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

Times Staff Writer

She was what was known as a “particular friend” in convent vernacular. An older nun, she was both teacher and inspiration to Nancy Manahan, who was at the time in her first year at the Maryknoll Missionary Sisters’ Novitiate near St. Louis.

Because talking was allowed only during restricted periods and preferring the company of one nun over the others was forbidden, Manahan said she often had to confess to two transgressions--breaking silence and having a particular friend.

Manahan and 50 other former and current nuns declare in a new book, “Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence” (Naiad Press: $9.95), that not only did they cultivate special relationships in their religious communities, but that those friendships sometimes turned into love affairs.

Some Used Pseudonyms

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While 40 of the contributors to the book are no longer in religious communities, (the essays were selected from 400 submitted to the editors), seven women who are still in the convent contributed using pseudonyms, and two current nuns wrote under their own names after clearing the decision with their communities, Manahan said. Contributors range in age from their late 20s to their 60s, and one contributor has been in a convent nearly 50 years.

Manahan writes in an introduction to the book, which she edited with another ex-nun, Rosemary Curb, that its purpose is “the breaking of the historic silence about erotic love between women in religious life.”

Formerly an English instructor at Napa Valley College (she now owns a carpet cleaning business in Napa), Manahan, 38, discovered that scholarly sources that examine convent “deviance,” such as pregnancies occurring among sisters who have taken vows of chastity, keep to the policy of silence when it comes to same-sex relationships.

The authors state that a majority of sisters are heterosexual, and say their book neither condemns nor condones sexual activity in convents. Still, some readers and critics have been so offended by the content that they apparently wish Manahan and Curb also would have remained mum.

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The editors were banned from an Eastern talk show last month when a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston read about the book and asked that the segment featuring Manahan and Curb not be aired, arguing that it “would be an affront to the sensitivity of Roman Catholics.”

Canceled the Show

The station manager agreed and canceled the show, triggering the interest of reporters around the country who soon were on the phone to Naiad Press publisher Barbara Grier in Tallahassee, Fla. The authors have been interviewed by the Dublin Herald Tribune; and an Italian publisher is apparently impatient to be granted rights to translate the book into Italian. “All of Rome is waiting for your decision,” he told Naiad Press.

On the shelves for only a month, the book will complete a third printing today, bringing the number of copies in print to 150,000. The publisher said she had anticipated sales of no more than 30,000, mostly to women’s bookstores and Catholic libraries. Warner Books has purchased mass distribution paperback rights.

Although much of the uproar is generated by the suspicion that the text must be full of cloistered love scenes, Curb said that’s not the case: “People are going to be sorely disappointed if they buy the book thinking it’s going to be sensational. It’s really about processes, feelings and growth.”

It’s also about breaking the rules, and that, Curb said, is the reason the topic has struck a chord with so many non-Catholics and non-gays. “The book opens doors for anyone who’s ever felt an outsider, who ever felt they had to pass for mainstream,” said Curb, a 45-year-old associate professor of English at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

The publisher has received orders from hundreds of members of religious communities all over the United States; and the editors said support groups for current and former gay nuns are forming in many of the cities they have visited.

“Even the heterosexual sisters who have come forth (in response to the book) have been very grateful for the book, although they do want it made clear that most nuns are celibate and honor their vows,” Manahan said during an appearance Saturday at an Albuquerque bookstore.

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“At least 10% of religious sisters are gay. As well as 10% of the congregation or population they minister to. So it really would behoove religious communities to deal with their homophobia,” she added. (Curb guessed that the percentage of gay women in convents might in fact be higher than the 10% figure often ascribed to the general population. Many of her peers were attracted to the convent as an alternative to unwanted marriage, she said, without necessarily knowing at the time they were homosexual.)

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.

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“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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