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.




Visualizing Community: Designing & Creating Queer Female Space in DC (Working Title)

This semester in Professor David Ribes’ Ethnography & Archival Research: A Grounded Theory Approach course I have been studying the way local factors specific to DC, such as professionalism, leadership, money, resumes, and spatial gentrification, inform how LGBTQ-identified females negotiate, construct, and perform their online & offline identity. This project is turning into my thesis project, which has five goals: (i) to understand how social media (online space) functions in DC’s female LGBTQ community, (ii) identify & visualize invisible tensions and connections between existing networks, (iii) empower and give a voice to community leaders that create online space, (iv) discover opportunities for better community development, and (v) to bridge and create more reciprocity between the academy and the community. This research about the DC female LGBTQ community is a fragment of a larger set of (micro)practices within the field of work that explores the way LGBTQ identified individuals use social media tools to seek pleasure, express their identity, and “meet” up in urban spaces. I specifically seek to unpack the important factors that exist in the discursive properties of DC’s community and whether or not the online social tools, designed to brings queer identifed individuals together, actually translates into physical “offline” bodily interactions.

Charmaz, "Constructing Grounded Theory," Main Text for Course

Grounded theory involved collecting data, coding data, memoing, sorting, theorizing(Abstracting codes), and writing. It does not have to be in that order, of course, but grounded theory involves constant analysis and immersion – going back to the data and then going back into the field to cross-sample emerging codes. Over the course of the past 4 months I’ve studied/observation several sites (i) online websites, DC LGBTQ SNS sites, DC LGBTQ online social calendars, and facebook pages, (ii) physical spaces, I’ve attended a variety/diverse mix of ‘lesbian’ events in DC, (iii) personal interviews, I’ve interviewed ~12 female dc leaders that were involved in creating online/offline LGBTQ spaces. I will continue to visit these sites over the course of the next year as I write my thesis project. One of the most useful methods for my research has been “co-presence.” Anne Beauleiu (2010) refers to co-presence as the ability to investigate many sites at once as there is no longer just one site of knowledge production, but values and ideas emerge across highly mediated and distributed networks, and in this case networks produced by lesbians in DC. It was also important for me to establish co-presence in the community, as a member myself, by posting on the sites and making sure the community members were aware of my project and its goals.


Sample Questions to my respondents:

(i) What inspired you to create the sites?

(ii) What have been the major challenges in maintaining the site’s presence?

(iii) What are your goals for the community in DC?


Rather than overlaying queer theory or other forms of scholarship overtop these sites, I let the theories/emerge from the sites. I didn’t fully know what my research question was until about the beginning of March — the urban local factors, such as resume & gentrification, emerged from my respondants themselves — and became important parts  of the way they went about planning and creating events for the community.

Terms – Queer females? Lesbians? LGBTQ – What Terms to Use?

This paper moves away from the traditional textbook definitions of what lesbian and queer means, and highlightst the way media, specifically online networks, impose a prescribed meaning of what or should be defines as “gay “lesbian” “queer.” Several of my respondents use “lesbian” and ‘Queer’ to refer to their sexual identity, but in order to not exclude particular identities I will refer to my respondents as female LGBTQ members. Moreover, defining identity is not the goal of this paper, but instead it seeks to reveal the important aspects that make up the DC LGBTQ community by examining both online & offline sites.

Just in the past 6 years, 5 majors female LGBTQ websites have emerged to help diversify the scene and create spaces that are more inclusive.

“Community” Goals from respondents:

“Now there is a lot more regular stuff going on, you start seeing the same people out at all the events…It’s my goal to have a scene where its an actual community and not just people at bars.”

“Because the truth of the matter is, that going out and meeting people at clubs is fine and dancing is fun, but I don’t know if it really gets to the guts of what a community is, where you are meeting older people that can mentor you.”

Going about creating an “inclusive” and “safe” community space, however, is not easy, and by no means linear. Three major themes have developed, from my research, which requires that women work within the existing (i) politics of DC to (2) create spaces both online & offline in order to gain (3) visiblity to create consistency (See Figure below).



Visibility includes fashion/appearances, as well as the aesthetics of the online space. One of my respondents notes, “It’s kind of just the next step in the process of people becoming more comfortable with being out in general.” There is now a “queer” design movement, in which, women are trying to use design to not exclude, but include everyone, no matter what sexuality. This means moving towards design that throws away the presence of the rainbow “signifier.”  Yet, in offline spaces you still have people segregating into community events based on race, class, and style. One respondent notes, “I have friends that go to their events, I don’t because that is just not my type of crowd.”


In terms of Politics, female LGBTQ members have to work within existing powerful LGBTQ organizations in DC to gain a voice – most of their sites and events are produced as their “side jobs” – thus money is a huge concern. Becoming a successful leader in DC, means that females need to network and show up at events regularly to gain trust from existing LGBTQ members. A respondent notes, “There is defnitely a lot of challenges, and I think one of them is being a young feamle business owner, whether you are gay or straight, it doesn’t really matter…I was literally out 4-6 days of the week, always out showing my face, always introducing myself to people…it felt like establishing those relationships with people that are very well connected in the community.”


DC is a transient city – people move in and out. As a result, it is hard to create established female LGBTQ spaces when people are in constant flux. In addition to “physical” spatial movement, several of my respondents agreed that another reason why it is hard to create a consistent and inclusive lesbian space is due to set “lesbian” spatial metaphors. For example, “nesting,” the term for coupling up with a partner and becoming “invisible from the scene” is one of the spatial behaviors. Also, living outside the city, in Maryland & Virgiina is another factor. There are also geographic reasons, such as women only going to parties within a region of DC, Black parties (NE) and White parties (NW). However,  the latter segregation is starting to change through the emergence of these inclusive social networking sites.

This research is will a work in progress and this summer I will doing independent studies to further explore the history of LGBT politics. Next question is: How has the macro-history of LGBTQ politics in DC and urban gentrification informed the micro-practices of curent LGBTQ community development DC? This will involve more archival research, but will not mean that I will discontinue my co-presence and interviews.

I’d love for any comments or suggestions on my work so far 🙂 I’m currently working on thesis proposal and IRB approval for future data.