My Lesbian Book

Thirty years ago, I wrote a thesis about lesbian identities and lesbian spiritualities: a lesbian theology of liberation. I didn’t have the grounding and context to publish it beyond my academic program, and I have always regretted that it didn’t make it into a book. Recently, I have been asking myself, could I find a way to publish it now?

It seems in one sense a foolish idea, because so much has changed in thirty years. The realities of then are not the realities of now. But while much of the change has been empowering for lesbians and others on the LGBTQ continuum, some things have been lost as well. There was something amazing about the flowering of lesbian community I experienced during that time–joyful, life altering, transformative.

I first encountered lesbian community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places, and at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival in 1979. This was before my own coming out, and certainly an instrumental part of my coming out, though that process took several years. There was a fundamental intersection between lesbian and feminist communities that was happening then, that opened up this world to me. In 1983 I moved to Chicago to go back to school, and found more lesbian community there.

ADB jam, Women’s Peace Camp, 1985. Photo by hershe Michele. https://peacecampherstory.blogspot.com/2014/12/herstory-028-helen-friedman-aka-helen.html

In 1985 and 86, I lived at the Women’s Peace Encampment in upstate New York for several months of each year, and that was like crossing the border into Lesbian Nation. The photo above is from a musical jam session that was one of many I participated in, though I am not in that particular photo. In 1986 I moved to the Boston area. The feminist and lesbian communities there were large and diverse: they supported–and were supported by–two book stores, several lesbian bars, a women’s community center, a woman’s monthly periodical, and so much more. It was in 1990-91 that I wrote my thesis in the context of Episcopal Divinity School’s Feminist Liberation Theology and Ministry program.

When I left Boston in 1999, it was to venture into a career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, which brought me back into the more mainstream world. I was still out as a lesbian, I was still connected to other lesbians, but being a minister shaped my role and altered my relationship to community. That, and the fact of changing my location, first to Cape Cod and then to Portland, Maine, which were very different places from Boston. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like the lesbian community I knew disappeared. I might have thought this was just my personal experience, but then in 2016, Bonnie Morris published The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbians Spaces and Culture. I haven’t yet read her book, but it has been sitting on my bedside table waiting.

It has only been in retirement, in older age, and perhaps in the isolation of this pandemic, that I have looked back at my lesbian thesis and wondered about it. From thirty years on, I can see how difficult it has been for us to pass on a “lesbian heritage” from one generation to the next. I notice how individuals of newer generations may sometimes find themselves lost and lonely as they try to grapple with sexual or gender identity. I also notice how newer generations re-invent themselves on their own, and in their own ways, very differently from those of us in earlier generations. So perhaps all of that is fine.

But perhaps there might be something valuable in resurrecting the voice of the me of thirty years ago, perhaps it might be useful to someone. After I did an oral history for a program at the University of Southern Maine, a student who listened to the recording was inspired to write a poem, “What if God were a lesbian?” And significantly, that was very like the original question that inspired my own book. What if?

“I don’t know how to love him…”

I was watching Jesus Christ Superstar this evening, starring John Legend as Jesus. He is a wonderful Jesus! Each time I see it, it pulls me back to a time in my life that was so deep, so intense. I think of Lori and Tom, the best friends I met in my first week of college, and how the three of us were so in love with Jesus, and all he represented–a life beyond the ambition and greed of our society, something radical, something full of love, a life that let go of material things and chose a different kind of joy. We three were in love with all that. But we often asked each other, how can we follow Jesus’ way in this day and age? And so the song, “I don’t know how to love him,” touched something of that powerful confusion and desire in our hearts.

Now, Lori and Tom are gone, dying too soon, so I have no one with whom to reminisce; but the music calls to mind the idealism and passion we inspired in each other.  I have very few pictures of us, maybe none from college. We were so young then. This picture was taken about a year or two after graduation I think, when Lori was making her vows as a Franciscan sister. (Francis of Assisi was another one who inspired our best dreams.) That was how she tried to love Jesus.

Lori, Tom, and I

Me, Lori & Tom, 1977 or so?

Jesus Christ Superstar had debuted on Broadway the year of my high school graduation. We were lucky enough at Aquinas College to have as a professor a Catholic priest, Fr. Philip Hanley, who brought it into our theology class. He said that Jesus Christ Superstar asked all the questions that people had been asking for centuries about Jesus. And that was what theology was all about. Fr. Hanley is dead now, too, but I still remember how he encouraged us to ask all the questions, how he opened up our minds and hearts.

Lori was a nun for most of her life. Tom worked for the church–it was complicated because he was gay. But eventually he was working for the church and living with a long time partner, so that was a blessing. A few years after that photo, I found the Catholic Worker movement, the best example I knew of people trying to actually live the values of the gospel in our day and age. Radical, and a different kind of joy.

Then, in the midst of our peace activism, I found feminism and needed to launch on an even more radical journey that brought me out of the Catholic church, and into a spiritual movement with women becoming free. I came out as a lesbian, and named myself a witch, and eventually became a Unitarian Universalist minister. All of that brought me far from the paths that Lori and Tom had traveled, so we were not as close in later years, though I visited Lori when she was dying from cancer, and our love for each other went beyond all those differences.

The thing is, that idealistic and passionate young woman is still inside, however the years have transformed me. And listening to the musical this time, when Jesus/John Legend sang, “then, I was inspired; now, I’m sad and tired…” it resonated. We had such hope for changing the world, back then. It is hard to see the fruits of our labor as the backlash against social change movements rocks our nation. I don’t know if my life has lived up to the hopes and dreams I held in those days. Did it all mean anything? Yet Jesus asked those questions too, in Jesus Christ Superstar.

And it is complicated for me now, sorting out where Jesus fits into my life as a witch. But he hasn’t gone away. I remember him encouraging me as I set out on my feminist journey.  I am still wondering how to love him.  Still wondering about that radical way of living and loving. It brings tears to my eyes, even as an old tired woman.

Reverence

There is another challenging aspect to embracing a spirituality of experience. It is not only a matter of paying attention to our own experience. It is also a matter of being open to the experience of others. How do we affirm each other’s spiritual experience when that experience may be very different from our own? How do we bring individual spiritual experience into the cauldron of community? If we approach these questions in a merely logical way, we can come up short.

For example, those of a skeptical nature might find it challenging to understand the experience of someone who relates vivid encounters with non-physical beings: gods or angels or spirits. If you do not experience such beings, you might find it inexplicable that others might. It might contradict everything you know about the world. Could there be such a reality, beyond the reach of our ordinary senses? I am not going to ask you to believe in it, but to take into account the possibility that some people may experience it. There are times when experience—our own or that of others—goes beyond our rational understanding.

Some cultures tend to be more at ease about such phenomena. I have a friend who is Puerto Rican. In her culture, one of the ancient traditions brought from Africa is called Santeria. When my friend opens her awareness to experience the larger reality, images from her culture come to life. She sees the spirits of Elegba and Oshun and Oya, with vivid colors and songs that others in her culture also report. These spirit beings interact with her and have been very significant in her life. Who is anyone to say they are not part of reality, when a whole culture affirms and cherishes them?

I am not saying we should not bring our reasoning to bear on our experience. My encounter with people of other cultures has made me more appreciative of the mystical elements of reality, and ironically, also more skeptical. It has taught me how our cultural context shapes our experience, even at what we imagine to be the most intimate and personal levels. If, as a child, I felt held in the loving arms of Jesus, was that reality, or was that an image shaped by what I had been taught to expect? Or could it be both?

When I was twenty six, I learned how my religious tradition had been shaped by the dominance of men in my culture, and I became suspicious of images of God that excluded the female. These male God images had been influenced by the assumptions and values of those in power. I had received no cultural mirror in which to imagine divinity in a feminine way.

So there is a paradox. Our experience of reality is shaped by our cultural context. This can affect our lives in both positive and negative ways. There are times when we need our rational understanding to be able look critically at experience. Experience is the essence of spirituality but it is not infallible. We must measure spiritual experience by the values and thoughtfulness with which we should measure all parts of our lives.

But there are times when our reasoning may be confounded. Let me tell you another part to the story. My Puerto Rican friend fell in love with a white woman who was a cynic about spiritual matters. Her passion was the work of social justice. However, when she entered a relationship with my Puerto Rican friend, her cynicism was challenged in an unexpected way. She began to see Elegba and Oshun and Oya in her inner imagination. She said to me once, “Those Puerto Rican spirits don’t care if I don’t believe in them. They show up whether I want them to, or not.”

There is so much about reality that is mysterious and hard to explain. We rely on our experience, and the experience of others, to give us evidence about the world. If we acknowledge our own experience, our own inner reality, then we must acknowledge the inner reality of others. That leaves us open to dimensions that might be difficult or impossible to measure. So while I would never ask anyone to believe in the unproven, I do invite you to keep an attitude of reverence for all that is unexplained in yourself and in others.

The poet D.H. Lawrence describes it this way:
This is what I believe:
…That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.
That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest
into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.
That I must have the courage to let them come and go.
That I will never let mankind put anything over me,
but that I will try always to recognize and submit
to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women.

Clearing

 Quote from D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature:. (Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 26. Excerpt was first published in English Review, December 1918 in the article “Benjamin Franklin.”