Queer Memoir, One Year. Our Stories, Our Lives

I love this photo, twitpic’ed from our first event: Queer Memoir: FIRST KISS.  It was taken at intermission with my crappy camera phone. It’s so dark you can’t pick out individual faces, but can tell people are connecting. I wrote “Queer Memoir Intermission: Bliss.” One year later, I still feel the same way.

[Kelli shares her thoughts about Queer Memoir’s anniversary…]

So it’s been just over a year since we had our first Queer Memoir event at the beta version of Collect Pond. We had seating for a little over 30 and more than 100 people showed up. And stayed. And listened. We were amazed by the spirit of the storytellers and by the audience response. That night, as Genne and I unpacked our stuff from a friend’s car on Lincoln Road in Brooklyn, someone who was at the event recognized us and shouted out their car window “thanks for Queer Memoir. Thanks for the stories. I really needed to hear those tonight.”

I’m a slightly goofy looking, chubby genderqueer person. That’s NOT the kind of thing people I usually hear yelled out car windows. Genne and I looked at each other and knew we were on to something.

Since that time, we’ve curated 11 events in three states with 60 unique storytellers to an estimated audience of just over 1000. We’ve collaborated with five different organizations, hosted one guest curator and used six different venues. We’ve had audience members from as far away as Toronto for our NYC shows and we have a regular Philly to NYC following. We’ve had a number of collaborative storysharings, including two set to music!

Our storytellers have been brave and amazing: our Philly event included a storyteller who shared about why he didn’t like the word queer; in our sober event an ordained minister stood up, holding his bible in his hand and told the story of choosing between a boyfriend and crack.

Our family-themed event was especially poignant. One couple shared how they had fought through their own difficult upbringing to start a family that included multiple teenagers from the foster care system, Genne’s (straight) dad and my (straight) sister traveled from Philly to NYC to share on stage with us. We explored what it means not only to be gay in a straight family, but to be a straight person interacting with the queer community. One storyteller shared an extremely difficult childhood experience and then asked “how do you turn around these moments?” the answer was “make a new memory, by sharing here, with people you love.” I can’t even write about that moment without getting choked up a little. As intense as these kind of stories sometimes are, they’re often very funny as well since the most difficult of human experiences are often the most absurd also.

It’s not just been the storytellers that have been amazing: the audiences that we’ve drawn have given me real hope for the queer communities. Due to broken air conditioning at the venue, the temperature at the July Sober-themed event (guest curated by Cheryl B) topped over 100 degrees. Despite this, more than 75 percent of the attendees stayed for the entire event. At every salon, the response to the very real sharing is warm and gracious and I often see strangers grabbbing and hugging storytellers (consensually I am sure) after the event.

Although Genne and have discussed it at length, I can’t say that we understand exactly, why this event has been successful in this way. Part of it, I’m sure, is timing.  Certain types of LGBT people are more prominent in media representation, but it’s become grossly obvious that it will still be a long time before queer stories, told by queer folks, with queer roles played by actual queer people will be commonplace. Hey, maybe we’re not satisfied with a storyline about a trans guy played by some Hollywood-type “beautiful” female with a penciled on mustache. Maybe we want to hear real stories. How about that!

I’m not so humble that I would omit Genne and I as part of the equation. I think it works that we’re both (as I was once called by a theater critic) “terminally earnest” and that we are willing to work with folks who are inexperienced. We often sit down with nervous storytellers and talk them through how to tell their stories and have been known to (lovingly of course) harass people into sharing. I think having both a “regular person” (Genne) and a performer (that’s me) on stage also reassures inexperienced storytellers. Our skill sets are complementary: I’m good with social media and getting the word out, but collaborative stuff we’ve done with other organizations has been all Genne’s doing: she speaks that arts education language fluently and doesn’t mind going to long meetings.

Although we say that Queer Memoir is for “writers, performers, and anyone with a queer story to tell”we are also aware that we’re only hearing a tiny fragment of the queer stories there are to hear. All our events have been in urban areas. Seldom do we have a storyteller sharing who is over age 60. We’ve heard from few storytellers whose first language was not English, and although presenting a wide range of voices is one of our highest priorities in choosing our line-ups, we’re also acutely aware we have a long way to go with that. We’re taking steps to address these challenges in the upcoming year and to expand the “preserving and documenting our complex queer history” part of our mission as well.

This past twelve months have been challenging for me personally, but Queer Memoir is one of the things I’ve done this year that I’ve been most proud of. It’s not just that I’m proud of what Genne and I have built, although it’s been some hard-ass work. I’m also proud of our storytellers who have shared in such an amazing, open and sometimes hilarious way. And I’m proud of the queer community for so enthusiastically supporting an event that is not about glitter, or drinking or house music or even, exactly, politics but instead simply consists of the sacred but not always glamorous act of telling and listening to our own stories.

PS our next event is February 26 in NY. All the details are here.

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3 responses to “Queer Memoir, One Year. Our Stories, Our Lives

  1. Hi Kelly,
    Queer Memoir rocks and so do you and Genne. I’ve read at one and attended a few others and it’s something subtle, organic, moving, and important. I’m still interested in curating a reading about queer aging, so put that in the hopper for the coming year. In the meantime, wishing you and Cheryl B. all the best.
    Ryn

  2. Pingback: Kelli Dunham » Blog Archive

  3. Pingback: Kelli Dunham » Blog Archive

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