The Academic Feminist: Lesbians in Space

Welcome back, Academic Feminists! Our back-to-school edition features an interview with two scholars, Maria Rodó-de-Zárate and Jen Gieseking, whose work explores the production of lesbian space and identify, though from opposite sides of the pond. Maria is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Geography of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, where her work examines the uses and experiences of young people in public space from an intersectional approach. Jen is a Ph.D. Candidate in the environmental psychology program at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), and you can read more about her research at her website. I got the two of them together – first over email and then for a live chat on Skype* – to talk about some of the similarities and differences in their academic experiences.

*Special note on the format of this interview:  since both interviews exceeded the space allowed for here, what is presented here is a condensed version the email interview and excerpts from our Skype conversation. Jen has kindly put the full versions of both interviews up on her website!

1) Both of you work on lesbian and queer space in urban areas. What does that mean to you, and how did you become interested in the topic?

Jen Gieseking (JG): My work is inspired by a life that often blurs gender and sexuality, as well as geography and psychology. I studied geography in college, which happened to be a women’s college, Mount Holyoke College. Even then I was keen on understanding how the physical and social campus sustained and produced a sense of community that so many students and alumnae extolled. In other words, how and why does place matter? How are we produced by and how do we produce space? I became a feminist at Mount Holyoke as well, and I had already begun to come out in high school and that campus proved incredibly welcoming in the late 1990s to lesbians and, eventually, bisexual women. I headed to seminary a few years after college—which is another story—and found myself pulled toward the study of how psychoanalytic theory can be helpful in understanding everyday life, from the mundane to the extraordinary. All the while, I realized I missed geography. Putting all of that together was the next step (…)

In my wide reading of the gender and sexuality literature, I realized that the most pressing issue was also the most obvious to me: the absence of work on urban lesbians’ and queer women’s spaces. Looking back, I have always liked how Deb Edel, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives said, “If we didn’t do it, nobody was going do it for us.” I wanted to know and to have a lesbian-queer modern history of New York City. So I wrote one and hope many more will follow (…)

I know it seems shocking that there is no lesbian history of New York City from the social sciences or humanities but it is true. Most of what we read about lesbian life focuses on the pre-Stonewall Riot period or the lesbian feminist revolution of the 1970s, from Buffalo to L.A. to San Francisco. But what was everyday lesbian-queer life like for women during AIDS? The rise of queer? And even as “The L Word” aired? I was keen to gather and write the stories of these women’s spaces, and to write about them as they changed over time. I also wanted to dig into if their lives really had gotten better and in which ways in order to understand what steps still remained for our work toward justice.

Drawing upon feminist and queer theory, I knew I must support these women to tell their stories in multiple forms. I led intergenerational focus groups, during which the women drew maps of their spaces and they shared artifacts important to them when they were coming out. I turned to archival research to tell the more multiple stories of the thousands of women who organized and took part in creating change for the better. I spent a year in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn—the largest archive of material by, for, and about lesbians in the world—examining hundreds of organizational records and decades of publications. Using a collaborative or participatory action research approach, I shared my early findings with participants so that they could critique and help me shape my ideas and theories as I was writing. In the end, 47 self-identified lesbians and queer women took part, all of who came out between 1983 and 2008. I still keep in touch with many of them.

Maria Rodó-de-Zárate (MRdZ):  I have been involved in feminist politics for nine years, so my interest in these issues comes from the feminist struggle in the streets and the women and lesbian movement in Barcelona and Catalonia. I studied Political Sciences at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, but there was no gender perspective, so when I finished I started an interdisciplinary master on Gender Studies, I found I could learn about feminism in a more academic and systematized way. There I found the Research Group on Geography and Gender where I began my PhD with a dissertation about the uses and experiences of young people in urban public spaces, from a feminist and intersectional point of view.

Politically, I had been more active in women issues, so when I started my dissertation, I  centered the research on how gender shapes the experience and use of space rather than on sexuality issues. But, trying to follow an intersectional approach afforded me a way to be able to shed light on the different identities that cross young women, I realized that the experience of lesbians was so complex that needed central attention in my work. I am also lesbian and I have been living in the city where I do the interviews, Manresa (in Barcelona), for 22 years. As a result, I know what it is to show affection for another woman in public space. I know what it is to feel that everybody is looking at you, or having to hide to kiss your girlfriend. Conducting focus groups with young lesbians in my city was a turning point for my research. Making lived experience a political issue by sharing feelings made me present in a very explicit way what kind of heteropatriarchal oppression we have to face in public space: not because of our personal characteristics but because of a social structure that is oppressive.

For me then lesbian public space is not only the topic of my research, it is also part of my feminist engagement in social movements as well as a way of exploring also my own experiences of oppression and of developing new forms of personal and collective subversions.

2) Jen, your work has taken a relatively long view of lesbian-queer spaces, spanning over two decades (1983- 2008).  What changes to these spaces have been most noticeable to you during that time? And, Maria, (how) do you see age as a factor in lesbians’ perceptions/use of space?

JG: My work takes a generational approach. I am very interested in not only how space and identity co-produce and co-define one another, but accounting for both space and time is essential. In the geographies of sexualities literature, I noticed that one early lesbian geographies study in 1993 about how lesbians were not accepted anywhere—in their homes, at work, in bars, etc.—was cited repeatedly by scholars in the decade-plus thereafter. Yet none of this following research sought to account for the changing landscape of lgbtq life. I was flummoxed and frustrated. Then the core question of what was to become my dissertation hit me: had these women’s lives—mine included!—really gotten better? The answer, in brief: yes and no.

Yes, it is much easier for many women to be out and many laws are in place to protect lgbtq people where so few existed previous to 1983. Yet the most noticeable change within these generations is that many of the lesbians and queer women in my study feel like their sense of community has dissolved in New York City and throughout the US. Many participants who came out in the 1980s felt those who came out in the 2000s could remedy this through activisms as they had. Those who came out in the 2000s pointed out that organizing for same-sex marriage did not at all parallel to the do-or-die organizing in the time of the AIDS pandemic that included the likes of ACT-UP, Lesbian Avengers, and Queer Nation, among the multitude of other organizations. Those in the 1990s understood both sides. What I began to trace across this group was that idea that a tight knit community for all lgbtq people had existed some time previously. However, unlike the image of lgbtq history many younger people receive today, I discovered in my research that the tight sense of lgbtq community did not happen overnight (…)

MRdZ: Age is an important factor of our identity and an important factor for structuring social relations. Normally the attention is centered in how old people suffer discrimination, but less attention is given to young people and the problems they face in public space. The stigmatization is an important issue, specifically when it is related to race and class but also with gender and queer identities. But for lesbians, what I have seen is that being a young lesbian woman strengthens the feeling of control. Public space is a key aspect for young people, for the need of freedom and creation of identities away from their parents or the adults gaze in general. When your sexuality is seen as “deviant” in public space the repression and the lack of free spaces is a relevant theme. I have seen that older lesbians that are emancipated experience their sexuality in other ways. Public space might not be a place of comfort, but at least they have their free space at home or their increased mobility makes them possible to move. They have to deal with the heteronormativity in public space because it is more in play that it is with older lesbians, but it is also a fact that young lesbians now have more tools to struggle against heterosexism, and the interviews reveal how they are able to transgress boundaries and defend themselves from aggressions.

Intersectionality, the approach that studies the relations between different social structures such as gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and age, among others, has helped me to understand that we can not study lesbians just considering their sexualities, as we can not study women experiences only considering their gender. All lesbians are positioned in class, gender, age, and ethnicity structures in some way. I take into account how ethnicity and class affect young lesbian experiences, and not only when they are positioned as oppressed but also when they are in a position of privilege, for example, for being white. I found that geography and the importance it gives to space is a key for understanding the way these complex and intersecting identities work. These social relations always happen somewhere, so that place, as well as time, must be an important factor to consider as a producer and a product of them.

Excerpts from Skype conversation:
This excerpt, edited for clarity, is from a section where both interviewees were asked about the similarities and differences in their work:

JG: …When I read Maria’s work I was struck by how homophobia works almost identically for youth in both locations.

MRdZ: Yes, it was also surprising for me.

JG: The search for a place of their own, the surveillance, the sexualization of lesbians and queer women–all of those factors were identical.

MRdZ: The feminist movement in Barcelona and the evolution of its theories is really different from the one in the US, but the homophobia, or at least the lesbophobia, seems to be almost the same.

JG: …another thing your research made me think of is lesbians and public space… Public space always relates to the notion of the public in some grander sense to me as an US geographer. And women and public space are usually two things that do not mix in the US or, when they do, often get boiled down to a rhetoric of fear of attack and assault. But there is a different way public space works in Spain that affords the lesbian youth participants in your work to lay claim to it as citizens of the State of Spain.

MRdZ: Here, public space is a very important aspect of any political movement and social group. All (or almost all) demands are struggled for in public space.

Academic Feminist (AF): … a lot of people say that for queer kids in the US (and other parts of the world), online spaces are great in that they’re used as “safe spaces.” But the idea of claiming space in public seems to speak to a different need that is still there, despite the greater availability of “safe” online spaces in today’s world.

MRdZ: I have been working on how young feminist women create new places online, out of the hegemonic discourses. And I have seen how important it is to have, for example, alternative media … including online… (For example),  MAMBO was created by a feminist squatted house in Barcelona. They were evicted, and this website was a way to maintain some of what was created there, what it meant.

JG: There are two problems with saying the internet is the “safe space” for lgbtq youth. First, as my research participants often reminded me, we are all physical bodies and we deserve and need our own physical space. If the internet is safe and lgbtq youth are encouraged to go there to find community, then, contrariwise, the physical world is not safe for them… [and] the internet is enough…Second, this is an issue of gender and sexuality which are performative and embodied qualities of human lives. My participants shared that the internet is especially helpful for finding information when coming out (one woman remembers typing if she could be both gay and Christian as she assumed it was impossible)…However, my participants also longed to have a space to _do_ and _be_ in, and that meant leaving their homes and their computers to be present with others.

AF: So…they’re looking at “the public” as both online and offline?

JG: Most definitely! The public is both!

MRdZ: I agree.

Read the full interview and Skype conversation here.

Extra Credit!
Adding to the links above, below is a list of resources for those who want to find out more about the issues discussed here. Add relevant resources in comments. You can send additional comments – including suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees – to Gwendolyn here.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted August 23, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    This is excellent. Thank you for sharing this and putting this amazing work done by the two of them on my radar!

  2. Posted August 23, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    These interviews are great. Keep ‘em coming!

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