Finding the Body in Foolscap

Foolscap / gay history / oral history

The Foolscap Project consists of a series of oral history interviewees, mostly conducted between 1981 and 1989 by John Grube and Lionel Collier conducted a series of oral history interviews with gay men born in the first half of the 20th century.

The project produced over 100 autobiographical interviews. These interviews were invariably informed by conditions contemporaneous to the project: the Stonewall riots, Operation Soap, the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the community and the proliferation of a wide array of new queer spaces and social, community, and health-related groups

The directors of Foolscap were particularly interested in certain topics: psychiatry, policing, criminalization, sex work, intergenerational relationships, gay social structures, and health and aging.

In the last couple years, records from the Foolscap project have gradually been flowing into the CLGA. I have been given the opportunity to process and digitize these materials. In the last fifteen months, we have digitized over 300 audio recordings from 125 interviews with 100 sets of subjects.

The Foolscap project does not truly document a history of HIV/AIDS in Toronto. The way in which the oral histories were conducted was not really aimed at garnering information so much as gathering profiles of the gay community. However, in collecting these profiles, what the Foolscap project does document is the way in which people told their life/body-stories in that moment of time.

The Foolscap project spans across multiple bodies: personal, geographical, temporal, spatial, and material. The onset of HIV/AIDS for Toronto’s queer and trans community, which began contemporaneously to the Foolscap project, situated all of these bodies in new contexts. As a result, the project took on a particular salience in its reference to HIV/AIDS. It offered community members an opportunity to re-write their queer body-histories, which took on new character alongside HIV/AIDS. The narration, and thus production, of these new queer body-histories and futurities, which were informed by HIV/AIDS, fed back into the subjective forces involved in the project. In this way, the Foolscap project itself formed a technology of interference, and its histories are constituted from layers of interruption. 

It is tempting to see ‘interruption’ as instantaneous; a particular moment or event whose durativity exists is only in its legacy, rather than its process. But, in reality, interruption itself is durational. Take, for instance, a cassette tape. Over time, it degrades. This degradation interferes with its content, noise interrupting the audio it was intended to contain. While I listen to it, I perceive one moment of this interference; I hear a particular instant of the process, and might find it to be “inaudible” or, hopefully, “audible”. But, in reality, its degradation occurs over an infinite series of moments, accumulating and effecting itself. The tape’s degradation is collaborative as well, determined by numerous dimensions including the tape itself, the type of recording, its age, the places it has been housed, and the conditions it has been exposed to. This interpretation of interruption as durational is the one I use to characterize the ways in which HIV/AIDS was constituted within Foolscap. Foolscap characterizes HIV/AIDS as an ongoing interruption of queer bodies and spaces. 

Some Foolscap interviewees characterize HIV/AIDS as an interruption of the body; in the Foolscap interview with Ed Fanantu, Fanantu describes in detail how HIV interrupts what he characterizes to be regular bodily function, particularly fixating on a friend with HIV who experiences blindness. Interruptions with bodily function were recognized as signs pointed towards HIV/AIDS; in the first Foolscap interview with Alan McMurray, McMurray is sick with a flu, and suggests that this indicates he may have HIV. 

HIV/AIDS is understood by others as constituting an interruption in gay space-making and geographies. Contrasted against memories of the care-free cruising and sexual rendezvous in  decades past, new meanings and realities came to define cruising hubs like Queen’s Park, Hanlan’s Point and Balfour Park as HIV/AIDS entered the lived experiences of the queer public. Businesses were to be graded based on their response to the epidemic: in gay entrepreneur Peter Bochove’s interview, Bochove chastises the Roman Bathhouse for not giving condoms out, while applauding Club Toronto for offering protection. Perceptions of the safety of parks was also interrupted. For example, Vernon Duval and Lionel Collier discuss at length in their interview how HIV/AIDS changed the cruising scene at Allan Gardens. In another interview a man titled ‘CCB’ for anonymity describes how HIV/AIDS has made him lose interest in bathhouses and parks.

For Foolscap interviewees, HIV/AIDS interrupted most relations between land, bodies, minds and objects. In the Foolscap interview with Gordon Whitrock, Whitrock takes on an optimistic characterization of HIV/AIDS, describing HIV/AIDS as a galvanizing moment for the gay liberation movement. Ed Fanantu describes how HIV/AIDS has defined new body-readings and body-aesthetics within the gay community. In the interviews, everyday objects like KY Jelly lube were re-read as contagion, becoming politicized as they were blamed for the deaths of friends and partners. For many, the act of sex became increasingly divorced from sexuality; many interviewees describe choosing celibacy over risk of seropositivity. 

One of the Foolscap project interviewers, Lionel Collier, describes HIV/AIDS in the community as ‘war’. I take ‘war’ to mean a loud and brash interruption, blurring the lines between public and private spheres for the queer community.

These interruptions asked community members to reinterpret their lives with a sense of urgency. As HIV/AIDS demanded new temporalities and futurities from Foolscap interviewees, personal histories had to be marked against new rubrics. The Foolscap interviews were one site where these personal histories could be revised and spoken into the record. As subjects were asked to trace their own histories, their autobiographies could be told in new ways centred around their experiences with HIV. For instance, previously, Foolscap interviewee Burt Sutcliffe may simply have described his relationship with his partner Ralph as always monogamous. But now, with Foolscap, Burt Sutcliffe could characterize his relationship as one which had always been monogamous, and even if it hadn’t been previously, would be now. People interviewed by the Foolscap interviewers could revise their life stories to identify, for those who were seronegative, how their decisions and experiences directed them away from HIV/AIDS, and, for those who were seropositive, how their decisions and experiences shaped their serostatus.

This notion of re-interpretation is true to all oral history; while oral histories are recounted, they always form a site for re-constitutions of the body-mind.  In this way, the act of retelling an oral history, too, acts as an interruptive force, as this re-constitution may not be aligned with the intent of the subject. 

A particularly interesting example of this is the Foolscap interview with Earl Whitfield Slipp, which was partially conducted in a hospital. In this interview, a host of interruptions take up most of the duration of the recording: noise, interference from medical equipment, and prompts from doctors come to tell Slipp’s health history for him. 

The interviewer also forms an interruption in oral history, prompting and refusing the speaker, shaping the interviewee’s identity in the process of it being written. Just as Foolscap interviewees framed HIV/AIDS as interruptive, so did the Foolscap interviewers through their questions. Emphasis in the Foolscap interviews was typically placed on early sexual experiences and present sexual experiences, emphasizing a contrast between “sex before” and “sex now”. Interviewer interference was often quite blatant: as the project went on, Foolscap interviewers increasingly closed interviews by prompting interviewees to consider using condoms.

Archiving necessarily expects the archivist to perceive artefacts and their histories as existing in finite temporalities; the process of preservation imagines archival ephemera as belonging in a certain time or space, with particular character and content reflective of that time and space. 

In reality, the archival objects of the Foolscap interview do not characterize the time and place of HIV/AIDS, but rather the change within that time and space. Foolscap interviews, as with all other oral histories of HIV/AIDS, document the re-constitution of bodies in times of drastic change and interruption. 

Foolscap does not offer a survey of all experiences shaped HIV/AIDS, but rather tracks how people’s perceptions of themselves and their bodies changed as a response to these experiences. Today, as the cassettes these oral histories are housed in continue to respond to change, degrading over time, we watch these bodies continue to respond to interruptive forces. It is these layers of interruptions which come to constitute our histories.