Oral history, the interviewing of eye-witness participants in the events of the past for the purposes of historical reconstruction, has played a significant and valuable role in the recording of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) history. A lack of documented evidence has meant that historians have had few sources to work with when piecing together an LGB past, but through oral history interviews we are able to gain a greater insight into the lives and experiences of this still under-researched group.
The difference between oral history and more traditional, documented forms is that anyone can become the subject of an oral history interview. Furthermore, you do not have to be an academic or professional historian to carry out interviews. This has allowed various community-based projects to spring up all over the world, recording the stories of groups of people that might not otherwise be heard. A whole culture has emerged around this discipline of seeking out the stories of oppressed groups - people that may not have left autobiographies or personal documents and who have not previously been written about by others.
Advances in oral history as a discipline and the gay liberation movement went hand in hand during the 1960s and 70s. An increased interest in the use of interviews as a method of recording the past, particularly by social historians investigating working-class history, meant that by 1970 the British Oral History Society was formed. This signalled that oral history was becoming viewed as an increasingly legitimate way of recording the past and, as Elizabeth Kennedy suggests, meant that it became possible to document and legitimise lesbian and gay history at a time when most people thought no such thing existed. The ethos of do-it-yourself history suited the new type of gay activism that grew from the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1970which stressed openness, pride, defiance and above all, self-activity. They felt that equality was not going to be achieved for homosexuals by heterosexuals, but by homosexuals working together for themselves. Oral history allowed activists to go out into the community with portable tape recorders and record LGB life stories before they were lost forever. Collecting these stories not only added valuable information to the historical record, but the actual act of recording has been deemed to be empowering by some.
The Hall-Carpenter Archives set up one of the first large scale LGB oral history projects in Britain, collecting 35 interviews with lesbians and gay men from 1985-1988. Since then there have been numerous ventures - from grass roots community groups to academic research and everything in-between. Current British LGB oral history projects include; Brighton Ourstory, which has been conducting interviews with the Brighton gay community since 1989, Ourstory Scotland which was set up in 2002, and now of course West Yorkshire Archive Service's LGB Digital Community Archive Project