A GROUP of historians are embarking on an ambitious project to document an oral history of lesbian and gay Australia.

Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories is collecting five generations of oral histories through a series of interviews by historians at a number of leading Australian universities. The project is being conducted in collaboration with the National Library of Australia, who were interested in increasing their already-significant collection of oral histories.

The National Library already holds a number of histories relating to the AIDS crisis in Australia, but nothing about gay and lesbian Australians more generally.

One of the project’s heads is Associate Professor Robert Reynolds from Macquarie University, who said oral history was a big part of marginalised and minority communities.

“Certainly in gay and lesbian history, oral history has a long tradition of being used. Particularly in pre-gay liberation times, when our records weren’t particularly well-kept, and illegality kept people below the radar,” Reynolds told the Star Observer.

The project is targeting five age groups, ranging feom people born before 1940 to those born after 1985.

“We want to know, what was it like growing up in the 1940s gay? And that will be compared to… what was it like growing up in the 2000s being gay?” Reynolds said.

“So that’s why it’s really important for us to interview across age groups, to get that sense of how the experience of being lesbian and gay has changed over time.”

People in the oldest age group would be in their 70s and older now — and those involved in the project have said it was difficult to find enough people to interview.

While there is a perception in the gay community that younger gay men aren’t aware enough of the community’s history, Reynolds said initial interviews seemed to indicate young gay men were engaged with what came before.

“Perhaps because the young gay men who have volunteered for the project actually have a strong sense of history… they don’t live up to the stereotype of having absolutely no idea what happened before they were born, or before they came out,” he said.

Interviews can run for up to five hours, with interviewers taking a fairly open approach.

“We have not so much a set of questions but a set of themes. We want to cover people’s childhoods, their early-adulthood, their first experiences of sex, romance,” Reynolds explained.

The collected oral histories will comprise a digital archive held within the National Library of Australia.

Participants have given the historians different levels of access to their recorded oral histories. Some will be immediately accessible, others wish to be contacted before the interview is accessed, while others still will only be available to the public upon the death of the interviewee.

As well as the collection itself, the plan is for the interviews to be turned into a book aimed at the general public, and to serve as source material for academic articles.

For information about Australian Lesbian and Gay Life Stories visit www.australianlesbianandgaylifestories.org.au

(Main image: A scene from the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. PHOTO: Geoff Friend SOURCE: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives)

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