An Invitation to Continue Dialogue Among Lesbian Religious

by Jeannine Gramick SL
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The issue of homosexuality and religious life is not a new question in this millennium in the US. It was raised in somewhat limited circles within national Catholic organizations in the early and mid 1970’s, but most of that discussion came from communities of male religious. Women religious did not address it until 1978, when the National Assembly of Women Religious [NAWR] devoted an entire issue of their newsletter to the topic of Ministry to the Gay Community with one brief article describing  interviews with two lesbian nuns.

These two nuns from the East coast had made retreats with communications Ministry but felt they needed a retreat for women only. At their request, New Ways Ministry sponsored the first retreat for lesbian nuns in 1979. It was this retreat that prompted the first Vatican intervention about my work at New Ways Ministry. The Vatican illustrated its lack of understanding of homosexuality by claiming that the sisters were using the word “celibate” as a “slogan.” My Baltimore provincial communicated to me that the Superior General of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Rome had been notified that the retreat should be cancelled. But with the knowledge and a wink of my provincial, the retreat was held as planned.

The following year, a NAWR newsletter featured another article on lesbian nuns. In 1980, the Intercommunity Center for Justice and Peace commissioned a survey about congregational policies regarding lesbian candidates. Two years later, the National Sisters Vocation Conference took up the topic of the lesbian applicant to religious life in its semi-monthly newsletter. The Religious Formation Conference and the National Conference of Religious Vocation Directors also addressed the topic of lesbian nuns in their respective journals.

In 1984-85, New Ways conducted a series of regional workshops for women religious who were exploring their sexual orientation. In 1985-86, New Ways held three symposiums for religious congregational leadership about homosexuality and religious life. Many of the presentations delivered at these events are contained in a book I edited, entitled Homosexuality in the Priesthood and Religious Life.

By 1985 lesbian nuns had gained widespread interest and attention not only in Catholic circles, but also in the world at large because of heavy publicity surrounding the publication of the book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. The title was somewhat misleading since most of the essays were contributed by former nuns. Although this collective work received less than enthusiastic reviews from the National Catholic Reporter and Sisters Today, its real value lay in drawing public attention to this neglected women’s issue.

Another book, Immodest Acts, a carefully researched historical account of a seventeenth century lesbian nun, appealed to scholars and students of history. An article that appeared in Women and Therapy in 1986, entitled “Counseling Lesbian Women Religious,” was helpful to the religious professional. However, neither the historical work nor the counseling article had as significant an effect on the general public as the much ballyhooed trade book.

While the issue of lesbian nuns was being addressed within and outside of Church institutions, small support networks across religious communities were being formed. In 1988, groups of 6-8 nuns began to meet monthly in New York City and the Twin Cities. This same year, Tobias Hagan, CSJ, began guided retreats at Rockhaven outside of St. Louis for religious women drawn to intimacy with other women. These retreats became yearly events that provided invaluable personal support to nuns at crucial times in their coming out process. They have also served as a catalyst in networking lesbian nuns across the continent.

In the 90s, additional small groups of lesbian nuns formed in Washington, DC, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Denver. Drawing on many nuns in these support networks to write about their feelings and experiences, New Ways Ministry published the first edition of Womanjourney Weavings in 1991 and sent a special introductory issue to the leadership of women’s religious communities in 1999.

In 1997 Fran Fasolka, IHM formed an on-line discussion group for lesbian sisters. In the last decade, several LCWR regions, individual communities, and the Religious Formation Conference have sponsored presentations and discussions about lesbian nuns. In 2000-2001, New Ways Ministry sponsored an educational project entitled “Womanjourney at the Millennium,” which gathered a group of 10 lesbian nuns who held educational sessions in their communities about internal homophobia and heterosexism.

As this brief historical review indicates, there has been both personal and institutional growth in coming to terms with the reality of lesbian nuns. While there is always a delicate dance between the private and the public, no movement for equality and justice for people’s lives can advance unless there is structural or policy change. This institutional change is promoted by transforming attitudes among the gatekeepers of the organizations. In the last 25 years, many lesbian sisters have come out to themselves and in some limited circles, but this personal comfort and security should not result in a lull or slowdown of change on structural levels.

Future conferences, like the one in Racine in 2005, need to include lesbian religious and congregational leaders in order to develop actions and educational projects around the topic of lesbian nuns within religious life. Of course, any gathering which includes lesbian sisters will provide personal support and networking. But more than this, such meetings are needed to initiate some internal strategies to make our communities safe and welcoming places for lesbian women.