By Elio Colavito and Alisha Stranges
The Pussy Palace Oral History Project, a collaboration between The ArQuives and the LGBTQ+ Oral History Digital Collaboratory, has finally reached the interviewing stage. We are collecting oral history interviews with patrons, event organizers, those involved in the police action, the subsequent legal case, and community activism related to the Toronto police raid of the September 14, 2000 Pussy Palace, an exclusive bathhouse event for queer women, trans, and gender-expansive people. Developing interview guides that can appropriately speak to the ranges of experience represented by the narrators we are interviewing has been a significant challenge. How do we adapt the knowledge that we have from oral historians, the secondary literature, other queer oral history projects, and recent interviews we conducted to capture the most robust narrative possible? How do we ask the right questions to the right people?
To get a sense for what sort of basic questions that we wanted to ask, we reviewed former interview guides, drafted by the project’s Principal Investigator, Elspeth Brown, for existing ArQuives-Collaboratory oral history projects. From this, we devised a comprehensive set of demographic questions that seek to understand our narrators’ varying identities and how they may have shifted since the early 2000s when the raid took place. Using interview guides from a variety of projects, we established a basic structure for the interview. After consulting the secondary literature on the raid, we incorporated into our interview structure questions about the facts we were uncovering. Together, these questions form the basis for how we understand each narrator’s involvement with the Pussy Palace in general and the raid in particular. Some narrators were patrons who went to the Pussy Palace, had a great night (or a miserable one), and left without encountering any police officers. For other narrators, these questions ask them to recall their experiences in organizing the event, their time at the club, and their activism afterwards.
Our lead oral historian, Alisha, has a background in theatre creation and women and gender studies, which she mobilized to produce a brief intervention in the interview structure that invites narrators to distill their sense memories of the physical space. In the brief exercise, Alisha uses breath and silence to transport the narrator back to the Pussy Palace. As the body begins to reinhabit the space, narrators recall the textures, scents, flavours, and other sensory experiences that they associate with the evening of September 14, 2000 (no matter how abstract). For Alisha, this intervention attempts to capture the affective traces of the event alongside each narrator’s detailed, historical account. Despite its possibilities, this intervention presents some obstacles. Some narrators find it difficult to visit the place that Alisha wants them to access. In response, we continually revise the verbal instructions in preparation for the next attempt. However unsettling this intervention may be, each narrator inevitably reveals the unique ways that they have archived the Palace in their body, so we push on in anticipation of the unexpected.
The real challenge, however, was revising the first draft of our interview guide to fit the needs of various interviewees. We became instantly aware of the possibility that we could create a monolith out of such differing and complex experiences. To understand our response to this challenge, I want you to recall the choose-as-you-go stories you may have read as a child, or read to a child in your life. We constructed each interview to bring narrators down a series of pathways that correspond to their lived experience as organizers, patrons, and activists. Where the narrators go, we follow; probing them along the way.
We are conducting interviews through the end of May 2021. There were more than 350 people in attendance the night the Palace was raided, and we want to gather as many accounts of the event as possible. If you, or someone you know are interested in being interviewed, contact: email@example.com.