Saturday, April 20, 2024

LGBTQ historian: ‘We have come a long way, there is still a very long way to go’


NORFOLK — As the city celebrates pride with block parties, festivals, and flying rainbow flags throughout June, it’s easy to feel complacent and almost projects the illusion LGBTQ people “have everything they need and want,” said founder and director of the Tidewater Queer History Project, Cathleen Rhodes.

“It is easier than it has been to be out at work and in our personal lives but in other ways, there are still lots of difficulties and there are still lots of things we need to do,” she said.

First, it’s still legal under federal law for employers to fire a person for being LGBTQ.

Second, said Rhodes who’s received homophobic phone calls where she works as an ODU professor — harassment is still a very prevalent issue.

Rhodes remembered being confronted by anti-gay protestors the first time she led students and community members on a queer history tour around the city two years ago.

“The standard ones with those large yellow signs and a megaphone,” she said. “It was shocking to students that were a part of the tour, it was shocking to community members, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it but it was shocking to me, too.”

The climate is particularly more harsh for transgender people, “especially trans people of color,” Rhodes said.

“A local crisis really, and this is true throughout the country, is the housing crisis for trans people and how difficult it can be for them to get jobs and keep those jobs,” she said. “Not because of any failing on their part, but because of employer perceptions of what it means to be a trans person.”

Without city or federal aid for trans people, local organizations like the Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia and the LGBT Life Center here have stepped in to fill the void.

“The TAP of Virginia specifically works to get access to housing, clothing, and all sorts of resources in the area and they’re an all-volunteer organization,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes also noted organizations like PFLAG and Gay-Straight Alliances that are geared more toward LGBTQ youth and their families.

I’ve met several families in the last year who might say ‘my 14-year-old grandson just came out as trans, what do I do? What is the terminology? What does that mean?’ and PFLAG is a really good resource for them,” she said.

“Gay-Straight Alliances are in middle schools and high schools that allow LGBT kids to meet with each other and straight allies to kind of talk through some of the things that are difficult for them.”

Another means of support is the comfort humans get when they know they’re not alone, Rhodes said.

“Unlike race, religion, national origin, or many other identities, LGBTQ people’s sexuality or gender is likely to be different than that of family members,” she said. “We have to look outside of our familial circles to understand ourselves as queer people, so it is useful and important to see other queer people in history.”

Which is why she has combined her professional with her personal experiences to establish what she called “a community and academic collaboration.”

“Queer history work is about recovery,” she said. “LGBTQ people have been as much a part of history as non-LGBTQ people have, but our stories are rarely told, so we have to search for them.”

Rhodes also led the opposition against the 2018 closing of what was known as one of the oldest lesbian bars in the state when she felt city leaders didn’t know the historical significance of “Hershee Bar,” nor did they “understand the cultural and social impact would have on people and the long-lasting effects of that.”

Bars are one of the prominent stops on the organization’s queer history tour because they “were one of the only public places where queer people could go for a very long time and meet other queer people,” Rhodes said. 

A Tidewater Queer History Project volunteer writes on the wall in memorial of the closing of the oldest lesbian bar in Virginia --Hershee Bar. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Tidewater Queer History Project Facebook Page)
A Tidewater Queer History Project volunteer writes on the wall in memorial of the closing of the oldest lesbian bar in Virginia –Hershee Bar. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Tidewater Queer History Project Facebook Page)

Students and community members volunteer with the TQHP to digitize old photos and transcribe and index historical information.

One of Rhodes’ students, Kira Kindley, hosts a queer history podcast called, “Our Own Podcast” to talk more about Norfolk locations with queer backgrounds.

TQHP volunteers also set up a “pop up booth” at Pride Fest where they conducted oral history interviews that will be transcribed and indexed.

She wrote on their website, “We are interested in the ways that people live their lives day to day, and we want to preserve that information.”

Whether you’re LGBTQ or straight, Rhodes said “everybody, I think, stands to benefit from understanding more about queer history,” and could make the community more inclusive by learning about other people.

I think if we start from this place of asking each other questions and asking how can we create spaces that you would feel a part of, or that would feel welcoming to you, I think that’s a really excellent place to start,” she said.

To learn more about the Tidewater Queer History Project, click here.

To find out about the next Queer History Walk of Norfolk and other TQHP events, click here.

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