Ryan Conrad is an Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD candidate at Concordia University’s Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Society and Culture, and he teaches in the university’s Interdisciplinary Sexuality Studies program. Conrad has written for a variety of publications, and has edited several anthologies for Against Equality, “a digital archive and publishing collective” that he co-founded.
Q1. This summer, you are digitizing a variety of LGBTQ newspapers at the University of Southern Maine in the Special Collections’ Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. Could you talk a bit about your inspiration and goals for this project, as well as anything interesting you’ve come across while working on it?
I am digitizing a collection of LGBTQ newspapers from the 1990s because I am interested in researching the parallel histories of the AIDS crisis and the battles over non-discrimination laws in Maine. The AIDS crisis arrived a bit later to Maine thanks to its geographic isolation from the rest of the US and it’s largely dispersed rural population. The battle over non-discrimination laws begins in earnest in the early 1990s and doesn’t conclude until the passage of a state-wide law by referendum in 2005. So there is this interesting and devastating overlap between the loss of life during the AIDS crisis and the massively public homophobia resulting in resounding legislative defeats over the most basic rights to housing and employment. Maine is unique in that it is relatively easy to overturn laws passed by the legislature by gathering signatures and putting a law to referendum. This is known as the people’s veto in Maine, and has largely been used by social conservatives to overturn laws they disagree with. This happened with many non-discrimination laws in Maine, but also more recently with gay marriage in 2009. My goal with this project is to do a discourse analysis of the ways in which LGBT community-based journalists talked about the political mood of the decade. I’m really interested in the work of Raymond Williams (structure of feelings), Jonathan Flatley (affective mapping; counter-moods), and Deborah Gould (emotional habitus) in thinking about the ways emotions and collective mood shape the realm of what is politically imaginable/possible. I’m trying to wrap my head around the conservative turn in gay and lesbian politics in the 1990s and thinking about affect and emotion is a useful place to look for clues beyond the obvious impacts of economics and financialization which queer and feminist theorists like Lisa Duggan, Yasmin Nair, Silvia Federici, Samuel Delany and others have already done quite successfully.
Q2: In “Against Equality, In Maine and Everywhere,” you talk about the gap between the needs identified by working-class queer and trans Mainers and the goals of larger political groups leading up to the 2009 marriage referendum in Maine. Similarly, you recently wrote on your website, regarding your current project in Maine, that you are “excited to be thinking about affect & trauma as it relates to the pre-protease inhibitor AIDS crisis days outside of major urban north american gay centers and how Maine’s multi-year failed non-discrimination ordinances intersect with this history.” How can greater access to materials such as newspapers aid the push against dominant political narratives and movements that are disconnected from the material needs of marginalized queer and trans people?
The newspapers I’m digitizing vary in form and content, and surprisingly there were a lot in circulation in Maine. 10%, Apex [now available on the USM website], Community Pride Reporter, Fast Times, Our Paper, and The Gay & Lesbian Times are amongst the serials I’ve been looking at and what’s wonderful about them is that there is constant criticism amongst the different papers as to how issues should be framed and which issues should be prioritized. The “Letters to the Editor” sections of these papers are treasure troves of internal community dialogs. Whether it’s the exchange between lesbian feminists and the police chief over how to support a LGBT non-discrimination campaign, or whether or not seeking inclusion for LGBTs within the boy scouts should be a movement goal or not because the boy scouts are inherently militaristic and misogynist. I don’t see a lot of these kinds of conversations happening today, as most internal dialogs are lost on insular Facebook comment threads that contain more sniping than thoughtful criticism—not to mention how difficult it is to track and archive online content in this form. Plus, large multi-million dollar non-profit LGBT rights organizations largely dismiss and disregard dissent, if not downright muzzle it.
I think what these papers offer is a recent historical example of how we used to have more valuable public conversations about movement priorities than we do now because we leave that to the so-called experts that run these high profile well-funded non-profits that are more accountable to funders than any semblance of community. In digging through these papers, I’ve also uncovered a more radical political LGBT history than the one we are told by the media and pop-historians who rehash superficial queer histories every June. Queers in Maine have been fighting against our murder, rape, violence, misogyny, rural poverty, isolation, access to reproductive health, universal health care, safer sex education for young people, and the list goes on. This local history is there, but somehow the story we are told as queer Mainers is both urbancentric and false. We go from Stonewall (our liberation), to AIDS (our downfall), to gay marriage (our redemption) in a linear progress narrative that is being told by the mainstream gay media and liberal LGBTs alike. I hope to be able to provide a more localized and more accurate depiction of our collective recent past that tells a more complex and inspiring account of how we arrived where we are today.
Q3: The Sampson Center at USM holds a collection of materials that were donated by you. Some of these materials seem to predate Against Equality. How did you initially become interested in queer activism and archives?
In 2005 I assembled a ‘zine called Out of the Closets and Into the Libraries that I made for a workshop at the Gulf of Maine Social Forum, which took place in my hometown of Lewiston. The ‘zine and workshop began because I had just graduated from undergrad and lamented that I barely learned anything about queer people or politics. I never learned my history and felt a bit lost. I grew up in a small, socially conservative town in Rhode Island and didn’t know a single out gay person until I was in college in Maine. So for me this early LGBT history project began as a way for me to figure out how to reconcile my hard-line anarchist anti-capitalist politics (thanks to reading Emma Goldman as a punk rock teenager) with my sexuality, which to me at that time only seemed to exist as a commercial niche market that I was decidedly not interested in. I was looking for proof that others like me had come before and with a bit of persistence, I found them, lots of them! So my interest in queer history began as a need for affirmation and proof that you can be both queer and radical. Today I deeply value queer history, because without it, pride is just a shitty commercialized parade.
Q4: You have edited several anthologies for Against Equality, which are now available in one volume as Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. You’ve also written and spoken about access to digital resources and the desire to complement digital archives with print publications.1 How have these initiatives with Against Equality been successful so far? Considering that the number of digitization projects, such as the one that you are currently completing, is increasing, how could archivists and those interested in expanding access to information benefit from keeping these ideas in mind?
The Against Equality archives are unique because we are solely a digital archive, meaning we only exist online. Creating print publications for that project is sort of doing the reverse of what most archives are doing today. In fact, we are pretty much running in the opposite direction, archiving digital work and then creating print publications from this previously published web-based material. Most archives today, and projects like the one I am doing at the Jean Byers Sampson Center, are trying to figure out best practices for digitizing print material that is not available publicly online yet. It has been interesting working with Against Equality because we are really doing something that feels quite unique and our publications have been incredibly successful, distributing over ten thousand books over the last five years including nearly 1000 to incarcerated LGBTQ folks that have no access to the digital world. But the problem of digitizing work is something I think about a lot as I imagine a lot of others do. When I was doing research in 2009 at the New York Public Library it was rather difficult to get my hands on the physical objects from Gran Fury that I was researching because I was told that the material was all scanned and available online. The archivists were sympathetic to my requests as I argued that seeing, touching, smelling, and engaging with physical objects, especially large ones like broadsheets and posters, was important to my understanding of said object. But I think this is something many of us that work for and with archives are thinking about these days: how to best share information and cultural objects digitally in order to make them more accessible, without decontextualizing these things from their thing-ness.
Q5: Gay marriage is legal all throughout the United States now. As this has been the primary focus of mainstream LGBTQ activism for so long, there is now talk about what the “next” struggle should be. Why is it imperative that we continue to have an understanding of a variety of queer histories if we are to challenge these current developments and narratives?
I understand why people would talk about the “next” struggle, but in that way of framing the issue we actually lose sight of the fact that gay marriage has failed to provide much-needed comprehensive family law reform for many different combinations of families (gay and straight) that are left behind by the couple form. Feminists have been making this argument for a century, but this history has been ignored and usurped by today’s gay and lesbian marriage activists. A lot of people can easily see why gay marriage was not necessarily the most urgent priority, but I think it is important to push it further and actually make it clear that gay marriage itself was a bad goal and fails many of us by retrenching a model of privatization where all material needs should be met through a closed family unit headed by a conjugal couple. Sure there are lots of other battles today on which we need to be fighting in addition to family law reform, but I think the rhetoric of the gay marriage campaigns has been so successful in marginalizing other forms of family and kinship networks that it will actually be more difficult now to make those demands of our governments and social institutions. In passing gay marriage we did nothing to dislodge the ideology of family, and today we need to continue the fight to make family law support our families as they exist, and not the other way around by forcing our kinships to match the confines of the law. The battle for gay marriage has been ahistorical, anti-feminist, and extremely conservative. We must not let the present moment of gay marriage jubilation, or the coming moment of trans jubilation over the imminent admittance of trans people to the US Military, rewrite our much messier and hard fought histories of struggle against heterosexism, imperialism, oppression, and hierarchy.
1 Ryan Conrad, Karma Chávez, Yasmin Nair, and Deena Loeffler, “Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion,” in Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion, ed. Ryan Conrad (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014), 9-11.