In a recent article on AfterEllen.com Sarah Terez Rosenblum notes that Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls is expecting a baby with her partner. Rosenblum waxes poetic about her own disinterest in marriage and child rearing and her fondness for lesbian life in part because it seems to offer a way out of these burdens. If she stopped there, fair enough, but she goes on to say, “traditionally, lesbian artists have been free from the constraints of child-rearing.” Rosenblum then asks “what queer artistic contributions might never come to fruition simply because a queer periphery no longer exists?” Finally, she concludes by suggesting that becoming a lesbian mom is joining the “cozy center” of a mainstream movement.
Rosenblum’s first statement is simply untrue and suggests she magically knows both the sexual orientation and the parental status of artists through the decades (centuries?). I can think of dozens of examples that refute the notion that lesbian artists have traditionally been free from the constraints of child-rearing. One such example? Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” who married and had a daughter but was also a lesbian and created incredible music all while encumbered with the “constraints of child-rearing.” Another example? Jackie “Moms” Mabley, lesbian stand-up comedian of the Harlem Renaissance and mother of six (including two given up for adoption when she was a teenager), and yes, I include her in part because her nickname was “Moms.”
I think Rosenblum is showing her cards by starting off with the word “traditionally.” She wants to talk about being edgy and on the fringes, but she also confines lesbian artists to this “traditional” role of her own devising. Traditionally, if we want to take tradition to mean for the majority of written human history, women married and had children, lived as spinsters or were consigned to lives of religious devotion. In many parts of the world, this tradition remains to the present day. Not until around the 1920’s and 30’s do we see a substantial movement of out lesbian artists who would decline marriage and child-rearing in favor of living with same-sex partners and devoting themselves to their work. But even among this group there are dozens of exceptions, women artists who came out only after having had husbands and children or who were not really out at all but had lesbian affairs.
Rosenblum’s other notion, that the periphery of the queer movement will cease to exist if there is a broader mainstream queer movement, is as silly as suggesting because oceans are wider than rivers they have no shores. Any movement will have people at its edges. And trust me when I say that being a lesbian mother does not propel one into the embrace of heterosexual parents. This is a fantasy held only by people like Rosenblum. Unless you live in one of a few tiny ghettos (North Hampton, Mass; Maplewood, NJ; Provincetown, Mass; most of Vermont) being a lesbian mom –and I speak from experience here– does not give you entree into the comfortable world heteronormativity. It basically makes you a kind of talking piece, something others in your neighborhood don’t know what to make of. Being an integrater is quite tiring as it puts pressure on families to be ideal and happy, unthreatening, unendingly wholesome. Trying to bridge the feminist politics of our days at women’s colleges with the current ideals of attachment parenting is a balancing act undertaken only by the truly brave.
Finally, the idea that becoming a lesbian mom will somehow dull Emily Saliers’s ability to write music edgy enough to please her followers is ludicrous. She has written great music even when she had only the remotest relationship to her subject. Need an example? “Cold beer and remote control” chronicles the travails of being a blue collar worker; Saliers wrote it while living in her home with its own cavernous wine cellar. BTW Shakespeare didn’t know much about being a Danish prince, either.
And should Rosenblum be truly fearful that Saliers won’t experience enough adversity, I can assure you that lesbian parents face a variety of prejudices and obstacles, particularly in the south, where Saliers lives. I don’t happen to believe that great edgy art is forged through hardship (the tortured artist idea should die the same death as the notion that poverty is a form of nobility). But even if we accept Rosenblum’s premise, lesbian parenting should be just the sort of hardship Saliers needs to deliver her best work ever.