SFYOU: Meet the professor engineering the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony, Elise Chenier

Elise Chenier is doing ALOT . . . maybe even the most

Photo: Cameron Duder

By: Meera Eragoda, Staff Writer

Name: Elise Chenier

Pronouns: She/her/hers

Department Affiliation: Professor in the SFU History Department

Hometown: Toronto, Ontario

Occupation: History professor, Director of the Archive of Lesbian Oral Testimony

It’s likely that the majority of people reading this have not heard about something called the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony (ALOT). The brainchild of Elise Chenier, an oral historian and professor at SFU, ALOT was founded in 2010 and is primarily a digital collection of audio and video recordings centring around people who have identified as lesbian at some point in their lives. The goal of ALOT is to bring to light both lesbian and queer women histories that mainstream history has largely overlooked. These narratives, as ALOT’s web page explains, “reveal what it meant for a woman to desire and love other women, and to survive and resist against a culture that treated them as sinful and deviant.” ALOT is meant to both provide a glimpse into the past, as well as help imagine the future.

A small amount of the collection resides in the Special Collections and Rare Books section of the W.A.C. Bennett Library, however, this section is just dedicated to Shirley Petten, the first woman in Canada to win the fight for same-sex benefits from the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board. 

The collections cover everything from the medical industry, to coming out, to kinks like BDSM. The wonderful thing about these archives growing on a primarily digital platform, is that it increases the accessibility of them — something Chenier has done intentionally. 

I asked Chenier if I could interview her further about ALOT, and we met in her office in the AQ on a rainy Friday afternoon. Chenier has a short, purple pixie cut and greeted me with a cup of tea in her hand, projecting an image that screamed both edgy and down to earth. The cushioned bench that I made myself comfortable on was right beside the window overlooking the observatory and resembled a reading nook, making her office feel more inviting than most.

Chenier started by talking about how she came to found the collection through research on her Master’s thesis titled “Tough ladies and troublemakers: Toronto’s public lesbian community, 1955–1965” which eventually evolved into the final publication “Sex, Intimacy, and Desire among Men of Chinese Heritage and Women of Non-Asian Heritage in Toronto, 1910–1950.” It was intriguing to see the evolution of her work and the value of oral history. The project, which can be found on interracialintimacies.org, is highly worth checking out.

Though the thread of Chenier’s research had changed, she realized, “I had all these cassettes. What was I going to do with them? Also, I knew the women who had made Forbidden Love, which was a documentary that came out in the early ‘90s, and they had said to me, ‘if you would like to use our research tapes (also cassettes) for your own research, you are more than welcome to.’ So I thought I should just digitize these, and it started with that idea. And then I thought, ‘why don’t I just put these online so that other people can use them?’”

One important thing Chenier noted, however, is that while some of the interviews conducted on the site are hers, the goal of the archives is not to go out and find people to interview. Rather, as she says, “an archive collects material that’s already been created. So my intention with this was to take these tapes that were just left in basements or attics or what-have-you [ . . . ] and make sure the work people had put into getting these stories, we didn’t lose again. Because you can’t get them back because most of the people interviewed are gone.”

Some examples of content she collected in the early days of the archive were tapes from a radio show and tapes from a gay cable television show from Alberta. Now the archives have expanded to include recordings from various places in both Canada and the US, including a tape of Angela Davis, a Black feminist activist (and one of my personal heroes), giving a speech at the Orpheum.

Chenier explained that the growth of the archives is dependent on her funding. She’s less restricted when she is able to hire a part-time archivist and is then able to put out calls for oral histories on social media and other platforms. Being an archivist, Chenier finds it vital to gather diverse experiences and makes sure to reach out to people both in Canada and the US.

She told me, “I certainly have [reached out to] people, especially [. . .] Black women because I really personally am very interested in the word ‘womanist’, which became popular in [black queer circles] maybe more ‘80s but I think it was around ‘70s.” 

Chenier hypothesized, “I think it spoke to a kind of, maybe an ambivalence toward the word lesbian, or maybe also a more expansive approach.” 

“I think it’s a big problem that the category ‘lesbian’ is racialized white and able-bodied, so we need to think about that. That’s why it’s really interesting, the word ‘womanist’, it intrigues me, how people are navigating it. And Two-Spirit is not the same as ‘lesbian’ so how do we navigate those kinds of things, right? And develop a deeper understanding.”

To Chenier, accessibility, remaining a grassroots project, and being woman-focused were and continue to be three fundamental aspects of ALOT, and she strives for inclusivity. 

The archives now contain content from people with a variety of identities, including gay men, in order to follow traditional archival practices and avoid breaking up collections of oral testimonies just because some of them may not be solely focused on lesbians. 

“If it was only gay men, we would say no, this is not the repository. But it has lesbians in it. If there’s some gay men in it, or straight people, we don’t care.” 

Ultimately, the goal is to feature the accounts of lesbians, which explains why the word “lesbian” remains in the project name.

So what exactly defines a lesbian? Who is able to donate their story to the lesbian archives?

Chenier explained, “Because we live in this moment, where for some people the word ‘lesbian’ is a dog-whistle to trans people, I always make a point of saying it’s a trans-inclusive project. So how do we define that? We’re not in the business of identifying people. If you feel your story belongs here, then donate it. If you don’t feel your story belongs here, then don’t donate it. It’s as simple as that. You decide.”

In an attempt to bring lesbian oral histories into the community, Chenier recently started hosting a reoccuring event called Lesbian Lives Live. The next event will be held at SFU, however, for all future events, Chenier will be partnering with Britannia Community Centre. 

The decision to move away from both SFU and the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) in the long-run comes as a result of both organizations allowing Meghan Murphy to book rooms in their venues. 

“[The] position of the university was that they were not going to back away from controversial speakers [ . . . ] I thought that was insufficient  [ . . . ] I hope it sends a signal to SFU.” 

Regarding VPL not refusing Meghan Murphy, Chenier says, “My understanding is that they’re in a legal bind [ . . . ] people are going to have to invest their resources to get creative about how they respond to these things and so far, I don’t see that happening.”

It is important for Chenier to hold Lesbian Lives Live in a safe space, and she was thrilled when Britannia agreed to cosponsor the event.

As Chenier describes it, Lesbian Lives Live is meant to “provide a multi generational space . . . where you can actually socialize and talk [ . . . ] And meet people across the generations. Young people are always so excited to meet older people.” Chenier’s passion for this project shines through as she exclaims, “It’s wonderful and I love it. I love it!”

Past events of Lesbian Lives Live have had guests such as Ma-Nee Chacaby, a Two-Spirit Cree-Ojibwa lesbian from Thunder Bay, and Mary-Woo Sims, a biracial lesbian who was also the first Human Rights Commissioner of BC.

The most recent Lesbian Lives Live event was held on February 16th at the Vancouver campus. It was a special polyamory-themed Valentine’s day edition. The guests included Anais West and Sara Vickruck, who created an “award-winning slam poetry musical” called Queer Poly Love Ballad. Chenier describes them as, “wonderful performers [ . . . ] full of energy and their piece explores polyamory.”

There will be more events monthly, and you can still check out ALOT for free, anywhere, anytime.