May 23, 2008
researcher pursues ‘Under the Rainbow: Oral Histories of GLBTIQ
people in Kansas.’
When Tami Albin first chose to move to Kansas from upstate New York, she and her domestic partner Sherrie received concerned warnings from friends: Kansas is a bad place for gays and lesbians.
“My colleagues in New York had never been to Kansas,” Albin said. “They made assumptions that we were moving into a very hostile environment.”
For six years, Albin, originally from Canada, has lived in Lawrence, serving as undergraduate instructor and outreach librarian at KU. She and Sherrie soon befriended lesbian and gay Kansans. In 2007, the couple reflected on the perceptions that preceded their move.
“Obviously, there are gays and lesbians who choose to live in Kansas. Their stories need to be heard,” explained Albin when asked about the inspiration she got for her current project — “Under the Rainbow: Oral Histories of GLBTIQ people in Kansas.”
Tami Albin interviews and records the answers of willing GLBTIQ Kansans, documenting their stories. The acronym stands for gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered, intersexed (hermaphrodite), and the “Q” can stand for “queer” or “questioning.”
Albin acquired a Faculty Research Grant from the University of Kansas. In 2007, she began interviews on a date she called, “the Sunday of American Thanksgiving,” revealing her Canadian roots. (Thanksgiving Day in Canada isn’t the same as in the U.S.)
“The idea of going beyond Lawrence initially hadn’t entered my mind,” she explained. So it came as a surprise when some of the first interested interviewees contacted her from other parts of Kansas, namely Manhattan, Wichita and Topeka.
She travels to interviews carrying a backpack efficiently stocked with recording equipment, notebooks and a tripod.
“The farthest I’ve gone is Wichita. I haven’t been to southwest Kansas. That’s this summer,” she said. She’s conducted her research so far in the eastern part of the state. “Statistically, there is at least one openly gay or lesbian couple in every county in Kansas,” she explained.
Albin initially got funding to do 20 interviews. The interest has been so high that KU granted her another Faculty Research Grant to take this work into the more western plains of Kansas. She recently conducted her 21st interview — mine.
“I have had a phenomenal response from people across Kansas wanting to share their story,” she said.
“The latest ideas that have been percolating in my mind are either writing a book or producing a documentary of some sort,” she conjectured when I asked about her ultimate goal. Right now, the interviews will be posted on “KU Scholarworks,” an online digital repository for the University of Kansas, virtually housed with open access.
“The initial idea was to create a collection of raw material, oral histories people could use for research purposes,” said Albin. “That there is a GLBT community in Kansas. This can be used as a teaching tool for understanding oral histories.”
So what has this project has taught her so far?
“Based on these 20 interviews,” she answered, “GLBT issues in Kansas are as complicated as anywhere. Everybody has a different story, and not everybody’s in agreement on how things should be.
“The most common thing I’ve heard is this frustration they feel from the rest of the GBLT community on a national level. Everything is focused on the coasts.”
Another recurrent theme in the interviews involves the initial contact people have had with others of the same gender, that first kiss and what it meant. “It’s a memory that’s etched in their minds and they’ll never forget it,” she said.
“For people who have never had a relationship with someone of the same sex, they strongly remember their feelings of finally understanding what it possibly means to be passionately involved with someone. For example, some of the women I interviewed talked about being involved with men and thinking in the back of their heads, ‘Is this what it is? Is it just this?’ and meeting a woman and kissing her for the first time and having this overwhelming sense of knowing what it means to feel passion and to be in love.”
Albin has interviewed people with a variety of vocations: ministers, goat farmers, teachers, students, social workers and one man who was in the military.
“This project is going to break stereotypes because it’s not feeding into stereotypes,” she declared, “It’s important that these stories are told in a way that respects the individual.”
Part of the respect she offers allows interviewees the option of anonymity. Albin even honors the wishes of people who contact her after the taping to edit content in case someone has second thoughts after speaking. “I just hope they don’t edit it for grammar,” she remarked.
Albin came to my home to interview me in early May. I was glad to see her find a close place to park given the equipment she carried.
As she set up her camcorder, I closed the blinds on the strong sunlight coming in from the western sky, did what I could to provide agreeable light, asked if my shirt was too bright, wondered if I should have my contacts in, lamented that you just don’t light a bald man from above.
“We don’t have to use the camera for this if it’s a problem,” she assured me.
I replied that, of course, I want to be on camera; I was just being, well, gay.
I consider myself out of the closet. My experience of this interview plus the insights offered by interviewing Albin have shown me that all of us, myself included, possess the capacity to layer our openness about ourselves.
Before turning on the camera, she placed before me a Consent Form. I could choose to give or refuse permission for my interview and information there from to appear in a database, a library archive, etc. I could check a box that stated “Use a Pseudonym.” It surprised me to find myself pausing to consider these questions. My parents have passed away, I’m a tenured professor, I went through all the reasons I might limit access to this information. I finally decided to check everything and to put myself into this study openly.
We spent two hours discussing my life, practically from inception.
In reference to these early years, I talked more about sports than orientation. How I wish I’d been as athletic as a youth as I am now. How I wish I’d confronted my gym teacher in junior high school and requested he actually take some time to teach me how to throw and catch rather than ignoring me. The athleticism I worked so hard to acquire once I started dancing might have proven less daunting.
I usually state that I came out in my mid-teens. Tami’s interview clarified for me the ease with which we can return to the closet.
My family entered therapy when I was 13, and one day I asked to please speak to the therapist alone, my first coming-out. Currently, I believe if a 13 year old has the nerve to say he’s gay, he’s probably gay. In the 70’s, this Kansas therapist told this 13 year old, “You’re too young to know. The other issues with your family are more important right now.”
Thanks a lot.
I re-experienced the steady and bumpy road of coming out. “Coming out’s like flossing your teeth,” I told Tami. “You can’t just do it once.”
My life’s journey has wound in and out of the closet. The most recent bend came when experiencing the teeth of homophobia as a tenure-track professor at Kansas State University.
I’d lived in midtown KC, where wearing my orientation on my sleeve felt comfortable, before moving to Manhattan, KS in 2001. Despite the fact that I teach Dance at KSU, I would see students’ eyes grow wide with shock when I’d say, for example, “My boyfriend makes fun of me because I eat ice cream when I work on choreography.”
KSU students anonymously evaluate their instructors and we receive the results. After reading some homophobic commentary on my evaluations, I chose to remove any reference to my orientation from the classroom.
“I’ve not full out lied about it,” I said to Tami. But then I corrected myself, “Actually, I have. I’ve mentioned my lovely wife. Plenty of my students know I’m joking. There are the few that don’t. He said that it’s fine with him if I call him my wife. There have been debates among my students, behind my back, regarding my orientation.”
At the same time, I serve as faculty advisor for the Progressive Alliance, the gay and lesbian student organization. My colleagues all know. I’ve merely chosen to make my actual teaching time bereft of mention of my orientation.
I face an irony. I feel frustration with the student body and how few of them in a Theatre and Dance program have come out of the closet. Yet how can I truly judge that when I myself have chosen to step back in?
“So, the point of this study, why are you living in Kansas?” Tami asked.
I spoke of the quality of life of the job I have, how I’ve never gotten a promotion like the one I just got from assistant to associate professor with tenure. How remarkable it feels to be in this field, Theatre and Dance, with this kind of job security. How settled and content my husband feels in Manhattan; he grew up here too.
As I write about it now, I failed to mention to Tami the spectacular sky, the fertile land or the delicious absence of the KSU students in the summers. And I question if my road of life might lead me away from Kansas — or farther back out of the closet.
I’m glad I signed the consent form and included my story in Tami Albin’s collection, offering my story to the diverse Kansas experiences. Albin hopes to have the project “Under the Rainbow: Oral Histories of GLBTIQ People in Kansas” online, KU Scholarworks, by fall.
David Ollington, in addition to writing for eKC online, is associate professor in the Dance/Theatre department at Kansas State University in Manhattan. He can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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