In Memoriam: Jeanne Córdova

Image: Photo taken of Jeanne Córdova at the 2012 Lammy Awards by lynnhb. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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.

 

 

Taking the Queer Road

Two memoirs are out just recently from people I admire: Jeanne Córdova’s When We were Outlaws and Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger. I’ve had a chance to read Córdova’s book, but my e-copy of Bornstein’s book is still on its way through cyberspace to me. Both are stories about dangerous journeys, and it occurred to me that they are totally appropriate reading for Omer-time, since we are in that period of travel from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to Torah. Just as Am Yisrael had to deal with Amalekites and their own demons, these two women have been through their own wildernesses, external and internal.

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 talks about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well.  She was (and is) both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about another sort of journey. I met Kate Bornstein after she had stopped being Al and had become Kate, but before I became a Jew named  Ruth.  She was the first person to explain gender in a way that made sense to me.  The binary division of the world into “us” and “them” had always seemed like a gross oversimplification of something much more interesting, but I never had words for it. Kate embodies it: she occupies her own township on the landscape of gender, and has spent much of the last twenty years as a kind and outrageous tour guide and den mother, writing and performing her art to communicate the truth of that landscape to the rest of us. I look forward to reading her memoir, as I have enjoyed her other books; I know I will learn something not only about her, but about myself, before I put it down.

I admire these two writers because they have followed the truth where it took them, and they have the guts to talk honestly about the sometimes messy adventures and mistakes along the way.  It’s one of the qualities I love about Jewish holy books, that they include some of the unholiest episodes imaginable, letting us know that all of life can become  holy.  It’s only when we are willing to really tell the truth that we can learn something worthwhile.  It’s only when we can embrace the mess of being human, that we can allow ourselves to be embraced by God.