QChicago has long been known as a city of stories. That reputation began with writers and commentators like Studs Terkel, but that same kind of oral history has been slow to grab hold in the city's LGBTQIA communityuntil now.
Joseph Varisco has been working on Queer Lexicon, a collection of interviews documenting the oral histories of creative individuals in the LGBTQIA communities. Varisco said the project started six months ago with KOKUMO, CEO of KOKUMOMEDIA Inc. and a musical artist. Other participants include AfroCubaRican performance artist Vajaqueque Brown, Uprising project performance director and educator Nicole Garneau, DJ and Chances Dances collective member Swaguerrilla, and international IMG model Darling Shear.
The interviews explore pressing issues facing queer community such as historical problems of segregation in Chicago, the vitality of recognizing intersectionality, survival and thriving in controversial queer economies, the collapse of not-for-profit and academic institutions servicing LGBTQIA and gender non-conforming folk through intimate accounts of personal lives and creative works.
The interviews will be released throughout the year, each one about 25 to 20 minutes and conducted by Varisco. New interviews will be available each month at soundcloud.com/joevarisco. Three have already been released with the next one being H. Melt, author of SIRvival in the Second City: Transqueer Chicago Poems, this week. Currently available interviews include Queer Choir director Jackie Boyd, drag diva Shea Couleé and multi-disciplinary artist Kiam Marcelo Junio.
In the past six months since the start of the project, Varisco has conducted almost 30 interviews with more already scheduled. And while the completed interviews will be released throughout 2013, he is working on making Queer Lexicon an ongoing project. One major goal is to have a fundraiser to help pay for the development of the production quality of the series. He's also hoping for the building of a website where the interviews and community resources can be located. The site would have biographies on artists, media coverage and access to an arts calendar. And while Chicago is its base and will remain the center of much of the project's activity, Varisco does hope to expand it across the country.
He said that it was actually very easy to get people to participate. "A lot of these people were people I had worked with different capacities already," Varisco stated. For example, he had met KOKUMO through his work with the Broadway Youth Center and he met others through performance work with organizations such as About Face Theatre.
"Many people were very excited about the idea of it, telling their own histories of who and what they are," he said. "It didn't take much convincing at all."
Varisco said that he was indeed inspired by Terkel's series documenting Chicago. "The idea of documenting the people's history has been something I've been really drawn to," he explained. "We often don't get the decision on how they're told." He started conducting the interviews when he was creative director of Chicago IRL, an arts and literary digest cataloging contemporary queer creative culture in Chicago, with KOKUMO and Vajaqueque Brown. When he started out on his own quest to get the stories preserved, he started sending out requests to colleagues, friends and coworkers.
"The people I interviewed I've found unbelievably remarkable and innovative," he said.
Varisco said the entire process is consent based. Each interview lasts about an hour and is edited down to 20 to 30 minutes for release. Each interview is sent back to the person to see if they're happy with the end result and to see if anything was missed. "I like the fact it's a mutual process, it's an archive, a biography, a documentation of personal history," he continues. "The work we're all trying to do as a community. Not just talk about an event that's coming up or a show they're going to do."
Many of the themes that have come up in Queer Lexicon include the historical segregation of Chicago, holding people accountable for their actions and exploring what intersectionality, the ways that the different parts of the community intersect with each other, means.
"Some of the most surprising is how people talk about queer economies," Varisco said. Many performers and artists consider alternatives, turning to friends and family or looking at other options as a way of getting by while creating. The changing demographics of the community and city also are recurrent themes, especially where the center of gay identity exists now as Lakeview and the traditionally gay Boystown area becomes less of a residence for much of the city's gay community while still being home to many of the businesses and institutions.
Interviews have already been sent to the Chicago History Museum and other archival institutions, but where the project goes from here depends on who picks it up. "Right now, I'm working on creating this as an oral history project," Varisco said. Expanding Queer Lexicon can come as more resources become available.
Varisco believes that community development sits at the core of much of what the community's artists and performers do, being much broader in scope than just personal projects. He's found that doing collaborative work is a good way to engage the community and that community development is a delicate and intentional process. It is especially important for a fragmented community that isn't seen in the mainstream or heteronormative media. The sharing of stories can be important and vital.
"We don't have a lot of 'elders' to look to and have for guidance," he said. "We have to build our own histories."