Sr. Gorgeous

Posted by Censor Librorum on Aug 14, 2018 | Categories: Accountability, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals

There was a professor at my college everyone called Sr. Gorgeous. Unlike many of the other resident sisters, she was young (in her 30s), vibrant and good looking. A few gray streaks at her temples gave her an air of distinction. She made the transition from habit to lay clothes stylishly. She was approachable, engaging and well-liked. Her classes were always full. Like most of the students, I adored her.

When I was a junior I took one of her wood sculpture classes. I wasn’t a natural talent, but I loved sculpture and looked forward to class and studio time. Sr. Gorgeous would spend some class time walking around the studio, encouraging students and watching them work. A couple of times I thought she pressed too closely against me looking over my shoulder. Uncomfortable, I broke it off by turning around to talk to her.

But one time, when I was intent on my work, she came up behind me and put her hand between my legs. I froze. I didn’t look up. I was in shock. She moved off, but everything had changed. I avoided being alone in the studio. I always turned around to face her if she came around to observe.

I suspected one of the other art teachers knew about Sr. Gorgeous, but she didn’t say anything to me. I got an “A” in her painting class, which I felt I didn’t deserve.  Perhaps it was to balance the “C+” I received in sculpture. “Not enough studio time” was the comment. It had a grain of truth–I didn’t spend much time in the studio because I didn’t want to be alone there. I swallowed my disappointment and anger and accepted the C+ without any protest. I never took another sculpture course, but I couldn’t give away my tools. I told myself I would go back to sculpture someday. They have sat in a wooden box for over 40 years.

A year later, when I was a senior, an underclassman I knew found me alone in Social Hall and sat down to talk. I liked her. She was a pretty, confident girl with a ready smile. She confided that she was having a relationship with Sr. Gorgeous and was very happy, but had no one to talk to about it. She thought I would understand. They met secretly. They used her office as a rendezvous point. I listened, nodded, and said nothing. I pretended to be dumb about Sr. Gorgeous’ lesbian interest in students.  

I felt a little shocked that Sr. Gorgeous would go so far, a little fearful that someone would walk into Social Hall and hear us.  I told the girl I was happy for her, but to be careful–for herself, and to not get caught. I know when she stood up to go she said she hoped we could talk again, but I made sure that it didn’t happen. I would wave at a distance and avoid going into the same room. I did not want to be involved. I was homophobic and fearful because I had my own big secret to keep: I was madly in love with one of my classmates.

About a decade later, I met another alumna at a lesbian party in New York. She brought up Sr. Gorgeous. I asked her if she was still with —. The woman said no, they had broken up long ago.  But Sr. Gorgeous had been caught with another girl, or had been reported, and the school quietly dismissed her as a professor. She had left DC, and was living someplace else–Philadelphia, upstate New York, she wasn’t quite sure.

I used to wonder what I would do if I ever ran into Sr. Gorgeous at a party.  Say hello and move on? Avoid her? Deck her with one punch?

As a Catholic lesbian activist, I have met hundreds of lesbian nuns and ex-nuns over the years. Crushes were common, especially when they were younger. Many had at least one sexual experience. Some were or had been partnered. Some ex-nuns left their communities because they were in love with a woman, usually another sister.  Many older sisters, who entered their communities pre-1960s, had their sexuality so buried and suppressed they didn’t know if they were straight or gay.

What all lesbian nuns said–to a woman–was that they regretted that they did not have someone they could talk to openly, honestly, about their feelings for women. Instead, they had to carry the feelings alone, in silence, with no way to discuss them without fear of reprisal, or drawing unwanted attention to themselves.

Religious communities have always been aware of homosexuality in the ranks–think about the admonition to avoid “particular friendships;” but none have ever been good about addressing the sexuality of their members in a healthy and understanding way. Good counseling could have helped and supported many of these women in their vocations.

An ex-nun friend of mine told me that she had tried to talk to her superior about her feelings and was continually brushed off. The build-up of feelings finally broke out and she ended up in an inappropriate relationship. She felt very guilty about it, which only compounded her emotional anguish.

Is being a lesbian nun any more challenging than being a heterosexual nun?  Perhaps, given the bonding in single-sex communities, and the proximity to women not drawn to heterosexual marriage and children. But over the course of their vocations both groups will face challenges in managing sexual desire, and needs for intimacy and comfort. Lesbian desire carries a stigma that makes it harder to discuss and encourages silence.

I think this is what happened to Sr. Gorgeous.  How could she not be affected by the presence and attentions of so many vital young women? When she found herself sexually attracted or aroused, who could she go talk to about her feelings? No one…and that was the problem.

She did sexually harass me, and whatever her situation with her community and herself that was wrong. Like most other people who have been groped by a priest or nun, I chose to be quiet about it. Part of my decision was knowing what a mess it would create with school, classmates and family; and part of it was fear of exposure of my own lesbian desire. I wanted that hidden away from others and myself, too. I wonder how often abusers can sense that their prey shares the same inclinations? I thought this was the case for Sr. Gorgeous. I believed she could sense my feelings for my friend. The fear of that discovery would make me a perfect target–one who would keep her mouth shut.

Two parts of myself look back on Sr. Gorgeous.  The older me has experienced her own times of temptation, weakness, moral failure and isolation. Her own experiences, plus hearing 1,000 similar stories, have given her understanding, if not a glimmer of compassion. The younger self is sad and bitter. She lost an art she loved, and a person she admired.

 

Barbara Grier’s Lesbian Nuns

Posted by Censor Librorum on Nov 23, 2011 | Categories: Accountability, Celebrities, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals

Barbara Grier, a founder and publisher of Naiad Press, a much-thumbed lesbian pulp fiction publisher, died of cancer on November 10, 2011 in Tallahassee, Florida. She was 78.   Her death was announced by her long-time partner (in work and life), Donna McBride.

Founded in 1973, and with a mailing list purloined from the Daughters of Bilitis, Grier went on to publish over 500 books with unconditionally lesbian themes–romance, erotica, poetry, science fiction and self-help. If you wanted to read a book with lesbian sex, you bought one of the Naiad titles.   Like real life, sometimes the sex was great, sometimes not-so-great.   The stand-out best book of lesbian awakening,  desire, seduction and sex is Katherine V. Forrest’s 1983 novel, “Curious Wine.” Buy it.

The availability of these novels–with lust and sex and a happy ending–was a tremendous service to lesbians everywhere.    In  lesbian fiction in the 1940s,  50s and 60s the heroine dallied with a female lover but ended up with a man.   Barbara Grier flipped this formula around: the women flirted with men or a heterosexual lifestyle, but came to their senses and ended up with a woman.

Many of these early  lesbian novels were straight men’s pornographic fantasies: a little girl-on-girl action to get things warmed up, but a man finishes up. Lesbians had to be content with reading to the middle of the book.

Besides an appreciation of some of her romance novels, my acquaintence with Barbara Grier and Naiad Press came through the 1985 smash hit, “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence.” In 1984 I was asked by Nancy Manahan, one of the editor/authors, if she could solicit stories from the ex-nuns and sisters who were members of CCL – the Conference for Catholic Lesbians.   A number of CCL members ended up in the book, including two of the women who were presented as currently belonging to a religious community. One of them still is…although she published her story using her grandmother’s name not her own.

Nancy Manahan did a workshop at the 1986 CCL national conference where she talked about the book and the process of pulling it together. As I remember her, she was soft-spoken,  thoughtful, and earnest.   She wrote in the forward of the book that its intent was to break the silence about “erotic love between women in religious life.”

The book resonated with a large swathe of Catholic lesbians, especially former women religious, who left their communities because their lesbianism was not compatible with either their vows, or the forced  invisibility of homosexuals in the Catholic Church.   The spiritual community they experienced in religious life was missed, and it left an ache in some that was never healed.

There is an interplay between sexuality and spirituality in Catholicism especially, with its emphasis on sensuality and the body.   Think of the suggestive pose of St. Sebastian, and the orgasmic rapture of St. Theresa of Avila.   Even Christ hanging on the cross often has his loincloth positioned in a pretty erotic angle. How can anyone avoid the subtle message of these images or even avoid making them an object of desire?

When a local TV station in Boston promoted an interview with Manahan and her co-editor, Rosemary Curb, archdiocesan officials complained, saying the broadcast would be “an affront to the sensitivity of Roman Catholics.” The station cancelled the program, but the ensuing uproar sent sales of the book soaring. “This is crazy,” Grier told the New York Times , scrambling to fill new orders for the book, which eventually sold several hundred thousand copies. “I’m a mouse giving birth to an elephant!”

A year or two later, a controversy ensured when Barbara Grier sold the rights to some of the lesbian nun stories to Penthouse Forum, a male prono magazine. The CCL board sent an angry letter to Grier saying it was a betrayal, selling these women’s stories for the titillation of male readers.  Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Curb  protested, too, but to no avail–Naiad Press owned the book.

Grier replied. She did it because she felt she could reach new women readers through Penthouse.

My sense is she did it for the money and publicity it would bring to Naiad Press.   She had her mainstream hit, and she wanted to ride it for all it was worth. After all, she labored for many years on the margins with  a shoestring budget.

The tremendous irony of the whole thing is that Barbara Grier, who spent a lifetime working hard to publish lesbian literature, had her greatest notoriety from providing lesbian sex thrills to men.