On Becoming An Accidental LGBTQ Activist

August 29, 2014

Carolyn Sherer, an award-winning fine arts photographer, was born in Jasper but her military family traveled extensively, shaping her worldview of shared humanity amongst great diversity. Returning to Alabama as an adult, she earned entry level and advanced degrees in physical therapy at the University of South Alabama and UAB, respectively. She practiced physical therapy in a variety of settings for many years before joining the faculty at UAB as an assistant professor of physical therapy. After a decade as an educator, she left her physical therapy career to pursue the fine arts full time. Her work is represented by Jennifer Hunt.

I am a fine arts photographer. I have always been interested in using portraiture to explore subcultures. Working in series, I create images of many individuals within a group, compiling a mosaic that represents both diversity and shared humanity. My work is regularly included in exhibitions at art museums and is represented in major museum, corporate and private collections.

I am also a lesbian, only recently publicly acknowledging that fact.

And now I have accidentally, or at least not on purpose, become an activist for LGBTQ equality.

Not long ago, a friend pushed me to consider why I had not photographed my lesbian community. I knew it was fear. I thought my life as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” gay woman was just fine, thank you. But I knew it was also time to lean into the safety of my very long-term relationship with Jean, my relatively new wife, to create my most personal series to date, "Living in Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South."

Initially, people were afraid to be photographed, even those who were publicly out of the proverbial closet. I protected participants by offering the option of being photographed with their backs to the camera. Unlike my prior projects, I stripped away any hint of the home environment to protect anonymity, using a blank white background in the studio. 

Dr. Lawrence Pijeaux and Ahmad Ward at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) said this was the right LGBTQ project and the right time, and they booked the exhibition. Forty images of diverse lesbian families with Birmingham roots already graced the walls of the BCRI when President Obama and the NAACP first announced their support for gay marriage in 2012.

The Birmingham Museum of Art, Southern Poverty Law Center and others immediately endorsed the exhibition. My friends Ellen Dossett, Ann Atkinson, Ron Platt and Isie Hanson collaborated with me to produce the show and essays. The YWCA Central Alabama served as fiscal agent, and under the leadership of Ann Huckstep, the business community stepped up to financially support the show.

Around 17,000 visitors from across the country saw "Living in Limbo" in Birmingham. The BCRI then sponsored the travel of the exhibition as part of its mission to advocate for human and civil rights. It traveled to the West Hollywood Public Library and the African American Museum in Dallas. Currently it is scheduled for a pop-up show during Art Basel in Miami Beach 2014.

The young lesbians I met while creating "Living in Limbo" were quite different than my peers. They considered gender and sexual identity in non-binary terms, and they planned future families and careers with expectations of equality. I was inspired to develop another exhibition, "Family Matters," featuring LGBTQ youth, ages 15-24. That show was graciously described in a previous YWCA blog by Anamaria Santiago. It recently closed at the BCRI and is now on permanent exhibition at Birmingham AIDS Outreach. For more information about this exhibition, please visit www.birminghamaidsoutreach.org.

When "Living in Limbo" opened in West Hollywood, I invited Birmingham native, psychologist and LGBTQ advocate Lara Embry to speak at the opening reception. She agreed, and wanted more. The exhibition put a face on our community and she wanted to create a documentary film to tell the stories.  Michele Forman, director of media studies at UAB, immediately agreed to produce our documentary, "State and Union." It focuses on the lives of Alabama families living in a state that lacks a single law to protect their rights, during the year following the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Check out our website for more information about this film at livinginlimbo.org

I am in awe of the power of art as an agent of social change. And I’m equally impressed with the eagerness of the Birmingham community to honor its legacy and ensure equality for all of its citizens.