Arts & Literature

Lesbian Heroines

Our quality of life is influenced by more of them than we know.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The gay and lesbian section of your local bookstore is probably packed with histories of LGBT activism, advice books and, more likely than not, some of the witty volumes of Erin McHugh. Her Portable Queer series presented a humorous history of LGBT people throughout the ages.

McHugh's latest book, The L Life: Extraordinary Lesbians Making a Difference, shines more light on lesbians in particular, showing that they are out there in more places than you think. It features, in McHugh's words, "lesbian heroines." Some of them you probably know of already (Glee Actress Jane Lynch, filmmaker Christine Vachon), but just as many are likely new faces. The book draws attention to a group "that is an invisible minority," McHugh told the Advocate in a telephone interview.

"Right away it seemed to me it should be a tribute and a celebration. I wanted to highlight women who have made a difference in the movement and who are making a difference," said McHugh. The book profiles lesbians in everything from politics to urban gardening. Many of them, of course, are involved in LGBT causes as well, from longtime activist Phyllis Lyon to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who leads the largest LGBT synagogue in the world.

"It was the most fun of my life," McHugh said of the year she spent gathering the interviews and photographs for the book with photographer Jennifer May. The book took them all over the country, and they found more people to include as they went along, often thanks to suggestions from other interviewees.

"I sometimes felt like the book was leading me by the nose," McHugh said.

The best part of The L Life is the surprising stories of how these women got to where they are. "It's not every day that a good Mormon girl grows up and becomes a lesbian activist," begins the segment on Kate Kendell, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Breast cancer expert Dr. Susan Love went from being a nun to becoming the first female general surgeon at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital.

And there are other surprises: fresh interpretations of experience, unexpected insights. Given the opposition the LGBT community has encountered from many conservative religious groups, for example, the broad perspective offered in a quote by Kleinbaum is refreshing: "Frankly, a problem with the LGBT movement for liberation is that we've so often experienced religion as only a force for evil in the world: We haven't recognized the incredible power it can also be for liberation and change."

Making this book ended up being "more of a feminist experience than a lesbian one," McHugh said. "The book is all about girl power." However you look at it, The L Life is a great addition to your bookshelf.

McHugh will speak about and sign her book at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton on March 15 at 7 p.m.

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