“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t watch Ellen in Birmingham,” Kay reminds me. “We had to rent out Boutwell Auditorium.”
We’re on the phone to talk about an extraordinary family portrait, one in which Kay’s teenage daughter Elli is holding on to her mom — and to her other mom. It’s one of 40 photographs that comprise “Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South,” a photo exhibit by Carolyn Sherer that opens at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) on Friday, March 30. Kay and Elli agreed to talk to me about the picture and about their participation in Sherer’s photo project, but they asked that I not use their last names. The concession isn’t that different from the one they asked of Sherer, anyway: Although she took several pictures of the family, the one that appears in the exhibit shows them with their backs to the camera. The 40 pictures include portraits of 104 people, all of whom live in Birmingham or have a family connection to the city, and many of whom chose not to show their faces for the photos that would be included in the show.
“Living in Limbo” started 14 months ago as an idea in Sherer’s mind, evolving into an exhibit that includes programming from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Birmingham Museum of Art in addition to the photography display at the BCRI. She admits that the first several weeks and months of the project were difficult.
“I was worried I might not get 10 pictures,” she says.
But as word spread the project gained momentum.
“The community support has been amazing,” she says. “Every gay and lesbian person I’ve talked to has said, ‘Thank you for doing this.’” And yet several of the individuals who personally thanked Sherer also refused to participate in the project.
Kay, who has known Carolyn for more than 20 years, tells me she heard about the project from multiple sources, but initially didn’t plan to participate.
“I got the email from Carolyn first. I’m one of the faculty sponsors for the LGBT student organization where I teach, so I got an announcement about it from them. I also work with BAGSLY [Birmingham Alliance of Gay, Straight, Lesbian (and questioning) Youth], so I got an announcement through that, too,” Kay says, laughing. “In reality, I got the email four or five times, but I didn’t think about participating, in part because I didn’t think my partner would participate.
“My daughter and I are very out (That is, she is straight but has been active in LGBT organizations for most of her life. When you have kids, you’re sometimes out whether you want to be or not, because your children will out you. Kids talk!). Anyway, we are very out, and my partner sort of is,” Kay says. “It’s one thing to be out in a community where you know you have support, but to be out at your workplace — that’s a very different thing.”
In fact, before their daughter was born, Kay’s partner was forced to resign from a job when her employer found out she was gay.
“That was a dark period in our history,” Kay says. “That’s the only time she’s ever been fired from a job and the first and only time her sexual orientation caused her to experience discrimination. Actually, we look on it now as the best thing that could have happened because of what it led to for her career-wise, and in her education, but at the time it was devastating.”
What made Kay change her mind was seeing the pictures Sherer had already taken.
“She showed me pictures of some of our friends who had their kids in the picture with them,” Kay remembers. “It was so special. That really created a place for us to start the conversation as a family.”
Kay believes that having their picture taken may have helped her partner heal the old wound caused by the job loss.
“One thing that really stood out to me was that it was the first time we’d had a family picture made by a professional,” Kay says. “Of course, we take our own pictures, but our daughter is 15, and we’d never had a professional family portrait made. Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t, but I guess there was an unconscious decision not to reveal ourselves or out ourselves in that way. When we turned around to face the camera, it really hit me at that point.”
“The younger women have different expectations,” Sherer says. “That’s something — one of many things — that I learned while making these pictures. Some of them have this attitude like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ They don’t understand yet some of the implications of being totally out. For some women, to be photographed out, even with their backs to the camera, is at some level taking a risk.”
Sherer believes the women who participated in the project showed great courage.
“The way we have talked about it is that a common history is being written right now,” Sherer says.
Some of the photographs suggest an uneasiness on the part of the subjects, if not outright fear. One photograph, titled Mary and Rebecca, shows a couple embracing. A woman wearing a military uniform has her back to the camera, while her partner is shown in profile.
“This was taken three weeks after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed,” Sherer says. “They told me they were out to their families and out at school, but what the woman in the military had heard from her commanding officer made her reluctant to come out, despite the repeal of the law.”
To me, that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute would host an exhibit showcasing lesbian families signals the Institute defying a stereotype — the widespread idea that African-Americans resent any comparisons between the civil rights movement and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) social movements. But according to Ahmad Ward, director of education at the BCRI, this exhibit represents a logical extension of the Institute’s mission.
“We’re an education facility,” Ward says during an interview in the BCRI library. “We cover all parts of the American landscape, with a particular focus on anyone who has been discriminated against. We have had exhibitions covering the deaf and blind and physically disabled. We have looked at AIDS in Africa. We’ve had conferences on the Latino experience in the U.S. — even before the most recent debates about immigration laws in Alabama and Arizona. This was something we’d never done before. We don’t worry about controversy because we’re presenting information.”
Still, Ward acknowledges that the exhibit may cause some ire among BCRI patrons of varying races and religious backgrounds.
“We’re not flag-wavers for anything,” Ward says. “But for years, we have heard from the LGBT community that they felt under-represented in our exhibition halls, particularly the Human Rights Gallery. The mission of BCRI is to promote civil and human rights worldwide through education, and out of our mission, the Institute operates on the premise that everyone deserves a voice in the community. Everyone who has been discriminated against deserves recognition.”
The point, Ward says, is to foster discussion.
“We want this place to be a place where dialogue happens,” he says. “These are difficult conversations — for families, for faith communities. But dialogue is a good thing, even when it hurts. It’s ultimately for the good of the community.”
As Ward and I talk, my mind goes back to 2002 when the BCRI hosted Wayne Sides’ photo exhibit “Images of the Klan” as part of the Institute’s 10th anniversary celebration. The pictures revealed the public and private lives of Ku Klux Klan members, showing them with and without their faces covered by hoods. Let me be clear — I’m not comparing lesbian families to members of the KKK. But there’s a resonance between the two exhibits even though they were displayed 10 years apart. Some of the subjects of Sherer’s photos feel they have something to hide, just as the subjects of Sides’ photos did. And some people will be as shocked to see portraits of lesbian families on the walls of the Civil Rights Institute as I was to see pictures of men in white robes circling a giant, burning cross. I ask Ward what he thinks of the comparison.
‘“These are the people under those sheets’ — that was the point of that exhibit,” he says. “For ‘Living in Limbo,’ these are the folks in your book clubs and churches. They are your co-workers and your classmates and members of your church. They are not invisible. Not after this.
“If you think about it, the risk really lies with the people in the photos, not on the Institute,” Ward says. “There are some people who will come out by virtue of being in the show.”
One of those people, it turns out, is Carolyn Sherer.
Life in pictures
Sherer describes her childhood as that of a military brat. She came to Alabama for college and during her senior year met the woman who would become her lifelong partner. At age 54, she has never completely come out until now, although she and her partner have been together for 32 years.
“I was deep in the closet,” Sherer says. “Whether I self-identified as a lesbian always depended on the particular social setting. In the art world, we were very unguarded, but in other areas of our lives it was not that easy because people were not as accepting.”
Ironically, exploring issues of identity has been the focus of most of Sherer’s professional life. (In fact, “Living in Limbo” is her second identity-oriented exhibition at the BCRI: The first was the award-winning “Uncommon Valor: Portraits of Alabamians with Disabilities.”) The subject fascinates her, she says, because she has always remembered moments in her life by forming pictures in her mind’s eye. She has consistently questioned who she was seeing when she took pictures and who she herself was as she was looking.
“I’ve been playing with identity for years, but I was afraid to take on my own,” Sherer says.
A friend’s sorrow prompted her to turn her camera toward a community whose privacy she’d spent a lifetime protecting.
“A good friend of mine — part of a lesbian couple — was dying in the hospital,” Sherer remembers. “Her family made this already terrible situation even worse for her partner by locking her out of the house that they shared. She had to get the police involved to get her computer and a change of clothes.”
That harrowing episode galvanized Sherer.
“These pictures are personal, ultimately, but the whole exhibit has social and political implications that are very much of this moment,” she says. She adds that in the past, when working on a documentary project of this scale, she has wound up with at least a few photos on the proverbial cutting-room floor. For “Living in Limbo,” however, she decided that a picture of every family she photographed would go on display.
“I asked myself, ‘How do you edit somebody out who stood up like this?’ I decided I would have to include them all,” she says. “As much as I thought I knew about diversity, every family brought a surprise. The common denominator was core values — family and commitment to each other.”
“To me, growing up with two moms was totally normal,” Elli says. “So [being in the photograph] wasn’t hard for me personally, but I know it was hard for one of my moms, and it was hard for me knowing that it was hard for her. Both of my parents grew up in pretty conservative environments. I’m active in the gay community because of what I want for my family and for families like mine.”
Elli adds that it means a lot to her to have her family’s story added to the larger narrative of the civil rights movement, by its inclusion in an exhibit at the BCRI.
“So many people go there,” Elli says. “When you think of the civil rights movement, you think of African-Americans gaining their rights, but now my family will be a part of something shown there. You see that civil rights isn’t only a black-and-white issue, but an issue for all kinds of people.”
“We’ve been invisible,” Sherer says. “We’ve been passing. This is putting a face on our community. This is saying that we’re everywhere — that love and commitment and family look the same for us as they do for everybody else.”
Although each photograph had a conceptual component, Sherer never went looking for specific narratives but instead let each family tell its story through the individual portraits. She took all of the photographs in her studio, taking care to remove distractions from the environment.
“I didn’t want to drive the outcome too much,” she explains. “But I did show each family three words on three white placards,” she explains.
The cards said,
For the families who chose not to face the camera, she said the words aloud, then captured the postures of her subjects’ bodies upon hearing those words. Visitors to the exhibit have no way of knowing which of those words, if any, the people in the photograph have heard or read the moment before the picture was taken. And in a way it doesn’t matter, I suppose. I know about this part of the portrait session, but it’s hard for me to tell how that knowledge affects my own viewing of the pictures.
When I look at the pictures of women and children with their backs turned, I concentrate on textures and gestures — shoulders tensed beneath military uniforms; arms at ease beneath dress sleeves, extending to fingers entwined and clasped tight. The women stand together and apart — hip to hip in blue jeans or separated by the width of one’s hat brim, its pluming ribbon arcing toward the face of the other.
When I look at the pictures where I can see women and children looking back at me, I concentrate on their faces.What are they trying to tell me? What do I want to say to them? All I can think is, I see you. I hope you see me seeing you.
“Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South” opens with a free reception from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 30, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St. North. The exhibit runs through June 11. You can find a complete listing of exhibit-related programming at www.livinginlimbo.org. For more information, call the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute at (205) 328-9696 or go to www.bcri.org.