The Blue Ridge LGBTQ Oral History Project lives in the corner of UNCA (University of North Carolina Asheville) Associate Professor of English Amanda Wray’s office. Worn boxes sit on top of each other filled to the brim with magazines, articles and news clippings throughout history, some in newer mint condition and others yellow with age or folded with use. This unexplored archive of LGBTQ material from actual members of the community sit snug with her plaques, educational books and photos of her two children..
“A lot of the people that we interview are older and they have all these things and they’re like, ‘We don’t know what to do with them,’ and they might not have any children or anyone to pass them on to, and they say, ‘Do you want these?’ and we say, ‘Hell yeah, we want these,’” says Drew Scott, a sophomore at UNCA and Wray’s current intern.
Scott, who processes the physical archives, opens all of the boxes and shows different magazines, newspaper clippings, photo albums, scrapbooks and pamphlets. Pieces of paper range from the early ‘70s to the present day and come from different regions in America. He said he wishes they had more space to work.
Only half of the archives are kept in her office. The rest can be found through Blue Ridge Pride and UNCA’s website and library.
The Oral History Project became Wray’s passion, and her current research project started in 2019. The project captures LGBTQ voices and stories and archives them so others can hear from their perspectives. Wray was heavily inspired by Indigenous methods of storytelling and said storytelling is a great way to pass on wisdom. The interviewees range in age, gender, sexuality and race, but they all have one thing in common: they’re part of the LGBTQ community.
“That’s kind of our catchphrase, right? Our stories, our lives, our way,” Wray explains.
“I feel that way. There is no better way to learn from somebody but in their own words. We aren’t writing history books. We’re letting them write and narrate their own history. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful.”
Wray says the project, unfortunately, does not have the support it needs. Her main support system comes from Blue Ridge Pride. From the beginning, they provided interviewees and financial support.
She’s happy to have Blue Ridge Pride’s support, but she wishes there was more from other sources. Wray says her first grant from UNCA is recent – and it can be used to pay for interns in the next semester.
Wray was born in rural Kentucky and attended the University of Kentucky for her B.A. and M.A. in English literature. In 2007, she moved to Arizona where she did her dissertation on oral histories and worked at Arizona’s queer archive.
In 2011, she moved to Asheville and said she was surprised the city did not have an LGBTQ archive.
“It was really surprising to me that our university didn’t have an LGBTQ archive already,” she recalls. “Given that Buncombe County has more same-sex couples than any other county in North Carolina, I just don’t understand how that happened.”
Wray wanted to create an archive because she recognizes the importance of connecting different voices together, especially queer youths to their elders. Before she could begin the project, she waited until tenure in order to get started.
In January 2019, she initiated her project with three interns, among them Corey Childers, a UNCA alum. Childers said the archives were very new and Wray’s goal at the time was to determine how to manage the materials, which included interviews, digitizing printed material, copy editing, uploading, transcribing and putting the content on the web. Wray also taught interns how to give interviews and what to do during them.
“I don’t want to say I’m doing this alone,” says Wray, “because I have a lot of supportive volunteers, but I am the only project leader, so I have a lot on my plate in terms of just managing privacy, confidentiality and training everyone and then getting the interviews up.”
Childers began the series of interviews with Michael Harney, a prevention educator and co-founder at Western North Carolina AIDS Project, a non-profit that helps with HIV/AIDS prevention.
Learning more about LGBTQ history in the South was the reason Childers joined, and especially the history of Black queer people and how they shaped southern culture and identity.
Scott said he joined the archives after seeing a flyer and became interested immediately. He enjoys organizing the physical archives because he gets to read and learn a lot.
As the effort continues to move forward, plans are to get the word out that the Oral History Project does exist and students can interact and support the project. One of their biggest priorities now is increasing diversity.
As of October 22, they had collected 83 oral histories. 60 percent are white, 12 percent are Latinx, nine percent are Black and six percent are Indigenous. Wray explains that some people didn’t clarify their race or talk about it in their interviews, so there are some unidentified people in the mix as well. One-third of the interviews come from trans or non-binary people, another third from gay-identifying people and another third from lesbians.
Wray said she wants to continue to diversify the archives and get the word out to the Asheville community to encourage more involvement.
“With the project, we’ve been able to take people who said in an interview that they felt lonely,” Wray offers. “We had them interview [with] LGBTQ youth and they created these relationships and connected on social media. We enlarged their social group. They’re becoming family with one another. That is some really beautiful outcome of oral history work. It’s all about building relationships with someone.”
If you’re interested in donating historic items, verbal accounts or financial help to the Blue Ridge LGBTQ Oral History Project, contact Blue Ridge Pride at email@example.com or visit their website here.
This story originally appeared in the Blue Banner. It appears here per agreement with the author and the publication and has been edited for space limitations. To read it in its original form, go here.