Marisa is someone who listens deeply. In any conversation, she’s attentive, inquisitive, and full of ideas and care. If you’ve known her for a while, like I have, she will more than likely start quoting you back to yourself with some line or aside that made an impression on her, weeks, months, or even years later. That’s a pretty cool, affirming feeling and a testament to someone on whom it feels like nothing is lost. For this interview it was my privilege and pleasure to listen to her.
On a bench in Strawberry Creek Park, we discussed belonging, underground lesbian community, what it’s like to tell stories of a “hidden population,” and the wildest hora chair-lift in recent memory. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: Hello! So, what brought you to the Bay?
Marisa: My wife, Carlin, and I are both originally from New England. She moved to LA for her job in late-night comedy and we met when I moved to start my PhD program at USC. We were together for a few years and then Carlin got into her dream business school, UC Berkeley-Haas, and we decided to move up here. I had finished all my coursework and was doing fellowships so I could work from anywhere.
And what convinced you to stay?
From the moment I started dating Carlin, I kept asking her to take me to more trees. LA has such super-wide streets and desert vibes, so I was really thirsting for them. When she got into Cal, she said, “I’m taking you to more trees!”
I remember first getting off the highway onto San Pablo Avenue and feeling so held by the narrowness of the street. It almost felt like I was back in New England. There were all these trees, too, and San Pablo doesn’t even have a ton compared to the rest of the Bay. But it felt like a lot compared to LA.
Also, I can bike to some of my best friends’ houses on delightful little side roads. There’s a vibrant, multi-generational lesbian community. I feel grounded by the East Ridge Trail. So many reasons.
“Take me to the trees” sounds almost biblical or mythological. Such a sense of destiny—love that. More recently, you defended your dissertation in urban planning, so a big mazel tov is in order! I’m curious to hear about that journey.
When I moved to LA in 2018, I said to my friend somewhat in jest that I was going to live out the real version of the show, “The L Word,” which was shot in LA. But then I arrived and it turned out there were no more lesbian bars in the city. I was so disappointed and confused.
I started wondering what about our urban infrastructure was no longer supporting lesbian spaces, and my mentors steered me to the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives for clues. I found that bars were just the tip of the iceberg of this lost world of lesbian bookstores, cafes, and other vibrant spaces.
As I researched, I kept hearing jarring stories from the older lesbians who ran the Archive. They’d been on the front lines of Gay Liberation but many were having to go back into the closet as they moved into senior housing. As a younger queer person, I found that pretty traumatic.
I remember being shocked when you first told me that. What happened from there?
I set out to uncover the dynamics that were contributing to this population’s feelings of belonging and safety (or lack thereof). All told, I interviewed 29 older lesbians about their attachments to place across their lives.
What did it feel like to collect those stories?
Loaded. Lesbians over 60 are considered a “hidden community” because their stories are not often seen in the public record. I gave folks the option to donate their oral histories to the Mazer Archive but for the moment, it felt really lonely to be the sole keeper of their stories. Some were really light and fun but most had at least moments of isolation and helplessness and grief.
On another level, I owe a lot to some of these individuals who are the reason I have some of the rights that I do. They shifted the entire world for me, so to be sitting with them and holding their stories was an immense thing.
Can you share one finding from your research?
Studies on older queer folks often focus on very real financial, housing, and health disparities. Our world is not age-friendly. We build spaces for young able-bodied people and so when you add in a marginalized identity, then it becomes even harder. Some people I spoke to are afraid to take public transit because it’s too difficult or they’re scared. There can be a lot of risks of harassment.
But that focus makes the studies overly depressive and at risk of being one-note. In my research, I wanted to focus more on the tremendous resilience that I observed in this community and the creative underground tactics that lesbians have used for decades to get the care they need.
Using that same example of public transportation, I came across stories of people who traded in their sedans for minivans just so they could fit their friends’ wheelchairs and walkers to take them to their doctors’ appointments. Because otherwise, they wouldn’t get there.
On a non-dissertation note, you got married last year! More mazel! Were there any Jewish elements in your wedding?
In our first couple months of dating, Carlin asked, “Are you going to have a Jewish wedding?” I said, “Of course,” and she got so excited about it. Then when we got to the actual planning, she was like, “There’s no way in hell I’m going up in the chair.”
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
“Okay, fine,” she replied. “I’ll go in the chair if you give me a helmet and a mouthguard.”
“I’m not gonna give you a mouthguard, but I’ll get you my mom’s ski helmet,” I said.
Up she went!
We had a Jewish-Irish wedding with both Hebrew and Irish blessings. There was also a ketubah [a Jewish wedding contract] and we added a little Irish flair with handfasting, which is a literal tying of the knot with rope. It’s a little kinky too, so we liked that.
Now, onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire! Tell me a book, movie, play, song, or piece of art or media that you love.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko might be my new favorite book. It’s young adult and kind of Afro-futurism / magical realism. The protagonist lives this extremely isolated and lonely childhood and then discovers how to navigate her power, community, and people.
What is the best-kept secret in the Bay?
The first thing that comes to mind is Hidden Cafe. There aren’t a lot of places I know of where you can have a delightful beverage right in a park. It feels secluded and it’s great for people watching. HIDDEN Cafe. C’mon!
What is a recent time that you felt a spiritual connection?
Carlin and I went to a Yom Kippur service at Chochmat HaLev, and the cantor was so good it was like they were out of a movie. That was special and unexpected. Carlin said, “I felt like I was walking in the desert and my people weren’t even wandering!”
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.