Gay photographer Carolyn Sherer explores gender identity in new exhibit ‘Living in Limbo’
STEVEN LINDSEY | Contributing Writer
For much of her professional career, fine art photographer Carolyn Sherer turned her camera lens on portraiture, often addressing issues of identity of the people she shot. But she often kept her own lesbian community at a distance.
That changed last year when she created an exhibition of portraits, now at the African American Museum, called Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South is an intimate showing of studio portraits of 40 lesbian families with roots in the Birmingham, Ala., area — Sherer’s base of operations.
“The collection was created in response to a friend’s mistreatment when her long time partner died, and straight friends expressed surprise that the women were a couple and that as such they had no legal rights as a family,” Sherer says. “Our community had been living in a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ atmosphere, and I realized that our silence made us complicit. The challenge was to put a face on our community in a way that respected the fact that many still risked loss of jobs, family acceptance and child custody if their sexual identity was revealed.”
Her process was straightforward: Couples (and their children, if they had any) were given the choice of facing the camera or turning their backs to it (either to maintain their anonymity or to signify something else, such as their invisibility to the heterosexual world). Sherer then told them to focus their feelings on three words — lesbian, Pride and prejudice — while she snapped the shot.
“They dressed as they wished, and although given a target mark in the studio, decided for themselves how to stand and interact with each other,” Sherer explains.
Reaction to the exhibit was quickly favorable, even in Red State Central.
“Remarkably, the collection was already on the walls of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute when the NAACP and President Obama endorsed the right for same gender marriage,” Sherer says. “Although LGBTQ families still lack a single legal right in Alabama, the business community supported Living in Limbo and the very existence of the portraits in public space provided transformative social conversation in the community at large.”
The traveling exhibition is hosted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute as part of their mission to promote human and civil rights worldwide through education, which is how the photographs ended up at the African American Museum in Dallas.
“They intentionally present visual art forms that help people understand the diverse African American experience,” Sherer says.
Turning a critical eye to her own work, Sherer is able to pick her favorite photos.
“The Anonymous Family with four children with their backs to the camera wearing green and gray, and Hassan, Cadesia, Lee, Joette and Toni are my two favorites because they represent the most frequently occurring LGBT family in Alabama: black lesbian couples with children from previous heterosexual relationships,” she says. “Couples that struggle with discrimination due to their race, gender, and sexual identity, and frequently poverty. I also love the image of the young military couple embracing. It was created after the repeal of the military policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” yet the soldier still did not feel safe revealing her identity.”
Another nuance uncovered during her interaction with the subjects was the difference in perception of identity based on age.
“Older women like myself were generally more fearful and raw about their experiences of discrimination. The younger group seemed to demonstrate a healthy entitlement to family life as they imagined it,” she says.
But no matter the age, race, gender or sexual identity of the exhibition’s viewers, Sherer has one goal that underlies it all: “I hope that people will see that love and family looks the same for everyone, and be motivated to treat all families with respect and dignity.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 6, 2013.