Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Finding - and preserving - unheard voices: Speaking with Howard Solomon about his years of LGBT research

Published in Out In Maine

When Howard Solomon's name was submitted as a nominee for the Catalyst for Change Award, the highest honor given by the Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine at the University of Southern Maine, the center's board agreed very easily to bestow it upon the well-known LGBT historian.
"He has an outstanding record in Maine," says Susie Bock, the center's director, who has worked with Solomon for many years preserving papers, records, and items shedding light on Maine's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. (The Sampson Center also has significant holdings on the history of Maine's Jewish and African-American populations.)
"He has played a part in educating people in Maine since he moved here" in 1987, Bock says, writing essays to accompany numerous exhibitions, speaking with school and non-profit groups, as well as teaching LGBT history classes at USM.
Solomon, a longtime history professor at Tufts University outside Boston, first moved to Maine as a result of his relationship with Ron Clark, who worked in Portland. "We moved to Kittery, which was equidistant, and so we were both miserable," Solomon recalls with his characteristic wry humor. Shortly thereafter, Clark was diagnosed with AIDS; the couple bought a home in Gray and lived there together until Clark died in January 1989. Solomon lost his partner, but found a home, welcomed by the Quaker community (Solomon, a Jew, and the Methodist Clark were pleasantly surprised by that)
Solomon also got involved with groups giving diversity workshops around Maine, and so he stayed, commuting to Tufts and doing a lot of organizing and activism here. Out In Maine spoke with him about the evolution of his career and life's work, and the importance of preserving records of ordinary people's lives for future generations.
I WANTED TO FIND OUT HOW YOUR HISTORICAL INTERESTS EVOLVED; YOU STARTED LOOKING AT SOCIAL HISTORY IN FRANCE AND THEN SHIFTED INTO GENDER AND SEXUALITY STUDIES. When I went into 16th, 17th, 18th century French history, one of the things that fascinated me from the very outset of that research was not what was happening in the throne rooms and among the diplomats but what was happening among the people who were silent in the historical record, i.e., the people in the kitchen, the people in the stables, the people in the gutters, the people in the streets. Which also coincided with an interest in France in that period, in the late '60s, which then of course exploded in the 1968 student revolution — what the French were referring to asmarginalit√© et pouvoir, "marginality and power," looking at the relationship between the center and the periphery. When I came to Tufts in the early '70s, I was doing as it were, the "straight French history" — but I was really more and more interested in, what in those days was called, either "marginality and power," which is a loaded term; or, even more loaded, "social deviants," i.e., women, the poor, children . . .
THE USE OF THE WORD "DEVIANT" OF COURSE BEING USED TO DESCRIBE THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE . . . Exactly! All the losers. All throughout history, it's about the winners — what we used to call "maps and chaps," white men on white horses. My own intellectual development coincided with what was happening in the historical profession, but there was a way in which my own personal journey was animating my teaching and research. I was struggling at that time, late '60s-early '70s, trying to understand who I was as somebody who was not heterosexual. I didn't even know the other words, "homosexual," "gay," "queer" — I didn't know what they meant; no one really knew. I taught those courses — the social deviants, the margin — it was all the same course but increasingly, the whole issue of sexual minorities was becoming larger and larger. I left teaching for a few years and went into administration. I took a sabbatical in 1981-'82, and I came back to the university and came out. Before that, I was out to friends but not publicly. I came out in my classroom, I came out to my colleagues, I came out in my writing. I then spun off, from the sort of generic social deviants/marginality courses, to specific courses on what today we would call queer history.
That also coincided, the early '80s, '81, '82, '83, with the emergence of AIDS. I had even from the beginning, in addition to the French history, a parallel interest in the history of community public health. I’d written my dissertation on health issues in early modern Europe.
When AIDS exploded in the early ’80s,  I was doing an awful lot of teaching, both in the classroom and increasingly out of the classroom, on the history of AIDS, the history of disease, the way in which again it's about power and language. Who controls the dictionary, who controls access. Every physician uses diagnoses, but it's also a dictionary game of how things are labeled and who gets the money and who gets the treatment, and who controls the dialogue.
When I think of what I tried to do in teaching, and certainly up to and through my work with the Sampson Collection, it's about listening to the voices, finding the voices that have been systematically silenced. That's what the LGBT Collection is about, finding a place where previously unheard voices can be heard, by collecting everything that is and has been a part of LGBTQ life. Ranging from the obvious public documents of legislation, and the papers of important people, to what archivists call "ephemera." I love that word. The "unimportant," insignificant stuff of our lives like T-shirts and bumper stickers, buttons and ticket stubs, and love letters, the "flotsam and jetsam" of daily life, which, when they're put into a context, tell a story which otherwise cannot or otherwise is not heard.
I’m a recovering historian. The real passion of my life right now is art. In the last four years I’ve been doing found-object sculpture. It’s taken over my life and I’m realizing that I’ve been a Dumpster diver all my life; I was Dumpster diving for subjects in the late ’60s and ’70s, looking into as it were the gutters and garbage for subjects and then I was doing that in a sense with the collection. Going through people’s attics and basements and now I’m the king of yard sales and recycling barns, so it’s all of a piece.
It really is about finding the ephemera, the forgotten, the otherwise dispossessed and rejected. “Discarded” is a better word, and putting into a context and once it’s put into a context, into a frame, it has extraordinary meaning. Things have meaning only when they’re put into a context and if the only context is of the traditional “winners,” straight versus gay, men versus women, the powerful versus the powerless, those stories never never never can be told.
That brings us up to the present. In ’93, ’94, when the first conversations were happening about setting up what was then being called a “gay archive” at USM, I was involved with those conversations from the beginning, along with others.
AND THEN BEGAN THE SECOND PART OF THE DUMPSTER DIVING. Yeah, rural Dumpster diving, right. In 2001, ’02 I took an early retirement from Tufts. I was at an annual meeting of the advisory group for what was then the Gay-Lesbian Archive. USM Provost Joe Wood had just introduced Susie Bock, she had just come to Maine. Joe was saying we’ve got great stuff going here, but we need somebody to help.
All of a sudden it hit me, I could do that. In fall ’02 Joe appointed me scholar-in-residence of the collection, and an adjunct professor of history.
WHAT WAS THE STATE OF THE COLLECTION IN 2002 WHEN YOU JOINED THE CENTER AS SCHOLAR-IN-RESIDENCE? The story I like to tell is I had a colleague at Tufts who taught Chinese history, and whenever we'd have these long conversations making a proposal or curriculum and getting more and more complicated, she would suck on her cigarette and in Mandarin say something. And we'd say, 'What the hell is that?' She'd say, 'Old Chinese expression: A sparrow is a very small animal, but all its parts are there.' In '02 there were the elements of what had the potential to be a really exciting collection. The first issue was the space that was the library then — the university had just bought that old bakery building, and there were absolutely inadequate facilities. So number one we needed facilities, which eventually happened. They're really state of the art now, Library of Congress standards in terms of all the things that are important.
Number two, I — with the help of an advisory board and others — was able to do a more concentrated project of talking to LGBT activists, organizations, allies, on the importance of creating a really vibrant archive. Not only for our community, but for the benefit of the quality of life in Maine in general. So we did that.
Number three, as more people within the community became aware of what archiving is about and why a community needs to have a history, more and more people have given their materials and understood that even the most mundane pile of old T-shirts and bumper stickers and love letters has a real historical value.
Then fourthly, and Susie's been great at this, we did an increasing amount of public programming and partnering with other organizations. Key in that, in 2004 we did a 20th anniversary retrospective of Charlie Howard's death. Charlie died in 1984, so we did a three-day-long conference. We also put together a traveling exhibition, which is still traveling through the state, so literally thousands and thousands of people have seen it.
In the last couple of years, organizations like the Rainbow Business and Professional Organization and Down East Pride Alliance and obviously EqualityMaine and so on are partnering with the collection all the time. Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network is really, really, really using the resources. Susie brings in school groups regularly; she's doing great work.
It’s a collection that must integrate its work with the work of the other two major pieces of the Sampson Center, the Judaica collection and the African-American collection, so they are of a piece.
THEY CERTAINLY ARE VOICES THAT HAVE GONE UNHEARD AND FOR A LONG TIME, DESPITE THEIR NUMBERS. GLBT PEOPLE, OR JEWISH PEOPLE, OR AFRICAN AMERICANS AREN'T ACTUALLY MAJORITIES IN MAINE, BUT THEY'RE VERY SIZABLE MINORITIES. When you're away from Maine, people say 'What, they've got gay people in Maine?' Part of the real contribution of the LGBT collection is regionally and nationally. There are and have been LGBT archives in New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Minneapolis, the big cities. Part of the stereotype which was also ingrained among scholars, many of whom were LGBT scholars, was that the whole LGBT thing is fundamentally an urban phenomenon. What we have shown in the collection, what makes it a national treasure, is that it documents and celebrates a rural statewide phenomenon. There were LGBT groups organizing and active in rural Maine in the late '60s and early '70s; we have the documents of that. That's part of the history. That's a real contribution.
It helps break down the urban-rural thing; it also helps break down the gay-straight issue, because much of the collection is about the ways in which LGBT issues have been and are inextricable from larger issues of community formation, identity politics, politics and spirituality in Maine.
Let’s talk a bit about the use of the collection as a historical record. Susie and I were just talking about the trans and bi communities; we need more of their documents and history in the collection. We have it, but we need more. It’s about not only the content of our lives, but how we, and others, understand and describe those lives.
The thing you have to do is to say, ‘I want to hear them,’ and then you’ve got to devise questions which enable you to find those places where their voices can be heard and if you don’t do either of those, they’re never going to be heard. For us, even asking those two questions has been the luxury of privilege. People in places of privilege, whether they’re historians, or prime ministers, or white, WASP males, have the privilege of not having to ask.
IN MY OWN READING ABOUT 17TH-CENTURY ENGLISH HISTORY, I OBSERVE WHAT I SOMETIMES CALL THE PEPYS PROBLEM, WHERE ENGLISH DIARIST SAMUEL PEPYS IS REALLY THE ONLY VOICE HISTORIANS HAVE OF “REGULAR PEOPLE” OF THE TIME. IN THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS HE SPEAKS FOR ALL WHITE MALE LONDONERS; IN THE WORST, HE SPEAKS FOR ALL BRITONS, OR FOR ALL EUROPEANS, AND IT REALLY BECOMES A PROBLEM BECAUSE THERE’S SUCH A LIMITED ARCHIVE FROM WHICH TO DRAW. It’s part of the takeaway that I always try to leave, whatever presentation I make, is that there are documents out there which are vulnerable to disappearing. There are flooded basements and mice in the attics and moving companies which every day are destroying materials that need to be preserved. We take for granted that the Gutenberg Bible is going to be taken care of, but the handouts that we get on Monument Square at some demonstration, or the ordinary photographs that we have in a shoebox in our basement about the Fourth of July picnic 20 years ago — the LGBT archive can protect those and enable them to speak 50, 100, 200 years from now. We have those in the collection and they speak volumes.
ONE OF THE THINGS I'VE ALWAYS LIKED ABOUT HISTORY IS SEEING, IN SOME CASES, HOW LITTLE HAS CHANGED, BUT IN OTHER CASES HOW MUCH HAS CHANGED. In the media 20 years ago, let alone the 50 or 60 years ago when I was coming up as a younger person, the presence of LGBT issues was — there was no presence. Or if there were presence, it was the most painful, inaccurate, frightening, pathologic presence one could imagine. When I was 12, 13 years old — I was born in '42 so that is '53, '54 — there were no queer presences on TV other than Milton Berle in drag. There was a nationwide, Senator Joseph McCarthy purge of liberals and homosexuals in all areas of the government. That was filtering down to a 12- or 13-year-old kid in western Pennsylvania. It was on the radio.
I remember I hung out in the school library looking around, making sure nobody was looking at me as I looked in the big dictionary under the word "homosexual," and saw that it was described as a pathology. It's still a tough world and people are being bashed. Andthere has been progress. I would like to think that the collection is a piece of that.
When the Charlie Howard collection is going around the state, we'd set up in a school and you'd see the civics class come in and the history class, and they'd look at it. It would be 20 or 30 students. Then an hour later, maybe during a break or in between class, you'd see two or three students come in and look at it more closely. Those were the ones that really touched me. It's tough enough being a gay teenager. But their awareness perhaps that somewhere else in the state of Maine there were some other gay people, and there were resources and possibilities and promises for us today that may not have been there before, and I am not alone.
RIGHT, AND HERE ARE PEOPLE YOU CAN TALK TO, AND THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WILL HELP. AND THAT'S A REALLY POWERFUL THING. Had there been a gay-straight alliance in Bangor High School, Charlie might still be alive. When Susie has the school groups and provides resources to teachers, that trumps just about everything in my mind. How do you measure the benefit of something as amorphous as a library? You can count the number of people coming in the door, count the number of people who show up at a presentation. But one has to trust that's what culture is about. One trusts that the preservation and publication of documents in their broadest extent is an act of faith, an investment in the future.