Publicist and Writer Amelia Possanza ’12 Discusses 20th Century Queer History, Survival, and Love 

On Nov. 14, Amelia Possanza ’12 returned to campus for a Q&A session and reading of her debut novel “Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives.” The event occurred in McCabe Library’s LibLab and was sponsored by McCabe and co-organized by the English literature department, gender & sexuality studies program, and Women’s Resource Center. Possanza was accompanied by Georgie Greene ’26 and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Literature Peter Schmidt. 

Schmidt opened the event by introducing Possanza. During her time at Swarthmore, she served as Editor-in-Chief of The Phoenix and was an honors comparative literature major. She now works as a full-time publicist and freelance writer in New York City, and her work has been featured by Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and NPR. “Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives is an exploration into the lives and stories of lesbians she encountered in queer historical archives of the 20th century. It is also a depiction of her own journey of finding love in her life, community, and city. Published in May 2023, the novel received critical acclaim from Kirkus Reviews, NPR, and The Times. 

Possanza began by asking the audience whether they had been to the special collections in McCabe. After audience members responded positively, she remarked, “That makes me so happy, having done a lot of archival research to write a book about famous lesbians.” 

She added that she regretted not utilizing special collections during her time as a student. “Don’t be like me,” she said. “I’m going tomorrow morning because I missed my chance as a student.” 

Possanza then discussed her life after graduation, her upbringing, and how she came to write her book. After seeing a lack of lesbian representation during her childhood, especially within literature, Possanza moved to New York City and began to search for more lesbian stories within the Lesbian Herstory Archives. 

She described a conversation she had with Joan Nestle, a founder of the archives. 

“One of the things [Nestle] said was that she made the archives to break the idea of fame. Being brave enough to touch another woman was fame enough,” Possanza said. “I love that quote — it’s at the end of the book. I think that was a huge inspiration for me.”

Possanza, continuing to discuss the Lesbian Herstory Archives, shifted to the influence that Mabel Hampton, another founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the featured figure in the second chapter of “Lesbian Love Story,” had upon her. 

“Mabel’s life is incredible to me for many reasons — she was a dancer in the Harlem Renaissance, an air raider in World War II. Her life spanned so many huge historical moments,” Possanza said..  

Reading from her novel, Possanza outlined Hampton’s contributions to the Harlem queer community. She stressed that Hampton provided mutual aid before it became a trend in the present day by helping neighbors pay off rent, and providing support to women she met in jail. Possanza also emphasized the importance of Hampton’s relationship with her life-long partner, Lilian Foster. “And there is Mabel, next to Lillian,” she said. “Always Lillian.”

Continuing, Possanza then said Hampton’s love for her community led Hampton to co-found the Lesbian Herstory Archives, adding that “it’s where her story lives, just as she wanted to tell it.“

Another figure that Possanza encountered during her journey through the Lesbian Herstory Archives and featured within “Lesbian Love Story” was male impersonator Rusty Brown. Brown regularly dressed as Fred Astaire alongside a friend who played Ginger Rogers. On a night when the pair swapped outfits, Brown was arrested by a police officer who believed her to be a man dressed in women’s clothing. Possanza played a short clip from an interview featuring Brown, commenting on the duality of Brown’s humor and the reality of queer life in New York City. 

“On one hand, it’s lovely to hear them laugh about it, but I also think it was very eerie for me as I was doing my research to think about how I was led to believe growing up that we’re on this trajectory of progress,” she said, explaining that there was a similarity between decades-old incidents like Brown’s arrest and drag bans occurring throughout the country. 

Possanza added, “It got me thinking, ‘What do we need to do differently to have these changes stick, and not be going forwards and then backward?’”

After reading a segment from her novel featuring a creative interpretation of Brown and her arrest, Possanza ended the talk portion of the event by affirming her appreciation for the seven women featured in her novel. “I just think about them all the time — they’re my dead friends,” she stated, “Thank you for letting me share them with you.” 

Throughout the Q&A portion of the event, Possanza covered a myriad of different topics, including how she blurred fact and fiction in her novel, the normalization of sapphic relationships, the lack of lesbian visibility in mainstream media, and difficulties in researching queer archives. 

When asked by Greene how lesbians can navigate the both hypersexual and nonsexual ways in which they are seen, Possanza stated that the heterosexual gaze often regulates sexuality for sapphic women. 

“One time on vacation, I made my gay male friends watch the music video for [Cardi B’s “WAP” feat. Megan Thee Stallion] and the music video for Janelle’s Monae’s “Pynk,” and let them discuss what is different about the gaze [between the two music videos].”

To Possanza, these videos represent the two extremes of hypersexual and nonsexual representation. She noted that leaning to either representation is “a survival tactic” and that she questions what the role of these tactics are today and whether they are still useful to queer women. 

Possanza also discussed how she was able to overcome a lack of accessible information about lesbian history, emphasizing how she connected the personal histories of the women she researched into a broader historical narrative. She also cited queer historians Lillian Faderman and Hugh Ryan as being helpful during her research. 

“Part of it was relying on people like [Faderman and Ryan] and part of it was also just turning to good old-fashioned American history and putting the two side-by-side,” she stated.

Reflecting over what she would have done differently if given the chance, Possanza stated that she would have been a “little more intentional” in choosing who to include in her novel. She stated, “I wish I had been super methodical. But I like these people — they inspire and speak to me.” 

The question and answer session ended with Possanza answering a question about the novel “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” by Jenn Shapland and the pushback against assuming dead individuals’ sexualities. She pointed out the double standard present in this type of criticism, emphasizing that it stems from heterosexuality being considered the default. 

Possanza stated that instead of thinking about disrespecting the dead, she prioritizes “engagement and conversation,” as well as making sure that stories extracted from archives are used to give back to queer communities. Possanza remarked, “I think that’s not speaking ill of the dead, but a way of celebrating the dead.”

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this good write-up, Danny. Btw, technically speaking, Amelia’s book is not a novel. It’s non-fiction. It’s sort of a memoir, and sort of a research history. But — carefully marked — part of it is made up, when the archives stopped but Amelia was inspired to imagine what might have happened and/or might have been preserved. Amelia said she wanted to be honest with the reader about when she was speculating. So it’s basically non-fiction, but also something more interesting and complicated too — a very successful mash-up of lots of different genres or types of prose writing.

    You’re correct that Jenn Shapland’s “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” is a novel. (The “My” in the title sort of hints at that.) It’s marketed as a novel, though it too, like Amelia’s book, is based on facts. There’s now a whole genre of pretend autobiographies. Gertrude Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” is the most famous, and one of the first. Stein was Toklas’ partner and was the writer in the family.

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