They Don’t Call It Ephemera for Nothing: A Conversation with Laura Yaros about Lesbian Archives, Activism and Her Drawer of Cassette Tape Interviews – Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

It’s June of 2009 and the National Campus-Community Radio Conference is being held in Montreal. It’s Women in Radio day, a then-annual day of programming and workshops. It’s queer caucus time and a bunch of us are sitting around with chart paper and name tags. We’re exhausted. A couple of us are friends or work together and we’re all there with the best intentions but fairly different interests. There’s a go-around. It’s fairly expected. Enter Laura Yaros, a local lesbian in her 50s, producer and host of Matrix at Radio Centreville. Matrix has been running for over 30 years, likely the longest running feminist radio show in Canada, produced entirely for and by women. Laura points out that this includes the technical production of the show, which certainly wasn’t often the case when she got started.

We exchange stories of how we both got involved in radio. We’re struck by the similarities between our respective experience, hers beginning in the early 1980s and mine the late 1990s. We both stayed on because radio became an outlet for our activism, a way to reach out and network; it became something we were good at and able to train others in. We laugh about reading from awkward scripts about subjects we knew little of, quoting statistics.

Matrix has had a lot of turnover, sometimes it worked as a collective and othertimes not. The team working on it has mostly been between five and ten women at a time. These days, Laura is doing most of the work herself, sometimes collaborating and sharing material with Rose Mary Whalley, who works on CKUT’s Older Women Live.

Laura and I meet again electronically in December of 2009. At this time, I’m working on an edition of GroundWire, a news program produced collaboratively by stations across the country. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, and Laura has original footage from 1989, produced with her longtime partner Beth Blackmore.

In Spring 2011, I have the opportunity to invite Laura to speak at another NCRC, this time in Halifax. Laura delivers a workshop called The Role of Archiving Feminist Movements and Women’s Struggles and shares audio clips with us, including more of the December 6th footage along with stories of women affected by the Oka Crisis. Struck by the need to continue this conversation until our archives are digitized and accessible (i.e. pretty much forever), I interviewed Laura for No More Potlucks. Laura starts off by telling me about a recent edition of Matrix.

Montreal Massacre – Original Coverage by Laura Yaros, Matrix, Radio Centre-ville

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Laura Yaros: On November 12th, I did an obituary and tribute to Barbara Grier, who died the Thursday before. Barbara Grier was a major player in lesbian publishing and an activist from way back. I had an interview that I’d done with her in 1987 when she’d come to speak at McGill. She spoke about her history being involved in one of the first lesbian groups in the 50s in the U.S., The Daughters of Billitis. She worked on the magazine The Ladder, this very secretive lesbian publication, sent out to women in brown paper packaging. She was co-founder of Naiad Press, which was sold ten years ago when she and her partner retired. She grew it into a really large publishing venture. She was great to interview because she is very colourful and has all these stories. You know when you get a great guest and you can wind ‘em up and let ‘em go?

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk: I do…

LY: That was Barbara. She was an innovator in her way. She really put lesbian publishing on the map and gave a lot of lesbian authors their first break. She was also quite the pirate, the little American capitalist, but very generous. In her interview she talks about coming out at 12 and looking it up at the library. She later wrote book reviews of lesbian books in her Ladder column, and reprinted lesbian authors from the 1920s who had gone into obscurity. She and her partner were librarians by trade, and near their retirement they wanted to downsize so they shipped two big vans of archival material to a special library in San Francisco.

Excerpt from Barbara Grier Interview by Laura Yaros, Matrix, Radio Centre-ville

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T-MZ: This works right into the question of what we’re all supposed to do with our piles of paper. I’ve been working on a project about the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. Even with all the contacts I had through the store, the best contact I’ve made so far was the mother of a friend of mine’s girlfriend – who happened to manage the store in the 1970s. She sent me original posters and flyers by mail. It makes me think about where the other copies are – do people have them? Do they still exist?

LY: Well they don’t call it ephemera for nothing. Think about it. So much of that stuff gets lost or destroyed. I have stuff that’s not on the Internet and eventually I’m going to have to think about where to send it all. We conserve things better with new technology, but CDs and USB keys aren’t foolproof either.

T-MZ: The radio station I was at for many years shut down recently and if you didn’t have time in the 2 allotted weeks to go pick up your stuff from decades past it was gone. So I have this handful of tapes now and know that somewhere on them are these bits of audio I want to keep.

LY: I’ve got a drawer full of cassettes. It’s not all worth keeping but who do I talk to about transferring all of this stuff and making it sound good? They’re old cassettes and they sound fine off the actual cassettes but not digitally. This is off a Sony Pro, cost me $450 back in 1987. It’s the model journalists were using at the time. I hadn’t worked in forever, then  got a job and with my first paycheck went to the stereo store that my stepbrother worked at and bought this top-of-the-line machine. Just being able to get quality audio is an actual problem for getting our archives out there. And there’s urgency to it; magnetic tape is an actual physical tape that deteriorates.

This stuff is important. This interview with Barbara Grier – she tells good stories, she’s opinionated and outrageous and you can just see she’s a bossy little capitalist. At the same time, it’s fun and it’s a really important part of lesbian history. Like her or hate her, or have whatever opinion of her, but it’s really thanks to her that we have all these publishing houses and authors and not just three books. She and her partner would wake up in the morning and go pack books. This was a lifeline to women living in Shitsville, Texas where they’d get lynched if anyone knew they were lesbians. Women in Crapville, Alabama were getting these books in brown paper. That’s what they did for so many years. It was volunteer work until they could pay themselves salaries and give themselves and other lesbians jobs. It’s important to know this history. These publishing houses didn’t come from nowhere. There’s a reason you can download all this music now or have Ellen or Rosie O’Donnell’s show on TV.

T-MZ: Do you think women’s roles in the mainstream media are changing women’s roles in community and alternative media? We’re certainly seeing more of them, not to suggest they’re all doing anything politically enlightened—

LY: or meaningful.

T-MZ: Or meaningful. Do you think that creates more reason to be responsive or reactive, or less?

LY: It’s possible that a certain segment of women see people like Ellen and Oprah hosting their own shows, and see women on the news and hear them on commercial and CBC radio and think, “Why would I work on a rinky-dink little station that won’t pay?” It’s true that there are more possibilities, even for technical positions. There’s probably also a certain segment that thinks there’s no reason to be politically active anymore – though I think that’s changing too, with the Occupy movement and even before that. I think for a while that wasn’t true though, there was a sentiment that we’re living in a post-feminist era: “We’ve made it! We got our slice of the corporate pie!”

T-MZ: One of the things you and I have talked about throughout our conversations is not losing our history, being able to use our social and political histories as a basis to move forward from. What are your ideas on what needs to happen to archive our history, whether that’s physical pamphlets and flyers, or radio interviews, or just getting stories down and really passing them on.

LY: I’m as guilty as anyone else, I need to get my shit together to get at least the more outstanding shows I’ve done into as many kinds of media as possible. In whatever ways we can, we should be working hard to preserve things for future generations. When we see what’s around from the ‘20s, ‘40s and ‘50s, it’s very meaningful to us. But that’s not all we should be doing – not everyone is going to know that material exists and to look for it. Maybe we need to have workshops or conferences or informal gatherings where some of this material is shared. Even just our stories, we all have our stories. In addition to written and electronic preservation, we need to preserve an oral tradition as well. It doesn’t have to be formal or academic.

Beverly Nelson – Kahnesetake Radio – Sept. 15 1990 by Laura Yaros, Matrix, Radio Centre-ville

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I’m lucky I came out during the rise of the feminist movement. I didn’t know other lesbians I could talk to. I found a couple of books, and not just those novels where one woman kills herself and the other one goes back to men. Actual validating books like Lesbian Woman by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

T-MZ: There’s all this money that goes into archiving the history of sports teams or the military or whatever, but there’s still this idea that gay people are this tiny bit of the fringe and no one really sees us and we don’t really matter. Yet we have so much history and can’t get funding to actually make that accessible to people.

LY: It’s up to us. We have to do it without the financial resources, we have to preserve our own materials or we have to try to raise the money somehow. This is the history and herstory that needs to be heard and needs to be put out there. The professional sports teams and corporate shit have the money. But even there, how many women’s sports teams have their histories preserved? I’m a big women’s sports fan – hockey, basketball – and even there, how much do you see? In terms of activism and marginalized communities, and we clearly are still marginalized, even if not as bad as before. But bullying is still happening and young people are still living in fear, afraid to disclose anything. I know that even in the older generations there are gay and lesbian elders living in residences where they don’t want to come out because they don’t want to be mistreated or ostracized. We have to prioritize getting our stories out because no one’s going to do it for us. There are a lot of people getting older and dying who have this wealth of knowledge and experience, and you never know what’s going to inspire somebody. One thing sparks another and that creates a movement.

Maybe we need to have a conference just about how to preserve our materials. Instead of arguing about procedural matters, I’ve already done my share of that, let’s get this started. Instead of quarreling about who’s more anti-oppressive than who – that’s history repeating itself, we did the same thing back in the day in lesbian and feminist groups, we’re so busy chewing each other up and spitting each other out. It doesn’t mean we have to stop thinking about or working on these other things, but maybe what we need to do is concentrate more on concrete tasks for a while.

T-MZ: We get caught up in theory but I also think we’re still struggling to live our lives, get our work done and be part of changing things. It’s sometimes about literal time but it’s also about giving our material a life again. I’m more inspired when someone reacts to one of my old interviews and it means something to them and they want to discuss it. I feel the same way about hearing your old clips. They become interesting again, they become a discussion point and the community owns them again, instead of just you or I knowing they’re in a milk crate somewhere.

LY: I agree about sharing the material. Sometimes I listen to these things and am like, “wow, these issues are still happening now.” Or I’ll remember getting things done with no resources.

It must have been ten or more years ago now, the group I was working with, The Lesbian Network, wanted to organize a national lesbian conference. I gave a little talk on the first lesbian conference that happened here, I think in 1974 or ’75. We were 200 women, mostly from Eastern Canada, but from across the country and from Ithaca, New York – it wasn’t completely nationwide, but there was some representation. We put this together in a few months, a small group of us organizing with no budget, no computers, no email, no fax machines, no Internet, no long-distance plans. Before making a long-distance call in 1974, you didn’t only think twice, you thought three, four, five, six times. So we had snail mail, basically. None of us were professionals at that time, we didn’t have salaries. We had this women’s centre at the time – it was this shitty place, eight rooms on two floors that we rented, because some women that had salaries had contributed, or maybe we had a small grant at the time or a few women paid five bucks now and again. The food consisted of a huge pot of soup, a thick hearty soup, and bread that someone provided, or a few women kicked in some money and someone cooked it at home. I remember seeing them hauling it up the stairs. People were billeted in homes – this is what we had. It was a wonderful weekend, we had workshops and a little dance with recorded music on cassettes – I mean, who could afford a DJ? Back in 1974, so few resources, with no Ellen show and very few books, we had the desire and the willingness to work to bring ourselves together to support each other and validate each other and share our ideas. Even to get photocopies done was a major thing. We published a lesbian newspaper and these two women had a Gestetner and we had to turn it manually, printing out 300 copies of each page and collating them by hand and stapling them by hand. I just thought: We were fucking amazing, that we did that.

T-MZ: Oh wow, so where do we go from here? [I’m mostly talking about the interview.]

LY: Where do we go from here? I wish the fuck I knew. I’m a lot older and a little more tired and I don’t have the physical wherewithal to camp out at an Occupy site. So I think of other ways to support movements. I’ve been working all these years for social change. I’m 57 years old, I’m not dead yet.

Image Credit: Alan Levine

Audio Credits: Laura Yaros, Matrix, Radio Centre-ville

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a writer, activist, media-maker and parent currently unsettled in Toronto. She has been involved in community radio since 1997 and is author of the poetry books Emergency Contact (McGilligan Books, 2006) and Somewhere To Run From (Tightrope Books, 2009.) Amongst other things Tara-Michelle is currently working on a young adult novel about a girl and a gender complicated person’s on-again/off-again relationship with each other and their activism. Tara-Michelle co-facilitated an intergenerational for-radio discussion series between Guelph lesbians from ages 20-something to 60-something. She’s a new volunteer at the Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives and would totally go to school for Library & Archive Studies if she had an undergraduate degree. If all else fails she may settle for producing a Lesbian Hoarders reality TV show.

Laura Yaros has been active in feminist, lesbian and community groups for 38 years.  She produces and hosts “Matrix”, a 60-minute weekly magazine by, for and about women from a feminist and progressive perspective on Radio Centre-ville (www.radiocentreville.com) in Montreal, where she lives with her partner of 35 years.