Sunday, September 2, 2012

True Voice of Witness: Louise Brooks


Today the world lost a remarkable woman named Louise Brooks. I knew her through The Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy organization IntegrityUSA, for which Louise was the communications director over the last several years.  She brought to that role a long career as a documentary film-maker, journalist, activist and media-consultant.  Together with her wife, Integrity’s most recent president emerita the Reverend Canon Susan Russell, Louise brought impressive media sophistication to the organization’s communications.

I first met Louise in the summer of 2007 when I joined a number of LGBT and allied Episcopalians at a New York City roundtable as part of the Anglican Communion Listening Process on sexuality.  As I pulled up a chair to this proverbial table, Louise was among a cadre of formidable folks who welcomed me warmly.  I saw Louise the following summer at the “Fringe Festival” of the Lambeth Conference (the decennial gathering of bishops from around the Anglican Communion), and then a year later at the 2009 General Convention of The Episcopal Church.  It was there that we began talking more, and that the seeds were sown for what turned out to be – as far as I know – her last film project: Voices of Witness Out of the Box.

For the first time in 2009, Integrity and TransEpiscopal had brought several volunteers to the Convention to do advocacy and education on trans equality.  As part of that effort, Dante Tavolaro (Deputy from the Diocese of Rhode Island in both 2009 and 2012) and I led a “Trans 101” for the combined Integrity/TransEpiscopal team (you can catch bits of it in the video posted below).  About thirty or so people, including Louise, gathered in Integrity’s meeting room as Dante sketched out a simple grid or set of rules that went like this: in the West or Global North we’re assigned a sex at birth, either male or female; males are expected to grow up to be men, to “act like men”, and to date women. Those born female are expected to become women, to “act like women”, and to date men.  There are many ways to violate these rules.  To not act “like a man” or “like a woman” in your given context, to date people of your same sex, or to transition are just a few.  Gender theorists call this set of rules “heteronormativity.”  Christian theologians call it “complementarity.” Louise called it “the box.”  

As she put it in this May 15th preview, Louise left the 2009 General Convention committed to bringing this conversation, trans voices, and “the box” idea itself to the wider church.


About six months after GenCon 2009, Louise called me up to explore the idea for the documentary.  Could Integrity and TransEpiscopal work together on a film that showed not only how transgender people are “out of the box” but also — at least implicitly – how many other, nontrans people are out of it as well?   This film could convey both difference and connection—that trans people have different challenges than nontrans people do and at the same time that what can make life difficult for us also impacts everyone else.  We all live with the pervasive influence of that box which, crucially, intersects and assembles anew in conjunction with race, class, ability, and national origin.  We are connected in our struggle, even as we struggle in distinct ways.

As Louise ultimately described the project, "Gender identity and gender expression are issues that can easily be misunderstood and cannot be wrapped up in a neat little box.  So the goal of Out of the Box was to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.”  The simplicity of “the box” pointed to, opened – but did not seek to plumb – the complexity underlying it.

We talked and emailed about the film at several points between 2010 and last winter.  When I learned that Louise was ill, I suspected the film would need to go on hold, perhaps indefinitely.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Out of the Box roared to life.  In early February I flew out to Los Angeles for a day of filming.  Louise seemed totally in her element.  She was fatigued but connected and absolutely focused.  In between the interviews we talked about the upcoming General Convention and about Macky Allston’s powerful film Love Free Or Die that had just been released.  I was honored and grateful to be part of this work, curious and excited about its potential impact.

What I hadn’t realized was just how steeped in transformation this film was from the start.  Shortly after its release on May 31st, I saw a HufPo blog post by Louise’s wife (and major Out of the Box supporter) Susan Russell.  Susan explained, “what we found in Anaheim in 2009 was that the presence of members of TransEpiscopal testifying in committee hearings, participating in round-table discussions, speaking their truth, and sharing their lives created a profoundly teachable moment that quite literally changed lives.”  But what really struck me was the next sentence: “And one of those was my wife.” “Now,” Susan continued, “I have a hard-and-fast rule to never blog about my wife, but this blog is going to be the exception that proves the rule. A long-time activist, journalist, documentarian, and media consultant, Louise was convinced that gay, lesbian, and bisexual equality was a hard enough row to hoe without adding the ‘T’ into the mix. ‘Let's fight one battle at a time’ pretty much summed up her position -- that is, until the 2009 General Convention and the powerful witness of the transgender folk who so courageously shared their stories, their experience, their journeys, and their reality with her. She left Anaheim committed to finding a way to get their voices out beyond the relatively small audience of an Episcopal General Convention team -- and the idea for the documentary film project Voices of Witness: Out of the Box was born.”



I read that and was speechless.  It’s one thing to talk about transformation – I hear the word all the time, and I preach it, too – but seeing it, hearing an authentic story of it, experiencing it just takes my breath away.  I had not understood what a profound impact we had had on Louise.

But in retrospect, as I contemplated Susan’s words, it made sense.  Or at least, it explained more fully the deep sense of connection, the passion with which Louise pursued this project.  It very clearly mattered to her at a deep level.  When she said she was making the film as a gift to the church, you could tell she really meant it.  And it truly was. 

I was concerned to learn that Louise was too ill to attend General Convention this past July, but I was far from surprised that she was present all the same.  She was on the phone with the communications team every day.  She was making things happen.  We were all pulling for her, and she was most certainly pulling for us. 

You hear a lot of people described as “fighter.”  “He/she was a fighter.”  I am not someone who knew Louise from Adam, but it seems clear to me that she was indeed a fighter.  She fought for me and so many others.  But there was a heck of a lot more to Louise than that, and I don’t know even a quarter of it.  What I do know, though, is that Louise was a woman of profound compassion, open to being transformed, and passionate about opening that process to others. 

I will always be grateful for her support and solidarity, and my heart is with Susan Russell, with All Saints Pasadena, and IntegrityUSA in this time of loss.  May light perpetual shine on Louise.

CP
Susan Russell and Louise Brooks

2 comments:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Even though I knew death is inevitable when fighting Stage 4 Cancer, this came as a deep shock and an unfathomable loss. I feel devastated and deeply grieved. Your tribute to Louise lifted my spirits in a way I hadn't expected and I thank you for that. She did not live in vain. Oh, that we could come to the end of our lives - expected or unexpected - and be able to say the same thing.

Thank you, Cameron.

Cameron Partridge said...

Thank you, Elizabeth-- I appreciated your post and I can only begin to imagine the impact of this loss for those of you who knew and worked with Louise for many years. I don't see how any amount of intellectual knowledge of what stage four cancer does can prepare one for such a loss-- it simply is unfathomable, as you say. Peace to you, and thank you for your spirited perseverance through all 'the changes abd chances of this life.'

Cameron