Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship: Renewing My Lesbian Card

On my “ketchup” list in my last post was the fact that I have been thinking more about being a lesbian in the past ten weeks than I have in the past ten years. That might be a bit of an exaggeration (I’m a little prone to hyperbole), but not too much. Julie used to joke that they were going to take away our lesbian cards soon, if we didn’t get some pride … but then we didn’t, and then we were pretty sure the cards had, in fact, expired. Aside from in fact being lesbians, our lives aren’t very, well, lesbian. We don’t go to gay pride events, we’re not part of any gay and lesbian organizations, we don’t have a rainbow flag outside our house. We have plenty of gay friends, but they’re mostly not our friends because they’re gay, but because they go to our church, or they live on our block, or our kids are playmates.

So my newfound enthusiasm – giddiness even – for thinking and talking about being gay is especially startling to me, like someone renewed my card and forgot to tell me! And it’s not as though I haven’t given any thought to being a lesbian in the last decade, but honestly, it’s just occurring to me that for the most part, what brings gayness to the center of my attention has almost always been the ugly stuff: DOMA and the federal marriage amendment and the whole toxic political climate of the Bush years. But suddenly, we’re married! And we have a gay pastor! And hey, it feels sort of fun to be gay again!

I know that I owe you all an essay or two to conclude my marriage series, but it’s still percolating. I really thought getting married in Iowa was sort of a formality, something kind of cool we never thought we could do. I never imagined that it would be so profoundly generative, in such lovely and unexpected ways. I look forward to sharing all that with you soon (ish; no promises). But I’m finding that I sort of need to write and share my way around it for awhile. The meaning in it, which is gorgeous and unexpected and feels over and over like grace – it’s just too big right now to get my arms all the way around.

So in the meantime, I thought I would share a couple of scenes from a lesbian life, as they are happening to me, or coming back to me these days.


Last Sunday at the adult Sunday school series called Sharing our Faith Stories, our pastor Michael led us in an exercise intended to help us feel more comfortable sharing with one another. It was sort of like “speed dating,” except it was “speed faith sharing.” The chairs in the social hall were set in two concentric circles, facing each other, so folks sitting in each circle were paired with someone sitting in the other circle, knee to knee. Michael would ask us a question, and we each had a minute to share, and then one circle would move one space to the right, so you had a new partner for each question. One of the questions was to tell about an embarrassing moment, and this is the story I told, as it turns out, to my dear friend Suzanne:

When we left Indiana to move to Philadelphia, it was largely because we couldn’t be out there and still be teachers, and Julie, at least, was really sure that she was called to teach (and she was right). As I have written before, it was painful to be closeted in our small, rural classrooms, and the city felt so fresh, so wide-open, so safe, ironically enough. And we were definitely loving being out again, like the BDOC’s (big dykes on campus) that we had been in college. That was definitely way before our lesbian cards expired, back in the day when we loved nothing more than a march on Washington, and if it was a dyke march, all the better.

So there we were, marching with tens of thousands of lesbians right past the White House, and there was a whole contingent who had stripped to the waist. And if you know me, you know that in general I like to have as little clothing on as possible, so OF COURSE I took my shirt off. I mean, right? What else would I do? And we’re marching right past the White House, and we’re chanting something like “Hey hey, ho ho, homophobia has got to go,” or singing “A you’re an Amazon, B coming Brave and strong, Clearly and Confidently you C! D you’re so dykey, oh how you Excite me, how Fortunate for the Female Faculty!” Or some such, you get the picture.

And then, quietly at first, and then a little louder, and more insistent, I hear a voice from behind: “Miss Rose? Miss Rose? Is that YOU?”

And sure enough, I turned around to see a somewhat flushed (and fully clothed, but quite clearly marching in the dyke march) former student. And by former, I mean like she was my student LAST YEAR!

Again, those of you who know me in person know that I’m no prude, and I would probably be quite comfortable being naked in front of most of you – certainly if we were marching together in a dyke march past the White House – but this was too much. Even for me. I smiled, and said, “Well hello! Just let me put my shirt on and then I can talk to you!” But I’m pretty sure I was blushing.


It’s lovely to feel so celebrated and safe these days as a lesbian woman, wife and mother. It’s so lovely that I almost forgot how recently it felt so very different. I think it’s important to remember. This is a link to something I shared with my congregation one Sunday in worship just three short years ago, when Pennsylvania was considering an amendment excluding gays and lesbians from marriage.


A couple of weeks ago in church, we sang a new response at some point in the liturgy, that went like this:

Open my eyes, that I may see

glimpses of truth, Thou hast for me.

Open my eyes ...

Well, actually, I can’t remember exactly how the song we sang in church went, but most of you who grew up in church probably recognized this, right? That never happens to me, because I didn’t grow up in church. All those hymns that you’re pissed off about because some earnest PC music committee changed the lyrics? Doesn’t bother me in the least, because I never knew the old lyrics to begin with. So I was pretty startled that I recognized this song, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until about the third verse, and then I remembered: Cris Williamson, Song of the Soul, from The Changer and the Changed (go listen!) – the song that opens with that same refrain:

Open my eyes, that I may see

glimpses of truth Thou hast for me

Open my eyes illumine me,

Spirit Divine ….

And if you were an earnest lesbian (or even just an earnest feminist) in the 1980’s, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. Remember how we used to sit up in the Womyn’s Center on the fourth floor of Carpenter Hall, that gorgeous space where men were not allowed, and where the sun streamed through that big semi-circular window? There were great big couches and pillows on the floor and that lavender mural called “Weaving Webs of Women’s Lives,” remember? (And of course, if you didn’t go to Earlham College in the 1980’s, but you were an earnest feminist somewhere else in those years, you can probably at least imagine what I’m talking about). There was a record player in the corner and a slender stack of “women’s music” albums – or “wimmin’s music,” or “womyn’s music” – oh my, but we were earnest then! And I loved it all – Cris Williamson and Meg Christian [edited to get her name right] and their triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall, singing about loving women; and Holly Near, who was maybe even a lesbian for a minute or two, wasn’t she? But at the very least she was bringing all us gentle, angry people together in harmony. And Ferrin, remember her? Oh good Lord, she was not only earnest, but earnest and bleak. And Deirdre McCalla [edited to fix her name] and Theresa Trull and Toshi Reagan … they were all like the sound track of my life back then. And I loved it all.

So when we sang that song in church the other day, a song that I not only knew from before I became a regular church-goer, but knew from those sun-filled days in the lavender womb of the Womyn’s Center, it all came flooding back – how much I loved being a lesbian, how full of hope and pride and joy we were, such young women loving each other, and how much those women’s music singers – Cris and Meg and Holly and Deirdre and Theresa and Toshi and all the rest – how easy it is to remember them with sentimentality, or to poke fun (as I often do) at their earnestness, and to forget that they really were pioneers. That it was fucking brave back then to get up on a stage and sing about loving another woman. I’m glad I got to be reminded of that in the midst of my loving, open and affirming congregation, being led by an openly gay pastor – those women were among the many folks who paved the way for there to be such a church, and such a pastor, and such a giddy lesbian as me -- and I am ever grateful to all of them.


Patrick said...

Chris Williamson's song is what introduced me to those lines as well, and Song of the Soul is still one of my favorite songs of all time. My social circle here is mostly younger than me, so not even my women friends know Williamson, McCallah or Ferrin. This affects me in a weird way, like I am some sort of crusty old hippie whom time and 'THE REAL WORLD' have passed by. Very odd. Remember Deirdre McCallah performing at Earlham? To be honest I never thought her recordings came close to capturing her charisma live, but I also haven't heard her in years. Sigh...

Okay, I'm babbling.

Kate Haas said...

"Framed in the wings of an American Eagle/I still see you, standing in the terminal/Each of us in her silence froze/trying to hold onto the moment/Feeling older..."

I haven't even thought about her in years, but just seeing name Dierdre McCulluh brought those words *zipping* back into my head as if it was still 1987. I really love the way you evoke all that in your posts about Earhlam.

Marta said...

patrick and kate, you're bringing it all back even more! i'm singing that song like i just hear it yesterday, kate, and it's been over 20 years.... i'm so glad you're my friends. xoxo

Anonymous said...

so from the opposite direction I became a newly minted lesbian about the same time I became a newly minted pastor (in a heterosexist denomination no less) and when I heard "Song of the Soul" I thought...'hey, one of my favorite hymns...being sung by a lesbian!'

a nice affirmation at the time.


Marta said...

wanda, how great is that? my heart is just too full thinking of you making it official with the ucc ... almost, now that i think of it, like getting married ... so much more beautiful and generative and complicated than it seems at first blush ... anyway, i'm so glad you're here, on my blog, at old first, in the ucc, in our lives!

Julie Steiner said...

Patrick and Kate-I drove Deirdre around in the red truck when she came to EC, and Marta, remember when our Bloomington Women's Music Festival "work exchange" job was hanging out with Theresa Trull, to protect her from some stalker? I think we drove her around in the Escort and went out for pizza and hung out in Casselbury and DuPree's motel room...ah, heady days. Remember "Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister"?

Sara said...

Except it's Deirdre McCalla you goofs! she's still around -


Marta said...

see sara, YOU are a good lesbian! you renew your card every year, don't you? ;-) i'll bet you never have overdue library books either, right?

michael caine said...

your singing "open my eyes" in church now and it taking you back to singing it again in the lavender womb of the womyn's center at earlham is somehow what the bibilical characters and writers experienced in visions or transfigurations or epiphanies. maybe it's even a kind of resurrection experience.

and more certainly it is the word of god not in scripture, but thank you Jesus, still present in your life.

how cool that happened. and that you all back then made the way for us all that would in turn take you back there. the hindus are actually right...

michael caine said...

your singing "open my eyes" in church now and it taking you back to singing it again in the lavender womb of the womyn's center at earlham is somehow what the bibilical characters and writers experienced in visions or transfigurations or epiphanies. maybe it's even a kind of resurrection experience.

and more certainly it is the word of god not in scripture, but thank you Jesus, still present in your life.

how cool that happened. and that you all back then made the way for us all that would in turn take you back there. the hindus are actually right...

Marta said...

michael, my friend leigh, who is exactly one year older than me, had to comment to this post on facebook, because she said she was too old for this blog commenting technology you too, huh? ;-)

but in all seriousness, thanks for putting this on the blog -- i needed to hear it, but i think more folks than just me do too.

Anonymous said...

I'm older than that and I did grow up in church but I first heard Open my Eyes in the mid seventies. Now it's a hymn or was it a hymn to start with?

I loved Cris Williamson, but didn't get that she was a lesbian right away.

robert said...

The hymn you quote, "Open My Eyes That I May See," was written by Clara Scott, who was born 168 years ago today. It is a good prayer, based on Ps. 119:18, that God would reveal the truth contained in His Word. It saddens me that you have missed the fact that the Lord has condemned homosexual behaviour many times in the Scriptures. As the saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

Marta said...

dear robert: thank you for sharing your interpretation of scripture thoughtfully, and without spewing hatred, as is so often the case with those who share your theology. obviously, i do not share it, and indeed, i believe that to commit spiritual genocide against gay and lesbian people in the name of a few passages from scripture is a blasphemy, and makes an idol of scripture. i would urge you to reconsider your own blindness, and i will certainly keep you in my prayers. your sister in christ, marta