Queer Like Us: A Conversation with the Queer Newark Oral History Project

Audible editor Michael Collina speaks to the Queer Newark Oral History Project about the power and importance of preserving queer voices.

Note: Listen as you follow along with this audio essay.

"Queer Newark has really helped me to listen and to hear what other people go through in their experiences, you know? The history is not monolithic, the experience is not monolithic. And we deserve that." —Christina Strasburger

"The project is what it is because of the many people at Rutgers University in Newark." —Darnell Moore

"But when we lose a building important to queer history, especially queer people of color's history, there's often no other records. And that history is just, it's gone. You know? And we're again left fighting for scraps of it as queer people." —Kristyn Scorsone

"It's really kind of impossible to think about New York City’s queer history without thinking about Newark's." —Darnell Moore

I’m Audible editor Michael Collina, and those were the words of Christina Strasburger, Darnell Moore, and Kristyn Scorsone—three of the volunteers behind the Queer Newark Oral History Project. Over the next fifteen minutes, you’ll continue to hear their unique perspectives as they talk about some of the work that Queer Newark does to archive and preserve the oral histories of the city it calls home.

Like these folks, I’m a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community. I also happen to be a current resident of Newark, New Jersey—the home of both Audible and Queer Newark. Located just around the corner from our Audible Headquarters and my own home, the Queer Newark Oral History Project is a community-based and directed organization. It was founded in 2011 by Darnell Moore, alongside Rutgers University-Newark faculty and staff, Beryl Satter and Christina Strasburger.

The Queer Newark Oral History Project interviews and archives the histories of Newark’s queer community activists. Throughout this audio feature, you’ll hear about some of the work volunteers like Christina, Darnell, and Kristyn do to support and preserve the stories of the queer community in Newark. You’ll also hear about why this process is so important.

"Queer Newark at the outset was created with youth in mind. And it was formed in 2011 in collaboration with community members. And what these community members wanted was for local queer history to be captured and shared in such a way that queer youth did not have to go searching for their history." —Kristyn Scorsone

That was Kristyn, a volunteer who joined the project in 2015. I heard similar sentiments from Darnell and Christina, two of Queer Newark’s founders:

"What we really wanted to do was to have an archive of voices, material culture. That youth, that scholars, that everyone could have access to. So it was really to combat erasure and the invisibility." —Christina Strasburger

"We know that history hasn't been kind to Black, queer, and trans folks. So we wanted to ensure that these voices would be captured somewhere, in perpetuity. And that was the gift that we wanted to offer back to the community. And not something that we would do in isolation of them." —Darnell Moore

"Queer Newark Oral History Project exists to be a resource for our young people—for our scholars inside and outside of the academy." —Christina Strasburger

But before we really jump into that work, let’s take a step back and discuss what it means to be queer. For the folks at Queer Newark, there’s a lot to unpack in that five letter word. On their website, they explain why the term is so important to their organization:

"The term ‘queer’ was chosen for the name of the project to showcase the resilience of an often-invisible population of Newarkers whose lives reflected sexual and gender diversity, whether or not they adopted LGBTQ identities." —The Queer Newark Oral History Project

This sentiment holds true for volunteers at the organization, too. Despite its original use as a pejorative, the word “queer” has seen a reclamation in the past few decades. Nowadays, it’s used as an umbrella term for the spectrum of identities that are not heterosexual or not cisgender. It also includes those who don’t feel a particular connection to the lesbian, gay, or bisexual labels that make up the Q+ acronym. And for people like Kristyn, it’s an integral part of their connection to the project:

"My involvement in the Queer Newark Oral History Project came about because I was hungry for my own queer history. I identify as queer. I identify as non-binary. And because of the issues that people are standing up for in our country right now—like racism, structural inequality, police brutality—all of these things are a factor locally here, in my town of Kearny and in Newark, which is across the river from me. And because of these things, my queer history was invisible to me." —Kristyn Scorsone

As an organization dedicated to inclusivity and access, the work of preserving these stories is inherently intersectional. Intersectionality is a theory that was first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s. Simply put, intersectionality acknowledges the ways that factors like race, class, sexual identity, and gender can overlap to create unique systems of discrimination or of privilege.

Darnell’s comments about the work done by Queer Newark puts this type of intersectional thinking and activism on full display. But even outside of Queer Newark’s work, this kind of intersectional awareness and action should be an essential part of all queer storytelling.

"I have no time for pride right now, unless the pride is one centering the experiences of Black and Latinx folk. Of non-white folk. And challenging white supremacy at the same time." —Darnell Moore

As an oral history project, the audio element is of particular importance for the archival and preservation process of Queer Newark. Oftentimes—particularly when it comes to historically marginalized and underrepresented communities—one of the most powerful things you can do is to take a step back, listen, and learn. And that’s precisely what the folks at Queer Newark aim to do.

"Audio is a very powerful medium for storytelling. It's an act of witnessing. When I interview someone for the Queer Newark Oral History Project, we're alone in a room together. Our phones are off. It's quiet. We're face-to-face, person-to-person. And my job in that moment is to be an embodied listener, meaning I am fully present. I'm focusing. I'm giving them space to tell their story without judgment, without making it about me. This is their time. And because Queer Newark collects marginalized voices, I've had people that I've interviewed afterwards say to me, 'Thank you. Like truly, thank you.' Giving me hugs. You know? Because I was the first person they said that cared enough about their story to sit down and talk to them and listen and hear what they have to say. And that is really powerful." —Kristyn Scorsone

All of these interviews are accessible in both print and audio formats on Queer Newark’s website. But the audio versions hold a particular importance to the members of the project.

"To me, it's such a powerful medium because it's not passive engagement in the same way. You know, you're listening for tone and nuance. And you get to hear their stories out of their own mouths, with the inflection that they want to give to it. And it just makes you feel like you're right there with them. And there's so many beautiful moments. There’s some really painful moments, but you're right there with them. And that helps you build, in my opinion, empathy, compassion, and really understand a little bit more what it's like to stand in someone's shoes, you know?" —Christina Strasburger

Audio provides the opportunity to preserve stories exactly how the teller wanted them to be told—which can be particularly important for those who identify as trans or non-binary. Here’s one of the folks that came to mind for Darnell:

"I gave the example of Eyricka Morgan, who was a trans Black woman that was murdered. And while the media attempted to speak for her, to name her, to mis-gender her, to offer a narrative about who they thought she was—we had audio. Audio that was set in her voice, that they could not contend with. They could not offer a narrative that could mute her own. So for me, like, I think there's a political urgency around capturing our stories on audio or video or in any sort of means of digital technology. And the purpose of doing such is that as long as we have an opportunity to have our voices captured, they can't be erased. And that to me is a powerful intervention." —Darnell Moore

And Darnell’s right. Audio has the ability to be one of the most powerful instruments of change.

Newark has been an integral part of that change, and has always had a vibrant queer history. Though we often think of New York City and Stonewall as the major forces behind the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, Darnell thinks that many people involved in the queer scene of New York were actually coming from across the Hudson River—from New Jersey.

"I mean, if you think about the ballroom community, which is sort of like this sub-cultural space—this amazing now, that's sort of like a hyper sub-cultural space within the world today, right? House members would compete in balls, but the members of those houses in the New York area would be coming from Newark. They would be coming from Elizabeth, New Jersey. They'd be coming from Linden. They would be coming from these New Jersey enclaves into New York City—and vice versa—to compete. When you think about the organizing efforts and people like… There were organizers who were based in Newark who were absolutely partnering with organizers in New York City to do work." —Darnell Moore

But Darnell also notes that within the context of queer history in the United States, there’s been a tendency to focus on the efforts of white advocates. It’s a fact that Kristyn commented on, too.

"Think about like, when we think about queer history, we tend to think about New York City. We tend to think about San Francisco. And these places are gay meccas, but they're also largely white spaces. And so, we tend to then remember the history of white gay men, and to a lesser extent, white lesbians." —Kristyn Scorsone

But through the work of Queer Newark, we’re able to hear stories from more Black and Brown queer folks. And these stories are finally starting to join the broader narrative of LGBTQIA+ history.

"Newark is a predominantly—and was a predominantly—Black, Brown city for many decades. But the voices and the queer movement that you hear most from, are those, you know, white. And it's not to say that those stories should not be told and don't have a place in history—of course they do. And I wanna hear them. But I also wanna hear from my Black and Brown community, as I am a member, you know, of it. And I wanna hear what they have to say, because here in the city, we have stories too." —Christina Strasburger

But for many people outside of Newark, the city’s history is often overshadowed. And in some cases, it’s dismissed entirely.

I grew up in Northern New Jersey myself, only an hour northwest of the city that I now call home. And growing up in those suburbs, there was always a stigma surrounding Newark. It’s a stigma that’s ultimately steeped in racism. And unfortunately, it’s a stigma that still exists today. Kristyn described a similar experience, growing up even closer to Newark than I did.

"I grew up, like I said, across the river from Newark, and I was taught by folks in my community that Newark was a space of danger. And that was because it was, had a stigma against it because it's a majority Black city. But once I started attending Rutgers-Newark as a student and I began to learn about Newark's queer history, I was astounded. You know? Newark was this like blank spot in my mind. And it began, through my studies, it began to take shape in my mind as a queer space. And like, you know, like when a Google map is slow to download and just parts of it come into focus? You can't see the whole picture at first, but it just, it comes into focus piece by piece. And what I was seeing was so fascinating and inspiring." —Kristyn Scorsone

A lot of these interviews strive to do exactly what Kristyn just described. They strive to make these queer histories more accessible to—and for—the people who need them most. When these conversations are recorded in audio, there’s a certain intimacy captured in that process. And that intimacy allows a much deeper understanding of those stories, histories, and experiences.

"You would not necessarily think that you have something in common with the gay person that grew up in Utah but is now a transplant here in Newark. But you will sometimes listening to their stories. You may not realize the connections that you have until you hear them. And we can't make people listen to them, but all we could do is have it as a resource when they are—when they're ready." —Christina Strasburger

And Christina is right. We absolutely need to listen and learn from these stories. We need to learn from these folks’ lived experiences. But listening is only the first step. Because once we listen, it’s equally as important to reflect. As a white, cisgender, gay man, I recognize my privilege, particularly within the LGBTQIA+ community. Queer Black Americans still live at the intersection of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and face the most risk and discrimination—even within our queer community.

To be frank, I think our pride needs a deeper reflection, a deeper recognition, and a deeper understanding of these facts. It needs a re-centering on non-white experiences. It needs to be more about celebration through listening and through learning. And it needs to take issues like racism, sexism, and misogyny into account.

Through the continued work of the Queer Newark Oral History Project and other projects like it, I can only hope that white privilege won’t be a lasting institution in the LGBTQIA+ community for much longer. I know there’s still a lot of work to be done, but the folks at Queer Newark are doing a great job to start combating these issues.

But don’t take it from me, go ahead and listen to these interviews. Explore Queer Newark’s archives. All of these stories are available and just waiting to be heard. They’re all ready whenever you are.

You can find the full archive of the Queer Newark Oral History Project’s interviews at queer.newark.rutgers.edu. I encourage you all to go check it out and experience the great work that these folks have done—and continue to do—for the preservation of queer history in Newark.

You can also find Darnell Moore’s memoir, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America on Audible.com and in the Audible app.

This was produced and written by me, Michael Collina. A special thanks to Rachel Smalter Hall, Esther Bochner, Courtney Reimer, and Katie O’Connor. And an extra special thanks to the folks from the Queer Newark Oral History Project: Darnell Moore, Christina Strasburger, and Kristyn Scorsone. All of the audio was recorded at home, by me. Post-production by Joe Dell'aquila. Production copyright 2020 by Audible, Inc.


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