“This is who I am. I’m happy with it,” affirmed Sr. Grace Surdovel of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as she reflected on her identity as both a religious sister and a lesbian woman.
Surdovel is the editor of Love Tenderly: Sacred Stories of Lesbian and Queer Religious, an anthology published this year by New Ways Ministry. She is also the author of one of the book’s personal essays, entitled “Authenticity.” In a recent conversation with Global Sisters Report (GSR) Surdovel explained how the theme of her essay arose from embracing the fullness of her identity by coming out to her entire congregation upon release of an earlier GSR interview:
“When the interview with GSR was published, the president of our congregation emailed our communication director and said, “Please put this out to the members.” Well, I had not told the members. I said, “Well, I guess today’s coming-out day.”
“‘So I sent an email, and I came out to the entire congregation and said, “By the way, here’s a book that I wrote, and this interview was about this book. And this is me.” I thought, “I guess here’s authenticity.”‘”
The overwhelmingly positive response Surdovel received from her religious sisters reflects the reactions to the book thus far as well. Its global reach expands across the U.S., as well as to Europe and Africa. Surdovel and the other authors have been invited to speak to students and religious congregations, among others. Their hope to “facilitate conversations that will impact women, religious communities, their families…like the pebble in the pond” has been realized and then some:
“’Well, the audience we were originally writing for was sisters who are very closeted or who are struggling with their own identities and their own orientation or who maybe don’t quite understand sexual orientation. But we’ve heard from college students, priests, teachers, faculty members at colleges, parents of LGBT kids. We also reached a lot of former sisters, which was another group I had not really given a lot of thought to. It is that pebble in the pond I talked about, and all the ripples just keep going.'”
Discussing LGBTQ issues with college students is a particular joy for Surdovel, who serves as faculty and the graduate technology coordinator at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her 2015 doctoral dissertation focused on the experiences of closeted LGBTQ former college students. “What was amazing to me was their experiences weren’t different, especially in terms of coming to accept themselves: the struggles with family, friends, substance abuse, suicide ideation,” she explained. Surdovel continued:
“‘They had three different pathways, but they all ended at the point where they’ve come to accept who they are. One of my questions to them was, “If you could go back, what could your college have done differently?” They all talked about welcoming space and safe space because it didn’t exist when they were there. Or, at least, it didn’t exist for them.”
Creating these welcoming spaces remains a primary concern for Surdovel and the other authors of Love Tenderly who “wanted folks to read the book and to start asking questions and start having conversations and just get rid of this stigma, the shame and all that kind of garbage.”
Working with young people is a continual source of inspiration, she says, naming Amanda Gorman, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the students-turned-gun-violence activists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as examples. On LGBTQ issues as well, Surdovel points out that the youth are leading the way:
“’We writers planted the seed, but it’s those young people who are moving forward. You know, we’re all going to be headstones, and they’re all going to be changing the world.'”
Asked for her advice for those feeling isolated or alone, Surdovel of course recommends the book as a starting point for conversation and opening up taboo subjects. “But I think it’s important for all LGBTQ+ folks particularly those in religious communities, to find your people,” she offers. “Just find your people, keep your supports close and take baby steps, but keep moving.”
For more information on Love Tenderly and how to receive your copy (either in print or in electronic form), click here.
For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of LGBTQ clergy and religious, including past coverage about lesbian and queer women religious, click here.
—Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, July 31, 2021