Jeanne Córdova died of cancer on January 10, 2016. She was one of the LGBTQ pioneers who changed the world for us: a community organizer and a journalist. Unless you are a lesbian – and an older lesbian, at that – you probably don’t recognize her name.
Jeanne was born in Germany, one of 12 children of a Mexican father and an Irish American mother. She grew up Catholic in Southern California and entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Immaculate Mary Convent in Los Angeles in 1966. She wrote about her exit from the convent and her coming-out at UCLA in her 1990 book Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story.
Jeanne was one of those who did the hard work of organizing lesbians in Southern California back when lesbians were regarded as sick or a social menace. Her recent book, When We were Outlaws is about a short period in the 1970’s when lesbians began to see themselves as Lesbian Nation, but the Establishment, especially J.Edgar Hoover, saw them as another bunch of Commies, enemies of the state. (I say “them” because I didn’t come out until ’87.) Those were scary, heady times, when the radical Left in America was feeling its oats about the exit from Vietnam, but painfully aware of what had happened to the Black Panthers. Córdova was a leader in the lesbian community in Southern California during that time, and she wrote about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well. She was both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.
If you want to get a taste of Jeanne’s voice, read her blog, This Lesbian World: Notes from a Community Organizer.
I am sad that the Jeanne Córdovas of the LGBTQ community have been mostly forgotten in our recent political victories. We tend to focus on the national organizations and their current leadership – and that leadership has not always been generous enough to give credit to the cranky, stubborn visionaries who brought us to this day. The AIDS epidemic carried off many of the men, and now that generation of lesbians are dying, too.
It is a Jewish value to give credit where credit is due. I would not enjoy the freedoms I have today, the safety I have today, were it not for Jeanne Córdova and her compatriots, back in the days of the Lesbian Nation. Their activism and courage propelled us into a future in which I can marry my beloved and in which so much seems possible. Jeanne would be the first to point out that the work is far from done. The best memorial we can give her is to carry the work forward.