Did you know that the 2000 Pussy Palace had an instant photo room? On the fourth floor of the Palace, a sign reading “porn/photo room” directed patrons in two equally playful directions: towards a room for screening pornography and/or towards a room for having Polaroids taken to document one’s night at the bathhouse (Blair 163; Vogels paras. 10-13). In our most recent oral history interview, Carlyle Jansen, one of the founding members of the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee, shared that the use of instant photography was an entirely conscious decision on the part of the event organizers. Beyond offering patrons a fun thing to do, Polaroids afforded a certain degree of privacy that allowed patrons to document scenes of unbounded erotic exploration, free from risk or regret. In Jansen’s words:
You took [the Polaroid] with you. Nobody else had a copy of it. You could keep it. And it was your choice if you gave it to somebody else, but at least there was a limit.
In other words, you could take a daring or salacious photograph of yourself, alone or with others, without fear of it being reproduced and circulated without your consent.
Hoping to recover a Polaroid or two for the historical record (with consent of course), we’ve been asking narrators if they recall spending any time in the photo room on the night of the raid. Quite surprisingly, there are a few surviving snapshots. How wild would it be to gaze upon one of these images or, even better, to grasp one between your fingers?
Polaroid (or “instant”) photography is a particularly fascinating type of archival evidence because a Polaroid is entirely of the moment and singular. Visual Studies scholar Peter Buse outlines the three basic properties that distinguish instant film technology from all other forms of photography: 1) the near immediate appearance of a physical print; 2) the elimination of the darkroom, which removes human intervention from the development process; and 3) the singularity of the image — since a Polaroid’s negative and positive are fused, the image cannot be reproduced (37).
These three unique properties make Polaroid technology the optimal choice for documenting one’s night at the bathhouse. The prints are ready in seconds, and the scenes and subjects they capture can remain private. Add to this that each image is one of a kind and you can see how the Pussy Palace photo room offered patrons hassle-free access to a personalized souvenir of a night to remember.
But, what is perhaps most captivating about the possibility of uncovering the Pussy Palace Polaroids is the tactile connection they provide us to the space and time of the raid. As curator and author Nat Trotman argues, the Polaroid disrupts conventional understandings of photography’s relationship to memory, time and place, subject and object — particularly when used in a “party” situation (10). Trotman writes:
Over the course of a minute, a photograph does not concern remembering or forgetting. Rather, it plays between the lived moment and its reification as an object with its own physical presence. The party Polaroid is not so much an evocation of a past event as it is an instant fossilization of the present. It solidifies the constant slippage of present into past and remains after the party as a real physical manifestation of the party itself. It relates to the party not by means of its decay but of its production, revolving less around death than life. (10; emphasis added)
Thus, the brilliance of Polaroid technology lies in the intimacy it offers between the subject of the photo and the photo as an object unto itself. Unlike standard photography — or, even, digital photography — there is very little distance between the act of taking a Polaroid and the act of observing it. Since a Polaroid camera can print a physical image seconds after deploying the shutter, Polaroids are both records and remnants of the event. They not only commemorate the event but also participate in the event as it occurs. As Jean Baudrillard puts it, “the Polaroid photo is a sort of ecstatic membrane that has come away from the real object” (quoted in Buse 44). To hold a Polaroid in your hand, then, allows you (in some sense) to touch the space and time in which it was captured, gaining an otherwise unattainable proximity to what transpired.
The Pussy Palace photo room did not simply produce private souvenirs of the night; it produced tangible traces of the night that make the 2000 Pussy Palace impossibly immanent. Let’s hope there remains a wealth of these image-objects waiting to be rediscovered in the junk drawers of our narrators.
Blair, Jennifer. “‘What We Do Well’: Writing the Pussy Palace into a Queer Collective Memory.” torquere: Journal of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Studies Association, vol. 6, 2004, pp. 143-67.
Buse, Peter. “Photography Degree Zero: Cultural History of the Polaroid Image.” New Formations, vol. 62, no. 1, 2007, pp. 29-44.
Jansen, Carlyle. Interview by Alisha Stranges and Elio Colavito for the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory, April 1, 2021, Zoom video recording, The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives, Toronto ON.
Trotman, Nat. “The Life of the Party.” Afterimage, vol. 29, no. 6, 2002, p. 10.
Excerpt from the Trans Activism Oral History Project – Presented in Collaboration with the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory (project lead, Dr. Elspeth Brown), the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, and The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives.
Lin Fraser (she/her) interviewed by Dr. Evan Taylor (they/them). Original recording using Zoom platform on Feb. 7, 2020.
The Pussy Palace Oral History Project, a collaboration between The ArQuives and the LGBTQ+ Oral History Digital Collaboratory, has finally reached the interviewing stage. We are collecting oral history interviews with patrons, event organizers, those involved in the police action, the subsequent legal case, and community activism related to the Toronto police raid of the September 14, 2000 Pussy Palace, an exclusive bathhouse event for queer women, trans, and gender-expansive people. Developing interview guides that can appropriately speak to the ranges of experience represented by the narrators we are interviewing has been a significant challenge. How do we adapt the knowledge that we have from oral historians, the secondary literature, other queer oral history projects, and recent interviews we conducted to capture the most robust narrative possible? How do we ask the right questions to the right people?
We began with former interview guides from former ArQuives oral history projects to get a sense for what sort of basic questions that we need to ask. From this, we came up with a comprehensive set of demographic questions that seek to interrogate our narrators’ varying identities and how they differ from the time of the raid and now. Using interview guides from a variety of projects, we were able to piece together many of the basic questions that structured the interview. After consulting the secondary literature on the raid, we incorporated what we knew about different aspects of the event into our interview structure. These questions form the basis for how we understand each narrator’s involvement with the Pussy Palace in general and the raid in particular. For some narrators, they were patrons who went to the Pussy Palace, had a great night (or a miserable one), and left without encountering any police officers. For other narrators, these questions ask them to recall their experiences in organizing the event, their time at the club, and their activism afterwards.
Our lead oral historian, Alisha, has a background in theatre creation and women and gender studies, which she mobilized to produce a brief intervention in the interview structure that invites narrators to distill their sense memories of the physical space. In the brief exercise, Alisha uses breath and silence to transport the narrator back to the Pussy Palace. As the body begins to reinhabit the space, narrators recall the textures, scents, flavours, and other sensory experiences that they associate with the evening of September 14, 2000 (no matter how abstract). For Alisha, this intervention attempts to capture the affective traces of the event alongside each narrator’s detailed, historical account. Despite its possibilities, this intervention presents some obstacles. Some narrators find it difficult to visit the place that Alisha wants them to access, and we revise the verbal instructions in preparation for the next attempt. However unsettling this intervention may be, each narrator inevitably reveals the unique ways that they archived the Palace in their body, so we push on in anticipation of the unexpected.
The real challenge, however, was revising the first draft of our interview guide to fit the needs of various interviewees. We became instantly aware of the possibility that we could create a monolith out of such differing and complex experiences. To understand our response to this challenge, I want you to recall the choose-as-you-go stories you may have read as a child, or read to a child in your life. Each interview is constructed to bring narrators down a series of pathways that correspond to their lived experience as organizer, patrons, and activists. Where the narrators go, we follow; probing them along the way.
We are conducting interviews through the end of May 2021. We know that there were more than 350 people in attendance the night the Palace was raided, and we want to gather as many accounts of the event as possible. If you, or someone you know, may be interested in being interviewed, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
More on the Pussy Palace Oral History Project can be found here
How might being both queer and an Asian-American impact an individual’s life while growing up in the 1960s-90s? Are the stories of queer Asian and Pacific Islanders important to analyze to better contextualize what it means to be queer? What were the experiences of these individuals growing up prior to the 1990s? How might re-telling the stories of queer Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders of the 60s-90s benefit us today?
These are the types of questions that the Dragon Fruit Project aims to answer through community-based research. More specifically, the project defines itself as “an intergenerational oral history project that explores queer Asian and Pacific Islanders and their experiences with love and activism in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.” In the introduction video found on the project’s webpage, we are introduced to various participants who are a part of the project. The video contains snippets of queer Asians and Pacific Islanders from the 70s and all the way to present in order to illustrate the historical continuity of being queer and Asian in North America. With that in mind, the Dragon Fruit Project does more than just take a look into the lives of different queer Asian individuals, it creates a storyline that connects generations. Oneida Chi, a participant in the video, states that, “it is the stories that unify us and make us feel that we’re not alone anymore.” The Dragonfruit Project flushes away the need for queer Asian-Americans to compartmentalize themselves when being a part of a queer space or an Asian-dominated space respectively. Instead, this project embraces both identities by creating continuities via oral history which not only pieces together a fragmented part of queer and Asian/Pacific Islander history, but grants a platforms to those who were often silenced.
The Dragon Fruit Project particularly interests me as a queer Asian individual myself. Although I am not American, which may create a difference in my personal experience, it was still heartwarming to see the camaraderie on the participants’ faces when watching the introduction video. More importantly, I often found myself resonating with certain experiences of the participants, such as the need to compartmentalize myself when I’d introduce my racial identity and follow up with my queer one. To one of the participants addressed, being both Asian and queer requires a ‘coming-out’ twice, and while I am lucky enough to grow up in a cultural and sexual mosaic such as Toronto, the feeling of carrying two imposing identities rings true. Ultimately, the Dragon Fruit Project demonstrates that there are increasing amounts of safe spaces for racialized queer folk which not only aim to create security but also share their stories.
NOTE: I write in a spirit of sympathy. I drafted this blogpost on Monday March 15th 2021, perhaps 24 hours prior to the attack of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, Georgia. When I came across The Dragon Fruit Project, I was initially excited to hear that there exists a safe space for queer Asian folk. Nevertheless, in light of the pandemic, anti-Asian and anti-Pacific Islander hate-crimes have increased by 150 per cent in major U.S. cities. Here in Canada, there have been 925 reported incidents of anti-Asian racism since March 2020. To those who are not of Asian descent: please continue to be allies and advocates in the battle against anti-Asian racism and violence.
Earlier this year, Jehuda Tjahjadi’s video project for Professor Elspeth Brown’s LGBQT2+ Oral History course at the University of Toronto-Mississauga was published on The Collab’s website. The video project focuses on 1999 BIPOC Pride which can be found here.
Last week, I conducted a brief interview on Jehuda’s experience with Professor Brown’s class, any shortcomings while making the project, and his thoughts on queer oral history! Thank you Jehuda for agreeing to have a chat with me!~ andy
Let us start with your name, pronouns and a fun fact about you. Hello hello! I’m Jehuda Tjahjadi—Jehuda is pronounced however you want, and Tjahjadi is pronounced as Chah-YA-di. You can refer to me using he/him pronouns. A fun fact about me: I think this has happened twice now, where in the middle of me talking to someone, a small bubble has come out of my mouth and floated gently to the ground.
For the HIS395 video project, you had the choice between the Bathhouse Raids in 1981, the Brunswick Incident in 1874, and the 1999 BIPOC Pride Event. What drew you to choosing the BIPOC Pride Event for your video project? As far as I can tell, I was interested in the actions of the World Majority Lesbians in Pride Toronto 1999 because it seemed that it would help me the most with the kinds of questions I was interested in. As someone majoring in both history and anthropology, coming into the course, I had been experiencing some unease towards certain Western-normative, popular queer discourses I was finding online. It sometimes felt like in the necessary process of amplifying and normalizing gay and trans experiences, we did not remember that we were only doing so for certain experiences—specifically, mostly those of English speakers in Western countries. And so, I noticed how certain understandings of what it is to be gay, lesbian, trans, or queer became hegemonic and normative—often at the expense of racialized, non-Western experiences which may not look like, feel like, or fit these labels. Furthermore, of course, I think that the memes and posts ascribing modern LGBTQ+ identities to historical figures can be cute, funny, and useful towards resisting a hegemonic hetero- and cis-normativity when thinking about human pasts. But still, I was wary of how these kinds of moves were part of a larger phenomena of local and past queer identities being overwritten with mainstream, Western understandings of being queer—as if all queer experiences could be rounded up into the monolithic essential identities of “gay” and “trans,” or contained in a singular “LGBTQ+ history.”
As such, I was drawn to how the World Majority Lesbians case study which allowed me to better see a differentiated landscape of queer identities—a history of struggle from the margins of the margins. I felt that if I wanted to take the struggle for diversity, equity, and justice seriously, I had to educate myself about how queer women of colour have warned against certain mainstream narratives which foregrounded whiteness, flattened out queer identities, and serve to marginalize queer people of colour. I wanted to pay attention to and learn from histories revealing intersecting and overlapping dynamics of marginalization—lest the movement for LGBTQ+ equality remain a force for the inequality of some. Another minor reason I chose this topic was because of its apparent lack of online presence. When I was deciding, cursory googling showed me full Wikipedia pages for both the Brunswick Four and the Toronto Bathhouse Raids, whereas any mentions of the history of queer BIPOC communities on Wikipedia are relegated to one section of the larger Pride Toronto page. For some reason for me, the more obscure the history, the likelier I am to be drawn to it. That could just be me trying to be edgy, but I really do think following less-trodden paths can be important, especially if we want to be shown things that we did not already think we knew.
What is a surprising/interesting/favourite fact that you learned while working on the video? I don’t think you could call this a fact per se, but my most valued takeaway from this video project was how it imbued the way that I think of LGBTQ+ communities with a sense of history. “Of course, that’s the whole point of a queer oral history course,” you might rightly say. But what I mean is that, growing up, the kinds of representations of queer identities that I was exposed to were from my co-religionists (as a demonic plot), from my peer group (when they identified as such), and from representation in various media. Generally speaking, these representations were all generally detached from any meaningful grounding in actual LGBTQ+ history, key theoretical developments in gender and queer studies, or even any particular LGBTQ+ communities with a traceable past of political and material struggle.
In contrast, listening to LeZlie’s oral history—wherein she names specific gay bars in Toronto, mentions the Lesbian Organization of Toronto, and graphically describes a personal encounter with the Toronto police—helped it sink in for me that we are dealing with transnational histories, with racial histories, with criss-crossing histories—all of which were specific and particular to the city I lived beside. Moreover, what I make of LeZlie’s oral history is that it is quite unlike the depoliticized arc of secrecy, coming out, self-actualization, and romance we may come to expect from queer life stories. There is instead much more about organization, about crises, about moments when solidarity within LGBTQ+ communities break down. So, it’s not this predetermined, unilinear narrative moving tirelessly towards an endpoint of inclusion, it’s an actual history of change.
I don’t mean to make it sound like this historical amnesia about LGBTQ+ history is anything other than my own experience and ignorance. Still, I hoped to emphasize these kinds of themes in the video, perhaps for anyone else like me who grew up with a similarly flattened, ahistorical view of LGBTQ+ history.
Did you have any challenges while working on the project? Honestly, working on this project has just massively, massively increased the amount of respect I have for those working in voice acting and its relations. To begin with, mouths are just unavoidably meaty and wet—and unconsciously so. As such, during the recording process, it was really hectic to have to be so aware of avoiding ill-timed mouth sounds and loud breathing on top of everything else going on. Beyond that, during the writing process for the script, I increasingly felt that if I wanted to properly translate the heart of LeZlie’s multi-hour oral history—where she recalls moments of real loss—the video would have to lead up a climactic moment of emotion. I have been more of a writer than a performer—I’m used to putting the words down and then letting the reader do whatever they want with it. So, I was pretty anxious about ruining what was by itself a decent prose if I couldn’t manage the right effect for the vocal performance. There were many, many deleted takes where my vocal delivery of the climactic moment felt hammy and overstated.
History course assignments typically consist of essays, book reviews or other written assignments. Did this video project surprise you? What are your thoughts on having more unconventional projects in other history courses? I wouldn’t say I was surprised, per se. But I may just be very privileged to have had fantastic history teachers from the tenth grade onwards who encouraged us to make podcasts, short films, historical fiction, and the like. Even as an undergrad, I’ve been fortunate to be allowed to choose to write cookbooks and philosophical dialogues for final course projects.
With that being said, I think the experience of working on this unconventional digital story project was particularly successful for certain necessary reasons. For one, history course assignments are usually a major stressor because asides from feedback on an initial proposal and a rough draft, the research and writing process can be atomizing and overwhelming. I don’t fault any instructors or TAs here, I’m certain that it’s just the nature of the beast with large undergraduate classes. In contrast, this project really worked because multiple weeks of the course were structured entirely around group workshop sessions—meaning that even people with zero prior experience received more-than-sufficient support and help.
Moreover, and perhaps a little ironically, I think the fact that we produced a conventional, albeit short, research essay on the same topic before beginning the video project helped greatly—forcing our narrativization of the events in the digital story to have some prior foundation in scholarly conversation and some depth of analysis already prefigured. Without these kinds of aids, I could see being assigned such an unconventional project becoming a major stressor in an already stressful year.
Still, I would love to see more of these kinds of projects—though I understand that I am fortunate and privileged to have had a skillset lending itself well to this kind of storytelling. I think these projects helpfully discourage the potentially dangerous delusion of experiencing historical studies as if we were mere observers of the past—and rather remind and encourage us to see ourselves as creating and contributing to how we remember our histories.
Now that you’ve done a bit of work with oral history, do you see yourself doing more oral histories in the future? Honestly, I really hope so. As it currently stands, I intend to pursue graduate studies in anthropology—which most likely means a great deal of ethnography in my future. Now, undergrad studies in anthropology has only given me some light ethnographic training so far, but I sense that oral history—with its emphasis on memory and memorialization—should be really useful as a supplemental methodology thereto, as oral history will raise certain questions that ethnography will not necessarily bring in. So hopefully I will keep learning from oral historians and bring that insight into my future studies in anthropology.
On a more personal note, I think this introduction to oral history opened my eyes to the adage that the personal is the political. The very thesis of my video project is that even the quiet, unsettled, and confused stories of our personal lives might be stories worth telling, and even stories providing profound insight into our historical moment—and I want to learn to take that to heart. I do hope to be able to sit down with a few family and friends and record short oral histories someday soon. Ha, I could rope them into it by selling it as an easy way to make history in less than an hour—and sincerely mean it.
What were your initial thoughts on queer oral history going into the course? Has the course changed your views on queer oral history? So originally, I thought of queer oral history as something you’d have to do out there—in the city, or at the least, not in suburban Mississauga, not here. Maybe part of it is the suburban malaise that nothing happens here. However, this course provided us the basic training to produce a short piece of queer oral history ourselves—and we did! I was fortunate to co-produce an interview with one of my closest friends about being an asexual, panromantic, genderfluid, polyamorous human being in the Peel region and in a conservative Christian college—in short, the most seemingly unexpected of places for queer oral history to come from. It’s become easier for me to see queer oral history as an electric field of possibility buzzing within and ready to charge any space we inhabit—potentially it’s even helpful to say that there’s nowhere and no work that queer oral history isn’t ready to animate.
Why do you think queer oral history is an important area of research? I imagine that primary sources for queer history—let’s say, news articles, interviews in the news, photographs, and the like—are often going to emerge around flashpoint moments like the Toronto bathhouse raids and the consequent mass protests. And to narrativize something like the bathhouse raids from these sources, you’re likely going to focus on key character groupings: the police, the gay men, and the allies of these gay men. Everyone gets flattened out, and queer history simply becomes a series of “great events” one after another.
But if you work from oral histories of the same moment, another kind of space opens up: the particular texture of each person’s lived experience, the weight the bathhouse raids are assigned in the larger context of their lives, how experiences during the raids may affect seemingly unrelated experiences many years after, and so on.
For example, take the interview I co-produced with my friend studying at a Christian college. Yes, they did discuss their gender and sexual identities during the interview, but what clearly holds much more weight for them at this point in their life was their neuroatypicality and their strained relationship to their father. I think it’s tempting to want to work with certain kinds of historical actors and subjects whose identities are related to their motivations in straightforward ways. But we must let people speak and explain for themselves what it is like to be them—otherwise, we end up seeing queer history as occurring between predefined categories of “police” and “gay” whose meanings we already think we know, and end up with overly reductive ideas of queer identity and lived experience.
Moreover, I think that oral history reminds you that there is always a crucial bodily dimension of comportment, gesture, tone, and emotion occurring with lived experience, something which is inevitably lost in written materials—which is so unfortunate given how bodily queer histories can often be!
Interview Conducted by Andy Huynh Video Project by Jehuda Tjahjadi All clips of LezLie Lee Kam and the 1999 BIPOC Pride event are held by The ArQuives
The ArQuives and The University of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ Oral History Digital Collaboratory are conducting an oral history project about the 2000 “Pussy Palace” Raid, Canada’s last major bathhouse police raid. Whether you attended the event on the night of the raid or were involved with the police action, the legal case, or related activism, we’d love for you to share your story. Interested in participating?
Lynn Conway (she/her) interviewed by Dr. Evan Taylor (they/them) Original recording using Zoom platform on February 4, 2020.
Lynn talks about her life history from her 1968 firing from IBM, to her outing and activism in the early 2000’s, as well as her enormously successful online website and organizing.
Trans Activism Oral History Project – Presented in Collaboration with the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory (project lead, Dr. Elspeth Brown), the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, and The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives. Historical and Geographical Coverage: New York; Michigan, USA; 1938-2020
Elspeth Brown on her LGBQT2+ Oral History class at the University of Toronto-Mississauga. The class, which focused on queer oral history method and production, had students create a short digital story based on a significant historical event from Toronto’s queer community. Professor Brown wanted me to send you along this information so that you could add it to the Collaboratory social media.
This project focuses on the Bathhouse Raids in 1981, where 4 gay bathhouses were subjected to a series of coordinated raids, 286 men were charged, and a series of protests ensued.