Orlando – Professor and activist Lisa Tillmann is a vital straight ally to Central Florida’s LGBT community. She has made it her life’s work to explore and balance inequality—and her new academic book explores that in intriguing, very readable ways.
Besides chairing Rollins College’s Critical Media and Cultural Studies department, Tillmann has produced films about gay rights, fat shaming, body image and disparities in the U.S. food market.
She has lectured on incarceration injustices, race and America’s class system. For years, she worked to create Orlando and Orange County anti-discrimination ordinances. Her academic work includes the 2001 book Between Gay and Straight: Understanding Friendship Across Sexual Orientation.
“To me, empathy is at the root of my activism and political commitments,” Tillmann says.
Tillmann’s newest book, In Solidarity: Friendship, Family, and Activism Beyond Gay and Straight, is a varied collection of research, political activism and personal involvement. It starts with Tillmann’s LGBT friends interviewing families. Together, they explore complications of family dynamics—what it means to have a gay family member, how they discuss homosexuality and how they show support for equal rights. Later, the book explores Tillmann’s professional research and personal obstacles—how these aspects inform other people fighting for equal rights.
We asked Tillmann about her work both inside and outside this captivating new book:
WATERMARK: Your first chapter—an interview with a friend’s family—is very complicated. It not only discusses how a family relates to a gay member; later they asked you to protect their identities while discussing alcoholism and other family problems. This means that we not only have undisclosed family secrets, but we also confront the editing choices you made.
LISA TILLMAN: Yes, it’s a fair challenge for a reader to make: “We’re not getting the whole story.” We never get the whole story; I don’t know the whole story. I think it was always a tightrope walk about wanting to capture an authentic experience and wanting to do right by my friends [who volunteered to help her research].
You had moments with one friend’s dad where I feared for your physical safety. It was with Gordon and his dad, Tex.
I feel like—on each trip we took—at least one significant thing happened. That was one in that chapter. Tex is angry; he’s taking me and leading me by my elbow and saying, “You don’t have to live here. I have to.” And then Gordon—who has spent years keeping his family comfortable—takes his dad out into the parking lot and confronts him.
You use qualitative approach, narrative writing, poems and performance texts. How did you make those choices?
I’m very drawn to different forms of representation. Things that start off as prose become poems. Things that start off as poems become performance texts. Some things become film. It just sort of happens that way.
Particularly in the “Going Home” section especially, I really wanted each chapter to have its own aesthetic character. Each chapter is sort of the same context—I’m traveling to sites that are important to four of my gay male associates. Yet I wanted each family, each experience to be distinct.
At one point, you have a long-form poem and then the defense after that. That could really help explain the qualitative nature of the work to the casual reader.
There was actually more explanation in my dissertation and in my 2001 book, Between Gay and Straight. I think what happened in this field of study is that so much of this sort of work was being done. People quit feeling like they had to justify [qualitative work] or explain it; they could just do it.
Some of the chapters—like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” because it’s somewhat grounded in the literature of adult children of alcoholics—needed more source notation at the end. Other chapters didn’t need that; I just let the story be the story.
I think it’s another tightrope. It’s not as ethically fraught as the first chapter, but… How can you appeal to someone who —with the help of Dictionary.com for a few words—can enjoy this as a casual reader? Also, you have to appeal to students studying the methodology and faculty who need to adopt the books.
In Solidarity includes narration on an awareness workshop you and professor Kathryn Norsworthy conduct. If people attend a workshop like that, isn’t a lot of the work already done?
Yes, the audience is usually one-third LGBT+ and two-thirds families, allies and friends. I think that it can sometimes be like preaching to the choir, but you’ve probably heard the old adage, “Even the choir needs to practice from time to time.”
Both Kathryn and I have seen very strong, emotional reactions to those workshops. In the best teaching that we do, we also leave enough space for reflection. It’s really powerful stuff. That’s the sort of impact I want to have.