An occasional series where we pose some questions to local LGBTQ folks (and Allies) to learn more about their personal experiences with LGBTQ culture. Click here for a complete list of all LGBTQ&A profiles.
Name: Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.
Affiliation: ACLS New Faculty Fellow, Women’s Studies and History, University of Pittsburgh
Public education advocate, author of blog Yinzercation
Tell us about the very first LGBTQ person you met and what that meant for you. I got involved in theater in middle school and was surrounded by LGBTQI folks and allies – an early drama coach may be the first truly “out” person I recall in my life. The arts were a supportive environment for me in many ways and by high school I was loudly championing women’s rights and was interested in gender bending: I went to my senior prom in a full tuxedo. My own scholarly interests have continued to center on gender issues and for many years I also ran a theater company here in Pittsburgh that produced new works by women playwrights. Our production of Kellee Van Aken’s, Tipton, told the true story of the transgender big-band era jazz saxophonist, Billy Tipton, and made the Post-Gazette’s list of top theater in Pittsburgh that year.
How do you stay informed on LGBTQ issues? At Pitt I now teach in women’s studies – which includes gender and sexuality studies – and incorporate LGBTQI issues in my courses. There’s nothing like teaching to keep you learning – from current research, and from your own students.
What is the most important issue facing the LGBTQ community today? My students “get” the L and G, and mostly B – but the TQI takes more reading, contemplation, and discussion. This is where we have class conversations about the social construction of gender and sexual identities and break down seemingly “natural” binary categories. It can feel like heady, academic stuff – and it can feel threatening, since I am often asking students to challenge what they think they already know and take for granted. So much of our world is ordered by these relationships of gender and sexuality, and so much oppression stems from them: I think a serious challenge facing us today is helping people understand what “LGBTQI” means, in the fullest, most complicated sense so we can break down those power hierarchies.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community, what would it be? I realize there is no one, single “community,” and would love to see even more connection between all the communities represented by the letters in our alphabet soup of L-G-B-T-Q-I. In fact, if I had a magic wand, I think I’d wave it over the “straight” community instead and help folks see what a social construction that category really is. My wish would be to help us all move beyond the over-simplification of categorical thinking – so that we are embracing the full humanity in each and every one of us.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character in television, film or literature? Early in the television series Glee, the character of Rachel had two dads who never appeared on screen, but who were casually mentioned. I appreciated how their sexuality was a complete non-issue and wondered if that signaled a new era in LGBTQI media representations. On the other hand, the bisexual Brittany and the lesbian Santana seem to exist in story lines too often for the purpose of hetero-male fantasy. But I also love the character of Kurt and the explicit story lines the writers have put together about bullying, friendship, and family support (he has the most amazing dad ever). And now there is a wonderful transgender character, Unique, so the show continues to push LGBTQI issues into the mainstream.
What is one simple thing a reader can do to support the LGBTQ community? I’m a public education advocate so I will answer with that hat on: the vast majority of our LGBTQI kids are being educated in public schools (which serve 89% of all students in Pennsylvania.). That means that some of the students most vulnerable to bullying are spending the majority of their waking hours outside their home in our public schools, which typically still have insufficient anti-bullying programs in place. While I believe strongly in continuing to fight for local and state resources to implement such programs, I also believe that we all share the responsibility for addressing bullying-culture. The one simple thing parents in particular can do to support the LGBTQI community is to speak up every time we hear children use words like “gay,” “fag,” or “queer” as negative descriptions or phrases like “you’re such a girl” as put-downs. We have to have conversations with our kids so they understand exactly why these are hurtful.
Thank you, Jessie.
NOTE: At the request of Jessie, we made a correction changing transgendered to transgender in the third question. We don’t typically edit content but an astute FB reader saw the word and Jessie asked us to change it.