Lesbian photographer Carolyn Scherer uses her craft for social advocacy. Her critically-acclaimed exhibits have championed the causes of the disabled, adolescents and people living with HIV/AIDS and other marginalized communities.
But, when the idea of an exhibit chronicling the lives of lesbian families in her native Alabama came to mind, she immediately had second thoughts.
Scherer eventually undertook the challenging project and, in the end, sparked a dialogue in her community that would change the lives of dozens of families, including her own.
That exhibit, “Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South,” is now on display at the Stonewall National Archives and Museum’s Wilton Manors Gallery through June 18.
“The exhibit changed the conversation in Birmingham,” she recalled. “It was my community’s coming out story….and my own.”
Many lesbian families in the Deep South live an “invisible” life, Scherer explained. a “don’t ask, don’t tell” existence in plain view of their socially conservative, religious neighbors.
After one of her friends was stricken with terminal cancer and the patient’s disapproving brother locked her longtime partner from their home, the photographer knew something had to be done. The partner had to get the police to let her into their home to retrieve clothing to attend the funeral.
“At the funeral, there were a lot of people who loved this couple, but didn’t realize they were gay,” she said. “It was shocking. The whole incident not only galvanized me, but a whole lot of other privileged women who were also living in the closet.”
Gay men had long been more visible in Birmingham due to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, but Scherer decided it was time to put a face on her own community.
As Scherer approached couples for the project, she was initially met with resistance.
She said, “People wouldn’t call me back. Everybody thought I was crazy.”
Scherer didn’t relent, offering the subjects the opportunity to pose without revealing their identities. Eventually, she collected enough images to display the exhibit. The backing of the Civil Rights Institute and Birmingham Museum also lent the project credibility and she began photographing the families.
“I took the photos to the Civil Rights Institute and they agreed it was the right project and I was the right person,” she said.
Scherer quickly had more volunteers than she could have ever hoped.
The 30 portraits covered the full spectrum of the lesbian community—socioeconomic status, age, race—and drew more than 17,000 visitors in the two months it was on display.
Like many of the brave participants, the exhibit forced Scherer and her longtime partner, an associate dean of the dental school, to come out.
“I remember seeing the banner on the side of the Civil Rights Institute that showed two lesbians embracing and it had my name on it. It was huge and I just wished my name was a little smaller,” Scherer said. “I had to have that conversation with my mother, but she got right on board.”
Four years later, almost all of the couples in the exhibit are out and many are now married since the ban on marriage equality was struck down earlier this year.
As she reflected on the risk associated with such a project, she noted that, unlike other couples, she and her partner did not have any children and didn’t risk having them taken away in a custody fight. She was also financially well off.
“Fear was a memory that we were hanging on to that we didn’t need to,” explained Scherer.
A gay male friend brought the exhibit to perspective with this comment that sticks with the photographer: “What’s more traditional than women and children. That’s a Southern value.”
“Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South” is on display at the Stonewall Museum – Wilton Manors Gallery, 2157 Wilton Drive, through June 18. For gallery hours and more information, go to Stonewall-Museum.org.