USC Price PhD candidate explores the importance of LGBTQ inclusivity in urban planning

June 28, 2021

By Eric Ruble

Why are there no more lesbian bars in Los Angeles? This question has spurred research by Marisa Turesky, a PhD student at USC Price, 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 planning and try to make it really visible by doing research on homosexuals,” said Turesky, who just completed her third year in the urban planning and development doctoral program at Price School.

Marisa Turesky (Courtesy of Marisa Turesky)

As America winds down a month of Pride celebrations, Turesky’s research is a reminder that the fight for equality is ongoing and can happen across all academic disciplines.

Lessons from the past

When crafting her doctoral research topic, Turesky – who uses the pronouns she/her and they/them – thought back to her time in Amsterdam in the mid-2000s, when she made lesbian friends and had his first girlfriend. “Being part of the bar scene in Amsterdam has really helped me create a sense of community that I haven’t felt in a long time,” she said.

Turesky expected a thriving lesbian bar scene when she moved to Los Angeles in 2018, but came to find a very different social scene. “I was quite shocked that Los Angeles — which was in my mind as a global queer space — no longer had lesbian bars,” she said.

His experience is backed by data. Nationally, it’s estimated that there are only 21 lesbian bars left, according to The Lesbian Bar Project, and there are rightly fears that some places are barely holding up due to the effects of the pandemic.

Lesbian bars aren’t just fun places to have a drink; throughout history they have been essential enclaves of “safe spaces” for safe fellowship, far from anti-LGBTQ laws and discrimination.

To learn more about what happened to these important places, Turesky visited June Mazer’s lesbian archives in West Hollywood. As her research progressed, she began to better understand what lesbian bars in the city looked like when they existed and what led to their demise.

“It took me 26 years to start learning the history of my own people. It was both motivating and extremely disturbing 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 first-hand the changes in queer spaces related to buildings in Los Angeles.

The benefits of a flexible curriculum

Professor Lisa Schweitzer lured Turesky to Price. “She is the leading specialist in justice and urban planning,” Turesky said of Schweitzer, who is now her adviser.

In 2020, Turesky began developing his thesis topic with support from Schweitzer and his qualifying review board. By February of her third year as a Price student, Turesky had completed her proposal and was ready to present it.

“Because I look at urban planning from an interdisciplinary perspective, I really had the freedom to take classes at any school at the university no questions asked,” Turesky said.

Choosing the Price School for his doctoral studies allows Turesky to take advantage of Los Angeles’ diverse history and its notoriety as a major downtown. To this day, LA remains a hub for LGBTQ residents, who are relatively well represented compared to other parts of the United States. according to the New York Times.

One of the best things about research at USC, Turesky explained, is the ability to take courses in the schools and departments of the university. Outside of Price, she took courses in English, gender studies, and communication.

She even found a mentor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology: Dr. Paul Nashwho specializes in ageism and intersectionality, HIV and aging, and stigma and discrimination.

“He was an invaluable mentor and teacher to me as I started my thesis,” Turesky said.

Research with broad implications

Turesky’s thesis specifically asks the following question: how does aging alter the kinds of places lesbians need and/or desire in their lifetime? But she hopes her analysis will apply beyond the LGBTQ lens.

“Studying the needs and desires of older lesbians has many implications for understanding the social and political dynamics of underserved communities in general,” she said. “When we plan for the needs of the most marginalized, we also plan for everyone else.”

Through her research, Turesky plans to demonstrate that studying older lesbians will have an impact on non-gay communities. For example, she highlighted how lesbians have developed informal networks of care for decades — something that has become especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s so much we can learn from our gay ancestors in terms of taking care of ourselves and others,” Turesky said.

PhD student Marisa Turesky
Marisa Turesky (Courtesy of Marisa Turesky)

A real postdoctoral objective

When it comes time to defend her dissertation, she said she hopes “there is at least a greater sense that gender and sexual orientation visibly matter in urban planning.”

“It’s such a beautiful exploration that we can do,” she said. “And it’s really hard not to be forward-looking, especially when it comes to urban planning, which is so much about the future of our communities.”

She wants to make it clear that the people closest to the dominant power structures — white, heterosexual, and cisgender men — generally define the urbanism narrative. Even many spaces ostensibly dedicated to all LGBTQ people actually cater to white, cis, and gay men. Queer theorists call this “homonormativity”.

Turesky argues that LGBTQ stories have been suppressed by “traditional urban histories” and must be told through plaques, memorials and other physical spaces, like the Stonewall Inn in New York, which has become an official landmark. of the city in 2015.

“These spaces — they facilitate those social relationships,” she said.

Indeed, she believes that intergenerational knowledge sharing is essential in queer communities and must be preserved in the built environment.

“It can be easy for people, I think, to forget how much work we still have to do.”

She is happy to undertake some of this work – and will be well equipped to do so.

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