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StoryCorps Takes On Its First LGBT Project

For today’s LBGTQ youth, it may be difficult to imagine a time where the Gay Rights movement wasn’t traveling with EZ-Pass. But just under 50 years ago, gays faced a long struggle just to  rise above the discrimination and needless suffering of the pre-Stonewall era. Now the stories of those early heroes on the frontlines of history will be told. StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit oral history project, is set to unveil OutLoud, a three-year initiative dedicated to recording LGBTQ voices across America.

Since its modest rollout with one recording StoryBooth in Grand Central Station in October 2003, StoryCorps has evolved into a preservation juggernaut, compiling more than 50,000 interviews that are catalogued and maintained in the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center. Each interview is facilitated by a coordinator but conducted by people who know each other intimately (father and son, husband and wife, grandmother and granddaughter). These unscripted back-and-forth conversations are often as revealing to the people participating in them as they are to any stranger. If you’ve found yourself crying the middle of NPR’s Morning Edition, you are probably listening to a StoryCorps interview.

StoryCorps has long been committed to recording and sustaining silent voices in American history. While David Isay, founder and President of StoryCorps, may be straight, personal and generational imperatives lead him to believe that now is the ideal moment for OutLoud. His father was Dr. Richard Isay, a psychiatrist and gay rights advocate who famously fought the notion of homosexuality as an illness.

Isay’s father remained closeted until he was 40—and to his son David until he was 52—a scenario quite common during the '60s and '70s but one that no doubt provides fuel to David’s indelible fire for OutLoud. As the pre-Stonewall generation passes on (David’s own father succumbed to cancer in 2012), there are fewer opportunities to get their stories told. “This period marks the beginning of one of the country’s great historic civil rights struggles, and while there has been some great documentary work, nothing has been done to create a comprehensive catalogue of these peoples’ lives.  That work is critical and it has to happen now.”

The premise of OutLoud calls to mind the words that Fred Rodgers famously carried around with him on a piece of paper in his pocket: It’s impossible not to love people whose stories you love. “When people realize their brothers, sons or relatives are gay—that causes the cataclysmic movement,” said Isay. While he believes "these personal stories are the most effective ways to move hearts and minds," Isay is quick to remind that the role of OutLoud is to document stories. It will be up to the listener to move the needle.

Once this project is complete, OutLoud will become more than merely a rich collection of LGBTQ stories. StoryCorps is preserving the historic narrative while reminding us all that the foundation of the LGBTQ movement was built with blood, sweat, setbacks and tears—not Facebook and Twitter posts.