In 1976, Claudia Stallman wrote a letter to Ms. detailing her revelation about being a lesbian. 40 years later, Stallman, now the project director for the Lesbian and Gay Family Building Project at Binghamton University, once more held her letter in her hands—and read it out loud.
“I am a 16-year-old high school senior engaged in what I will call an important self-discovery period,” Stallman wrote to Ms. “Right now, it seems more than likely that I will lead the life of a lesbian. I am sure that I have not come to grips with the socially-imposed hardship which will be involved in existing in such a lifestyle—if indeed I should end up doing so. At this point, I have a somewhat idealistic attitude towards my warmth for women and towards the prospect of a gay life for myself. However, in light of the volatile nature of the whole subject of homosexuality, I am forced to swallow some of my idealism and to submit to some of society’s oppression in order to protect myself.”
Stallman’s is one of many letters to Ms. in its first decade in print—and stories within them—that serve as the basis for Irene Lusztig’s film Yours in Sisterhood, but she is only one of a handful of original letter writers who appear in the film reading their own words from decades before. Francesca Enzler, fundraising coordinator for Yours in Sisterhood, talked to Stallman about her letter—and how much has changed in the years since she first came out to Ms.
I was thinking we could start off the interview with some general information about who you are.
I am wife of Christine. Daughter of Danny and Ada. “Ima”—Hebrew for mom—of son Ben, age 21, and daughter Noemi, 12. I live in upstate New York and work as project director for the Lesbian and Gay Family Building Project/Pride and Joy Families, a small non-profit housed at Binghamton University and funded by the New York state Department of Health. Since 2000, we have been providing programs and services to LGBTQ families in upstate New York.
I love my work and I love my family.
How did you hear about Yours in Sisterhood? How did you get involved?
Irene emailed me, introduced herself and informed me that in her research she had discovered two letters I had written to Ms. magazine back in 1976. It was a bolt out of the blue for me. She asked if I was willing to be included in the project. And of course I said “yes!”
Oh yes, your letter is one of a few where Irene got in touch with their original writer! What was it like to read your 16-year-old words 40 years later?
Seeing my letter—and my 16-year-old handwriting!—was very moving for me. Touching and emotional. A glimpse into that time in my life when I was figuring out that I was a lesbian. Essential information that explained so much about me.
Reading the letter transported me back to my desk in my bedroom in Queens. I remembered the favorite pen I used. I remembered that my bedspread was yellow. I remembered that it was scary and wonderful.
I love that you have such a vivid memory of the space, both physical and emotional, where you wrote the letter! Why did you choose to send this letter to Ms.? What meaning did or does it hold for you?
I was learning very important information about myself. At the same time I knew it could be dangerous. I had to be very careful about who I revealed it to. Only a couple close friends. Not my parents for sure. (I did not come out to my mother for another year plus.)
Hiding was hard. Maybe I figured that the folks—women! feminists!—who read my letter at Ms. would find it, and me, acceptable. Grown-ups who would read and listen and hear me. I knew for sure that Ms. was a safe audience and would respect my wanting my name withheld from publication.
So Ms. felt like a safe space for you to express yourself?
Yes. Absolutely. A safe space—women, gay and straight, I imagined, making room in the world for girls and young women like me.
In your letter you express both warmth and idealism for your prospective life and also a feeling of needing to hide, not being able to reveal yourself. Now that you’ve lived many years of that prospective life, how were things different from what you expected then? Was anything the same?
When I came out as a lesbian at the age of 16, I knew these things for sure: that I could never tell my parents or be found acceptable to them, that I would never be in a long term relationship—and definitely not married—and that I would certainly never become a parent myself. I was wrong on all counts, happily. I have my community and our allies to thank for that.
Looking ahead another 40 years, do you have a sense of what may change for you? For our society? (Or what you hope will change?)
The future is definitely feminist!
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Francesca Enzler is a filmmaker, writer and seamstress splitting her time between California and Vermont. Her work lives online at memorycarefilms.com. She is currently the fundraising coordinator for Yours in Sisterhood, learning Japanese and preparing to grow a garden.