What Memoirs of Movement Participants Tell Us about LGBT Activism: Paper at the conference of the Interdisciplinary Network for Social Protest Research (INSPR): “Multidisciplinary Approaches to Social Change, Protest, and Political Mobilisation,” University of Cambridge, UK (June 10, 2016)

Abstract : This paper is part of a larger project examining several memoirs of participants in the American LGBT movement in order to identify the specific insights that published autobiographical sources provide. My earlier publications on this topic examine four autobiographical narratives of militancy in the gay movement of the 1960s-70s (Arnie Kantrowitz’s Under the Rainbow; Martin Duberman’s Cures and Midlife Queer; Karla Jay’s Tales of the Lavender Menace; Amy Hoffman’s An Army of Ex-lovers). My research so far has concentrated on the initial stage of the contemporary LGBT movement; the project will subsequently include memoirs of the 1980s—when AIDS considerably changed the dynamics of gay identity politics, the relationship between gender and sexual identities, gay men’s conceptions of their own life-times, and the politicization of sexuality—as well as memoirs of participants in gay counterculture or queer avant-garde. Rather than simply treating the memoirs as subjective insights into the movement’s past, or instead objectivizing them to understand how militancy is conditioned by social and historical circumstances, I study autobiographical memoir-writing as a way of deploying a militant identity: in addition to memoirs being an act of militancy in the sense that they will motivate readers to join the movement, authors also provide personal interpretations of their militant identity by retrospectively reconstructing their past experience. This is done through narrative treatment of time (period covered, and lapse between narrated events and narration) and the projection of a narrative voice, which results in various autobiographical modes (confessional; historiographical; testimonial; testamentary). Narrativeness is thus pivotal to how memoir-writing reflects the very agency that animates mobilizations, so that literary and rhetorical scholarship offers useful methodological tools. A multidisciplinary approach is therefore key to avoiding two contradictory dangers: “biographical illusion,” as expounded by Bourdieu—whereby the actor’s voice is fetishized—and what may be termed “structuralist illusion”—which all but ignores the actor’s voice. Indeed, while autobiographical narratives are not faithful images of the social reality, neither should they be treated as sheer mirrors of the social conditions that constrain their production. Following McAdam, social movement sociologists like Polletta and Jasper have been attentive to emotions, biography, and narrativeness, which endow social movements with moral justification and subjective inspiration. Yet, sociological literature on life-storytelling (e.g. Fosl; Plummer; Roseneil et al.; Schaffer and Smith) has mainly been concerned with what facts narrators include in their plots—and hence to negotiations between the individual and collective dimensions of movement participation—, thus highlighting emplotment and skirting narration itself. Instead, examining the narrative processes deployed in memoirs written for publication requires attention to literariness and helps understand how they reflect on social reality and, consequently, the specular relationship between the narratives themselves and LGBT militancy, collective identity constructions, and subaltern subcultures. Aside from general theoretical issues, this exploratory paper presents prospects for future research by discussing the likely differences between memoirs of the 1960s-70s and 1980s-90s, and between the narration of movement participation and cultural involvement, that will deserve attention.
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Guillaume Marche. What Memoirs of Movement Participants Tell Us about LGBT Activism: Paper at the conference of the Interdisciplinary Network for Social Protest Research (INSPR): “Multidisciplinary Approaches to Social Change, Protest, and Political Mobilisation,” University of Cambridge, UK (June 10, 2016). 2016. ⟨hal-01790703⟩

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