Photography exhibit focuses on lesbian life in Deep South

Photography exhibit focuses on lesbian life in Deep South

Photographs at Birmingham, Ala., civil rights museum include four UU families in show about inclusion and equality.
Donald E. Skinner


Four Unitarian Universalist families are included in a groundbreaking photo exhibit on lesbian couples at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama.

The exhibit, “Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South,” marks one of the first times that lesbians have been the subject of an exhibit in a prominent museum in the South, said the Rev. Nan White, minister of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, S.C.

White, who grew up in Birmingham and was ordained there as a Presbyterian minister before eventually becoming a Unitarian Universalist, is included in the exhibit with her wife, Sam Ballenger.

The exhibit grew out of an unfortunate experience that a friend of White’s had. As the friend’s lesbian partner lay dying in a hospital, the friend was locked out of their house by her partner’s biological family. To this day she has not been able to enter the house where she and her partner cared for the partner’s elderly mother.

Then, after touring the Birmingham institute in 2009 and being disappointed by the lack of any information about LGBT rights, White had a conversation with a longtime friend, photographer Carolyn Sherer. The discussion led Sherer to create a photo exhibit on lesbians in the South and then approach the museum about hosting it.

The museum agreed. Sherer’s exhibit of 40 photos of lesbian couples opened March 30 and will run until June 11. White attended the opening. “It was very moving. It touched us very deeply. The museum director said the exhibit was way past due and that they were thrilled and honored to do it.”

The exhibit is meant to encourage dialogue about inclusion and equality in Birmingham, a city where some of the greatest violence occurred during the civil rights movement. Museum president Lawrence J. Pijeaux Jr. told the Associated Press on March 29 that he’d received 125 emails in support of the exhibit and only one complaint.

“The BCRI took a risk with this,” said Sherer. “I hope its success will be an incentive for other civil rights institutions to recognize the justice and power of inclusive partnerships with the LGBT community.” She also warned against any assumption that anti-lesbian prejudice is a problem only for the South to solve. “It might be easy to avoid looking in one’s backyard if the assumption is that this is a southern problem.”

Among the families pictured are Hanne Harbison and Anna Koopman, both nurse practitioners and members of the UU Church of Birmingham. They were photographed with their baby son, Amon. Harbison, who works at the University of Alabama, said, “I’m hoping many people come to see the exhibit and come away with a more open and positive view of lesbian families. I see this as an important step in our community’s journey toward equality, both legally and socially.”

Koopman added, “Being in the exhibit is exhilarating, just extraordinary. This felt like a great opportunity to us. The opening had one of the most diverse gatherings I’ve seen here in Birmingham. It’s definitely another level of being visible. I’m proud to be part of this.”

Kay Emfinger is also pictured, along with her partner, who asked that she not be identified, and their teenage daughter, Elli. They, like seven other couples, chose to be photographed with their backs to the camera. Elli told Weld, a local news and entertainment magazine, it meant a lot to have her family linked to the civil rights movement by its inclusion in the photo exhibit. “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.”

Sylvia Martin and Maria Calhoun, also from the Birmingham congregation, were photographed with Calhoun’s 10-year-old daughter, Lucia. “When Carolyn asked us we said yes, and then as time went on I started feeling a little freaked out about being on display,” said Martin. “I’m a private person. Then I got over it. The opening was lots of fun. It was good for us as a family to be up there together.”

The Rev. Lone Broussard is minister of the UU Church of Birmingham. “We’re really proud to have three couples in the exhibition. It took courage to be photographed. I was a little sad that so many of those who were photographed had to turn their backs to the camera, but that in itself is a powerful statement. Mostly that’s from a fear of losing jobs. That’s just the way it is.”

Broussard said the exhibit will help to reinforce the congregation’s place in the community as a civil rights advocate. “Some people here might call us a bit radical, but they respect us.”

White and Broussard were also members of an interfaith panel on April 21. Called “For the Bible Tells Me So,” it was a discussion at the institute about religion and homosexuality.

Sherer added that while the exhibit focuses on the South, the need for recognition of LGBT families is wider than that. “I met a visitor at the exhibit who was a minister in Massachusetts. He was very moved by the work and said that even in the liberal Northeast he and his longtime partner had not had an easy time.” Sherer said conversations are under way to create a traveling exhibit from the show.

Annette Marquis, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Southeast District, remembers visiting the Birmingham institute for the first time in 2006 as part of a tour of Southern civil rights landmarks organized by the Rev. Gordon and Judy Gibson. “I was so taken by the incredible courage and strength of the civil rights movement veterans and the horrible abuses African Americans had endured.” And yet, nowhere in the museum was there any reference to the civil rights of LGBT people.

“As a lesbian, I felt at best, invisible, and at worst, reviled. So being there for the opening of Living in Limbo was incredibly healing for me. It was a recognition by one of the most recognized civil rights institutions in the country that all rights are important and that no discrimination can be tolerated.

“I think all Unitarian Universalists can take heart when we are feeling the work we are doing isn’t making a difference. If the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, is willing to make lesbian families visible, there are fewer and fewer places left where any of us have to hide,” Marquis said.

The civil rights tour that she was a part of in 2006 is now an annual event: the Unitarian Universalist Living Legacy Pilgrimage. Marquis is a coordinator of it. She notes that several years ago the tour added the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., to its itinerary in part because the center works to end discrimination against all people, including those who are LGBT. The next Civil Rights Pilgrimage will be Oct. 6-13, 2012.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (“Photos focus on lesbians in Deep South,” page 38).

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