3) Date you first mark as getting together with your partner Katy (Katherine Shelley) Clusen:
April 5, 2000 – our first, very informal, spur-of-the-moment date.
4) City/state where you live currently:
Bennington College (Vermont), BA in Interdivisional major in Black Music and Social Science
Roosevelt University (Chicago), MM in Music Composition
Katy: Eastern Illinois University, BA in Education
Musician – performer/composer/producer; bookkeeper; former theater business manager; studying now for MS in Library and Information Science, with a concentration in Data Curation.
Katy: Educator, K-8; currently music teacher pre-K through 8.
7) How do you describe your sexuality and your gender?
Lesbian, though I've had serious boyfriends in the past; female/woman, though these labels don't always seem to fit just right – a bit "off the rack.”
8) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?
We have a daughter, whom Katy birthed. We did a co-parent adoption right away, so Laurie is on her birth certificate. Go Illinois!
9) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew”:
I think I knew I was different early on, but I was kind of an oddball in lots of ways, felt different, so I don't think I really had a clear idea about my sexuality being different, specifically, until freshman year in college. I was 17. I do remember telling one of my friends in high school, though, that I was going to have a wife – I thought at the time I was being feminist/political and wry, but as it turns out....
10) Who did you first “come out” to and when?
I actually don't remember a specific instance of coming out, boom, like that. I started going to the gay teas in college. A friend I met there asked me if I was gay, and I replied that I didn't like labels.
Even after I had my first sexual experience, both of us affirmed in our somewhat strained conversation days later that we considered ourselves to be straight. So... it was a process.
My next ongoing relationship was with woman who had transferred from Smith College. She showed me the books Sappho was a Right-On Woman and Rubyfruit Jungle and the like, did drawings and paintings of naked women, said "dyke" a lot, and was very educational.
The hardest part was coming out to my Mom, which I did my junior year – I just got tired of hedging when she'd ask me about boyfriends. I began to think she would worry more about me not having any social life, and being distant from her (which was hurtful) that she would about me being a lesbian. So I told her. That too has been a process of working out misunderstandings, and letting go of prior assumptions (probably on both our parts).
Strangely, my Dad was a snap. I told him in the context of my upcoming ceremony with my then-partner in 1985, and the only thing he said was: "Well, that's not going to affect our relationship is it?" and when I said no, he was fine. Uncomplicated! This from a staunch Republican Southern Baptist fellow who grew up in small town Tennessee. Just goes to show you, you never know how someone is going to react.
11) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?
I've been shouted at by numerous people on the street: "Dyke!" said in a nasty way, to which I've oft replied: "Yes!" with a triumphant fist in the air, as though I had just won a sporting event.
I once had a six-pack of empty bottles heaved into my legs from a passing car: "townies" in the college town of North Bennington, Vermont. A tiny place, with lots of tensions between the college goers and the locals.
I've been pretty lucky – no problems in the workplace or in college, besides the ubiquitous misogyny. Oh well. Mostly I think I'm excluded more for being female than for being lesbian, though in the experimental music community I sometimes think this poses a problem for some men, who aren't sure what to do with me, how to interact. However, the art and music community has been mostly a welcoming place, giving me hope, especially in the way younger men have been open and embracing of me and my family as well. I have made strong friends there in that community, and it gives me, as I say, hope for a different world in the future.
12) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?
Yes, Toni Armstrong Jr. She kind of showed me around, and educated me on the women's music scene and community.
Also, in the workplace, a woman I worked for who became my hero, Kathleen Ineman. She showed such integrity and fair dealing with people, even in the midst of providing quality, time-pressured, editorial services for high-powered clients. A model of a good capitalist, which heretofore I had not thought possible.
Also a good friend, who encouraged me from her own experience, to go ahead and be brave and start a family with my partner. She gave me heart and humor. Though she passed away from cancer in 2006, her daughter now babysits my daughter, so the circle surrounds us still.
13) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):
Artemis Singers – For a time I was paid a small stipend as accompanist, and later got fees as a guest accompanist, but I also wound up singing and joining in in a lot of different ways. Today, my partner directs and sings with the chorus.
Lakeside Pride Bands – I play baritone saxophone in Shout! (jazz big band) and am director of the Saxophone Ensemble.
American Women Composers Midwest Chapter (board member)
New Music Chicago (board member)
Lesbian Community Cancer Project/LCCP (donor)
Chicago Women's Health Center (donor)
Broadway United Methodist Church (donor)
Padmasambhava Buddhist Center (donor)
14) When you were coming out, what were your favorite GLBT bars in Chicago?
1970s in New York City: The Duchess
1980s-1990s: Augie and CK's; the Swan Club; Sidetracks; Berlin; His 'n Hers
2000s: Big Chicks and Stargaze
15) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?
Not getting our heads beat in, harassment on the street. Gaining political power and visibility, getting homosexuality off of the DSMIII as a psychological disease. Forging partnerships with straight women in feminist groups. Not dividing up as lesbians into tiny antagonistic splinter groups over separatism or other issues.
16) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?
Racism, classism; unity of goals and working together across gender lines.
17) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?
AIDS struck fear of contagion into my heart at first (I can be a little germ phobic), but I was blessed to be around people who were informed and practical and I got better information. This is still an issue around the world!
Breast cancer is a constant specter. A dear friend lies dying of it as I write this. [She passed away in 2008.] In our circle, we have known several women survivors of breast cancer, and one of my old college friends is also a survivor.
Some of our fellow churchgoers are living with HIV or AIDS. It seems to be more manageable today, but the ragged holes the death toll from AIDS, and the ravages of breast cancer (and other cancers), have left in the world are tangible and personal to me.
18) How would you describe the “diversity” within the GLBT community of Chicago?
Unfortunately, the "diversity" issue here seems in large part to reflect the diversity issue of the city/area as a whole. We live in one of the most segmented cities in the country. We don't do very well with racism, classism, able-ism and all of that, but at least we're aware of all of those things to some degree in the GLBT community. Perhaps that awareness can help us bring together our missing parts into a whole. I pray it would be so.
This issue seems to ebb and flow in terms of being addressed or slipping back into negative, destructive patterns. Maybe we can at least make the shift to two steps forward, one step back, instead of the opposite.
19) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?
Not really. Just on a personal level, trying to be outspoken, out as a lesbian and not apologetic. That's hard enough some days, depending on the environment and context.
I have spent my life as a leader and active participant in fields that have been actively misogynistic, especially in my early adulthood (from the mid 1970's): experimental jazz, composition, and performance on non-"feminine" instruments, like saxophone and percussion.
It's always been part of my personal mission to be an example to other women that they can do whatever calls them, whether there is anyone else doing it that looks like them or whether anyone tells them they can, and to try to be a role model for following your inner knowing about what it is you are supposed to give back to this world of your unique being, talents, and gifts.
20) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.
I've worked with so many artistic groups, bands, and organizations in and out of the community – notably Surrender Dorothy and Artemis Singers, both out as lesbian groups – as well as more recently with Lakeside Pride ensembles, including the Women's Ensemble.
I performed a number of times at Mountain Moving Coffeehouse in those groups as well as putting on shows of my own work. Somehow I managed to be part of the "final show" at the various venues! And alas, I performed at the actually final show with an ad hoc group we called The Old Cronies. (Jorjet Harper prepared a fabulous DVD of this set, btw.)
I was musical director for several of my then-partner Paula Berg's plays, including Connections of the Heart, which had a very successful run at the Bailiwick Theater, and then a re-mounted production at National Women's Music Festival.
When I first came to Chicago, I knew a member of the Lake Shore Women's Rugby team (arch-rival to Chicago Women's Rugby team), my partner at the time joined it, and these were some of my main lesbian friends in the area for years. I was the one screaming myself hoarse on the sidelines.
I made the connection with Paula Walowitz and Toni Armstrong in 1984, through a local health food store conversation – the lesbian network in operation! They said they were looking for a piano player, my girlfriend overheard, and the rest is herstory (the band Surrender Dorothy).
Surprising at times, to me, was how women who were perhaps the farthest afield from experimental or the avant-garde in their tastes would respond to some of my more way-out solos (using wild glissandi or free improvisation) and my concerts. Somehow I managed to touch them, whether through humor or intensity or just sheer outrageous unexpectedness.
I think I have been a fairly visible out lesbian in a wide variety of performance venues and contexts, including modern dance, theater, performance art, visual art (as the once-partner of artist Riva Lehrer), gay and lesbian venues, and just as visible on mainstream stages.
Maybe this is in an important way part of what I have given to the community: I have never tried to hide who I am anywhere I go, even when it's printed in the Chicago Tribune ( e.g., the review of Connections and an article by Achy Obejas in the Friday Section September 2000). I have printed for all to see in all the different places I've performed the full notice – I mention the lesbian venues in the mainstream programs and vice versa.
People know I travel in many circles, and I am known for my true self. I take chances. I have worked with many of the greatest artists in this town, in "women's music," experimental jazz, world music and funk, with new music composers and sound artists, performance artists and dancer/choreographers. It’s somewhat amazing to me, in retrospect, that my complete performance bio would read almost like a “who's who in Chicago” list! I count myself very lucky to have had such opportunities, and to have been able to work with all these talented people, including many in our community, LGBT and allies – and look to have many more.
21) This project is also about “defining moments.” Please discuss some of those in your life.
The birth of our daughter changed my life utterly. As people say, you have no idea what you're getting into! She is an amazing person already, and keeps me leading as examined a life as I can manage, often holding the mirror up to me, showing me the way. Many's the time she has the better idea.
I can't possibly fully describe the wonder of interacting with her – like doing call and response improvisational vocalizations from the stroller! My partner and I struggle to re-create our identity as a couple, in addition to trying to create our family together, and this is made more difficult in the face of homophobia, and with the unpredictability of community support in our neighborhood, in the workplace and so on.
Having a daughter also means coming out all the time, all over again. "Oh, she looks just like you." Well, that's nice, but she shares no genetic material with me, so that's just a trickster god at work! Someone actually told my partner that, no, she wasn't the mother, I was (pointing at me). It was bizarre.
It means noticing when I'm not feeling clear and proud about who I am, because if I'm not pleased that she has two moms, how can she be proud? It's a powerful, life-changing incentive for getting out that residue of internalized homophobia.
Another one: being hit by a Mack truck in 1996. I got a "hangman's fracture" ( a broken C2). It is somewhat of a small miracle that I am safe and sound – just four small dents in my skull from the halo. My life took a detour as I was forced to stop everything. I couldn't even play more than one melody of music at a time for a while, as my brain healed, which if you know how cacophonous and dense and busy the experimental music I play is, you know how strange that was for me.
I got a visceral knowledge of how my brain works during the exercises in speech therapy, and I remember the moment when I could hear several contrapuntal melodies in my head at once. I was just walking along, with a song in my mind, and suddenly I realized to my profound delight, that I was "hearing" harmony lines too. Indescribable joy. "I" was back.
Getting sober in 1991 made all the difference in the world. Inconceivable beforehand, unimaginable not to have done it afterwards. I've met a lot of fellow travelers there from our "previous lives" and some of the greatest people I'll ever know.
Finding, meeting my Tibetan Buddhist teachers in 1992. The changes here are on the cellular level. I am an inconsistent, yet still devoted student and am ever grateful for both the esoteric teachings and the practical tools they have given me, as well as the wonderful people I've met and experiences I've had along the way. Meditating under a tarp in the rain on a hill in upstate New York, with lightning flashing and thunder roaring. Precious memory.
Finally, falling in love with Katy. I have a true family now, a truly beloved partner in every sense. I am learning what it's all about and finding the wonder and the mystery to be ever-renewing, even through the dark times, and I think we'll both find out what it really means to be "life partners," loving and laughing and rejoicing and singing and dancing through the rest of our lives.