Jeanne Cordova was a pioneering lesbian feminist activist and ex-nun who shook the world by revealing lesbian life in the convent. She died on Jan. 10, 2016 at age 67.
“Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence” remains the definitive work on this hidden and forbidden subject more than 30 years after it was first published. It is also one of the best-selling lesbian books of all time.
Many others have written about Cordova’s accomplishments as an activist, writer and publisher. But Cordova’s radical revelations about lesbian nuns are often omitted or downplayed in online obituaries and tributes.
This article aims to provide balance by focusing on Cordova’s experiences with the church: growing up Catholic, discovering her lesbian identity in the convent, and telling the world about lesbian nuns. Cordova left the convent far behind and transferred her devotion to the lesbian community, but her early religious experiences helped shape her into the effective activist that she became.
“The movements for social justice in the ‘70s and ‘80s are replete with ex-nun lesbian leadership,” Cordova told the Los Angeles Times. “I have come to see the convent as a boot camp for us all.”
For example, the 50 contributors to “Lesbian Nuns” include two former directors of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Virginia Apuzzo and Jean O‘Leary.
Cordova was born July 18, 1948 in Bremerhaven, Germany to a devout conservative Roman Catholic family. She was the second of 12 children. Her mother, Joan McGuinnes Cordova, was a convent-raised Irish Catholic from New York and her father, Frederick Cordova, was a Mexican American businessman and West Point graduate.
In the 1950s her family moved to the Republican suburbs of southern California, where Cordova grew up attending Catholic schools. Her role models were nuns and she dreamed of becoming a nun from the age of 7.
Cordova was attracted to convent life for the same reason that drew many queer people to become nuns, monks and priests since medieval times. It provided an alternative to heterosexual marriage.
“I chose the convent because I knew I wasn’t interested in the world of men and women, marriage, children—’that’ lifestyle. Being in the service of God within a community of women felt natural and right. I’m sure the fact that I fell in love with God at the age of seven and made a vow to dedicate my life to Him was much informed by my strong Catholic parents’ (one Irish woman and one Mexican dude) teachings, as well as my latent lesbianism,” she told the Windy City Times.
Life as a nun
In 1966 Cordova graduated from high school and entered the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) convent in Santa Barbara, California. She was a naïve 18-year-old nun whose spiritual and sexual development was about to be speeded up to hyper-drive by Vatican II.
“I arrived on Entrance Day wearing my James Dean wraparound sunglasses, sincerely believing that the warriorship of my patron saint (butch dyke Jeanne d’Arc) was spiritually motivated. I left the holy sisterhood one year later thoroughly edified by the carnal motivations and wraparound body of novice Sister Marie Immaculata. My boot camp in the sisterhood of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (detailed in my autobiographical novel, Kicking the Habit) did clarify my lesbianism,” she wrote in an excerpt from her essay in the anthology “The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader.”
As soon as she arrived, Cordova was confronted by stunning reforms from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in an effort to modernize the Catholic church. She described it as “a crash course in reality” in her oral history interview.
“The day after I got in, they got rid of the habit, they got rid of the Latin, they changed the Mass, we were supposed to drop our nun names and use our regular names full out to the world,” she said.
She described the shock in an excerpt from “Lesbian Nuns” quoted in “Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control” by E. Michael Jones. The book explores how the rhetoric of sexual freedom can lead to political and social control. Cordova wrote:
“They promised me monastic robes, glorious Latin liturgy, the protection of the three sacred vows, the peace of saints in a quiet cell, the sisterhood of a holy family. But I entered religious life the year John XXIII [sic] was taking it apart: 1966. The fathers of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church were sitting at the Vatican Council destroying in the name of CHANGE, my dreams. Delete Latin ritual. Dump the habit. Damn holy obedience. Send nuns and priests out into the REAL world.”
She was enrolled in Immaculate Heart College, where sensitivity training, encounter groups and open classrooms exposed her to new ideas and emotions. She found out for the first time about drugs, the peace movement and covert homosexuality.
As 1967 began, her Mother Superior informed her that she and her fellow novices were being sent to live in the “real world” — Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and the black ghetto of Watts. She was appalled and radicalized by seeing poverty and racial injustice for the first time.
“I kind of lost my faith and my vocation and woke up and came out as a lesbian — but also as a social worker,” she said in her oral history interview.
Cordova left the convent after one year. Disillustioned with the church, she embraced the ideals of social justice. “I left the convent because of my political radicalization and inability to justify the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and actions regarding social justice, and its ongoing battle with my IHM order to keep women in line under patriarchy. My newly realized lesbianism was actually secondary to falling out of love with the Catholic Church, which I had questioned all my life,” she told the Windy City Times.
The upheavals that Cordova experienced were part of a hidden history and under-reported trend at convents nationwide at that time. These pivotal changes are dramatized in the 2017 movie “Novitiate.” Set in the early 1960s, it follows a young nun’s struggles with faith and sexuality, including some lesbian content.
For the IHM Sisters, modernization led to growing conflict with the archbishop. In 1970, soon after Cordova quit being a nun, 300 of her fellow IHM sisters left to form the ecumenical lay women’s organization called the Immaculate Heart Community. It was the largest single exodus of Catholic nuns in U.S. history.
A first-person account of the history (minus the lesbian aspect) is told in the book “Witness to Integrity: The Crisis of the Immaculate Heart Community of California” by Anita M. Caspary, the Mother Superior and rebel nun who led the revolt.
A vintage photo shows a hip young Jeanne Cordova wearing a crucifix and a headband. She is surrounded by female statues that appear to be Saint Mary or other holy women.
Beyond the convent
After leaving the convent, Cordova went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA.). By age 22 she had completed a master of social work degree with a thesis on community organizing in the lesbian community. She also embraced her Latina heritage, serving as vice president of UCLA’s Chicano Students Alliance.
Cordova’s accomplishments as a community organizer are well documented in many places, including her 2011 autobiography “When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution.” The title refers to how lesbian and gay people were criminalized by sodomy laws that Cordova helped abolish.
Her protests helped decriminalize homosexuality and protect the jobs of openly lesbian and gay teachers. She founded the “Lesbian Tide” newsmagazine in 1971 and the “Gay and Lesbian Community Yellow Pages” in 1981. A self-described “butch,” she fought for lesbian visibility in the LGBTQ and feminist movements.
She maintained some alliances with radical Christian activists such as Troy Perry, founder of the LGBTQ-affirming Metropolitan Community Churches. In a lively YouTube video interview for the forthcoming documentary “L.A.: A Queer History,” Cordova and Perry talk about their protest against California’s sodomy law. They were among three same-sex couples who went to the Los Angeles police and confessed to sodomy, hoping that their arrests would draw attention to the legalized discrimination. The law was repealed two months later in 1976.
“Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence” was published in 1985 with real-life accounts by 50 women, including co-editors Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Keefer Curb. They selected the stories from 400 submissions. The first chapter, written by Cordova, is titled “My Immaculate Heart.”
The book was widely praised for bringing visibility to lesbian nuns, but publisher Naiad Press was criticized for allowing excerpts about nuns’ sexuality to be published in Penthouse Forum, a subsidiary of a pornographic magazine for heterosexual men.
As the foreword to the 2013 reprint edition notes, the book “played a significant role in the mainstreaming of lesbian print culture.” The editors “wanted to shatter the silence that denied the existence of lesbians in religious life and to make it clear that ‘lesbians are everywhere.’”
In 1990 Cordova went on to expand her chapter into the full-length book “Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story.” It was endorsed by such lesbian luminaries as Kate Millett and Robin Tyler, who called it, “a Rubyfruit Jungle of the convent!”
Cordova and her spouse, Lynn Harris Ballen, had a commitment ceremony in 1995 and were legally wed in 2013, after same-sex marriage was legalized in California.
Cordova responded with extraordinary foresight and courage when she learned that she was dying of cancer. With death approaching, she donated $2 million to the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. She wrote an open “Letter About Dying, to My LGBT Communities.” It is lovingly preserved at her official website, along with much more writing by and about her.
In the open letter she proclaimed: “It is wonderful to have had a life’s cause: freedom and dignity for lesbians.”
Cordova died on Jan. 10, 2016. Tributes include the Jeanne Cordova Prize for Lesbian Nonfiction, which was established in her memory at Lambda Literary Foundation. Her life is celebrated in this poem by her friend, Los Angeles poet Audrey Lockwood.
Things I Learned from Jeanne
By Audrey Lockwood
Wear your heart on your sleeve,
Delight in roses
Have the biggest heart the grandest smile
Courage, show courage up till the very
Clothing, wildly celebrate butch style
Step it up woman, it’s about the details,
Cuff links, red piping, pocket watch
Be a woman of the people, Amazon Greatness
Visions, it is about them, making them happen
In the end gracious, it is about the last rose you can give
to a woman, yes, you know it and she knows it.
Kiss her cheek, tell her you love her, give her
the rose, and don’t look back.
Links related to Jeanne Cordova
Official website: jeannecordova.com
Oral history interview with Jeanne Cordova, 1988, California State University at Long Beach digital repository
Books about lesbian nuns
“Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy” by Judith C. Brown
“Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World” by Catalina De Erauso
“Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story” by Jeanne Cordova
“Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence” by Nancy Manahan and Rosemary Keefer Curb (editors)
“Once Upon a Convent: A Memoir of a Lesbian Nun” by Orice Klaas
To read this article in Italian, go to:
Le due vite di Jeanne Cordova. Da suora ad attivista lesbica (gionata.org)
Top image credit: Jeanne Cordova in 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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