Myths About Lesbian Religious
At the December 2006 conference, “Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Supporting Our Lesbian Sisters,” I was part of a session that discussed some of the findings of a study conducted several years ago on the climate for lesbian sisters, candidates and associates in religious congregations.
Several of the participants from leadership and vocation/formation ministry said that they found the following list of commonly held misconceptions about lesbian religious to be helpful. Lesbian sisters present at the conference felt that this was something that might be useful for them to share with leadership, perhaps as a way of opening some dialogue about heterosexism and homophobia.
Many assumptions about lesbian sisters are based on stereotypes rather than reality, and according to participants in the original study, may affect the openness of individuals and congregations to lesbian candidates and sisters, and to a lesser degree, associates. This article seeks to debunk some of the more common myths about lesbians who are living or seeking a commitment to vowed religious life. It also discusses the question many ask about lesbian religious, “Why do they have to talk about it?”
Myth #1: Lesbian sisters are sexually active.
Fact: Every human is a sexual being and has a sexual orientation. Having a homosexual orientation does not equate to engaging in genital behavior with women, just as having a heterosexual orientation does not equate to engaging in genital behavior with men.
Myth #2: It is more difficult for lesbians to live in a local community because of their same-sex orientation.
Fact: Lesbians are not sexually attracted to all women, just as their heterosexual sisters are not attracted to all men. In fact, many lesbian sisters report that their orientation has served as a gift for living community in that they feel energized by daily interaction with other women.
Myth #3: Lesbians are less capable of intimacy with God than heterosexual sisters.
Fact: This myth is based on an assumption that lesbian sisters have a preoccupation with relationships with women that prevents them from entering fully into an intimate relationship with God.
Myth #4: If we are all committed to celibacy, then one’s orientation is irrelevant.
Fact: This attitude is based on the assumption that orientation is about genital activity. The cultural context in which contemporary religious life is situated treats heterosexuality as normative and homosexuality as deviant. Perhaps to heterosexual sisters, this makes the issue of sexual orientation less problematic. But for many lesbian religious, it is important to overcome their own internalized homophobia and self-loathing by affirming who they are as lesbian, just as they formerly shamed themselves. In terms of inclusion, one’s orientation is keenly felt to be relevant when one is continually subjected to expressions of the dominant culture.
“Why Do They Have To Talk About It?”
There are many reasons why a lesbian sister may need to talk about her process of “coming out.” To do this issue justice would require a more detailed article. Here I offer an answer based on my own experience, recognizing that the answer will be different for other women.
For me, I’ve learned that the process of integration of a new realization about myself always seems to involve an initial period in which I seem to be obsessed with the new thing I’m dealing with. It happened when I started my recovery from alcoholism over 20 years ago, and it happened as recently as a couple of years ago when I started attending Weight Watchers to lose some weight. So it is no surprise to me that I needed to talk about being lesbian a lot when I first came out in 1998.
In Myth #4, I pointed out how important it is to overcome the internalized homophobia and self-loathing that is a product of our society and culture. I needed to know that others would still accept and love me in the light of this new information. Eight years down the road, I find that this aspect of myself is more integrated, and does not require the same kind of intense energy to process. In one of the dialogue sessions I conducted, one sister said, “I accept lesbian sisters, but I don’t like this issue to be in my face.” I was able to use an example to help her see things a little differently. Imagine a local community of sisters, one of whom is lesbian, the others heterosexual, watching movies in the community room. The sister who is lesbian expresses her appreciation for the attractiveness of one of the female actresses. During the next movie, the other sisters make similar statements of appreciation about the male lead actor. Why is the lesbian sister sometimes perceived as being “in the face” of the others, but the others do not perceive themselves putting their heterosexuality “in the face” of the lesbian sister? This is an example of how society treats heterosexuality as normative and homosexuality as deviant.
Sandy has been a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania since 1984, and is an Associate Professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, where she teaches electrical and computer engineering.