An exhibition, researched and curated by Old Dominion University students, will spotlight Hampton Roads queer history through photographs, audio recordings, live presentations and artifact displays. The exhibition is a reimagining of the annual Tidewater Queer Walking Tour, which took place from 2017 to 2019, and on Zoom in 2020.
The event is new, but has years of work, research and history behind it, said Cathleen Rhodes, senior lecturer and director of the university’s Gay Cultural Studies program. When the walking tour went online due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the students missed the face-to-face interaction with the community, but also saw potential for more inclusiveness. The exhibition allows for both and for students to do traditional and nontraditional original research.
Students use a variety of sources to research Hampton Roads history: archives of the Norfolk-based gay community newspapers, “Our Own” and “The Paper,” databases like the Archives of Sexuality and Gender, archival research into primary sources, formal and informal interviews with the community, photographs and other artifacts collected over the years.
“That kind of work is what led to the walking tour in 2017, to create an opportunity for undergraduates to do original research and share it with the community,” Rhodes said. “It’s also a service for the community.”
The students connect with the stories and research in a personal way. Students come from across the university, different backgrounds, communities and do not all identify as gay, but they are able to find commonality in their stories, Rhodes said.
Chelsea Lembert, a senior in professional writing, was unsure of what to research until Rhodes suggested an organization called Dignity Norfolk.
“As I trudged through the research, I realized I was uncovering more than just information about a religiously affiliated gay and lesbian support organization. I was uncovering stories about people’s lives,” Lembert said. “I was getting to know people that were both deceased and living. I was being invited into a time in which I never lived, and never experienced. I was being given the opportunity to see what life was like for a struggling gay or lesbian Catholic in Hampton Roads at the time. What started as a simple project turned into a narrative winding through the chosen family of a few men and women connected by both faith, sexuality and a shared experience.”
The exhibition also allows for the community and students to see gay people not only in times of pride or protest, such as parades and marches, but as people living everyday lives, Rhodes said. The exhibition has photos of activism but also more mundane moments like picnics, playing sports and going on boat trips.
“My hope is that the exhibition can do a few things: One, we want to show queer people now what it was like 20, 40, even 50 years ago and hope they can see themselves reflected back in local history,” Rhodes said. “And for non-queer people, we want to give them flashes of what it’s like to be a queer person. A lot of stories are tragic and we don’t want to ignore them, but we should also see the mundane parts because it’s so important to know we all have lived lives in various ways, too. We have celebrations but we also do the dishes.”
The exhibition is free and open to the public from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. on December 9 in the Goode Theater on Monarch Way. Along with the artifacts, photos and other memorabilia on display, there will be live presentations from students throughout the exhibition hours.
The event is in collaboration with the Tidewater Queer History Project. This service-learning project is funded by a grant from ODU’s Office of Leadership & Learning. For more information, check out the Facebook event page.