Roanoke made me queer again

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Editor’s note: this is the first in a series of pieces by recipients of NCPH’s 2018 best in public history awards.

The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project hosts an intergenerational story circle focused on “Lesbian Herstory” with members of First Friday, a 1980s-era lesbian organization, at Roanoke’s Pride in the Park festival, April 15, 2018. Photo credit: Gregory Rosenthal

On the final morning of a five-day visit to Roanoke, Virginia, my New Yorker friend turned to me and said “Roanoke made me queer again.” I was astonished. His words suggest to me that there is something about this little city in the foothills of Appalachia that fosters queerness in ways that New York City does not. And he’s right. I should know. When I left New York City in 2015 for my current position at Roanoke College, I was a “baby queer,” having just “come out” one year earlier after my heterosexual marriage had fallen apart. Within one month of my arrival in the Star City, I helped co-found the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, a community-based queer public history initiative.

In oral history theory, we often talk about intersubjectivity. My very presence as an interviewer influences what a narrator will say or not say, just as their presence influences how I approach the interview and what questions I ask or withhold. Oral history is thus a co-production born of the encounter between two subjective bodies; our stories swirl together and dialectically result in a highly contingent product. As queer people doing queer public history—which defines the character of those of us involved in the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project—we encounter a similar intersubjectivity. Our multihued queerness—my body, your identities, his desires, her politics—influences who we choose to interview, what documents we behold, what stories we search for. And, in turn, the histories we discover and interpret shape and re-shape our own queerness. While the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project initially set out to “make Roanoke queer again”—that is, cultivate queer historical consciousness among the citizens of our region—the intersubjectivity of this work also reveals that Roanoke has made us newly queer. In other words, our queerness is renewed, changed, transformed, and challenged by the very act of doing queer history.

In my article “Make Roanoke Queer Again,” I argued that queer public history endeavors are often hampered by the homogeneity of their practitioners. When we first opened the doors in Roanoke for LGBTQ+ people to become involved in our project, white, cisgender, gay men lined up first to come through those doors. They knew to come through because “queer history” as a concept was already branded into their (and our) minds as white gay men’s history. Queer history has long been a hegemonic narrative built upon a half-century of queer historical storytelling, both locally and nationally, that is dominated by white cisgender voices. Thus it is our challenge to actively recruit, invite, listen to, and collaborate with more marginalized communities within the LGBTQ+ umbrella: women, transgender and non-binary individuals, and people of color.

The QTPOC Project: Representation Matters, an initiative of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, hosts a story circle focused on “The Black LGBTQIA+ Experience” at the Roanoke Diversity Center, April 22, 2018. Photo credit: Gregory Rosenthal

If we are to “make Roanoke queer again” for all people, and not just replicate a white, cisgender male power structure, then we must interrogate our own subjectivities as queer people doing queer historical work. Considering that our project members are mostly white, this has meant interrogating our whiteness. How do we, as mostly white people, challenge the entrenched white supremacy of queer historical practice? Considering that our project members are mostly cisgender, how do we approach doing trans history in an ethical and community-empowering way? I want to focus on the latter point. In “Make Roanoke Queer Again,” I self-identified in print as a cisgender man. I believed it was important to reveal this about myself in order to explore how my subjectivity as a cis person shaped our project’s ability to adequately and ethically do transgender history. Thinking about intersubjectivity, I now realize that our project members’ identities not only shaped how we approached trans history, but, also, that the act of doing transgender history also shaped project members’ genders. More specifically, my gender.

I remember the moment in which documenting trans histories cracked me open. It was the fall of 2016, and I was sitting inside our local LGBTQ+ community center listening to a good friend—a transgender woman in her sixties—tell her story. She was the third transgender woman that my students had interviewed that year for our project’s oral history initiative. So by this point I had already heard the stories of three older trans women in our community. As my friend told her story that day, she got to a point in the narrative that I was almost prepared for—I had heard it so many times: the story of when she first put on her mother’s clothes.

My eyes became wet with tears. I realized then that I could no longer deny a dawning awareness: this is my story, too. I had snuck around as an adolescent trying on my mother’s clothes. I would come home from school, before my parents arrived, in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, and put on dresses, blouses, and other articles of women’s clothing. I admired myself in the reflection of my mom’s large vanity. I would tuck my penis in-between my legs and behold my naked body in a bathroom mirror. I wanted to see myself—a truer version of myself—reflected in the glass.

Working with older trans women, hearing their stories, I became open to a repressed part of my childhood. I had flirted with femininity. More concretely, I wanted to wear women’s clothes. I was ashamed by these experiences, and while I “grew out of it,” another interpretation suggests that I repressed my urges so deeply, and turned, as society demanded, toward compulsory heterosexuality and cisgender male identity so fully, that I forced myself to deny and forget a part of myself. But my story is not over. I saw myself reflected in the trans women that I met through the oral history project. They had explored and experienced similar urges and repressions; they had all “come out” later in life, just as I had.

In October 2016 I wore a dress in public for the first time. By mid-2017, I was nearly exclusively wearing women’s clothes. I went from identifying as a cisgender man to a genderfluid man to something of a not-man. I now identify as genderqueer. I use they/them pronouns. I fell in love with a cisgender queer woman who sees me and loves me as a transfeminine non-binary person. All this happened so fast. And I credit public history—collaborative work done with trans individuals exploring transgender lived experiences—with helping me develop a deeper knowledge of myself and my community. Trans history trans-formed me.

When my friend from New York said that Roanoke made him queer again, I believe he was referring to the different ways in which he embodied queerness (as a Northerner moving through Southern space) and also encountered queerness (meeting trans friends, getting to know my queer family) in our small Southern city. He was learning about Roanoke’s storied queer past, and developing his own subjective place-based consciousness of this city and of his queer body moving through public space. I believe queer public history does this work: it forces us to explore our own personal lived experiences of gender, sexuality, and space. Public history is not simply a process or a product that queer people can make. It makes us. When I say Roanoke made me queer again, I mean: I came here newly “out,” and since then I have come out again, butterfly-like, a second time, as a different yet more honest version of myself. The practice of queer public history—documenting trans women’s lives—gave me back my gender.

~ Gregory Rosenthal is assistant professor of public history at Roanoke College. They recently received honorable mention for NCPH’s G. Wesley Johnson Award for “Make Roanoke Queer Again: Community History and Urban Change in a Southern City,” The Public Historian 39, no. 1. You can find them on the web at https://gregoryrosenthal.com/

2 comments
  1. Megan Cullen Tewell says:

    Congratulations on this impressive and moving piece, Gregory! Roanoke is fortunate to have you, and I (along with countless others) applaud your efforts to use collaborative, self-reflective public historical practice to “make Roanoke queer again” for all people. Thank you for your story and your work!

  2. Michelle Ramstack says:

    I’m a current public history graduate student and seeing projects like this give me so much hope the future of queer history and possibly my future as a queer public historian. As another queer person working with queer history I am greatful to see the accomplishments of others before me laying down foundations of the type of project I would like to be involved with in the future. It means a lot to me to see this kind of work in places other than New York and California and it serves as a reminder that queer communities and queer history is everywhere and I don’t have to travel far to find it. Its heartening and inspiring.

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