Before Ellen came out, and before two people of the same sex were even allowed to dance together in bars, gay people around the world were mustering the courage to be out, to find each other, and to allow themselves to have fun and fall in love. Over the course of two years, renowned transgender choreographer Sean Dorsey sought LGBT people ages 55-88, to record their own version of history, ranging from joyous to heartbreaking. The stories then sprouted his new show, The Secret History of Love, which celebrates the life and loves of LGBT people starting in the 1930s.
As the show is staged in San Francisco this weekend (continuing on a tour across the country through the fall), Dorsey talks about his process, and why we shouldn't desexualize people just because of their age.
The Advocate: Tell me about your involvement with the National LGBT Elders Oral History Project.
Sean Dorsey: Over a two-year period, I met with and interviewed LGBT elders across the U.S. and asked them about their lives in oral history interviews. I asked these elders about everything from their childhood, their coming-out, their first crushes, first loves, love affairs, activism, and then their lives as they have grown older and aged and their perspective on how things have changed over the decades. It was an extraordinary experience, and I met a lot of extraordinary people.
Could you talk about some of the interesting people you met on this journey?
What was a really wonderful part of this national oral history project were some of the surprises I found in the interviews and in meeting people. Frank Lapiana is a Boston native, and one of the wonderful surprises that I encountered first in talking to him was I came to the oral history project preparing myself emotionally for all of the very painful parts of our community's history and struggle — the losses, the isolation, the police abuse — but what I hadn't prepared for was the extent of joy or the innovative, creative ways that LGBT people managed to fall in love and fall in lust and have saucy love affairs or organize sex parties in the 1950s and meet their first love in the 1930s. With Frank, I had this beaming smile during much of my interview time with him, because he would just share these incredibly joyful and saucy stories, among some really painful stuff. It was incredible to learn of the resiliency and the life force and energy and love that thrived many decades before our community was out from the underground. Part of why I think that the show and the oral histories are important is that we really desexualize our older generaation. There's this big disconnect within the LGBT community when it comes to our elders. It was these elders who broke down the sexual revolution doors and were really the heros and pioneers that made our lives and sexuality and love possible now.
How were you inspired to launch this whole project?
I actually designed the oral history project in order to develop the content for the show. So when I had the idea for the show, I knew I wanted it to be informed by real, lived history. I didn't know what I would find, but I spent a lot of time at the GLBT Historical Society's archives, for example, putting my hands on people's love letters. Like a love note on a cocktail napkin from a club in the 1950s, for example. Getting my hands on these archival materials was just so important to me. And I knew I wanted real voices from our elders to be in the show. So I designed the oral history project around that. But then I was left with this huge stack of transcribed interviews, so then I found themes and stories and commonalities and the arc of the show. So I didn't come to the show with preconceived ideas of how it would go. It really came out of the research that I did.