Oral History with a Hard-to-Reach Group

When I began my PhD I had a fairly firm vision of what I wanted to achieve; to collect the experience of gay and bisexual men who had lived during a period when the law and society appeared reluctant to change. Part of this inspiration came from reading Bob Cant’s landmark collection Footsteps & Witnesses, first published in 1993 and re-issued with updated sections in 2008. By the time I began my postgraduate studies I had assumed that there would have been a significant volume of work undertaken into LGBT history in Scotland in the decade following F&W’s publication. Of course, there had been some additions but I still felt rather surprised that academia hadn’t penetrated this rich and diverse area.

In some ways, academics are in the ‘business’ of rooting around to find unexplored regions of history in an effort to make an impact; to blaze a trail; to be noticed. But, I also like to think that we focus on areas that have some form of meaning for us personally, whether through experience (direct or indirect), or passion. I did meet other PhD-ers who had been guided towards a particular aspect of history/social sciences, and although I don’t wish to denigrate in any way that pathway, I was always pleased that I had supervisors who were both extremely supportive of the direction I wanted to follow, and inspirational. One of the benefits of identifying a ‘missing’ history is that the people that will form an important part of your research are just as enthusiastic and during initial discussions with other academics and ‘persons of interest’ I was met with the same passion.

So, by this point I had decided that I wished to explore GBM experience in Scotland prior to 1980. My pre-doctoral research had focused on non-heterosexual men in Victorian, Edwardian and pre-war Scotland but I fancied oral history for the PhD and that might have been a little difficult if I remained in that period. It was at this point that I made contact with Bob Cant to hear his opinions on my proposed research and he was an extremely supportive and enthusiastic mentor. He also told me that recruitment would be key and would not be an easy undertaking considering the accessibility of older GBM in Scotland. This was certainly true in my initial recruitment phase, where after 4 months I had managed to recruit just 5 interviewees. The recruitment process had been a mixture of direct advertisement and snowballing, using already established networks within which was a relatively large GBM cohort. But encouraging men to take part was not a simple task; it had to be them who came forward, and for that to happen, they needed to feel that their stories were important.

Mistakes are always a part of the PhD ‘journey’ and on a couple of occasions I failed to develop on leads (with apologies to ST, who, thankfully when we finally did meet 4 years later, was very forgiving). However, a new strategy was employed in the recruitment process that meant a new application for ethical approval to allow internet recruitment, which was the breakthrough development. Suddenly, I was receiving more and more enquiries about the research and in total I managed to recruit 24 interviewees, all of whom, saw it through to interview, despite having the option of withdrawing at any point. Their faith in me was both inspiring and motivating.

It is, of course, important to undertake training in oral history practice, which I had done, but the real test is when you meet your interviewees face-to-face, with a voice recorder in hand. As I don’t drive, I had to travel by public transport for the first schedule of interviews, which was a challenge in itself: leave early; don’t miss the train; know where you are going. Being invited into someone’s home to grill them about their past is perhaps not everybody’s cup of tea (and there was plenty of tea) but everyone who took part, whether from their own homes, or by travelling to my office, was keen to tell their story.

As part of my ethical approach all interviews were to be anonymised and pseudonyms given. This was appreciated by many of the interviewees but some were unsure – they wanted to share their experiences but did not want to appear ‘closeted’. However, as the interviews often touched upon highly personal and painful episodes in their lives it became evident to all that the anonymisation was appropriate. I had wondered whether any of the interviewees would feel uncomfortable speaking of their lives to a total stranger, 25-50 years younger than themselves. With this in mind, I had considered whether I should disclose my own sexuality at the beginning of the interview. I chose not to – assumptions might be made about knowledge of events and experiences, and I wanted them to be as thorough as possible. In any event, it did not appear as if any of the interviewees felt uncomfortable about disclosing intimate details of their lives – this was, after all, for academic enquiry and to educate.

Of the 24 interviewees, 6 were current or former clergy. That’s a quarter of my group. There was no obvious reason why the group should contain that number of clergy – I had not advertised specifically for religious/non-religious GBM, nor had I used any websites or groups with a religious theme, and only 2 of that group were ‘snowballed’. But, what became apparent was that religion and morality (often wrongly conflated) had an important impact upon GBM in Scotland during the 20th century, and many felt the powerful impact of heavily prescriptive religious discourses of human sexuality during their lives. Interestingly of that 6, only 1 is still a clergyman (although another only recently retired).

But what about the impact upon me? The intersubjective relationship is key and can have an effect on how the information is collected, processed and analysed. Interviews contained aspects that were highly emotive; from childhood sexual abuse, rape, homophobic violence, social isolation, abandonment by family and friends, mental health problems, being criminalised, and age-related problems. After each interview cluster I went through a form of de-briefing with my supervisors, which was extremely helpful. I also transcribed every hour of interview personally (9 hrs per hour x 24) which helped enormously, although it’s a helluva undertaking. I could have employed an external transcriber but I really wanted to understand every aspect of the interview: pauses are important, reluctance, passion – and you can only appreciate this when you immerse yourself in the data. I didn’t become an emotional wreck, but I wish I had bought that foot pedal, and invested in a better recorder; one that didn’t pick up every creak and whistle (avoid sitting on leather suites too, and lock the cat in the kitchen).

This was an inspiring research project. I learned an awful lot about personal experience; about dealing with prejudice and discrimination; about Scotland. Oral history, once denigrated by sections of the academic community, informs but it also does something else: it allows you to understand not simple experiences but how people interpret them, process them and use them in the project of the self.

Copyright © Jeff Meek 2013

All Rights Reserved.

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