Bodies of Evidence is an ambitious study of queer oral history. The editors, Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, bring together fourteen essays organized into four sections—"Silence," "Sex," "Friendship," and "Politics." Readers get a "two-for-one" experience, as each chapter consists of fascinating interview excerpts followed by a trenchant essay. Collectively they demonstrate that community-based LGBT history has both remained close to its roots and reached new levels of analytic sophistication. Like earlier works, this book is committed to documenting queer communities and political histories, largely of the pre-Stonewall era. It has a scholarly and a political agenda, ascribing to queer oral history an "overtly political function and a liberating quality" capable of transforming historical subjects, researchers, and knowledge (1).
The sections on "Silence" and "Sex" explore the influence of sexual behaviors, silences, and speech on historical memory and contemporary politics. Carrie Hamilton's and Karen Krahulik's respective essays on Laura, a Cuban revolutionary, and Beata Cook, a native of Provincetown, Rhode Island, analyze subtle exchanges in which each narrator refused to name herself as a "lesbian" despite coaxing from the authors. When narrators acknowledged same-sex relationships, they did so while attempting to avoid conflicting loyalties and stigma. Hamilton and Krahulik argue for silence and speech as dual forms of interpretation (as well as communication) that lay claim to a particular version of history.
Daniel Rivers's chapter on an African American mother from Los Angeles and Jason Ruiz's on a white gay minister from Minnesota complicate the history [End Page 405] of "the closet" in the 1950s and 1960s. Vera Martin moved in and out of lesbian relationships when she could, while using suburban married life to protect her custodial rights from a vindictive ex-husband. Even when pastoring gay churches, Chuck Larsen combined sex and silence strategically. He enjoyed the furtive pre-AIDS culture of cruising, bars, and baths, but hid these activities from parishioners to maintain his image as a respectable "good gay." Ruiz argues that contemporary LGBT politics tied to normative marriage and family make sex and pleasure shamefully unspeakable. To Rivers, in contrast, any dichotomy between "recent, assimilationist, and homonormative" politics and the sexual radicalism of earlier decades obscures the fact that the right to raise children has long imbued queer struggles (66).
Boyd and Kelly Anderson perceptively investigate sex and silencing within lesbian communities. Frustrated in her attempt to elicit talk about sexual practice and belief, Boyd concludes that lesbians associated with a working-class bar culture self-censored, perceiving oral history as a middle-class endeavor unreceptive to the "highly sexualized butch-fem culture" of their youth (110). In an interview with Dorothy Allison and Carmen Vásquez, who also defend butch-femme sexuality against later critics, Anderson complicates this picture. Frank discussion between Allison and Vásquez begins "to chip away at some of the silences around power, control, desire, and misogyny within butch-femme sexuality" (143, emphasis added).
The passionate commitment to interrogating the relation between past and present, history and politics, makes the book scintillating and occasionally frustrating. Many of the authors and narrators discuss the sex-race nexus seamlessly and perceptively. More problematically, several authors compare the mainstreaming of LGBT politics into "neoliberal" gay marriage and citizenship rights to an earlier time when queers proudly rejected social and sexual norms. Yet references to neoliberalism often seem disconnected to the evidence at hand. Boyd's belief that narrators were reluctant to talk about their sexual practice because they sensed the imposition of a "kind of neoliberal or homonormative public memory" is a disconcerting explanation for a silence with complex roots (110).
Another area of mixed success is the attempt to consider the body itself as evidence. Several authors use metaphors of dancing to describe the process of conducting interviews—who leads and who follows—and the nonlinear flow of narrative information. Jeff Friedman's chapter on the dancer Terry Sendraff argues that her swooping, circling narration...