Loraine Barr was born in 1918 and kept her sexuality secret for 88 years. When she revealed the truth in Newsweek magazine in 2007 – coinciding with the national furor over same sex marriage – she set the blogs ablaze. She also challenged us to ask: Is she really brave, courageous and bold – as admirers have told her in countless letters since the story appeared? Or is she a coward – as others have written – only coming out of the closet when nothing was truly at risk?
She is no hero
At first we thought, like many people I expect, that hers was a life story of struggle, guts and bravery. It could not have been easy to have lived a square-peg life in a round-hole world. And when we went on the blogs to see what others thought – that was mostly the reaction. But there was also a scoffing undercurrent. Some people said she was no hero. If you do something when there is no risk – of losing a job say – then it cannot be called brave, they said.
It got us wondering: what would have caused Loraine to stay in the closet for so long? And what do other gay women really think? We were lucky enough to be able to follow Loraine down to San Diego to film the next stage of her coming out and to record her life story on video. She was joining a cruise of 1800 other lesbians to Mexico – quite a challenge for her actually. That also gave us a perfect chance to test other, younger, lesbians’ reactions to her coming out.
Legal and cultural discrimination
And as we asked more questions, we learned to our horror about the legal and cultural discrimination that lesbians like Loraine faced if they decided to make their sexuality public. Things that straight people take for granted – like having and bringing up children or working for the government – were denied gays and lesbians. Some of that discrimination has gone, some remains. Not that Loraine cared for much of that in her life story video – she never saw herself as a victim. Nor did she care to become embroiled in the debate over same sex marriage.
And in Loraine’s life story video, Father Brad of the Episcopal Church in Santa Ana tells us that there is nothing in the Gospels against homosexuality and that God made some people gay or lesbian – it is part of who they are. He says that passages in Leviticus that take a different line are the remnants of a Bronze Age hygiene list that includes other prohibitions like not eating shellfish. Many disagree, as we found out, and the debate about same sex marriage rages on.
Because of her long life and her mental acuity, Loraine is uniquely positioned to report on society’s treatment of gays across the 20th century. And like those survivors of WWII, her kind is fast disappearing. Her life story video is a rare insight into a modest yet prepossessing woman who has lived her unusual life on her own terms – and continues to do so. And, as we keep struggling with gay rights and same sex marriage, the story of this remarkable woman offers insights into just one of that debate’s many affected individuals.
Loraine is another example of an extraordinary life lived in ordinary circumstances whose humanity and importance has been preserved in a Life Story Video