Oral history research seminar: challenge of queer oral history

Posted on 20/01/2015 by


The oral history and history of sexuality seminars joined up earlier this month when Amy Tooth Murphy from the University of Roehampton gave a seminar on the challenges of narrating queer lives.

Oral history would seem to the perfect discipline for researching lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and questioning (LGBTQ) lives but its emphasis on chronology and what would be classed as heteronormative life events may “prohibit the development of LGBTQ narratives,” said Tooth Murphy.

Tooth Murphy introduced the term “chrononormative”, coined by Elizabeth Freeman, to describe how life stories are usually told in a chronological fashion, starting with childhood and punctuated by key events such as marriage and parenthood. For LGBTQ interviewees such an approach could be seen as inappropriate as the “majority of these markers are what we would associate with living a normal, heterosexual life,” said Tooth Murphy.

This is a particular problem in the study of lesbian lives, she added, as according to communication theory, women are seen as the keepers of key moments in domestic life.

“When [lesbians] narrate experiences of life they tell the story of a dual experience. They’re outwardly failing by not having marriage or children but inwardly having a normal life of having a home,” she said.

She added that the home could be a dangerous place for anyone who was in the closet in any way.

“For many of the women I spoke to the home was not necessarily a safe space and visitors threatened the privacy of their relationship,” she said.

Tooth Murphy talked of how interviewers and interviewees often seek to impose a novelistic framework on their stories. The coming out narrative in LGBTQ stories is “an excellent example of how every marginal group will create its own dominant discourse”, said Murphy.

“It’s like the chrononormative narrative in that it represents progress and linear travel,” she said. However, one of Toothy Murphy’s interviewees skewered the coming out narrative by saying: “You know how people say ‘I came out and I was happy’? I came out and was still as miserable as sin.”

Resisting the draw of the chronological narrative is not easy, admitted Tooth Murphy, and she did not offer an alternative. “The power of chronology and narrative exerts its force on me. I’m always looking for a novelistic framework,” she said.

In discussion after the seminar one participant said that he asked interviewees to talk about the homes they had lived in. Interviewees tended to start with their current home, or the first place they lived in as an independent adult, he said.

At the end of her seminar Tooth Murphy wondered about the impact on LGBTQ narratives of recent social changes, such as equal marriage and an increasing acceptance of parenthood outside the male-female unit.

“In terms of wanting to sign up to equal marriage and the domestic idyll are we reconstructing and rebuilding that sense of chrononormativity that sits at the heart of a person’s life story?” she asked.

  • The next seminar will be led by Christine Wall from the University of Westminster and is called, Constructing post-war Britain: building workers’ histories 1950-70.The seminar takes place at 6pm on February 5th in room G21A, Ground floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. Seminars are free and open to all. For more information go to the OHS website.
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