The book Voices in Isolation: 4 Queer Plays at a Social Distance is a collection of stories about the LGBTQ+ community designed to preserve "fading memories" of queer history and experiences by "inviting the audience to the party," said author and Chicago historian Owen Keehnen.
The pieces memorialize vibrant queer spaces and figuressuch as The Belmont Rocks and the iconic drag performer Wanda Lustthrough characters speaking about their personal experiences almost as if they're gossiping with the audience.
"A lot of times, the way that we're given history, especially as queer people, is sort of dusty," Keehnen said. "I wanted to show that our history is full of a lot of fascinating people and let them tell their stories."
The four performance pieces fill in personal details about what it's been like to live as a queer person at various points in time.
"For me, it's much easier to connect with history if I can connect with the people," Keehnen said. "I want to know where the people went to have fun and what they did on the weekends. I think that when you preserve history in a way that captures the people you connect across generations."
By highlighting everyday experiences in history, Keehnen hopes he can help queer people today "get a glimpse of how much they can learn from LGBTQ+ seniors."
"Writing about the fun parts of being queer back then, I hope can be a bridge or an avenue of communication between the generations," Keehnen said. "The generations seem like they have so much in common but it's like we've adopted that generational gap from the other world."
The Belmont Rocksa stretch of grass and stone along Lake Michigan between Belmont and Diverseywere one lost space Keehnen brought back to life in the book by weaving together the voices of various characters reflecting on spending time together.
Keehnen said the space was a "sanctuary" that "formed organically" in the 1960s. The space was bulldozed in 2003 as part of a project to safeguard against shoreline erosion.
"We claimed this land right in the middle of the city for ourselves," Keehnen said. "Just the fact of being LGBTQ+ people hanging out in the sun in a time when our bars still had blackened windows was so empowering psychologically for people."
Keehnen started working on the book before the pandemic, but he said the current political moment made him feel that passing on queer history was more important than ever.
In the preface of the book Keehnen explains the pieces are "an attempt to explore an added queer aspect to social distance in all its forms from assimilation to separatism, from past to present, from onstage to offstage, and from whom we are to who society defines us as being."
Keehnen said he hopes the book can provide a fuller picture of the LGBTQ+ community's history and all its quirks.
"For example, I tried to show in the piece "Pansies on Parade" how there was this stretch of time where nothing was hotter than seeing a man in a tuxedo being as effeminate as he possibly could," Keehnen said. "So much of our past is just glossed over, and I think remembering every part of it enriches it. It's all part of our story and the more we get down on paper, the better."