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Oral History and Queer Activism in the Triangle Area

Written by: Aaron Lovett

As a sophomore student at UNC, I have only recently experienced oral history. Before coming to college, I didn’t have a strong understanding of what oral history meant. To me, the academic study of history was about learning of the past through texts – books, records, correspondence, and so on. It wasn’t until I became interested in learning about LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) history that I also discovered oral history. I wanted to research Southern queer history, which has only a limited, albeit growing, amount of literature devoted to it. It would only make sense that in a region that has traditionally been hostile toward anything other than the norm, queer history would not be thoroughly documented. But through the Southern Oral History Program, I learned that oral history could make up for what texts lacked: oppressed peoples’ histories. To me, the intersection of LGBTQ history and the field of oral history seemed natural. I decided that the best way to research Southern LGBTQ history was to learn about it from the people who devoted their lives to shaping it.

This past summer, I completed an oral history research project documenting LGBTQ activism in the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill area since 1969. For me, what stood out most about this experience was how rewarding historical research is when one can learn about history from other people. Getting to know the people I interviewed, learning from them, and recognizing shared experiences and passions made the process deeply personal and enriching.

Among the seven activists I interviewed were Carlton Rutherford, Alexis Gumbs, and Carolyn McAllaster. Carlton Rutherford has been a pastor for several years at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, which offers an all-inclusive space for religious members of the LGBTQ community. His experiences as a gay man of color and clergy member bring light to the many intersecting identities of LGBTQ people. He offered important commentary on race and gender power dynamics in the LGBTQ community: how white gay men often retain privileged social positions, while queer women and people of color struggle against greater oppression.

Younger than most of the activists I interviewed, Alexis Gumbs is a widely published black queer feminist writer on LGBTQ topics, whose work records the histories of queer black elders. She gave me a queer woman of color’s perspective on the intersection between feminism, LGBTQ activism, and racial activism. As a member of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an organization which strives to unite Southern LGBTQ people of various races, classes, abilities, cultures, and genders, Gumbs informed me of the vibrant history of black lesbian activism in Durham.

Carolyn McAllaster, a clinical professor of law at Duke University, has devoted the better part of her career to helping people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. She founded the Duke AIDS Legal Project, providing free legal representation and assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS, and the Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative (SASI) which advocates for federal funding to combat HIV/AIDS in the South. From her, I learned that the South has the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the country, as well as the highest death rate due to HIV/AIDS. She emphasized that much needs to be done to minimize the social stigma associated with being HIV positive in order to increase testing and fight the spread of the disease.

Each of the people I had the opportunity to interview added a unique perspective on LGBTQ history, life, and activism. Bradley R. Batch, a UNC alumnus active in the college’s LGBTQ community in the early ‘70s, said in our interview that a single oral history is “like looking at a small slice of a photograph.” But with several oral histories, “at some point, even if you don’t have the whole photograph, you can fill in the gaps.” With my introduction to oral history now behind me, I’m content with how I’ve come to understand it as discipline, as a process, and as an experience – searching for slices of a photograph, stitching them together, and shaping a picture of the past.