The history of Eugene’s lesbian community from the 1960s through the 1990s will be kept alive through video interviews and archival documents of more than 140 women taking part in the UO’s Lesbian Oral History project.
Judith Raiskin, associate professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Linda Long, curator of manuscripts in Special Collections and University Archives in UO Libraries, are conducting the project as part of the library’s effort to preserve Oregon history.
Raiskin and Long see the project as an integral part of history that needs to be recorded or it will disappear. In a letter explaining the project, they wrote, “These stories will illustrate how this community reflected, reacted to, and transformed the broader American cultural and social history.”
Information meetings were organized for potential participants. Many at meetings knew each other, although some hadn’t been in touch for many years. Many attended the UO in the late 1960s through the 1990s. Some were, or still are, employed by the university.
Memories soon poured out, and they spoke of the groups and places they had been part of through the years: the Starflower Natural Foods Collective, lesbian martial arts groups, feminist bookstores, a lesbian choir and many more.
Laughter, sighs and a bit of head-nodding were evident as Long spoke amid photos she collected for the project and other LGBTQ collections. Memories were sparked as the images flashed by, along with quiet grieving when photos of women who have died came on the screen.
Raiskin and Long began video interviews this summer and will continue interviewing through 2019. They are focusing on collecting the oral histories of older women in Eugene’s longtime lesbian community, in addition to primary documents, such as journals, diaries, flyers, photographs and other archival material.
Raiskin and Long are finding that the interviews reveal much about women’s history; the counterculture movement in the 1960s and 1970s; and the development of feminist institutions, the lesbian and gay rights movement and intentional communities, including the separatist back-to-the-land movement. They’re also hearing about Oregon politics and anti-gay initiatives, lesbian cultural work and issues relevant to aging lesbians and their communities.
Video interviews last from one to 1½ hours. According to Raiskin, they have been very moving.
“Everyone we interviewed has been remarkably eloquent and self-reflective,” she said. “Each person talked about what it meant to live through a time when they were barred from many professions by ‘moral turpitude’ clauses, were harassed and often lost their jobs because they were lesbians, and fought against recurring anti-gay ballot measures.”
Despite discrimination, participants also “reveled in creating together one of the most vibrant lesbian communities in the country,” Raiskin said. “It’s a privilege to hear these stories and be able to preserve this important history.”
The end product will include typed, printed and bound transcriptions and the videotape of each interview. Interviews will be made available to scholars and the general public online. Archival material will be available to researchers and the public in UO special collections, alongside related material.
Long has developed many collections documenting the LGBT experience and struggles in Oregon, including several collections documenting the lesbian separatist land movement starting in the early 1970s, the Tee Corinne papers, the Nomenus gay men's separatist land movement and the records of Oregon Right to Privacy/Right to Pride and Basic Rights Oregon. The lesbian land collections and the Tee Corinne papers in particular see consistently high use by scholars in Oregon, as well as those from around the country and the world.
Long’s presentation to potential participants included a photo and quote from lesbian photographer, writer and activist Tee Corinne, whose work is part of the library’s collections. Corinne’s words were used to sum up the importance of and need for the work: “The lack of a publicly accessible history is a devastating form of oppression; lesbians face it constantly.”
The UO Lesbian Oral History project will help make Oregon lesbian history publicly accessible.
—By tova stabin, University Communications