For decades, artist Linda Stein lived in fear of revealing her sexual identity in a society where many considered this truth of her existence to be a mental illness. She found escape through art and journaling, keeping an almost daily written record of the struggle to live her truth—which, while still difficult for some, has become much less of a burden than it was in her youth.
Ms. Stein discussed her life and work with St. John’s University faculty and students during an online lecture, “Below the Eyes: Sexuality and Averting the Gaze.” Held on April 21, her talk was sponsored by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies interdisciplinary minor in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Shanté Paradigm Smalls, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Black Studies; Affiliate Faculty, Critical Race Ethnic Studies; and Cofounder, The LGBTQ+ Center, noted that Ms. Stein’s lecture was an important offering aligned with the center’s mission to serve as a resource for all members of the St. John’s community to research, organize, coordinate, and innovate LGBTQIA+ issues.
Ms. Stein came of age during the 1950s and 60s. She knew early in life that she did not conform to the gender norms of the day. “I was this little ball-playing kid who beat all the girls—and most of the boys—in the popular games of the day.” In fact, after a time, Ms. Stein recalled that she began allowing boys to beat her so they would not be embarrassed in front of their peers.
She told her audience that when a young boy had feelings for her, it meant nothing to her. In the 1950s, popular culture glamorized the femininity of Marilyn Monroe, a movie idol whom many of Ms. Stein’s peers, including her sister, aspired to emulate. It wasn’t until college that Ms. Stein was involved in her first relationship with another woman—something she hid scrupulously from friends and family.
“In 1962, this was like living on another planet,” she stressed, adding that she felt derision and shame. “There was an enormous amount of stigma associated with the word homosexual, and it was listed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association.”
Ms. Stein observed that her shame was “visceral and intense.” Around this time, she began recording her thoughts and experiences in a diary in which she also sketched faces and profiles that looked back at her, at times, she felt, in disdain and disgust. “‘No one must see this,’ I thought. ‘I must hide this from every living person.’”
Ms. Stein first came out to her sister and brother-in-law in 1987, her mother even later, and never to her father.
“I’m reminded of the pain I felt as I struggled with my sexuality,” she said, writing and drawing across 28 diaries over more than half a century.
“My art and writing reflected everything,” she stressed. “It showed that I was a budding feminist and activist with a longing to write and record my journey, to let it all hang out on the page in order to relieve my stress. It always had the effect of calming my nerves, easing my depression, and helping me feel less lonely and hopeless. It soothed my anxiety as I modified and perfected, in my mind, versions of the profile over and over.”
Over time, Ms. Stein’s art evolved into new and different forms of expression, all of which helped her better understand herself and the ever-evolving world in which she lived. “I found myself giving lots of lectures. Every time I had a solo exhibit, I would be asked to lecture, and I found it very important for me within the first three minutes of every lecture to come out to my audience and say I'm a Jew. I'm a lesbian. I'm a woman.”