Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne…
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to the podcast.
Both: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.
Phil: Dr. Thea Iberall is an award-winning writer, storyteller and scientist. A few years ago, I’m From Driftwood, had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Iberall about queer rights, music and a frightening college experience.
Thea: So in 1968 or 69, it was just… I had such fear. I mean, after I realized I was gay, I was in college. I remember walking into the student center one day and I saw a sign saying the Mattachine Society was meeting there and I looked into the room and there was all these… these men there. I think they were older men, you know, they didn’t look like students. They didn’t look like people I wanted them to talk to. I knew it was… it was for gay people and I didn’t… I was petrified to be around it because it was illegal and mental illness. And I didn’t want anything to do with that.
So I remember a sociology student wanted to interview me. She was a friend of a friend and she found out I was gay. And she decided – we both decided that, that we… we couldn’t… she couldn’t interview me inside a building because somebody might overhear the conversation. So we met on the corner of the, you know, the streets of New York on some random corner. And she interviewed me and I don’t remember the questions, but it was… it was strange to be talking about being gay to another person that I didn’t really know well. There’s just so much fear.
I remember I was… I was with my lover in the… in our dorm room and suddenly we heard this big knocking on the door. And we were, you know, trying to get dressed amd together to go answer the door and before we can answer the door, the RA just broke into the room and demanded to know what we were doing and what was happening. And we’re, like, denying everything. And, you know, nothing was exactly said, but you knew, you know, we knew that she wanted to get evidence that… that there was lesbianism going on in this room and that – because she had the power to throw us out of college. That’s the way I would have to come out to my parents.
It was terrible. I was just… I had no power and everybody had all this other, this power that… to stop me from just being who I naturally was. You know, we were so alone at that time. I look at the the confidence that kids have today. And I, you know, they just don’t know. They have that because so many of us came out against our wishes against – oh, we had to overcome such fear in order to come out. And we did. And they walk the streets today, holding their heads up without any fear. So I’m glad that they can do that.
You know, I… I first came across women’s music in the late seventies. It was like 77, 78. I walked into this bookstore record store in North Hampton and I said, “I’ve heard of women’s music. Where do I start?”
And this woman, she said, “I know where you start.” She just pulled out this album and handed it to me and it was “The changer and the Changed” by Chris Williamson. And it’s like, that was it. I mean, you just listen to this music and your life has changed. And it was the way to meet women that if they knew women’s music, then you knew that they were lesbian.
I would, like, try to work it into any conversation like, you know, and then they’d say, “Oh yeah, Chris Williamson was at our… at our college or our school,” you know? Okay! That was the gaydar then.
I think it was in 76 that that music festivals, women’s music festivals started. I think the first one was Michigan. I never went to that, but I went to the first one that was in New England. And I went with my lover and we were, you know, we were so in the closet, it was terrible. And we were there amongst, you know, 500 lesbians and we’re… we’re holding hands under a blanket so that nobody would know that – what? Of course we’re lesbians. We’re at a lesbian music festival, but we were so in a closet.
But I remember I was teaching at a graduate school at that time and I saw one of my students there. I, like, tapped her on the shoulder and I said… I said, Hi.
And she like, turned around and she’s like, “What are you doing here?”
And I said, “Same thing you’re doing here!” You know, it was all these isolated people just finding each other. It was… and it was, it was tremendous. I loved going to women’s music festivals.
When I moved to California in the eighties, I started going to the West Coast Women’s Festival up in Yosemite and it was incredible. You know, when I moved to California it’s because I had to come out. And I was coming out. I started going to gay pride parades. I marched in it. I went to the music… to the festivals, the pride festivals. And I went to the West Coast Music Festival and walked around naked amongst all these other lesbians.
And they have workshops there of these conscious raising workshops. One of the workshops I went to at one of the music festivals was the first thing that she asked everybody in this group was, “What word do you use for your vagina?” You know, everybody has culturally all these different words, so it’s like everybody’s coming out with all these… these different words to talk about, you know… it was so funny to hear. It was… but that’s… that was just one of the workshops. I mean, there was lots of workshops that were, you know, even about finances and about, you know, other topics of interest.
You know, people don’t experience it anymore. It’s… it’s too bad. Because all of the women’s music’s gone away. I mean, it’s become mainstream. And gay songs are everywhere. They’re all mainstream. But there was something so magical about… about experiencing your love of women through music and this music festival. It was wonderful.
There was something so phenomenal to… to be celebrating yourself, celebrating your friends, celebrating being women, celebrating your love of women. It was an incredible sensation to do that through the music.
Alex: Please welcome back to I’m From Driftwood, Dr. Thea Iberall. Welcome!
Thea: Hi Alex. Great to be here.
Phil: Welcome Thea!
Thea: And Phil, sorry.
Phil: No worries. I’m still here. I’m here.
Alex: Phil and I are such huge fans of your I’m From Driftwood story. Do you have any fond memories from the day you shot with us?
Thea: Oh, wow. Yeah. Well, first they gave us the wrong address, we parked at one place and went there and nobody was there. And then we called them and they gave us the right address, so we had to walk. Otherwise it was… it was a lot of fun. And to share stories, things I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
Phil: Right off the bat, you were speaking about realizing you were gay and then feeling such fear about it. This was in, like, 1968, 1969 back then. What were some of your biggest fears about being homosexual?
Thea: You know, there were so many things to be afraid of. First of all, it was illegal, you know, and there was violence against gay people. I was afraid of getting kicked out of college. I think my biggest fear was that my parents would find out and I didn’t know what their response would be because, you know, I was brought up to know that homosexuality was a bad thing and I… I didn’t know what people would think. I couldn’t even think about what people would think of me and it… it made me quite vulnerable. I mean, all I did was fall in love.
Thea: I didn’t know anything about that. I wasn’t an activist. I just knew that I was in love. And it didn’t feel bad. It felt normal. My… my lover didn’t want anybody to know about it because she wasn’t gay. So it was… it just was really hard.
I wore tailored shirts and jeans, you know, and a doctor college, I went to him for… to have, you know, for a check on strep throat. And he took one look at me and he put his hands down my pants to find out what my sex was just because I was not dressed like a normal woman. And you know, that… that just creates intense fear of such vulnerability.
I mean, I went to a psychologist at college once also and he started just asking me all these questions and probing and wanting to know when I finally admitted that I was gay. And he said, “I knew it. I knew it. It’s because all the rings that you’re wearing.” And it’s like, I was helpless.
You know, and a few years before when I came out and when I was learning about myself, there was a, I mean, there were still vestiges of that butch/femme thing. You had to either be a butch or a femme and men – women would be arrested that they were wearing men’s clothes. So it was… it was really scary and it was hard and there wasn’t ways to get information. Not that I knew what I wanted or anything like that.
Alex: Speaking of trying to get information, trying to connect with your community, you talk about an instance where you were walking into the student center and you saw a sign that the Mattachine Society was meeting there and you describe poking your head into the room and seeing a bunch of older men. You knew this was his space for gay people, but those weren’t necessarily the faces you felt comfortable speaking to. Was that indicative of the way the movement was back then?
Thea: Well, I didn’t know about any movement, you know. It probably was, but all I knew was I was in love. You know, once I fell in love with her, I started realizing that I was gay and I did want to find other lesbians, but I didn’t know where to look. I couldn’t even say the word back then. I mean, I saw that word Mattachine Society and I had to find out what it meant and it just… it didn’t talk to me at all.
I mean, I found out about a woman’s bar. I was living in New York City and down in the village, Bonnie and Clyde’s, and I went there and I had such fear walking into the place that, you know, I’d be attacked, or walking out of the place I’d be attacked. But once inside I had a certain level of comfort in there. And so, I mean, to me, that was the movement. It was…there were other lesbians there, but I couldn’t connect to them. There was nobody there like me. I mean, I was an educated college student amd I didn’t play pool and I didn’t want to just drink all the time. And I wasn’t there to pick up women. I was in a relationship and so it felt really awkward. And I just felt awkward.
I did – I remember one night I did connect up with these other women and we all went to somebody’s house and there was a lot of women there. I was petrified. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t say a word the whole night. I mean, they must’ve thought I was just mute person because I couldn’t speak. The only thing I remember about that night was learning how to put vanilla drops in brewing… when you’re brewing your coffee. I was not really into the movement at all.
I moved up to the Boston area in 1977. I was still very closeted but I found another lesbian bar there. I started going to that. And then I heard about a DOB meeting… Daughters of the Bilitis. It was like an organization that was to help empower me, but the organization was really dying at that point in the… in the seventies. And I remember going to that meeting and I just… I didn’t know what to say to anybody. I mean, I wasn’t going to… I mean, the only connection that we all had there was that we were all, you know, lesbians and there was just… I had nothing to talk about to anybody. I couldn’t talk about my relationship. I didn’t know what I wanted. So I felt very disempowered.
I did find some women’s publications, like Lesbian Connection, and I found some books, but all the stories at that time were very, very negative. You know, if you’re a gay, you know, you were supposed to die. Because you were immoral.
Phil: You know, you talk about a sociology student wanting to interview you because you’re gay and having to conduct the interview on the streets of New York for privacy. You also talk about how weird it felt to talk to someone about… about being gay, someone you didn’t know. Do you remember when it became not strange to talk about being gay or is it still strange for you?
Thea: Well, I think the bottleneck I had to go through was coming out to my parents. I could not have a life. I could not think or do anything until I came out to my parents. And I did that about 1973. I was seeing a psychiatrist at that point and the psychiatrist suggested that my mother come to a session. And so she did, and he just had her talking. And at some point she just kind of, you know, brought this out as it was kind of a worry for her or something that she, you know, she knew me really well. She… my parents were, were aware. It came out of her mouth that she was worried that I was gay and nobody told her I wasn’t. And I could still hear the taxi cars and the birds outside, you know, the world did not end just because my mother now knew. And that changed my life.
Things got easier, but still it was hard. I remember going to graduate school in the eighties and lesbian friends would laugh at me and saying, you know, I couldn’t even say the word “lesbian” and that I was like this old cliche person, you know, even then.
In 1989, I read a book called twice blessed on being lesbian, gay and Jewish. I remember a, I never forgot a line in that book that said “Coming out has to be better for the soul than living one’s life and various shades of invisibility.” And, you know, it was through that that I just started coming out more and more.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I made a decision to just… I would be out. I would… I would be totally out. And I remember this graduate- this undergraduate student was suicidal and the department and people were really worried about her and I didn’t know why or what was going on, but some people invited me to lunch one day and, with the girl, and we all started talking and they basically said that she was gay and her parents, you know, were really upset about all this. And so she was suicidal and I was the only gay person that they knew. I mean, not that I was like totally out, but so it was like I was coming out in this luncheon and you know, I’m being used as a… as a mentor. It felt good that I could do that.
But I still was threatened. I mean, 1989, I was threatened my doctor at Kaiser Permanente for being lesbian. You know, she was a foreign doctor and it was against her belief system and it’s like, this is a doctor I went to for problems and she’s threatening me that she’s going to tell and put it in my record. And it’s like, it’s tough to come out.
Alex: It is indeed tough to come out. So many aspects of what you were talking about really resonated with me. And there was one moment in your I’m From Driftwood story that almost got a… a visceral reaction from me. It was when you were talking about when you were in college and you were in your dorm room with your lover, and there was a bang on the door, it was your RA pretty much busting into your room and demanding to know what you two were doing.
And I feel like that really got a visceral response from me because of that sense of fear, like fear at every moment and having to live with that. And even though I came out at a different time, a time of different cultural progress, I, too, remember moments of that fear that you live with. Do you recall ever finding out how or why you were singled out in that moment by your RA? I mean, did you ever get any more background information on what happened?
Thea: No, I never did. I just, you know, it was just so fearful. so in the closet, I just… it’s like, you know, we denied it totally. And just, you know, went on as if nothing happened. But I just didn’t have the courage. I mean, I remember reading a Ruby Fruit Jungle by Rita May Brown. She wasn’t in the closet and she stood up for herself. I mean, I wished I had that courage to do that. I wasn’t then. I don’t… I don’t know why it happened
Phil: I listened to that part of your story. It was… it was hard to hear and I could feel the fear that… that you were feeling at that time.
I mean, it was just so palpable. You know in your other story, you talk about finding women’s music and it opening up a whole different queer life for you. Just for those who are not aware, or can you explain what you mean by women’s music?
Thea: It was a thing that happened. I think it started in like around 1973 with Olivia records, started by these radical lesbian feminists that were also, you know, connected to the now-accepting lesbians also. I think they were all part of that same thing. And Olivia Records, they sold more than a million records. They had 40 albums. They had singers like Meg, Christianson, Chris Williamson. And I found women’s music in 1977. I walked into a bookstore in North Hampton and I said, “Okay, I’ve heard about women’s music. Where do I start?” And she pulled out Chris Williamson’s album, “The Changer and the Changed” and she said, “You start with this.” And it… it changed my life. It totally did that.
The music is just… it’s about women loving women, putting out there these feelings that you could not express and they were all bad and all that, but here’s these beautiful, beautiful songs about women loving women and what it felt like. And the ups and downs and all the stories that music that you have in love songs and why they persist and why they’re beautiful, well, it was a way to connect with other women. Only lesbians knew about who Chris Williamson and Meg Christianson were. So it, you know, it’s like a little code, like, you know, do you like Chris Williamson music? And if they did, then, you know, you know that you were talking to a lesbian. So… I love
Alex: I love that so much. I really, I have to tell you, I just delighted in hearing you talk about that, because I feel like even now, sometimes., I’m listening for the cultural cues that people, particularly what women tell me about the kind of music they listen to. To see, I’m like, is she maybe, is she also queer? She also a lesbian.
So I felt like I just really loved hearing how women’s music was such an entry into finding community. And it also sounded like, I mean, just what you’re saying now about hearing stories about women who love women in this music. It seems like there were just so many aspects to it that were really powerful.
Was there more to the music that even felt like it changed you? Like, was it liberating to get to hear people really own these… these stories and their identities in this music?
Thea: Oh, there’s so much to that. I mean, the answer is yes. I mean the easiest memory is 1983. It was the 10th anniversary of Olivia Records and they decided to do a concert in Carnegie Hall. I mean, I lived like three blocks away. I walked over there in my… I had a purple vest on and a purple tie and I was ecstatic. And I walk in there and now there’s these women in tuxedos and dresses and, and it was incredible. The whole place was just filled with women so excited. And so rocking the place and the ushers were, like, dumbfounded. Like, they’d never seen anything like that before. It didn’t matter. It so didn’t matter because this was incredible.
I don’t know how Megan and Chris sang through the whole thing, because we were yelling. It was incredible. The other thing, I mean, to Howie Near has this beautiful song about We’re Singing for Our Lives, lots and lots of verses to it. I think it was also in North Hampton. I was sitting at a concert of hers and she would say, you know, Everybody sing, say, say this verse, you know, we are a gentle nation and we’re singing for our lives and we’re all singing that. And then she gets to the next, this verse and she says, You know, I know, not everybody here is lesbian or gay and, but not everybody here is straight either. So let’s just all sing this together.
And for some people it’ll be the first time that, that they’ll actually say out loud that they’re they’re gay. And so, you know, the, the verse was “We are gay and straight together and we’re seeing for our lives.” And to hear that, to say it, I could barely say the words. And there I was with his whole audience of people. We’re all saying this together. It was so empowering. It felt so beautiful,
Phil: Oh man, I wish I was there. I really, like, I wish I was there. It sounds so incredible. Like all the voices and the energy you, my goodness. I can only imagine.
Thea: You know, it gave me the strength to leave my… leave my lover and I moved to California. And the first thing I did is I went to the sisterhood bookstore. And I found in the back of the store this newspaper, the Lesbian News. And I went through that whole thing and I found every activity I could, there was gay softball and gay sign language classes, and gay and lesbian scientists, and gay dance classes and the gay pride parades.
And I just circled them all. And I started going to all of them. I mean, it just, the empowerment I felt to join the lesbian community. I mean, I lived in the lesbian community from 1988 to 2010. I have to be part of it. And because it spoke to me, it empowered me. It made a difference in my life.
Phil: Oh, I love it. It’s how you find your people. I love… I just love it. It’s fantastic.
You know, speaking of music, you know, women’s music was pretty much always a way for other women to meet women, queer women to meet queer women. And it led to you going to all of those women’s music festivals. Can you describe some of the feelings and the freedom you experienced at those festivals?
Thea: Yeah, well, actually the first one I ever went to was in New England in the early eighties. I went with my lover and we held hands under a blanket. I mean, that’s why… we were so closeted, even at this music festival where everybody there was you know, was a lesbian. It just… that’s the level of disempowerment that I was at. And fast forward to living in California and I went to the West Coast Women’s Music festival in the late nineties. It was so wonderful. So empowering. I was so relaxed, you know, I was camping there. Lasted for a few days, we played games. There was workshops. There was, of course, all the music and comedy we’d help out.
You know, everybody had to chip in and help with the meals. They made salads in these big children’s swimming pools, you know, mix this whole huge thing. And I just felt so free. I mean, I was down by the river at one point, totally naked. I mean, just outside, it was like free, absolute free. And it was, you know, compare that to holding hands under a blanket. It’s just, and the music, it was always, you know, people that I love Chris Williamson and Meg Christianson and Ferran, and they… they all came to the music festivals. And so, nights were just filled with this music and then days were filled with just getting to know other people.
Alex: Well, it’s interesting because now I think for young people, it’s like, they turn on whatever Billboard Top 40 is, and you’re just listening to LGBTQ artists because they’re just in the mix of everything else. Like Lil Nas X had what, his number one single for the longest ever last year, right? And you could just turn on any radio and hear music from an LGBTQ artist.
How does it feel to know that young LGBTQ kids now have those kinds of people to idolize and look up to that they don’t have to seek out musicians who represent their community?
Thea: Well, I’m glad for them, what can I say? You know, kids are just much freer than we were back then. And I attributed it to things like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and, you know, different TV programs. It just, you know, got it all out there to show that there’s more to a gay person than, you know, who they sleep with. They actually have brains and thoughts, and so I’m really glad that they kids are… are much freer and have much more opportunities, and that things are more mainstream. I mean, it’s better than the long run that that diversity is in the mainstream.
Phil: Yeah. Speaking about the kids, we often talk about the new generation coming up, like Gen Z and their lack of care surrounding gender and sexual preferences.
Thea: Well, I love the fluidity. You know, I always thought that sexual preference or sexual orientation was on a continuum. I knew that, you know, from all the women that I’ve ever known and talked to. Your sexuality is… it’s on a continuum and it can change within your own lifetime across the board. People are just in different places.
There… there just, aren’t just two sexes, you know, this whole thing of gender preference. I love that creating gender is a continuum. In my life, I’ve had to think about that. I mean, I really had to come to terms with, am I a woman? You know, society is not saying I’m exactly a, you know, a normal heterosexual woman. And what does that make me? And it makes you think about who you are and what you are. And it’s… I just love that the younger generation has this fluidity and it’s – you know, they don’t know the struggle that we went through so that they can do it.
Phil: Yeah, I think that’s pretty clear. I think the people miss how much of a struggle, you know, folks in your generation went through and what you dealt with.
Thea: What I would, I wish would go away is privilege. White privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege. I hope we lose that and I hope we lose the patriarchy in this whole process. Diversity is really good and it’s really important.
Alex: I am 100% on board with the things that we should lose. And I think one of the things I’ve really enjoyed talking to you about was you brought up the Daughters of Bilitis.
You brought up some of the early days of the movement, and I feel like something I always worry about, is that queer women, they don’t know about this stuff. Like, I even remember taking feminist classes in college and I didn’t learn about the Daughters of Bilitis and it’s really been something in my adult life that I’ve sought out to learn the history and legacy of my community.
It’s funny. I have a sign behind me that says Pay it no mind, which is the Marsha P Johnson quote. And I have it hanging behind me every single day because I want to remember, these are the people’s who… whose shoulders you stand on. You owe a huge debt to these people and with every kind of piece of work around LGBTQ stuff, that’s always what I’m thinking about. So how would you like to see young LGBTQ people preserve the stories of the elders in our community?
Thea: First, they have to be aware. We like to forget the past. It’s why I wrote this play, “We Did It For You” about how women got their rights in America. People come to the play over and over again, and they say, I didn’t know that. They’ve learned so much.
So it does take delving into the past and finding out who these heroes are and who… who did… whose shoulders we’re standing on because, I mean, that’s a cliche but it’s so true over and over again is that all those women that came before me that were arrested for sitting in those bars and wearing the wrong clothes, and it just becomes lots of nameless people, but these stories are really important. I don’t know how I’d like them to preserve the stories, but I hope they do. I think this Driftwood project is a good way to capture these stories.
Phil: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned on your journey?
Thea: It’s acceptance is the key to all my problems.
Phil: That’s a good one.
Thea: When I live in acceptance, it makes life easier and manageable and it calms me down. You know, my father taught me to be curious and my mother taught me to be kind and they both taught me to love music and poetry.
And I live in gratitude, gratitude to my parents, gratitude to everything they gave me, gratitude to the love of my life, gratitude to my friends and gratitude for everything that I have. I don’t take it for granted.
Phil: Can you tell everyone where they can find more information about you, about your poetry, your books, all of that stuff? How can they find you?
Thea: Oh, I have a website, just theaiberall.com.. Maybe you could flash that up on the screen. TheaIberall.com. That’s my website. I’m on Facebook. I’m on Instagram.
Alex: Wonderful. Well, it was such a nice time getting to talk to you. So thank you so much for joining us today.
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.
Phil: It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQAI+ story archive.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s Founder and Executive Director is Nathan Manske. It’s Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
Phil: I’m From Driftwood is a nonprofit organization, and this Podcast was funded in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Alex: Additional funding is provided by TD Bank and Heritage of Pride New York.
Phil: I’m From Driftwood was created to help queer and trans people learn more about their community…
Alex: Help straight people learn more about their neighbors…
Phil: And help everyone learn more about themselves…
Alex: All through the power of storytelling.
Phil: Our score is provided by Elevate Audio.
Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more. And ImFromDriftwood.org
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Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.