Initially, Dr. Gregory Samantha Rosenthal thought she would write a book. Mostly it would be about the theory and practice of queer public history guiding the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project in Roanoke, a community-based history initiative committed to telling the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals.
But as she started drafting chapters, she realized the stories didn't make any sense without explaining her own friendships with the elders and the young activists involved in the project and how these relationships were part and parcel of the History Project itself.
“I realized that my own transition - my queerness, my transness, my womanhood - were also integral to the story of the History Project,” Samantha Rosenthal explains. “And I realized that my own story of falling in love with another project member, and our relationship, is also part of the story of doing queer history in Roanoke in the late 2010s.”
She eventually accepted that the book was not going to be a standard academic text about historical theory. Rather, it would have a mix of historical narrative, reportage, memoir and theory. “Ultimately, my goal in writing this book is to ask LGBTQ+ readers in particular to think critically about their own relationship to the past,” she says. “And what queer history means to us, or can mean to us, in the 2020s.”
Rosenthal’s “Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City” will be the first featured author talk in the Library of Virginia’s 2022 Carole Weinstein Author Series. Free and open to the public, the series focuses on Virginia authors and subjects across all genres. The choice of Rosenthal’s book promises a robust start to the series.
The starting point for the book was Rosenthal’s work establishing the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, which began in 2015 after she moved from New York City to Roanoke.
“My cis straight marriage had fallen apart. I had come out as queer and now here I was living in a small city in the South on the edge of Appalachia, a place where I didn't know anything yet about what it was to be queer here,” she recalls. “So, on a personal level, the History Project grew out of my need to find other queer and trans people and a need for community, for belonging, for an understanding of this place's history. Then it became a vehicle for our collective dreaming of the queer future here as well.”
Eighteen people attended the first planning meeting, and as of this year, over two hundred people have participated in the project. For many queer people in the region, the History Project provided a space for LGBTQ+ community making in the 21st century.
Not surprisingly, generational conflict plays a big role in “Living Queer History.” It’s apparent in the chapter on transgender history in which Rosenthal and other members of the History Project attempt to work simultaneously with trans elders in their seventies and with trans and non-binary youth as young as middle-school age.
“We want to do queer history collaboratively in a way that honors our elders and faithfully tells their stories but also engages queer and trans youth and helps to open up new worlds of possibility for them,” she says. “But there are sometimes fundamental disagreements between generations over who counts as trans, over terminology, over the politics of sex work and respectability politics.”
The History Project is intentionally multigenerational and members such as Rosenthal seek to create spaces of multigenerational kinship and belonging. Disagreements are inevitable and “Living Queer History” details some of the most common conflicts so that readers can think about how queer and trans communities can work through them.
For Rosenthal, her involvement in community-based queer history work in Roanoke opened her eyes to her own womanhood. It was through the process of meeting and working with older trans women that she came to realize their story was also hers. As she transitioned, she realized that queer history is not meant to serve as a roadmap, but rather as inspiration. When she first came out, she looked at the letters in the acronym and didn’t see herself as the L, the G, the B, or the T. She discovered it was common when a person first comes out to feel like an imposter or that you aren’t “gay enough.” The most important thing, she found, is to find a supportive community of like-minded people and not to let people tell you who you are or who you aren't.
“All of queer culture - the language and the terminology that we use, the spaces we inhabit, the ways we love and the ways we fuck - is changing,” she explains. “And the cool thing is that you get to change it and to define it for the wellbeing of your community and for your generation. Queer history is in your hands, and I find that incredibly exciting.”
Dr. Gregory Samantha Rosenthal’s “Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City,” part of the Library of Virginia’s 2022 Carole Weinstein Author Series, will be held Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. at the Library of Virginia, 800 East Broad Street, lva.virginia.gov