In a world where members of the GLBT community have gained access to the many mediums of communication, from RuPaul’s Drag Race on the Logo Network to more gay characters in mainstream movies, it can be easy to forget how different life was for the GLBT family just a few decades ago. Stanford University professor, author, and voice in feminist and gender studies Susan Krieger beautifully depicts the struggles and concerns of lesbians in a not so distant past.
Susan’s first book, The Mirror Dance, captures the fears of a lesbian community in a Midwestern town. Susan says, “I interviewed about sixty women and almost all feared being outed at work.” This is a concern she admits may be less common in our modern society, but was definitely a big part of the Lesbian community not so long ago.
In a more recent book, Things No Longer There, Susan vividly relives her experience at a camp she attended as a teenage girl that was run by two lesbians. Although she did not know about their sexuality then, in retrospect she could remember Ms. Sandy’s unused bed, which was always cluttered with papers and projects. In the first chapter, she dives deeper into the dynamics and idiosyncrasies that made up the camp organizer’s relationship. She writes, “They never arrived together as if to insist they came from different lives.” The camp had such great impact on her that Susan wishes she could have been able to see the camp owners as an adult to tell them how much she loved the place and that she was lesbian too.
Susan also analyzes her own fears, what she calls “lesbo-phobias,” in another piece called The Family Silver. In this narrative, Susan discusses the lesbo-phobias pertaining to being a lesbian teacher. She writes, “I was aware of the consequences of touching students to say ‘great work’ or ‘nice,’ and always kept my hands to my sides.” The world that existed outside the “heterosexual veneer,” as Susan refers to it, was to be protected and kept a secret in those times.
Being out of the closet was risky and Susan experienced some taunting, yet it did yield some good as well. When Susan arrived at Stanford and asked if there were any other lesbian faculty members, the answer was, “just one other.” Later, Susan found herself knocking at professor Estelle Frieddman’s door. The two soon became partners, and they now have been together for 30 years.
When Susan began to lose her sight in the mid 90s to a condition called birdshot retinochoroidopathy, it was Estelle who helped Susan through the transition. “Hannah,” as Estelle is known in Susan’s books, encouraged her partner to write and served as her first editor. This wonderful display of support resulted in Things No Longer There, and her latest book, Traveling Blind, in which “Hannah,” Susan, and her guide dog Teela travel to many parts of the country.
In the GLBT community, labels come naturally and words like “bottom,” “butch” or “fem” are casually exchanged, yet Susan discovered that the blind label was easier to go public with. When she was sighted, hearing occasional name calling while walking down the street was not uncommon. However, once she started to carry a white cane and later to walk with a guide dog, people treated her more kindly. “Blindness definitely has its own set of problems, but it is easier for people to accept,” says Susan. While doing a radio interview for Things No Longer There, which is mostly about lesbianism and touches lightly on vision loss, Susan was not surprised that the radio program focused entirely on her blindness.
In a statement that illustrates the fearlessness embodied in the colorful GLBT community, Susan proudly claims herself as both Lesbian and blind.
Susan Krieger, a sociologist and writer, teaches in the Program in Feminist Studies at Stanford University. Her books include Things No Longer There: A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision; The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women; Social Science and the Self: Personal Essays on an Art Form; The Mirror Dance: Identity in a Women’s Community; and Hip Capitalism. Click here to learn more about Susan Krieger.
Who is Belo Cipriani?
Belo Cipriani is a staffing professional, the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the career expert for the Ed Baxter Show on Talk Radio San Francisco 910AM. You are invited to connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.