Intro: What happens when you have countless hours of people’s stories, stories that you know are extremely valuable, but no one else seems to see it in that way? When you have pages and pages of journal entries, field notes, or documents describing the beautiful encounters you’ve had with individuals that are relying on you to pass on their stories, but no one seems to care? Like Eric Marcus, you might store your cassette tapes (or mp3 files) in a dark storage closet only to find that you will later use them to create something beautiful and inspirational to many.
I have always found others’ stories to be comforting, especially when they remind me that I’m human. As a transgender person, I often wonder if I’m being seen as a person, as human being who feels emotions. We are living in an age where violent, othering language is used far too often to minimize and erase the experiences of TGNC (transgender/gender nonconforming) folks. Many nonbinary individuals like myself have failed to find our own stories reflected in the media, and as a community we have been left out of the historical and archival record. This has inspired my own oral history project that I hope to one day turn into a podcast. I often turn to Eric Marcus’ work documenting the life histories of gay and lesbian people as inspiration to hang on tightly to my oral histories, knowing one day society will see as much value in them as I do.
Marcus published Making History in 1993. When he set out to write it, he was asked not to use the word “gay” in the title in fears that it would not sell. In the introduction to his book he writes, “the gay and lesbian rights effort has been almost entirely ignored by mainstream historians, biographers, textbook writers, and encyclopedias.” During his presentation, Eric tells us that he devalued his “gay work” at the time. When Marcus finished writing his book he stored away all his interviews, not knowing what would eventually come out of them. In 2008, he uncovered his dusty cassette tapes and was immediately taken back. “I have an archive. There’s something there,” he told a friend before created the podcast “Making Gay History”.
In “Making Gay History”, he begins most episodes by describing the scene. He paints a picture of who we’re sitting next to or across from, what the room is like, what we smell. In doing so he invites listeners to walk with him and the storytellers.
“It’s cold. Too cold to take my coat off.”
“I attach the lapel mic to Ellen’s fleece top and press record.”
“I weave past his expressive hands while he’s mid-anecdote to clip my microphone into his jacket. I press record.”
“He was tall, with a gray beard and substantial bags under his bloodshot eyes… I could smell the alcohol on his breath. I brought him back to my place and made him lunch.”
As an oral historian and nosy anthropologist, I would do anything to look through Eric’s fieldnotes. I am increasingly fascinated by how much thought must have gone into his notes for him to be able to recall such incredible details and use them to help his audience connect to the real people behind the voices and the words. Eric tells us during his presentation that he felt very responsible for the people whose stories he collected. Immediately after doing his interviews he would make copies of the cassette tapes and put them in multiple different locations. He did everything to keep them safe, and he succeeded. Although he may have not known how they would be used in the future at the time, everything he did with the interviews shows that he knew their value, including his carefully crafted fieldnotes.
Marcus reveals things about himself throughout his podcast, giving us insights into what he may have been thinking or feeling during the time of these interviews. In one episode he talks about his journalistic drag, pressed shirts and khakis (I love picturing this written down in his journal). By revealing bits and pieces of who he was at the time, he’s able to draw in listeners at an extraordinary level. He would not have been able to do this without writing down things like, “he talks admiringly of the light filled room and the early 20th century architecture of my apartment.”
Eric’s podcast reminds me of the importance of taking diligent fieldnotes, writing my reactions and reflections to interviews, and putting time into preserving and archiving all of these files ever so carefully, preparing them for the future. He inspires me to keep my head up in this political atmosphere, while I struggle with valuing my own “trans work”.
Eric Marcus has demonstrated so beautifully how powerful and moving it can be to document and preserve our experiences. He should be an example to all of us to take thorough and detailed notes, to reflect on our oral history interviews and the ways in which they might impact us at that moment, and most importantly, consider the significant value of the stories you hold when you think about ways to preserve and archive your interviews.
Marina Labarthe del Solar is a student in the 2018 Columbia University Oral History MA Program. They are currently creating a historical archive that includes stories of individuals that identify outside of the gender binary. Marina hopes to use oral history to create more transgender/ non-binary representation on a variety of platforms.