Don’t call her Anna-Lou, or a lesbian
In week three of my Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia self-education program, I've been thinking about Annie Leibovitz. Sure, I knew who she was before reading about her in the Encyclopedia, though I did learn a few new tidbits, like that her real name is Anna-Lou (which sounds cool to me but probably is less cool if it's actually your name), and that she was hired by Rolling Stone in 1971 in part based on photographs she'd taken while living at Kibbutz Amir in Israel.
What struck me particularly in reading her entry is the absence of any mention of her long relationship with Susan Sontag, except as collaborators on the book Women. (A quick check reveals that Sontag's entry, too, omits any mention of Leibovitz.) I know Leibovitz and Sontag were very private and eschewed labels like lesbian to describe their relationship and themselves personally. And of course historians shouldn't go around outing people or slapping on labels that their subjects they wouldn't use themselves. (And, truthfully, we know nothing about their sexual lives, only about their companionship.) But neither should historians collude with their subjects in censoring their lives. Encyclopedias are not meant to be authorized biographies (though I can see that in the situation in which a subject is still living, it may be hard to print something they would not want known without running into some trouble.) Ultimately, it seems to me, the responsibility of historians is not to protect the people we write about but to help us all learn from their lives.
Here's an example of what knowing about Leibovitz and Sontag's relationship can illuminate. About a month ago, the New York Times reported that Leibovitz recently borrowed more than $15 million, using properties and the rights to all of her photos as collateral. The article, which focused on the increasing trend in this financial downturn of artists and art owners to pawn artwork, mentioned only that Leibovitz needed the money to "pay off mortgages and deal with other financial stresses." What the article didn't say is that Leibovitz needed this influx of cash to pay what some call the "gay tax" - the enormous taxes owed on inheritance from same-sex partners, a tax that is not owed on inheritance from a married spouse. Sontag left several properties to Leibovitz - properties that they presumably lived in together - requiring Leibovitz to pay up to 50% of the value of these homes. (There are other components of "gay taxes" too, relating to the federal government's non-recognition of gay marriage.)
Obviously, issues of discrimination against gay families such as the "gay tax" aren't new, nor are they, in most places, news. But perhaps a high profile case like Leibovitz's will garner some attention and push the issue forward. This is where going public about something private can make a difference. Hasn't women's history taught us, after all, that the personal is political?