Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lesbian Profile: Victoria Shannon

At nine years of age, I knew I was not like other girls. Since it was the 1950s, there was nowhere to find representations of others like me, so I plodded along like millions of other gays and lesbians, trying to figure out where I fit into a cruelly homophobic society. I was beaten up on a regular basis in grade school because I had acquired my grandmother’s Irish brogue, so it isn’t surprising that an unhappy kid turned to books for comfort and, slowly, in some of those books, I began to find thinly veiled references to something called “homosexuality.” By high school, the light of self-recognition went on for me and, unfortunately, my “differences” became recognizable to my classmates and I was soon walking the emotional plank of trying to keep a secret that others obviously had already figured out. In short, I was gay-bashed out of high school at age 15 and, soon after, I left Benton Harbor and moved to St. Louis to stay with some friends of an uncle. These people were cosmopolitan, and they knew many gays and lesbians. Soon, I was a regular in the gay bars in St. Louis, even though I was grossly underage, and I came out under the watchful eyes of some older, good friends who did their best to keep me out of trouble.

My grandmother who raised me, died when I was seventeen. When I was back in Benton Harbor for her funeral, I was outed to my family by another uncle. My mother immediately blamed everyone and everything. I took the hint and hustled back to St. Louis as soon as I could get a bus ticket. (When I was forty, I finally severed all ties with my biological family because, no matter what I did with my life, nothing changed the fact that I was a queer.)

When I was eighteen, I returned to Benton Harbor to care for my grandfather who was suffering from a serious illness. I stayed there until I was twenty-one when I met a woman who lived in Indiana. I moved in with her, and we stayed together for five years. While living in Indiana, I decided to get a GED (high school equivalency), and I started attending Indiana University Northwest. I declared history as my major because my love of reading had led me to historical fiction and biographies of famous women. I loved being back in school, but my desire to educate myself threatened my lover, and we were soon experiencing tension in our relationship. I was working in Chicago in a library with a dozen well educated, liberal-minded women from all over the world who encouraged me to pursue a degree, and I delighted in their interest and attention.

One day, in 1977, as I was walking past the reading room in the library where I worked, I saw a dark-haired woman standing with one foot on a chair reading a book. I stopped dead in my tracks. As soon as she looked at me, I knew I was in for it. It was love at first sight, something I would have, until that moment, vehemently claimed didn’t exist. I broke up with my Indiana girlfriend, moved to Chicago to be with love-at-first-sight, and enrolled in DePaul University where I have been ever since, both as a student and as a faculty member. I also fell in love with Chicago, so when our relationship ended five years later, I didn’t think of moving anywhere else.

It took me seven years to earn a B.A. at DePaul. Because I had to work full-time, I always attended school part-time. In 1982, the high school drop-out finally walked across a stage and became the first person in her family to obtain a college degree. By this time, my relationship with love-at-first-sight had ended, and I remained a single playgirl for years after that, living alone and concentrating on accumulating degrees and working dead-end jobs to pay the bills. In 1986, my mentor at DePaul more or less ordered me to teach a two credit hour research class and, at the end of the first class, I had experienced an epiphany: I was meant to be a teacher!

In 1991, I started teaching at Columbia College because, as anyone who has ever taught part-time knows, one teaching job is not enough to pay the bills. At that time, Columbia had, to my knowledge, one GLBT-related course, Gay and Lesbian Literature. The class had not been taught in two years, and, in 1993, some gay and lesbian students I had gotten to know approached me to ask if I could get the course back into the curriculum. I asked the chair of the English Department who offered me the course for the next semester. That class was the beginning of my work on behalf of GLBT students at Columbia. I became the faculty advisor to the GLBT student organization in 1995. In 2001, I applied for a curriculum grant to develop a course called “Gay and Lesbian Studies” that became part of the curriculum in the Liberal Education Department. Later that year, I approached the Vice President of Student Affairs and asked why Columbia didn’t have an Office of Gay and Lesbian Student Concerns. He thought it was a good question, and the following semester I was appointed Coordinator of the new Office of Gay and Lesbian Student Concerns. For two years, I worked to establish Columbia’s reputation as a welcoming school for GLBT students by organizing special events, speaker panels, and health fairs. I brought HIV testing to Columbia for the first time. By the time I left the coordinator position in 2003, Columbia was serving its GLBT students in ways that hadn’t happened before.

It soon became clear that one section of “Gay and Lesbian Studies” wasn’t enough because the class filled almost as soon as it was made available, so soon I was teaching two sections, then three. I developed a GLBT history course, and convinced the chair of Liberal Education that the original “Gay and Lesbian Studies” course needed to be split into two parts; that happened in spring, 2008. I recently developed a GLBT Psychology course, and I am currently working on a Global Sexualities course. I was instrumental in hiring an instructor to teach Gay and Lesbian Studies, and she recently developed a new Queer Theory course for the department. My chair, Dr. Lisa Brock, has been extremely supportive of my curriculum efforts, and she has stated that we are going to develop a “cluster” of GLBT classes so that we can eventually offer students a certificate in Gay and Lesbian Studies. She also recently stated that she was thinking of creating a permanent position for me so that I can continue my work on behalf of Columbia’s GLBT students. The new position would be the Coordinator of GLBT Curriculum.

Columbia College is an arts and communication college with a current enrollment of over 12,000 students. The usual 10% estimate would mean that we have 1200 GLBT students, but at Columbia we have many more than that. GLBT people are attracted to artistic professions, and we owe it to these students to provide them with courses they are clamoring to take because they can finally experience validation of who they are in a safe space where their opinions are valued and their passions can be directed towards areas that truly interest them.

I think back to those desperate days when I searched for books with gay and lesbian characters in them, when I studied the faces of adults to see if I recognized a kindred spirit, when I suffered in silence thinking I was the only person who desired same-sex relationships. Later, throughout a very long stint in college, I never once had a teacher discuss gay and lesbian issues. Not until I was taking doctoral-level courses did the lives of gays and lesbians enter class discussions. By that time, I was thoroughly focused on gay and lesbian issues, and nearly every assignment I completed was in that area. It is unacceptable now for GLBT students to not see themselves in a college’s curriculum. I am working to help others bring GLBT issues into their classes, and I am working to create more GLBT-related classes.

The year after I started teaching at Columbia I met my life partner, Mary. We will celebrate our 16th anniversary this coming November. No one has been more supportive of my efforts to help GLBT students, and I am truly grateful for her encouragement over the years. She also recognizes that GLBT young people need strong, positive role models, and she thinks that the work I do makes me one of those role models. I’ve recently been asked to speak at the semester welcoming luncheon for Common Ground, Columbia’s GLBT student organization. The theme is coming out because the luncheon will take place on October 10, the day before National Coming Out Day. I intend to use that opportunity to congratulate the college for its support of GLBT students, but I also intend to mention that there is much, much more to be done.

Mary and I live in a quiet neighborhood in Chicago with our two dogs, Stonewall and McKenna, and several cats. We have a tight-knit circle of friends, most of whom are heterosexual couples, but we also have four surrogate, grown lesbian daughters who bring us much joy. I spend a lot of time gardening, playing with my dogs, cooking, and reading and writing. This summer I wrote eleven articles for
I chose to write about Jodi Foster, David Sedaris, Kevin Jennings, Larry Levan, Mel White, Richard Rodriguez, and Neil Miller because I admire and respect each of them. The last article I wrote for the site is still in the revision stage, but it is called “Gay and Lesbian Teachers,” a subject that is obviously dear to my heart.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In Memory of Del Martin

Del Martin dies at 87.
Del Martin was one of a few founders of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB)which also included her surviving wife of over 50 years Pyhllis Lyon in 1955. They were both early publishers of The Ladder and great activists in many other ways. We owe Del so much. She was a pioneer in every sense of the word. She will be greatly missed.

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin on Youtube

Just click the link below to view this wonderful couple talking at the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Join us in September for The West Hollywood Book Fair!

Come visit us at the Mazer table at The West Hollywood Book Fair.

Experience eclectic literary LA with over 25,000 fellow readers and writers at the 7th Annual West Hollywood Book Fair on Sunday, September 28 from 10am to 6pm at West Hollywood Park (647 N. San Vicente Blvd.). Author panels, poetry readings, storytelling, theatrical performances, kids' theater & more on 12 stages! Exhibitors selling books and hosting activities.

FREE admission, parking & shuttle service. For more info click the link below:

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Mazer Lesbian Archives at Serafemme!

Serafemme- Queer Women of Color Music Festival, August 17, 2008 in West Hollywood Park @ 647 N. San Vicente Blvd. 2-8PM