David Gould, Swinburne University of Technology:
Outing an unspoken past: Homosexual desire and survival in post war Australia. The social, religious, political, medical and legal frameworks that governed the lives of homosexual men and women in Australia, 1946 to 1959.
Theoretical framework: Narrative analysis
An interpretivist/constructionist theoretical approach underpins this research because it posits narrative as a window into our sense of being and helps us to understand how individuals alone, and as part of a group, make sense of their world and the way they engage with it. Hinchman and Hinchman (1997, p. xvi) define narratives as ‘discourses with a clear sequential order that connect events in a meaningful way for a definite audience and thus offer insights about the world and/or people’s experiences of it’. Narrative research goes beyond the telling of and listening to stories to a deeper level of analysing and interpreting the framework within which the story exists. Richardson (1990, p. 23) reminds us that people tell stories about their lives not through a ‘logico-scientific’ lens that looks for a universal ‘truth’, but rather by linking their own experiences and understanding to those of others, to groups, and to society. Their stories are about finding themselves within the narratives of their culture (Richardson, 1990, p. 25) – such as class, sexuality, race or occupation – and making sense of their lives through the prisms that have framed their existence. Robinson (2008, p. 8) records an interruption to this linking of understanding, meaning and purpose in gay men’s lives prior to coming out and notes the resulting disempowerment because the men ‘do not occupy the position of storyteller’ of their own lives.
Narratives can empower participants who have in the past been denied agency through individual and institutional prejudice and discrimination, where their lives have been defined through what Riessman (1993, p. 3) calls ‘a breach between ideal and real, self and society’. But Richardson (1990, p. 25) also warns that the telling of stories within culture is problematic, since the very prisms through which they are told are embedded in ‘the point of view of the ruling interests and the normative order’. Candida Smith (2002, p. 71), too, believes that tellers provide a personal version of history that offers insights into how they have interpreted and framed the past and that their accounts are the ‘truth’ as they present it, which is influenced by the interviewee’s cultural framework. I argue then, that the challenge for the researcher of gay and lesbian history is to ‘clear a space’ for participants to locate their past ‘truth’ in a way that can confront, re-form, explain and position it in the present and the future. In doing so, it has a personal ownership in its potential to liberate, educate, and re-imagine itself as new and powerful knowledge which directly provokes not just the tellers themselves, but also the listener, the reader, and the people and institutions who have stifled the emergence of this knowledge until now. Importantly, Candida Smith is unconcerned with inconsistencies within a personal narrative because they represent conflicts within the story and therefore highlight the ‘relationship between the self and history’ (2002, p. 717) and how we view and interpret the past. Elliott (2005, p. 12) reminds us too, that historical narratives do not have a fixed ending because future events can influence a different interpretation of events on the part of the participant and listener, and that narrative conclusions are important because they help explain the meaning of the actions and events within the narrative.
While only a third of the way through my 30 interviews, initial results suggest narrative can unlock an unspoken past in powerful and affirming ways. But analysis too, plays an active role in legitimising and contextualising this history within a cultural framework that has not only shaped but has also often directed homosexual experience onto pathways that would not otherwise have been chosen. I would argue that an attuned, homosexual interviewer shares a common cultural knowledge, and often experience, with his interviewee that helps foster a private and candid ‘peeling’ of historical layers which in turn enables analysis to magnify the importance of the story. Revealing these layers allows the reader to respond on an intellectual and visceral level, and to explain their significance in the context of a past world while at the same time positioning knowledge in the present.
Candida Smith, R. (2002). Analytic strategies for oral history interviews. In J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research (pp. 711–732). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Elliott, J. (2005). Using narrative in social research: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hinchman, L. P. & Hinchman, S. K. (1997) Introduction. In L. P. Hinchman & S. K. Hinchman (Eds.), Memory, identity, community: The idea of narrative in the human sciences (pp. xiii–xxxii). New York: State University of New York.
Richardson, L.W. (1990). Writing strategies: Reaching diverse audiences. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Riessman, C. K. (1993). Narrative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Robinson, P. (2008). The changing world of gay men. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.