Emily Joy reviews Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan

Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence

Growing up in a Catholic family and Catholic environment as a lesbian had its challenges. As a young girl, I thought that I would become a religious sister because the idea of living in a community of women seemed much preferable to getting married. You know, back when I thought that getting married automatically included a man. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that lesbian/bi women have been joining religious orders for centuries, finding that life with other women is better than married life with a man.

First published in 1985, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan is a nonfiction anthology with 51 accounts of lesbian nuns and ex-nuns, speaking on the topic about how their sexuality intersects with their vocations.

The success of this book has an interesting story. The Boston archdiocese contacted a news station and appealed for the cancellation of a televised interview with one of the book’s editors. The Boston Globe wrote an article about the censorship, and Lesbian Nuns almost immediately sold out of its first printing with indie lesbian publisher Naiad Press. Shortly after, Warner Books bought the rights for mass-distribution and spread the book far and wide with its second edition. In the book itself, one interviewee said:

Lesbian nuns I know are going to dance! In convents, this book will go around like hotcakes. […] Everybody will read it. Lesbian nuns will be more self-conscious about this book. I can see them dying to get hold of it, but trying not to show too much interest. […] All hell’s going to break loose. Religious communities are going to have to discuss this book. They’re going to have to respond to the reality, and they’ve never had to do that.

One of the contributors to this book might be familiar to some Lesbrary readers. Jeanne Cordova is the author of one of the first chapters, and she is also the author of Kicking the Habit: a Lesbian Nun Story and When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution.

The other stories and authors will likely be new to readers, and I think impactful in the way they mirror each other with shared experiences and ideas. Certainly, it was impactful for me with my Catholic background. There were several times that I felt like saying, “Hey! Those are my feelings, too!” There’s so much power for me in connecting with other lesbian women from the past, both distant and not so distant.

“My pain is that I can’t share being a Lesbian with most of these women. Since my Lesbianism is a part of me, they don’t really know me. Yet, if they knew I was a Lesbian, they might know me even less, because of whatever homophobia, stereotypes, or projections they might have. Another source of pain is my Church. I’m not sure what kind of a Catholic I am. I like the Catholic traditions and my personal history. However, I cannot reconcile myself to the Church’s clericalism and sexism.”

I may not personally prefer to capitalize the “l” in lesbian or call my sexuality an ism, but this passage and others truly resonated with me as an ex-Catholic. In fact, regardless of readers’ connections with Catholicism or other religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, I think this book has something for everyone to recognize in themselves.

The book is divided into nine themed sections, including sections on “particular friends”, the relationship between being a lesbian and vows of celibacy and chastity, and women who chose to stay in their religious orders rather than leave. It’s fascinating to read each section and find such similarities and differences in these women’s stories.

There is so much to learn from this book. It is full of first-hand accounts and the personal histories from our lesbian heritage. Catholic or not, religious or not, I highly recommend picking up a copy. Although originally published through an indie publisher, this book has since been reprinted several times and is available widely for anyone interested in exploring the relationship between religion and homosexuality.

Danika reviews Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Cordova

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I will admit, I find the idea of lesbian nuns fascinating. I love that there are multiple books on the subject. It actually makes total sense: historically, at least in the Western world, one of the few avenues that women had available to them if they didn’t want to get married to men and have children was to become a nun. Is it surprising that lesbians are over-represented in that number? In addition to this being a lesbian nun book, it’s also by an author I already enjoy. Cordova wrote a memoir about her activism titled When We Were Outlaws which I reviewed at the Lesbrary previously, so I knew that her writing style agree with me. It also ended up being an interesting prologue to When We Were Outlaws: I wouldn’t have guessed that passionate lesbian activist spent her childhood yearning to be a nun.

This isn’t as scandalous as the subtitle “A Lesbian Nun Story” would have you believe. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of that. Cordova as a postulant is hopelessly naive. The reader knows better, but young Jeanne wanders through training confused about why the church is so strict about “particular friendships” and what all the blushing and hand-holding is about between nuns she knows. More than a story about being a lesbian nun, Breaking the Habit is about Cordova’s disillusionment about convent life and about the plans she had been dreaming about since childhood. She describes wanting to be a nun as being in love with God, and primarily this is a story about falling out of love and about finding the world to be wider, darker, and also full of more possibility than she was aware of.

Overall, it’s a sweet story about coming out to yourself in an unusual setting. I think this works better as a prologue to When We Were Outlaws than as a standalone story, because it is fairly simple as a narrative. The writing is strong, though, and if you are intrigued by the premise, I don’t think it will disappoint.