Project maps queer Oakland with elders' stories

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday January 11, 2023
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Mapping Queer Oakland Project producer Elena Botkin-Levy. Photo: Courtesy Elena Botkin-Levy/GEMS Oral Histories
Mapping Queer Oakland Project producer Elena Botkin-Levy. Photo: Courtesy Elena Botkin-Levy/GEMS Oral Histories

Queer and lesbian oral storytelling professional Elena Botkin-Levy's Mapping Queer Oakland brings the city's diverse and unique LGBTQ stories to light.

San Francisco usually "gets all the praise and all the conversation around queerness," Botkin-Levy said in a recent interview, but as an Oaklander she knew the city's queer community had "incredible stories."

At the same time, she wanted to tap into the conversations "around displacement and elders not having space" while exploring the ways "they call this place home or have called this place home" and the ways they arrived in Oakland, she said.

The community responded positively, and nearly double the number of people she had the capacity to interview answered her call to tell their stories, said Botkin-Levy. It inspired her to want to continue finding ways to add to the map in the future.

"It feels like such a beautiful array of people that are profiled," said Botkin-Levy about the participants who ranged from Oakland natives to those who moved to The Town from San Francisco and other cities.

The participants — Janet Halfin, Norma Austin, Kenneth Kozi Arrington, Melanie DeMore, Jim Allio, Tupili Lea Arellano, Randy Jordan, Mali (Ernest Andrews), Pamela Spevack, Valerie Chan — all were different.

Each person tells three stories about "different aspects of their life" that are shown on the Oakland map and beyond, Botkin-Levy said.

One of her favorite stories is Mali and Jordan's love story, she said about the longtime couple who are "madly in love."

"I love their story," Botkin-Levy said.

In the couple's recorded love story, the two HIV-positive men came to Oakland and met in the 1980s at the Eagle Creek bar. Jordan and Mali contracted the virus in 1986 and 1987, respectively, they said. At the bar, Mali was doing HIV/AIDS outreach and Jordan was simply having a drink at the time. The two men circled each other "like satellites" for years after they first met until they finally got together in 1995, they said.

Mali called Jordan his "refuge" from his work where he faced racism and other issues.

"I realize the impact we had on other people just even being present and then I realized that was something special," Mali said.

Jordan said he counts his blessings that he found the love of his life.

"Sometimes he may get sick of me saying, 'I love you!' but I'm just saying it because it was in my heart. I love you. I have no shame in saying it because I do," he said.

The stories have received a positive response from the public since the project went live in June. "There's been a great reception," said Botkin-Levy, stating that the site has received 1,273 visitors since Pride Month.

The seed

An oral storytelling professional, Botkin-Levy said she was inspired to produce the Mapping Queer Oakland Project by her former work on the Intergenerational Storytelling Project that she worked on at the now-defunct outLoud Radio.

The Intergenerational Storytelling Project was a collaboration between San Francisco's LYRIC Center for LGBTQQ+ Youth and outLoud Radio, the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

OutLoud Radio was a youth media organization that helped queer youth — many of them low-income and of color — learn media and leadership skills through storytelling. The program was acquired by YR Media (formerly Youth Radio) in 2014, according to a new release from the organization at the time.

"There was such joy and such incredible exchange in the project," Botkin-Levy said, recalling the program. "It was an inspiration for me in a lot of ways."

Building the vision

Botkin-Levy chose to focus the first iteration of Mapping Queer Oakland on LGBTQ elders. She missed that connection between generations that isn't common in the queer community.

"I just feel like it's really rare to have an intergenerational conversation in general and particularly in the queer community," she said, adding, "I haven't seen an oral history project like this specific to Oakland."

In 2019, Botkin-Levy set out to gather some oral histories from LGBTQ Oaklander elders with the help of the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center and Berkeley's Pacific Center for Human Growth. The centers helped her get the word out, select the first 10 interviewees who were 60 or older, and provided the space for her to record, she said. She did a small release of the interviews that year.

In 2021, Botkin-Levy found an opportunity to build on those initial interviews to bring her vision for Mapping Queer Oakland to life. The City of Oakland's Cultural Funding Program was giving grants to individual artists for projects. The Oakland City Council approved a $7,000 grant for the project in November 2021, confirmed Raquel Iglesias, program analyst of cultural funding at the Cultural Affairs Division, Economic and Workforce Development at the City of Oakland.

Botkin-Levy started working on the project last January. She tapped Kin Folkz at the East Bay Queer Arts Center and Joe Hawkins at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center as advisers for the program.

Folkz said advising the project through both the EBQAC and Spectrum Queer Media, Folkz's social justice and media literacy organization, was important. The center's long history and vast network of San Francisco Bay Area community members and organizations allowed the project to reach a broad range of people. Spectrum provided access to other marginalized LGBTQ folks and one of the recording spaces for interviews.

"Each story from Bay Area elders who have lived in Oakland for years stands as a much needed voice and a powerful platform for both LGBTQ+ visibility and longevity," Folkz said.

Hawkins did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The grant allowed Botkin-Levy to do longer interviews and build up the website. She paid the participants an honorarium, and hired an editor and a graphic designer for the website and accompanying zine. The zine was published in a limited print run and digitally on the project's website.

Botkin-Levy called the LGBTQ elders' stories "a lighthouse in a lot of ways" for her generation and younger generations.

"These are stories that help us tell our own histories," Botkin-Levy added. "As Oakland changes and grows, and we think about queer community in new and different ways, it's just valuable and informative and inspiring to remember, honor, and hear these stories."

Currently, there isn't a way people can donate to the Mapping Queer Oakland Project, Botkin-Levy said. She guided people to donate to the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center and the East Bay Queer Arts Center, both of which supported the project, and she plans to continue collaborating with them in the future.

To donate to the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, click here. To donate to the East Bay Queer Arts Center, click here.

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