In this post, I want to explore the logistical aspects of the Queer Peel Oral History project. My intention behind this is two-fold: to highlight the work that went into the project, and to provide insight to those inclined to explore the possibility of running their own oral history projects. I believe it would be worthwhile to insert a quick disclaimer, however: I do not intend (and would not claim) to be creating a guide on how to ‘properly’ conduct oral history projects. Rather, I want to reflect on the work and effort placed into this project and showcase how it worked effectively.
With that, let’s begin.
One of the first things that I needed to come to terms with when beginning this project is that I knew nothing. I knew what all the letters in the LGBTQ acronym meant, and I could tell you what Operation Soap was, but I quickly realized that Queer life is so much more than one’s personal experiences. The history that exists surrounding Queer people is one that isn’t taught in elementary or high schools, and therefore tends to be ignored. Without this knowledge of Queer history, people – especially young people – can sometimes feel like Queer life is something new and uncharted. In other words, I learned that being Queer in Peel isn’t something that I had already discovered; I was just beginning to unearth it and the rich history supporting it. When conducting any work, it’s important to recognize that the knowledge you think you have often barely begins to scrape the surface. It was important that we were further educated. We were provided with regular readings on Queer life and the importance of oral history, which allowed us to approach the topic with a solid foundation for the work we were eager to create.
I also learned that it was incredibly important to respect the narrator. Ensuring that the narrator was always comfortable and safe during the interview was a major priority. A narrator is opening up and providing you with their stories, and it was imperative that we respected that before, during, and after the interviews. Which leads me on to my next point: it is important to establish a plan early on. Clearly assigning tasks to our group members was helpful in streamlining the interview process and the work that followed. Communicating with narrators via email was also a challenge, and so the ability to have a couple of buffer days (to wait for a response) between these emails was always useful.
Furthermore, I learned that certain resources may not be as useful as you want – or expect – them to be. A requirement of the project was to ground our findings in tangible historical evidence. I ventured over to Mississauga’s Central Library in the hopes of finding something useful in their newspaper archives. Personally, I had no luck locating any reference to Queer life until the topic entered purposefully the public sphere (i.e. scandals, same-sex marriage). As discouraging as it was, it revealed that one must understand the audience that they are attempting to study. Would people in 1980’s Mississauga want to read about Queer life? If not, where would one be more inclined to find references to it during that time period? I had failed to follow Queer people and instead relied on the institutional organizations that I was taught to perceive as reliable.
Finally, I learned that a project is never really over – and thank goodness for that! I was so encouraged by the work that was being done, I sought more of it! I reached out to the individual leading the project, Professor Brown, and made it known that I was interested in assisting with some of the additional back-end work that may need to be done. There were some elements of the project that we simply were not able to complete (i.e. proper transcriptions). However, not completing certain aspects of the project also highlighted my limitations. Although I may not have completed everything that I wanted to, in the way that I wanted to, it was important to recognize my limits and work within them. It was important that I didn’t let that discourage or inhibit my ability to do my work, and instead used it as encouragement to do the work that I could in the best possible way.
For more information on the Queer Peel Oral History Project, view the Omeka digital exhibition here: https://omeka.utm.utoronto.ca/s/queerpeel/page/intro