Debrief: Dr. Amy Tooth-Murphy

Becca Bashford interviews Royal Holloway’s very own queer historian, Amy Tooth-Murphy.

When I met Amy in her office, something I immediately noticed was her collection of books. One caught my eye straight away: Female Masculinity by Judith/Jack Halberstam. Coincidentally, the book came up more than once in our interview – she described how she came across it for the first time while she was working at Oxfam during her undergraduate degree: “I was a stones throw away from the uni but nothing like this had ever been shown to me. It turned a light on in a way, I didn’t realise Queer studies was something that even existed.”. Amy described how her journey in academia actually began in law – and that after a short 6 months she realised that it was too constrained for her ‘fairly strong opinions’ to be heard and explored, so she ended up doing her undergrad in English Literature and History.

It was only after the revelatory experience of finding Female Masculinity on that bookshelf that she realised Queer literature was what she wanted to pursue; over the course of her studies, her love for Queer Literature developed into a love for Queer Histories – particularly Oral History: “I was told during my masters that I might be good at oral history because I had an eye for detail and an ear for nuance, I didn’t even know what oral history was. My project was about lesbians in post-war Britain and their experiences, particularly their history of reading and how what they read influenced their identity formations.”. Now, at Royal Holloway, Amy teaches a range of modules in both oral history, public history, modern British history, and gender and sexuality.

We began by talking about an obvious topic that comes up time and time again when people talk about their experience in academia – were there any hurdles she had to overcome? One thing that came across as strikingly clear during our conversation was Amy’s unapologetic attitude towards her identity and how she chooses to present it. She describes her sexuality as completely integrated into her personal, private and professional life. She is a bold and outspoken lesbian woman, and she has placed her sexuality ‘front and centre’ for anyone she comes across, both in an out of academia. In regards to hurdles in her professional life, she said that she thinks that she’s been very lucky, and often that academia is about being in the right place at the right time: Amy told me that she made a very conscious choice to not let people avoid who she is. She laughed at the idea of someone rejecting her from an academic post because of her sexuality – “Look at what I teach, look at my bookshelf, look at what I write. If you’re going to be homophobic, just don’t have me around. My identity is right out there – so what are people gonna say to me?! That’s where my power comes from. I think its really empowering actually.”

Amy’s eyes lit up when I asked her to talk more about Oral History and her current project. Oral History according to her is about seeing how history impacts everyday people. It’s the study of memory, life and narrative, and how the past figures in the narrator’s life. For Amy, though, its more than just getting a window on the past. For her, its about ‘speaking truth to power’ Oral History “allows people to correct the dominant historic narrative. We all know the problems if you’re a historian trying to work with the history of marginalised sexuality. Where are the sources?! Often the sources are written about us, not by us. Often women and lesbians are excluded altogether, and in regards to trans history its almost impossible to find. Oral history is about giving power to people of the past and giving them power in the present.”

Her current project explores the ‘coming out’ story, and how its become a dominant narrative within a marginalised narrative, in short: How do people who don’t have a coming out experience tell their story? She told me how she doesn’t like the way the coming out story has been sensationalised, particularly in the straight world: “When people come out they move from a position of being hidden or undescribed to ‘something’ in the eyes of other people. In the mainstream world they like coming out stories because they can then pin that person down. Its not that simple”.

Alongside her Oral history project, she is also one of the Managing Editors of a blog called ‘Notches’, which seeks to make academic research and the study of the history of sexuality more accessible – “What’s the point of sitting here and only having conversations with other people sitting within the walls of academia; who are fortunate enough to be able to do that, and who have chosen that route? What kind of public historian would I be if I didn’t see the point in conveying the work we do here in academia out to the wider world? Its theirs as well – and for a queer community that can be really empowering, just like finding Female Masculinity was for me”. What really struck me during my conversation with Amy was her unwavering passion and desire to help others feel like their identity and life is legitimate, and that being part of the LGBTQ+ community is something worth talking about, and above all that everyone should be able to access the history and heritage of their community.

We moved on to a more topical debate, one we will be exploring in this issue of Orbital, and that was the use of the word ‘Queer’, particularly in an academic setting. Amy is of the belief that crucially, we must be sensitive about our language and consider who we are talking to. In her work as an oral historian, she often interviews older women – in their 70’s and older – who are sometimes not even comfortable with the term lesbian. Its easy to forget that a lot of language used by the LGBTQ+ community is relatively new, and this is something Amy thinks we should be constantly aware of.  On a personal level, using the word ‘Queer’ to describe herself is a celebration of difference: “Queer in its activist component allows people to say ‘hold on a minute, I am different. My whole life experience is different. I have been subject to homophobia and discrimination, and I am different because of that. My heritage is difference and my story is different.’ Queer gives you a way to say I’m not like you, I don’t want to be, and there’s a deliberate use there”.

We finished our interview by discussing how LGBTQ+ identities are being threatened in the current political climate. Is this because they are more visible, or because hate speech has been given a free reign? Amy was to the point: “To the privileged, equality feels like oppression. They don’t want others to have the same things as them. People used to say ‘I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend your right to say it’. BULLSHIT! If I ever believed that before, I definitely don’t anymore. Of course, intelligent and respectful discussion is vital. And as an educator I’m passionate about that. But, I will not defend your right to stand up and spout hate, because you definitely won’t stand up and defend me”.

If Amy could give a word of advice to young LGBTQ+ students, it would be to live your truth. Live as authentically as you can. When people say ‘don’t shove your identity in my face’, ask them – why shouldn’t I? Amy says that the way she presents herself is a political statement, but she knows she has the privilege to do that. She says that working with young people is a privilege in itself, even when they are disregarded as ‘snowflakes’. The students she has come across are “politically active, self aware, and self reflective. They’re not snowflakes, they just know themselves”.  I left Amy’s office feeling empowered and overwhelmed. It’s amazing to know that Royal Holloway has lecturers who are so passionate about their field, and that their passion extends to encouraging students to feel secure in who they are, and above all to be completely unapologetic about it. For students who might not be comfortable screaming their sexuality or gender identity from the rooftops, simply having someone like Amy around makes the campus feel that little bit more welcoming and safe. We are incredibly lucky to have her.

I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the fascinating things we spoke about, so make sure you read the full interview online.