The Adventures of Ian and Karisa

Reflections of a summer research assistant

I started working on Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis in a post-graduate flurry of emotions and tasks, excited to be done with undergrad but nervous as to how I would manage the world of ‘non-studenthood’ into which I was thrust. I knew little about GIS mapping, but had been working with the Wash.U archives for the past couple years and was excited to expand my knowledge of historical research methodologies. My research partner Ian Darnell seemed to be a living encyclopedia of St. Louis history, and I remember being amazed at the way he could casually mention or make connections between significant LGBTQ figures, spaces, and events. Three months later my amazement has not depleted in any way.

Our Work

The Adventures of Ian and Karisa began in the archives of the Missouri History Museum Library & Research Center, our central hub for historical sleuthing throughout the summer. We started off with a list of gay and lesbian bars that we knew of and sought to find more concrete proof of what years those bars were open by searching old city directories. Some bars proved easy to find, the address and name matched up with the years Ian estimated them to be open. Others were not. Certain years did not have a city directories; some addresses or names were slightly off from what we thought and therefore much harder to find. We went to the St. Louis Public Library downtown to see what collections they had to help fill in the gaps. While sifting through newspaper clippings and old city planning books, it stood out to me how the state systematically targeted queer spaces through police violence (bar raids, arrests, etc.) and city development.

 

After gathering a substantial amount of information about gay and lesbian bars in St. Louis, we ventured to archives and libraries on the east side. Historical documents and directories from East St. Louis proved to be less preserved and much harder to uncover. Though I was appalled at how difficult it was to find the information we were looking for, I was not surprised. The contrast between available resources in St. Louis vs. East St. Louis perfectly exemplified how historical erasure is a weapon to maintain white majority power structures, and how communities of color have had to fight and resist that erasure to preserve and re-write their histories.

Understandings

Two more overarching themes really transformed my own personal understanding of queerness over the course of this summer.

  1. I found myself envious of lesbian spaces that no longer exist. As I read through old ephemera filled with advertisements for lesbian books, movies, discussions, bars, social spaces, hotline numbers, etc., I felt an internal craving to experience what it meant to identify as a lesbian a few decades ago. Ian and I theorized why the number of lesbian spaces has dissipated, reflecting on economic and socio-political fluctuations at the end of the 20th century.
  2. This led me to understand how the majority of assimilation and political complacency in the LGBTQ community has grown within my own lifetime. I was simultaneously transported back in time and very aware of the present as I read through newspapers at the height of the AIDS epidemic, or organizing notes from the late 1980s talking about safe spaces, or reviews for Audre Lorde’s books that had just come out. I realized the similarities and differences between my generation of queers and the queers that came before us. Racism in LBGTQ circles still runs rampant. Political urgency for radical change, from my perspective, doesn’t look the same (especially due to marriage equality).

I am very young, and still very much on my way to understanding queerness in all its present and past forms. This summer has been an incredibly validating, exciting, and in some ways painful for me. Especially in the days after many queer people of color were murdered in Orlando this past June, researching the violence and pain that queer people have been facing for so long was emotionally and intellectually draining. I did not know how to research  decades of police brutality that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans folks had endured in St. Louis, and reconcile that with the alliances I saw white gay men make with the police at the expense of black and brown queer people.

Power of History

History can be an incredibly powerful tool of empowerment and mobilization. Hopefully The Adventures with Ian and Karisa will leave a small but insightful impact on documenting LGBTQ history in St. Louis, a kind of impact that allows people to know and own their history as a form of radical survival and resistance.

Karisa Tavassoli and Ian Darnell, summer 2016 Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis research assistants.

Karisa Tavassoli and Ian Darnell, summer 2016 Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis research assistants.

 

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.