Distant Voices, Queer Lives

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, observed L. P. Hartley. In 2001, that difference was striking: the past was rapidly receding. Twenty years previously Scots law had been brought into line with the 1967 Sexual Offences Act in England and Wales, decriminalising male homosexuality in private between consenting adults over 21. In the years since 1981 we had had Section 28, by now abolished as one of the first acts of the new Scottish Parliament, ahead of its Westminster counterpart. I asked the obvious question at a meeting of Diverse Artists at the Glasgow LGBT Centre in December 2001: who is collecting and archiving the stories of our community, which has seen such huge changes? With no organisation recording our voices in Scotland, we resolved to undertake this ourselves.

Now twenty years on again, and that moment seems distant, yet echoing with the voices we have recorded over the years. In the meantime we have collected stories from all over Scotland, in a variety of media, starting with our Queer Stories project (2005-2008) financed through the Scottish Arts Council (see videos on OurStory Scotland’s YouTube channel). We have found a safe national home for our recordings in the National Library of Scotland. Moreover we have responded to the challenges of the times. To counteract the xenophobia associated with the EU referendum in 2016, we developed ‘Coming In’, celebrating LGBTQ+ people who have come in to Scotland from overseas, enhancing our diversity. Most recently we all had to respond to the pandemic and the consequent requirements of distance.

Just before the first national lockdown in March 2020, Lindsay Horsham, on an internship from the University of Utrecht, had started working with us. For example, she and Dom Miller-Graham had been re-visiting a bisexual group recorded 16 years earlier, marking continuity and change. Additionally, in a joint venture with Pink Saltire, Dom had been recording 50 Years of Rainbow Activism, for archive and for podcasts. Lockdown had a sudden and immediate effect on our work: our collecting had to take different forms, our archiving had an unexpected boost and our presentations occurred through new media.

We had to postpone an oral history recording with a major Scottish writer, that had been booked for early April, and all other recordings had to be suspended. Within a couple of months, however, we had developed a new project, responding to the new circumstances of the pandemic: Queer Distance. 

Queer Distance extended the opportunities for online storytelling available through our website. We have always collected stories in a variety of ways, not just through the traditional oral history interview, but also using various written formats, most notably handwritten episodes, along with visual, artistic and performative storytelling. Queer Distance encouraged people to use our online storytelling formats to write of their lives in relation to a number of open-ended questions, to note down significant episodes, to complete a diary or ‘corona chronicle’, and to make observations through memory of queer places and spaces. 

To this repertoire of written formats, we added remote recordings. Following advice from the Oral History Society, we investigated double-ended recordings, applied for funding through Equality Network, thereby afforded a Charity subscription to Squadcast.fm and started planning a number of remote oral history recordings on particular themes. The interviews typically last 30-60 minutes. 

The first of these was with Jim Mearns, who had approached us to archive his materials on political and LGBTQ+ activism. We contacted the National Library of Scotland, and our wonderfully supportive principal contact there arranged with Jim to collect his materials by courier, while we undertook a remote oral history interview with him on his key role in the successful campaign to repeal Section 28 (2A) in Scotland. This will enable future researchers to examine his materials, largely on paper, along with the heartfelt testimony recorded through a focused oral history interview. A similar arrangement is being made to archive the materials of the Scottish LGBTI Police Association, along with remote recordings that we are already undertaking with key personnel. 

The emotional aspect of these recordings is a crucial part of their value: the voice communicates the strain and pain along with the joys and rewards of activism. The images conveyed are powerful and evocative of recent times that now seem so distant, in a manner reminiscent of ‘Distance Voices, Still Lives’, the poignant 1988 film directed by Terence Davies.

An unexpected boost to our work during the pandemic has been the application of several enormously talented individuals to volunteer with our team – all of us are volunteers. Those who have joined us recently have provided not just more help with our existing work, such as tackling the backlog of recordings awaiting summaries for archive, but have offered additional creative input and innovative suggestions. They also extend our consideration of new identities and developing discourse, especially around sexual ambiguity and gender fluidity. 

This latter emphasis has found expression through our latest project: Transgressions, a theme that encourages us to share stories of how so many of us have been seen as crossing some line or boundary of the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ in relation to gender expectations. We have taken part in online storytelling events on this and other themes, in an extraordinarily busy LGBT History Month. In these and other presentations, for example through Scotland’s Sounds, and for webinars with a specific focus such as a nationwide meeting of HR managers and personnel on ‘Pathways to Wellbeing’, we have created a range of oral history extracts, that in just a minute or two convey striking images of queer lives. Encouraged by Dom’s innovative work, we intend to put together further themed extracts for podcasts, 

During the pandemic we have been approached to offer training in oral history, as part of a project by Shaper/Caper to express queer oral histories through dance. We also offer training in oral history and the archiving process (especially summarising) to our new volunteers. Part of the oral history training for volunteers has involved their being the interviewee in a remote oral history interview. 

Far from just a training exercise, this has become a valuable source of themed oral history recordings, several of which give profound insights into queer lives under lockdown. The emphasis in mainstream media on family separation tends to underplay the importance of friends, whose support may be especially crucial to LGBTQ+ people. Lockdown may encourage the kind of reflection on one’s identity and trajectory that encourages coming out, while ironically at the same time putting obstacles in the way. You may not be able to meet up with those to whom you most dearly wish to come out. At the same time, if your coming out finds a negative response, you may find yourself trapped in lockdown with those from whom it proves impossible to escape. 

Our ongoing oral histories continue to bear powerful testimony to changing times. The recordings may be remote, the voices physically distant, but the impact and insight is fully present.

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