Tuesday, November 25, 2008


As Barack Obama prepares to take up residency in the White House and become the 44th President of the United States, I’m thinking about generational transitions. President-Elect Obama is one example of a generational transition as the first President born in the 1960s. The election of Bill Clinton was another moment of generational transition, then of people who grew up during the 1960s. It makes me wonder, what is the significance of generations and to what do we owe younger generations?

My own thinking about generational transitions comes from my experiences as young lesbian (I came out in 1988) and what I felt at the time was a lack of leaders ahead of me who were role models and mentors. Part of that perceived lack was not only a limited number of people, but also a lack of visibility of the people who were from the generations preceding me. I’ve now learned about Sally Gearheart, Judy Grahn, Virginia Apuzzo, and a host of others who were out and speaking out on behalf of lesbians and gay men and our demands for equality. At the time, however, when I was eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, many lesbians from other generations were telling me to not be too open and to think about my professional future and my ability to find work and build a life without being labeled a lesbian too publicly. I never took that advice. Things worked out anyway.

I hope that things are different for young people coming out now. Certainly there are many more signs of open and vibrant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and leaders than there were twenty years ago. At the same time, I’m aware of how many young queers today are homeless and kicked out by their families and communities.

Sassafras Lowrey, a fantastic young activist, has just edited an anthology called Kicked Out about young people who have been kicked out of their homes as a result of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. These are heartbreaking stories that Sassafras has gathered, but they are also stories of hope and resilience. Unfortunately, the stories of young queers being kicked out are not new.

In my hometown of Detroit, MI, too many young queers are living on the streets or in marginal circumstances as a result of being queer. It’s not a new phenomenon; it’s been happening since I worked there in the 1990s. Today, however, the challenges of young queer people are being met on a daily basis by the Ruth Ellis Center.

Ruth Ellis was a long-time activist in Detroit and in many ways embodies the spirit of generational visibility and knowledge and affection transfer between and among generations. Ellis lived to be 101 and along the way provided support and assistance, both material and personal, to hundreds in the GLBT communities in Detroit. Today, the Ruth Ellis Center, headed by the incredible Grace McClelland, provides housing, street outreach, and a drop-in center for queer young people in Detroit. These are vital services that are the result of the dreams and hard work of many people in the Detroit area. McClelland and her team of staff and volunteers are making a real difference and ensuring that young queers are cared for in meaningful and life-giving ways. To me, they are models for how our queer community should be.

We all have an obligation to care for the next generation, not just as parents or role models, but also as activists and advocates. Young people need the support and good-heartedness of our community for them to find lives that are good and meaningful and fulfilling to them. As we watch a new generation take up residence in the White House and as we remember through the new film the generation of Harvey Milk, let’s commit ourselves personally and communally to helping GLBT young people in every way that we can. If our lives our to matter in the annals of history, we must ensure that their lives matter today and in the future.

Word count: 672

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #26 dated 21 December 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


I can only write this because we are now far enough away from the hard times, and even then I write this with trepidation. I worry that by even suggesting my hypothesis, love deepens, I may be engaged in a practice that is too hubristic for my own good. I worry that in three weeks, three months, or three years, I might look back and regret these words. Still I will write them. Love deepens.

By that I mean, over the course of time together two people in love find that in addition to being challenged and tested, often painfully, love deepens. The reward for staying around during the fights, during the indecision, during moments of meanness and unkind words, is that the emotional, erotic, and spiritual connection that is shared becomes deeper and more meaningful. There is a reward, even a pay off, to staying with one person for more than a few months or a few years. There is a different type of love that emerges after a substantial time together.

I’ll be honest. This surprised me. Yes, I’ve heard people describe such a thing, but as a younger person, I thought that was all verbal blather designed to promote mythic heterosexual monogamy. It may be and now I may just be engaged in the myth-making myself. If so, I hope to be slapped soon into a more radical perspective. First, however, let me suggest that this notion that love deepens is not part of hegemonic heterosexism, but rather a part of our human condition that we can celebrate from a queer perspective.

I’ve been reading the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. They had a friendship that extended over thirty years, and, despite some early uncomfortable suggestions that they should marry (an absurd notion—Bishop was, of course, a lesbian), they remained friends, close friends, in spite of the miles that separated them for much of their life. Reading the letters, I’m struck by the same insight that I see in my intimate relation (and I might add other relationships): love deepens. Bishop’s love for Lowell and his for her deepens as the time passes, as the pages of letters become filled with words and images and poems.

Time does something to us in relationships. It softens some edges and hardens others. The shared experiences accrue to greater meaning. Things that were once annoying become predictable in and in that predictability reassuring and even delightful.

I don’t want to argue for us queers to all gallop off into long-term, committed relationships. I chafe at the presentation that we’re making in order to sway our heterosexual counterparts in supporting our right to marriage. To me, being a lesbian is still at its core about challenging patriarchy and sexism and homophobia and demanding that we have more models, not fewer, for how we might live our lives with greater joy and opportunity and passion and service.

Yet, I’m aware at the power of relationships between people as they grow older. Those relationships need not be intimate partnerships; they may also be friendships as with Bishop and Lowell, they may be familial relations or companions or cohorts or confidantes. We don’t have enough language to describe the matrix of relationships that we can imagine for ourselves. We do know that time invested in people, in building relationships with people, delivers rewards.

My greatest hope is that this morphing of love with time continues. I want love to deepen as time marches on. When I look back on year three, when I never imagined year twelve, I couldn’t imagine the experience I have now. I want it to continue. Perhaps the transition from fifteen years to twenty, from twenty-five to thirty, from even thirty-five to forty if I dare to imagine that long, will be that love to deepen further. This seems to me one of the joys of growing older and sticking around through the hard times. I also want love to broaden. I want more space for it in my life and in my world. I want my queer love to be broad and deep and celebrated by me, and everyone.

Word count: 707

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #24 dated November 23, 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Many years ago I worked at a gay and lesbian community center where part of our mission was health education. Then I advocated breast self-examinations and annual mammograms. Some data indicates that lesbians, particularly lesbians who have never given birth, might be at higher risk for breast cancer. In addition, this was in Detroit, and there are some environmental indications that breast cancer is more prevalent there.

I still advocate breast self-examinations. Personally, I love to touch my tits and do so regularly, but, at least one a month, I do so with the intentionality of determining if there is anything new, bumpy, or bulbous in my breasts. I’m not quite old enough to have annual mammograms, but I believe those screenings too and will be jumping to get my annual mammo when the time comes.

In addition to my early experience with health education, I’m a big believer in breast cancer screening and early detection because a dear friend of mine is a young survivor of breast cancer. She was diagnosed, in part, because of her insistence that something was wrong. She knew that her breasts needed attention even though initially doctors and screeners told her there was nothing wrong. She felt a pain in her tit and said, test again. Her cancer was caught early. She went through treatment and now is looking forward to seeing her eight-year-old daughter graduate from college.

Breast cancer screening and early detection is important. We all know that. Last fall, though, I learned about the complexities of screening and early detection. My beloved had her very first mammogram last September. I was excited for her. This was easy for me, I didn’t have to put my nips on a piece of glass and watch them be pressed flat. She did and she had some trepidations. So much so, that her first “baseline” mammogram was coming a few years past forty. Delayed because she was too busy and frankly, frightened.

Finally, though I insisted and so she tested. She went to the local screening facility and had her breasts smashed between two plates and pictures taken. I was thrilled for her to pass this life milestone. Then the telephone call came. There was something suspect on the film.

This resulted in a flurry of phone calls and consultations. What did it mean? Was this common? Something to be expected? What should we do? What were our options?

As a result of this being her first mammogram and consequently the baseline, it was impossible to determine anything about the suspect spot on the film. We were counseled, wait or consult a surgeon. We waited. Nervously. Anxiously.

She said she felt pain in her breast. The one with the spot on the film. We couldn’t wait a full six months for the next shots. She returned after four months. Back to the same screening facility. By her choice, she went alone. Disrobed. The machine again pressed her breasts flat. This time, no telephone call, just a letter. Everything was fine.

We were relieved. She’s committed to doing this annually. We learned that a part of the regular screening are these sorts of scares. Shadows on the film. Spots of indeterminate origin. Rescreening. Reviewing. Recalibrating.

It’s frightening, but in the end it’s worth it. Early detection of breast cancer dramatically boosts survival rates. So in that spirit, we’ll endure a few months of uncertainty and a few moments of discomfort. We’ll hope it makes a difference. I invite you to do the same. Touch your tits, and test them, too.

Word count: 614

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #23 dated May 6, 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I cannot imagine leaving my home and everything I own. I cannot imagine leaving my friends and my family with only a small bag and a mind full memories. I cannot imagine traveling for weeks, sometimes months to reach an unknown destination where people speak a different language and have foreign customs and traditions. I cannot imagine it, but each year at Passover I, with a gathering of friends and family, reenact it.

Passover is the holiday that recounts the Jews leaving Egypt where we were slaves and moving to freedom in a new land. We begin the eight days with a seder, a scripted dinner that retells the story, and observe the days by abstaining from chametz, leavened food. In my home, the Passover seder focuses on the story of liberation and relief and release from exile. We sing and laugh and cry and eat food in excess. The seder is filled with as much mystery as it is with memory. It has as many questions as answers. It is, for me, one of the most important and meaningful holidays in the Jewish calendar. This year our seder will gather a dozen or so around the table – Jews and Gentiles, straight and gay, black and white – and we will read from the Haggadah, sing, and eat together.

While there is much in the ritual and the holiday that I cannot imagine it in concrete terms in my own life, I connect profoundly with this narrative. Passover is in many ways the narrative of many immigrant communities in the “melting pot” or “salad bowl” of the United States. We all have family stories of how our ancestors traveled from the land that was our home to the new land that now is our home.

One part of our Passover ritual is to reflect on the things in our world today that bind us and oppress us and to wish for a release from that oppression over the next year. At our seder, with gay and lesbian family and friends, homophobia and heterosexism are two forms of oppression that we often consider. We also talk about sexism at our seder and racism. This year, I’ll also be thinking about xenophobia and how it is playing out in Presidential politics and U.S. immigration policy.

It confounds me that given our history as immigrants to the United States, we collectively in this country seek out policies that limit and even harm new immigrants. This spring leading up to Passover I have been very moved by the stories of immigrants, particularly men, women, and children who have come to the United States from central and south America. Policies that make life more difficult and challenging for current and future immigrants simply have no place in the United States.

In my ideal world, I’d like to see the United States have open borders making it easy for people to move into and out of the United States without negative consequences from the government. People wanting to come to the United States today would be able to do so with the same ease, and actually fewer challenges, as people coming from Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Russia, and other European nations.

When we say, “Next year in Israel,” at the close of the seder, Israel is the imagined place of justice and loving-kindness. Israel is the world that we are working to create where everyone can live freely and honestly and openly. Israel is for us as our seder the location of freedom from oppression – as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, as people committed to equality between the sexes and among the races, and as immigrants. We are all world travelers looking for a place to live freely and openly and honestly, and, at the seder, we are all committed to creating that place where we are at this moment.

Word count: 651

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #22 dated April 22, 2008 in the

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


A dear friend and I still marvel at our luck in snagging lawyers as life partners. Given our white, working class upbringings, being “married” to a lawyer is equivalent to making it in the world. Truth be told, my parents never dreamed of announcing my marriage in the New York Times, that was beyond our class, but the dream of marrying a lawyer? That was something to which we all could aspire.

This aspiration for my friend and I, and the resulting giddiness in our partnered success, reflects the pronounced interest in America for the answer to this question: How much do you make?

When the answer to the question, How much do you earn?, is revealed, it often shocks people. Regardless of what the number is, stating how much one earns transgresses a taboo. Our own earnings, or lack thereof, is a source of great anxiety in American culture.

How much do you make? isn’t a question that we ask directly, of course. It is a question of the speculative realm. We talk about it with family and friends. Consider when you start dating someone new. Who asked you, Does he have a good job? Does she make a lot of money? We aspire to building a life based on love, but we also have an eye, and a mind, to money.

I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that fundamentally, but I do think the focus on the question, How much do you make?, must be coupled with two other questions of equal, and perhaps greater, importance. Those two questions are: How much did you save? and How much did you give?

I think of these questions at this time of year in particular as the April 15th deadline for personal income taxes looms. In my household, our taxes are filed, and I’m over the rage of not being able to file jointly—it’s an annual source of rage.

Honestly, I tell myself each year that I am not going to let it bother me, but the reality is when I’m sitting in front of the computer with piles of paper everywhere trying to sort out and separate our completely entangled financial lives, I always feel angry about the lack of recognition of our conjoint life.

Then I rationalize that many married couples have to evaluate what has the greatest financial benefit to file jointly or to file married, filing singly. I understand that there are tax benefits to not being married, but I, like many queers at this time I suspect, want the choice—or at least the recognition that my life is not single.

After this rage and resignation process, however, I file my taxes. The total value of my remunerative work is revealed and for at least the next year, I know the answer to the question, How much do I earn?

What I don’t know is: How much did I save? According to the news, saving should be important to Americans. The headlines tell me that savings rates for Americans is at the lowest ever. Perhaps part of that is that because we don’t have a system to highlight how much we save in any given year. There is no line on the tax form for how much we saved.

The other question, How much did you give?, for me goes hand in hand with earning and saving. Giving money to benefit broader society is a profound American tradition. When we give, we invest in something that can only be accomplished collectively, something that is beyond our individual capacity to earn or save.

There’s a line on itemized tax forms for how much is given to some organizations, but our capacity is to give is greater than can be contained on any line from the IRS, as is our capacity to save.

While filing taxes, I’m thinking about earning, but more importantly about saving and giving. I believe they are much greater measures of our worth and our value.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work, including her blog, at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #26 dated April 15, 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

Word Count: 667

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


It took Jodie Foster long enough, but in December 2007, she finally did it. Jodie Foster came out at the Women in Entertainment Breakfast receiving the Sherry Lansing Award when she thanked her partner Cydney Bernard, who “sticks with me through the rotten and the bliss.”

“The rotten and the bliss” seems to me one of the great configurations for the long-term lesbian relationship. I can list a million of the things that are rotten about relationships. Monday mornings, which inevitably involve going to work after a blissful weekend together, stress about money and jobs, spats about how to clean houses, care for animals, organize household activities. Disagreements about money or new sofas. Indecision about holidays or how to spend a spare four hours. The list could go on.

Thank goodness, it is also just as easy to list the bliss. Coming home to a beloved after hard days at work. Seeing someone else smile at your achievements. Flowers for no reason at all. Celebratory dinners. Secrets. Inside jokes. Belly laughter about these inside jokes and secrets. Fond memories. Vacation snapshots. All of these things are the basis of a long term relationship. All of these things are the bliss—the things that provide fun and laughter in the lives of two people together.

Jodie Foster understands the rotten in long-term relationships and the bliss. Some of us have been waiting for many years for her to acknowledge that she is a lesbian and in a long-term relationship with another woman. I admit, I thought that the final disclosure would be more dramatic and important than it actually was.

Jodie Foster’s acknowledgement of her lesbianism and her intimate partnership was simply a brief statement—a brief acknowledgement in the acceptance of an award of her lifetime together with another woman. Still, it did seem to many of us that the heavens opened with cherubim singing. Perhaps I exaggerate for effect. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take it. However, Jodie Foster comes out, I’ll celebrate. I want more celebrities to come out, and I’ve been watching celebrities come out long enough that I’ll take any celebration wherever I can get it.

I do think, however, that the moment of waiting for celebrities to come out has basically passed. George Clooney is playing with us with his coy conversations about “Gay, gay, gay.” (The third one, according to Clooney, is going just too far). In another tabloid, Clooney suggests that if Brad Pitt was a woman and he was a woman and each were lesbians. . . well, you know what they mean. Clooney plays with our expectations and our hopes for him as a gay man. The era of denials has ended. The era of coyness has begin.

The dramatic coming out adventures of Melissa Etheridge, “YES, I AM,” or Ellen Degeneres on the cover of Newsweek, “YUP, I’M GAY,” are over. What we have instead are the oblique confirmations from celebrities of what we knew all along.

As celebrities no longer feel the need to “come out” we can only hope that they also eschew the need to stay “in the closet.” Openness and honesty was always what our revolution was about. As we now begin to experience it more and more, we’ll have to readjust our expectations, for our celebrities heroes, and, perhaps more importantly, for ourselves.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and activist living in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is installment #20 in CIVILesbianIZATION dated 8 April 2008.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


I’ve been reading about Sappho. She’s been a cult figure in the lesbian community for over a century now. One of my associations with Sappho is the book, Sappho Was a Right On Woman. While Sappho has been an inspiration to lesbians for decades, I’m also learning that she has been inspiring to many poets and writers – not just lesbians. There is a rich literary history of poems, stories, and plays inspired by Sappho’s life and legacy.

All of this I knew and it’s been delightful to explore further; what I didn’t know and was surprised to learn is that Sappho is said to have committed suicide. This has caused me much reflection over the past weeks. What does it mean for us as a lesbian community to base our central iconology on a woman who committed suicide?

On one hand, it is not surprising. There are ample references over the past one hundred years of suicide among lesbians. I’m particularly thinking of The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall and my new favorite book, Olivia by Olivia. The tragic lesbian figure, unable to find love and driven to end her own life is a part of our cultural history and memory. It is a consequence of the pervasive sexism and homophobia with which lesbians have lived. It is an experience that we have to respect and understand.

I think that the image of the tragic lesbian has changed, however. In fact, I posit that Sappho Was a Right On Woman, published in 1972, is one of the first books in change and rewrite our lesbian history and identity. During the 1970s and 1980s, the image of the lesbian as lonely, isolated and perverse was whittled away by the growing community of lesbians and women-identified women. As a result of this community, the image of the suicidal lesbian was overcome. I even wonder if was put to rest for perpetuity. (Though, realistically, reading history regularly, I’m aware that it is highly repetitive and cyclical: the tragic lesbian seems certain to return again.)

Perpetuity or not, the lesbian has now been positioned in our society as not a woman who is lonely and suicidal but a woman who is surrounded by a strong and loyal community. As we look back through history, I think that this image of the lesbian reached its apex at some point during the 1980s. Perhaps when Cris Williamson and Meg Christian performed at Carnegie Hall; perhaps during the second March on Washington in 1987. Whenever it occurred, lesbians over the short course of a few decades remade themselves from the women molded after a suicidal Sappho to the women molded after an empowered, autonomous, independent, and happy Sappho.

This is the Sappho that we’ll embrace for now, but knowing the history of it is important to me. Since the apex of this particular incarnation of Sappho, we’ve been going through additional transformations of our selves and our collective self-images. Some of the forces at play include identity configurations of queer and transgender. I have come to think that our current identity formation of “empowered Sapphos” is part of what makes the lesbian community, and particularly lesbian feminist communities, important flashpoints for the working through of these new identities of queer and transgender. Challenges to lesbian separatism are a way for a variety of other identity formations to receive validation from a “community” and from the “empowered Sapphics.”

Sappho’s poems only exist today in fragments. No matter how we understand our lives and our identities, we are building them from fragments of an ancient poet and from a narrative that is by and large lost and simply pieced together from various historical and literary sources. The strength of this is we can continue to reinvent ourselves and our identities from this fragmented past. We can and we will—lesbian identity will continue to be challenged, reformulated, and reconfigured.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #19 dated April 3, 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.