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Telling Your Story: Preserving History with LGBTQ+ Older Adults

Storytelling can be a powerful experience for all involved

spinner image Ray Gibson, left, and Eric Marcus, right, both work to preserve the stories of the older LGBTQ+ community
Ray Gibson, left, and Eric Marcus, right, both work to preserve the stories of the older LGBTQ+ community.
Caleb Hiers, Blacshiep Photography; Courtesy Eric Marcus

When Eric Marcus first started interviewing LGBTQ older adults for his book Making Gay History, many of the people he spoke to had never been asked to share their stories. Talking to these individuals, the aspect of the experience that struck him the most was the catharsis he could see in his subjects when they were storytelling.

spinner image Ray Gibson shares his experiences about discovering his gender identity on his YouTube channel.
Ray Gibson shares his experiences about discovering his gender identity on his YouTube channel.
Caleb Hiers, Blacshiep Photography

“For those people, it really opened things up,” says Marcus. “It brought them back in time. And it was an opportunity for them to revisit memories, some of which were wonderful and some of which were extremely painful. I found at the end of many of the interviews that people didn't want to let me go.”

Marcus, 64, conducted more than 100 interviews with LGBTQ elders for Making Gay History, and the interview archives are now collected as a podcast. He spoke to champions, heroes and witnesses to history about the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the United States, creating an oral archive that allows people to tell stories in their own words.

As LGBTQ adults age, the need for them to tell their stories – and for the next generation to hear them – grows, Marcus says. Whether the audience is other older adults who can relate to the experiences of their peers, or a younger generation of LGBTQ Americans gleaning insight from history, storytelling can be a powerful experience for both the storyteller and the listener, and new technology has made recording the stories of LGBTQ elders more accessible than ever.

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The impact of storytelling

Ray Gibson, a 65-year-old Air Force veteran and son of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, realized he was transgender in 2015. Gibson never saw trans representation in the media growing up and didn’t know of anyone who was trans, which led to challenges understanding his gender identity without knowing what he was feeling and why.

Now, Gibson tells his story through media interviews and by publishing videos on a YouTube channel, sharing his experience discovering his gender identity and coming out in the hopes that others, especially older LGBTQ people who may be realizing their identity later in life, will hear his story and feel less alone.

“Thinking about it, in order not to feel alone, that’s why these stories are important,” Gibson says. “When you’re by yourself, you can say ‘Oh man, look at all these other people out here, I’m not alone. I’m not a freak.’”

Just like Gibson, Marcus also has seen benefits from storytelling not only for those recording their stories for the first time, but also for those hearing them. Fighting back against discrimination starts with changing hearts and attitudes through storytelling on various scales, from media interviews to kitchen table conversations, he says.

“I hear from people who were deeply affected by the stories they read; they were inspired by them. They were outraged by them,” Marcus says. “They were encouraged … by the fact that these people had fought for the world in which we live today, to make it possible for gay people, LGBTQ people to have full lives.”

The National LGBTQ Task Force, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is releasing a monthly podcast called Movement Moments. The podcast showcases the history of LGBTQ activism with stories on the experience of being LGBTQ in the military, and transgender and nonbinary visibility and other topics.

For LGBTQ elders, storytelling is an integral part of culture, as their stories have historically been left out of institutional records such as history books and school curricula, says Cathy Renna, communications director for the task force.

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“At the end of the day, what stories do is they make our lives less abstract to people,” Renna says. “It’s that personal connection that comes through storytelling, whether it’s someone on television or ... whether it’s a character on a TV show, whether it’s someone you’re sitting across the table from … it’s absolutely vital, always has been, always will.”

Wider visibility of transgender people, and especially people transitioning later in life like Gibson, would have made a difference in his experience, he says.

“I would have embraced this so much earlier in my life had I even known or had language or if there were people around, or whatever, that were talking about this,” Gibson says. “I thought I was the only one, you know. It felt so lonely.”

Why now is the time to capture LGBTQ older adults’ stories

With a growing amount of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric across the country, learning from those in the gay civil rights movement has never been more important, say advocates who lived through the first movement and continue to fight for LGBTQ rights today. State lawmakers have introduced nearly as many anti-LGBTQ bills this year as in the last five years, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Christina Da Costa, chief experience officer and senior director of marketing and communications at SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBTQ older adults, works with SAGE members to showcase the vibrancy and value of their experiences and share them with younger LGBTQ generations.

“As we’re seeing an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country, our elders have so much to offer in terms of wisdom and resilience,” Da Costa says. “They have seen it all from the very beginning.”

If we don’t keep the past at the forefront of our minds and learn from the work of LGBTQ elders, we pose the risk of letting history repeat itself, Marcus says.

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“The beauty of these old stories is that while this isn’t exactly the same moment as that was, we can learn from the past,” Marcus says. “We can learn from people who’ve lived through this sort of thing before and be inspired by them.”

The need for preserving the stories of gay male boomers is particularly pressing because many of those who would now be elders died during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. A disproportionately high volume of AIDS deaths occurred among gay men who were between 25 and 44 years old from 1987 to 1996, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by researchers published in The Gerontologist, leaving a lasting hole in that generation and its social networks.

The medium through which a story is told is an important factor to consider when storytelling. When working on his book, Marcus found it was often challenging to translate emotion or nonverbal context from interviews into writing. Audio or video interviews can be helpful to capture the full dimensions of narratives.

If you are interested in recording your stories or history through oral interviews, Marcus recommends using a high-quality microphone and recording equipment, which you can often rent from a library or order online at an affordable price. His biggest piece of advice for LGBTQ elders and their loved ones or caretakers: Don’t wait to document stories.

If recording equipment is out of reach, consider using your smartphone. Both iPhone and Android devices allow you to record voices.

Share your story

These sites provide opportunities to preserve your story.

Once you record the oral histories, you can post the recordings online to spread your story to a wide audience, or use Google Drive, email or Dropbox to pass that recording on to relatives or loved ones. There are podcast hosting sites as well as YouTube, Vimeo and even Facebook to host videos. However you choose to share your story, doing so can have a marked effect.

Gibson says his life was changed when he first saw Chaz Bono, a transgender man, perform on Dancing with the Stars. Hearing Bono’s story allowed him to learn more about himself and his own identity in a profound way.

Whether you are making the effort to share your own story or are seeking out the accounts of others, storytelling is a powerful and underrated tool, Renna says.

“The stories are out there,” Renna says. “You just have to find them.”

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