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DePaul staff, students discuss lesbian identity
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2016-03-06

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The Center for Identity, Inclusion & Social Change, LGBTQ Studies and the LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Network at DePaul University hosted an intergenerational discussion concerning the identity label "lesbian" Feb. 29 at DePaul University's Student Center.

Faculty members Lourdes Torres (professor of Latin American and Latino Studies) and Ann Russo (associate professor and graduate program director in women's and gender studies and director of LGBTQ Studies) facilitated the talk.

Also on hand were DePaul University students and staff members Katy Weseman (LGBTQA student services coordinator at the Center for Identity, Inclusion & Social Change), Sara Furr (director, Center for Intercultural Programs) and Suresh Mudragada (assistant director at the Center for Identity, Inclusion & Social Change), among others.

Following introductions by Torres and Russo, they showed the first part of a documentary Searching For the Last Lesbian Bars In America, by JD Samson for VICE's women's interest channel Broadly (www.youtube.com/watch?v=JePugX1YkG4).

Torres noted her years of activism around lesbian issues, including as a board member of the now-defunct Amigas Latinas. She also talked about the history project she's currently working on about Latina lesbian organizing in Chicago.

Russo said she identifies as a "lesbian with queer politics and a queer vision." She noted the work she's done in the area of lesbian-centered scholarship and activism, including the Battered Lesbian Network (in Boston), Lesbians Against Racism and Dykes Against Oppression.

Torres explained that there are many reasons why they decided to have this conversation. As the documentary showed, over the years lesbian spaces have been disappearing and Torres has wondered why this is happening. She noted that even at the recent Creating Change conference there was a dearth of lesbian-specific workshops. Torres said that this is a question being asked by scholars, organizations and activists who have worked under this identity label.

Russo noted that there was a negative response from some individuals to the title of the event: "Are Lesbians Still Relevant: An Intergenerational Dialogue." She explained that the title was meant to be provocative, but not hurtful; the aim was to allow an exploration of why the identity label seems less visible and less significant to claim at this moment in time, as evidenced in specifics that Torres outlined.

Attendees were asked what their relationships were to the term "lesbian" and a number of them identified as queer, not lesbian. This cut across generations.

Torres noted that it was difficult for her to come out publicly as a lesbian and, for her, the word is really important. During her journey, she met lesbian feminists who help her understand her identity. Torres said studying people in the Latina lesbian community, such as Gloria Anzaldua, shaped her world view in many ways.

Russo explained that it was also hard for her to come out publicly and, unlike Torres, she's had a conflicted relationship with the word "lesbian" since when she came out many lesbians didn't believe her because she had long hair, i.e., she looked too feminine for them. She noted that she identified with feminism more than with gay politics due to the predominately male leadership in the wider LGBT movement at the time.

Torres spoke about the decline of lesbian-specific publications and places, and asked if that's a problem that needs to be addressed. She also noted that some people think "lesbian" denotes white and middle-class and, for some people, the term has a negative connotation.

One student said that, for her, the word means traditionally feminine in one's looks.

Wesemen noted that the TV show The L Word contributed to the notion of traditional feminity due to who was cast in the show.

Torres explained that she learned about lesbian culture by reading the works of women of color such as Anzaldua and Audre Lorde.

As for the butch members of the lesbian/queer community, Russo said there has been a bias against them when it comes to advertising and personal ads. She mentioned the Dyke March and its predominantly white participants in the past due to its location in Andersonville, adding that the march's racial politics changed when it was moved out of that neighborhood.

When Russo asked, "Are there things organized under the queer label that are specifically orientated toward the lesbian community?," Hannah, an undergraduate student from Georgia who identifies as asexual, said that where she's from, "queer" is still a slur.

"I think there's something constructive to having an inclusive term like 'queer,'" said Hannah. "I also think we need to recognize the nuanced realities of more specific qualifiers and identifiers within that umbrella because for me the specific power of the word lesbian denotes the possibility of women living their lives completely free of men."

As far as takeaways, Furr noted that there are strength and power in the language; however, there's also an inability to access identity that's important to recognize.

Mudragada explained that since women haven't been able to participate equally in terms of economics this has effected lesbian-specific spaces being able to stay open.

Russo said that there isn't any one right answer and noted the importance of different labels for each individual.

Torres explained that the term "lesbian" has been empowering to her, but she welcomes further discussion on the issue.


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