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'Lesbian Nuns' co-editor Rosemary Curb dies
by Tracy Baim, Windy City Times
2012-05-25

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Dr. Rosemary Keefe Curb, 72, co-editor of one of the bestselling lesbian books of all time, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, has died of complications from lung surgery. Curb, also known as Rosemary Keefe ( her family name ) , was co-editor with Dr. Nancy Manahan of the 1985 collection of several dozen essays by current and former nuns.

Before retiring and moving to Albuquerque, NM, Keefe Curb was dean at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and a professor of English and women's studies at the school.

Keefe received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Arkansas in 1977. She had an MA in English from the same school, and a BA in biology from Rosary College, now known as Dominican University, in River Forest, Ill.

The book achieved national attention through media appearances by Keefe Curb and Manahan, and its visibility was raised higher when it was banned in Boston and attacked by representatives of the Catholic Church. The Boston NBC affiliated cancelled an appearance by the co-editors after pressure from the Catholic Church there.

The editors did have a successful appearance on the Phil Donahue show in April 1985, and went on a national tour for the book, including several stops in Chicago—at the bookstores Women & Children First and Unabridged, and Mountain Moving Coffeehouse.

But it also caused controversy within the lesbian community when its publisher, Naiad Press, sold syndication rights to the Forum men's magazine ( owned by Penthouse ) without the input of the writers of those essays. While Naiad had proper legal rights to do so, many feminists criticized the selling of women's words without their okay. Naiad's owners, Barbara Grier and Donna McBride, defended their efforts, saying it was one way to get the stories out to more women across the country.

Keefe Curb and Manahan criticized the sale of the rights to Forum, but it was out of their control. Keefe told Gay Community News at the time that she felt "awful" about the Forum publication of some of the works.

Manahan, reached from her home in Minneapolis, was emotional about the loss of her colleague. They had stayed friends and were in close touch during their 30-plus years as friends.

"What a smart, passionate, funny, extraordinary social activist she was," Manahan said, "one of the most completely alive, engaged, and endearing people I've ever known," adding that for three decades they have received letters in response to the book. She said that many lesbians were inspired to come out as a result of reading Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence or seeing the media coverage of the book.

Joanne Passet is doing research on the Lesbian Nuns publication phenomenon. As a result of Passet's research, both Manahan and Keefe had spent many hours reflecting on the impact of their book.

"The impact was that for the first time the word 'lesbian' and the concept of lesbianism was discussed openly on TV, very widely, on radio, in newspapers, in the mainstream, and the gay press, here as well as abroad, because it was published in so many countries," Manahan said. "It really was a silence-breaking book, just like the title said."

Naiad went through four printings of the book, and sold the mass distribution and paperback rights to Warner Books in 1986. Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence was translated or reissued in Australia, Brazil, English, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Spain. Naiad Press gained visibility, if not large sums of money, from the sale of serial rights to 19 publications, including Ms., Christopher Street and Philadelphia Gay News, and ABC-TV purchased movie rights ( but a film never was made ) , according to Passet.

"With her immersion in feminist theater, creation of a women's studies program at Rollins College, and active involvement in the National Organization for Women and National Women's Studies Association [ NWSA ] , Curb epitomized the lesbian feminist of the 1970s," Passet said.

"While Curb and Manahan objected to the undercurrent of sex that filled their publisher's promotional copy and dominated a number of the interviews, they nonetheless viewed each interview as an opportunity to educate the public about lesbians." Passet said. "An overnight sensation, their book appeared on the shelves of gay and women's bookstores, but also was a featured display in B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. As sales reached unprecedented numbers for a Naiad Press book, the co-authors jettisoned to near-celebrity status as thousands of readers encountered the book in book racks at drug stores, supermarkets and airport terminals. Bookstore signings and presentations at women's music festivals and women's studies conferences kept the book in the public eye, as did the ABC-TV purchase of movie rights and the mass-market paperback release by Warner books in 1986. Walt Disney Productions even sought permission to use it as a prop in the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills. The sale of four stories to Forum, a men's magazine owned by Penthouse, Ltd., however, triggered feelings of extreme rage, powerlessness, and grief among lesbian feminists who objected to the thought of a serious work being turned into fuel for prurient readers' sexual fantasies. Ironically, while heated arguments and accusations dominated meetings like Women in Print and NWSA and filled the pages of lesbian publications, audiences who heard Curb and Manahan speak and the thousands who read the book were captivated, inspired, and touched by its positive message of self-empowerment."

Lesbian Nuns is "the groundbreaking book it is touted to be," wrote reviewer Jorjet Harper in Chicago's GayLife newspaper April 25, 1985.

"Lesbian Nuns was a transgressive, groundbreaking and gleeful publication," said Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women & Children First Bookstore in Chicago. "It's hard now to remember what an uproar it caused. Barbara and Donna ( from Naiad Press ) were beside themselves with all the requests from mainstream magazines and newspapers to interview Rosemary and Nancy. We had them at the bookstore ( on Halsted Street, in 1985 ) on Pride weekend, and as I recall, we were packed. As a former Catholic schoolgirl who 'prayed for a vocation' from 2nd through 8th grade, I found the book absolutely fascinating. I remember Rosemary as brave, vivacious, and funny."

In her introduction for Lesbian Nuns, Keefe Curb discussed her own convent experiences, and said she wondered, after she left, just how many women of her generation chose being a nun because they were lesbian and it was a safer choice. She wondered how many became nuns "not only as a response to a call from God but as a refuge from heterosexuality, Catholic marriage and exhausting motherhood."

Keefe and Manahan had previously published their own stories in The Lesbian Path. That publication's editor Peg Cruickshank introduced the pair in June 1981, and suggested to Grier that she ask them to edit a book on the topic.

Chicagoans were among those impacted by the Lesbian Nuns book. Julie Valloni was partnered for 28 years with Frances Celine Leahy, a nun from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Frances was out to her friends, and the couple both read the Lesbian Nuns book. Valloni's mother even purchased it, thinking she would find Frances in it—but she did not appear in the book.

Valloni said that Frances, who died in 1999 at age 85, was happy to be seen at a gay bar or pride parade, but that she also felt most at home in the convent—and as an older nun, her own health and financial security were tied up in the Catholic system.

"At Rosemary's and my 1985 appearance at Women & Children First, several lesbian ex-nuns in attendance connected with each other and began getting together monthly," Manahan said. "In 1997 at a Women and Children First reading for my next book On My Honor: Lesbians Reflect on Their Scouting Experience, one of the members of that group told me they were still meeting!"

Co-editor Keefe Curb told The Los Angeles Times, in a May 1, 1985 article, that the book "opens doors for anyone who's ever felt an outsider, who ever felt they had to pass for mainstream."

In her tribute to Barbara Grier in November 2011, after Grier died at age 79, author Jewelle Gomez looked back at the controversy around Lesbian Nuns and Penthouse Forum, on www.epochalips.com/: "I remember reading it ( as a fallen away Catholic ) and jumping up and down for joy and then trying to sound objective when I wrote the review of it. But what most of my generation remember is that Barbara published excerpts from the book in Forum, a het porn magazine with pretensions to intellectual pursuits. … Women were furious! … It was the equivalent of an African American publishing something with a press owned by the KKK. But Barbara was determined to get Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence the attention it deserved and damn if she didn't get it!"

Susanna Sturgis wrote about the controversy in the Lesbian Ethics, Fall 1985 edition. It is now available at www.susannajsturgis.com/article.php: "Forum cut almost all references to platonic friendships, spirituality, convent ethics, and feminist views from these stories. The abridged versions leave the reader with the impression that these three authors have no nonsexual dimensions in their lives. Their stories are thus used to perpetuate Forum's line that feminism is incompatible with explicit sexuality. … Naiad has indicated that reaching the mass audience is important enough to override all objections. If enough women can be reached, it is all right to entrust sensitive, complex material to those whose interest in lesbians and nuns is mainly commercial."

Keefe told off our backs magazine in May 1985 that she felt the book received so much media attention because of the "double marginality of lesbians and nuns."

Jorjet Harper, who first covered the book in 1985, had this to say about Lesbian Nuns in 2012: "At the time Lesbian Nuns appeared, Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan were both true lesbian pioneers who were maneuvering in uncharted waters. They were targets of the mainstream homophobe nutters on TV talk shows who screamed at them that their book was an abomination, sacrilege, and so forth ( and who in former times would have no doubt burned such a book ) . On the other hand, they ruffled feathers among the separatist wings of lesbian feminists who wanted lesbians, but nobody else, to be able to read these nuns' stories. Curb and Manahan were graceful and articulate under fire, and really, were fantastic ambassadors for the lesbian community among straight audiences who had never before seen women, much less former nuns, willing to say they were lesbians on television.

"I was at Mountain Moving Coffeehouse the night of Rosemary and Nancy's presentation there. By that time, word had gotten around that excerpts of Lesbian Nuns had been sold to [ Forum, owned by Penthouse ] . What should have been an evening of celebration of lesbian visibility turned into something of a fiasco, as angry lesbians focused their ire and frustration on the two of them. Rosemary and Nancy were eventually able to quell some of the vitriol, explaining that they had nothing to do with the decision, in fact it had taken them, also, as an unhappy surprise. Barbara Grier, Naiaid's publisher, was doing what publishers do—publicizing a book to the widest possible audience—and as the editors of Lesbian Nuns, they had no say in the matter. It was a big issue back then. Many women ( including some of the book's contributors ) felt deeply betrayed, believing that small press lesbian publishers would have or should have a different agenda, but Rosemary and Nancy were not to blame for any of the resulting shitstorms. Every time I encountered them, in the media or in person, they were unfailingly thoughtful, impressive, and brave."

Whatever the reason, the book is still remembered for its groundbreaking effort to "break the silence" on women's sexuality.

Keefe Curb also edited the Applause Books title Amazon All-Stars: Thirteen Lesbian Plays, with essays and commentary. It was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in 1997.

Prior to becoming dean and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior ( she was dean 2000-2003 and professor 2000-2007 ) , Keefe was at Missouri State University ( professor of English 1993-1999 and head of the Department of English 1993-1998 ) . At Rollins College, she was an English and women's studies assistant, associate and professor from 1979-1993, and director of women's studies there from 1982-1992.

Keefe received numerous academic awards and honors, including a Fullbright Lectureship in American Studies in 1990 and the Hellman/Hammett Award from Human Rights Watch in 1999. She also published numerous articles in books and journals, especially on theater and feminist issues.

She served on editorial and advisory boards for several organizations and periodicals, including Feminist Writers in 1997, The Lesbian Review of Books 1995-2001, and various women's theater events.

Keefe was president of Southeast Women's Studies Association, 1984-1985; on the Coordinating Council of the National Women's Studies Association during most of the 1980s; and was treasurer of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature, 1980-1982.

Keefe is survived by her partner Doris Burkemper, her daughter Lisa DeVore and granddaughter Cheyenne.


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