Gender Matters offers feminist approaches to a diverse range of discussions on intersectional, transnational, and community issues. Contributors include UB students, faculty, and staff, as well as greater Buffalo community members, whose perspectives enrich our collective feminist engagement with education, research, and lived realities.
The Gender Institute welcomes new potential authors. Those interested should contact the blog manager, Hilary Vandenbark at email@example.com.
May 13, 2019: IREWG—The Prequel, by Carolyn Korsmeyer
April 29, 2019: Sepideh.P and the Body as Desire, by Anne Marie Butler
May 13, 2019
The current Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender, more conveniently referred to as the Gender Institute, has a long history. Here I reflect on its predecessor: The Graduate Group for Feminist Studies, which was established in 1986 and, after several active years sponsoring symposia, film festivals, seminars, and lectures, eventually folded into the Gender Institute in 1997.
The GGFS grew out of still earlier groups dedicated to feminist scholarship, which are worth remembering because of the historical depth of research on women and gender that developed in Buffalo. The Women’s Studies Program, founded in 1971 and spearheaded by Elizabeth Kennedy in the American Studies Program, was one of the first such academic units to be established in the US. Moreover, from the late 1970s until about 1993, a loose group called the Buffalo Women Scholars Network, comprising women from several local institutions, met periodically to read and discuss current feminist theoretical works. Back in the day, UB owned the Darwin Martin House, and the Network often met in the drafty remnants of that building, distributing ourselves across Frank Lloyd Wright’s original, elegant, valuable, and surprisingly uncomfortable chairs and couches. When that group began to dwindle, its UB contingent set about to establish a more formal institutional framework to provide a setting for feminist research, education, and outreach programs.
The opportunity for this was presented by units called Graduate Groups, which were sponsored by UB’s office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education with the aim of promoting cross-disciplinary research. In 1985, a group of faculty headed by a sociologist (Ben
Agger), a historian (Ellen DuBois), and a professor from the School of Education (Sheila Slaughter), submitted a plan that would formally bring together feminist researchers from across the university. Even with this first application, the seeds of IREWG were being sown, for the stated long-range goal of the proposed Graduate Group for Feminist Studies was “to lay the groundwork for a Center for Advanced Feminist Research which would enable SUNY/Buffalo to become competitive with such research centers as Rutgers, Wellesley, Brown, and Columbia.” The application was approved by the then Vice-Provost, Donald Rennie, and the following year the GGFS launched its activities.
With its first application, the GGFS had the support of three deans—Arts and Letters, Law, and Architecture and Design, later joined by Social Sciences, Nursing, and Education. (At that time, what is now the College of Arts and Sciences was split into the Faculties of Arts and Letters, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences and Mathematics.) It quickly became far and away the largest and most diverse of all the Graduate Groups, spanning multiple disciplines and Faculties.
The GGFS kept an active mailing list, produced a regular Newsletter, and compiled a Directory of UB feminist scholars. Annual figures for these products vary, but in 1990 the Newsletter (which was distributed on paper, not a list serve) went out to about 300 people. That year, the Directory listed 84 faculty members who classified their research as including feminist scholarship, and by 1997 that number had grown to 123. The Newsletter usually appeared monthly, and sometimes it was co-produced with the Women’s Studies Program. In 1997, Women’s Studies and the GGFS established a shared web home page to distribute information digitally. In 1990, the GGFS was accepted as a member of the National Council for Research on Women.
One of the first things to be established was a series of work-in-progress seminars where both faculty and graduate students could present their research. Lecture series were another obvious activity, and the GGFS sponsored and co-sponsored numerous speakers, some of whom would become luminaries in their fields. Others were already quite well-known, such as art historian Linda Nochlin and artist Faith Ringgold. The latter performed before a large audience at the Albright-Knox Gallery auditorium, and her appearance was co-sponsored by ten academic units. (The amount of co-sponsorship generated by programs of the GGFS is significant, for its own budget was always rather small.) Lecture series in the late 1980s and early 90s explored “Black Feminists and Sexuality”; “Feminist Interpretations of Mass Culture”; and “Around the Lake”—a cooperative venture among feminist scholars in New York and Canada.
In 1988, the GGFS launched a biennial series of symposia on New Feminist Scholarship. Speakers were chosen from applicants—both graduate students and early-career faculty—who responded to a national call for papers, and there were three highly successful such events. A fourth conference was discussed but never came about because by that time graduate groups in general were being phased out.
Feminist scholarship is never entirely divorced from political activism, and for a time members of the GGFS coordinated with the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women to provide research on women’s situations locally. A good deal of programming spanned UB and the surrounding community, including the 1989 forum on “Communities at Risk” that called attention to issues especially pertinent to the lesbian community.
Some of the most successful programming of the GGFS involved film and art festivals, which drew large audiences. One such program was titled Hi, this is Judy: Women Making and Becoming Art, which extended for two and a half weeks in October, 1987. This diverse set of events included an immensely popular all women reggae band, Casselberry and Dupree, whose performance drew an audience of over 500. The estimated attendance overall for Hi, this is Judy was approximately 1,500.
The GGFS co-sponsored and otherwise supported efforts undertaken by faculty whose work included feminist activities and research, such as a multi-year program for an International Women Playwright’s conference beginning in 1988, organized by Anna Kay France from Theatre and English. Several film festivals highlighted works by women cinema artists that dealt with subjects related to gender and social situations in different countries and historical times. In 1993, the festival Reverse Shot brought distinguished filmmaker Trinh T. Minh Ha to give the keynote address.
Bumps in the Road:
The extraordinary breadth of fields that described members of the GGFS signaled both the diversity and vitality of feminist interests and the difficulties that would beset programs that appealed to participants from such different areas. Although annual renewals were always granted by the Vice Provost’s office, complaints began to surface. A repeated grumble concerned how the GGFS deployed the energies of our Graduate Assistant. The GA, who was almost always from a department from Arts and Letters, was responsible for considerable organizing details, many of which involved tasks such as hotel reservations for visiting speakers, locating venues for programs, and the all-important mustering of co-sponsorships to supplement our limited funds. Most of those GAs—along with faculty—pursued such jobs with enthusiasm, understanding that popular events with a feminist agenda do not happen without such on-the-ground efforts. Nonetheless, our knuckles were rapped twice because these students were not assigned research duties that furthered their own degree programs. I suspect that more than one GA agreed that her own work was being occasionally sidelined.
But how does one identify a research project for a student serving a group with such a broad constituency? One that both enhances the education of a particular student, and at the same time serves the interests of scholars from fields as various as architecture, nursing, history, sociology, biology, philosophy, modern languages, law, and art? The fact is, interdisciplinary scholarship is extremely difficult to accomplish, and the label “feminist” cannot by itself unite any project that tries to combine fields of great diversity.
One of the goals of the GGFS was to foster cross-disciplinary teaching as well as research. Joint teaching, however, must accommodate varying schedules and requirements, and it was not always accomplished smoothly. I myself jointly taught a large graduate seminar on Feminism and Postmodernism (that enrolled students from four or five different departments) with colleagues from Art History (Carol Zemel) and English (Claire Kahane). Both Claire and Carol were members of the Faculty of Arts and Letters, whose Dean approved the course for their on-load teaching. But Philosophy was then in the Faculty of Social Sciences, and that Dean decided I should teach it overload. I did so and learned a great deal in the process, but a course taught by three people does not require a third of the effort for each; one should multiply rather than divide the work required.
Despite those complications and occasional tensions, the administration continued to support the GGFS, not only with funds but also by granting us the GA that other graduate groups were losing. Nonetheless, it was clear that the Provost’s office was beginning to redirect funds away from these groups, few of which had managed to garner grants to support their operations, which the UB administration had hoped would eventually underwrite their activities. A set of inquiry letters from the GGFS to granting agencies inquiring about that possibility are preserved in the archives. Virtually all responders noted that their organizations did not support operating expenses at other institutions—something we already knew, but we felt obliged to petition for outside resources anyhow. Several graduate groups folded; a few others became independent centers.
Members of the GGFS kept hoping that a permanent institute for feminist work would come into being, for that, after all, had been the ultimate goal from the start. In 1993-94 a committee of 20-30 faculty members, chaired by Susan McLeer of Psychiatry, began explicit planning for such an institute. Documents from the next three years indicate perseverance on the part of this committee and worry that the administration was slow to take action. Although it took several years of reminding and petitioning, as well as adjusting details regarding the formation of the institute, that goal was finally achieved: The GGFS/Women’s Studies Newsletter from November, 1997, opened with the triumphant headline: Graduate Group for Feminist Studies Incorporated into the Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender.
Carolyn Korsmeyer is Research Professor of Philosophy at UB. Her chief areas of research are aesthetics and emotion theory. Her work on feminist aesthetics appears in Gender and Aesthetics (2004). She is also the author of Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999); Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (2011); and Things: In Touch with the Past (2019).
April 29, 2019
Originally from Iran, Sepideh.P received her MFA from the University at Buffalo in 2018. She currently works as a visual creator for a national company and continues to work in art photography.
For artist Sepideh.P, female sexuality is aggressive. Fleshy parts, genitalia, flora and fauna, and scenes from the Iranian cultural archive abound in her photographs, evoking boldness and troubling the limits of morality for women. The conflicting demands upon women’s sexuality and bodies are often portrayed as stifling. Here, Sepideh.P proposes that the intersection of these oppressive requirements is, in fact, a source for women’s sexual agency, particularly for Muslim women who face additional social stigma. By defamiliarizing signifiers of sexuality, Sepideh.P’s photographs inhabit the in-between places of possibility that move beyond borders, generations, and singularities. Her works show a body that recuperates the desire it exudes. In its hair, its fat, its genitals, and its ethnicity, it embodies the potential in the sexual agency of all women.
Female sexuality is misogynistically characterized as an uncontrollable, undesirable flow –of fluids, of appetite, and of immorality (Grosz 207). But Sepideh.P revels in that flow, depicting the desire and the pleasure of the woman’s body. In many photographs, the frame is cropped to show only parts of a woman’s body such as legs, back, stomach, or arms. The soft contours of the limbs and torso, rendered in muted tones or grayscale, invoke femininity, which might recall touch and care. Yet, these bodies are not whole; the frame cuts the limbs. In the close-up focus, hair follicles and flesh are more pronounced. We become intimate with these body parts - their hair, their fat, their skin, their wrinkles, their blemishes – they come into view as critiques of the process of beauty. In their fleshiness, the bodies desire. This fleshy desire is not one of conformity, but of becoming closer to themselves- to know, through their private parts, their own agency and sexuality.
Other works move away from limbs and torsos to focus on the genital area. In several works, Sepideh.P uses various props to obscure the genitals, such as flowers and clothes. A bra held in front of a woman’s pubic area confounds the purpose of that undergarment. However, the bra reinforces sexuality by referencing its typical application to the breasts, and also by now covering the genitals as an act of modesty, or perhaps as an act of foreplay. Undressing can occur during foreplay, and Sepideh.P also uses clothing in images of a figure in black underwear struggling with a turtleneck sweater. The neck hole of the garment is caught on the woman’s head, impeding its removal. In the act of undressing, the woman in her underwear, typically a sexual object, becomes clumsy and inadequate. The body is desirable, but the gestures are awkward. The intent of the figure subverts the desire of the viewer, prioritizing the woman’s action of accomplishing the act of undressing over her object status.
In other images, a bouquet of red carnations or a white calla lily obscure the genitals. In the latter, the photographed figure remains in grayscale and another, smaller woman’s figure is drawn on the image so that their genital areas overlap. The blooms draw our attention with their vibrant colors and focal placement. It would be redundant to analyze the symbolic relationship between flowers and a woman’s genitals. Sepideh.P, however, uses the blooms to evoke new meaning. Multiple visual cues from the calla lily indicate arousal. The pistil protrudes from the petals like an alert clitoris, its texture mimicking the raised hair follicles of the nearby leg. Its stem appears phallic in the hand that holds it so delicately. The lily’s pale cream color promises purity, yet its use speaks of desire.
The red blooms express aggression and sexuality, contrasting with the white calla lily. Red aligned so closely with a woman’s genitals can reference their engorgement, but this arousal is conventionally coded as vibrant pink. Red connotes blood. Here, the menstrual blood that flows from the woman’s genitals or the blood of giving birth is, rather than a dirty shame, part of her sexuality. As the woman’s genitals are the source of life, so too do her experiences produce her life.
Aggressive female sexuality also manifests through the figure of the lioness. Painted in India ink, over a photograph of a woman lying face down with her torso on her thighs, a powerful lioness sinks her teeth into the back of a male antelope. Her claws grip his flanks, preventing his escape. Antelopes often symbolize beauty, but here, beauty is consumed by female sexuality.
Throughout her works, Sepideh.P references Persian culture to highlight the erotics of concealing and revealing the female body. Farsi script is painstakingly applied to photographed skin with graphite. Acting as covering in two ways, the delicate Farsi appears almost like hair. Sepideh.P engages more directly with Iranian history in a series where late 19th century images of Iranian women in their quarters again highlight the discord between covering and exposure. The works repurpose photographs by Iranian Antoin Sevruguin (1830-1933), who lived during the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925). They feature patterns often found in the margins of the Quran during that era drawn over the women in India ink. Moving both the Quranic patterns and the women to the center of the image breaks regulations. Where other images are cropped or use props to conceal the body, this series circumscribes possibilities for the shrouded body. Sepideh.P charges the archival images with intensity by using red gouache to outline figures or write words on the photographs’ surface.
Sometimes, small beads or craft gems are affixed over a woman’s face, obscuring the only remaining visible skin of the veiled woman. Sepideh.P expresses that she is bringing these women, who were hidden, to the spotlight. While obscuring their faces may seem contrary to her stated goal, in fact, this action further nuances the women’s status; they are still hidden because, “they are still in the margins, and they still hide their faces” (Sepideh.P).
Sepideh.P often specifically references Persian culture, it is between the body as a whole and its parts, the shame and desire of menstrual blood, the use of a bra as a genital covering, and the obscuring of veiled women’s faces, that the source of an agency born of struggle for all women lies. These works are above all about a sexuality that knows no age, era, morality, or singular body.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Towards A Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Sepideh.P. Interview with the author, March 31, 2018.
All images reproduced with permission of the artist.
Anne Marie Butler is a PhD Candidate in the department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Buffalo. She is completing her dissertation, “Unintelligible Bodies: Surrealism and Queerness in Contemporary Tunisian Women’s Art,” under the direction of Jonathan D. Katz and will defend in July 2019. Her entry on genderqueer Tunisian photographer and performer Khookha McQueer appeared recently in The Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History (Scribner) and she is looking forward to joining the faculty of Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan this fall as Assistant Professor of Art History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
December 20, 2018
On the occasion of Gail R. Willsky's retirement from the University at Buffalo Department of Biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, her colleagues and friends recount fond memories and express appreciation for her contributions.
I remember during my years as Co-Director and Director of the Gender Institute that Gail was a very involved member of our Steering Committee. In particular, I remember her active involvement with the Gender Across Borders symposium series that had an active graduate student component. What stands out in my memory is that Gail provided valuable mentorship to the subcommittee on graduate student abstracts and poster presentations. She was particularly interested in getting students in the health sciences involved in research presentations.
-Rosemary Dziak, Department of Oral Biology
All I can say about Gail is that she was an active, reliable participant in the Gender Institute for many, many years. Her steady contributions to the rewriting of the bylaws was one example of her generous devotion. Diane Avery, law professor emerita, was also invaluable in that process.
-Kari Winter, Department of Transnational Studies
I have known Gail for many of the years that I served in the Research HR Office, and then as Director of the old Affirmative Action Office (now Equity and Diversity), but my most recent contact has been thru Gail’s service as a Diversity Advocate representing her department on the program the Office of Inclusion started in 2015.
-Barbara Burke, Office of Inclusion and Cultural Enhancement
I first met Gail in 1966, quite a while ago! We were undergraduates at MIT. I was the only Biophysics major in the class of 1969, and she was the only biophysics major in the class of 1970. After we graduated, we dropped out of contact with each other until one day when I was invited to a get-together for the new woman faculty member in Biochemistry, and there she was, Gail!
We turned out to still have many interests in common, including a strong desire to promote the cause of women in science. Gail and I both became active in the local chapter of Women in Science, and she has continued to devote a lot of time, energy, and imagination to local programs for women students and for underrepresented students. She’s worked to introduce science to students in the Buffalo Schools and BEAM, the Buffalo Area Engineering Awareness for Minorities program, and she won an award for service from BEAM.
One fascinating example of how Gail turned her love of travel, her scientific curiosity, and her desire to serve the causes of advancing women and minorities is her involvement in the study of traditional medicinal plants in Peru. It started when she took a side trip to Peru after a trip to the Galapagos. She learned that the traditional Peruvian healers make specialized compounds, and she wondered how the compounding processes alter the plants and promote their antibacterial activity. She went out and got funding to study the way that the plants are transformed by the healers’ methods, and she used some of that money to fund stipends for minority students so that they could learn research methods in Peru. Some of these students were UB honors students.
These activities are only part of the ways that Gail has contributed to UB, to Buffalo, and to the world. Now that she’s retiring, it’ll be fascinating to see the story continue.
-Susan Udin, Department of Physiology and Biophysics
October 22, 2018
As I prepare to once again take the stage in my one-woman show of Nurse!, I am reminded of what a journey I am on. It is a journey that has given me the opportunity to create inspiring plays. It is a journey that has enabled me to engage audiences at venues across the U.S. and Europe. But most importantly, it is a journey that has allowed me to give voice to women’s struggles, strength, and resilience. After two careers, one as an arts administrator in Baltimore and one as an actor (and legal secretary) in New York City, I followed my husband to Buffalo. He started a new job and I entered graduate school at the University at Buffalo. My first class, History of Working Women, required students to conduct oral history interviews related to one of three organizing campaigns in Buffalo: nurses, laundry workers, or the living wage campaign. Almost no one was raising a hand to indicate interest in nurses, so I volunteered. It was the pebble in the water that continues to have ripple effects today.
While interviewing nurses and health care workers involved in a fierce and ultimately successful campaign to get a union at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, I kept thinking, “These stories should be in a play.” I returned to this thought two years later when it was time for a master’s thesis project that would encompass both areas of my MA in Humanities program – women’s studies and theatre. Though I had adapted Jane Eyre into a one-woman show that I had toured extensively, this would be my first foray into writing an original play. As luck (or fate) would have it, I discovered that members of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) were striking at a hospital on Long Island. I emailed the striking nurses that I was a graduate student interested in writing a play about their strike. Could I interview them on the picket line? When the leader of the strike picked me up at the train station, she told me that plans had changed. Nurses and management were returning to the bargaining table that day. Instead of walking the picket line outside the hospital, I found myself at a local hotel witnessing the drama of a negotiation. I listened to and interviewed nurses waiting in the hotel ballroom for news about the negotiations, I interviewed leaders of the nurses’ negotiating team, and I sat in on a negotiating session. The nurses had described management’s lawyer as an obnoxious chauvinist in his sixties who tended to stick his hand down his pants, and when he got real excited would stick both hands down. They were right.
“Mr. A” (“A” for “Asshole”) became one of eleven characters in the one-woman play that I wrote as my thesis project. Nurse! tells the story of a strike, and includes many of the stories I heard in Buffalo and Long Island, as well as the characters I encountered.
Thanks to a grant from UB’s Gender Institute, I was able to rehearse with a director to mount a workshop performance of the play in Buffalo. But I really wanted to do the play in New York City. I contacted the union negotiator I had interviewed and asked if she was familiar with a performance space in the Manhattan headquarters of another union. She said, “Hold on, Lisa. This is our story. We’ll find you a theatre.” NYSNA sponsored a two-week run of the play at a small off-Broadway theatre in 2003. For an actor, the meeting of an audience and the world of the play is a unique experience; however, when you are also the playwright and the oral historian responsible for creating the play, the experience can be magical. One of those occasions was the off-Broadway opening night of Nurse! While I waited behind the curtain as the audience entered, I heard a conversation from the first row between the leader of the Long Island strike and two of the other nurses from the strike. The leader said, “She gave me a 13-year-old son.” “Why?” “It’s a play!” was the authoritative answer. “Is Lambirdie in it?” “You’ll see.” Whatever the made-up names and characters in the play, this was “their” story. When the audience stood at the end applauding, I realized that as much as my performance, they were applauding the nurses. By putting the nurses’ story on stage, I had acknowledged their struggle and provided a way to share their story.
The following year Nurse! took on new resonance when performed for nurses on strike in Northern Michigan. The Michigan Nurses Association had hired me to perform at their annual convention on Mackinac Island. While researching the location of the convention, I discovered that the longest nurses’ strike in American history was in progress at a hospital in nearby Petoskey. I contacted the striking nurses and offered to donate a performance of my play in support of their strike if they could provide a venue. The day before that performance, I visited the headquarters of the strike in a storefront across from the hospital. My arrival coincided with the weekly strike meeting. With the strike approaching its second anniversary, many of the nurses had long ago begun working temporary jobs at hospitals two hundred miles downstate. Nurses who did not have the flexibility to travel were working at non-nursing jobs in the community – cleaning houses, caring for children, substitute teaching, and so on. Because many of those at the meeting would be back at their temporary jobs the next day and so not able to attend my performance, I offered to do a monologue from the play during their meeting.
I chose the character of Lily, a meek nurse who had been working in the same hospital for 35 years and begins with, “You all know I didn’t vote for this strike.” She describes her experience of working in another hospital during the strike, “The biggest thing for me was I proved to myself I could do it – I could work somewhere else.” She mentions that some of them have been asked to go permanent and says, “But I don’t want to leave here. You’re my family. Walking the picket line with you has been just -what an amazing group of women we are. And men. I don’t mean to leave out our wonderful men. This strike, I know this sounds weird to say, but this strike is the best thing that ever happened to me. I feel like I’m standing up for myself, for what I believe, for the first time in my life.” The emotion of that moment was palpable in this union meeting room. The women and men sitting in front of me, some with children in tow, were living this story and had been living it for almost two years. Then Lily gets worked up, and says, “I know this sounds petty, but – F@#K! I want those scabs out of my hospital, I want my job back and I want to be treated with respect!” Everyone was on their feet, laughing and crying as they applauded. The next day about two hundred people attended the performance in the auditorium of a local middle school. After the performance the nurses presented me with a gift basket and a framed piece of the blue tarp tent that had been their headquarters during the first winter of the strike. Where in New York the play had been a tribute to a successful campaign, in this northern Michigan town the play was a reflection of a struggle in progress, a battle that was ultimately lost.
Nurse! has led to my creating other shows. After one of the off-Broadway performances, I was approached by journalist Suzanne Gordon, whose books on nurses and nursing had been part of my research. She shared her idea of creating a play about doctor/nurse communication and suggested we might work on it together. The idea might easily have ended up on the “maybe someday” list of projects had it not been for another grant from the Gender Institute. Guided by Suzanne’s notes, interviews, and expertise, I wrote the first draft of Bedside Manners and with the grant money produced a staged reading of the play during Gender Week at UB. Over the next few years, Suzanne and I refined the play and developed post-performance activities to actively engage the audience in re-scripting challenging encounters. The play and an accompanying workbook, published by Cornell University Press, are used to help improve team communication in medical settings.
Thanks to a performance I did of Nurse! at a European Association for American Studies conference in Turkey, I was invited to perform at the Association’s conference in The Hague in 2014. The conference theme was America: Justice, Conflict, War. I decided to create a new play. An internet search on “women and war” brought me to the exhibit One Person Crying and the story of Pulitzer prize winning photographer Marissa Roth’s 30 year journey documenting women and war. I contacted her, told her I had an invitation to perform in The Hague, and I thought her story would make a compelling play. Thus was born Finding the Light, a one-hour performance that shares the story of how Roth, with a family history haunted by the Holocaust, traveled the world documenting the impact of war on women from Cambodia to Bosnia, Vietnam to Germany. Using photographs from Roth’s exhibit “One Person Crying: Women and War,” I play Roth as she shares stories of the courage and resilience of ordinary women surviving extraordinary challenges. After performing the show in The Hague, I had the opportunity to perform the show at the United Solo Festival in New York at a theatre very near the one where I had originally done Nurse! Sitting in the audience was Marissa Roth, who was seeing her own story performed for the first time. It was an extraordinary experience for both of us.
Very soon I will step on stage at Baltimore’s Charm City Fringe Festival to perform Nurse! for the first time in many years. My PhD in American Studies led to a new career in public history and more than ten years working at Maryland’s Accokeek Foundation, a nonprofit that stewards 200 acres of a national park on the Potomac River. I recently stepped down from serving as CEO of that organization to continue my theatrical journey. I look forward to seeing where it carries me.
Lisa Hayes is a theatremaker, writer, and public historian. She graduated from UB with a MA in Humanities in 2002 and PhD in American Studies in 2008. Inspired by her experience with turning oral history into theatre with Nurse!, she continued to explore the topic in her dissertation, Theatricalizing Oral History: How British and American Theatre Artists Explore Current Events and Contemporary Politics in the Journey from Interview to Performance. Though she has performed in dozens of plays, it is her one-woman shows that have taken her to London, Edinburgh, Rome, Istanbul, Prague, The Hague, Glasgow, Toronto, and to venues from New York City to Los Angeles. She is a long-time practitioner and teacher of museum theatre, using theatre and theatrical techniques to enhance the visitor experience in museums and other settings. She can be contacted about performing, consulting, or teaching at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 26, 2018
The dangers of asbestos exposure remain a hot topic in today’s social and political climate. Decades of documented disease cases enforced the notion that asbestos-related health conditions were typically associated with male-dominant occupations. Some of these high-risk jobs include firefighting and construction, which are among the most dangerous professions when it comes to asbestos exposure. The lengthy latency period of these diseases gave cancers like mesothelioma a reputation as an “old man’s disease,” however, some current findings are beginning to shift the focus towards women.
Through jobs like construction, men were often exposed to the toxin, and would then come home and unknowingly exposed their wives to the same toxins. Laundry, sharing furniture, and physical contact are all common ways women were exposed to asbestos. Today, more women are joining male-dominated professions that put them at risk to asbestos, which directly correlates with the shrinking gender gap for mesothelioma.
Asbestos saw its peak in the mid-20th century. The spawn of the industrial age brought on a push for commercial manufacturing and production, and asbestos showed clear promise as a durable and inflammable material. From the early 1900s well into the late 1970s, the natural mineral was mined and manufactured across the United States, soaring in popularity with construction and trade industries. At the time, asbestos could be found in an array of materials and products including roofing tiles, insulation, adhesives, brake pads, and piping.
Gradually, it became clear that working with asbestos caused life-threatening diseases. The industries that primarily dealt with asbestos were male-dominated, and little research was conducted outside of this occupational scope. Those exposed occupationally or while serving in the military experienced elevated cases of cancer, especially in the lungs. Conditions like asbestosis and mesothelioma soon became prominent for shipyard workers. Specifically, Navy personnel are said to have the highest incidence for mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos in shipyards. Women have been serving in the military for over a century and their service in World War II proved to have exposed them to airborne toxins, including asbestos. The Navy marked the first time women were exposed firsthand.
As researchers continued to study mesothelioma, a form of cancer infamous for its commonly poor prognosis, cases continued to develop in women. For a minority group in the construction workforce, this evidence was surprising. However, during the asbestos heyday between the 1930s-1970s, women typically took charge of the household and tended to the family’s needs. During these few decades, women often developed asbestos diseases like mesothelioma from secondhand or environmental exposure, which can be brought on by proximity to asbestos sites or mines, or even coming in contact with a loved one that carries the toxic fibers with them off the job site.
Asbestos Exposure Today
Since the 1970s, asbestos has become heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. While this was a major step forward, the EPA regulation is not a complete ban on the toxin, and materials containing a small percentage of asbestos are still imported and sold throughout the United States. Combined with longstanding infrastructure or products produced before regulation, this leaves room for a majority of the public to come in contact with asbestos during their lifetimes.
Mesothelioma rates are estimated to reach their peak before 2030. The majority of women are diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, which takes root in the lungs, and, although it is still unclear why, women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma.
Women also have a higher survival rate after five years in all forms of the cancer, as compared to men. From 2011 to 2012, the number of deaths caused by mesothelioma rose from 544 to 616 in women, while actually decreasing slightly in men for unknown reasons. The longer latency periods among women directly translate to diagnoses later in life. This timeline could be a result of several factors, including lower-grade concentration levels of asbestos as a result of secondary exposure and anatomical differences. While the increase in mesothelioma diagnoses among women can be attributed to the rising number of women in construction and trade fields, another major factor historically was “domestic” exposure. This type of exposure is when a spouse would shake out asbestos ridden clothing, clean off exposed equipment or perform other tasks around the home that we now know could result in exposure.
Asbestos and the Environment
Around 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, however, this does not completely eradicate the risk of exposure. While workers are less likely to encounter asbestos in their day to day jobs, environmental exposure has increased across all genders due to older materials and infrastructure that were created before EPA regulations were enacted. The nature of asbestos fibers allow them to linger in the environment for years, spreading easily through the air and resisting biodegrade. Negligent disposal or demolition of asbestos-containing structures is one of the main culprits of this, coupled with natural erosion and age.
Since a majority of asbestos disease studies neglect the potential impact and scope of environmental exposure, it’s difficult to draw substantial conclusions on gender-based susceptibility. It is evident, however, that the heightened presence of asbestos in our environment, alongside a greater number of women in asbestos-related occupations, supports the rise in mesothelioma cases among women. Due to the aggressive nature of the disease, the lives of those exposed to asbestos, including women, are at stake.
Although there are currently restrictions in place, it is clear that asbestos diseases occur across all demographics and genders. Environmental risks coupled with the current role of women in the workplace have been both eye-opening and helped to build awareness surrounding the topic. Ultimately, this prevalence shows that concerns over asbestos exposure should not be a thing of the past and that further research may be needed to understand the prominence of asbestos in our environment and communities.
Asbestos and the Government
This past June, the EPA enacted a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR), which allows the government to reevaluate the use of asbestos throughout the country on a case-by-case basis. The newly proposed regulations raise an alarming amount of concern that asbestos might once again become as prominent in materials as it was before any regulations were introduced. As it stands, asbestos already accounts for 54 percent of all occupation-related cancers, and if restrictions are lessened, that number could skyrocket in the coming years.
Mesothelioma Awareness Day, held annually on September 26, serves as a reminder that this toxic mineral has a serious impact on public health, and the risk is not limited to older men in blue-collar fields. With rising incidence in secondary exposure and in women, it’s clear that asbestos is still causing harm to this day. Rates of mesothelioma will, unfortunately, continue to rise until the toxin is fully phased out and treated with caution on a global scale.
As the Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, Emily Walsh dedicates much of her time building cancer awareness through social media and blogging. She is passionate about helping veterans and their families learn more about the lesser-known health risks from military service.
In her spare time she enjoys the great outdoors camping, hiking, rock climbing and kayaking. She also has two cats and a dog.
September 6, 2018
In the summer of 2017, Adrienne Hill, the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project’s co-founder, had just conducted two interviews for a column in a local queer magazine. The topic was the case of Mean Alice’s, a popular mid-70s gay bar that Robert Hairston and John Morrison, two black men, sued because of the staff’s consistent racist practices. The story, first recounted to Hill at one of Hairston’s house parties forty years later, seemed to be both a legal and a moral victory for the city’s black LGBTQ community. It’s been memorialized as historic singular incident when local authorities had to formally acknowledge that white supremacy was an integral part of Buffalo’s business operations and communal life, and were even forced to act on it. In reality, as the two men later explained, the New York State Division of Human Rights hadn’t done more than paid lip service to their complaints. Morrison’s complaint was rejected with the explanation that the claimant’s youthful appearance could have reasonably misled the door security into believing he was underage. Hairston received a settlement of $500 from the owner of Mean Alice’s. When he later returned to the bar, only to receive the same treatment, and reported this to the Division, an official asked him: “Why do you keep going there?”
To this day, the owner of Mean Alice’s continues to run some of the most popular gay bars in Buffalo’s Allentown. Yet, the de facto protection that the State Division of Human Rights granted him, as well as the general lack of interest of white patrons in this and other instances of racism common in gay bars, led to something arguably more important. Hairston, Morrison, and others soon established a dance party series for black queers under the names “Just Us” and later “Jack Your Body,” which lasted from late 1970s into the late 1980s. Here, black “same gender loving people” (Morrison’s phrase) could dance to the music they enjoyed without fearing that someone would change it because too many people of color were on the dance floor. Or, they didn’t need to worry about being denied entrance for not being able to show four pieces of identification, a detail that Hairston and Morrison described in the interview and other elders confirmed.
Black in Time, a historical queer dance party planned and organized by the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History project last April, started as a luminous splinter of Hill’s article, caught in a private conversation. Hairston and Morrison’s story reminded us that music is a weapon — both of oppression and of opposition and remedy— and we wanted to honor this history. We decided to facilitate an opportunity for the community to learn about black queer social spaces and the role of music in them. But equally so, for those who have built this history, we wanted to provide an occasion to recreate and reimagine the spaces that shaped their identities by intertwining old and new memories, and by joining with old and new friends.
The idea that we should host a dance party with the music that used to be popular in black queer spaces came first! We began to imagine this one night of elders and siblings dancing, laughing, and flirting with each other across generations and race lines, past the barriers of educational, cultural, and institutional backgrounds. We would play the songs that had given Buffalo’s black queers pleasure, shelter, and a sense of self and community over the decades, maybe since the 1960s or as far as we could go back in time. For this, we were fortunate to partner with Richard Stepney, aka DJ Remmz, a well-loved name on the local queer club scene (Marcella’s, Underground, Roxy’s) and one of the youngest members of Black Men Talking. Next, we added narrative and visual components: between blocks of music and dancing, folks would share stories and reminisce about the places that sustained them – both in person, and from the footage that we prepared in the months leading to the party. At first, we imagined the black queer spaces to include only bars, clubs, and parties; but soon enough, this encompassed social groups such as Black Men Talking and Black Intelligent Ladies Alliance (BILA), and communal spaces such as Unity Fellowship Church of Buffalo. Bill Thomas, a founding member of Black Men Talking, gave the event its future name: “Honey, no one is going to come to a historical dance party! How about something like… ‘Black in Time’?”
Sweets Lounge and Restaurant, currently the only gay-run bar on the East Side, was an easy choice for a venue. By this time, Tinamarie and Denise Sweet, the owners of Sweets and founders of BILA, had become our friends, after having participated as keynote speakers in the History Project’s Screaming Queens film screening. Sweets Lounge is a simple, friendly bar standing on the corner where Schreck Avenue meets Olympic. Not long ago it was vilified by the city police and the media, and even temporarily forced to close in the aftermath of a shooting that occurred in front of it. The couple is still fighting to show that their bar is a loving home to the queers and women living east of Main Street, but also anyone else who comes with amicable intentions. We even used Sweets at a location to film part of the footage that we created for Black in Time, with interviews about historical black queer spaces and mostly featuring members and associates of BILA, who strongly identify with a black working-class lesbian ethos. They mostly belong to the generation whose members are now in their 30s and 40s, who came out and of age at 134 Dewey Street. Today an empty lot, this was the location of Ms. Julie’s bar in the 1990s and 2000s. It was known by many names, among them Julie’s Touch of Class, Touch of Class, and by the time it closed down in late 2000s and later burnt, just Touch; but among its queer patrons it is still famously remembered as One-Thirty-Four, or affectionately, One-Dirty-Four. Never officially a gay bar, the name One-Thirty-Four practically functioned as a queer code meant to preserve the venue’s unofficial queer status from outsiders. Its weekend queer parties, drag shows, and pageants were legendary, and yet, during the week, Touch of Class was a straight venue.
Making Black in Time happen took months. It required more than the tangible work of conceptualizing, filming the interviews with community members about their memories, editing, curating the art show, printing, cutting and mounting the photographs, and setting the installation in the back room of Sweets Lounge. It is impossible to measure the time spent writing carefully phrased messages to elicit people’s participation, waiting for a response and holding up hopes, tracing links to the elders whose names and reputations persist, but whose whereabouts remain unclear, going to people’s homes and spending hours in cafes and clubs to talk to them, not being demoralized by silence, listening quietly, holding our tongues to let the answers unfold by themselves… And then, embracing contradiction, multiplicity, and sometimes gossip and opacity in stride, because that is what makes queer lives possible and releases their intrinsic radiance from under the statistics and themes of poverty, death, and isolation.
Seeing many of these distractible narrators finally walk from the ice storm of April 15, 2018 into the dimly pink-lit bar on the night Black in Time took place was close to being part of a fairy tale. Their faces luminous, their club gear on— leather, chains, boots, wigs — they drifted in and away on the waves of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off,” only to tumble into the room at the back, right into the purple, red, and blue-lit labyrinth of undulating images suspended on thin silver wire. Bathed in glitter, they would travel for some time through the intricate memory corridors. The photographs of themselves, departed queer mentors, old friends and lovers, or that breathtaking dancing kid whose name they could not recall, flashed back at them from the mirrors running around all the walls of the room. At last, they would dance back into the front room, into the embrace of many friends and lovers who were still here, still around.
Loss and absence continue to thoroughly shape the life of queer archives. Historical evidence is purposefully destroyed or otherwise scattered before we are able to learn about it or preserve it. Buildings and neighbourhoods where queers used to find life and with time, to create movements, are almost completely razed under the relentless hand of urban development ushered by campaigns for social cleansing. Once such example was a local antivice campaign headed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller that at the end of the 1950s systematically targeted most of the bars that catered to queers, and in the 1960s left Buffalo almost without a single bar or club where they could let their hair down. Furthermore, traditionally, much of the substance of the queer archive has been considered irrelevant in institutional circles: tiaras, dance parties, sex toys, mixtapes, memorabilia showing a deep familial attachment to pets. As scholars and artists have pointed out, the central challenge here is to preserve and productively engage perhaps the most elusive, yet most persistent history: the embodied memory of feelings, alternatively referred to as spirit or affect, which carries on across generations and geographic locations, intersecting with the experiences of racialization and diaspora.
As such, work on queer memory can barely happen without tireless self-questioning: what kind of methodology does it take to engage a historical archive as fleeting as this? In response, many have drawn attention to the particular preponderance of performance as a mode of dealing with queer memory – from ritual, to performance art, to dance and music – and its ability to summon and focus in its intensified, ephemeral here and now, disparate moments in time, distant places and those who have been long absent.
Ephemerality of different kinds is a potent factor in queer history and world making. Videotapes with almost a decade of archival footage of Talon House balls disappeared in a fire, when the scene’s founder, Mother Ebony Talon, lost her home several years ago. Hamlin House, which used to be the venue for most Talon balls in the 2000s, today hosts mostly weddings; and the original House of Talon, now a private renter’s house on York Street, stands completely unaware of its historical significance. Only two founding members of the House are alive — Mother Ebony and Escada Talon— while Sierra, Retro, Royale, Stoney, and Dolce Talon have all passed. On the night of Black in Time, draped in silver faux reptile leather cloth and lavishly spilt glitter, the pool table at Sweets became a pedestal for Escada’s five ball trophies that she won between the scene’s inception in 1999 and the late 2000s. When asked if she could help us build a small exhibition of memorabilia, Escada doubted she would have anything of interest, whether an artefact or a story. Yet when I came to her home that she shares with her mother to borrow the trophies, she offered the most beautiful and straightforward account of a personal sense of gender and gender presentation I had ever heard. On the same pool table, we placed a copy of the NY State Division of Human Rights decision in Hairston and Morrison’s case – a reminder of the grim history behind the creation of erotic and imaginative spaces crucial in the constitution of black queer identities, but that also was an impetus for Black in Time itself. Between the ballroom trophies and the document with the report, as a connective tissue, was a crown belonging to the self-described “Buffalo transgender griot” Ari Moore.
The photographs in the installation, which transformed the bar into a glitter dream of streaming images, spanned from the early 1960s to the early 2000s and all came from Ari Moore and Mother Ebony Talon’s private archives. Both collections live in boxes and photo albums in the women’s homes, and tell stories of Buffalo’s queens and other black queers. Some of the subjects of the photos are still with us, and others are not. The images depict Ms. Cougar, who was found murdered and thrown on the 190 Southbound, or Tonya “Kita” Harvey, who was found earlier this year on Shepard Street, her body riddled with bullets. Some of the photographed subjects have left for New York City, like Buffalonian Dorian Corey, founder of the legendary House of Corey and house mother of Angie Extravaganza, both featured in the cult documentary Paris is Burning (1990). Others, like Ms. Wanda Cox, have built decades of the history of “women-impersonator” shows, from cabarets and drag shows all the way to the official start of the ballroom scene. But some stayed, like Kelly “Keke” Valasquez-Lord, who currently carries the title of Miss Continental (the highest national status in gay pageants) and has become Buffalo’s drag show and pageant icon. Many others in the images are gentle-faced, mustachioed butch queens in the arms of dreamy-eyed femme friends, with names lost or conflated, in clubs and bars that also disappeared.
What’s the significance of all of this in personal day-to-day lives? One or two weeks after Black in Time, the storm and the ice had melted into a hot spring afternoon. Escada Sanders, on that day feeling and presenting as Jerald Sanders, was meeting me at a local queer-run coffee shop. As we were sitting at one of the sidewalk tables, Silver Light, a black lesbian from the East Side in her late thirties, who also came that night to Sweets, stopped to greet us. In the course of a friendly, teasing exchange punctuated by Jerald’s self-deprecating jokes, Silver explained how life-sustaining it was for her to see Escada many years later walk into that wiry floating labyrinth and examine between her fingers the old images of herself and her Talon family at balls, her face seemingly struck with surprise and gentle melancholy. And then to hear Jerald speak to the audience gathered at the bar, about how important and how possible it is to allow yourself to be who you are— Escada and Jerald, sometimes intermittently, sometimes at the same time, loving both.
Next up for the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project:
She Walked Here is the latest ongoing endeavor of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. Few Americans think of Buffalo as a national historic center of LGBTQ culture. But Buffalo is famous for producing two books that account for most of what we know about working-class gay culture prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots. One, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, has become an internationally renowned cult classic. The second, Madeline Davis and Liz Kennedy’s Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, is commemorated in She Walked Here, an event series launched at the Historic Colored Musicians Club on July 21, 2018.
We invite Buffalonians of all backgrounds not only to read Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold along with the History Project, but also to actively enter the world it describes, with walking tours, dance lessons, and several upcoming surprise activities. The July 21 Project Launch saw a packed Historic Colored Musicians Club celebrating queer and butch and femme oral histories, with community members across generations sharing the microphone and sharing personal histories. The event offered copies of the book at sliding scale prices, featured an interactive map and art installment and a curated archive exhibit, showcased live performances inspired by the book, and included a party with historically accurate music. Madeline Davis honored us with her presence and brilliant memories of butch and femme sex lives.
September 15, 2018 will see the first of our Boots of Leather street tours of Buffalo’s historical lesbian bar locations in the downtown area and the East Side’s Fruit Belt neighborhood. The 3-mile tour is self-directed, and estimated to take about 3 hours on foot (though you can travel by bike, bus, or car if you wish). Each former bar site will feature a combination of tour guides, archival photo and audio, and artists from Buffalo’s LGBTQ community, offering an artistic interpretation of Buffalo’s lesbian bar history. We’ll also be hosting the tour on Saturday September 29, 2018 and Saturday, October 13, 2018. To participate, just sign up here.
Ana Grujić received her Ph.D. in English from the University at Buffalo in 2017. She has written about black queer literature, performance, women’s experimental writing, and the cultural memory that animates them. She taught writing and literature at the SUNY University at Buffalo and is one of the founding members of the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project. Some of the projects she works on with the group are a video series about Buffalo’s oral trans history, a documentary about Buffalo’s black trans community and ballroom scene, and most recently, She Walked Here: a community read and a walking tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold,” the iconic oral history of Buffalo’s lesbian bar scene before the Stonewall riot.
Ana was born in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, a city which since then has changed several countries (today it is the capital of Serbia). She is an immigrant in the U.S., trying to make sense of the condition of diaspora and dislocation.
Black in Time could not happen without the help and love of:
Denise and Tinamarie Sweet
The staff of Sweets Lounge and Restaurant
Black Intelligent Ladies Alliance
Mother Ebony Talon
Rev. Gerard Williams
The congregation of Unity Fellowship Church
Anthonie D. King-Brooks
The House of Escada
University at Buffalo Visual Studies Program
University at Buffalo Wellness Education Services
University at Buffalo Gender Institute
Special thanks to Bill Thomas for the “Black in Time” event name
About the Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project: The Buffalo-Niagara LGBTQ History Project is a volunteer-run activist group focused on generational memory in Buffalo’s LGBTQ community. The History Project preserves the actively erased histories of all local LGBTQ community members. We conduct interviews, assist in donation of materials to the Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archives of Western New York, and otherwise document the legacies of LGBTQ Buffalonians of all races, genders, ages, and abilities, across the LGBTQ identity spectrum. We seek to bridge generational gaps and promote LGBTQ history outside of large cities. We believe knowing our histories will guide us to meaningful political action and encourage others to join us in the archives and the homes of our elders and peers.
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