Labor of Love – A Semester’s Reflection

Labor of Love has evolved tremendously over Fall 2012. What started as a documentary that would only explore the history of one lesbian space in DC, the Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA), has turned into an ongoing archive project that explores the relationship of lesbian community space to cultural memory in documentary form. The evolution began when I sent my project to Denise Bump, an active member in the DC LGBT community, to see if she could connect me to women from the Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA) that I could interview. Bump had never heard of the GWA, but she herself was involved in heaps of other organizations, such as Lammas Bookstore. It then occurred to me: so many spaces are gone, why did they close? She then told me that she formed a DC Women’s Initiative group in March 2012 to try to make a new space.  Although the Initiative is still rather small in scale, all the women involved desire one thing: a new space to connect women of the diverse LBTQ community. The goal is to the launch the space in the first half of 2013, but public awareness, funding, the divides within the community (e.g. black vs. white, gay vs. lesbian) and time is the Initiative’s main barrier. After meeting with Bump, my project would serve as a perfect opportunity to interview women about what they want for the new space and to access the history of lesbian civic organizations in D.C., as the present is always confined by the the past.

As I rummaged through meeting minutes at Rainbow History Project archives located at the Kiplinger library, I somehow became nostalgic of these spaces I never had and that were, quickly fading from cultural memory. After several phone calls and 21 interviews later, it occurred to me that the DC lesbian community needs a new space to call their own, that is not a bar, but a safe space to support community projects. This ‘spatial alignment’ (for lack of better words) I developed with my subjects became a perfect opportunity to use my project as a form of assessment. While the documentary & web-based archive interweaves the stories of women from the past with the story of the DC Women Initiative’s space, the function of the video will be to create conversations about what women want from space both online and offline. Before the film’s premiere in April, I will edit several sequences where I screen the footage with various local DC LGBT groups to get feedback about the resources and events LBTQ women want from a community space (the first one will be held at the Washington Blade on Dec 13th). These focus group screenings have three goals: (i) to educate members of the LGBTQ community unaware of the challenge, passion, and effort put forth by female LGBT leaders, (ii) get more women involved in the process, and (iii) discover what women want from a new space in the community.

The project’s web-archive ( is where the public will access mini-stories about the history of lesbian space. Currently the site has fourteen clips of different women: June Crenshaw (DC Women’s Initiative), Elizabeth Birch (Former President of HRC), Nikki Smith (Ladies Rock This), and many more.  Part of the goal of placing all these stories in one virtual space, is to urge women to then meet offline to bring their spatial desires to action. There is also additional information about the production, our Start Some Good fundraising campaign, and the updated trailer. The new trailer opens with the audio of Esther Katzman, former Board Member of the GWA, speaking about the importance of the Gay Women’s Alternative in D.C. bridge with newspaper clippings from the Washington Blade during the 1980s. She notes that the GWA was a space where women could be “lesbian,” but at the same time have “elegance in their life.” The trailer then fades into the present, where women in the DC Women’s Initiative discuss the desire and need for a new space. The hope is that the trailer urges women to realize what is at stake – the ever present fading nature of physical lesbian spaces in D.C.

Labor of Love Trailer from Labor of Love Film on Vimeo.

Moving forward, I and others in the DC Women’s Initiative are working on an Initiative survey to be handed out at the Dec. 13th event. The goal is to find out what events and resources women would want from a new community space. Next semester, I hope to solidify a larger set crew together to help me screen and present the sequences at various focus groups. Come the time of the final premiere in April 2013, the new space may not be open, but at least the public will be aware of the desire for new space and can move forward. After-all, the most important part of this documentary and research project are the events, conversations, and activism that occur around the film.

Documentary production begins

Why is that we choose to privilege certain aspects of LGBT history and hide others? What symbols and landmarks in our history teach new generations about LGBT identity and history? The District of Columbia (D.C.) is one of the most politically and ethnically diverse regions in the United States. The multicultural environment provides female identified lesbian and queer community with unique opportunities to create diverse communities. However, D.C.’s high profile community and the gentrified urban layout often segregates, rather than bring people together. In addition, the lack of money and transience within the lesbian and female queer community also forces organizations to come and go. There are missing sites; lesbian organizations that do not come to people’s mind when people think about lesbian experience in D.C. The Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA), 1980 -1993, is one of D.C.’s missing sites. This non-profit organization was created in 1980 to provide the D.C.’s Lesbian community with an alternative and safe space to socialize and discuss feminist and educational topics concerning the lesbian and gay women population. But due to a lack of money and other unknown reasons, the GWA closed down in 1993.

My documentary thesis project, tentatively titled Labor of Love, explores why a popular civic lesbian organization, the Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA 1980-1993), closed down in 1993. Through personal interviews with past GWA board members, present-day community leaders, and oral narratives, the film discusses past and present challenges of sustaining female space in D.C’s transient and high profile community. The film’s key questions are: Why are the same challenges that affected lesbian organization communities 40 years ago, such as segregation, lack of diversity, and lack of space, still happening today? How can cultural knowledge be passed down from one generation to the next? By having leaders and members of the DC LGBT community, from both past and present, reflect and (re)tell their stories about creating a support group, social function, or business, they will not only better understand the importance of their place, both physically and culturally in the community, but the challenges and successes they have faced in the process.

The film will not only feature contemporary female LGBT leaders, such as  Ebone Bell, founder of Tagg Magazine, Where The Girls Go, a local queer blog, The CooLots, a queer band, but women from the past, such as Elizabeth Birch, HRC executive director 1994-2004, Susan Hester, founder of the Mautner Project, and Leigh Gieger, founder of the Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA).

Here are some photos from last week’s shoot with Leigh Gieger (Special thanks to Christopher Siler, Lisa Tuvalo, and Rachel Marquart for volunteering their time to help with the shoot!).

Explaining the shoot to Geiger.

Setting up lighting, checking the framing.

Prepping the questions.


The director’s shot

Leigh describing her story.




An Alternative to the Bar, An Alternative to the Closet

The Gay Women’s Alternative: An Alternative to the Bar, An Alternative to the Closet :

Jeanette Paroly discusses a need for a new Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA)

Interview by Kelsey Brannan

Since the early 2000s lesbian D.C. leaders have created both online and offline community spaces for LGBT people to gather and socialize in the city, such as,, The creators of these sites sought to conquer existing disparities between various female identified lesbian and queer groups to create a “common ground” for socialization. Despite the efforts, many new city transplants still find it hard to connect with others in the LGBT community. The Gay Women’s Alternative (GWA), a defunct non-profit lesbian community organization that existed in DC between 1980 – 1993, was able to create this common ground. The GWA was designed to bring women of all ages and backgrounds together in a safe space to educate and enrich the cultural, intellectual, and social lives of lesbians of the Washington D.C. Metro area.  The GWA met every Wednesday night at the Washington Ethical Society near Silver Spring, MD. Some of the weekly programs included talks such a, “Lesbian Couples: How different are” and “Organization Your Finances for success.” Speakers included the famous black poet, Audre Lorde, artist Joan E. Biren, and the famous television journalist, Maureen Bunyan.  In this discussion, Jeanette Paroly, (60), past board member of the GWA, Mautner Project, and Task Force, discusses the need for a strong local lesbian and bisexual organization to take the lead and teach future generations how to create successful communities, in addition to finding a way to include all women of color, age and socioeconomic groups.

Gay Women's Alternative Logo


KB: When did you first hear about the GWA, how did you get involved?

JP: Well, the GWA started in 1980, I just heard about it and I went to the first meeting. It was a nice mixture of age, although I don’t think we were successful in really reaching women of color. We got incredible people to speak, we really did and I think that is what really drew people in. We met at the Washington Ethical Society on 16th Street, so it wasn’t downtown; it was easy to get to no matter where you lived. When you first came it was about an hour of presentation and then about an hour of socializing, so it gave people something to talk about. When you have something to talk about it allows for interacting. So it was a really nice way for women, of every variation and theme to get together. It was a Wednesday evening, no big deal, we had nothing to do anyway.

KB: How was privacy handled? Was everyone out of the closet?

JP:  In terms of the board, the women that got involved were pretty comfortable with their sexuality, and were pretty much out or they wouldn’t have gotten involved. When I was president of the Board I decided that we were going to be a little more radical there. A little more uncomfortable, so I proposed to have a night of lesbian porn. Well, everyone was saying are you out of your mind! People are going to go nuts! I felt like it was an issue, as if women do not respond to porn, hello! Now, these were not films that were made for straight men. So I told the board, ‘I’ll tell you what, we are going to have to pre-screen the films before we show them, so we will have to have two Sundays where we watch the films. Now are you interested?” And then all of the sudden everyone was saying ‘That’s a great idea!’ So it forced the issue of lesbian sexuality, and what does that mean? I really think that GWA really was a place, where everybody could come and feel safe arguing their position because everyone was welcome.

KB: Did the GWA have any fun games?

JP: We had the dating game, the lesbian dating game. An individual who volunteered and was single would sit with three women hidden behind a screen and ask each of them three questions and see how they answered. She then got to choose one of the three women with whom to go out on a date for which we paid. So we did fun things too!

KB: How did the GWA get funding?

JP: Our pockets. But it wasn’t that expensive because there was a kitchen downstairs in the Ethical society and whoever was in charge that night dragged in the soda, and if we were not chopping up vegetables for the meeting in our home we were doing it in that kitchen. Later what happened, I believe, is that the board members didn’t want to do that kind of work, so they would get platters and it got expensive. There was also a suggested donation, which basically covered the food, but we also had to pay increasing rent to the Ethical Society so it was becoming more expensive to run.

KB: Do you miss the GWA?

JP: It was the only place, at the time, where you could go, listen to something that was either fun or intelligent, something of interest and then just hang out and socialize, starting at 7:30 – 8pm, and by 10ish we were cleaning up. I think it was necessary because there was no middle ground, and it involved older and younger women. If there were a place like that now, that would be great. But there isn’t any place like that presently; it seems like more and more lesbians and bisexuals are moving further and further out into the suburbs. I think that women felt it was necessary because it was the only place they could go where there was a viable way to be social, could talk to each other, and it was a really nice comfortable way to meet others.

KB: What political events occur in the 1980s, how did it affect the GWA?

JP: Being in DC, one of the biggest employers is the government. Depending on security clearance, as long as you are/ were out and honest it was/is okay. But knowing people that went through clearances they had to prove they were out to everybody, and if they couldn’t prove this they didn’t get clearance. So that was an important political and personal issue. If someone asked me whether they should come out, I might say, no, depending on the circumstances. I might ask them, why are you coming out? Are doing it for you? Wait until you know, what the possibilities are. So my answer would not always be yes. If you are a civilian working for the Pentagon, do you want to come out there? Well, things have recently changed, but back then, perhaps no. Nobody at that time, at GWA, made any judgment about anyone, and I think it was the only place really, that everybody was welcome. We really tried to provide presentations that opened up doors to allow for discussions and for questions to be asked.

KB: Yes, it seemed like most of the presentations related to real life lesbian experiences.

JP: Well, the board members were real live lesbians and we also had connections through all these different people we each knew, and I think what happened over time, is that the people on the board didn’t have the same connections, so it was harder to get people on the calendar as speakers.

KB: How do you get a lesbian organization to remain inclusive, yet also specific?

JP: Urvashi Vaid, wrote a book about a need for crossing bridges called Virtual Equality. Crossing bridges and creating new ones was how I saw it, I just felt then and I’ve tried to continue to do so in my way of being involved in different communities over the years. However, when I look back, that was the one organization that I wish still existed because you don’t know where to go out, and you don’t know what your friends are doing. If you really want the younger ones to learn, with the wonder of the world they have now, even though it’s still limited, how do you teach, how do you pass on, and have people embrace it? To know the past, to know the present and to not repeat the past but create a healthy present and future, that’s the lesson, right? When I think about it, a place like the GWA would be a place to do that. Where you have topics bring people in to include all ages, women of color and cultures, lesbian and bisexuals and you would have different topics and presenters that would add to the group diversity.

KB: Do you have any advice for women today that are trying to run successful organizations?

JP: If you want people to come, and be involved, use the local papers, they are all over the place, and the ones out in VA and MD, DC and The Washington Post, and the Blade, so these different communities can see it. You have to have a reason for people to come. If you are getting presenters that support and represent a wide variety of audiences you are going to get a variety of people to attend. I would also go back to the understanding that you are not going to be making any money, okay? It will probably cost you money, especially at the beginning. That the sole purpose is to make it a safe place that is purely non-judgmental about who you are, where you come from, what you are about. Also, have a topic that brings them in, and then allows discussion among all, crossing boundaries, and in order to do that, you need presenters that are young and politically active, and you need older women who have other things to talk about. I would also state as the mission statement: ‘to bring lesbians, bisexuals, and/or women identified women in a space that is safe as a diverse group, a place to become educated and to share and to be social. I would keep it as simple as possible and I really think, I would pick a name that doesn’t create exclusion.

KB: Any final thoughts?

JP: I just recently went to the Mautner project Gala [Paroly was on the first Board of Mautner Project] and I was really glad I went, there were more than 1000 women in the room, all ages, all dressed, and I looked around and I felt proud. With GWA, I am really proud to have been a part of it, it somehow grew, it was a place for women to grow.

Jeanette Paroly, Ph.D. has been a licensed professional counselor in the DC area for over thirty years, with one specialty including understanding and working with the special needs of the Lesbian/bisexual population, as individuals and couples, in addition to ongoing involvement and support of this community.

More information about the GWA is available through the Rainbow History Project: .If you were apart of the GWA and have more thoughts please contact Kelsey Brannan at kels [dot] bran [at] gmail [dot] com to share your story.


Finding LGBTQ Community — In the home!

Are you an LGBTQ member and new to the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia)? Or are you simply looking for a more comfortable and LGBT friendly community? We all know how exhausting it is to sift through thousands of craigslist postings to find an ideal LGBT friendly space.  But luckily, our friend Imani Mapp has made this process a whole lot easier! She created a Queer Housing-DC Google Group resource for queer and queer-friendly individuals in the Washington, D.C. area to connect with other individuals either seeking or offering housing.  Now, you can post your own ads or share queer friendly spaces you find!

The group is brand new, so there is no content yet, but that can be changed by you! So be queer and move in! If you have any questions about this online community you can contact Imani at imanimapp [a] gmail [dot] com

created by k.brannan