Interview 1 with Dee Graham, Dorothy Emerson, Meg Riley, Doddie Stone, Ann Tyndall

Dee Graham:

All right, so we want to start by saying our names. I’m the Reverend Dee Graham and I’m here from Bradenton, Florida.

Dorothy Emerson:

I’m the Reverend Dorothy Emerson. I live in the Boston area, Massachusetts.

Meg Riley:

Reverend Meg Riley from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Doddie Stone:

Reverend Doddie Stone, Terre Haute, Indiana.

Ann Tyndall:

Reverend Ann Tyndall, La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Dee Graham:

So, we’re here today to reflect on being lesbians and our experience serving in ministry with the Unitarian Universalist Association. One of the first topics that Dorothy suggested we begin considering was, in the beginning, when we first all went into ministry… I know we went in at different times… What kind of cultural differences did we notice between the lesbians and the gay men and how that was functioning in our denomination? Ann, would you like to start?

Ann Tyndall:

Sure. Well, I came out in seminary in Starr King, in Berkeley, in the mid-’70s, late ’70s. There was an equal number of men and women in school, I think, and there were, for those days, a large number of both lesbian women and gay men, as well as… There may have been some people who identified as bi. But this was the heyday of gay culture in the Bay Area, and it was slightly before AIDS, which dropped everything down several levels. So within school we had a pretty cohesive community, but Dorothy and I were talking about the fact that, as I experienced it, lesbian culture and gay men culture was very, very different. And I’ve sort of… In looking back on it, think of it as how species are in nature, everything but human beings, where the males are the ones that have to have all the pretty plumage and the beautiful songs and fancy dances, and the females are very practical.

And it was a little bit like that, I think, with gay men and lesbian women, in that there was a lot of nightlife for gay men, a lot of interest in dress and subculture, like sweater bars versus lumberjack bars versus all of that. But very socially, interactively conscious, and a lot of dancing and playing and witty repartee. And with women it was much more… I mean, this wasn’t entirely true, but there was sort of the uniform of blue jeans and Birkenstocks or hiking boots, and women were getting a chance to be effective and do things like build houses, and tear cars apart and put them together, and run girl scout organizations, and stuff like that. And then there was a very social potluck culture, and there of course was romance going on and in and out of that, and there was… Women would break up with each other but remain friends, so you could be at a party where everybody had been involved with everybody at some point. And they were all friends and there were no catty things to say about them.

And I know that that’s superficial. The other thing that distinguished us in those days was that… And this, again is in the Bay Area in seminary, but women were simultaneously lesbians but also deeply involved in feminism. Feminist theology. And so there was a whole analysis that went along with being a lesbian in the crowd that I hung out with. And I didn’t hang out on that level with the guys, so I don’t know what they would say about it, but those are the things that I noticed.

Dorothy Emerson:

Also, there were some different attitudes towards sex. Before I came out as a lesbian, I was married to a bisexual, and I knew that he was bisexual from the beginning. And we also, this was the ’60s, we had an open marriage. And so his other activities tended to be that he would go to… We lived in Marin County, so he would go to San Francisco, and first, he went to gay bars. And basically he was looking for someone to pick up, because that was his goal in going. And then he just decided that the bathhouses were a much better option for him, because he could just go in and walk in the bathhouses, and within a short period of time he’d be having sex with one person or another.

And I often wished, as a straight woman at that time, that there was some place like that I could go. But I was required to do more relationship-building first. But in general, I think as lesbians, I found that… Although there certainly were lesbians who played the field, that lesbians tended to get in relationships. The joke was, what does a lesbian take on the second date?

Meg Riley:

We all know. The U-Haul.

Dee Graham:

A U-Haul. Right. Okay.

Meg Riley:

I was just going to say, there were kind of two ways to think about liberation. One was real sexual liberation, individually, and one was a real collective liberation. And lesbians, as Ann said… At least when I came out, it was lesbian feminism, and we were much closer to straight feminists than we were to gay men ideologically. And women of all sexual orientations were doing things together about rape and violence and political reality. So there was always that difference between the men, primarily that I knew, interested in their own sexual liberation, and the women really focusing on collective liberation.

Doddie Stone:

I came out originally in Utah. I had learned that the man I was married to was gay, which I’d not realized before, and I came to understand myself. But Utah’s community was not a separatist community like when we moved to San Francisco, because the gay men and the lesbian women clung together for hiding purposes and to protect each other. It was not at all uncommon to go on a date that looked like an ordinary heterosexual situation, but the pairing-off was completely different. And it was very strange to me, when I moved to the San Francisco area, to find the separation.

Meg Riley:

When did you come out?

Doddie Stone:

1964.

Meg Riley:

Oh, so brave.

Dorothy Emerson:

Really early.

Dee Graham:

Yeah. And we should… I came out in ’71, when I was 19.

Meg Riley:

’74.

Dorothy Emerson:

’81.

Dee Graham:

Ann?

Ann Tyndall:

’77. I was 27.

Dee Graham:

Okay. So one of the things that I remember being said when we were starting to search for a church… I think it was tongue in cheek, but they said if you want to redecorate your sanctuary, you should call a gay man. But if you want to rebuild the church, you need a lesbian.

Ann Tyndall:

And what’s your point?

Dee Graham:

Right! Well, hey, there you go. Makes us more valuable, right?

Ann Tyndall:

I think there’s something about that about the military, too.

Dee Graham:

Something about the military?

Ann Tyndall:

It seems like there was some joke about, why have gay men in the military, something about improving the uniforms.

Dee Graham:

Okay. All right. Well, how did we get to the point where we started working together?

Meg Riley:

AIDS.

Dorothy Emerson:

AIDS, yep. I was going to say that, too.

Meg Riley:

The AIDS crisis. Well, the AIDS crisis and also attacks from the right. We got unified. In St. Paul, there was a ordinance to revoke a human rights bill that gave equal rights, and there was a huge… You know, the Anita Bryant days, and everything. And so all of a sudden you were working together for a common goal, because the right lumped us all together.

Dorothy Emerson:

I think in UU circles there was a desire to work together, but it really was the men who started everything off. And at the point at which I came in, in 1983-’84, there were hardly any lesbians who were doing things in the group called the Lesbian and Gay Caucus. But there weren’t very many lesbians in it. And I was a baby dyke at that point, and just kind of… I had already learned to worm my way into male power structures as a straight woman, and so that’s what I did. I kind of pushed my way in and tried to make a space for a lesbian voice and lesbian participation. But Meg and I were both at the first lesbian and gay convocation, which was in Houston in 1985, and you had the sense of what the numbers were.

Meg Riley:

Well, who knows where these numbers come from, because they’re just in my mind, but I remember 220 people and, like, 20 women. And the women had this RE room all the way down the hall that was maybe the fifth grade room, and it was “Womyn’s Space,” maybe with a Y, I’m not sure. But, you know, it was “Women’s Space!” And I was so excited, because when I got there it was so male, and when I got to the women’s space, there was an argument going on with the women.

Dorothy Emerson:

And I was one of the people arguing, naturally.

Meg Riley:

It was Dorothy and Leslie Phillips, I think, were having at it. And I thought, “Oh no, this is what women get.”

Dorothy Emerson:

Well, I had been on the planning committee, and I had tried to get them to designate women’s space, but they refused to do it.

Meg Riley:

It was a good fight Dorothy was having.

Dorothy Emerson:

Yeah. It was a good fight. And at the end we did, in fact, end up with women’s space as a fixture in future convocations.

Ann Tyndall:

I was just going to say, independent of any research to confirm this, but it’s my sense that what was happening in feminism, and certainly in the Women and Religion Resolution, was women were saying, “Hey, we have a different perspective. Language would bring out the differences in this perspective. We’re not non-men, we have different lived experiences, and so forth.” And I think that… I mean, I’m guessing that there was a fair amount of misogyny within gay men culture, particularly what was inherited from the ’50s, and a version of female. But it was almost like the gay liberation and women’s movement were happening in parallel. And I think there were years where all of those hadn’t come together as a common stream to understand how everybody’s oppressed under patriarchy. But yeah, it could just… You know, women are invisible. “You’re non-men.”

Doddie Stone:

I mentioned earlier that I came out in 1964. Well, that’s really when I came to know myself, but it wasn’t until 1988 that I publicly came out. I basically lived three lives. I was a very serious teacher, and obviously teachers were not supposed to have a sexual identity. I was a mother, and we continued to be married in what was earlier referred to as an open marriage. So it was not until 1988, in a service at the same month as Gay Pride, that I came out in my local Unitarian Universalist church. And within three years I had retired from teaching, so I didn’t have to worry anymore. But in those early years, I was very much involved in the women’s movement and in all of the activities that were going on at that time, both in the schools and in the greater world.

Meg Riley:

I just wanted to say one more thing. It’s not like the misogyny of gay men has gone away.

Dorothy Emerson:

Well, they’re still men, right? One thing I was hoping we’d talk a little bit about, too… Actually, stop talking about men, and talk about lesbian culture. Because there are some distinctive qualities about being a lesbian, and especially around the ’80s and ’90s. But I have to say, first, that one of the reasons I… I had inklings in the ’60s that I was attracted to women, but I didn’t really know how to find the right women to come out with. And so it took me till 1981, and it took me a second marriage and having a child. Which were all valuable experiences that I’m glad I had. But one of the reasons I was scared about coming out was I wasn’t very good at sports. I also realized that I never wanted to change oil in a car or change a tire. And I was afraid if I became a lesbian I was going to have to play softball.

Meg Riley:

The good news was you could play really badly and still be on a lesbian team.

Dorothy Emerson:

I didn’t even want to play badly!

Meg Riley:

When I came out there were lesbian collectives doing everything. Sports, yes, but also the lesbian paper, the lesbian brunch, the lesbian… There were just… I think Ann said, we were trying to become proficient at doing stuff that we hadn’t felt allowed to do before. So some of it… I did used to try to change the oil in my car. I don’t anymore. But it was also just like, all of the ways that we’d been told not to try things… Why not? Why not produce concerts? Why not do things we’re absolutely unqualified to do? Good practice for ministry.

Dee Graham:

One of the things that really brought to my mind the reality of lesbian culture was the time that I spent with Julia Penelope Stanley, who worked behind Mary Daly in some of her work. She says, “Look, lesbian culture has all the increments of culture. We have music, we have institutions, we have schools, we have all of these things.” And I began to recognize that we have lesbian culture and we have gay culture, but I could never get the UUA to recognize our culture. When we talked about cultural inclusion, multiculturalism, I have yet to see our culture as lesbians, or even as a gay community, to be recognized as a valid culture. And that’s one of the things I’ve noticed on the road to UU ministry. Have any of you had similar recognitions or awarenesses?

Meg Riley:

Well, I’ll just say that the year I got interested in and applied for Starr King, who turned me down, was when they had Adrienne Rich. They had Transcendental Etude on the cover of their prospectus. I thought, “Who are these people? They’re my people.” I was once at a camp, and Susan Ritchie, who I’d never met, was doing worship and I was doing theme speeching, and it was as if we had talked for hours, because we had the same canon of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lord, Marge Piercy, all of these things that we were both drawing from. So I feel as if lesbian culture really came in, but was never really named as such or really seen as a culture.

Ann Tyndall:

No, I think that’s true, and it was a little bit appropriated. There was this whole subculture of women’s music, like Holly Near founding Redwood Records, and Meg Christian and Margie Adam’s Olivia. Is that it? ¬†Anyway, because they didn’t want to go through all the trouble you would have to go through to get recorded in Hollywood, so they did their own record labels. But so then there was this whole body of music, along with Adrienne Rich and the poets,that we had. And they ended up being sung in UU congrega… I mean, what? “Gentle, Angry People” is in the hymnal. So I think you’re right. It’s… I don’t know whether I want to say appropriated, but —

Dorothy Emerson:

Assimilated!

Ann Tyndall:

Assimilated, and not recognized, I guess. In that way that we middle-class white people appropriate things, and not —

Dee Graham:

I want to say, this feels so good. It’s the first time anyone has ever affirmed this for me. So thank you for seeing it as I did.

Ann Tyndall:

Yeah. Well, I’m just seeing it right now. I mean, it didn’t… I think you’re right, but it hasn’t struck me. But yeah, that’s what was going on.

Dorothy Emerson:

I think that’s the thing about assimilation, is… And that’s something Donna mentioned in what she was saying, that we’ve been so normalized, as both gay and lesbian people, that there’s no longer as much opportunity to be together as lesbians. I mean, there were only three of us sitting together at one point, and Marni earlier this weekend, said, “Oh, we have a tribe here.” And it felt really good when all the lesbians got up and sang “Song of the Soul.” And this, so thank you. Thank you all. I think we need to do more of this, but I’m not sure how to make it happen.

Meg Riley:

I’m going to tell this story in worship tomorrow, but I’ll say it here to be videotaped. The first time I ever heard “We’re a Gentle, Angry People” in a UU setting… Someone, maybe Gene Navias, Mr. Word-Changer, I’m not sure… Someone had changed the words so it was, “We are gay and lesbian people, and we are singing, singing on our way.”

Dee Graham:

Ahh!

Meg Riley:

And I threw a fit. It was at a Renaissance Module and there was no cultural context for why the song had been written. I suspect, if it was Gene Navias, it felt huge to get those words, “gay and lesbian,” into the room at all. But it was 1983, I think, and I was just like, “No! That’s not how the song goes!” And I stopped everything and told the story. And the women, it was all women religious educators, were eager and soaked it up. But really, I thought, “How many people have heard this song with no understanding of why it was written, why it was ‘singing for our lives’?” And that that felt like complete cultural misappropriation.

Dee Graham:

Can you tell a little of the story?

Meg Riley:

Oh, sure. Holly Near wrote it when crowds were starting to burn police cars and be furious after Harvey Milk was murdered, and after it was announced that his murderer wasn’t going to go to jail or anything, that there would be no consequences, basically. I mean, he used that he’d eaten too many Twinkies, so he was off. And so the gay community in San Francisco was furious and started to gather, and Holly Near wrote the song to kind of quiet people down. And I once… Maybe you were in Boston when this happened. Gay men were getting murdered in the Fenway. Not in the ballpark, in the park, the fence, where they cruised a lot, and there was a murderer there. So there was a vigil at night, and Carter Heyward, a lesbian Episcopal priest, started to sing that song. And someone shouted, “I don’t feel gentle.” And she said, “Gentleness isn’t a feeling. It’s a commitment.” And I always remember that.

Dee Graham:

Oh, that’s great. Yeah.

Dorothy Emerson:

What a great lady.

Ann Tyndall:

Barbara and I were at the vigil when that was first sung, after that. Which was, incidentally, also the same week that the whole Jim Jones debacle hit the fan.

Meg Riley:

So you were there when she sang that the first time? Wow.

Ann Tyndall:

Yeah. I mean, we were all singing it, and then it became a staple of women’s concerts in the Bay Area, and everywhere else. So it was a very powerful song.

Dee Graham:

I want to mention, bringing this forward… When I was campus chaplain in Sarasota for the colleges there, that was the first time young people decided to have a Harvey Milk festival. And I led the vigil at that and taught them that song, because they did not know it and they did not know the history. And many of our congregations, now, don’t know the history and the context. And these are part of the things of our culture that I hope we’re starting to make note of as we do this project.

Dorothy Emerson:

I think that’s a good commitment to have. I also think we probably have to wind this up. So thank you all very much. We have more videos to make today, but let’s keep that idea: how do we name lesbian culture and keep it alive and have it be visible in our Unitarian Universalist faith community?