Guest Speaker Joan Wyzenbeek,  “From Shame to Celebration”, 11-28-10

© Joan Wyzenbeek, the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


August, 1948    Newark Advocate

Newark, Ohio

Miss Joan Dixon has been sentenced to 1 year in Marysville Reformatory for carrying on relations with those of her own sex, one of which was Mrs. Maxine Northey.

I was born Joan Dixon in Newark, Ohio in 1930. There were many issues in my early life that brought me shame . . . My alcoholic father, poverty, our run-down house with the peeling paint. But the most devastating shameful event happened when I was 18.

At age 16, I had befriended a woman named Maxine. One day we were sitting on her bed and she leaned over and kissed me.  I didn’t know the words Lesbian or homosexual. All I knew was that it felt good and I was in love. I put a picture of Maxine on our family’s piano and I called her my sweetheart. By that summer in 1948 I was spending most of my time at Maxine’s.

I had a lecherous uncle, Henry, who also was attracted to Maxine, and he found that I was too much competition. He convinced my Mother that I was in great moral danger and that she needed to do something. Luckily my family was not in a financial position to have me committed to an institution – many gays and lesbians of that era were subjected to shock treatments. However, she did go to the local police and swear out a warrant for my arrest.

I knew there was something afoot, so I was trying to stay out of sight by walking in back alleys, but one day a police cruiser stopped and picked me up. I was taken to the county jail and there was a hearing before a judge. The charge was deliberate disobedience, and my sentence was to be served at Marysville Reformatory for women. When the police drove me to Marysville, though, we were turned away because I was 18 and deliberate disobedience was not an adult crime.

They decided to take me to the Delaware Juvenile Detention Center, but I was rejected there because I was no longer considered a juvenile. The local authorities didn’t know what to do with me – so they held me for 30 days. When the time was up, and I walked out the door, a policer officer asked me if I needed a ride somewhere and I said “Yes, back to Maxine’s.”

Maxine and I packed up our belongings and moved to Cleveland, hoping to find a more tolerant environment. I was young, and I soon realized that Maxine was an alcoholic like my father. The dysfunction in our relationship became so painful that one night I was walking the streets of Cleveland with a butcher knife, thinking I would end my life.

The shame and secrecy of my life was a constant as I embarked on a series of monogamous relationships with women. Each partnership was a little more functional, but throughout the 40’s and 50’s society was telling us to be ashamed. Gay bars were raided – the paddy wagon would pull up in front and load the customers in. I was always able to hide and avoid arrest. Of course, all of the churches were telling us that we were sinners. One night I went to a lecture by a prominent psychologist who stated “Homosexuality is a symptom of a deep-seated neurosis, much like alcoholism, pedophilia, and so on.”

So – I was a criminal, a sinner, AND mentally ill. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Before Stonewall, you might remember the trend I became a part of. I was living in Washington DC in the early 1960′ s, and my partner and I both decided to go to a psychiatrist and get “cured.”  The cure took hold to the extent that I married a good man and had two beautiful children. For once in my life, I felt like a respectable member of society. I enjoyed making references to “my husband,” even using it when I got stopped for speeding. “Oh, my HUSBAND is going to be so upset with me.” But guess what – the “cure” didn’t last. After 8 years of marriage, we went our separate ways.

In the 1970’s I got involved in the human potential movement and found that I was having some peak experiences that I could not explain. A friend of mine who was a Methodist minister suggested that I go to seminary. So I enrolled in United Theological Seminary in Dayton and completed a Master of Divinity program. I was planning to be ordained in the Methodist Church, and had started the process, but the church came out with a proclamation: ordained ministers must adhere to “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” By then I was already in love with Pat Ritz and I knew that the Methodist ministry would not fit with the life we envisioned together.

I considered becoming a minister in the Unitarian Church, and even served as a student pastor at St. John’s in Clifton. But their humanist approach was not in keeping with the spirituality I wanted to explore and express. For awhile Pat and I joined a coven and celebrated the Earth holidays. One of the members of that group was Norah Fluent, wife of the pastor of Salem United Church of Christ. She introduced me to Alan Fluent and I found my denomination home –  the UCC! I was ordained just one block away from here, at Salem. It was a wonderful day, with friends and family in attendance. My son read a poem by Joan Baez, my daughter sang Day by Day and Pat was an acolyte – a role she never could achieve in the Catholic faith she grew up in. I served as community pastor at Salem, and also worked at the Free Store/Foodbank and Sign of the Cross, a housing ministry in Over the Rhine. So with The Gathering I am coming full circle!

The United Church of Christ has been in the forefront of seeking equality for the GBLT community, with many churches choosing the Open and Affirming designation. The national denomination has passed a resolution supporting gay marriage.

It’s inspiring that some members here are connected with PFLAG. One of my fondest memories is the gay and Lesbian march on Washington, DC in 2000. Pat and I were watching the groups march by when we saw a PFLAG contingent with signs like “I love my gay son, “ and “We’re proud of our Lesbian daughter.” We were dissolved in tears, and several women broke ranks and came out to give us big hugs. I’ll never forget it.

In my 80 years of life, I’ve lived in many different places. Some think Pat and I are crazy for leaving Florida, where we lived for 18 years. We spent several years in Lexington and never found a spiritual home there. Now Cincinnati is home because of The Gathering.

I knew we had reason to celebrate when we were chatting with Ginny Patterson one day and Pat expressed her appreciation for how much the congregation supports “our lifestayle.” Ginny gave her a quizical look and said “What do you mean – your lifestyle? It’s WHO YOU ARE!!”

It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to share the shameful story of my month behind bars. That experience, though, is probably the reason I have so much compassion for animals, and especially the ones that are penned and caged. They are innocent, as I was, and they have done nothing to deserve cruel treatment.

I am also a very strong advocate of justice, and there is one current issue that affects me deeply. You can say that we have come a long way, but until we have marriage equality, we have not won our rights. I’m afraid that the right to marriage for same sex couples will come too late for Pat and me. Even if the federal government approves gay marriage, we will most likely miss out on the biggest benefit – the one that comes when one partner dies. We get along fine on our combined social security income, but I worry a lot about what will happen to the one who is left when the other one dies – and most likely it will be Pat who is left. People who are legally married for at least 10 years are able to continue to get their own monthly social security, plus half of the deceased spouse’s amount.

I hope that young GLBT folks who are fighting for same sex marriage will keep us elders in mind, and try to factor in our many years of shared life. In our case it is 35 years and counting.

Yes, there is much to celebrate and much work to be done. With the help and support of all of you, I am becoming brave in telling my secrets, claiming my identity, acknowledging my life partner, and confronting injustice. Thank you so much for being here. I love you.

And now, as is our tradition, I welcome your comments.