When Larry Peterson was retiring he wanted to do something important. He’s part of the The Red River Rainbow Seniors and proposed that the group set out on an oral history project and collect the stories of the LGBTQ elders within their group and throughout North Dakota and Northern Minnesota. They teamed up with public historian Angela Smith and the NDSU archives to present “Breaking Barriers: Harvesting LGBTQ Stories from the Northern Plains. So far they have done 35 interviews with a number in the well. They hope to have 50 interviews done by the end of the year. The ultimate goal is to share their struggles with future generations.
“This is an opportunity to create a permanent record for future generations about your experiences growing up in and/or living as an LGBTQ person in this area. You were part of the ‘pioneer generation.’ You were a generation of ‘firsts’ who blazed new paths, broke new ground, wrote new rules, provided new models.” Wrote Peterson in an email when introducing the project to interviewees.
We had the opportunity to speak with Larry about the project and common themes the Red River Rainbow Seniors have found in their work.
High Plains Reader: Can you tell us a little bit about “Breaking Barriers: Harvesting LGBTQ Stories from the Northern Plains?”
Larry Peterson: We’re starting with the older LGBTQ generation so people who came of age at a time where some people didn’t even have a name for their feelings. They often felt the need to be hidden or be “in the closet.” Many of the people now, they’re in same sex marriages. So they’ve gone from a time in their lives where they may have experienced shame or fear about being who they really were, to a time of self acceptance and pride. That transition was a special historical time that hopefully won’t be repeated in terms of “going back into the closet.” We wanted to record those memories for future generations.
HPR: Do you think some people find these interviews cathartic or…
LP: For some people it’s been healing to talk about their experiences. They have a sense of validation as an interviewer and as someone who was interviewed, I found it very rewarding to have other people share their fears and their sorrows and their souls as part of the process. It’s been very moving for the interviewers and I think really in most cases for the interviewees.
HPR: What were some common themes from your subjects?
LP: People we’ve interviewed so far were in a 30 year age span, from their mid 50s to late 80s, society varied a lot during the periods they came out in. We don’t have an exact head count but probably about a third of the members of the Red River Rainbow Seniors were actually in heterosexual marriages. People who came of age at a time where that was the norm. People had feelings or same sex attractions but it just didn’t seem like an option or they thought it was just a phase in their life.
The people who have been in these heterosexual marriages, their partners are accepted by their families and their partners come to their family get togethers but families don’t talk about the nature of their relationships even now. So that’s still there. That’s not an unusual pattern and it may just be this part of the country. We don’t talk about things that make us uncomfortable.
HPR: Was it societal pressure that led some of these folks into opposite sex marriages?
LP: We try not to ask questions that make people too uncomfortable. We do ask if they’ve ever been in a long term relationship with the opposite sex, we ask about relationships and some other background questions about where they were born, if they heard any negative comments about LGBTQ people when they were growing up and to tell us about their coming out process. Then we ask them about relationships. I think it really was because it was expected and just not seeing a same sex relationship as a viable option.
HPR: What do you plan on doing with the interviews?
LP: Before we even started them we made an arrangement with the NDSU Archives so they’ll be deposited there. Skip Wood from Prairie Public Broadcasting approached me about doing “Rainbow Road” and taking snippets from the digital files and putting together some programming. Once we get 50 interviews we’ll look at some common themes and maybe do some writing about how people met and talk about gay and lesbian culture in the 50s in Fargo Moorhead.
HPR: How did people meet back then?
LP: There were a couple bars where people met which don’t exist anymore. There was a series of books called the “Damron Guides” they were basically gay guides and they covered areas of the country that were gay friendly. I think some of it too is proverbial “gaydar.” People went to a bar and thought--these look like my kind of people here.
HPR: Do you think gay bars are still relevant?
LP: It’s a place where people congregate and feel comfortable. There’s some people who don’t want to go to bars because of problems with alcohol. I’ve heard people say--it’s like our church. In a sense of not worshipping there (laughs) but going to a place where you feel comfortable and accepted.
HPR: I don’t mean to be negative, but was there a common theme that people spoke of negatively?
LP: It has really varied. I do think that one of the real struggles has been many churches haven’t been accepting. People often grew up in a faith tradition and church has been very important to them and when they came out to themselves they found out that the church was not home for them anymore. Some people have lost jobs because of their sexual orientation and when some people came out they were cut off from their families because their families were not accepting. In our series of questions we do ask if they’ve ever been discriminated against and there are people who aren’t willing to talk about it.
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