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A Queer Story

Various buttons collected by Skeivt Arkiv.
Various buttons collected by Skeivt Arkiv.

A bit hidden away at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Bergen is an archive that is not like any other archive – it is queer.

– Hardly anyone had collected any queer history in Norway. What existed was essentially a private archive in the National Archives from a private person, and another in the county archives in Hordaland, as well as something in the city archive in Trondheim, says Hannah Gillow-Kloster.

Coming out of the closet at that point in time was social suicide

She is temporary academic leader at Skeivt Arkiv at the University Library in Bergen. The archives officially opened in April 2015, as the only one of its kind in the Nordic region. Here are things like condoms and balloons from LO, a VHS recording of a Fado singer from a club in the Homohuset in Oslo during Oslo Skeive Dager 1987, a hand-banner in pink silk from Homosexual movement in Bergen, as well as large amounts of documents about queer history in Norway, with the main emphasis of the documents on the gay organizations.

– We also have a whole box of costumes from Tauno Silander, who was very active in the drag movement in Oslo in the nineties, says Gillow-Kloster.

Today they have their own web pages and separate dictionary about Norwegian queer history, Skeivopedia, which also contains digitized archive material.

Private collection

It all started with the fact that professor of cultural sciences at UiB, Tone Hellesund, during a network seminar suggested that the gay community in Norway needed a historical archive. One of the participants at this seminar was Karen-Christine “Kim” Friele, a Norwegian writer and activist who has worked in support of gay rights for several years. She said yes to donate her entire private collection to the archive.

Hellesund and then director of the university library Ole Gunnar Evensen drove to Geilo, packed the archive in their car and drove it back to the University of Bergen.

– One year later, three of us were employed in temporary positions, among other things, to archive Karen-Christine Frieles archives. It became clear that many others also had archive material, said Gillow-Kloster.

Hannah Gillow-Kloster
Hannah Gillow-Kloster

The new employees approached the various gay movements to convey that a storage space was in place now, and that people could donate anything that could be of value.

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Not just for lesbians and gays

According to Gillow-Kloster, the purpose of Skeivt Arkiv today is not the same as it was at the beginning.

– In the beginning we collected a lot of stuff. We also had to make people aware that this was available and that queer history is relevant and important. There are many who care, it is part of the Norwegian history, and should not be hidden or kept secret, says Gillow-Kloster.

Today, it is more about communicating and visualizing the queer story as well as collecting both physical archives and biology interviews.

– Both what we have ourselves, and the research we keep doing. But also research that others do and things we do not necessarily have material from in the archive, but which includes the general Norwegian queer story from the Viking era up until today, says Gillow-Kloster.

She also emphasizes that the archive is not just for the story of gays and lesbians, although, according to her, they make up the majority of the the queer communities.

– We have some projects aimed at interviewing transgender and queer minorities. Bis are unfortunately incredibly invisible, and they have also been systematically made invisible in the queer movement in Norway, says Gillow-Kloster.

For example, there were many inside the gay movement that protested very hard when the National Association for Lesbians and Gays was renamed the National Association for Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals.

– The archive is definitely for the entire queer movement, and it is very important that everyone are able to find themselves in the queer story,” says Gillow-Kloster.

It is part of the Norwegian history and should not be hidden or kept secret

It is also not just queer persons that arrives at the archive. Here, they welcome many researchers and students in search of information. Gillow-Kloster believes one of their fads is to convey that the queer story is part of the Norwegian history as a whole. In general, she has the impression that people are positive to the archive, but they have also received some negative reactions.

– We have had some feedback from people who say, “Why do you accuse people in the past of being queer, it isn’t something they can defend themselves against?” Then we tend to say that there is nothing to defend, because it’s not a negative thing. People become on edge, but that’s why we use the phrase “queer” – we mean not only gays, lesbians, transgender people or intersex people. Queer story is about everyone who has broken the norms for sex and gender throughout Norway’s history.

Exhibition comes to Bergen

On the occasion of the Rainbow Days, Skeivt Arkiv organizes the exhibition “Skeiv uteliv”, which opens June 2 at the University Museum in Bergen. The exhibition has previously been in Oslo, but now it has been extended with relevant information about places and people in the area in and around Bergen.

– It focuses on diverse nightlife in Norway from 1950 up until today, but with an extra focus on Bergen, says Gillow-Kloster.

In the exhibition there will be videos and posters from queer venues and texts about butch / femme parties in Bergen in the nineties. Senior consultant at UiB and material manager for the exhibition, Bjørn André Widvey, says that the queer nightlife in Bergen started as a secret thing.

– It had to be because coming out of the closet was social suicide at that point in time. The reason we use the terms “gay” and “lesbian” to mention people at that time is because those were the terms used. But, in general, the term “gay women and men” was used, says Widvey.

They have interviewed people who were present at this time, and these appear on video. Widvey, for example, can tell about the night club Chianti, where all the waiters were gay.

– And that’s apparently true, too – some of the employees were gays and employed their own friends and so on.

A strange marriage

There are also some incredible stories that emerged as a result of research.

– Among other things, there was a researcher who found a note in a church book from 1781. After the declaration of marriage, it the text read “NB: This couple was found to both be female women,” says Gillow-Kloster.

A person had turned out to be a man, presented himself as Jens in men’s clothes and got a job as a coachman. “Jens” had married Anne Christine, and a few weeks later she had returned to the priest and said that “my husband is a woman.”

– Medical expertise was called upon – it is not easy to say what that constituted in Drammen in 1781 – and it was found that, in a biological way, Jens was a woman, says Gillow-Kloster.

Jens was baptized as Marie in another parish, but had presented herself as Jens when they arrived at the village. The power of authority was uncertain about what they were going to do with this case, so (s)he was imprisoned, but managed to escape. It has been speculated whether they let he(r) escape because they didn’t want to bring attention to the matter.

– If this person had lived today, had this been  a person who had identified him/herself as a transperson? Or had it been a lesbian or bisexual person who felt that they had to live as a man in order to live out his identity? Or maybe just one who wanted work as a coachman. There are amazingly many possible explanations, says Gillow-Kloster.

Gillow-Kloster believes that the existence of Skeivt Arkiv is about conveying that the queer history is also important for the queer movement. Knowing about their own history, knowing it and knowing how things have been doing is very important for people’s self-esteem and doing very much for how people perceive themselves and shape their identity.

– For example, other minorities, like people with immigrant backgrounds, receive a lot of family history from their parents or grandparents. They get to know, for example, “this is what it’s like being an immigrant from Pakistan to Norway,” or “this is what it’s like being Sami.” Therefore, we try to look at the archive as an album or family book for queer people, says Gillow-Kloster.