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Toronto’s Lesbians Making History goes digital

Oral history project about gay women in the ’50s and ’60s gets new life at the CLGA

Maureen FitzGerald with a Lesbians Making History banner. Credit: Rachel Epstein

A piece of Toronto’s lesbian history is about to get a new life: a rare oral history project about lesbian lives in the 1950s and 1960s is going digital, and will be fully transcribed and easy to access at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives and online.

The Lesbians Making History (LMH) collective came together in the mid-1980s and was inspired by oral history projects of gay lives coming out of Buffalo, Boston and San Francisco. A sister project was soon set up in Toronto.

“I was inspired by the idea of exploring the history of ‘gay women’ in my adopted home town — women who had loved women before and since the modern liberation movements,” Amy Gottlieb says. Gottlieb is one of the original collective members. She connected with Didi Khayatt, who had already interviewed teachers who had been in relationships with other women, and the collective grew from there.

They recorded the interviews on cassette tapes, keeping them unavailable to academic researchers. “We were committed to the project being a community-based project, not one rooted in academic pursuit,” Maureen FitzGerald, who at the time was Gottlieb’s lover, says. “We received funding from the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal that enabled us to buy a professional quality tape recorder and hire a lesbian transcriber.”

FitzGerald herself works in academia today, as does Khayatt. “It is ironic that when the collective ran out of steam and the transcripts and audiotapes ended up in my office at the University of Toronto, our position mellowed and we allowed Elise Chenier, now a professor at Simon Fraser University, to use the transcripts in her MA thesis.” FitzGerald continues to work on oral histories of gay and lesbian lives, and hopes those interviews will follow the LMH collection into the CLGA.

One of the first women interviewed was Lois Stuart, who had already collaborated with Khayatt on her dissertation on lesbian teachers — and whom many will remember from the National Film Board’s Forbidden Love. Stuart connected them to two other women, and a friend invited a lesbian couple to the project. The researchers were primarily interested in bar culture of the ’50s and ’60s, specifically at The Continental Hotel, but found out that house parties had also been important. One of the women interviewed, Eve Zaremba, was not part of bar culture at all. “Her most important formative experience was being an immigrant from war-torn Poland,” says FitzGerald. “She came out as a lesbian in the feminist movement in the 1970s, and she never frequented the lesbian bars.”

LMH is getting a jolt of (digital) life thanks to Elspeth Brown, and a research grant. “I was putting together a grant to digitize oral LGBT history here in Toronto and I suggested to Maureen to include the tapes in the digitization project with the CGLA, and she agreed,” says Brown, who teaches at the University of Toronto. After they got the funding, Brown and FitzGerald worked with the staff at the archives to digitize the tapes and correct the transcriptions. They also collaborated with Elise Chenier, whose own work on the archives of oral testimony is part of the digitization project.

“Maureen had to go back to the narrators’ next-of-kin to ask for permission for the testimonies to be online,” says Brown. “This project was a good a case study in confidentiality, privacy and copyright in the world of the internet.” Only one of the women interviewed is alive today: Eve Zaremba, now known as an accomplished author of mystery novels. She will be at the CLGA launch on Sunday, June 7.