Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project


Useful topics for an LGBT oral history interview

To the interviewer:

This is a list of questions we in NWLGHMP brainstormed into being after our oral history training. It is a compilation of suggestions only. If you aren't clear on how to structure an interview, you can use this as a guide. The narrator you are working with might have a special background on which you wish to focus, or topics might arise spontaneously that take the interview off in a direction all its own. This list is intended to help you in case neither of those situations apply.

This list is not exhaustive, nor will all the questions apply to any one narrator. You should look through it beforehand and decide which sections are likely to apply to the person you are interviewing. Mostly, just think of these questions as starting points to get a discussion going, or to provoke memories and stories. You might let your narrator look through this list beforehand, or while you are setting up your equipment, as a way to bring memories into the foreground. If you do that, explain that it's not a goal to cover all the topics. The interview should focus on whatever is most vivid or important to the narrator. Whenever possible, try to associate stories or memories with approximate dates ("during WWII," "when I was in junior high," "when JFK was shot," "mid-70s," for example).

Let the narrator determine how far to take any of the topics, and when to call it quits.

Basic bio information

-- When / where were you born?
-- What is your ethnic background?
-- Where have you lived?
-- What occupation(s) have you worked in?
-- If not native to the Pacific Northwest, when did you come here and why?

Coming out

When were you first aware of sexual identity? How did that happen?
-- How do you define coming out?
-- to self
-- to other gay people
-- to straight people (how and when did you first tell them?)
-- What influenced your coming out?
-- What was your first visit to a gay-related place or event like? What did you expect to find? Did the reality fit your expectations, or was it completely different?

Family background / growing up

When / where did you grow up?
What did you want to be when you grew up? Do you remember what inspired those dreams?
Any early signs about later orientation? (being a tomboy, playing w. kids of opposite sex, preferring opposite sex games and activities)
Acceptance/rejection of these activities, or of emerging expressions of identity, by family members?

Race/ethnicity

Did it make a difference? how?
-- social acceptance/rejection within gay community (re race)? -- within one's ethnic community (re sexual orientation)?
-- Were bars or social clubs segregated? (by official policy, or by custom?)
-- How did LBGT people of color and LBGT white people get along?
-- involvement in ethnic-specific GLBT groups or organizations?
-- interracial relationships or friendships? if yes, what did you learn from that experience, or from people you knew? what were the attitudes of others you knew to such relationships?
-- did you know others in gay community who were involved in the Civil Rights movement (African-American), or were especially supportive of racial integration/fairness?
-- did you know others in gay community who were racial bigots, told race jokes, expressed prejudice?
-- did being part of the GLBT community bring you in contact with people of different ethnic backgrounds? how did that affect your circumstances and/or outlook?

Religion / spiritual leanings

Did they make a difference? how?
-- family background? own (personal)?
-- can you identify sources or other influences of your beliefs?
-- changes/evolution of personal beliefs; relation to sexuality?
-- membership in GLBT religious/spiritual groups or organizations?
-- what aspects of one's religious background carried over into one's life as a gay / lesbian / bisexual / transgendered person? what aspects changed, and to what extent?

Class / economic background

-- Were your circumstances comfortable when growing up, or not?
-- opportunities available (for education, work, career)? did you feel these to be limited or not?
-- effects of any of this on personal outlook?
-- did your circumstances change as you got older? how? what were the causes?
-- were class issues important in your political views and/or activities?
-- did being part of the GLBT community bring you in contact with people of different class backgrounds? how did that affect your circumstances and/or outlook?

Education

-- to what level? where? when?
-- Were there opportunities to meet other GLBT people in educational settings? college or school organizations?
-- Did some departments or subjects have a reputation for attracting GLBT students or faculty? Which ones? In your opinion, was this true?
-- Did fellow students discuss homosexuality? In your opinion, was their information correct? Did you learn from it?

Social life

What were the clues to find/identify each other?
-- dress?
-- language? body language?
-- other?
How did you meet other GLBT people at first? Did this change over time?
Where did you meet others (bars, meeting halls, music venues, halls in supportive churches, etc.)?
Did single people and couples socialize differently?
Were there private social networks or organizations? If so, were these urban-based? (Were there opportunities for gay or lesbian social life in suburban or rural areas?)
Were there class- or race-specific groups or subcultures?
-- mixed gender groups or friendships?
-- friendships / social contact between lesbians and gay men?
-- lesbians or straight women who hung out with gay men: what were these friendships like?


Specific Puget Sound area organizations: if the narrator has lived in the Puget Sound area, ask if he/she ever participated in, or has heard of, any of the following:

Tamarack -- (lesbian organization, 1960s? on; were gay men ever involved? We have heard conflicting stories about this.)
Third Name Society -- (lesbian org., mentioned in local newspaper in mid-60s, at time of police payoff scandal, and in Dorian minutes. We have yet to find out any information about this group.)
Jamma Phi -- (gay men's and/or mixed gender social org., 1960s/70s (?). Held annual picnics in Maple Valley, that included "high heel races.")
Mattachine Society -- (local chapter existed briefly in this region)
Daughters of Bilitis -- (no local chapter, but some may have received their magazine The Ladder)
An informal rural social network that existed in Kent Valley down into Puyallup, Buckley, Fife area. Included some Tacoma-area teachers. Held dances in grange halls.
Triangle Recreation Campground -- Index area, still exists, in different location. Would be good to have stories from its early days (1980s?).
Dykes on Bikes -- (stories from its early days)
Etruscans -- (private gay men's social club)

Career

Were you out at work? What were the results?
Were there opportunities to meet kindred spirits at work?

Relationship history

-- marriage? (het or gay)
-- long term relationships?

Children

-- if yes, a result of previous straight relationships, or within gay/lesbian community?
-- how do you think your identity affected them?

Major historical events in your lifetime

Examples: WWII, McCarthy era, Civil Rights movement, JFK/MLK assassinations, Vietnam war, hippie era, Stonewall, etc.
-- How old were you during these times? Which ones were significant to you, and why?

Military experience?

-- if yes, what was it like for gays/lesbians at the time? tolerance? witch-hunts?
-- did sexual identity affect bonding with others?
-- combat experience? if yes, how did that affect you?

Institutions

(experience, if any, with hospitals, mental health facilities, courts, jail system)
-- Ever experience involuntary committment? extreme therapies?
-- Did being gay (lesbian, etc.) make a difference in the treatment received?
-- problems with drugs/alcohol? ok to talk about? if yes, how did recovery or healing happen? what resources for GLBT people were there?

Political movements / activism

-- what were the political values you grew up with? (family's, peer group's, etc.)
-- political activism/causes before gay involvement? which ones?
-- influences of other movements (non-violence, anti-war, Civil Rights, hippie counterculture, etc.) on your political values?
-- involvement in GLBT political activism? which ones?
-- how did political thinking/climate affect your involvement in or support of gay rights?

Role models

-- when young? older?
-- personal acquaintances? teachers/adults? or famous people?

General feelings about identity/orientation

Did you ever feel depressed about it? limited? special? enlightened? etc.
Have you ever felt threatened? Ever been in physical danger?
What things have made you feel proud?

Humor

What things made you laugh? Can you recall specific examples of gay/lesbian/drag humor, parodies, send-ups? Pranks? In-jokes? Fooling or getting back at straight people?

Stories from elders

When you first came out, did you hear older members of the community talk about what times were like in their youth? Do you remember specific stories?

Unwritten codes of conduct

-- When you first came out, did you get any advice from "elders", or from anyone else "in the life," on how to act or how to be?
-- When you first came out, did you meet others you knew right off that you wanted to emulate? That impressed you strongly? Why? What was it about them that made you feel that way?
-- social taboos? / no-nos? (What was not cool?)
-- who was especially or generally admired? for what reasons? if some were unpopular, for what reasons?
-- did you or friends act / feel differently when in one another's company, as opposed to being with straight people? if yes, explain the differences
-- what role models did popular culture provide for gays/lesbians? (ex. bikers, movie personalities, others?)

Sex

Are you comfortable talking about sexuality or specific practices?
-- if yes, have there been changes over time that you're aware of?
-- what words / slang were used?
-- values of self and/or friends about sex, monogamy, casual sex, the baths, AIDS awareness, safe sex, etc.
-- were there specific practices that were looked down on, or considered un-cool?
-- cruising areas and practices; important or not? Were you ever in danger, from thugs or cops?
-- differences between gay male / lesbian attitudes and values? changes you've been aware of?
-- FOR MEN: Did heterosexual men that you knew engage in same-sex practices occasionally? If so, was this ever discussed? Did the label of "homosexual" or "queer" depend on types of sexual practices used?

Butch/femme

Were roles pervasive-- followed by everyone you knew? or just by some? If by just some, what did others do? Was there much interaction between those who adopted these roles and those who didn't?
-- how did one decide which to be?
-- relative flexibility or inflexibility of these roles; could/did anyone change?
-- were there rules? explicit ones? or just generally understood?
-- what words/slang were used?
-- how did women with "androgynous" personalities fit in?
-- did roles carry over into women's work lives? did one partner work to support the other, as in straight society, or did both work? at what types of jobs?
-- any overlap of such categories with people who might be considered transgender today?
-- Did you know anyone who passed for the opposite sex? habitually? occasionally?

Experience with / knowledge of subcommunities within gay culture

-- drag (Are you familiar with "drag queen honor"? Can you provide examples?)
-- "women's community" (1970s+)
-- separatism
-- political or intentional communities / collective houses / land trusts and collectives
-- leather/S&M
-- others

Some Puget Sound area names to ask about:
Collective houses -- Red Hen, Pud Street, Calliope, Calamity Jane, Hot Pink (Capitol Hill); Hespera (Wallingford)
Land trusts (or back-to-land groups): Elwha land project (Gay Community Social Services); "Washington Women's Land Trust"

Try to identify the times and places of stories or incidents that have been discussed, for example, by relating them to approximate time periods or historical events ("before the war," "the 70s," etc.)

Summing up

-- Other topics that you want to cover?
-- If you could live life over, is there anything you would do differently?
-- Significant changes you've witnessed over time?
-- What would you say to young GLBT people today, or to those who will come along in the future?

Thank you very much!

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