By Eric Ruble
Why are there no more lesbian bars in Los Angeles? This question spurred USC Price PhD candidate Marisa Turesky’s research into how the built environment traditionally excludes minority groups and what this means for the future of gathering spaces as populations age.
“[I want to] highlight heterosexism in the planning field and try to make that really visible through researching queer folks,” said Turesky, who just completed her third year in the Price School’s Urban Planning and Development doctoral program.
As America winds down a month of Pride celebrations, Turesky’s research is a reminder that the fight for equality is ongoing and can occur in every academic discipline.
Lessons from the past
When developing her intended doctoral research topic, Turesky – who uses she/her and they/them pronouns – thought back to her time in Amsterdam during the mid-2000s, when she made lesbian friends and had her first girlfriend. “Being in the bar scene in Amsterdam really helped to give me a sense of community that I hadn’t felt in a long time,” she said.
Turesky was expecting a thriving lesbian bar scene when she moved to L.A. in 2018, but came to find a very different social scene. “I was pretty shocked that Los Angeles – which was in my head as a global queer space – no longer had any lesbian bars,” she said.
Her experience is backed up by data. Nationwide, it is estimated that only 21 lesbian bars remain, according to The Lesbian Bar Project, and there are valid concerns that some locations are barely hanging on due to the effects of the pandemic.
Lesbian bars aren’t just fun places to enjoy a drink; throughout history, they have been essential “safe space” enclaves for safe fellowship, away from anti-LGBTQ laws and discrimination.
To learn more about what happened to these important places, Turesky visited the June Mazer Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood. As she searched, she began to gain a better understanding of what the city’s lesbian bars were like when they existed, and what led to their demise.
“It took me 26 years to start learning my own people’s history. That was both motivating and extremely troubling to me,” she said.
It was then that Turesky decided to combine her passion for urban planning with a quest to study older lesbian populations who witnessed the changes to L.A.’s building-bound queer spaces firsthand.
The benefits of a flexible curriculum
Professor Lisa Schweitzer drew Turesky to Price. “She’s the leading scholar on justice and urban planning,” Turesky said of Schweitzer, who is now her advisor.
In 2020, Turesky began developing her dissertation topic with support from Schweitzer and her qualifying exam committee. By February of her third year as a Price student, Turesky had completed her proposal and was ready to present it.
“Because I’m looking at urban planning from such an interdisciplinary lens, I’ve really been afforded the freedom to take classes at any school in the university without any questions asked,” Turesky said.
Choosing the Price School for her doctoral studies allows Turesky to take advantage of Los Angeles’ diverse history and prominence as a major city center. To this day, L.A. remains a hub for LGBTQ residents, who are relatively well-represented compared to other regions within the U.S., according to the New York Times.
One of the best parts about researching at USC, Turesky shared, is the ability to take courses in schools and departments across the university. Outside of Price, she has taken classes in English, gender studies and communication.
She even found a mentor in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology: Dr. Paul Nash, who specializes in ageism and intersectionality, HIV and aging, and stigma and discrimination.
“He has been an invaluable mentor and teacher for me as I begin my dissertation,” Turesky said.
Research with broad implications
Turesky’s dissertation specifically asks: how does aging change the kinds of places lesbians need and/or desire over the course of life? But she hopes her analysis will apply beyond the LGBTQ lens.
“Studying the needs and desires of older lesbians has a lot of implications to understand the social and political dynamics of underserved communities generally,” she said. “When we’re planning for the needs of those most marginalized, we’re planning for everyone else in between as well.”
Through her research, Turesky plans to demonstrate that studying older lesbians will impact non-queer communities. For example, she pointed to how lesbians have been developing informal care networks for decades – something that became especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s so much we can learn from our queer ancestors in terms of caring for ourselves and for others,” Turesky said.
A real-world postdoctoral purpose
When it comes time to defend her dissertation, she said she hopes “there’s at least a greater sense that gender and sexual orientation do visibly matter in urban planning.”
“It’s such a beautiful exploration that we get to do,” she said. “And it’s really challenging to not be future-oriented, especially in urban planning, which is so much about the future of our communities.”
She wants to make it clear that the people closest to dominant power structures – white, straight, cis-gendered men – usually get to define the narrative in urban planning. Even many spaces ostensibly dedicated to all LGBTQ people actually cater to white, cis, gay men. Queer theorists refer to this as “homonormativity.”
Turesky argues that LGBTQ stories have been suppressed by “mainstream urban histories” and need to be told through plaques, memorials and other physical spaces, like the Stonewall Inn in New York City, which became an official city landmark in 2015.
“These spaces – they facilitate those social relationships,” she said.
Indeed, she believes sharing intergenerational knowledge is critical in queer communities, and it has to be preserved through the built environment.
“It can be easy for folks, I think, to forget how much work we still have to do.”
She’s excited to take on some of that work – and will be well equipped to do it.