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Oral History and Chapel Hill’s Gay Community in the 1980s

Written by: Turner Henderson

As you would probably expect, gay history in the US has followed a sporadic and turbulent course. In fact, to approach gay history in a traditional way by studying its documents, events, figures, and contexts pre-mid twentieth century, you would feel severely bereft of much that is substantial. In the words of one gay studies scholar who began his work in the 1970s, gay history is “an area of research for which there was no context, no literature, no definition of issues, and no sources that had ever been tapped.”[1] That description succinctly communicates why gay history is such a difficult field to get a grasp on. Even so, it’s not alone in this regard: as long as there has been history, there have been histories that have been subjugated, smothered, hidden, and hated. So, how do we as students of the past mitigate this problem?

To answer that question, I’d like to take a step back. If there is one thing that I have learned this semester as an intern at the SOHP, it is that oral history is especially valuable in certain situations where traditional historical sources are inadequate. There are countless examples of oral history documenting narratives that remain elusive in mainstream history textbooks. For evidence, just click here and browse through the SOHP’s projects. All people have historical perspectives to share, and collecting the stories from those who have never had the opportunity for their voices to be heard is an unbelievably valuable exercise, and one that seems tailor-made to address issues such as constructing gay histories.

With this in mind, I want to talk about my very first oral history interview. Last month, I sat down with Professor Randall Kenan, a local author and English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professor Kenan, an openly gay African American, attended UNC from 1981 to 1985. Before meeting with him, I had a very loose timeline of gay history in my mind: the sodomy statutes of the 1940s and 1950s, Stonewall in 1969, the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Like I said, it was a pretty loose timeline; there were obvious holes in my understanding, not to mention the fact that I knew little about individual experiences during any of these periods.

Right off the bat, Professor Kenan began to fill in my ignorance with ground-level information about pre-AIDS gay life at UNC. During his time as a student, gay activism was, as he noted pensively, “nascent.” It seems that the Carolina Gay Association was at a low point, with Kenan describing it as having a small membership and an even smaller political influence. In fact, helping me to bridge the period between Stonewall and the outbreak of AIDS, he painted a picture of an era of conservatism, when the Religious Right ran rampant and speaking out about being gay was unquestionably taboo. From listening to Kenan, it seemed clear that the heyday of free love and the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had ground to a halt, with students such as himself knowing little about the activists and achievements that had come before them.

This idea manifested itself in the gay social scene that Kenan illustrated. In contrast to other interviewee’s description of a somewhat vibrant gay community in Chapel Hill in the 1970s, with gay bars and tea rooms occupying a place in town and on campus, Kenan depicted the lack of a formal social scene, with the bars having migrated to Durham. Striving to fill this void, the gay community met at bookstores and other places scattered around Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including the “Castle” on Friendly Lane, an all-gay male residence that threw parties once or twice a semester. Beyond this, however, Kenan portrayed a rather disjointed gay community, segregated by race and gender.

While living with his white group of gay friends on North Campus, he had to make a concerted effort to head to South Campus to socialize with his black friends. He doesn’t even remember knowing any lesbians. In fact, his characterization of the partitions in his social life led to his espousal of a stark reflection on the nature of being both black and gay in the early 1980s: he, and every other gay black man he knew at the time, had to choose one of their identities over the other. He couldn’t be both black and gay; he had to be either black or gay. This moment struck me as the most powerful of the interview.

For me as a student of history, this predicament faced by gay black men communicated a great deal about the state of gay rights and racial stigma in Chapel Hill: by the 1980s, neither community had been able to advance far enough for someone to be accepted within both simultaneously. There was a clear layering of marginalization. For me as a fellow human being, the fact that this was how things were spoke volumes about what Professor Kenan had gone through on a personal and emotional level. He kept repeating in a disillusioned murmur, “I just thought that was unfair…”

After I had digested the rich complexities that made up the interview, and listened to the whole thing a few times, I was left feeling somewhat frustrated. While I had naively set out to neatly compartmentalize history and bring, as best I could, the story of Randall Kenan and gay black life in the 1980s at UNC to some kind of order, I felt dissatisfaction with my ability to organize a coherent and comprehensive narrative. There wasn’t much gay political activism; gay social life was segregated; and the identities of gay and black could not coexist, at least in the eyes of society. Reality had poked holes in many of the things I thought I knew. I felt like I was lost in what all of this meant, and I was disturbed by a lot of what I had heard.

It took me a while, but eventually I thought to myself, isn’t that the point? After hearing the story of a man who has been doubly marginalized his entire life, whose identities have been repeatedly shoved to the fringes of society and history, shouldn’t I be unsettled? Shouldn’t I be asking questions and criticizing and reflecting? Sure, I knew some things about oral history prior to this interview, but the actual experience of sitting down and documenting someone’s life through their narratives and anecdotes does not allow itself to be composed into a clean and tidy product; how could it? Memory and life and stories get in the way of such a pipedream. But again, that’s the point: Professor Kenan’s memory and his storytelling had done a lot of the historical work for me, stressing what was important to him. And what was important to him is important to history. Listening to him narrate his own life illuminated aspects of gay history that textbooks would have been hard-pressed to reveal.


[1] D’Emilio, John. “Not a Simple Matter: Gay History and Gay Historians.” The Journal of American History 76.2 (1989): 435-442. Print.