Meet Our Collaborating Scholars: Professor Elise Chenier

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As the Collaboratory works to connect LGBTQ digital histories projects across Canada and the U.S., our Collaborators share resources and expertise, and develop new methods in conversation. We invite you to meet our collaborating scholars – read on to learn more about some of the incredible work they have underway. 

Elise ChenierProfessor Elise Chenier is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University, where she teaches courses in the history of sexuality, oral history, and Canadian social history. Her research projects focus on aspects of sexuality and gender in twentieth century Canada and the United States, as explored in her 2008 book Strangers In Our Midst: Sexual Deviancy in Postwar Ontario. She is the founder and director of the Archives of Lesbian Oral History (A LOT), an online archive of digital oral history. You can keep up with ALOT on Facebook, Twitter, and on their Blog

 

Let’s start with your name, pronouns, and honorific.
Professor Elise Chenier, her/she

 What challenges resulted in the creation of the “Bridging the Gap” project?
Our objective was to make the archives truly community-based by inviting people to produce their own oral history interviews and upload them to the site. If you know StoryCorps in the United States, that will give you an idea of what I had in mind. We developed a social media strategy to let people know about what we were doing, and created some instructional videos including a live ‘how-to’ workshop that is stored on our FaceBook page. While we generated a good amount of interest, we had very few submissions. I have come to think that doing an interview is one of those things that sounds like a great idea, but something people don’t always get around to doing. I have also come to the conclusion that most people need a lot more support than one can provide online.

How have you approached incorporating the testimonies of “Two Spirit, queer,  [and] bisexual…women, transmen, and others” into ALOT?
As an archive, we do not go out and produce interviews. We are a repository for other peoples’ interviews. However, we did produce a podcast. Our first episode (after the introduction to the podcast) was with Ma-Nee Chacaby who had just published her autobiography, A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibwa-Cree Elder. 

This was intentional. First, it was intended to recognize that these lands were first occupied by indigenous people, and that is where we should begin, and it is from that point of departure that our work should proceed. Secondly, I wanted to signal very clearly to our listeners that non-white people are not an add-on to the white norm. I wanted to centre her voice, her experience. Secondly, we live at a time when many young people associate “lesbian” with trans-exclusionary radical feminism. This is really frustrating for those of us who are over the age of 40 whose politics could not be further from TERFism. Anyhow, for this reason we constantly signal that we are trans-inclusive.

Our overall strategy is this: if people think their stories belong in the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony, we welcome them. This includes people who are female and no longer identify as lesbian, women who identify as bisexual, people who transitioned and are now male, or who transitioned and are now lesbian. Our objective is to provide a repository of testimony about lesbian experience. If you have some, we welcome your story.

Can you discuss your podcasts? How has the project gone? What would you have done differently if you knew then what you know now?
The podcast project was the most unexpected and wonderful outcome of this project. I had an application from Callie Hitchcock for the social media manager position, and I hired someone else, but was so impressed with her CV that I wondered what role she might play. That’s how the idea of the podcast came about. I had a very clear vision of how it would work: we would interview oral historians about their favourite clip from an interview with a lesbian, and ask them why it was a favourite, and also to share tips with listeners. The hope was that we would inspire and empower listeners to conduct their own interviews. Callie, who had no previous experience as an oral historian and who I found out later was only just coming out herself, ran with it, and what an amazing job she did! She really loved this project, and it shows.

What I love most about it is that it is very, very smart, but always completely accessible. The tone is very conversational, intimate, and authentic. I only wish that we could get more people listening!

A lot of collaborative models are emerging to connect oral histories and archives. Are there specific approaches/groups/communities/projects that you find especially compelling when it comes to collaboration?

Ironically, in the last year of the grant I have shifted my energy toward working in the local community. I now host a monthly event called Lesbian Lives Live where I interview an older lesbian in a public setting and invite people in attendance to pose their own questions. We make a point of seating people of different ages at tables together (the room set up puts me and the interviewee in the middle, with small tables around us forming a circle). Our hope is not just to share lesbian history, but to also create a space for community-building and intergenerational connection. I have one year left of funding in my grant which allows me to videotape these events. If we carry on beyond the grant, and I hope we do, I’ll simply make audio recordings on my own. I love having the visual to go with the audio, but economically it’s not sustainable in the long term.

It must be said that we are so lucky in Canada to have the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council provide funding for this kind of work. Although my career as an oral historian of the queer past has not always been appreciated by the scholarly community, I have always had grant funding to support what I do. Given what’s happening south of the border, I cannot say enough about how essential it has been to enabling queer scholarly research, which in turn supports our teaching.