The trouble with straight lines: Narrative structures and new methods for LGBTQ oral history

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Oral history has long been held as a route to foregrounding silenced and marginalised voices. Feminist oral history in particular has maintained a commitment to hearing voices that challenge hegemonic histories. Following in this tradition, historians of sexuality have been keen to use oral history for the exploration of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) histories. Such research has proposed that oral history's unique methodological and theoretical underpinnings are ideally placed for this type of recovery history. However, this paper will argue that developments in the field of queer theory may help to shine a light on, and problematise, such assumptions.

I suggest that some established methodologies of oral history interviewing might have the potential to inhibit, rather than facilitate, the telling of queer narratives. Specifically, I argue that the use of normative narrative frameworks to structure storytelling and interview encounters can lead to the inevitable 'failure' of queer narrators to achieve narrative composure.

As oral historians we may come to depend on linear narratives in order for our narrators' stories to 'make sense'. However, for LGBTQ people such narrative cohesion is not always possible, or desirable. For those who have lived previous heterosexual lives the inability to narrate a 'total' LGBTQ life can cause narrative breakdown. For transgender interviewees, interviewing practices that require the speaker to reflect on childhood and adolescence as a route to understanding the current self can be problematic and even traumatic. The 'coming out story', now a recognisable narrative in mainstream culture, has become a touchstone of LGBTQ life narratives. But not all LGBTQ people have an 'appropriate' coming out story to tell. Such narrators can feel excluded by what has become a dominant narrative within a marginalised community. Ultimately I argue for new methodologies that can facilitate and embrace the non-linearity of LGBTQ narratives.
Period19 Jun 2018
Held atUniversity of Jyvaskyla, Finland
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • oral history
  • Queer theory
  • LGBTQ history