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?

Rainbow Visit

Rainbow in Cushing

Margy and I have been visiting with friends in a cabin on the water in Cushing, Maine. This was the view from the cabin the other day, as a rain shower passed through, quickly followed by bands of sunshine, creating a magnificent full rainbow.  It has also been a “rainbow” visit because we are lesbians of a certain age just hanging out and talking and laughing and sometimes bemoaning the state of the country.  While I would never want to lose the wealth that comes from loving friends of all ages and experiences, I have also been appreciating this time filled with the familiarity of shared life experiences.  It is a sense of being understood and understanding, that we “get” each other, from our coming out stories to the advertising jingles that got stuck in our brains long ago.

What is the role of identity in our social justice struggles?  Maybe too big a question to ponder while on this mini-vacation.  But we got talking about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which was so empowering and life changing for so many women–including me–but has more recently been the subject of attacks from those who claim it excluded and oppressed Trans women.  And then I also happened to read an article posted yesterday by a friend on Facebook that raised this challenge:

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result.

That article linked to another, by Lauren Oates, “How Identity Politics is Destroying the Left and Being Used By the ‘Alt-Right.”  I liked some of her points, but I couldn’t rest easy with her concluding question, which seemed to me to misunderstand our struggle to end racism:

It’s about whether you want the world to be perpetually hyper in tune to race — the position identity politics advocates — or whether you want the world to eventually be blind to race.

I don’t think the goal of ending racism is to eventually “be blind to race.”  However, she linked to another article from last year that offered a more nuanced and compelling analysis, Safety Pins and Swastikas by Shuja Haider.  I was particularly drawn in by his critique of the idea of cultural appropriation, since I have been deeply involved in raising that issue in regards to non-Native people’s use of Indigenous spiritual practices.  (In 1995, I first published the essay, Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft.)

He talks about how the Right has mocked it, “Among the many silly ideas of young leftists who want to appear good without the hassle of doing good, ‘cultural appropriation’ stands alone,” quoting the National Review.  But then, of more import, he points out that “the rhetoric of mainstream antiracism is itself susceptible to appropriation by the Right.”

The eligibility of people to make certain kinds of claims is dependent on the set of criteria that fall into the category of “identity.” Your right to political agency is determined by your description.  We’re left with a simple rubric for determining the truth-value of a statement. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are members of that group entitled to say?

…It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.

I am pulling these quotes a bit out of context, and I encourage anyone concerned with the struggle for justice to check out the full articles.  I would be interested in your thoughts in response to them.  I am genuinely curious about the role of identity in liberation struggles–it has been a compelling question throughout my years as an activist.  Hierarchy, power, liberation, alliance…How do we acknowledge our location? How do we come together with those whose struggles are different from our own?

Forgive me for this meandering thought journey, in which I haven’t fully unpacked anything. But before I conclude for now, I want to come back to one of the most hopeful examples of people working together, both acknowledging and moving beyond “identities,” to face the crisis of our country, the moral fusion movement started in North Carolina by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

Rev. Barber laid the groundwork for a state-by-state movement that unites black, white, and brown, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, religious and secular. Only such a diverse fusion movement, Rev. Barber argues, can heal our nation’s wounds and produce public policy that is morally defensible, constitutionally consistent, and economically sane.

This quote is from the description of Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction:  How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.  You can find out more about this movement at Repairers of the Breach.  Oh, let’s not forget that a rainbow is a sign of hope!