“Back in the closet”
A new series of films is being released this Friday (19 February 2021) by Manchester HOME, which will cover a range of topics, such as ageing in LGBT communities and life in older people’s accommodation. More explanation and booking details to view online are below.
‘Lifesolation’, the first artwork from the Back in the Closet project premieres as part of a virtual short film showcase at HOME. The 10 minute film by filmmaker Anna Raczynski has been developed as part of a residency with Great Places Housing Group, and is one of five artist residencies that are currently taking place remotely with residents from retirement schemes across Greater Manchester. The residencies are focussed around the theme of LGBT visibility in older people’s housing schemes, and are supported by Pride in Ageing at LGBT Foundation, Great Place at Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Houseproud North West.
Please sign up to this event here and you will receive a link to watch all of the films in this showcase (starting from 19 February). You will also receive an invitation to a panel discussion event on 25 February at 7.00pm, where you will hear from the filmmakers. Please refer to programme guidance from HOME around content in these films.
Lesbian life in the 70’s
‘We wanted people to see that we exist’: the photographer who recorded lesbian life in the 70’s
Interview with Joan E Biren (known as JEB) by Charlotte Jansen
She toured America photographing women like herself, at a time when being out could cost you your job, home and family. As Eye to Eye, a book of her groundbreaking work is republished, Joan E Biren recalls why the images were so vitally important.
The thing that’s really hard for people to understand today,” says Joan E Biren, “is that in the 70s, it was impossible to find authentic and affirming images of lesbians. They didn’t exist.” Biren, or JEB as she is better known, is widely regarded as the first lesbian photographer to compile a book of photographs of lesbians for lesbians.
It was 1979 when Biren self-published her revolutionary Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians, an extensive documentation of the realities of contemporary lesbian life across the US, the result of years of careful and close collaboration with her subjects, making pictures (she prefers this term) at their homes, at Womyn’s festivals, or after conferences, marches and events. The portraits show lesbians across America as they’d never been seen before: mostly, doing ordinary, everyday activities. Two mechanics fix up a car; a bare-chested builder saws wood; a mother leans in tenderly to kiss her daughter. Some of these women might have “passed” as heterosexual in their daily lives.
“I didn’t see it as art in any way,” says Biren of Eye to Eye. “It was entirely political. I originally thought of the pictures as propaganda. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than the movement. Material survival came second.” One of the first offers of money for an image came from a group who wanted to use it to promote an anti-homosexuality campaign. “At that point, I understood I couldn’t ever have an agent – and I’ve basically never made money out of a photograph. But it was very important to me to control who saw the pictures and where they were published.”
After publishing Eye to Eye, Biren began to tour the US with Dyke Show, a slideshow presentation of lesbian images in photography from 1850 to 1982. This evolved and expanded as she met more photographers. In the 1980s, Biren also participated in The Ovulars, photography workshops that took place in Womyn’s lands, as separatist lesbian communities were called.
Forty years on, Eye to Eye has been revived by Anthology Editions. Although it has fresh introductions by photographer Lola Flash and soccer star Lori Lindsey, the new edition is faithful to the 1979 original and features the same photograph on the cover: a portrait of a couple, Kady and Pagan, locked in an intense and affectionate gaze. Even today, it is rare to see women represented with facial hair, imperfections, and looking their age. But what chiefly emanates from the photograph is their ease – with one another, with themselves, and with the photographer.
Biren, now 76, photographed Kady and Pagan at their home in upstate New York. “When I arrived at their tiny cabin, they greeted me by saying, ‘What took you so long? We’ve been waiting for someone to photograph us!’ They had this sense of themselves. They were worth being put into an image that would last.”
Speaking from Washington DC, the city she grew up in and a place that shaped her social conscience and inspired her political activism from an early age, Biren says of those days: “There was only the male gaze on lesbians who were young and slim, like David Hamilton’s photographs – or porn images. My work was to counter that, to show something we could see ourselves in, what our friends and lovers looked like to each other. Everyone hungers for that.”
The overwhelming feeling in the pictures – and in the accompanying accounts of some women who appear in them – is one of profound joy and quiet confidence. And this is no rose-tinted view: Biren doesn’t avoid women who struggle as a result of their sexuality or the body they inhabit. One woman is a recovering alcoholic, another writes of her battle with mental illness. “I did it consciously for others who were struggling to see themselves reflected anywhere.”
Biren’s inclusive approach was ahead of its time. Even by today’s standards, few photographers attempt to reflect so many lives and experiences. “It’s about being human,” she says, “and being human covers the whole spectrum of experiences. I wanted to show diversity in every way I could, with the limited resources I had.”
At the time the photographs in Eye to Eye were being made, the consequences of being out as a lesbian in the US were dire – and finding subjects wasn’t easy. “No one was willing to be photographed. They would run away from the camera, put bags over their heads. There was an enormous fear and it was justified because being identified as a lesbian meant you could be fired, you could lose custody of your child, be banished from your family, expelled from your place of worship, deported, thrown out of your rented apartment – and lots of other horrible things that were completely legal and quite common.”
Knowing how high the stakes were meant Biren had to work carefully. In Eye to Eye, all of the women are named, but some surnames are left out. “Not everyone could go that far. It was a big leap to have faces, names, places all together in a book. I wanted to make as much of a statement as possible about being out, but I had to protect them. Trust was the most important thing. It wasn’t my skill with the camera or anything else.”
Biren also had to think about how she used her camera, a machine that’s point-and-shoot action has associations with the phallus. She knew it was sometimes talked of as a weapon and did not want hers to be seen as a tool to dominate and oppress. “I would never say ‘take a picture’, ‘shoot the film’, or ‘capture an image’. All of those predatory, violent words were part of the vocabulary I wouldn’t use.
“I would always get together with my subjects first without the camera, and explain why I wanted to make the photograph, that it was for publication and that I wanted other people to know it was possible to be out, in spite of the discrimination and the oppression. I would tell them why I thought it was important lesbians saw each other, and then of course why they specifically were amazing. If they agreed, we would figure out a time and a place to photograph.”
Biren never directed her subjects, nor did she ask them to pose or stage an image. She simply spent time with them, until “they forgot the camera was there”. The first picture she ever made was a self-portrait with her lover at the time, Sharon Deevey. It shows the couple kissing and smiling. The only indication of its time is the bandana Biren wears. The camera is slightly raised and at arms length, much like a selfie today. It was a picture that Biren had hungered to make.
“It was absolutely not spontaneous!” she says. “It was something I felt very personally and strongly. I needed on a deep level to see a picture of two women kissing and I couldn’t find one. So I had to make it myself. At that point, I didn’t even own a camera, so I borrowed one and did it myself. That picture means so much to me.”
The image marked the beginning of her remarkable journey across the US to document lesbian life and change the way lesbians saw themselves and were seen. “I had no artistic training. My vision came from the lesbians around me, as we built communities together. I did the best I could to show the beauty, the strength, the energy of the women I was surrounded by. That was what inspired me.”
The texts in Eye to Eye are mostly reflections from some of the subjects about their experiences as lesbians, as women, and as US citizens. But there are also poems, including one by the late Audre Lorde, the activist, writer and self-proclaimed “warrior” who Biren met and would later photograph. “The scene wasn’t that big and we were in the same places. I heard Audre read her work. She was the most extraordinary person. I showed her my images and asked her if I could put a poem in the book and she said yes. I’m so fortunate to have got to know her.”
While Eye to Eye received warm reviews in gay, feminist and lesbian publications – some of which Biren regularly contributed to – it was overlooked by the mainstream American press. Back then, she never expected to reach audiences beyond the lesbian community – but four decades on, the photographer is finding new and receptive audiences. People are more aware of how much representation matters to all kinds of minorities, she says – “how important it is to see women like Kamala Harris and Amanda Gorman up on the national stage”.
This, she believes, is critical – and not just for the people being represented. “Other audiences need to see and understand who we are – to see that we did exist, we did live, and love.”
• Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians by JEB, will be published by Anthology Editions.
2 Vets Celebrate Love: “If You Came To See The Bride, You’re Out Of Luck”
This story is three years old, but I thought it would be relevant as a “good news” story during LGBT History Month.
When John Banvard, 100, met Gerard “Jerry” Nadeau, 72, in 1993, neither of them had been openly gay.
“When we met, we were sort of in the closet, and I’d never had a real relationship. Now, we’ve been together almost 25 years,” Jerry tells John.
“What would it have been like if you didn’t meet me?” Jerry asks John.
“I would have continued being lonely,” John says. “I’d been absolutely lost.”
Both are veterans, having served in World War II (John) and Vietnam (Jerry), and when they moved into the veterans home together in Chula Vista, California, in 2010, Jerry says people there wondered what their relationship was.
“Well, when we got married, they knew what our relationship was,” Jerry says, laughing.
The couple married in 2013, and John says he was surprised by the warm reception they received. “I was expecting we’d be ridiculed, and there was very little of that,” he says.
“We’d gotten married at the veterans home, and we said, ‘If you came to see the bride, you’re out of luck.’ Do you remember that?” Jerry asks John.
“Yes, of course,” John says. The two indulge in the memory of a casual wedding — a frank display, if you will, of their unabashed love — featuring hot dogs as a main course, which, John says, “is hardly wedding food.”
Later, their achievement was affirmed by a simple introduction. “I was with you in the cafeteria, and somebody came up with their family, and they said, ‘This is Gerard Nadeau, and this is his husband, John,’” Jerry recounts. “I’d never heard that before.”
“Yes, that was very nice,” John says.
“You’ve made my life complete,” Jerry tells John.
“I could say the same to you,” John replied. “I think we’re probably as happy together as any two people you’re likely to meet.”
From 15 March to 26 March 2021 (with a taster session on the 11 March), Sonder Radio is running a two week online radio making course via Zoom.
During the course, those attending will learn new creative digital skills, develop confidence, make new friends, build skills for employment and even plan and broadcast their very own live show as a group.
There will be additional support/wellbeing sessions and opportunities for volunteering following these dates. Those interested can reserve their free place now by getting in touch via email or by phone.
Learn more: sonderradio.com