In this current age of division and hot tempers, SFU queer-history professor Elise Chenier has placed her hopes in an age-old practice: storytelling.
“I know, because I've been doing this work for 30 years now, that story is how we connect with each other,” she said over the phone. “It's a way to not just learn, but really build connection and build community.”
And if ever there was a time for building connections in recent history, she said, now would be it.
“As a historian, I believe this moment is very different. This isn't just like living through Brian Mulroney or Stephen Harper or Ronald Reagan and George Bush. This is a very different political moment. We all need each other.”
Back in 2010, Chenier founded the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony to collect stories from the lives of same-sex-attracted women, including interviews from bisexual, queer, lesbian and two-spirit women.
She found limits to her medium, though. “While the archives themselves are incredibly valuable, and people use them, it doesn't actually create community connection,” she said.
An event at the Vancouver Dyke March provided inspiration for the oral historian.
“Every Dyke March, we have a tent set up where [we’ll have] several women who are over 60…and we invite younger women to come in and talk to them,” she said.
“Those opportunities just don't exist to meet women of a different generation who have a lot of life history and a lot of life experience to offer. And they really love talking to young people.”
Wanting to facilitate more opportunities for intergenerational exchange, Chenier set out to organize a new event series: Lesbian Lives Live. Every month, Chenier will interview a different individual on-stage who is, or at one point in their life has been, lesbian.
That last bit, that wiggle room, is important. “Identity changes, right? It's not fixed. Some people transition,” Chenier said.
She acknowledged that the term for the sexual identity has fallen out of favour in recent years. “Lesbian is a very historically and culturally specific word. And not everybody, especially young people today, necessarily identifies with it.”
“This is a very strange moment,” she added, “where there is a very small fringe group of people who use the word lesbian to signal a kind of biologically essentialist position where they regard trans men as ‘not really men’ and trans women ‘not really women’.
“When we use the word lesbian, that's not what we mean. We are trans inclusive.”
But the word holds personal importance for Chenier, who came out in 1991. “It was a moment when lesbian history was a real thing. And lesbian culture was a real thing,” she reflected.
“It was a very powerful, even confrontational word in terms of confronting hetero patriarchy,” she said. “The word lesbian to us had that power.”
September 22 marks the first interview: a sit-down with Mary-Woo Sims. An immigrant from Hong Kong, Sims’s advocacy for labourers, women, immigrants, and those with disabilities propelled her to the position of British Columbia Human Rights chief commissioner in 1997.
As for what to expect on the day at the event, Chenier said, “It's for a general audience. So the interview will really be about that person, and their own story.
“What you find is that when people tell their stories, universal themes come out, right? Themes about family, relationship, community, love, loss, grief, all these things, they're universal experiences that we all have—and we all share.”