Mel Ferrand

Survey


MELANIE “MEL” FERRAND


1) Birthdate:


1966


2) Birthplace:

New York, New York


3) City/state where you live currently:

Chicago, Illinois


4) Education:

University of South Florida (Tampa), undergrad: Psychology with minor in women's studies

National Louis University (Chicago), masters: Education with endorsement in middle school social studies


5) Career:

Elementary school teacher


6) Did you serve in the U.S. military?

No


7) How do you describe your sexuality and your gender:

Bisexual lesbian female


8) Do you have children and/or grandchildren?

No


9) If you are GLBT, please describe when you first “knew”:

I was around 16 or 17 years old, sitting in Logic (Aristotle) class during my first year of college when I became consciously aware that I had a crush on my professor. I didn’t feel worried or scared or any emotion really. Rather, I approached the situation more analytically. I was perplexed and remember feeling a sense of urgency wanting to solve this mystery ASAP.

As I was sitting there pondering the experience, I thought to myself “Am I a lesbian?” So prior to knowing anything about reverse psychology, double-blind studies, or placebos, and coupled with my “infinite” wisdom as a first-year college student, I looked down at myself and, moving my right hand across to the left side of my body, I grabbed and released the length of my left forearm and thought, “No, I don’t feel like a lesbian.”

And that was it. I remember feeling very resolved in those clearly definitive results of my “thorough” experiment. I didn’t get another crush on a woman until my mid-20s, when I eventually came out. As an aside, I got straight A’s in that class.


10) Who did you first “come out” to and when?

My mother.


11) What troubles did you face as a GLBT person?

I have faced two types of “troubles” as a queer person at work. The first is being forced into the role of collaborator with colleagues who are “closeted,” while the second has been exclusively during my job as a teacher.

I have found the forced role of collaborator extremely uncomfortable and at times distressing. I have felt coerced to participate in lies and required to modify my speech and conversation when others are around, but at the same time, I am sought out and serve as a sort of oasis for them to “let down their hair” and be their “full” selves when we are alone.

Further, I have felt very resentful of my co-workers in these situations because I am completely out and, instead of finding safety in numbers, I have felt that they are so invested in maintaining their fragile “security” that they allow homophobic atmospheres to prevail. Further, I think if push came to shove, they would conspire with the homophobic colleagues in maintaining an openly hostile workplace.

Interestingly, I’ve had this experience as a carpenter in the construction trades as well as during my tenure as an elementary school teacher in CPS (Chicago Public Schools) , and both with a woman and a man.

The second trouble I’ve had to face has been exclusively during my job as a teacher. While many of my colleagues are racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic, it is the middle school students I’ve actually struggled with. For most people, simply saying the words “middle school” is explanation enough, but I should elaborate, at least just a little. Middle school students feel safe to verbally bash each other, and anti-gay bullying is rampant.

Further, I’ve had a few students that – perhaps because they feel completely disempowered and/or are becoming aware of their own homosexuality – have “lesbian-baited” me during one or more of the hormonally induced rages so prevalent in the middle school “creature.”

In hindsight, coming out to the class may have been a great way to diffuse the situation, but I didn’t feel comfortable in those few instances while it was happening, and actually felt it would have been inappropriate to open that huge can of worms right then. I think also in those moments of watching that pure venom and hatred being spewed had the effect of catching me off guard and issuing a good reality check as to how far we have yet to go in combating homophobia, internal and otherwise.


12) Did you have mentors in the Chicago GLBT community?

State Representative Larry McKeon [who passed away May 2008]: During his tenure in the State House, Larry was not only true to himself as the only out legislator in Springfield, but also to his independence from the Democratic machine and the political wrangling within the LGBT community. For over 10 years he did this in the face of the severe backlash it brought, and for that he will always be one of my heroes.

Tennis champion Billie Jean King (retired): Billie Jean was a fierce feminist athlete when I, and the nation, needed a role model. She was unapologetic about her demands for fairness and proved unequivocally that preconceived notions about women and men were not only woefully inadequate, they were simply flat out wrong.

Even though I was a kid during that history-making tennis match, I can still vividly remember feelings of dread coupled with being anxious and stressed, worrying that if she didn’t win somehow things would be very bad for women. I sure am glad she won – not just for me, not just for women, but for all of us!


13) Involvement in organizations (GLBT and/or mainstream):

Chicagoland Pride at Work (founder and donor)
Grant Park Advisory Council (volunteer and donor)
North Park Village Nature Center (volunteer and donor)
Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance (clinic escort, co-chair, volunteer, and donor)
Horizons Community Center (support group facilitator and donor)
Human Rights Campaign/HRC (volunteer and donor)
Chicago Women in Trades (volunteer and donor)
Chicago NOW (board, volunteer, Legislative Committee co-chair, and donor)
Evanston NOW (board member, volunteer, and donor)
Women's Action Coalition/WAC (board member, volunteer, and donor)
Illinois NOW PAC (president, volunteer, and donor )
Chicagoland Pride at Work/PAW (board member, volunteer, and donor)
Chicago Metro. Sports Assn/MSA (president, secretary, volunteer, and donor)
Ravenswood Community Council (secretary, board member, volunteer, and donor)
Ravenswood Community Council (co-chair of the Education Committee, and donor)
Chicago Teachers Union/CTU GLBT Rights Committee (volunteer)
Chicago Teachers Union/CTU Women's Rights Committee (volunteer)
Also a past School Delegate
Lesbian Community Cancer Project/LCCP (donor)
Amigas Latinas (donor)
Howard Brown Health Center (donor)
Southern Poverty Law Center (donor)
Personal PAC (donor)


14) When you were coming out, what were your favorite Chicago GLBT bars?

Paris and Berlin, early 1990s


15) What were the key issues faced in the GLBT community when you first came out?

AIDS, hate crimes, and development of allegiances with other identify groups seeking social change.


16) What issues do you see as key in the GLBT community today?

Obtaining full rights and protections with our straight counterparts, hate crimes, and development of allegiances with other identify groups seeking social change.


17) How have AIDS and/or other health issues impacted your life personally?

My mother had both of her breasts removed as part of standard medical practice to save her life when she was stricken with breast cancer. Today she is a five-year survivor.

Even before cancer invaded my home, I was terrified of it. It is the real life incarnation of every child's nighttime fear – the monster in the closet. This thing that attacks in the dark, seemingly arbitrarily, and executes a slow, painful death that you are defenseless to fight against, in large part because you don't know much about it, what its weaknesses are, where it came from, or even what it is. It's not surprising to me that what we now know as AIDS was called "the gay cancer" even before it had a name.

It's also not surprising to me that women and gay men have had to fight to make these diseases priorities both medically and legislatively. These groups have and continue to be treated as second-class citizens, but thankfully both have found their voices and determined to fight.

As a member of both the women's and queer communities I have been the lucky beneficiary of their strength. Instead of cowering under the pillow, I have stepped up to the monster's challenge and dared to force it into the light. Politically and publicly I worked on the issue of women's health both as a member of NOW (National Organization for Women) and WAC (Women's Action Coalition) and privately and personally when my mom was first diagnosed. Together my mom, four sisters, dad and I went into action. We researched, got expert opinions, and ultimately summoned our collective internal strengths to focus and fight.

Breast cancer and AIDS have had a very significant impact on me both politically and personally, publicly and privately, and that impact has helped shape my outlook and the actions in my life.


18) How would you describe the “diversity” within the GLBT community of Chicago?

The first thing that comes to mind is "separate but equal." Upon closer inspection, the multi-faceted jewel that we call the GLBT community of Chicago is actually comprised of tiny unique subsections that existed "before we were GLBT." By that I mean we were part of other groups as dictated by our race, gender, class, etc. And, but for our common status as sexual and gender deviants of the larger culture, we may not have crossed paths.

Boiled down to bare bones, we share the common experience of being "different" from the members of our families of origin. After that, the areas of common ground begin to breakdown and blur. I think of this not as a handicap, but rather an advantage. This offers the GLBT community the unique experience of evolving differently than most other subcultures. We are a subculture of subcultures.

While GLBT people have been forming and making community throughout history, I think first Stonewall and then the AIDS epidemic exponentially increased the speed with which and the extent to which the various subsections would unite.

Both of these were "survival" issues that went directly to the core of our greater community. However, I think similar to American culture at large (maybe even human nature), members of the GLBT community tend to feel most comfortable with people that are similar to themselves and consequently, I see us divide along lines of race, gender, physical ability, class, age, etc. in our day-to-day lives.

With regard to how these issues impact our community, I think that also mirrors the greater American culture. Wealthy white males tend to dominate and be the most visible part of the Chicago GLBT community. The issues they raise are most loudly heard, their images are most often documented and archived in "our" newsprint, and they tend to have the most resources while the other groups within the community fall in after them.

This leads to the expected internal struggles our community battles as we seek to create a space where all voices are heard equally, where everyone feels welcomed and all issues are incorporated into our collective political movement.


19) If you consider yourself a “political” activist, how do you define this?

A political activist is a person who challenges convention. Most often this challenge is a purposeful act or action, but sometimes it is by simply being true to oneself and one’s belief system despite the societal demands to do the contrary. For example, the members of ACT UP participated in highly visible, strategically orchestrated and aggressive activities in an attempt to change opinions, practices, and laws around the AIDS epidemic.

In contrast, the seemingly innocuous act of Yvette and Lily spontaneously sharing an intimate kiss during a moment of tenderness while standing on their front lawn similarly demands that others stretch the limits and bounds of their comfort zones and ultimately change their schema for what is acceptable in the structure of interpersonal relationships.

Further, people who don’t subscribe to traditional gender roles are also political activists. Sadly, quite often without wanting to be. They unwittingly find themselves on the frontlines of a culture war that they often want no part in, and that oftentimes puts them in real personal danger.

A political activist is also simply a person who is active in our participatory democracy. Our governmental structure is designed so that all members of our society have rights and responsibilities and are expected to exercise them in their everyday lives.

However, the truth of the matter is that the U.S. has very high levels of apathy and non-participation. Therefore, those that do participate, whether as a member of a neighborhood association, voter in a primary, empty lot garden club, or a neighborhood watch group, are all de facto political activists.

And, the fact that they keep informed of the issues that impact them and take steps to affect the change (or maintain the status quo) that they seek, sets them in the separate class called activists.

Finally, a political activist is also a person who is involved in electoral politics, either as a campaign-worker, candidate, or legislator. The people who make laws are more traditionally called “public servants” but I think they are also “political activists.” Ultimately, they strive to impact the behaviors of the masses by designing and enacting the laws that in the end serve as the parameters for the structure of our everyday lives.

I consider myself all of the above.


20) Describe what you feel your personal legacy is to the Chicago GLBT community.

Political, social, volunteerism and archival.



Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community, the book is edited by Tracy Baim and features the contributions of more than 20 prominent historians and journalists. It is published by Surrey Books, an Agate imprint, and is hard cover, 224 pages, 4-color, with nearly 400 photos.
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