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Jewesses with Attitude

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?

3 Comments

Great piece, Judith. Such a strange line between not outing or defining people on the one hand, and feeling frustrated when folks choose not to use the power they have (and which is only granted by the public -- another wrinkle in this) in the interest of education and progress.

Great post. I wonder how much of the silencing comes from the family and how much from the writers of the articles. If it's the writers, then what would be wrong with just stating that Leibovitz had an inheritance from Sontag and, not being her spouse, has to pay taxes on it? It's the same as a bequest from a friend. Is *any* mention of the connection between these two women taboo? It just makes it all the more salacious, in a way, because they know that the informed reader is reading the silence as well. If it's the family themselves who are initiating the erasure of Sontag and Leibovitz from each other's public biographies ... I respect their choice of (non)labels. But I do find fault when a close relationship is not just private, but so unmentionable that they seem ashamed of it. I don't ask Leibovitz to lead the pride parade, but I do think that as a feminist, she should not publicly erase another woman who was important to her.

nice post. although there relationship is pretty out in the open and confirmed now. i'm obsessed with susan sontag, and have read pretty much everything that exists about their relationship on the internet, and the different perspectives are interesting. some people are very critical-- i'm not quite as critical, because i think it's totally valid to just live your life and not have to make pronouncements bc you are famous. i mean they were clearly out to their actual acquaintances, but we hold famous people to a different standard in our society. and there's something romantic about her (sontag) fitting into the mold of the brilliant intellectual who takes various lovers and it's not a big deal. but yeah, her sexual orientation is pretty obvious if you read Reborn, the first volume of her published diaries.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Don’t call her Anna-Lou, or a lesbian." 19 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/leibovitz>.

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