VHS, Porn, and the Digital Archive

Image source: http://dealwithimpossibility.tumblr.com/post/77463284947

Gay and Lesbian archives tend to have large collections of videotapes. These tapes are generally rare because no one else bothered to collect them, or because they’re amateur, one-of-a kind recordings. Gay and lesbian archives also have a lot of porn on tape, porn that is a critical record of queer sex cultures. Lest we forget, how, why, and with whom we have sex is important to document. It’s something folks have fought hard for, put their bodies on the line for. It’s as important as that tape of the 1989 Dyke March, or the 1992 Gay Games, or the 1993 March on Washington. It’s as important as a speech by Vito Russo. We are, after all, talking about the archives of sexual minorities–communities organized around sex.

VHS tapes are one of the least stable formats held in community archives. They degrade quickly. VHS is expensive to digitize through a third-party vendor. It’s possible to digitize in-house, by non-professionals, but it takes time and equipment. This guy, John Raines, volunteers to digitize tapes for the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco:

Photo Jane Philomen Cleland: http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=69163

Raines is retired and he does this work at home, five days a week, because he thinks it’s important.

I haven’t spoken to Raines, though I’d like to, but I have spoken to volunteers at other gay and lesbian archives working on digitizing their moving image collections. I ask them how they choose what tapes to digitize. Always strapped for volunteer time and money, these archives have to set priorities. Decisions are based on “archival value.” This concept isn’t objective; it doesn’t mean anything in particular. Archival value is usually assigned to materials because of volume of researcher request, state of degradation, ease of acquiring permissions, appeal to granting bodies, and just simple perceptions of what is most important to remember.

Moving images of sexuality, especially “porn,” don’t fare well in a lot of these measurements, but then what happens to these tapes in this digital moment? What happens to our records of marginal sexual subcultures when these tapes get left in the drawer? And what will become of queer histories when we’re left to construct them without these primary sources?



Forty Years Army

PRIDE week and all the ambivalent feelings it brings. What is the work that we continue to ask queerness to do, in relation to homonational formations like PRIDE? What might we learn from looking back at a longer history of queerness as an idea developed in relation to PRIDE?

This 1973 interview with Rita Mae Brown is now forty years old. Brown’s call for an alternative culture—an “army of lovers” who “shall not fail”—in response to the inadequacies of gay rights for gay whites movements is a popular reference point for contemporary queer subcultures. I especially like her “five or ten” year prediction for this army’s conquest; an army whose arrival we are forever anticipating.

Civil rights is a reformist measure. Revolution is what counts, not civil rights. You’re going to buy people off with civil rights. That’s the lesson of feminism. We got bought off with that vote. Don’t waste any time on civil rights. It’s a big political mistake.

You build an alternative culture within the existing culture. I think people are going to be motivated by an alternate culture instead of civil rights. We’re not going to solve this tonight. I think probably over the next five or ten years if we all do our homework, we’ll come up with something.”

– Rita Mae Brown, interviewed in The Lesbian Tide April 1973, AN ARMY OF LOVERS SHALL NOT FAIL

Barbara Gittings, Radical Lesbian Librarian (1971)

From: Gays in Library Land: The Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association: The First Sixteen Years by Barbara Gittings (1990).

What a heady time! We were activists. We were innovative, bold, imaginative, full of fun and energy, full of love for promoting our cause.

Predictably, it was our gay kissing booth that really threw us into the limelight. All the SRRT task forces had been invited to use a booth in the conference exhibit hall for a couple of hours each. We could have devoted our turn to a nice display of books and periodicals and our “Gay Bibliography.” But Israel Fishman decided to bypass books and show gay love, live.

We called it Hug-a-Homosexual. On the bare grey curtains forming the back wall of the booth, we hung signs reading “Women Only” at one end and “Men Only” at the other, and there we waited, smiling, ready to dispense free (yes, free) same-sex kisses and hugs.

The aisles were jammed. But no one entered the booth. They all wanted to ogle the action, not be part of it. Maybe the Life photographer and the glaring lights from the two Dallas TV crews made them feel shy.

Hundreds of exhibit visitors crowded around and craned their necks as the eight of us in the booth hugged and kissed each other, called encouragement to the watchers, kissed and hugged each other some more—and between times handed out our bibliography to those in the throng.

Librarians at that 1971 conference learned fast that lesbians and gay men are here and everywhere, that we won’t go away, and that we will insist on our rights and recognition. Result: In the last days of the conference, we got both the Council (the elected policy-making body of ALA) and the general membership to pass our pro-gay resolution. Maybe some librarians voted for it because it seemed innocuously vague, and maybe others voted for it in hopes we wouldn’t embarrass ALA with another Hug-a-Homosexual stunt. Still, the resolution did become official policy of ALA.

“The sheer butch glamour of printing”

Wendy Cadden works an offset press.

From “She Who Owns the Press: The Physical World of Early Feminist Publishing” by Barbara Sjoholm (2012):

It’s difficult to convey the sheer butch glamour of printing. This black-fingered, muscle-building blue-collar work was just the sort of thing that many women found we really liked doing in the 1970s and early 80s. The Second Wave had more than its fair share of car mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. Some women went into the trades because the paychecks were much better, and some forced their way up from apprentice to master because they were tough rabble-rousers. Others founded carpentry collectives or car garages so that we women didn’t have to depend on know-it-all men to build our fences or repair our cars.

Some women went into the printing trades for some of the same reasons as women fought to join the United Brotherhood of Carpenters—better paychecks and the love of loud noise. The majority, I suspect, were more like me—strong enough to haul boxes, determined enough to learn how a press worked and to stand on my feet for hours, but not really all that interested in trouble-shooting printing problems and dismantling and reassembling machinery. Like me, they were in printing for the thrill of it, lured by the vision of a process that created words on paper that could be turned into pages, bound into books, placed on shelves, bought and sold, held in hands, and taken into the heart and mind. That could transform the world.

There was often an obstacle between the woman writer and her public. That obstacle was a printing press. In the 1970s, that changed.

First memories of the queer web

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of queer folks I meet in non-academic settings about their first memories of using the web. This has grown into a curiosity of mine kind of organically because after I tell someone that I’m interested in “the early adoption of online media by queer communities of users, roughly from 1995–2000” they often want to talk about their early adoption of online media. It’s a topic that I love because it’s gossipy, and it draws on shared cultural memories of an emerging queer web that represented an emotionally potent escape for much of my peer group, who were teenagers during the age of dial-up.

Usually these memories are related to porn. I like the story one friend told me of going to the library to search for and print off a picture of two shirtless guys making out. The printer was a dot-matrix and the image it produced was “barely recognizable,” but it still became a prized possession. He actually liked how pixelated it was, because if his parents found it, they might not recognize the figures as two men. He knew what it “really” was and that was what mattered.

These kinds of events, because they’re heady and come along with a healthy dose of gay shame, are easily remembered. What people seem to have a lot of trouble recalling are the everyday textures of the queer web; what kinds of sites they went to, what they searched for, what browsers they used, who they talked to and why, what it felt like, looked like, etc.

The Awl has this new series that I’m enjoying call “Know Your Internet History!” in which they profile popular web portals from the “pre–2000 World Wide Web.” The profiles tend to focus on the people who made these sites, rather than on the people who used them, and so it has a bit of a hero-worship quality (okay, so the text that introduces the series literally asks “Who were these early heroes of the internet?”). But I think it’s really compelling as way of doing an unabashedly partial history of a medium that often evades documentation. I especially like the idea of a research method that combines this attention to select sites or practices but puts more emphasis on the memories of users (if these even exist). With this kind of approach there are big questions about sampling–how do you choose which sites matter–but one of the advantages is a method that might be able to (maybe, sort of ?) account for the early web in un-monumental, everyday terms.


Piles and piles of digital stuff

In the latest issue of No More Potlucks, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk interviews Laura Yaros, host of Matrix, the longest running feminist radio show in Canada. Laura touches on two issues that come up again and again in my own conversations with activists and archivists working with lesbian material: 1 ) digitization is crucial for preservation, though by no means a magic bullet solution and 2) digitization has no necessary relation to the provision of access. In other words, if you digitize it, the digital documents will probably still sit in a metaphorical drawer; other ways of promoting access are needed. The interview is great for anyone interested in digital and queer archives, or the history of community radio in Canada.

As I’ve started working more earnestly on my dissertation proposal, talking to a lot of queer and lesbian “archivists” – I use the term loosely to describe a range of practices from the informal or accidental collector to the community archive coordinator – about the scope of their projects, I’ve noticed that there’s often a similar refrain at the beginning of their stories: an attempt to communicate, in no uncertain terms, the daunting scope of their archives. Language like “piles,” “drawers-full,” “mountains,” “boxes and boxes,” “stacks” gets invoked against digital “stuff” (why are digital documents always called stuff, Dylan?). This digital stuff is also described as overwhelming but with metaphors that are less spatial, and more about keeping track of hardware and software over time: I’m going to have do something with those files, or those USB keys, eventually.

Brought together, a process emerges: I have piles and piles of stuff in my apartment that I need to digitize, then I have all this stuff on my computer or on the Internet that I need to do something with. Access provision is a third step that complicates the assumptions folks often make about digitization as the neat end-game for our messy feminist archives. As Laura points out in the interview, gesturing, I think, toward this access issue: “But that’s not all we should be doing – not everyone is going to know that material exists and to look for it. Maybe we need to have workshops or conferences or informal gatherings where some of this material is shared. Even just our stories, we all have our stories. In addition to written and electronic preservation, we need to preserve an oral tradition as well. It doesn’t have to be formal or academic.” The question then becomes, how do digital access provisions get imagined in ways that are unique to queer-feminist methods and circles?


Queer Stadiums – ACT UP at Shea

I had the opportunity to go to New York last week for some research and spent most of the trip in the ACT UP collection at the New York Public Library. I was looking for documentation of how the international ACT UP network communicated, especially during the early days of email and the web. I found some great material and I think the network might end up being one site for my dissertation research (I’ll write more on that in another post), but this post is actually about Shea stadium, where the Mets and the Jets used to play.

In the Spring of 1988 The ACT UP women’s committee organized an action at Shea Stadium. They bought 400 tickets to the Mets game in strategically selected blocks and unfurled massive banners throughout the game that read “No Glove, No Love,” “AIDS Kills Women,” and “Men! Use Condoms.” If you’re interested, Maxine Wolfe tells the whole story of the action at DIVA TV (video and transcript available). There aren’t any photos online but I’ve seen 8mm footage of this action from the perspective of someone sitting in the stands and it’s totally breathtaking.

Screengrab from ACT UP NY: http://www.actupny.org/documents/earlytactics2.html

I’m a big sports fan, especially NFL football. Sometimes when people find this out they seem put off, as if liking sports isn’t rightly feminist or rightly intellectual. This perception has a lot do with live sporting events as spaces that can be exclusionary and even violent toward people who don’t fit the typical sports-fan bill. It also has a lot to do with misconceptions about working class masculinity and violence. Of course, this perception isn’t helped by stuff like Tim Tebow, THE PATRON SAINT OF FOOTBALL, the fighter jet flyovers at the beginning of sports events, the constant association commentators make between contact sports and war, the singing of “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch, and the very existence of cheerleading or that thing called Lingerie Football. Cultural studies of sport have shown that there are many small ways in which heterotopic spaces that defy these stereotypes spring up at live sporting events, they’re just usually quiet, or go unremarked except to the people for whom they mean something. The Shea stadium action is remarkable because it puts them front and centre.

Maxine Wolfe sums up what I want to say perfectly in the video I linked to above:

When we came to the floor of ACT UP and we presented the Shea Stadium Action as our Nine Days of Action thing, the room became dead silent. Panic was in the air, absolute panic. So people started to stand up and speak. First, we got the “class” stuff. “We’re gonna get beaten to death there,” and we’re standing there very calmly saying, “Do you know who goes to Shea Stadium? We go to Shea Stadium? Kids go to Shea Stadium on Friday nights to pick each other up. Queers go to Shea Stadium.” And in the room all of a sudden the closet baseball queers started standing up. All these gay men who wouldn’t tell anyone they were baseball nuts because it’s not the “thing to be,” and they started saying, “Yeah! I go to Shea Stadium.” So we finally got people to go.


Searching for early queer web documents

I just handed in my last course paper ever. It’s a hasty history of the queer Internet from 1995–2000 that I approached as an early attempt to grapple with a topic that will eventually form a historical chapter in my dissertation. One of the hard parts of doing Internet history of any kind is the complete lack of an archive, or preservation standards for web documents, a problem that lots of smart people have written about at length (see, for example, Lisa Gitelman). You can try your luck with Internet archives like the waybackmachine, but you need to know the URL of the site you want to look at, which makes it difficult to study, for example, the beginning of the queer WestHollywood community on Geocities in 1995 (though this is a dream project of mine).

A fairly typical site from the early days of Geocities WestHollywood.

Working on this paper, I’ve noticed that the peculiarities of web archiving are a bit different in queer contexts, and I think this has something to do with the fears about representation, or lack thereof, that a queer media public traumatized by the AIDS crisis and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (1993) brought to the early days of the web. Another project I’m working on is a study of digital and online archival politics in grassroots queer archives. On a research trip to the Lesbian Herstory Archives a year ago, I sifted through vertical file after vertical file stuffed with printouts from various “born digital” documents, from simple, html sites on queer topics to email correspondence. The researcher in me was thrilled to find this stuff, but I also couldn’t help but think how strange it is that archive volunteers printed and saved all these documents when so many other archives didn’t bother. I’m wondering how the politics of queer media in general during this period might have inspired a different way of thinking about web documents.

A print archive of the web also raises all kinds of questions about studying online media in print form. Rather than get into these questions here, I’ll just put up two images to illustrate:

Planetout homepage from 1997, screenshot from waybackmachine.


Sreenshot of Planetout from 1997 taken from a black-and-white paper copy of Nina Wakeford's Cyberqueer, which was then scanned as a PDF and circulated online for a course reader.