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L Is for Lesbian


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Carla Amurao sat down and discussed the subject of lesbianism with Professors Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor, who chair UCSB’s womens’ studies and sociology departments, respectively. These two professors, partners of 28 years, were hired by UCSB as a couple. Formerly professors at Ohio State University, Rupp and Taylor met through research and have since written at least seven journal articles and books collaboratively, the most popular book entitled Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret.

Rupp and Taylor welcomed Amarao into their downtown Santa Barbara home to indulge her curiosity on a topic with which they are most familiar both personally and intellectually.

I see that you two have done many studies together. What’s it like-could you tell me a little bit about that?

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Verta Taylor: In fact, that’s how we first met and got to know each other. We were both interested in the same topics that led to our first book, on the women’s movement in the 1950s, called Survival in the Doldrums. We did the book at the same time we were actually falling in love with each other.

It would be hard to separate the way we think of our relationship from our work. Sometimes somebody asks, “How can you work with the person that you also live with?” If there’s ever a time when we’re having tension with one another, I say, “Hey, let’s start working on that article we were supposed to do together.” Once we start working on it, we become so involved in that collaboration that the tension disappears. So work actually enriched our relationship.

Leila Rupp: In our separate disciplines, we learn so much from each other. I mean right now, we’re both chairs of our own departments.

VT: What we have written together, neither of us would have written alone. Of course we can write separately, but the things we write together are different because our different disciplines mesh together-history, sociology, theory, and narrative.

LR: But we are trailblazers, being “out” lesbians in 1978.

Could you tell me a little bit about your book, Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret?

VT: We have a house in Key West, which is also a huge gay community. Once we moved here, we wrote Drag Queens. That was our last book together-I don’t think anything will be as fun as that.

We went to a drag show, which we ended up studying. We walked into the bar and Sushi, the drag queen, was talking about how important gay marriage was and how our relationships don’t count. She asked how many couples were together more than 20 years and we raised our hands, and Sushi says, “Oh it’s the lesbians,” and that’s how we met her. So she started calling us the Professors of Lesbian Love, or Lesbo 1 and Lesbo 2!

We got very close to them. Sushi wanted us to tell her story. The hardest had been growing up, as she put it, as a “feminine faggy boy” and she was always ridiculed. She used to think she wanted to be a woman because she wanted a straight man and for him to love her.

Leila Rupp
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Leila Rupp

LR: We brought three of the drag queens to UCSB in the Sociology 1 class. The students went crazy and they’re still talking about it!

VT: Just the other day I was getting on an airplane going to Key West and when I took out my ID the girl said, “Oh! You’re the professor with the drag queens in Soc 1!”

I had never come out to my [Sociology 1] class. I was nervous because the drag queens were coming, and I had this long conversation with my honors class about how I should tell the class. This was different from anything I had done in Ohio State and that’s what’s so special about UCSB. They said, “Why are you so afraid?” So I said, “I don’t think you understand how some people stigmatize everything about you once you’re lesbian.”

The day before the drag queens came, I decided to just tell them quietly. I was lecturing about the book so they would understand what the performance was about. To my class I just said, “Recently they’ve taken to calling us Lesbo 1 and Lesbo 2.” I said something about, “I thought I should tell you they call us the Professors of Lesbian Love to refer to our 25-year relationship.” In my office hours it was streaming with just gay people saying how classy it was how I said it. They said things like, “It means so much to me and I just thank you so much because now I’m not ashamed.”

So Kylie, one of the drag queens, strips during the performance. The purpose is to show her as blonde, gorgeous, with high heels and of course with male genitalia. The purpose is to force a kind of contradiction to show that gender is socially constructed; men can be beautiful.

Kylie strips and quietly says under her breath, “Of course you’re gonna have to touch my penis.”

So the next day there’s a story in the Nexus that says, “You know it’s gonna be a wonderful day when you go into your Soc class and your lesbian professor is touching a drag queen’s penis.”

People were experiencing and feeling things and understanding lives that they never understood. They just wanted to thank me for thinking they were mature enough to handle it. I would never have considered doing it at Ohio State.

How were you sure that you were in fact, lesbian? Do you think people are born lesbian, choose to be lesbian, or are conditioned to be? Is there such a thing as bisexuality?

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LR: It’s a fluid identity. There are some people who say, “I knew from the time I was two years old that I was this way.” The point is you can know exactly who you are-which is affected by the environment, as well as the society, in which you grew up.

VT: The big debate now is whether sexuality is socially constructed or whether it’s biological. I believe sexuality is complex; much of it is social. I mean, what is a lesbian, really? In this historical period, there are only two sexual identities: gay and straight. That’s not always true in every society.

I was raised in the South and I knew that those feelings for women were wrong, or society thought they were wrong. The men I was with expected something traditional of me. I couldn’t go away to graduate school or have an academic career. I was with men, but I didn’t necessarily think it meant anything. I was expected to limit my entire life and to organize my life around them, so for me the choice to become a lesbian was important and historically situated. It was an identity to be proud of.

We found out that in Arkansas, in my hometown, there’s a whole hidden community of women who have sex with other women while being married to men. During the day, while they are housewives and husbands are off at work, they have sex and hang out with each other, but they wouldn’t call themselves lesbians.

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How did coming out change your relationship with your family, friends, or peers? How did your family react?

VT: I knew that I had to leave because I knew that I would really be stigmatized there. I had to leave Arkansas.

At one point I finally told my mother, and my sister-in-law told her, “We’ll just pretend she doesn’t exist.”

LR: I did not come out to my parents for a very long time. It’s interesting because they knew I lived with Verta and knew we acted like a married couple.

I had a father whose sister lived with a woman and they were like this couple in our family

In the New York Times, in the 80s, a reporter came to Ohio State to do a story on lesbianism on campus and wanted to do different generations. This reporter interviewed us and younger lesbians when we decided that I just had to tell my parents.

VT: They took photographs of us walking around campus holding hands. But the context of the article was that lesbianism was fine, that it was the “in” thing.

LR: I thought I was going to give [my parents] a heart attack, that they’d die, they’d disinherit me, they’d kick me out-I didn’t know what was going to happen.

So I wrote a letter. I had my brother deliver it to them during lunchtime in case they went into cardiac arrest, somebody would be there. And they were fine, absolutely fine. They didn’t know; they had no idea.

But in the New York Times article, they completely cut off the older generation and just wrote about younger lesbians.

VT: The media wanted to make it seem like lesbianism was a new thing. But I’m still glad we did it.

Did coming out significantly change your outlook on life?

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VT: When I met Leila, we went to all these public events where you could express your pride, like women’s and lesbian conferences. For me, they were really important because it made me feel unashamed of who I was. After that, I never really doubted I had a preference for women.

LR: The emergence of lesbian communities made an identity possible, made life possible, to have a public and intimate life possible.

VT: When we go to Arkansas we are reminded that we can’t take it for granted. People actually commit hate crimes against gays, so we’re really cautious when we go there. I don’t think we’d ever live there.

My mother reconciled with me after my brother died, out of need. We had to explain to her that, if we were ever hospitalized, we wouldn’t have rights to see each other. This happens a lot to gay people when they’re traveling. I tried to explain to her that we’re putting ourselves at a risk to live in a town that’s a Southern Christian/Baptist community. We’d probably have to try to hire lawyers from California to be able to see each other.

In ‘89 I had surgery. The doctors would come in about tests and they would make Leila leave. Our doctor put a note that allowed Leila to visit because it was a university hospital so we had some clout, but it was clear to us that we were treated differently.

Then I had to have serious medical tests and they came in and they made her leave and I was sobbing because I had to handle this all by myself because I was not allowed to even have my partner in there to hear.

There’s a lot that people don’t realize about why marriage is so important.

So what do you think about conceptions that lesbians hate men or they just need the right man to come along?

VT: I can’t really imagine myself with a man. I don’t have hatred; I’m not uncomfortable with men. I find men really nice, warm and attractive-I mean if they really are nice, warm, attractive men. There are crummy men just like there are crummy women.

It wasn’t really for me about rejecting men, I just felt happier and more myself and more able to express myself with a woman.

I think after being together all these years I really can’t imagine, if something happened to Leila, I don’t know that I would go out dating, looking for another woman. I might find another woman, I could even end up with a man at that age because by the time you’re 60 or 70, sex isn’t so much a part of your relationship.

LR: Or at least not the most important part.

What do you think about the stereotypes of lesbians?

VT: [The stereotypes change.] Leila came out during the women’s movement, when there was this analysis that being a lesbian represented a certain kind of women’s freedom, of “not needing to be” associated with a man. And then there’s her aunt, who would have never in her life called herself a lesbian. If you asked her, she would have said lesbians are masculine women who hang out at bars.

I’m writing a book now that’s kind of the history of love between women from the beginning of time all around the world and learning a lot of things I didn’t know. For example, in large periods of Chinese history, men had multiple wives and they actually thought it was wonderful that the wives had relationships with each other because the men didn’t have time to satisfy everybody and they certainly didn’t want them with other men. There’s all this literature that says that this is a handy way to solve that. So what would you call that? You don’t even know what kinds of labels to put on things.

How do lesbians cope with gender roles in society?

VT: Female masculinity isn’t always connected with sexuality. However, there are traditions that someone has to be masculine in a same-sex relationship, but both historically and now there can be two butches or two femmes also.

Leila wears skirts and has curly hair, I had my hair cut, but we never thought of ourselves like that. We specialize ourselves in different things, I sometimes like to be called out to do tough things; sometimes other people think of me as a femme and Leila as a butch; but then she’ll come up in a skirt!

Our relationship has never been divided along those lines, but as there are those kinds of roles in society, people tend to mirror those roles.

Do you have any words of advice for people still in the closet?

VT: It’s amazing how many still continue to be and are still afraid. What I say is that you have to be who you are, it cannot be any more painful to say who you are and claim that identity than it is to hide. When I finally came out I realized how much I was constrained by this element of nervousness that I had in every situation that I might be discovered. Not that I was deliberately hiding, but I was hiding in so many realms and not being myself because I was denying that fundamental part of myself. There’s that threat that someone would expose you, but now there’s nothing that can be exposed. But I think people also need to understand that you betray people who love you by not telling them. What happened to me is when I did come out and finally old some people, they said, “We’ve known this for a long time and the fact hat you didn’t tell us made us feel excluded from your life. We felt, why would she not share that with me?”

Amurao is an Independent intern, a former staff writer for the Citrus College Clarion in Glendora, Callifornia, and a UCSB student majoring in sociocultural linguistics and film studies.

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