Chicago, Illinois (both)
3) Date you first mark as getting together as partners:
April 7, 1990 (first met in 1980)
4) City/state where you live currently:
Chicago, Illinois (both)
University of Illinois (Urbana), BA, English Education
Northeastern Illinois University (Chicago), MA, Community Counseling
Mundelein College, BFA
University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, MA
Paula: Therapist in private practice working with individuals and couples; writer/editor; singer/songwriter; former high school teacher and computer programmer.
Jean: Art therapist for 20 years working at Deborah’s Place with women who are homeless and formerly homeless; Catholic High School art teacher; canvasser Illinois Public Action.
7) Did you serve in the U.S. military?
8) How do you describe your sexuality and your gender?
Lesbian female (both)
9) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?
10) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew.”
I first knew when a lesbian friend suggested I try on the label for a day, just to test-drive it. I had identified as bisexual for a couple of years at that point, but “lesbian” seemed extreme. But I tried it. And it was good.
I first knew I was a lesbian as a freshman in college when I kissed a girl in a bathroom because that seemed much more interesting than the guy that had taken us both out on a date.
11) Who did you first “come out” to and when?
Paula first came out by calling all of her straight friends from college the day after she first had sex with a woman (which was not a group experience, that is – don’t ask). It was 1977. Her friends were friendly about the whole thing, with comments like “good for you” and “did you like it?” But Paula’s favorite reaction was from a friend who said, “I wish I could do that! Life would be so much easier.”
Jean first came out to her very large Irish Catholic family at a family picnic at Dolton Park. She brought along scantily dressed gay boy friends and disco music, some younger lesbian friends, and her mortified lover who tsk, tsked in the corner with her mother – they bonded. Jean had a terrific hangover and would recommend that NO ONE ever do it this way.
12) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?
I have been mostly fortunate about other people’s reactions to my sexual orientation. Even when I worked for 10 years in corporate America as a computer programmer, people were at least polite about it. (I was working late one night when a new employee was getting a tour of the workspace. I overheard this: “That’s the coatroom, that’s the women’s washroom, and over there is where our lesbian sits.)
The glaring exception to my good luck about my sexuality was my father, who took the news very hard. An only child, I was very close to my father, but anything having to do with sexuality (even boyfriends) made him crazy. So I resolved not to tell him unless he specifically asked about it. One day, over the phone, he started asking questions. I deflected a little, but he seemed determined to know the truth. So I told him. The two of us barely spoke for a year – he told me he wished I had lied to him. Then he got a brain tumor and died from complications following the surgery. He never had the opportunity to get used to the idea. I don’t regret telling him. But the fact that he died before seeing how being with women was right for me – that makes me sad.
Just before I came out I learned a friend in college spent a year as a high school student in a psych hospital when being a lesbian was an illness. Many college friends ended their friendships when I started hanging out at the lesbian lunch table.
A job at a Catholic institution suddenly dried up when I was too out. My desire to be an ex-nun (because they were/are all fabulous) dried up around then, too.
I grabbed a falling LGBT banner at a rally for Jobs and Justice in the Reagan years while my best friend got the shit kicked outta him by some union steelworkers.
I was closeted for three years as a teacher – I saw other lesbian teachers fired.
I was a Mountain Moving Collective member working in the kitchen in the basement when an explosion went off at the door – another collective member on the stairs at the time of the blast suffered permanent hearing loss.
13) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?
I’m unsure about the title “mentor,” but if I had any, then Ginni Clemmens was high on the list. Ginni encouraged me to come up and sing with her at Mountain Moving Coffeehouse when Ginni heard me singing harmony from the front row. My first performance in town was as part of one of Ginni’s round robins, and my first recording was produced by Ginni.
Another sort-of mentor was Toni Armstrong Jr., who was my first live-in relationship with a woman. She also encouraged my musical bent. For a time, we would write ideas for songs on slips of paper and put them all in a box; then, every week, we would each pick a topic from the box and write a song about it. We also started Surrender Dorothy together, a local women’s music band featuring mostly my original songs.
I also have to include Tracy Baim on the list – Tracy liked my writing enough so that, whatever newspaper Tracy happened to head at any given time, she would find a place for me.
Closeted ex-nuns at Mundelein College and closeted single lay teachers at Elizabeth Seton High School (including a high school women’s studies class in 1976) and a gray-haired butchy lesbian who taught me (at age 20) how to play pool (and flirt) at Lost and Found.
Local music by Tricia Alexander and Lori Noelle as well as Ginni Clemmens in the early ‘80s.
14) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):
American Counseling Association
Institute of Noetic Sciences
Lesbian Community Cancer Project (LCCP) support group facilitator
Unitarian Church of Evanston (member)
HOT WIRE magazine (staff writer)
Gay Life, Windy City Times, Outlines newspapers (staff writer)
American and Illinois Art Therapy Associations Unitarian Church of Evanston (member)
Mountain Moving Coffeehouse (collective member)
HOT WIRE magazine (core staff member)
15) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars in Chicago?
Petunia’s, later became Déjà vu (late ‘70s and early ‘80s)
Lady Bug and Déjà vu (early ‘80s )
16) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?
When I first came out in the late ‘70s, separatism was the big issue. I have always affirmed the power and energy that come from women-only space, but I never called myself a separatist, believing that the rigidity and judgment in separatism didn’t allow for enough flexibility or inclusiveness.
Other issues included: non-monogamy (I was a big fan until life got too damn complicated) the rift between gay men and lesbians (gay men were still unaware of their own sexism, and women were giving up on them and moving toward separatism) and, of course, S/M. Some women seemed to think they should dictate what happens between consenting adults; on the other side, some S/M dykes seemed to get their kicks pissing off women who were not comfortable with S/M. (This struggle continues on in the “sex positive” vs... who? the “sex negative” contingent? Oy.).
Job loss and getting kicked out of your family after coming out was huge on a personal level. Groups of gay men and groups of lesbian women being unable to work together, seemingly, because of their enormous differences.
17) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?
The transgender issue is the leading edge in the LGBT community today – not just education and acceptance, which are critical, but a deeper understanding of gender in our community and in society at large. We have the opportunity, through transgender education, to highlight the fluidity of gender identity.
Also, even just among lesbians and gay men, we are not as far from self-hatred as we may think we are. As a therapist, I continue to work with LGBT clients, many of whom feel negatively about their sexual orientation. As much as we’ve been doing in the schools and the media, we need to do more. The messages of “you are less than okay” and “you are creepy” are out there in full force, as always. We need to keep the positive messages and role models coming.
Our LGBT community today is divided more by money than anything else. It isn’t an issue we discuss but it impacts our choices – what neighborhood we live in, who we vote for.
Being, dressing, or acting “too out” still gets you kicked off jobs and out of families (especially when you are closer to poverty or in a hyper-religious scene). It also kicks you out of some faith-based homeless shelters.
I think the fuss about marriage is really about the financial benefits of marriage. Paula and I are finally able to receive domestic partner health care benefits through my job (god bless ‘em). We are lucky.
18) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?
When my dear friend D was diagnosed as HIV we were discussing the possibilities of having children. That discussion came to a screaming halt. D is now living in Rio with this chronic condition called AIDS. He lives between two beaches, on the edge of poverty – but living. We have no children, just health issues.
19) How would you describe the “diversity” within the Chicago GLBT community?
The lesbian community I came out in lacked diversity in a big way. Working class lesbians seemed to gravitate to the bars or the softball fields, not to the coffeehouse or women’s music concerts. African American lesbians were extremely rare on the North Side which is a racial issue for the whole city).
So, the group surrounding me consisted mostly of middle-class, white, Baby Boomer women who enjoyed folk-inspired music that was explicitly about women-loving women. Go to a Cris Williamson or Ferron concert today, and you’ll be among a sea of gray-haired, bespectacled women who like to sing along with the lesbian songs they know and love. Don’t misunderstand me – I love these women. But it was probably this lack of diversity that helped to marginalize us. I’m glad to see younger LGBT people opening up new ways to keep the community viable – that takes a lot of different perspectives and backgrounds.
I love it when LGBT has straight allies and we can be allies to the straight community. At the Gay Olympics [Gay Games], straight allies from the LVC [Lutheran Volunteer Core] held signs along Clark and Waveland loving our community up.
An instance when I have seen our LGBT community join in was at one of the most diverse actions I ever attended in Edgewater when a neighbor was murdered by her husband outside their home. He put a tire filled with gasoline around her and lit it. She died. He fled the country. We marched for the rights of women to be safe. We met at Women and Children bookstore and marched around the neighborhood. We were made up of every nationality and economic group – this was an issue we all felt deserved our collective public outrage.
20) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?
I can’t call myself a political activist. Maybe I’ve been a cultural activist, promoting lesbian and gay visibility.
I believe that the personal is political. A magnet of Paula and I at our wedding hangs in many offices and homes of our colleagues, friends, and family, and LGBT becomes more than a bunch of letters for them, it is people they know and love. It reads:
“Jean Durkin and Paula Walowitz
Legally married in Toronto July 4, 2003
Celebrated wedding with family and friends October 11, 2003
Legally married in the USA any day now…”
21) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.
I am most proud of my music. My songs are often about personal change, loving women, and re-conceptualizing theology from a feminist perspective. All of my songs were tools for my own personal growth and later, others have said that the songs supported them to reclaim their power and have fun doing it.
If I have a legacy, I hope it’s that: helping lesbians and gay men feel better about themselves while having fun. I’m still aiming for that as a therapist in the community, though I do recognize that people generally don’t have that much actual fun in therapy.
Jean and I together have a legacy because we ran like the wind to Canada to get married when they made same-sex marriage the law of their land. We were among the first U.S. couples to cross the border to marry each other.
Being an out lesbian working with women who are homeless and formerly homeless for the last 20 years has allowed me to touch more lives in a positive way than I ever could have imagined. The torn and dirty rainbow sticker on my car is incredibly important to others – program participants as well as other staff, volunteers, interns, board members.
22) This project is also about “defining moments.” Please discuss some of those in your life.
I was a senior at the University of Illinois in Urbana when the first National Women’s Music Festival happened. I was straight at the time and had never seen so many out, proud lesbians. I was captivated. I remember telling my friend Meredith that I sure wouldn’t throw Margie Adam out of bed. She said she didn’t think she could have sex with a woman. I thought that made HER weird.
Going to my first lesbian bar (Petunia’s circa 1976) with another bi-curious friend and just standing against the wall all night, trembling and watching women.
When I still considered myself bisexual, I had a boyfriend and a girlfriend. I believed I was in love with the boy and just liked the girl a lot. Then I had a realization that, love or no love, I still got more out of my relationship with my girlfriend than I ever had with my boyfriend. That got me thinking about where I wanted to put my energy.
Going to a lesbian-only concert (Linda Shear at the Michigan festival - 1978?) when I wasn’t sure I was a lesbian. It made me squirm. But it also made me try on the label, just like my friend did in question #10.
Inviting all my coworkers from corporate America to come hear my band Surrender Dorothy perform at His n’ Hers and then coming out to them with my song “Surprise, I’m a Lesbian,” which is about being closeted at work. They were very polite about it.
Taking a month-long trip alone in a car to New Mexico and other points west only a few months after finally getting my driver’s license at age 35. And of course...
Marrying Jean in 2003, first legally in Canada, then with our family and friends present.
Taking a woman’s studies class in high school in 1977.
Celebrating a woman-led Catholic mass in 1982.
Trying out living in a convent for a summer and leaving it to be with my woman lover in 1982.
Moving in with my best gay man friend in 1983 and having him teach me how to dance in gay and lesbian bars.
Going back in the closet to teach at a Catholic high school in the mid ‘80s.
Joining Mountain Moving Coffeehouse collective in the late ‘80s and quitting the collective in 1990.
Meeting Paula in 1979 when I wasn’t ready, and reconnecting with her in 1990 at a lesbian Capricorn Party when I was.