Author Spotlight: Lisa Tillmann on Research, Relationships, and Respect

By Hania Powell

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Lisa M. Tillmann, Ph.D., is an activist researcher, social justice documentary filmmaker, and professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies at Rollins College. The CMC program, founded by Dr. Tillman herself, is designed to examine the world’s most pressing issues and challenge and help students envision ways to work toward change. The major reflects the values Dr. Tillmann holds most dear: peace, equity, and justice. These values are evident in the numerous activist initiatives, many centering on civil rights, that she has participated in both on campus and throughout central Florida. She authored the book, Between Gay and Straight: Understanding Friendship Across Sexual Orientation, produced the film Weight Problem: Cultural Narratives of Fat and “Obesity”, and co-produced the films Off the Menu: Challenging Politics and Economics of Body and Food and Remembering a Cool September, which is about LGBTQ civil rights.

Her newest book, In Solidarity: Friendship, Family, and Activism Beyond Gay and Straight, serves as a roadmap for allyship in the queer community and is as intellectually analytic and insightful as it is profoundly emotional. In it, she recounts and explores the varying realities of those in the LGBT community through her personal relationships and the utilization of autoethnography, interviewing, and participant observation. Dr. Tillmann’s intention and hopes for the book are made clear in its preface: “Deep, committed, and loving relationships across lines such as class, nation, sex, race, religion, ideology, ability, age, gender, and sexual orientation can help light the way toward a more equitable and just society.”


Hania Powell: What about ethnography appeals to you as a researcher?

Lisa Tillman: Ethnography appeals to me as someone interested in human cultures and public life. As a research method, it requires openness, curiosity, and sustained immersion. As a mode of documenting, ethnographic texts connect thick description of particular events with larger social issues.

HP: What initially drew you write about this subject in particular, to engage with the gay community?

LT: My interest began in 1994. Doug Healy, whom I would marry the following year, graduated pharmacy school and moved to Tampa, where I had just completed my first year in the Ph.D. program in Communication at the University of South Florida. Doug’s trainer at work was David Holland, and the two clicked immediately. David’s way of coming out to Doug and me was to invite us to meet him at Tracks, which I knew to be a gay nightclub in Ybor City. Neither Doug nor I, both 23 at the time, had ever had an openly gay friend before. Both of us had grown up in the rural Midwest with rather conventional ideas about sexuality and sexual orientation. Nonetheless, we agreed to meet David at Tracks, and as it turned out, this was only the beginning.

A few months later, David mentioned to Doug that he played softball. Still new to Florida and longing for male friends, Doug asked excitedly if David’s team needed players. “Uh, yeah,” David hedged, “but I should tell you that my team is gay, and in fact, the whole Suncoast league is gay. However, we do have a provision that allows each team to have two straight players, so if it doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother us.” At the start of the next softball season, Doug became right centerfielder for the team, a position he played for the remaining four years we lived in Tampa. Over time, the men we met through David and other members of the team became our closest friends, our surrogate family.

Meanwhile, I had become interested in studying relationships ethnographically. At the time, neither academic research nor mainstream media examined close friendships between men with divergent sexual orientations. In 1995, I began a three-year interview and participant observation study of Doug’s and my relationships with our network of friends. That resulted in my Ph.D. dissertation and first book, Between Gay and Straight: Understanding Friendship Across Sexual Orientation.

HP: What were the biggest obstacles you encountered in the process of writing your second book, In Solidarity: Friendship, Family, and Activism Beyond Gay and Straight?

The most pressing challenges have involved living up to the ethical obligations I feel to my friends/participants. I strive to be a collaborative researcher, to work side-by-side. I provide copies of interview transcripts and drafts of material for publication. I want the texts to feel—and do—right. I re-secure informed consent at each phase, and I’m willing to let go of a piece—no matter how much time and effort has been invested—if it seems it will harm my friend/participant.

The first section of In Solidarity contains four chapters from a project called “Going Home.” This involved traveling with friends/participants to places their family members lived, conducting interviews and fieldwork, and shooting photographs and video. For between one and two months after In Solidarity was under contract, I didn’t know if any of the “Going Home” chapters would appear in the book. The negotiations with my friends and their family members took time and care.

In other cases, though, my friends served as full coauthors and co-producers. My friend and colleague Dr. Kathryn Norsworthy, with whom I’ve collaborated since 2001, co-wrote the last chapter of the book, “In Solidarity: Collaborations in LGBTQ+ Activism.” Dave Dietz, a friend of more than 20 years, co-produced the film, Remembering a Cool September, which can be found on In Solidarity’s website.

HP: What kind of mental and emotional tolls come with engaging so deeply with a community?

LT: In many ways, I have experienced the same kinds of tolls as with any longtime friendships: members of the group have died, others have survived serious illnesses, and many (including myself) have endured painful relational dissolutions. What renders the tolls different than those encountered in my friendships with others who identify as heterosexual is that I have witnessed for many years the emotional, relational, and professional costs of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Pain. Fear. Alienation. Moral outrage. I don’t suffer the same acute effects of these inequalities as do my LGBT friends, but I have tried to put myself in the trenches, and that means you take hits, flack, blowback.

HP: How have your roles as activist and researcher/ethnographer worked together?

LT: To be an effective activist, you need broad and deep knowledge, and that requires research. Both activism and research involve understanding how cultural institutions work. Both endeavors require building alliances and relational capital. Both test a person’s tenacity. There will be obstacles, dead ends, and setbacks.

HP: What inspires you most in your writing?

LT: The purpose of my scholarship and creative work is to engage issues of equity and justice through a narrative that, if sufficiently compelling, can spark consciousness raising, dialogue, and social action.

HP: I know you’ve been with Rollins since 1999. How has Rollins as an institution and community affected your life?

LT: Deciding to apply to Rollins, I was attracted to its mission of global citizenship. Both activism and research can be enactments of citizenship, and teaching should cultivate citizenship in its students.

I also was attracted by Rollins’ inclusion of sexual orientation in its Equal Opportunity policy. In 1999, that put Rollins ahead of the federal, state, county, and city governments. Though I would be living in a country and a state in which one could be fired for no other reason than being gay or being perceived as gay—still true to this day—I did not want to devote my career to an institution that found that permissible.

My Ph.D. dissertation raised my consciousness about human rights. Coming to Rollins, and in particular partnering with Kathryn Norsworthy and later with the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee (OADO), gave me the knowledge and skills to mobilize to raise consciousness and participate in policy change movements. OADO would be instrumental in securing non-discrimination protections and domestic partner registries in Orlando and Orange County.

HP: What drew you to Critical Media and Cultural Studies? What do you hope to accomplish through teaching this subject?

LT: I served as first author of the Critical Media and Cultural Studies (CMC) curriculum. I wanted to be part of an interdisciplinary program grounded in social justice values. I wanted to help build a place where students could learn to be not only more critical consumers of cultural texts but also critically oriented producers capable of generating counter-narratives. I wanted to co-create an academic forum for examining the world’s most pressing challenges (e.g., climate change, war, economic inequality) and working with students to envision strategies for change. My longtime CMC collaborator, Denise Cummings, and our new colleague, Steve Schoen, have been instrumental in making CMC not just a program, place, or forum, but also a home. I am deeply proud of CMC’s mission and of our alums and current students. In terms of social conscience, our students are way ahead of where I was at their age! My deepest source of optimism comes in pondering who they will become and what they will remedy and advance.

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