On March 5th, over 80 queer folks crowded into a room in the Brooklyn Museum, meant for half that number. The huge crowd that the Museum's First Saturday's event attracts filled the hallways and exhibit halls; downstairs Park Slope parents gave their children way too many choices and argued about the cost benefit ratio of organic versus conventional kale. With the female drummers of Tom Tom Magazine performing in the background, one by one the storytellers of Queer Memoir stepped up to the mic and shared their own window into queer history, informed by the March theme "She Knows No Bounds"
Donna Minkowitz shared a story about the six days she spent undercover with Reverend Fred Phelps at his home in Kansas; Persephone Smith talked about forgotten black women pioneers and hero worshipping her mom. Shelly Mars' tale involved an adventure that spanned half a lifetime: when she was seventeen, she hitched hiked from Ohio to Peru, fell in love with a French sailor, and then found her again after 34 years. Ryn Hodes read a eulogy for a woman who, after a life of unsung activism, took control of death from cancer. Torrey Peters shared a passage from her 'zine, "How To Become a Really Really Not Famous Trans Lady Writer.” Mariel Reyes' told a story about trying to keep your life, your cat, and your vintage car from falling apart. The story takes place on Mariel’s first ever, solo-cross-country roadtrip, after the end of a six year relationship, and discusses the women she meets along the way, on their own version of that same roadtrip. Robin Cloud ended out the evening with a tale of friends with benefits finding their way through a minefield of love and loss.
I'm a comic/writer/nurse combo and usually only call myself an artist if I'm trying to persuade a curious seat-mate on an airplane to quit asking me questions. (Works every time, by the way; folks are wary of a Kickstarter pitch). I would be grossly misrepresenting myself if I pretended to be a person who frequents museums, unless the subject matter of that museum involves gruesome medical history, rather than paintings or, well, whatever else is usually on display there. But Claire Kissinger, the Adult Programs Intern Educator at the Brooklyn Museum, had reached out to include Queer Memoir for their March Women's History themed First Saturday event and she seemed pleased with the results: "I was moved by how generous the participants of Queer Memoir were with their stories. The diversity of queer voices truly transformed the museum into a community space of intergenerational learning, sharing, and support."
It was an extremely successful evening, and Queer Memoir's storytellers and attendees were pleased to have such a pleasant environment for the sixth anniversary show; especially because we haven't always had such stellar conditions.
In fact, when we (myself and playwright Genne Murphy) started Queer Memoir, our first event was in a Brooklyn performance space so underground we couldn't even publicize the entire address. We gave the location of the building and when folks arrived, they had to follow instructions on a handwritten note in order to gain entrance. 105 people showed up on a frigid January night when we technically only had space for 30.
But the audience stayed and listened and we were amazed by the spirit of the storytellers and by the audience response. Since then, we've held storytelling events in a radical queer organization's office space, in a barely converted dentist's office, two different bookstores, LGBT community centers in three different boroughs, a vintage clothing store, a community room of a Lower East Side co-op, the picture window of a SOHO cell phone store, a public library, a senior center and twice on the MTA: once aboard the Q train and once aboard the A train.
The motto of the well known and wildly successful mainstream storytelling series The Moth is "real stories, told live without notes.” Queer Memoir is instead "real stories told live, with whatever you need to tell the story." That might mean notes, or ativan, or special herbal ativan, or your friend holding your hand, or 57 emails with one of the producers to help you find your story arc.
Although we do include people who are writers and performers in every show, we also include folks who have never been on a stage. You know how you go to a New York party and every person has a one person show about their menstrual cycle, or their college English teacher, or their softball injuries? We're always on the lookout for the person who doesn't have a one person show, because that person holds a part of queer history and life within them as well.
Because we try to provide a brave space (which seems more possible than an actual safe space) for our storytellers, we have some guidelines, which we call traditions because you know how queers like 12-step jargon. We don't have Queer Memoir in a bar. We introduce by first names only. We don't require our storytellers to provide trigger warnings, and we ask our audience to be wildly and enthusiastically supportive of any performer who says, 'I'm nervous."
Our storytellers have been amazing: our Philly event included an older gay man who explained why his history made him 100 percent against ever reclaiming the word queer. In our sober-themed event, an ordained minister stood up, holding his bible in his hand and told the story of choosing between a boyfriend and crack. In our 50+-themed evening (generously curated by Stephanie Schroeder and Ryn Hodes), we brought together storytellers who ranged in age from 50 to 97 years old and shared stories about everything from escaping Berlin during World War II to paying for sex in the Dominican Republic.
In our first year, we included a storyteller who wove a tale of his first successful post-transition fisting date on Grindr, complete with slideshow. It was beautiful.
Our family-themed events have been especially poignant. One couple shared how they fought through their difficult individual upbringings to start a family that included multiple teenagers from the foster care system. Genne’s (straight) dad and my (straight) sister even traveled from Philadelphia to New York to share on stage with us. We not only explored what it means to be gay in a straight family, but what it means 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
We've been invited to collaborate with Brooklyn Pride, the Fresh Fruit Festival, the Gotham Storytelling Festival, NOLOSE, the Attic Youth Center, the Philadelphia Public Library, the Lesbian Herstory Archives and two years ago, Nadia Awad guest curated "What Is Tuz," which brought together a range of stories from Queer Arab American voices. It was recorded and presented in its entirety on WBAI.
Because sometimes it seems like all our queer community (myself included) wants to do is bicker on the internet about whether to use an asterisk with trans and whose name has a silent seven in the middle, it really touches me that Queer Memoir has such a following. On any given night in NYC you can see a bear (either the hairy gay man type or the lives in the woods type) doing cupcake juggling burlesque to a spoken word music video starring a Laverne and Shirley drag duo playing in an all harp band. Yet, Queer Memoir is about one person standing alone on a stage (mostly without a stage present) and saying “I have a story I’d like to tell.”
And people come out in droves and put up with our temperamental venue heating and having to sit on horrible five buck bucket chairs from Ikea. And sometimes the Brooklyn Museum invites us to be a part of their biggest monthly event and we get a chance to share real queer stories – not told through the eyes of straight cis Hollywood producers or edited into the ridiculous storylines of reality television – with the rest of the world.
And, in fact, because the March event was so successful, Brooklyn Museum invited us back for a First Saturday event on June 4th at 7:30 pm.
We'll have a much bigger room.
Postscript: Although I have big love for Queer Memoir because it's my series, did you know there are a number of excellent queer run and/or queer themed storytelling series in town? Drae Campbell runs TELL every month at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division bookstore in The Center. Bisexual blogging superstar Jefferson Bites produces Bare!, True Stories of Sex, Desire and Romance, a curated monthly show in NYC and Philadelphia. Tommy O’Malley is the heart and brains behind Big City Stories and Elana Lancaster and Harvey Katz recently started a storytelling show with a redemptive twist: Take Two.
About Kelli Dunham: Kelli Dunham is everyone's favorite ex-nun genderqueer butchnerdcomic, the author of seven books including Freak of Nurture (Topside Press, 2014) and the co-creator and co-producer of Queer Memoir. Her latest project Kneeless in New York, is a blog about orthopedic surgery gone comically and horribly wrong.