It was an honor to talk to “Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir In Archives” author Amelia Possanza about what she’s learned from researching and reimagining lesbian history. We discussed how we can best archive queer lives of today, the importance of lesbian “trash TV” and why we must build a future rooted in community care.
Real Change: Which of the lesbians featured in your book do you find yourself going back to or telling other people about most often?
Amelia Possanza: I’m still stuck on Mabel Hampton’s catchphrase, “The dead take care of me, and so do the living.” Mabel was orphaned at a young age and ran away from her remaining relatives when she was sexually assaulted at home, but throughout her life as a dancer, an activist, a WWII air raid warden, and a partner to Lillian Foster for forty years, she fell into networks of care and support outside the traditional family. She went to rent parties in Harlem, where people paid a fee at the door to help the host pay the landlord. She made moonshine with the other women imprisoned at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. When a fire destroyed her apartment later in life, she stayed with Joan Nestle, who also cared for Mabel’s story by recording a series of oral history tapes with her. I can’t help but repeat her words when I talk to friends about how the state fails to take care of us today and how we can fill in the gaps for each other.
What would you say to encourage lesbians to archive their love stories for the generations to come?
I recently learned that some of my girlfriend’s friends keep a “marriage archive,” and I’m blown away by this idea. They have organized their polaroids, labeled their mementos and sealed them in plastic. If you have the capacity to be that methodical, it seems like such a beautiful thing to do, and, frankly, as someone who is a bit more haphazard in my record keeping, I’m jealous. It’s impossible to say what the future will bring (and what it will erase), so I say archive whatever brings you joy, whether that’s transcribing your favorite personal ads you see on Lex, photographing your beloved every day, or something no one else has imagined yet. In addition to preserving our own stories, which are still very much works in progress, we can also interview our elders and take down the parts of their stories that have not been captured by the dominant historical narrative.
It’s not just the stories of lesbian life that we need to record, but the stories of all those who are forging a life outside the structures of capitalism and colonialism who will offer up inspiration and hope for future generations, whether that’s a labor union or an artist collective or a cooperative living house. By the end of my writing project, I began to broaden my collection to include all those fighting for liberation.
‘Lesbian Love Story’ powerfully explores how the women’s movement empowered lesbians with the skills to support their brothers during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Do you think we still have that collective memory to uplift each other in practical ways? How do we nurture it in our society?
After I turned in the book, a friend of mine said the most brilliant thing that I wish I could have included: “We inherited the politics of caretaking from the generation that lived through the AIDS crisis, but our generation hasn’t had a lot of practical experience.” The COVID-19 pandemic was a brief crash course in mutual aid for a lot of us, but then life almost instantly snapped back to its former pace. It’s a matter of taking the time to learn from community organizers and practice those skills even when we’re not in a moment of crisis. I highly recommend Dean Spade’s “Mutual Aid” as a primer for anyone who doesn’t know where to begin.
You wrote so lovingly about Mabel Hampton, “I want a monument on her block, funded by lesbians.” How can we honor the research you’ve done for all these lesbians, and make things like this happen?
There are a lot of great organizations already dedicated to doing this work, like the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York and the GLBT Archives in San Francisco, to name just two, so if you don’t have a lot of time or energy to sink into this work, the easiest thing to do is to simply donate your money or volunteer your time. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
Not to sound like a broken record, but you can also interview your elders and talk with them about their plans for their personal archives. Before we can start building monuments, we need to make sure we’re hanging onto the collective memory that’s still around, and to talk to each other about who we want to memorialize and how we want to do it.
What energizes or excites you most about being a lesbian right now?
The Ultimatum: Queer Love [on Netflix]. Lesbians deserve representation in literature and art and also trash reality TV. We can be just [as] jealous and manipulative and hungry for fame as everyone else. I love that when the contestants’ parents meet their “trial wives,” the reaction isn’t surprise that their children are queer or even that they are on this bizarre reality show. They’re like, ah, yes, what an interesting and kind fake wife you have.
The real question that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is, now that gaining some mainstream acceptance, what are we going to do with it? How are we going to use that position to uplift others, to change the conversation, to raise awareness, to bring everyone into a place where their needs are being met?
Read more of the June 21-27, 2023 issue.