Monday, May 11, 2009

A Cluster of Firsts

The first half of 2009 has brought a happy helping of lesbian firsts. Early in the year Johanna Sigurdardottir became the first openly lesbian head of state when she accepted the job of prime minister of Iceland. Now we have two more prominent firsts.

I could get used to this. I'm exceedingly willing to try.

On May 11, Rabbi Denise Eger was formally installed as the president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. She's the first openly gay rabbi to become the group's president. She's the first woman to become the group's president. Eger didn't just break the glass ceiling—she danced the Hora on it.

The rabbis on the board, about 300 of them, belong to different denominations: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox. Yet nary a discouraging word was heard about her orientation during the decision-making process. Of course, only about 20 Orthodox rabbis currently participate in the organization, but still, her election is no small potatoes. Make that no small potato pancakes.

Eger founded and leads the Reform-affiliated Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. It serves the GLBT community in that gayborhood, as well as interfaith families and straight folks. Now her congregants will just have to be big and share her, as she embarks on a two-year presidential term.

The Board of Rabbis of Southern California is 72 years old. By contrast, the position of UK Poet Laureate is almost 350 years old. Not once has a woman held the British post. Cue royal trumpets. Not once, until now.

Carol Ann Duffy, both a commercially and critically successful poet, has ended the long string of male Poet Laureates that began in 1668 with John Dryden and included William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Duffy is also the first openly gay laureate. Ten years ago, when her name was in the hopper for the job, she reportedly lost out to Andrew Motion because of concern over how her orientation would be received. "I think we've all grown up a lot over the past 10 years," Duffy said. "It's fantastic that I am an openly gay writer."

It certainly is fantastic. I raise a pint of lukewarm British brew to her.

The annual salary for the gig is about $8,500, which Duffy said she plans to give to the Poetry Society to fund a prize for the best collection published each year. She also stands to receive a "butt of sack." Whatever you're guessing that is, you're wrong. It's about 600 bottles of sherry. Really.

"Andrew (Motion) hasn't had his yet so I've asked for mine up front," said Duffy. Very sensible.

Duffy said once that she is "not a lesbian poet, whatever that is." She added, "If I am a lesbian icon and a role model, that's great, but if it is a word that is used to reduce me, then you have to ask why someone would want to reduce me?"

The Bisexual Index, which describes itself as "a UK activism group fighting bisexual invisibility," used the above quote in a press release to prove that Duffy is bisexual, not lesbian. That seems to me to be a convenient misunderstanding of her words, but there's no doubt Duffy has dallied with both men and women.

However she thinks of herself, she's definitely a member of the GLBT community, and by virtue of her new exalted position, a trailblazer. The way things are going she'll have more company in 2009, as other openly Sapphic gals around the world break through in politics, religion, the arts, and other areas. I'd say you can bet a butt of sack or a sack of butt on it.