Queer Storytelling: Reclamation, Legacy, and Liberation
Updated: May 28, 2020
Reclaiming our past, ensuring our future.
[Image Description: A watercolor painting with a tree with a rainbow spectrum]
We’re not invisible now
We’re here to be counted
You’ll not be pushed to the ground
If you’re lost
You’ll be found
Do you hear me?
Storytelling is a personal and powerful vehicle for social change. Stories allow us to share our histories and cultivate knowledge about our identities, beliefs, and culture. Growing up, I immersed myself in every story I could find. In elementary school, I read books about Greek mythology, dinosaurs, Great Lakes shipwrecks, and astronomy. With my childhood friend, we would act out intricate scenes to a fantasy world we made up, and I would then go home to write them down. Upon reflection, stories, whether fictional or factual, gave my life purpose.
When I began to reconcile my sexuality and my life in rural Wisconsin, I realized the stories of LGBTQ+ people were nonexistent. I did not know my community's history, and felt that I lacked an environment that was safe for me to unearth my Queer history. From this experience, I learned the importance of storytelling for LGBTQ+ people. Queer storytelling is a conduit for social change, and transforms isolation and erasure into action. The importance of LGBTQ+ storytelling, which comes in many forms, allows LGBTQ+ people to share their history on their terms with their own voice.
The marginalization of LGBTQ+ stories removes Queer people from writing, recorded material, and data. The history of LGBTQ+ erasure is painful, problematic, and ongoing. For example, Alan Turing was an English scientist who was highly influential in theoretical computer science and worked as a code breaker during World War II, where he deciphered Nazi intelligence and prevented many Nazi advances. Despite these achievements, he was never celebrated in his home country due to being convicted of homosexual conduct. After his conviction, Turing was allegedly chemically castrated and poisoned by the British government, which resulted in his death. More recently, iconic activist and transgender woman of color Marsha P. Johnson was entirely erased from the 2015 Stonewall movie. Instead, a fictional cisgender white gay male character was depicted as the lead activist in the movement. These examples are all too common, and even perpetuated by well-intended cisgender and heterosexual allies. Ultimately, Queer experiences are often lost in translation and filtered to be more palatable in a society dominated by binary ideas of sex and gender.
To disrupt heteronormative and cisnormative narratives in societies, storytelling is being wielded as a tool for social change by LGBTQ+ communities. In the context of racial justice, researchers Lee Anne Bell and Rosemarie Roberts theorized four different types of stories in the context of social change.
The first type is called a stock story. These stories are the dominant narrative, and are wielded by those in power and perpetuated by institutions through rituals, laws, and media (e.g., "LGBTQ+ people are incongruous with religion"). Conversely, concealed stories are a result of the stock story. They are possessed by those at the margins of society, and are often unheard by the majority (e.g., LGBTQ+ people who are spiritual and are proud of both their identity and their religion).
Next, resistance stories illustrate how people have challenged stock stories and advocate for inclusivity, equity, and justice (e.g., LGBTQ+ spiritual leaders advocating that spirituality and sexuality are not diametrically opposed, like Padraig O’ Tuama’s in the shelter). Finally, counter stories are new stories that are amplified to challenge stock stories and build off of resistance stories (e.g., LGBTQ+ identified United Methodist pastors sharing their stories during the 2019 referendum). While developed in the context of racial justice, the storytelling for social change model offers practical and comprehensive ways that LGBTQ+ people can not only understand the relationship between different types of stories, but develop their own counter stories to challenge stock stories.
There are many concealed stories in LGBTQ+ communities. Academics, activists, and historians are using the practice of oral history to document the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. Oral history is the collection and study of historical information using interviews from people who have personal knowledge of an event. Queer oral history is a product of feminist researchers searching for a research method to position narrators to share their memories to preserve their history. An example of Queer oral history can be found on the LGBTQ+ Digital Collaboratory, a master list of oral history projects ranging from activists who organized for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to the Transgender Oral History Project. Oral history is a way to document stories that are excluded from primary and secondary sources, and unearth counter stories to augment our understanding of LGBTQ+ experiences.
With the advent of social media, sharing stories has never been easier. While social media unfortunately gives platforms to internet trolls to spew hatred, Queer artists use platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud, among many others, to allow LGBTQ+ people to be visible like never before. Slam poets are using these platforms to share resistance stories about sexuality and gender identity. Major online platforms are sharing interviews with two-spirit and gender-nonconforming people to amplify their experiences to people across the world. LGBTQ+ stories are even shaping policy debates - for example, organizers at OutFront Minnesota are using storytelling as a tactic to ban conversion therapy in Minnesota by having survivors share their experiences to expose the abhorrent practice.
Social media allows Queer people from across generations, and across the world, to mobilize. For example, LGBTQ+ social service organizations in the United Kingdom use social media to create peer networks to provide support for LGBTQ+ people in rural areas. By using social media platforms to build community through sharing stories, Queer people are allowed to be surrounded by their peers and not feel as isolated. As a result, they can self-advocate to transform social disparities into equity.
As a person who grew up in rural northeast Wisconsin, I had never seen a gay person represented in media until I was 13 years old. For me, LGBTQ+ storytelling through social media platforms allowed me to not feel as alone. Listening to stories of LGBTQ+ youth organizers in other states were not only affirming, but helped inform action at my school as a group of us worked to rebuild my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
Despite mainstream media beginning to amplify LGBTQ+ voices and experiences, there have been negative consequences. Specifically, only certain LGBTQ+ narratives, and narrators, are truly being heard. One type of story being told is the quintessential “coming out” narrative. Most LGBTQ+ films center this dramatic and traumatic aspect of a Queer person’s life. Usually, these coming out narratives are paired with a forbidden love story that often ends in tragedy. LGBTQ+ representation in these stock stories are overwhelmingly white, and center masculine, cisgender, and conventionally attractive gay men (e.g. Love Simon, Call Me By Your Name, etc.). Coming out and experimenting with one’s identity is only one element of an LGBTQ+ person’s life, but through contemporary representations of LGBTQ+ people, coming out tends to be the only facet of an LGBTQ+ person’s life being seen. Consequently, a single story of LGBTQ+ people is being told.
These stories are limiting for LGBTQ+ people. In order to overcome this phenomenon, LGBTQ+ writers and producers need to be uplifted to provide more nuanced illustrations of Queer life. While straight producers and writers can definitely sympathize with Queer experiences, they have not lived them. All media that exists about a given population cannot solely be about the barriers they encounter. As an LGBTQ+ person, I want to see stupid romantic comedies, or see characters whose sexuality and gender identity are accepted by their peers. Queer representation needs to be holistically authentic, rather than showcasing our identities for a heartbreaking story arc or mindless punchline.
Oral history - and storytelling, more broadly - have been described as being “part of the struggle against forgetting.” For LGBTQ+ people, it is not only about documenting stories before narrators forget them, but ensuring that LGBTQ+ stories are not forgotten. History can be inaccurate, both because narrators are fallible and facts are filtered through our respective ideologies. This then begs the question, why bother collecting and documenting the fractal memories of Queer peoples’ experiences? In my view, it is simply because they matter to someone. Somewhere, someone needs to hear that the harsh realities of discrimination should not be the end of their story. LGBTQ+ youth in small towns need to know there is love in the world for them, and that there is so much out there for them to see.
LGBTQ+ voices are part of the struggle against forgetting. LGBTQ+ people who are comfortable documenting their stories must find spaces to cultivate their voice to counter the injustice of erasure. My hope is that LGBTQ+ people can lend their counter stories to inform a movement where we can all see that being LGBTQ+ is not synonymous with tragedy. Rather, it is contributing to a legacy and rich history of resistance, resilience, and love.
I won’t forget who you are
Just hold your head up
I’ll be the freak that’s unique
Be the Queer without fear
Can’t you see me?
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Written by Conner Suddick (He/him & They/them). Conner is the Lead Research Fellow and Outreach Coordinator for the Collaborative. He is deeply passionate about the power of stories,and their ability to inform, uplift, and empower. He is a graduate student at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Virginia, and studied social justice at Hamline University.
Follow Conner on Twitter: @Conner_WS