Rebekah and Sophie
Rebekah and Sophie are a lesbian family portrait. In this Oak Park Story their lives are contextualized within several larger socio–cultural arenas – the gay and lesbian community of Oak Park and the nation. It is an exploration of how a lesbian family fits into the culture of Oak Park and extends and expands the village's self–image as a place that welcomes and nourishes difference and diversity. Since this study began in 1999, the relationship between a gay/lesbian world and the rest of U.S. society has gone through some fundamental changes. Here are only a few examples – Walmart, the largest employer in the U.S. now offer same sex partners benefits, some places in Canada legalized same sex marriage, sodomy laws have been abolished, and on and on. Suffice it to say that gay and lesbian civil rights have become one of the more important social, economic and political issue of this decade. The struggle by gays and lesbians for their civil rights has three foci: 1. to obtain equal protection under the law, that is, to not be discriminated against simply for their sexual orientation, 2. to have equal civil rights as it pertains to the right to marriage, inheritance, adoptions, real estate and 3. to obtain adequate health protection for those in the HIV community, that is, medical research, low cost drugs, care facilities. Oak Park has participated in all three of these struggles.
For some time now Oak Park has been noted as being a gay–friendly place. The lesbian and gay community is large, public and politically powerful. A lesbian was elected to the Village board and then as Village president. A gay man served on the school board and another on the Village board. The Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association is the largest political organization in the Village. If you wish to understand the "new" Oak Park, you must understand its gay and lesbian community. Rebekah came to Oak Park when she was six. As the child of liberal, politically active Jewish parents, she exemplifies the values of the "new" Oak Park. Sophie is the child of Polish parents who survived World War II as forced laborers on a German farm. She was introduced to Oak Park when she met Rebekah and while not as politically active shares her views.
Oak Park is very attractive to gay and lesbian middle–class couples with children. They are looking for a place that is tolerant, with good housing and excellent schools. In short, their needs are very similar to many straight couples. In an interview with one Oak Park gay couple with two children they stated that with their busy schedule the only people they had time to socialize with these days were the parents of children the same age as theirs. Being a parent is an identity that seems to transcend gender identity.
Gay and lesbian people are not visible like African Americans. They blend into the community except when a political issue such as the same sex couple registry emerges, or in an act of public celebration like the Gay Pride Parade in Chicago, or when candidates for office seek their support, or at the annual black–tie benefit gala attended by over 500 people. Oak Park, as a successful and affluent middle–class community, is a place that almost naturally lends itself to assimilation into the mainstream. Most people who move here want to blend in. The community in Oak Park is not characteristic of what many straight people assume a lesbian and gay community looks like. Oak Park is a quiet suburb with little in the way of any night life. Bars are not legally possible. Rebekah and Sophie's Story is one that is not often told. It is about being a home owning, child raising, middle–class family that has none of the flash and eccentricities of the gay life so often portrayed in social science and journalistic accounts of gays and lesbians.
Rebekah and Sophie's Oak Park story consists of three major sections – An analytic description of the community, Oak Park, a section devoted to the contextualizing of the family within Oak Park and the nation and video life histories of Rebekah and Sophie. There is an section devoted to Oak Park with a history of the project, a discussion of the role being reflexive played, sections on the methods employed and the theoretical implications of the study, a historical review of the community with a statistical survey, slide show to provide viewers with a pictorial description of the place and finally a lengthy analysis of Oak Park's unique plan for managed integration. The final section deals with Rebekah and Sophie in the context of Oak Park's gay community. The final section are video life histories of Rebekah and Sophie.
This ethnography will be of use to anyone interested in gay and lesbian studies, that is, anthropologists, sociologists American culture specialists and gay and lesbian scholars in universities, social studies teachers in elementary and high schools and specialists. It can be used as required reading or on reserve in libraries as supplemental readings. Anyone interested in presenting material that counters the popular misconceptions that all gay and lesbian folk are countercultural activists will find this Oak Park Story useful.
Oak Park Stories is authored by Jay Ruby, a recently retired visual anthropologist, who has spent the last forty years exploring the relation between culture and the visual/pictorial world. He has published numerous studies about photography, film, popular culture and produced several ethnographic films and also founded graduate and undergraduate program in the anthropology of visual communication at Temple University. Oak Park Stories is the culmination of his interest reflexivity as the village is also his hometown.
For more information, please visit Jay Ruby's Oak Park Studies Progress Reports, Temple University Web Site.
Film Festival Screenings and Awards
Days of Ethnographic Film, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2008