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Lesbian Nuns Break Their Silence : Former, Current Sisters Discuss Religious Life in Book

May 01, 1985|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Manahan was traveling by car on this leg of what has become an ongoing book tour. She pulled into Albuquerque on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by her 73-year-old mother, Ruth Manahan. A retired newspaper editor, Ruth Manahan said she proofread the manuscript of her daughter's book and that she never had any doubts about the wisdom of publishing it.

Both women's families supported the project. Curb's 18-year-old daughter, Lisa (Curb was married for four years after leaving the convent) said in a phone interview that although she worried initially about her friends' reaction to the book, "I thought, hey, this is my senior year. These people (her fellow students) should have matured. If they're my friends, they're my friends."

Joining Manahan and her mother at dinner in Albuquerque was Wendy Sequoia, a former nun who had contributed a chapter to the book.

Sequoia said she, like many of the former sisters interviewed by Curb and Manahan, felt a spiritual void when she left her religious community. She said she gradually filled that gap with a personalized blend of belief, "minus the oppression."

A number of the ex-nuns rechanneled their spiritual energies into political activism. Among the contributors to "Lesbian Nuns," seven have been officers in the National Organization for Women at local and national levels. Included are a current and former director of the National Gay Task Force, Virginia Apuzzo and Jean O'Leary. Others have been active in efforts for peace and anti-racism, labor movements, shelters for battered women and prison rights.

"The movements for social justice in the '70s and '80s are replete with ex-nun lesbian leadership," observed Jeanne Cordova, a contributor to the volume and publisher of the Community Yellow Pages, a directory of gay and lesbian-owned businesses in Southern California. "I have come to see the convent as a boot camp for us all."

Los Angeles resident Jean O'Leary, executive director of National Gay Rights Advocates (a public interest law firm that handles precedent-setting cases involving discrimination against gay people) said her youthful independence asserted itself in actions such as "putting goldfish in the holy water font.

"I wouldn't say the convent is a hotbed of lesbianism," O'Leary wrote. "I think that many women have joined convents to escape sexuality, whether lesbian or heterosexual. A desire for obedience and dedication to God is often secondary to a need for celibacy and denial."

There is some indication that the church has relaxed its policy of silence on the topic of homosexuals in religious life. A group based near Washington, New Ways Ministries, teaches men's and women's communities nationwide how to handle gay candidates for religious life, who are increasingly likely to be open about their sexual identity.

Despite the changes that have occurred in the church since the days when the majority of women in the book were in the convent (particular friendships, for example, are no longer outlawed in most communities and silence is not generally required), the Manahan and Curb book will send shock waves through the convents, said a current nun who has been in religious life for 24 years.

"All hell is going to break loose," she wrote in her chapter of the book. "Religious communities are going to have to discuss the book. They're going to have to respond to the reality and they've never had to do that before."

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