[PHOTOS ARE PROVIDED COURTESY OF VANESSA RUIZ, AS PART OF THE RAINBOW PROJECT.]
Thirty-eight years after Chicago’s first Gay Pride Parade in 1970, the University of Chicago finally has a pride festival to call its own. The two weeks of free daily events kick off with a satirical debate on straight marriage, continue with a panel discussion on gay themes and homoeroticism in comics (Batman and Robin come to mind), and end with a student drag revue, Genderfuck. “There won’t be all the nakedness of [Chicago Pride in] Boystown in June,” warns Sarah Bouchat, third-year undergraduate and festival coordinator, but she thinks it will be an important event for the university’s gay community nonetheless.
Then why has it taken so long for the university to host a festival? While LGBTQ student groups have a proud history on campus–Queers and Associates (Q&A), the main undergraduate queer organization, has been running Genderfuck for nearly two decades–the university’s visible official efforts in support of queer students have been few. The LGBTQ Mentoring Program, founded in 2001, lacked a physical home until the multicultural center at 5710 S. Woodlawn opened earlier this year, and the LGBTQ Programming Office continues to consist of a single student intern. This year, Bouchat organized Pride and other queer programming while writing her thesis on the deportation of Cambodian refugees in order to graduate a year early. A new intern will take her place next year. While Bouchat claims that support is getting better with the opening of 5710 S. Woodlawn, she admits that the University community is underserved by such a small staff.
Bouchat thinks that a lack of student activism is to blame for the university’s slow response. “This campus is unique in that so many people are queer and already over it,” she says. Because of this “post-label phenomenon,” in which some LGBTQ students view themselves as mainstream and cease to actively identify themselves to others as gay individuals, the queer presence on campus is less visible.
Vanessa Ruiz, a photographer in the UofC’s graduate art program who is doing her thesis project on lesbian and bisexual women, agrees that in Chicago, homosexuality is somewhat underground. In Miami, where Ruiz grew up, she and other gay women she knew preferred the terms “lesbian” and “dyke.” In Chicago, the most common self-identifier she’s heard is “queer,” an ambiguous word that avoids many stereotypes about gays and lesbians but does not establish a definite sexuality. But she thinks this understated way of identifying is a sign of increasing acceptance, and unlike Bouchat, she doesn’t think it necessarily does the gay community a disservice. “We’re at the point where people are starting to come out enough that we don’t even think about it,” Ruiz says, and points out that while she was less open about her homosexuality at home because of Miami’s conservative political and religious values, on campus she’s seen “not even a facial expression” when she reveals herself to be gay.
But Ruiz doesn’t think the battle for acceptance is over, and she doesn’t want the visible markers of gay culture to fade away. As an artist, Ruiz has produced work for the Keiskamma Trust, a nonprofit fighting AIDS in South Africa, and photographed an orphanage in pre-tsunami Sri Lanka. Now, with her MFA thesis, entitled “The Rainbow Project,” Ruiz is turning the camera on her own embattled community. “All of my work is on social consciousness,” she explains. “Gay issues are close to my heart and very current. I want to use my photography as a voice for my people.”
Ruiz has so far photographed around fifteen women, including two lesbian couples, for the Rainbow Project. A couple have been from the North Side, she says, but the majority of her subjects have been local: she’s shot a few University of Chicago students, but an equal number are unaffiliated with the university and come from Hyde Park and surrounding communities. She shoots a cross-section of the gay community, cutting across races and age ranges; her youngest subject was seventeen (photographed with parental permission), while she’s also shot a number of older, partnered women. “I’m trying to figure out the right way to represent the LGBTQ community as normal–equal, maybe, is better–while still representing queerness as a cultural distinctiveness,” says Ruiz. That means that she photographs “straight-looking” women as well as those stereotypically dressed: as she says, “We’re normal and equal whether we’re left or right” on the spectrum of flamboyancy.
“Five years ago, I knew I was a photographer. But I was just coming out, and in college I didn’t really meet lesbians,” Ruiz says. “But from talking to my little sister, her age cohort was coming out in middle or high school.” Compared to the older women she’s met through her photography project, lesbians these days are coming out at a much younger age. The new generation has missed much of the culture wars over homosexuality. “People are more queer-friendly, and festivals are no longer angry,” says Ruiz. She’s excited for Pride: even if festivals now are more like cultural shows, she says, they do support other homosexuals and educate the public.
According to Bouchat, festivals could use a little more anger. “Dancing on a float is not going to help me gain my civil rights,” she says, referring to the booze- and commercial-sponsorship-heavy Chicago Pride festival in Boystown. For the University of Chicago Pride festival, she’d like to take the celebratory aspect of Chicago Pride and combine it with the activism and acceptance of allies and transpeople that marks Dyke March, the more inclusive lesbian counterpart to Pride.
“No one can tell you how many queer students there are on our campus,” Bouchat says, adding that many of them may feel alienated and overlooked. “Some people, when they get here, they’re looking to be out and proud, [but the lack of a loud homosexual voice] makes it harder to mobilize with other gays and lesbians.” Current estimates predict that one out of seven people are queer, so Bouchat plans to tag every seventh tree with a rainbow ribbon in one effort to get people thinking about gay visibility. Another is to draw people into Pride who ordinarily might not go.
Bouchat is particularly trying to lure gay men into Pride celebrations. “There’s definitely more cohesion in the lesbian community, less so in the male population,” Bouchat says of the campus scene. While women have a number of informal spin-off groups such as a lesbian poker night, gay men have historically been underrepresented even in Q&A, which had a reputation as a primarily lesbian group for many years. Bouchat reports that the weekly gay men’s discussion group has a normal attendance of seven to fifteen men, but it’s growing only slowly. In response, one Pride event is a talk by David Halperin, a University of Michigan professor in gender studies and author of the forthcoming book “How To Be Gay: Male Homosexuality as a Cultural Practice.” Halperin will speak on the social constructs of masculinity and homosexuality. “We wanted to do something specifically for the gay men,” says Bouchat.
Overall, says Bouchat, the goal of Pride is to remind both straight and gay people that homosexuals have a vibrant culture that is worth fighting for, even if many feel like the battle has already been won. Bouchat has a list of issues that she’d like to see addressed, among them the fact that the UofC’s Center for Gender Studies receives more attention in diversity campaigns than actual gender and sexuality support groups, a need for more comprehensive health education and services for queer students, and bettering the “painfully inadequate” conditions for transgendered students, including building single-user restrooms, allowing gender-neutral housing, and raising community awareness.
When Vanessa Ruiz thinks back to her own coming-out experience, she laughs. “I knew [I was gay] all through elementary school, but I didn’t come out because I was scared of my mom,” she says. Now Bouchat worries that that fear may extend into college if closeted students aren’t shown a strong and active gay community. Cultural wounds can last beyond generations; even if today’s young queer students weren’t alive for the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the anger and alienation motivating those events can shape them all the same.
Bouchat hopes that Pride will continue after she leaves her position as coordinator. She’d like to see the LGBTQ Programming Office offer more general-public events such as discussions and study breaks with free food. Most important, however, is answering the question of who is part of the community: to what extent will the University of Chicago queer community incorporate transpeople, straight allies, and local but non-University LGBTQ people?
Vanessa Ruiz thinks that reaching out to all potential community members is essential. The links she’s made with gay people across the city, and even through her work overseas, have made her more confident in her own gay identity. It’s the same reason she has her portrait subjects take photographs of her after each photo shoot, she says; “I’m representing them, they’ll represent me.” Maybe then the university will really have something to be proud of.