This fall, I was given the opportunity to bring my research into the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery as part of a larger exhibit about queer lives and social activism. I designed the exhibit to highlight a few of the themes that have emerged through the oral history collection: as the images below illustrate, the small wall of the exhibit offers an introduction and overview and the larger wall consists of the three topics -Policy Matters, Keeping It “Normal”, and Being & Feeling In Place- around which I organized narrators’ quotes. (Read more about the research and the exhibit content here.)
The exhibit opened last Thursday. It was incredibly gratifying for me to see the work that has occupied most of my waking hours in the last six weeks come to life on the walls of the gallery. More than that, though, it is really exciting to be making these stories visible to a wider audience, and in a format that is different than the typical scholarly options (journal article, book) that remain the most valued form of research dissemination.
The fact is that most of the narrators who have contributed to this oral history-social geography project won’t be interested in reading a scholarly monograph, even if it is priced and written to be accessible to a more-than-scholarly audience. As a result, without an exhibit like this, most narrators would not get a sense for how their stories and their experiences of queer place-making compare to others’ stories and experiences. The LGBTQ ‘community’ here has much in common with queer communities in other cities: what may appear to be one ‘LGBTQ community’ in Lethbridge is in fact many communities, divided by the usual factors (e.g., generation, class, race) as well as some additional features (like one’s status as a local or transplant to southern Alberta). Thus, while stories of queer place-making and comfort and safety are certainly shared among friends, the opportunities for dialogue across LGBTQ folks in Lethbridge are limited.
Given that this archive is a community resource (and, in the best case scenario, a tool for community building), I feel a sense of responsibility to share these stories in a way that will make a difference to the narrators’ lives. There are a number of ways that the project aims to enact ‘making a difference’; for instance, it has been clear from the start of the research that the oral histories would be donated to the local historical society, to become part of a public archive and contribute to the official local historical record. This exhibit is another effort toward ‘making a difference’: it gives LGBTQ voices and experiences space and visibility not often afforded in the Lethbridge region. And I hope that it will spark conversation within the LGBTQ communities and beyond, in a way that considers the opportunities and challenges of queer place-making in and around Lethbridge.