Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota by Stewart Van Cleeve

Dan Sinykin

A few years ago, Stewart Van Cleve took an elevator down to the depths of the Elmer L. Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota and followed a curator into a distant corner of the “Special Collections and Rare Books” archive. Here he found, in his words, that “a lone quarter-sized rainbow sticker guards one of the world’s largest repositories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer thought, art, and history” (1). He also found the archive in disarray, with teetering stacks of materials in need of organization. Thus began his involvement the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, which would grow into a groundbreaking book, Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota.

Van Cleve brings to the book the tempered passion and perspective of an archivist. He acknowledges that archives, as he writes, “are reflections of their founders and the people who work within them. Not bound by professional standards that did not yet exist, the early collectors of queer artifacts saved the things that they liked and discarded the things that they did not. Even under the auspice of professionalism, archivists and curators make innumerable daily decisions that determine cultural memory. Historians, in turn, write histories that are based on the decisions of those archivists” (3). Van Cleve’s recognition of the limits of his work is generous and refreshing. And it’s good to know that his book is only the tip of the iceberg. Yet anyone who ventures further into its pages will find a wealth of material that has been kept largely underground, missing from other histories of Minnesota, now bursting forth.

Some listeners might wonder why the book uses the word queer in its title. For much of the twentieth century, queer was a derogatory term for gays and lesbians. But in recent years the word has been reappropriated by many people who embrace non-normative gender and sexual identities. Van Cleve puts it well when he writes that “queer efficiently describes a host of identities that challenge the existence of sexual normalcy and the dominance of the gender dichotomy. . . . The word provokes and simultaneously defines the social order by calling its assumptions into question. Queer,” he continues, “has come to describe many who are not easily categorized using contemporary terms” (14).

Both Van Cleve’s origins in the archives and his use of the word queer influence the very structure of the book. He has loosely divided the book into seven thematic sections, each of which contains a number of semi-autonomous entries on everything from a visit Oscar Wilde made to the Twin Cities to Minnesota AIDS activism. A few of the entries contain similar information, though each time with a difference. The result is a text that need not be read “straight” through but can be approached from a variety of directions.

That said, the book opens and closes with entries on northern Minnesota. It begins with the story of Ozaawindib, an Ojibwe two-spirt person who lived near Leech Lake in the early 1800s. As Van Cleve notes, “Among scores of tribes and nations, including the Dakota and Ojibwe, certain individuals possessed a duality of spirit. Men who behaved like women and women who behaved like men were mystics, matchmakers, healers, leaders, truth sayers, and warriors” (15). At several points, Van Cleve includes entries on more recent two-spirit gatherings in Minnesota.

The last entry in the book is devoted to queer life on the Iron Range. Earlier, Van Cleve writes that, “although it is less repressive than myths depict, northern Minnesota has been a challenging place to lead a queer life” (154). Nevertheless – or for that very reason – in 2009, Ashley Kay Rantala founded The Iron Range Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transgenders, and their Allies and initiated biweekly meetings in Hibbing and Virginia. By ending the book with the Iron Range, Van Cleve points to the persistence of queer life across all of Minnesota.

He adds a final note in the form of an epilogue, returning to where he began. One purpose of archives is to store communal memories against an unpredictable future crisis, which is all the more critical for marginalized populations. “As long as [the] archive exists,”Van Cleve writes, “we will always have a community memory to guide us if times change for the worse” (281). Let’s hope that’s unnecessary and that these words from the book’s dedication prove prophetic:

“For those who will remember us.
May their genders be irrelevant,
may their sexualities be respected,
and may oppression rest,
finally and forever,
in their very old books.”

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