The Scarlet L(etter): the “L” Word Revisited


While on the faculty at Oral Roberts University, I wrote the following poem.  The year was 1988.  I had been teaching a women’s literature course, a senior seminar.  When I introduced feminist criticism, I used a text, which I then loaned to a student, a copy in which I had (scandalously) underlined the word “Lesbian.”  This female student took the book to the dean, in an effort to report my behavior (apparently unbecoming an ORU faculty member).  I was then called into the Dean of Women’s office to “discuss” the matter, where I was asked about my sexual orientation–I kid you not.  At the time I hadn’t discovered yet that I am, indeed, (blush, blush) a Lesbian.

In reading back over the poem, planning to discuss the incident with my now partner, I think to myself, “What kind of God-forsaken place was this!  It’s no wonder I subsequently had a nervous breakdown.”

I hope you’ll read the poem and tell me your thoughts on the matter.

inquisition

i balance on the edge
of a yellow wing back
chair in a room that’s
clean and at odd angles
with a window and  
a view of roof
 
it’s easy to think
of her as an enemy—
the fat woman with stiff
hair across the desk
from me
 
we don’t want you to
feel like this is
a witch hunt, she says
 
but, of course, we both
know that it is—that
it’s me at stake, because
i’ve got a back that’s
made of bone,  because
i bleed
 
we don’t believe
in blood, she says,
we don’t believe
in bone.
 
(poem written 7 December 1988)

32 thoughts on “The Scarlet L(etter): the “L” Word Revisited

  1. Kathy, it’s shocking to think that this happened a scant two decades ago, but all I can say is thankfully, the times they are a changing. I’m sure there are still ignorant people, but tomorrow is bound to be better when we educate our children about sexual orientation today.

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    • Absolutely, Deanna! I’m happy for you, that you are raising your children in Canada, where gay marriage is legal and there’s a more normalized response to differences in sexual preference. It’s great to see you today—–hope you enjoy the rest of your Sunday———————-

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  2. Holy. GOD. The poem was incredibly powerful–I like the idea of blood and bone as something you can “believe in.” It reminds me of how stupid an argument some homophobes make that they don’t “believe in homosexuality.” What does that even mean? It’s not Santa Claus or God. It’s not a concept that you can choose to either believe in or not. Just like you can’t choose to believe in blood and bone…or not. It’s the stupidest damn argument I’ve ever heard anyone make before.

    Sigh. Deep breath, A.Hab. Starting to get angry. Lol.

    I’m sorry a student took it upon herself to 1. not allow you to offer her a teaching moment (like…maybe there was another reason why you had underlined “the L-word”…one that could have helped her understand this particular branch of feminist criticism?) and 2. force you to justify not only your research and/or teaching methods but also your very existence…before you had even had a chance to come to understand your core yourself. It’s horrible that you had to go through that. And I’m truly just so impressed that you pulled through and survived.

    Thank you for sharing that with us.

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    • I love your responses, Amanda! And I’m tickled that you appreciated the poem and SOOOOOOOOO understood what I was trying to say–the rhetoric of the evangelical mainstream toward sexual preference is bizarre–excuse my language, but kind of a mind f***!

      The funny thing is though, that I think I’m a better person for having had this experience, if that makes sense. Because I don’t want to return the ugly rhetoric–I’m inclined now to turn the other cheek and feel sad for these folks–sad about their ignorance and isolation. Surely, that can’t feel good!

      I don’t know. I’m only babbling, but I love and appreciate your comment–as USUAL, my friend!

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  3. While times are changing, this kind of thing can still happen which is so sickening. You would think that the world of education (on all levels) would be a world that embraces difference and ideas, but it always amazes me how closed-minded academia can truly be. I think the poem is brilliant!

    This post is forcing me to ask a question that I’ve been wanting to ask, but kind of afraid too because I didn’t want it read incorrectly. So, before I ask it, I want to state clearly I DO NOT EQUATE SEXUAL PREFERENCE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS. I’m a firm believer that we all lie on a spectrum when it comes to sexuality, and I freely admit having been attracted to a woman in the past (although I never acted on it). So, my question is: Did you struggle with embracing yourself as a Lesbian and was that part of the journey you had to go through in your mind? Did your sexual orientation play any role in your struggle with mental illness? I hope that makes sense.

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    • I totally understand your quesion–totally, as I have wondered about this myself–how amazing for you to have intuited this. I have to run now, as I’m supposed to be at my mom’s in a short while, but I will come back to this, hopefully in a post. I don’t know the answer, is my bottom line–but I indeed have wondered. Hugs to you dear, Lisa!

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  4. Nice poem, Kathy. The ORU sounds frustrating. I’m a believer in the trauma of emotionally charged incidents sticking around until we learn how to release them. For me, it’s an ongoing process as the moment I release one, another comes up to take its place. I’ve heard bodywork helps greatly, but I haven’t tried it yet. It’s on my list of things “to do”.

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    • I’ve heard the same thing about bodywork, and yes, I believe the same thing about trauma. It may go underground, but it doesn’t go away until it’s processed and released–and, in fact, trauma that gets buried can be exceedingly destructive. So true, my friend!

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  5. I just don’t get it. [shakes head in sadness and disbelief] Why is sexuality– and especially SAME SEX sexuality– such a big deal? It boggles the mind, and I really can’t believe a student would take your underlining of a word to the higher authorities! (Would she have done the same if you underlined “feminist” or “womyn”? I doubt it.)

    Gah. Sorry to hear that you experienced this, but I’m glad that it made you stronger. Some people…

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    • It’s bizarre, isn’t it? ORU is a crazy place, I’m afraid. The dean didn’t tell me the student had reported my underlining, but there was no other way the dean could have gotten a copy of the book, my copy, I mean. Weird and sick people!

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  6. Oh. I am boo hooing in the ugliest way, Kathy! The last part got me:
    “we don’t believe
    in blood, she says,
    we don’t believe
    in bone.”
    What a haunting way to describe being told that your very being is not acceptable. So glad you aren’t in that environment anymore!

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  7. What a heartbreaking poem, and such a heartbreaking incident. I’m so sorry this happened to you.

    In my own experience, my heart sinks every time someone gets upset that race and sexual preference have been mentioned in the same sentence. Aren’t they both natural conditions of birth? Aren’t they both used by small-minded people to discriminate against and be cruel toward other human beings? As a black woman, I have staggered from the blow of absent-minded prejudice, and my bile has risen after being slapped by another’s attempt to rid me of my pride, and bar my path to wherever it is I need to go. I know how horrible this feels and the struggle it is sometimes for me to keep going without having that struggle write something permanent and unwanted on my soul. Of course, I can be identified from a distance and before I ever open my mouth, but I am astonished and dismayed that anyone would deny that the cruelty of prejudice feels this way for you, too.

    “we don’t believe in blood, she says, we don’t believe in bone.” I hear these words that you wrote, very clearly, and I know in my soul exactly what you mean. We both know that she, and all the rest of them, are tiny, ignorant and very cruel people. I’m sorry that this is what they do. And I’m glad that you’re telling your story here.

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    • Thank you so much for this comment! Yes, you understand this kind of prejudice–prejudice against things that simply are, like skin color–the blood and bone of a person. The world is still a sad place, but hopefull this kind of dialog can help increase awareness.

      I don’t know if you live in the US, but I can’t imagine what it must be like to have brown or black skin in this country. My partner and I lived in Haiti for a year, and when we came back, we were always struck by just how many white people there are here–too many–overwhelming whiteness!

      Again, thanks so much for your comment. I soooooooooo appreciate it!

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  8. Such narrow-mindedness and bigotry astound me. Even in 1988. I have always loved lesbians! Err…you know what I mean.
    Seriously, I’ll never understand why some people get all bent out of shape over matters that do not concern them in the slightest. Thank god society is moving toward tolerance and away from her kind of attitude.

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    • I’ve always loved gay men, as well, if you know what I mean–ha, ha! But it is amazing, isn’t it–that people actually think this way. And I use the present tense, as this kind of prejudice is still very alive in evangelical circles! Thanks so much for your comment, Mark!

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  9. I was going to comment that it seemed like the world was a different place back in the 80s, but it really hasn’t changed much, has it? Bigotry of all kinds still exists. I wish it wasn’t so.

    It’s a powerful poem, Kathy.

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  10. Thank God you’re out of there, Kathy. I know this country has a long way to go, but I have to believe one day all people will have the right to love freely, without judgment or guilt or adversity. That kind of teaching starts at home, but we can raise a generation that believes in equal rights on all counts.

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    • I think you are on to something here, Maura. There are changes in younger generations. Folks in their 20s now, I think, pretty much take for granted that gays and lesbians should be able to marry, for example–at least I noticed that when I was teaching at UK. So, thanks, Maura! Tomorrow will be a better day————————

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      • Not to hijack this little comment here, but it made me think of a little teaching moment I ALMOST had yesterday…and I’m kind of kicking myself for not just going for it.

        We were talking about Nigerian politics (oh, such an easy topic to parse apart in sophomore-level World Lit! haha), and we were discussing how freedom is an “agent of our imagination” (Chris Abani’s words from a TED talk, and he used it in the context of pop culture). I asked generally, “Okay, so Americans believe that freedom not only exists for all Americans, but that all Americans experience all the same freedoms in the exact same way, right?” My students generally agreed, so I pushed further with “is that true?” And that sparked a discussion–students were offering examples of how affirmative action has debilitated white men’s employment rates (oh, boo-freaking-hoo. PLEASE.), and how Christians can’t express themselves freely any more (reeeeeally?? Because all the Shintoists so clearly dominate religious discussion?), and how women don’t make as much money as men do (okay, well, yeah, that one I get). I kept saying, “And who else does not experience the same freedoms as everyone else?” “Who else might consider themselves disenfranchised?” “Who else has their civil liberties restricted?”

        They didn’t take the bait. I wanted some brave soul to say, “The gays.” Or something! But, no. Nobody offered the obvious, “Well, not everyone is free to get married.” And I didn’t say it myself because…well…I don’t really know why I didn’t just say it. I wish I had. I wish I had popped open that little can o’ worms because it’s freaking TRUE. About a month or two before my own wedding, “Milk” was released. And Robert and I went to go see it. And I left the theater a slobbering mess. Our little junior groomsman has two mommies…and they’ve been together WAY longer than Robert and I have been. Hell, they’ve even known each other longer. And yet, ten months dating, eighteen months engaged, and Robert and I got to tie the knot. But my friends Sara and Katie? Who have been in a monogamous, committed relationship with a freaking KID for over a decade? Nope. Because they’ll probably just ruin the sanctity of marriage. (Unlike all the straights who have a 50% chance of even staying married for an entire lifetime to the same person.)

        It makes me sick. And mad. And sad. And I just wish I had said something in class yesterday. Ugh. Teaching moment…out the window.

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      • You know what, Amanda, the opportunity will present itself again! Don’t worry. I know how hard it is to take teaching seriously and then to feel you haven’t made a sound pedagogical choice. But what this really tells me is just how great a teacher you really are!!!!!!!! You really want your students to grow, and I love that about you!!!!!!

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