship to the state and small towns more broadly.

A flyer for the LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa initiative

“As work progressed with the project, I also became increasingly aware of how I was being personally impacted by this work,” she said in an email to Little Village.

“I grew up in a different rural area in the Midwest, and for a long time I thought that my queer identity was at odds with the space of the rural Midwest. But after meeting so many folks who choose to live here and are thriving as LGBTQ+-identified people, I have a newfound affection for the rural place(s) I call home.”

On May 12, the team was joined by some of the narrators at a forum hosted at the Drake Community Library — an opportunity “to share some of our work and celebrate the friendships and connections we have made through our work on this project,” Miller said.

“This was a really rewarding experience — there was this unique sense of community built around love, care and a mutual investment in preserving LGBT history, and it was just a lovely space to be in,” she added.

The project is still in the early stages, with plenty more history to uncover and stories to be heard. The class will be offered at Grinnell again next spring, and some of the students from the previous semester will continue to make contributions on an extracurricular basis.

Miller plans to continue working on the project over the summer and fall and hopes to work “more intensively” on the project next spring.

“Something I’d really love to see in the future is for community members who are not students at Grinnell College to become involved as interviewers,” Miller said.

“I also hope that the archive can continue to collect stories from diverse LGBT identities, experiences and communities, as I know our current archive is nowhere near being a comprehensive representation of LGBT life in Iowa.”

If any LV readers would be interested in sharing their story, they can contact the research team by calling 641-269-4039 or sending an email to LGBTOralHistoriesIowa@gmail.com.

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and National Writers Union UAW Local 1981/AFL–CIO member based in Des Moines, Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 265.


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