Methodology

Out in the Redwoods

                                  Return to Out In The Redwoods project home

Care was taken to balance the interviewees as much as possible in terms of the following criteria: race, ethnicity, class, gender, age; time period attending or working at UCSC; students, staff, and faculty. Funding and time limitations precluded extending the pool beyond twenty-seven individuals. Individuals were also selected who lived either in the Santa Cruz or San Francisco Bay areas. Some of the limitations posed by the size of this pool of interviewees were compensated for by the inclusion of the ten narratives, and of one group interview.

In April 2002, as part of UCSC's Slug Day Alumni Reunion, we organized an Out in the Redwoods Living History Circle, in which fourteen UCSC alum shared their experiences of their time at UCSC. A group interview, in which narrators stimulate each other's memories, can sometimes evoke more powerful recollections than a one-to-one traditional oral history interview format. Such group interviews also challenge the individualistic concept of identity, and facilitate a more collective understanding of how history is experienced or made in movements and communities. We had many representatives from the class of 1972, as this was their thirtieth reunion. Their memories of that historic period, in which student activism was highly visible and dramatic, and the campus was still in its formative stages, are very compelling. The event was taped and transcribed, and the full transcript is included on the cd-rom in the back of this book.

For the individual oral history interviews, a basic question outline was developed by participants in the internship, in consultation with project staff. (The question outline is available on the cd-rom.) This course, which offered students intellectual and practical training in oral history theory and methodology, as well as a basic background in GLBT history, included nine undergraduate and two graduate students from a variety of disciplines across campus, including anthropology, American studies, women's studies, sociology, history, politics, and art. The fact that such an academically diverse group of students were interested in this course is testament to the interdisciplinary relevance of oral history as a method of research. (The course syllabus is also included on the cd-rom at the back of this book.)

This lively and impassioned group of students met once a week in the cozy UCSC Women's Center, an old Victorian house overlooking the Monterey Bay. The ten-week course was facilitated by myself, with assistance from Randall Jarrell, and three GLBT staff who served as mentor teachers in the course. David Kirk, a recently retired library staff member in his sixties, contributed his lifelong perspective as a GLBT organizer/activist on and off campus. Women's studies librarian Jacquelyn Marie taught several instructional sessions on GLBT library research which helped students complete background research on their interviewees. She also taught a session on GLBT archives, familiarizing students with the collection and preservation of archival material. The students were thus able to approach their interviewees about whether they had materials they would like to contribute to the library. Marie then coordinated the collection and organization of this material. The third staff mentor for the course was Valerie Jean Chase, a UCSC alum and longtime staff member, who generously shared her detailed and expansive knowledge of the campus, as well as extensive experience mentoring UCSC students.

These mentor teachers, who ranged in age from their early forties to early sixties, and had been "out" for many years, worked closely with the students, who were in their early- to mid-twenties, and had for the most part come out very recently. This generational difference led to fascinating classroom discussions about historical changes in GLBT culture and movements. For example, while the students mostly embraced queer as an inclusive and liberating term, the teachers were more ambivalent about this word, having come out during a period when it was quite derogatory. Some of the students had a more sophisticated understanding of the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, and of the fluidity of gender and sexuality, as well as a greater awareness and understanding of bisexual and transgendered identity, insights which came from the more contemporary GLBT movement. The students helped some of the teachers become more open-minded. The teachers, on the other hand, came out during a period when lesbian or gay and gender were understood as more fixed categories, and there was sometimes considerable resistance to including bisexuals or transgendered people in the movement. However, several of the teachers had spent years as activists and writers in the lesbian feminist movement, and were able to bring this perspective to a generation which often thinks of lesbian feminism in clichéd terms, and as a relic of the past. The teachers had also lived through key events in GLBT history, and were able to offer a personal and historical perspective on events which the students were not familiar with. A series of videos on GLBT history shown in class also stimulated these discussions. In addition, students conducted practice in-class oral history interviews with each other, thus gaining not only interview skills, but also an understanding of the diversity of GLBT backgrounds even within their own age group.

These discussions helped the team of interviewers grasp the nature of the generational gap that could exist between them and their interviewees. While a few of the more recent graduates interviewed were in their twenties, and several were in their thirties, most of the interviewees were in their forties and fifties. Several were in their sixties and one was eighty.

The internship course was publicized through campus queer listservs, on flyers and announcements sent to departments and key faculty members, and to the Women's Center and the GLBT Resource Center. Perhaps because UCSC is a stronghold for women's studies, all of the students who expressed interest in, and were qualified to take the course were women. Four of the five mentor teachers were women. This meant that the majority of the gay men interviewed for the project were interviewed by women, creating somewhat of an insider/outsider relationship between most interviewers and interviewees. If the gay men had been interviewed by other gay men would they have discussed their intimate relationships or their gender identity differently, for example? The student interns included several bisexual women, and two women who identified as straight. (None of the interviewers were transgendered, although two of them were involved in transgendered issues as allies.) Only one of the straight women identified herself as such to the class. Should this decision be viewed as purely personal, or was an implicit message given that all the students who took this course should be GLBT?

In terms of racial/ethnic diversity, two of the students identified as Latina or Chicana, and one as Jewish. None of the interviewers were African American or Asian American. One mentor teacher/interviewer identified as Native American/Chicana/white, and the project coordinator is Jewish. By contrast, the pool of interviewees was quite a bit more racially and ethnically diverse, leading again to implicitly and sometimes explicitly felt differences between the interviewers and the interviewees. This is not necessarily a problem, but it does shape the interviews, which are a co-creation of interviewee and interviewer. These kinds of complex questions about insider/outsider relationships must always be considered in oral history research.1 Furthermore, by definition the project emphasized GLBT identity over race, gender, class or other forms of identity. This, in retrospect, was not the ideal methodology for encouraging an interviewee to discuss how, for example, their identity of experience as a Chicana intersected with their identity as a lesbian. The onus remained on the interviewee to challenge this privileging of GLBT identity during the interview, and it is sometimes difficult to do this. Perhaps future projects of this nature will find a better way to design an oral history project which addresses intersectionality.

Students were assigned their interviewees, who had already been contacted by the project coordinator. Student interests were taken into account when these interview assignments were made. During the second half of the course, the students conducted their interviews. Class discussions became strategy sessions for locating background materials, developing question outlines, and also a supportive learning environment in which to reflect on the interviews after they had taken place. Due to technical challenges in operating a rather complex combination recorder/transcriber, a few of the students encountered recording difficulties, and faced one of the greatest challenges of oral history: having to redo an interview! They successfully surmounted this worst-case challenge with grace and skill, and the interviewees were also generous with their understanding.

The course concluded with a scrumptious potluck of both words and food, in which students discussed and shared selected excerpts from their interviews. This class became more than a class; it was a community of students, some of whom formed lasting friendships, and all of whom expressed their appreciation for being able to connect with older GLBT folks in this intergenerational project. They also enjoyed eating a lot of chocolate together!

After the course was over, two of the students volunteered to do a second interview. Several other individuals worked with the project as volunteer interviewers. This volunteer effort, along with the interviews conducted by myself, made it possible to broaden the pool of interviewees.

The oral histories were transcribed, edited (for paragraphing, spelling, punctuation, etc.) and returned to the interviewees for their corrections and approval. In the interests of respecting privacy, the names and identifying information of people who are not out publicly were removed. This set of transcripts is available on the cd-rom accompanying this volume, in archival volumes available in Special Collections at the University Library at UCSC; the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley; and selected other institutions, or direct from Regional History upon request for the cost of photocopying.

  1. For a discussion of the complexities of oral history research and methodology see Alessandro Portelli's The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories , and the Battle of Valle Giulia, Oral History and the Art of Dialogue . Extensive resources are also available on the Oral History Association's website at http://www.oralhistory.org/.

© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.