March 26, 2018
Simply tracing the history of the LGBTQ community, as it is with other marginalized groups, can be challenging for a myriad of reasons. Let alone the challenges of identifying and interpreting historic places that were and are important to the LGBTQ community. Fortunately, Susan Ferentinos is leading the way, and has quite literally written the book on the subject, her book “Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites” won an award from the National Council on Public History in 2016. Susan and our guest-host Meagan Baco spoke about how she came to specialize in LGBTQ history, what unique challenges exist in studying this history, and much more on this week’s PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] Simply tracing the history of the LGBTQ community as it is with other marginalized groups can be challenging for a myriad of reasons, let alone identifying and interpreting historic places that were and are important to that community. Fortunately, Susan Ferentinos is leading the way and has, quite literally, written the book on the subject. Her book, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, won an award from the National Council on Public History in 2016. Susan and our guest host, Meagan Baco, spoke about how she came specialize in LGBTQ history, what unique challenges exist in studying this history, and much more on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Meagan Baco] Hi, folks. Here’s a voice from PreserveCast past. All the way from episode 10 for you long time listeners. This is Meagan Baco filling in for Nick Redding. Today we’re talking to Susan Feretinos, a leading voice in inclusive public history with a specialty in LGBTQ history. Sue is a master researcher and author whose book, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, was recently recognized with the National Council on Public History book award. She’s collaborated with the National Park Service on many, many projects, including most recently wrapping up two studies to identify important LGBTQ historic sites in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic. Here in Maryland, we’re excited and hoping to use those guiding documents to help us tell a more inclusive story and we’re excited to have Sue with us today. So let’s get started. Welcome, Sue!
[Susan Ferentinos] Thank you. I’m very excited to be here.
[MB] Great. And you are joining us from your home in…?
[SF] In Bloomington, Indiana, where I spend most of my time. Although I also live part-time in the Philadelphia area.
[MB] Very good. So you’ve got a range of geographies here that you’re pulling from from all of your research. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in public history and how you carved our your specialty in LGBTQ history?
[SF] Sure. It is interesting when I wake up every day to realize what I get to do because it’s not something that when you’re a little kid, you may dream of being a historian, but professional historians out in the world are not necessarily evident. And so it was a little bit of a journey to get to where I am now, but I actually got started in the field of history and in researching history through LGBTQ history shortly before I decided to go to grad school to become a historian. In my mid-twenties, I got involved with a local history project being organized just by members of the LGBTQ community in Austin, Texas, where I was living at the time. And I fell in love with LGBTQ history. I fell in love with working with regular folks outside of the academy who had lived lives that had intersected with major trends or contexts of what we think of as U.S. history. And I was hooked and within about two years I had moved to Indiana to start grad school and I earned a Master’s focusing on LGBTQ history, but then, I went broader. I earned my PhD more generally in history of sexuality and then worked over ten years for the Organization of American Historians being an advocate for public history within the historical profession.
And for those not familiar with the term, public history is the part of the history profession that concerns itself with talking about the past to a wide public audience, so that can range from historic sites to historic preservation to museums to film documentaries. And in the position that I had at the Organization of American Historians, I was very fortunate to have a finger in all of those different plots. But during that period, up until really quite recently, there wasn’t that much of a place in professional public history for discussions of history of sexuality or LGBTQ history. About six years ago, I left that position to start my own consulting firm to become an advocate for telling that wider array of stories within public history venues. And that’s how I’ve gotten to where I am now.
[MB] Well, thank you for sharing that journey. I’ve often thought about how researchers and historians go about LGBTQ history specifically, and how it has to be so inclusive, and it has to be much more community-focused, and almost one-on-one like oral histories because these are potentially stories that aren’t very well-represented in traditional holdings. So they’re not typically well-represented in historical societies and libraries. So I was hopeful that you could tell us a little bit about what researching LGBTQ history and what makes it unique, or difficult, or challenging, or rewarding.
[SF] Well, there’s a lot of challenges with trying to uncover the history of same-sex love, and desire, and gender-crossing in the past. One of the biggest challenges is simply changing ideas about those things and the way we conceptualize. Those ideas have changed drastically over the course of U.S. history. The very concept of gender – gender period, gender identity – and sexual identity are twentieth-century concepts. And so if you’re looking at people who lived in periods before the turn of the twentieth century, they may be having sex with people of their same sex or they may be living a gender that is opposite of their biological sex, but their understanding of those experiences are completely different than what they were after the start of the field of psychology, after the idea that who you were attracted to said something about you as a person, as opposed to simply representing behavior that you engaged in. And so trying to talk in terms that contemporary visitors to museums or historic sites will recognize and understand about people who wouldn’t necessarily understand the same concepts is a fascinating challenge of doing this type of work. And I specifically say that it’s a twentieth-century concept because I think that it’s actually changing again. That in 20 years, the idea that you choose a sexual identity and it remains static throughout your life and that most people are born into a gender identity that they maintain consistently throughout their life will not have the same sway that it has now and certainly that it had twenty years ago.
[MB] So with all of these considerations, what are some things that historians or interpreters and even me today, what are some things that are good to know about the terminology that might be pitfalls? Or what are the ways we should be discussing this? What are some good terms to search for, and to use, and maybe some things to avoid?
[SF] Well, I see two different answers in that question because one is about the terminology that we use when we’re talking about the past. And that is actually trickier than you might think because although in this conversation today and then the title of my book, we’re using the term LGBT or LGBTQ. Different members of those communities have different feelings about what terms accurately describe their experiences and what are actually offensive terms. And so I, in my consulting work, always really advocate partnering with representatives of LGBTQ communities to find out the range of terminology that people are comfortable or uncomfortable with and get some advice on what words might be best for the particular purposes of a project because I think there’s generational variation. There’s regional variation. And it’s a pretty fluid, rapidly changing field, this idea of what do we call these experiences that we’re talking about.
Now, as far as doing research in the field and using search terms in library catalogs, again, because the terminology has changed so much. It can be tricky because if you just go in and search LGBTQ, chances are you’re only going to get sources that were created on the last say ten to fifteen years. If you want to learn about the early twentieth century or the late nineteenth century, you might be looking more for words that are kind of offensive to us as contemporary folks such as “perversion,” “inversion” is another term, “deviants.” So it’s an interesting process because just with the array of information that’s available, librarians can’t go back and retrospectively catalog every resource in their holdings every time the terminology changes. So researchers, people that are new to research need to be aware that an array of terms if you’re using different search terms, you might get very different type of sources.
[MB] And some of those words are difficult to think about that those are the terms that you’d have to be researching. But it does remind us that the story of history and of diversity has always been that way. We’ve always been this diverse of a place in the world, and in some ways, public history and you are coming up with the methodology to address it and then to share it. There’s plenty of history around for everybody, and I love looking at vintage pride pins. There’s some great resources that you can check out these pins that folks wore at marches. And there’s a couple of that have always resonated with me, and one was “We are everywhere.” And there’s another kind of term that I’ve heard which is “We’ve always been here.” So thinking about those, how is public history, and the profession, and preservation addressing these issues in diversity and helping to tell this larger story?
[SF] Well, it’s something that as a historian I find fascinating that I have now been around long enough that circumstances have changed over the course of my career so I’m actually seeing kind of history in action. And when I became a historian in my twenties, I necessarily didn’t have that life experience to apply to the work that I do. But in the course of my career, there has definitely been, I think, a significant historical shift in public history practice. And I would say that public history has always been striving for inclusivity and telling a wider story than simply political, great White leaders kind of narrative. But that has really been amped up, I would say, in the last ten years and then, even more so in the last, say, two to three years. And I would say that there’s now a very strong professional consensus on the need to do the legwork to find the stories, the underrepresented stories that are harder to find than the stories of, say, civic leaders or famous people.
But if we actually want to truly understand the history of our communities, we need to take a holistic view and do the work to find out those stories and that that is a larger trend that has kind of scooped up interest in the LGBTQ stories along the way. It’s a larger trend. I think it applies to poor people, and to people of color, and moral communities as well/ But that drive within the profession and also just changes in contemporary culture have prompted public history institutions to look at stories of sexual and gender variance in a way that – I mean really, ten years ago, it was very difficult to find organizations that were willing to tell those stories publicly.
[MB] That is very encouraging and on that tone, it seems like a nice place to take a break. And when we return, we’ll discuss some historic sites that are putting these into practice.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] Spring has sprung and that means we’re approaching the end of Women’s History Month. As such, it made perfect sense to me to talk about one of the most renowned and admirable women in U.S. history. But, of course, there’s more to this woman’s life that can fit in one podcast segment, so we’re going to keep most of this to her time in Maryland before the Civil War.
Born in 1822, Harriet Tubman spent her early years on Edward Brodess’ farm in Bucktown, Maryland. As was common on small farms such as these, Edward Brodess hired out slaves if he himself did not have work for them. Harriet and her family suffered many such separations and frequently experienced the brutality of slavery if not at the hands of Brodess himself, then from masters of other farms on which they worked. It was through her timberwork on the farm that she learned survival skills such as foraging and first tapped into the vast network of the Underground Railroad. In 1849, following the death of Brodess and the threat of sale to another master, Harriet fled north to Philadelphia. Upon arriving, she vowed to return to free her family. Harriet would eventually make thirteen trips to the Eastern Shore rescuing approximately 70 slaves.
Down the road from Edward Brodess’ farm sits the Bucktown Village Store. It was here that Harriet Tubman showed early signs of resistance spirit that would serve her throughout her life. As it’s been told, Harriet and the cook from the farm had come to the store to buy groceries. When in came a slave from another farm who had left without permission. He was followed and confronted by his overseer who demanded Harriet aid in restraining the slave. She refused and the slave escaped. At this point, the overseer seized an iron weight off the counter and threw it at him as he ran missing the slave and striking Harriet on the head. The injury nearly killed her and caused headaches, visions, and seizures that would plague her for the rest of her life.
Harriet Tubman guided her passengers along a variety of routes to freedom, sometimes over land through treacherous slave-owning territory, other times by water. One of the routes that Tubman frequently followed was the Choptank River through Caroline County. Red Bridges, a crossing point in Greensborough, Maryland, was one of the many shallow Choptank tributaries fugitives relied on for safe crossing North to Delaware. Tubman’s activism extended beyond her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Kennedy Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland was the site in which John Brown planned his raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, hoping to initiate a slave rebellion. Referred to as General Tubman by Brown himself, Harriet was a key resource before the raid given her extensive knowledge of Abolitionist support networks throughout Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. She recruited men and was said to have agreed to take part in the raid but became ill and could not participate. This was only the beginning of her quasi-military career, however. She acted as a Union spy and scout during the Civil War and became the first woman to lead a military expedition. But the details of Tubman’s work during the war, that makes for a whole other story, and you’ve got to get back to PreserveCast.
PreserveCast isn’t just for Mondays anymore. Find all of our episodes at PreserveCast.org anytime. And we’re on social media to continue the conversation @PreserveCast. If you have a question or want to suggest a topic, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[MB] Welcome back to PreserveCast. Today we’re talking to Sue Ferentinos about including the LGBTQ story and perspective into public history and at historic sites. Before the break, we were talking about some of the research and the difficulty of including these stories. And now I want to ask you, Sue, do you have some great examples of historic sites, really anywhere, that managers or interpreters or historians can turn to for some best practices?
[SF] Well, as I was talking about earlier, the field is really exploding. And so it’s such an exciting time to work in this field because to some extent I feel like every time I walk into a museum there’s some new surprise. A museum I wouldn’t expect to be talking about LGBTQ history is. The museums I would expect to be doing this are doing it in really creative and innovative ways. So it’s a little hard to choose, but I will say that just a couple months ago I visited, for the first time, although I’ve been talking about this historic site for a number of years because I knew they were doing interesting work. But I finally had the chance to visit the Alice Austen House on Staten Island in New York City just a few months ago.
Alice Austen was a photographer at the turn of the twentieth century. She was partnered with a woman for just about all of her adult life and her work really explored ideas of gender and gender expectations, particularly for women. She has a number of photographic series in which her subjects are dressed in – they’re female subjects or they present as female, but they’re dressed in male clothing. They’re engaged in roles that weren’t traditionally open for women. And through this choice of subject matter, Alice Austen was providing a commentary about gender roles during the period in which she was active. And her house is now a historic site open to the public. And they have been really, over the course of a couple decades – and their approach has changed over this time period – but they are thinking of both ways to present the story of Austen’s life, at the same time continuing her legacy of interrogating gender in a given time period. So part of the house they have made into an art gallery where they display contemporary artists who, like Austen are using their art to interrogate concepts of gender roles and same-sex sexuality. So I find that very exciting because it’s crossing disciplines, it’s talking about the past as well as keeping an eye on the future. And I think I’ll need to do a number of additional visits to the site to really get the full sense of what they’re up to over there but it’s very exciting.
[MB] Well, that’s a sign of a good museum if you want to – or a historic site – if you want to head back a couple times.
[MB] So the Alice Austen House that you mentioned, this is an active house museum. It’s likely protected or listed on the National Register. You’ve done some work in identifying historic sites that are threatened or unknown that relate to LGBTQ history. Can you tell us the process in identifying and documenting those and then how those might go on to become a successful place the [Alice] Austen House Museum?
[SF] Yes. And to clarify, Alice Austen House was actually designated as a National Historic Landmark for Austen’s impact as a photographer. And just recently in the last year, they have updated their NHL status to include all of this content, which twenty years ago wasn’t considered relevant in the preservation process of receiving historic designation. And so again, an exciting thing and a sign that the preservation field is hungry and eager to capture the sites related to the queer past as well as museums. Some of the recent work that I’ve been doing has been based in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. And partnering with the National Park Service and state historic preservation offices to try to identify significant sites related to LGBTQ history.
And generally speaking, there are some exceptions but maybe like twenty exceptions in the entire country, a site may have historic designation and be significant to LGBTQ history but it’s not designated because of that part of its history. Part of this process is looking for sites that have already been identified as historic but might have more stories to tell than are currently captured in their documentation.
[MB] And that’s similar to what’s happening at the Austen House?
[MB] And just to give us an overview, how many sites, I guess we’ll say, in the United States are listed for LGBTQ history and how many do you think are potentially eligible for recognition?
[SF] Well [laughter], I think the last I checked there was about eighteen.
[MB] Very small number.
[SF] Yes. Out of, what is it? 80,000 sites on the National Register. But as far as how many potentially are there, well, as far as simply identifying sites that have some relevance to LGBTQ history simply in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, we’ve identified over 800. But not all of those would be considered significant enough to qualify for historic designation; and many of them have been destroyed which is a big problem with historic sites, generally, but particularly with sites of communities that didn’t necessarily have a lot of resources or mainstream acceptance. Those sites are much more at-risk. And so the other part of the work that I’ve been doing in this part of the country is to identify sites that are not currently protected, that do not have historic designation, but have some relevance to LGBTQ history. And then the particular goal of the project was to identify really nationally significant sites. Sites that might be considered for National Landmark status that currently are not on preservationists’ radar because traditionally this hasn’t been seen as important history to remember and capture.
[MB] We hear a lot about gay bars in terms of preservation. And I didn’t have this question really prepared because there’s so much more to LGBTQ history than that. It is wonderful that Stonewall’s a National Historic Landmark. Can you give us a sense of kind of the breadth of spaces where this history has occurred and where you’re starting to document it, perhaps in unexpected spaces so thinking beyond the bar?
[SF] Yes. I’m actually working on – which I don’t think you know – but I am working on an article talking about the types of sites that may have significance to LGBTQ history for a special issue of the journal Change Over Time, which will be coming out next year in 2019. Bars are more significant to LGBTQ history than folks may realize simply because they were so crucial in building social networks and a sense of community during a period where LGBTQ people needed to be largely closeted, lead secret lives, and hence, it was very difficult to find other people who shared your sexual or gender identity and the bars were a place to go.
So not to discount the importance of bars, but other places to consider include private residences, particularly if one wants to uncover lesbian history because bars weren’t necessarily accessible, particularly to middle-class women just because it wasn’t common that a woman would go by herself to a bar and so there were dangers involved in that. So much of the building of lesbian social networks, and friendships, and sexual relationships among women took place in private settings, for instance, at private house parties. Or we identified a site in D.C. that had a long-running monthly gathering for gay women in the D.C. area, and that many people in oral histories identified that as far more significant to their social identity than the bars.
There’s also sites of worship. People often think that to choose an LGBTQ identity is to abandon one’s faith, but that’s not true. Traditional congregations often rejected people with those identities and so a big part of twentieth-century LGBTQ history is congregations struggling with the question of whether to be accepting and also LGBTQ individuals forming their own places of worship and of spiritual support. There’s sites of protest. And I would say that Stonewall and another bar that is listed as a National Landmark, Julius’s, although they were important social sites, their significance lies in the fact that they were sites of protest in the effort to obtain LGBTQ civil rights.
[MB] I like that distinction that these bars in many ways were necessary and then became places of real commitment to a movement for equality and affirmation. So yeah, not to discredit the bar in any way. Yeah, I can – listening to you – begin to see the depth of research that goes into it and how it could easily be dismissed. But these are fantastic places and very authentic places to experience LGBTQ history. I wanted to ask you in closing here, for museums and sites that want to start to include LGBTQ history they can follow you on Twitter @HistorySue and I know you attend a lot of conferences and really participate on Twitter. They can go to your website and pick up a copy of your book. Do you have other resources or services for people who kind of addressing these issues at their historic site to go beyond this conversation? Some resources for them?
[SF] For people interested in the preservation of LGBTQ sites there is the Rainbow History Network, which is a Facebook group and that’s wonderful because it’s preservationist and local LGBTQ historians from all over the United States and so it’s a great place to share ideas. And then for people who are interested in learning more about the LGBTQ past, the largest resource online I would say is OutHistory.org. You can lose yourself for days on that site because it’s a collection of research efforts and online exhibits contributed by hundreds of individuals. So it’s a great place to explore and get a sense of the vastness of the queer past.
[MB] And the National Park Service has, recently in the last couple years, published a theme study as well that folks can check out.
[SF] Definitely. Great resource.
[MB] So I asked before if you could name or give a great example of a historic site that’s doing great things and you mentioned the Alice Austen House. Do you happen to have another historic site, gay or straight, that’s one of your favorites? We ask everybody on PreserveCast.
[SF] Well, you know, I am an enthusiast about the past and about old buildings. So dozens of sites are streaming through my head at this very minute. But one site that I have recently fallen in love with because I have been working on a National Register nomination for it is the home of Alfred Kinsey who was a mid-twentieth century sex researcher and authored The Kinsey Reports, which scandalized Cold War America but really set the stage for many of the changes of the Sexual Revolution. And he was actually a professor at Indiana University and so lived the bulk of his adult life in the town that I live in, Bloomington, Indiana. And so as I said, I’ve been working on the National Register nomination and I have really fallen in love. It’s a beautiful house but also in the ways that Kinsey used his domestic space as a way to present himself to the world as what at the time was considered a well-adjusted adult, not a pervert. Forgive these terms but this was how things were constructed in the time at which he was operating and he really used his home to present an image of domestic respectability that helped him accomplish what he did in the area of sex research.
[MB] In explaining the Kinsey House you’ve used what you’ve just taught us about using the words of the past or researching those words so that people of today can better understand LGBTQ people through history. So I want to thank you very much for being on PreserveCast, Sue. We’ll keep an eye out for your next article. And thank you very much.
[SF] Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!