The question about lesbians that I knew would come

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All rights reserved by Andy Fillmore

I knew the question would come soon enough, and I knew that it deserved a answer. A real answer. A cut through the BS kind of answer. After all, it came from a reader I don’t know personally but one who I suspect is a cut through the BS kind of woman. She commented on last week’s post about the new anthology Talking Taboo: “Are lesbian relationships discussed in your book?”

The short answer is not really. There are two contributors who identify as queer. There’s exploration of same-sex desire in contributor lizzie mcmanus’s piece. But there is not a single essay devoted to the topic of women in love with women who may or may not be in love with the church.

It seems an odd thing to have a book about taboo that doesn’t address one of the biggest ones out there. In fact, it’s something I regret, always knew I would regret. But that’s the rub of letting people speak for themselves. You can’t tell them what issue to talk about or where their comfort should reside. They get to choose, and you don’t get to treat them like mouthpieces.

We asked a number of women we knew who self-identified as lesbians if they would write for the anthology. One turned out to be over 40. Another didn’t have the time. A third agreed and then never turned in her essay. We were scrambling to get someone to talk about it, and yet we were met with the limits of time and who we knew and who we knew might know.

But still, I wish I had tried harder, been more explicit about our desire, asked more people, put a halt on the manuscript deadline. I wish that it had turned out differently on this one.

“You’ve got to be vigilant,” Claudia said to me in the airy meeting room of the Stone House where couches sagged under the weight of woolen blankets and tea steeped in mugs between us. Claudia is this beautiful Jewish woman with gray ringlets and an East Coast directness who runs a retreat center committed to over 50% of its participants being people of color. “Vigilance is the only way we’re able to have such diverse people in our midst.”

She explained further how there were the people who it was easy to work with because you vibe with their style or you already know someone who knows them. But this typically privileges the people who already similar to you if you’re white. or Christian. or a woman. or heterosexual. It’s the people you don’t know about, who you have to go hunting for, who you may even have to go out on a limb to work with, who offer the alchemy of “otherness” that makes for richer partnerships, deeper concoctions of truth – mine, yours, and ours.

It’s a vigilance I’m still learning. A fellow facilitator in my work at the Center for Courage & Renewal shared with me a question she asks herself all the time: “Who do I want to work hard to find ways to work with?” Even if it takes me initiating  Even if it feels like tokenism at first.  Even if it takes a really, really long time to see that it’s worth it.

There are a lot of things I am proud of the book for – for a publishing team spearheaded by two Muslim women at I Speak For Myself, Inc and a Sufi-Buddhist editor at White Cloud Press, for having two co-editors of different colors and ages, for having contributors with a wide variety of ethnic and denominational backgrounds, for having a foreword written by a young man named Andy Marin who runs a Christian bridge-building organization between the LGBT community and social conservatives.

But no, after all this, we still don’t have an essay written on first-hand experience of a lesbian relationship.

I hope it’ll be an important lesson and talking point for the book; some taboos are still taboo because we don’t yet have relationships with the people who are living them. The kind of relationships that are real.

The kind of relationships that slice through BS like a soggy stick of butter and serve it up on some taboo toast.

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11 responses to “The question about lesbians that I knew would come

  1. At least you have the courage to admit you don’t have the time to search lesbians out for research in this book. Needless to say, I don’t have the time to read or promote this book.

  2. P.S. Nice picture with lesbian women’s heads cut off. Geez.

  3. P.S.S. If you would like a no holds barred discussion of alliances between lesbians and straight women, just ask me. I don’t hold back very blunt opinions, but I guarantee it will break a few taboos.

  4. Wow. I have to admit that I am dumbfounded that lesbian relationships aren’t covered in the book. And at the same time, I am curious to see what is and isn’t covered – I am looking forward to probing the diversity of the 40 writers who contributed their experiences as Christian women confronting their religious culture’s (open or tacit) disapproval.

    I am so glad to not have yet had the responsibility of editing for a project of this kind. Lining up two queer folk contribute who chose to write about something else besides their relationship, and then actively pursuing three other women specifically asking them to write about their relationships with other women (who then didn’t work out for three different reasons)… you DID try to find non-hetero folk, Erin. And you didn’t even mention your co-editor’s snowball sampling style Facebook broadcast call for submissions (which is how I came to write an essay on divorce for you all, which doesn’t sound like much of a taboo if you aren’t familiar with Christianity along the mainstream to conservative spectrum.) Since Talking Taboo isn’t a research type book, but a collection of first-person essays, I can only imagine the frustration of trying to find women who would be willing to write/speak specific kinds of personal stories, and then not finding any.

    BUT – you are so right, Erin – that doesn’t mean these women are not out there somewhere, and it is also true that it was your job (and your co-editor’s job) to find them. Audrey’s use of the word “courage” was apt: it always takes courage to publicly repent – to take responsibility for an action you regret. For a young editor to admit that she wished she had pushed back against the publishing deadline until she had corrected this glaring omission – yes, without any irony intended, that took courage. Not least because whenever we say “I’m wrong,” we expose ourselves where we are weak, where we already ache with injury.

    All that said, I am totally on board with Audrey’s criticism of the picture that goes with the post: that photo’s got to go. All those times people are looking at our breasts/cleavage instead of our faces? They can’t look at our faces if they aren’t there. I understand that the photo thus serves to anonymize the couple, but… well, it would be great if you either address the photo in your blog entry (esp. in light of how it goes against the particularity that is on display in Talking Taboo, and how that might be symbolically significant, given the shortage of openly queer voices in the church and in the book) or if not, then just ditch it. Better no photo than the wrong photo.

    Love and Grace and Peace to You!

    • Thanks for your note, Sarah. It wasn’t my intent to choose a photo that silenced the particularities of lesbian relationships (nor was it I, but the photographer, who “chopped” their heads off.) I thought it was beautiful and loved the natural exposure of cleavage. But it sounds like my choice has caused dissonance. I hope the new photo is in keeping with the intent to show the commonality of all loving relationships, while honoring the particularity of the two women pictured.

  5. Wow, Erin – you rock! The new photo is perfect! Thanks!!

  6. Hmmm, first of all, as co-editor of this book, I have to admit that Erin, in typical fashion is being too hard on herself. Her efforts were remarkable in seeking out potential contributors to pen an essay on lesbianism. The fact that we could NOT find someone willing to do so should not be held against the editors. And because we couldn’t we intentionally solicited a forward by Andrew Marin, whose life’s work is committed to advocating for gay-lesbian rights. Regardless f our views on any of the Taboo topics both Erin and I felt it was important to try and solicit as much content diversity as possible.
    Personally, I find Audrey comments rude and inappropriate. Erin’s post was thoughtful, humble and positioned as one open to listening and learning. It would be so lovely if those who shared their responses could offer the say stance of humility, listening and courteous attempts at dialogue. Having a difference of opinion of promoting oneself as “blunt” does not in any way have to equal rude. Food for thought. I look fwd to those readers who will engage this collection of essays with humility, thoughtfulness and a desire to have civil but challenging dialogue with one another and the rest of the world. I am so proud of this book and of the chance to work with Erin Lane on it. As far as I can tell (i might be wrong) it is the first book of it’s kind and being the first there are bound to be things that perhaps could have been done differently. But the main point is that is starts conversations and it opens up doors and windows that have hitherto be closed. That in itself is worth celebrating, promoting and supporting. Thank you Erin for your post.

  7. The photo is much better. The erasure of lesbians as full human beings in the first photo seemed to make the entire situation all the worse, but now there we have this lovely couple.

  8. Andrew Marin is no friend to lesbians, and he excluded us every chance he gets. Honestly, a straight man talking about lesbians is just too much. Many gay people have had harsh criticism of his egomania and hijacking of our cause for his own ends. But that is another post for another time. I take it this is more evangelical Christianity here? Integrity, MCC, Dignity, Mary Hunt, Nancy Wilson, Susan Russel— all good lesbian Christian groups and people who could help you find lesbian couples for a book on taboos. Remember, there are hundreds of thousands of lesbian Christians worldwide. It will just make the book seem old fashioned in this day and age. Keep boosting your courage Erin. As a long time lesbian activist, my job is to defend my right to exist and also to call heteros on the carpet for their sins of omission. If that is rude, so be it, but I am fighting against extreme erasure every day, and dealing with cowardly straight women every day, and believe me, omission and erasure is pretty horrifying when you are on the receiving end of this from feminists, which I assume you are one.

  9. Now I’m curious, how many lesbians go to your church Erin? I think there are about 8000 open and affirming churches in America today, which means they just put out a welcome mat and specifically say that lesbians are welcome to come in the door. This is a problematic position to be sure, since we have always been closeted members of all churches herstorically, but be that as it may, it is a good position for straight people to engage in. I think it helps them to be clued in. When I write articles, I call about 30 women at least, to get at hard to get opinions and life experiences. I didn’t realize that younger women were still so isolated from the realities of lesbian life in America post Ellen Degeneres, so this seems a bit odd to me. But OUT lesbians are perhaps 2% of the population, and the news media focuses on gay men mostly. The media has a more sexualized view of us, which is why I was so horrified at lesbians with no heads which focused attention on our bodies but not our minds. Does the church today really know much about us? And I’d have to say no. I often wonder what it would be like to have an actual discussion of lesbian herstory within a Christian context with straight women, it could happen. Many of the open and affirming churches kind of like the homogenized or assimilated lesbians, or the white gay men with money, the lesbians who remain invisible are the ones who don’t much care for straight society, don’t like the culture of it, don’t like the woman hating aspects of it. My job, is to make sure that lesbians are visible everywhere, that butch lesbians in particular are honored for our groundbreaking work, and our culture. I don’t see taboos in the church regarding us, it’s just plain discrimination and hatred of lesbians and gay men, mostly gay men get all the hatred, we are simply made invisible. For what it’s worth.

    • Audrey, thank you for all your comments. I sincerely hope these important conversations are ones you can have in your local community.

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