Hannah Waltz, U.S. Free Expression Programs manager, interviews Amelia Possanza about her new memoir-in-archives, Lesbian Love Story. Possanza discusses her process of writing, genre-bending, and adding her own story to the archive; the plague of censorship on queer stories overtime; being a (quadruple) Scorpio; and how archiving is an act of community in and of itself and choosing to use the word lesbian, one that unites but also that makes people “whisper and hiss” (Amazon, Bookshop).

1. What’s the origin story of Lesbian Love Story? How and when did you start writing it, and how did you decide to genre-bend and incorporate elements of memoir?

In spite of the word “love” in the title, this book grew out of a place of anger. When I moved to New York City, fresh out of college, I joined a queer swim team to make friends and connect with other queer people who find solace in the water. I was shocked to find a community mostly made up of gay men, and angry when I realized that the majority of them did not recognize me as a lesbian. At first, I wanted to channel my rage into a long essay exploring why gay men take up so much room in queer history and contemporary queer culture. I’m a quadruple Scorpio, so I really love to immortalize my resentments in writing. 

Part way into that essay, though, I realized that my energy might be better spent seeking out the lesbian role models I craved and bringing them to life so I could share their stories with the men on my team and anyone else who might not know what a lesbian looks like. The memoir element remained a part of the project as a way of explaining its origins, and of measuring my own experiences of lesbian disconnection and lesbian joy against those of the lesbians I studied.

2. This book also interrogates the process of archiving and recording. Reflecting on your own role as an archivist, not exempt from bias or getting your fingerprints on the pages, so to speak, how have you come to terms with the fact that you are also applying your own lens to these histories?
This is another reason that the memoir elements became a part of the project. I set out to find seven historical 20th century lesbian love stories, one for nearly every decade, and even the process of picking who would make the cut was an incredibly biased one. I picked people whose lives had some resonance with mine. Olympian Babe Didrikson achieved the athletic prowess I had always dreamed of as a mediocre swimmer, but she also shared my frustrations with the gendered uniforms of sport. The relationship between Amy Hoffman and Mike Riegle, her friend who she cared for as he died of AIDS, spoke to me because there were so many gay men in my own queer community, some who had lived through the AIDS crisis and some whose lives were almost entirely untouched by it. Since there was no way to get rid of my bias as a historian, I decided to simply lean into it. I wrote about the girls who made fun of my body hair in the swim team locker room. (Did I mention that I’m a Scorpio?) I wrote about my own gay best friend, and tried to imagine our love story as a montage set to a soundtrack composed entirely of Taylor Swift songs. A selfish part of me wanted my own archival record to coexist with these historical lesbians.

“Archiving is a community act, and we will need many, many generations of future archivists to protect these stories from censorship, to make them immortal.

3. A common thread throughout many of these love stories is the setting: New York City. In fact, she’s a pretty central character in the book. Would you say New York City is also a lesbian?
Ha! I wouldn’t go so far as to say that New York City is a lesbian, but she’s definitely queer. Big cities, and especially waterfront cities, have historically been sites of experimentation, community making, and queerness. Hugh Ryan writes about this beautifully in When Brooklyn Was Queer, which was a huge inspiration for my own project. 

In my own research, I began to notice how the trends Ryan outlines played out in individual lives. Mary Casal, a turn of the century lesbian who gets the starring role in my book’s first chapter, went to New York City to watch male impersonators like Ella Wesner and Johnstone Bennett perform on stage. New York was where she finally found a community of queer women who disproved her lifelong belief that she was the only girl with such a nature. Rusty Brown worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the aftermath of World War II, and as a male impersonator down on Coney Island. World War II sent a lot of women to big cities looking for work and queer bars opened to serve them. Both remained even after the war ended. To this day, New York City is still queer. We’ve got surprise concerts at The Stonewall Inn and Drag Kings performing in Bushwick and queer people wearing their absolute finest on the commute to work every day. Let’s keep it that way!

4. How do you see the connection between free expression and lesbianism or queerness? Did you find yourself self-censoring during any part of the writing of this memoir in archives?
Queer stories and censorship have been intertwined from the start. Scholars changed the pronouns in Sappho’s poetry to hide her desire for women. Mary Casal wrote her memoir because two amateur sexologists commissioned the manuscript, hoping to profit off the free publicity generated by the Comstock Act, which banned the distribution of obscene materials through the mail. Even now we see the censorship of queer stories through book bans, and the Comstock Act has been resuscitated to limit the distribution of abortion pills. 

Joan Nestle, the co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a space dedicated to the preservation of freely expressed queer stories, told me in an interview, “If you have the courage to touch another woman and to claim that touch . . . that, for us, was fame enough.” It’s also a radical, courageous act to reconstruct and reclaim these stories. Archiving is a community act, and we will need many, many generations of future archivists to protect these stories from censorship, to make them immortal.

5. Did the process of writing and reading about lesbians change the way you think of lesbians and/or the queer community as a whole? In my reading of the book, I sensed that you were grappling with the terminology: “lesbian” versus “queer” versus “gay” – the list goes on. We all are, in some way, but I wonder: How did you decide to use the word lesbian, around which these stories are centered? How does language fail us in describing queer love?
I thought about the right words to describe queer love, particularly historical queer love, almost every time I sat down to write. The landscape is always shifting. It even shifted during the years I was working on the book as more and more people embraced the word “Sapphic” to describe romantic love without men in the most inclusive way possible. 

I settled on the word lesbian because it was one that nearly all seven of the central historical figures in the book used, from Mary Casal at the turn of the century all the way up through Amy Hoffman in the 1980s. (I cheated a little with Babe Didrikson because I wanted the chance to explore what life was like for someone under such intense public media scrutiny.) Most of these figures are dead, so I can’t ask them what their attitudes to these shifting definitions are, or how they’d identify if presented with all the options available to us today. It wasn’t all that long ago in the grand scheme of things that we began to understand sexuality and gender identity as distinct categories, and a lot of the early words for queerness, like “invert,” conflated the two. Language fails us when we try to describe queer love in the past with today’s words. I used as many quotes from the source material as possible to allow my subjects to self-identify, whether that was Gloria Anzaldúa talking about the masculine spirit inside her or Mabel Hampton declaring that she didn’t want to be a man: I didn’t think that much about men to be wanting to be one.

Over the course of the project, I found that what these figures had in common wasn’t a particular static identity, but rather a commitment to resistance, to tossing out the script of heterosexual marriage handed to them, in favor of a vision of liberation. In the end, I used lesbian because it unites queer people across the decades, and because it somehow remains a word that freaks people out, that forces them to whisper and hiss.

“It’s not enough to have one queer book in your catalog or one queer author on your list or one queer literary event a season. Queer encompasses an entire community of people. It’s a word full of nuance and texture.”

6. As you noted in Lesbian Love Story, queerness and the privilege to be visibly lesbian, is not available to all–trans and queer people of color in particular have been oppressed and erased throughout history. How can the queer community, especially the queer literary world, be made more inclusive?
I wish I had a simple answer to this! It’s going to require a lot of different strategies. I’d love to see more people engaged in tending to the community archive and building intergenerational relationships, and I’d love to see more resources going to the amazing folks who are already doing this work, from the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco to the Pittsburgh Queer History Project in my hometown. It’s about asking, what’s the dominant narrative that’s getting repeated and reproduced? What stories are missing? What stories do we not even know are missing? It’s not enough to have one queer book in your catalog or one queer author on your list or one queer literary event a season. Queer encompasses an entire community of people. It’s a word full of nuance and texture. We should be interviewing our queer elders about their experiences, asking them what will happen to their personal effects when they pass away. We should all be listening.

7. The love stories that you have included in Lesbian Love Story span the years 595 B.C. to present day. What did you learn about the “arc” of societal acceptance of lesbians in your vast research?
Absolutely. I’ve never considered myself much of a history buff, so I was surprised to notice how the ebbs and flows of societal acceptance for lesbians, and also for queer people and other marginalized groups matched up with the ebbs and flows of economic prosperity, and particularly economic opportunity for women. 

For instance, during World War II, there was a fresh wave of jobs open to women for the first time, both in the military and on the home front, and many moved to big cities to claim those positions. Bars opened to serve these new residents. Folks looked the other way because they needed the labor. But then, when the men returned from the front, it was seen as unpatriotic for women to hang on to these jobs. Many of them were fired. In the aftermath of the war, we see the rise of McCarthyism, and the search for a scapegoat, whether that’s communists or queers.  

Knowing that societal acceptance isn’t a linear journey gives me hope at moments like ours, when it feels like we’re moving backwards. It also makes me question whether acceptance is what we’re looking for. The lesbians I studied all worked to create safe havens for their communities when the state failed them, whether that was Amy Hoffman taking care of her dying friend when the government and media stigmatized AIDS, or Mabel Hampton attending a rent party to help the neighbor pay the landlord. Should we be constantly asked to petition the state for rights—rights for immigrants, rights for incarcerated people—or should we be taking care of one another? Is there a place for both?

8. I love that you invoke the names and works of so many wonderful lesbian writers throughout the book. If you could claim any writers from the past as part of your own literary genealogy, who would your ancestors be?
Too many to name here! There are three queer writers who were a huge influence on the form of Lesbian Love Story, and while they are part of my literary genealogy, I also consider them my contemporaries. Jenn Shapland beautifully captured the thrill of the archive and the deep intimacy of exploring personal records in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals introduced me to her concept of “critical fabulation,” a means of filling in the gaps in the histories of marginalized peoples by imagining what could have happened in a way that was still true to the time period, which became a central strategy in my own efforts to reclaim and reinvent the intimate elements of lesbian history that have been lost, destroyed, and forgotten by the traditional archive. Last but certainly not least, Andrea Long Chu’s Females in all its brilliant, cunning irreverence showed me that theory doesn’t have to be boring or inaccessible. It can be as playful as it is personal.

“Now that I’ve written about the queer past, I’m hoping to turn my eye toward the queer future, so my greatest dream is that someone else will write about these figures, and I’ll just get to sit back and read about them.”

9. You write about falling in love with the protagonists of some of these stories, and others you’re lukewarm towards at best. What did you discover about the relationship of the archivist/memoirist and their subjects?
I was smitten with Mary Casal from the moment I read that she prefers to woo over being wooed. I was tempted to put on Mabel Hampton’s sunglasses when I visited her boxes at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. To put it bluntly, I became obsessed. The intimacy of that obsession was often the very thing that kept me going, especially on days when I wasted hours following a lead that didn’t yield any useful information, like the time I searched “Rusty Brown” on Ancestry.com and clicked through every single result. It has also kept the words of these lesbians reverberating through my head, even after I turned in the book. I can’t stop thinking about one of Mabel’s favorite catch phrases: “The dead take care of me, and so do the living.”

One of the central tensions of the archive is that they are filled with objects we want to preserve, and yet also access, engage with, and learn from. Inevitably, many of the objects will deteriorate if we touch them too often. Some archives have responded to this by restricting who can access their materials. And yet, the personal relationships I developed with my subjects, even the ones like Babe Didrikson (who I would never want to be left alone with), only increased my desire to preserve their stories. What kind of relationships would develop if even more people had access to these resources?

10. Had you had more pages, what other great lesbians would you have written about? Who didn’t make the cut for this book?
Since finishing the book, people have reached out to me with some incredible names: Charlotte Cushman, who played Romeo himself during the Victorian era, and turn of the century photographer Alice Austen, who captured the cross-dressing parties she hosted at her Staten Island Home and co-founded the Staten Island Bicycle Club because bicycles offered women independent transportation. There’s Sara Josephine Baker, a contemporary of Alice’s who worked as a physician and public health advocate in New York City and spent her later years with a “woman-oriented woman,” not to be confused with the queer Harlem Renaissance chorine turned movie star Josephine Baker. I’d also love to learn more about Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Goodwin, founders of Transy House, a 1990s refuge for unhoused gender non-conforming people and the last place where queer liberation pioneer Sylvia Rivera lived.

Now that I’ve written about the queer past, I’m hoping to turn my eye toward the queer future, so my greatest dream is that someone else will write about these figures (and so many more whose names I haven’t come across!), and I’ll just get to sit back and read about them.


A full-time book publicist and part-time writer, Amelia Possanza currently lives in Brooklyn with her cat. Her work has appeared in The Washington PostBuzzFeedElectric LiteratureThe Millions, and NPR’s InvisibiliaLesbian Love Storyis her first book.