G. Samantha Rosenthal is a professor, historian, writer, and activist based in Roanoke, VA. The following exchange is excerpted from a conversation we had around her book, Living Queer History, out in 2021 from UNC Press, and her work as co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, a community-based public history activism project.
Living Queer History is at once a guidebook for organizers, a memoir, and a manifesto for public history activism as embodied by the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project. It offers a candid reflection on the struggles the History Project faced—both those inherent to nonhierarchical organizing and those that emerged from the particulars of Roanoke, the social dynamics of the founding body, and Samantha’s own intersecting and evolving identities as a queer trans woman who relocated to the South in 2015. Throughout, Samantha makes the case for “living history,” as contrasted with historical preservation, and thoughtfully explores the conundrums faced by activist-archivists who must navigate the ever-fine lines between inclusion and exclusion, memory and erasure, memorialization and trespass. Against the often harmful norms of history-making, she re-envisions history as an active, lived practice, rooted in community. To be a public history activist, she argues, is to not only look back but also to look around, to the physical spaces that can be present-day sites of connection and belonging.
At the intersection of queer theory, human geography, and oral history, Living Queer History is also an introduction to the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, whose extensive, ongoing work includes podcasts and interviews with queer elders, materials for self-guided historical walking tours, and more. Eight years in, the project continues to draw membership from students and community members of all ages, who participate in its story circles and historical reenactments, or contribute as narrators, interviewers, and transcribers. Its immense database of interviews now comprises over a thousand pages of transcripts and fifty hours of audio across fifty different narrators.
The following interview was condensed and edited from a series of emails that Samantha and I exchanged in spring 2023.
Emily Alex: One of the key arguments in LQH, which struck me as eminently useful for anyone reading it, is the distinction you make between place and space. An early passage reads:
You may think of the distinction between place and space as the difference between putting up a plaque that reads ‘queer was here’ on a building façade and queer people actually living freely in that space. Places are about remembrance; spaces are about belonging.
Since writing the book and touring the country to promote it, I wonder if you find yourself attending to the presence of memorials and historical markers more and if there are ever situations where you find sites of remembrance genuinely beneficial or significant, even if/when they only operate at the level of symbols?
G. Samantha Rosenthal: I find myself increasingly skeptical of most efforts at queer symbolic commemoration as I encounter it across the country. In book talks I often put it this way: “A rainbow crosswalk is fine, but it doesn’t mean I can stand in the middle of the road and not get hit!” The point is: We can look at a rainbow crosswalk, maybe take a selfie with it, and feel recognized or represented in some way, but it doesn’t actually create a space for queer or trans belonging in any real sense. It doesn’t really make me safer—although crosswalks in general are a good thing in terms of safety!—and it doesn’t provide a space where I can engage in intergenerational queer community, or where I can be in my trans embodiment without the fear of violence.
So, I have come to see a lot of cities’ efforts at symbolic commemoration as . . . basically propaganda. They want LGBTQ people to spend money in downtown and in the neighborhoods, and plaques and flags and statues help do that work. What they don’t do is change the on-the-ground realities for queer and trans people seeking safety from violence and spaces of belonging and meaning-making that are ours to live in, work in, and fuck in.
Can you talk about how you first came to this idea?
The fact that historic preservation was contributing to gentrification and the displacement and erasure of queer histories came into relief for me on Salem Avenue on the western edge of downtown Roanoke, Virginia. It’s an area which in the 1980s and 1990s was a sex-work district that included a fairly tight-knit community of trans women. It was once a lively, bustling, and certainly dangerous and overly policed queer space, but it was definitely queer.
In the 2000s the city began working with private developers to encourage the revitalization of some of the old automotive shops and warehouses in the area and turning these spaces into high-end loft apartments and condominiums. This developer used historic preservation laws to get tax-breaks on this work, egged on by the recognition of the region in 2007 as a newly recognized “historic district.” But the history referenced is not its queer and trans history, but rather the industrial and commercial history that preceded the area’s queerness.
Public historian Andrew Hurley writes about this practice of leapfrogging—jumping over the undesirable pasts of the mid- to late-twentieth century in favor of a “golden age” sanitized history from before marginalized communities claimed city space. And the result is the erasure of those historic spaces and meanings attached to marginalized peoples who claimed spaces here. I saw all this happening in Roanoke in the 2010s after I moved here, and it quickly dawned on me that we need to approach doing LGBTQ history in a way that pushes back against, rather than reinforces, gentrification.
This reminds me of the way Peter Moskowitz describes gentrification in How to Kill a City, as “a void . . . in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture.” Access to the city’s collective spaces is quite literally about geography, proximity, transit; people who face economic precarity or housing discrimination are less likely to be physically proximate. In a housing market where new residential builds are often just parking lots for rich people’s spare cash, the distances between us continue to widen. This seems like it could be a major challenge for a project like the History Project.
Histories of gentrification and queer erasure are at the core of my work and writing about LGBTQ history since the mid-2010s. I tried in Living Queer History to show the history of how city leaders, the police, neighborhood groups, and others conspired across several different historical eras to target queer spaces for erasure. If we learn this history, we can use it to strategically push back against present and future challenges to the rights of queer and trans people here to claim space. We deserve the right to make this city our home.
One challenge this research faces is its reliance on, as you say in the book, a “lopsided archive.” But all archives are lopsided, no? Considering the risks entailed by relying on such resources, which can carry and perpetuate historical omissions (of queer histories by or about non-cis and non-white men, for instance) into the present and future, did you ever doubt the basic utility of the archive as a tool for history-making?
Yes and no. At the first meeting of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project in 2015, participants immediately raised the question of starting an LGBTQ archive. The reality is that, at that time, no mainstream institutions in Southwest Virginia were collecting LGBTQ histories—with the exception of an institutional project then underway at Virginia Tech. We didn’t know the queer archive was lopsided until we had it in our hands. This initially involved years of building trust and relationships in the gay community to encourage people to share their private treasures with us.
It turns out that gay people in Southwest Virginia since the 1970s have produced a huge amount of printed material, including one of the longest-running LGBTQ newsletters in Virginia history. It is also true that almost all of that material centers on the lives of predominantly white, cisgender, middle-class men. So yes, at some point we had to say: These archives are important, but they are not LGBTQ history. At best, they are LG history—maybe actually just G.
The book recounts some real moments of joy around encounters with archival documents, and these moments seem to embody precisely this inclusion/exclusion tension we’ve been discussing and which your book interrogates so thoughtfully. On the one hand, joy and recognition; on the other hand, those who remain invisible in the archive may continue to feel alienated by its contents. Prepping this interview, I kept thinking about The Watermelon Woman, where Cheryl Dunye playing herself as a Black lesbian filmmaker documents her attempt to find traces of a Black lesbian forerunner in the archives of cinematic history—and can’t: “sometimes you have to create your own history.”
That’s such a wonderful film. Yes, I think that queer and trans people today really do yearn for our history, and we might end up seeing what we want to see in the archive in order to have this “shared past” that we so desperately seek. But this is not new. Part of what I hoped to show in the book is that queer people have long been searching for a usable past. A queer past—mythical, factual, or some mix of the two—has always informed queer and trans liberation since at least the early 1970s. In LQH I try to show that as I moved through my own gender transition—becoming a woman, coming into my lesbianism—I kept seeing the history differently, wanting to see me and my lovers in the archive and always coming up a bit short because we, in the 2010s and 2020s, are different than those who lived decades before us. It is impossible to find true parallels.
Right, now I am thinking of the chapter in which you hear stories from trans women and former drag queens:
When we see our past including drag queens, sex workers, cross-dressers, we see how many of our people have struggled and fought for a better world for themselves, and yet how this fight—which continues today in transgender advocacy—has also divided and diminished our community by erecting barriers and concretizing labels to the detriment of deeper trans historical consciousness.
So, the fact that there aren’t true parallels can also be unifying for our ever-diversifying queer community, as you write, simply because there are some divisions that exist today which were not recognized then.
At a time when so many state legislatures, especially in the South, are hellbent on enacting laws limiting the rights of transgender people, it is important that we think strategically about transgender history—how we do it, and to what end. Some of the debates we have had in the History Project, that are also mirrored in larger conversations within academia, concern who we can label as “trans.” Sometimes I find these discussions frustrating. We have had cis members of the History Project call for a very narrow definition of “trans” in our interpretations, presumably not to offend contemporary trans people by associating them with now-outdated forms (and terminologies) of transness. Of course, some of the pushback also comes from trans people too who are similarly deeply skeptical of these historic relationships. One older trans woman in Roanoke once said to me, of an early cross-dressing organization she herself was part of: “That’s not a ‘transgender’ organization.”
My position on this is that the way we are trans today is not the right way, or the final way, that transness will ever be expressed. We are just on one stop along an ongoing trajectory of somewhat rapid changes in how we think and talk about being trans. So of course earlier histories of drag and cross-dressing and transvestism and transsexuality are related to our contemporary moment of transgender belonging. Saying that we can’t reach back in time and call those people trans is to resign ourselves to the fact that fifty or one hundred years hence people will look back and say that I, too, wasn’t “really trans.” I’m not sure this kind of historical gatekeeping is useful to anyone.
On the subject of gatekeeping, you note in the book that “queer” seems to have arisen as a more important term (than lesbian) these days, because younger LGBTQ folks are wary of residual lesbian separatism—TERFs. In the chapter on lesbianism in a non-binary world, you talk about the legacy of lesbian retreats being very non-inclusive, not allowing boy children, not allowing bisexuals or questioning their presence.
One of my efforts in that chapter was not just to complicate what it means to do lesbian history as trans and non-binary dykes today who feel a slippery and sometimes rageful relationship with the predominantly cisgender archive but also to show that we—trans and non-binary lesbians—have always been part of lesbian history. So, if we go back to the so-called cross-dressers of the 1950s through 1970s, for example, we can see lots of evidence of both trans and cis women talking about the dynamics of their lesbian relationships—although they didn’t call them that. There are femme4femme erotics; there are writings by cis wives musing on their trans “husbands.”
As a trans dyke myself, I get really excited by this history. It’s a history that on one side some people want to keep out of trans history, and on the other side people say is not lesbian history, but it’s actually the history of people like me—or at least the closest thing to my gendered and sexual embodiment. This history may not be politically correct, so to speak, but it’s still important. And so I will keep advocating that “trans,” “lesbian,” and other terms need to be blown wide open, because that’s the only way we will find some of these traces in the archives of our very diverse experiences of queerness and transness.
Another big question for the History Project seems to have been how/where to draw the line between interpretation and appropriation. You talk about several ideas for historical reenactments which did not get off the ground, because they involved recreating public sex scenes or sex work histories at a time when the group did not have any members who were sex workers, and the “material” displays of objects like soiled mattress in the park or condom-balloons might even be illegal or at the very least troubling to some in the community. Can you say more about this—the risk that re-enactment can slip into inauthenticity and projection, and maybe even kitsch?
Re-enactment is an interesting public history practice because you can never really feel what it was like “back then.” It is always an approximation. Moreover, it is the meeting point between two eras: the present and the past. Both exist within re-enactment. We always bring our full contemporary selves into re-enactment. I am always a white queer trans middle-aged woman living in the 2020s. So the key to queer historical re-enactment is to find the productive points of connection between the then and now, the us and them. I think of José Esteban Muñoz’s call for thinking of queerness in the “then” and “there” of our future. Ideally, re-enactment achieves this future orientation by drawing upon the past in the present moment to create a better world.
You point out that even today, there are alarmingly few physical social spaces and institutions that cater to queer identities other than cis gay men. So true! There’s even that whole podcast about it now, Cruising. Philadelphia, where I live now, is a famously gay-friendly city, and yet there are no lesbian bars here. Which isn’t to say that there are no places where queer women and non-binary people gather. There are Discord servers and other online fora, pop-up bars, and book and plant swaps, and ceramics classes.
So, sometimes I think I’m only pretending to be frustrated about the lack of “dyke bars.” I suppose because the more broadcast, the more public something is, the more susceptible it becomes to co-optation; and in my cynical moments (there are some), I wonder if the purpose of most labels isn’t just targeted advertising of a sort: which ads to serve you. So! You like queer shit! And very quickly, identity can cease to feel like a source of power or pride. Lee Edelman talks about this, “legible coherence,” how it emerges not just from the desires of the individual but also, and perhaps more so, from the needs of capitalism to find ever more markets. In that light, part of me relishes the fact this community seems not to have arrived at the status of being a commercially viable bar demographic.
To bring it back to your book, I thought it was funny how that contrast between the lesbian and the gay social venues appeared in the history you uncovered. I felt a sense of recognition, and sort of pride, when you talked about the women finding each other in these less commoditized social spaces, the book clubs, picnics, frisbee games. But I also recognize that this perspective is a reflection of my age (more book swapping than bar hopping), and cis privilege, and being sober and liking sleep.
Well, let’s talk about what lesbian spaces might look like in the 2020s. Last year in Roanoke a group of mostly young white dykes in their twenties—mostly queer cis women like yourself—started up a new group called Second Friday. They explicitly linked their work with that of First Friday, a lesbian organization in Roanoke in the 1980s that I write about in the book. The idea was similar both then and now: Let’s meet up one evening per month in community with each other. These Second Friday events have been astoundingly successful. One month close to one hundred women, trans, and non-binary people came out. Attendance has been consistently at thirty, forty, fifty women per month. These numbers are astounding for a city as small and supposedly regional as Roanoke, Virginia.
Yet, just like you say, there is no lesbian bar in Roanoke, and there never really was one. Personally, I don’t think there needs to be a bar. And Living Queer History is not a call for bringing back, or remaking, bar and nightclub spaces just because those are some of the most legible spaces in queer historiography. We can imagine lesbian spaces looking both similar and different in the 2020s to what has come before: yes to potlucks and house parties, athletic teams, and book clubs. We have all of those spaces in Roanoke today. But we are creating, and I want to see us continue making, spaces that are not exclusive to just cis women, that are not so white, and we need spaces that are sober, too. And the outlook in Roanoke, both “then” and “now,” is that we do not need to control property (such as a bar) in order to find one another. Dyke life is alive and well in Roanoke.
In the last chapter, you discuss the remote/digital manifestations of the organizing you do. How do you think about the differences of physical vs. online spaces? What can online spaces accomplish, and what can they not?
I am fascinated by digital queer spaces, both as a historian and as a direct participant in online spaces. Queer and trans people have been using the Internet since the early 1990s to find each other. In the book I talk about chat rooms where trans women met up over great geographic distances, and an early gay cruising website where men in the Roanoke area left tips and advice about cruising spots, what the men were like in those spaces, potential police activity, and how to stand or signal in such a way that a man will know you are looking for some action.
Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial, but I am not a digital pessimist. Not at all. I reject claims that online spaces are one of the main culprits behind the demise of physical queer spaces. I reject the idea that online spaces are just superficial. What I see today online, in the way I engage with queer spaces on the Internet in the 2020s, are dating apps that help connect queer people so that they can then meet in physical space to date or fuck; social media pages that broadcast calls for action around the latest anti-trans legislation that some Governor is about to sign; and also, on the most nerdy level, new digital archives and oral history collections and databases that can help us learn more about who we are and where we came from. There is so much potential in the digital because, in some ways, it is safer for queer and trans people than physical spaces. You can change your name, your avatar, online and be trans in ways that you may not feel safe doing in physical space. You can find people to have sex with, and maybe make money off of sex, in ways that are often more heavily policed in their physical forms than in their digital ones.
Right, yeah. I find zoom meetings tiresome and I carry perpetual screen fatigue and Twitters feels like a billboard to me, but I am a fan of the apps, by and large. People like to groan about the apps (especially on the apps), but they have facilitated really cool connections and relationships for me, personally. You and I met online first, before we met up for a lovely spring hike (thank you!).
We did! Yes, I hope my book demonstrates that the Internet has not been our foe as queer people. We can use it advantageously, and we have, and we will continue to do so.
When we met in Blacksburg, Virginia a few years back, I believe you had recently purchased a house. If you don’t mind a more personal question: I wonder how putting down roots in this way has impacted your relationship to Roanoke, the History Project, and this community. And perhaps I can also ask the reverse: How doing this work has contributed to your thinking about making a home?
In writing the book, I learned about the queer collective houses that once existed in our gay neighborhood here in Roanoke called Old Southwest. The early gay liberation groups at times operated out of “all-gay” apartments in Old Southwest in the 1970s; a group of trans sex workers all lived together in a house here in the early 1990s and used it as a place to bring Johns to—until a police raid shut the place down. As I looked ahead to my forties and thinking about what kind of life I want to live, it dawned on me that I could take steps to put my ideas about queer kinship into practice. One such step was to find an old house in the gayborhood and work on turning it into a queer space once again. At present, there are three queer women who live in Kinship House. We have hosted monthly community gatherings, too, including potlucks, dance parties, and concerts. We are growing food in the yard. It has been a real joy, after eight years of studying queer history and queer spaces in Roanoke, to take this step forward in making anew a queer space in the gayborhood.
This notion of kinship makes me wonder about the implications of your work in looking forward, in terms of queer futurity. These all-important spaces only exist so long as there are bodies who show up to hold them, so then queer and nonbiological kinship becomes an essential piece of passing along any of this—the memories, the material culture. I feel this is connected to a problem that you mention, where “most people, especially queer and trans people, do not feel as if their own experiences constitute history.” What gives a person the notion that their life is historical, and why is that important? And does the view to posterity have something to do with the way that you conduct your online life, and the decision in LQH to incorporate autobiographical elements into an otherwise academic book?
I guess I do have a very historical mind. I am an avid diarist, and I have been documenting every day of my life since 2014—the year that I first came out. The decision to include memoir in the book was propelled by the recognition that doing queer history in Southwest Virginia has changed me. As I say in the introduction of the book, doing queer history made me queer; doing trans history made me trans. As I engaged in queer romantic and sexual relationships here, my partners and I engaged with the queer pasts undergirding our contemporary experiences. As I changed my gender, trans pasts and friendships with trans elders showed me how I could be trans here, that there were diverse paths forward for me, and that I wasn’t the first person to experience moving through this city as a trans woman.
This personal aspect is also important in the book because you had and continue to have an uneasy relationship with power as it relates to the History Project and community, even as you remain one of its most visible leaders. A lot of what you say here is about owning up to the fact that there were very personal advantages to you from this project. On a personal level, it allowed you to find your people in this new place, to find a supportive community in which to continue the process of transitioning. And on a professional level, there are career advantages. Although you explicitly rejected the role of leader in this organization, you admit that a lot of work fell to you, and the book itself is a form of taking ownership of it, from which you continue to benefit. Writing a book about the organization effectively makes you its public advocate. I’m interested to know a bit more about the pros and cons of that decision as they occurred to you.
One of the pros has been the financial benefits of the book’s publication. The History Project is now working on creating a Trans Wellness Fund that will channel 100% of the book’s royalties into direct payments to trans and non-binary people in Southwest Virginia to help paying rent, bills, and transition-related expenses. The project has set up a committee of local trans people who will be handling the fund and making all decisions. Once that is up and running, I’ll be happy to see the royalties moving out of my bank account and into the hands of other trans people in our community. The money I have made from speaking fees has also helped pay for much-needed repairs at Kinship House. This house is over one hundred years old and needs a lot of work to make it safe and livable.
The con is, as you say, that the project becomes unnecessarily personalized through LQH, especially because the book combines memoir, history, and my reportage on the project. In the past, media requests about the History Project, for example, could easily be dispersed among members. We would aim to connect media with some of our most outspoken members who are trans, BIPOC, working-class, etc. Now, because of the book, I think, most media requests come explicitly to talk to me about the project through the lens of the book. I hope we can get back to the day when the Project stands on its own regardless of my role as a writer about it. I want to talk about the new things the History Project has been doing since the book was published, and hopefully attention (and funds) will gravitate towards those new initiatives.
Emily Alex is Full Stop’s managing editor and a features editor.
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