Red River Rainbow Seniors is working to bring the history of a hidden minority into the open with their oral history project, ‘Breaking Barriers: Harvesting LGBTQ Stories from the Northern Plains’.
In 2016, Red River Rainbow Seniors was created by local activists with the support of North Dakota AARP to provide support, education, and social activities for older LGBTQ individuals in the Fargo area. In addition, the group has proved to be the key to creating a permanent record for future generations about the experiences growing up in and/or living as LGBTQ people in the area from the 1930s to the present.
“As the advisor for the gay and lesbian student group at NDSU, I would periodically have students come to me, interested in interviewing some of the LGBTQ folks in the FargoMoorhead Community. I would connect them with people, but so often the interviews never happened. I kept thinking, it would be nice to capture these stories,” Larry Peterson, one of the founders of the project, said.
Shortly after Larry retired, a chance meeting with friends who were part of the then newly formed group caused him to consider that Red River Rainbow Seniors might be the ideal place to start a serious initiative to collect the life stories of LGBTQ people living in the area.
“Everything just fell together. I made a proposal at a meeting about doing an oral history project and people were very enthusiastic. We got a small committee together and worked on logistics, like what questions we would ask and who we knew that we could reach out to. Dr. Angela Smith, who teaches Public History in the History department at NDSU, conducted training for seven of us, and by the fall of 2017 we had done the first interviews and we’ve been going ever since.”
Interviewees sign a legal release for the NDSU Archives to save the interviews for future generations, which they can choose to make immediately available or specify that can’t be released until they are deceased. People remember their experiences growing up, of feeling different but not having a way to conceptualize it in a time before the internet or positive television images of LGBTQ individuals. These people were a hidden minority, viewed negatively by the culture in general, as well as by many religious groups. Almost all of the interviewees talk about how they came to a point in their lives where they just could not “live the lie” any longer and needed to come out as who they truly were. Because of the strong pressures from heterosexual society in those years, many of the interviewees were in heterosexual marriages and may have children and grandchildren from those relationships.
“The average age of our interviewees is sixtyfour,” Larry said. “So there are certainly a lot of common themes that emerge, a lot of common experiences, both challenges and triumphs for LGBTQ people of that era.” When almost all of the interviewees finish sharing the stories of their lives, they are glad they did and express their hope that their story may help younger LGBTQ people to not have to go through what they did.
Photographs and information relating to the people interviewed are also collected and included where possible, including pictures of things they’ve made, farms they’ve grown up on, military service pictures, and letters to the editor or Facebook stories that they have written reminiscing about their lives.
“We’re trying to show people’s lives, to collect anything that gives a more complete sense of who they are,” Larry said. With the work of interviewing and collecting being done by volunteers, the only real cost to the project is the transcription work for the interviews.
With funding from Humanities North Dakota, generous donors, and FM Pride, Red River Rainbow Seniors has been able to transcribe all but 18 of the interviews conducted. With the assistance of a grant from the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation, who named the oral history project one of two June 2022 grantees, the group hopes to be able to transcribe approximately 13 of the remaining 18 to be placed in the NDSU Archives.
With 150 interviews already completed, and a list of over 200 people on their list of potential interviewees, Red River Rainbow Seniors is still actively searching for more participants to provide a broader view of the community.
“A weakness of this project is that contacting interviewees has really been by word of mouth; then everybody tends to look like us. So in general we have a college-educated, mostly white group who live in cities. We struggle to get people who are still in small towns or who may not have college degrees, just because we’re less likely to be in touch with them. We’d love to change that.”
To create a more diverse collection of personal stories the Red River Rainbow Seniors hopes to connect with people who have followed different life paths, are of different religious affiliations, and represent all walks of life. “This is an important part of our state and regional history that has been hidden for many years,” Larry says earnestly. “We need to acknowledge and celebrate these lives.”
Those wishing to learn more or participate in the project are welcome to contact Red River Rainbow Seniors through their email, [email protected]
With the interviewees’ permission, the transcripts and digital interview files are available at “Digital Horizons: Life on the Northern Plains: North Dakota Voices from the Past.” To explore those available, go to digitalhorizonsonline.org/digital/collection/ndsu-voices
The Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a nonprofit. Applications can be made at awesomefoundation.org/en/chapters/ cassclay