Group photo from the Southeastern Gay Conference, held at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1976 Credit: Photo courtesy of UNC University Archives

The Story of Us: Oral Histories of LGBTQIA+ Alumni | The Process Series  |  Carolina Pride Alum Network  |  Global FedEx Center, UNC-Chapel Hill  | Friday, Apr. 15–Saturday, Apr. 16

LGBTQ+ people have traditionally been left out of primary public historical sources like newspapers and governmental documents. 

“Most papers in NC weren’t going to publish information about Gay Pride marches, or the organizational efforts of gays and lesbians at UNC in the 1970s,” says Hooper Schultz, a PhD candidate in the university’s department of history and a Carolina Pride Alumni Network Fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill. “They saw it as unseemly, illegal, or obscene.” Despite some strides in equality over recent decades, the everyday lives of queer citizens have still largely been left out of the historical record altogether.

Until, that is, someone realizes they’re missing and does something about it.

This weekend in Chapel Hill, audiences at the university’s Global FedEx Center will see the culmination of three years’ work: the first phase in collecting, documenting, and studying the oral histories of more than 50 LGBTQ+ people who attended UNC from the 1950s through the 2010s. 

Over two performances, 19 all-stars from stage, screen, and television, most of them UNC alumni themselves, return to Chapel Hill from New York, Los Angeles, and other cities to weave the lives of 27 former students into an evening-length work. Over the course of two hours, it tries to answer, at least in part, one main question: What has life been like for queer students at UNC over the last 50 years?

The project’s name: The Story of Us.

Shawne Grabs, a senior regional officer in the university’s development office, knew something was missing when she went looking for pictures of past LGBTQ+ student groups for the Carolina Pride Alum Network (CPAN), an organization of some 1,500 queer UNC graduates. “We couldn’t find anything,” she says, “and I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to document our legacy.’”

After Grabs viewed Black Pioneers, an earlier Process Series production of oral histories from the first generation of Black students admitted to UNC, between 1952 and 1972, the network raised $113,000 to fund a similar effort on queer history at the university.

“If you don’t know your history, then you can’t compare to see if you’re evolving as a university, as a community,” Grabs says. The present day, she says, “is so much different from the sixties—I don’t know if there’s any understanding of what that [time] was like.”

“Without a public history, people really have no knowledge of themselves as an identity group,” Schultz says. “It’s hard to have [an] identity, and a cohesive community, without a history.”

The money from fundraising efforts went toward a collaboration between CPAN, the university’s archives at Wilson Library, the Southern Oral History Program, and the departments of history and communication. 

After two years of work gathering oral histories for a specific permanent collection at the library, Schultz and UNC alum Cassie Tanks created Queerolina, an online exhibit on queer history at UNC. Then, Elisabeth Lewis Corley, the playwright and editor who worked on Black Pioneers, started distilling well over 1,000 pages of transcripts into a workable evening-length script to depict common experiences across a broad spectrum of lives. It wasn’t easy.

“All this time, I’m just falling in love with all of these voices, and thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’” Corley says.

A linear, chronological approach, fast-forwaorarding over a half-century, was out of the question. “None of the voices would permit that,” Corley says. “These people are just too complicated, too human.”

Instead, Corley let the characters “tell whatever story was urgent to them and then saw how placing and shifting them together increases our collective understanding of them. Eventually, themes emerged and I could hear some voices in conversation with each other.”

Voices famous and familiar to local followers of politics will be heard.

 The stories of former Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and town councilman Joe Herzenberg, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the South, will be performed by a cast of alumni including Max von Essen, who helped found Company Carolina before his Tony and Grammy nominations for the Broadway production of An American in Paris, and director Eric Rosen, who founded Chicago’s About Face, one of the country’s leading LGBTQ+ theater companies.

According to David Terry, one of the actor’s in the show, one of the strengths of Corley’s script is an emphasis on LGBTQ+ people’s quest just to have ordinary lives.

“We tend to say that queer lives only matter when they’re exceptional. That brings a lot of pressure, which many of the folks interviewed talk about, to be ‘bigger than life’ all the time,” Terry says. “She’s edited the piece toward this sense of ordinary, of the everyday.”

Queer culture is not monolithic; a broad range of experiences and battles for acceptance over the decades can divide as easily as unite the people embraced across the lengthy acronym.

“In this story of us, the challenge of creating any ‘us’ involves figuring out what we have in common,” Terry says. Noting the generational tensions between queer activists who came of age during the ACT UP era of the 1970s and ’80s, and those who followed after, Terry says, “That sense of who is ‘us’ is complicated. But the complexity is where a lot of the joy lives.”

At its best moments, Terry says The Story of Us feels like a conversation or a dance between people. “It’s a dance where they’re wanting to create space for one another to coexist, without giving up their sense of ‘This is the me that I fought really hard to find and to be.’”

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