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Judy Grahn: Legendary poet, activist, scholar

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Judy Grahn

Judy Grahn: Legendary poet, activist, scholar

If there’s one legend that should be regarded among the lesbian community, Judy Grahn should be one of them as a long-time activist, a highly-awarded poet, and a scholar of renown.

Grahn’s influence has been felt even around the world, with her poetry having been translated to other languages. What’s more, there’s an award named after her: the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction.

Judy Grah: A hard knock life

Judy Rae Grahn was born on 28 July 1940, in Chicago, Illinois to working-class parents: her father was a cook while her mother was a photographer’s assistant.

They moved to Las Cruces in New Mexico when she was eight years old, which Grahn described as “an economically poor and spiritually depressed late 1950s New Mexico desert town near the hellish border of West Texas.”

Both her parents found hard to get steady employment, and her mother suffered from schizophrenia. But Grahn discovered poetry when she was nine years old.

“I was a combination of a tomboy and a poet. I was always known as a poet. I began writing long poems that my girl scout troop acted out when I was ten or eleven,” she said.

Even though she had little money as a kid, she bought a book on how to write poetry: “I don’t even remember who wrote those books but I had all of them that I could get, and I went home and studied my craft even as a child.”

Moreover, she already knew that she was a lesbian at sixteen years old, eloping with another girl when she was eighteen. Grahn credits this girl, Yvonne, for introducing her to gay culture.

Judy Grahn: From soldier to poet

After, she joined the Air Force but was arrested and forced out in 1961 because she admitted that she was a lesbian.

She did jobs at night like being a sandwich maker as she tried to earn money for school to become a medical secretary. She constantly experienced homophobia for her butch attire.

“I had some traumatic things happen to me as a lesbian. For example, I was thrown out of the Air Force for being honest about my lesbianism,” she related.

“So I felt it was very important for me to be able to find a way to speak as a lesbian and then go on from there to be everybody’s poet, which is what I want to be,” she said.

At the age of 25, she suffered from Inoculation Lymphoreticulosis, or Cat Scratch Fever. This caused her to go into a coma.

When she woke up, she had a realization that led to her poetry: “I realized that if I was going to do what I had set out to do in my life, I would have to go all the way with it and take every single risk you could take.”

Judy Grahn: A life less ordinary

Because of her experience, she became radicalized and in spring of 1965, she picketed with Mattachine Society for Gay Rights in front of the White House.

Receiving a PhD from the California Institute of Integral Studies, she began writing and publishing pro-lesbian works even as she became a founding member of the West Coast New Lesbian Feminist Movement.

She also co-founded the Gay Women’s Liberation Group and the Women’s Press Collective of the San Francisco Bay area in 1969.

“I didn’t want to run a press but there wasn’t a choice. Being a poet, there was no way I could be published, so I could either stop writing and become completely an oral poet or I could start a press,” she explained.

However, their press was destroyed in 1978 and she had to take stock because she had become ill: “I had been trying to live on coffee and cigarettes and kerosene, so I just about collapsed.”

“I changed my diet, got rid of some habits and so on, and to my great relief I could concentrate on my own work,” she added.

Judy Grahn’s works and legacy

She came out with her first poetry collection, Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, in 1971. This was followed by other works combined in a larger poetry collection, The Work of a Common Woman, in 1978.

She wrote her second book in 1993, Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World, on the cultural history of the menstrual rituals and the origins of human civilization.

Another collection, love belongs to those who do the feeling, released in 2008 later won for her the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry.

A number of her awards include a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, an American Book Review Award, an American Book Award, an American Library Award, and a Founding Foremothers of Women’s Spirituality Award.

After awarding Grahn the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award in Lesbian Letters in 1997, Triangle Publishers began to issue an annual Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award.

Likewise, her work spread across the world with Argentine lesbians carrying posters– one of them her face on it– to rally in solidarity with the “Mothers of the Disappeared” whose children were killed.

Presently, Grahn is a resident of California and teaches at the California Institute for Integral Studies, the New College of California, and the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology.

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