Gay pastor from Beaufort featured in a book about Southern lesbian families

charley@beaufortgazette.comJune 16, 2012 

The Rev. Nan White, right, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, is shown June 13 with her partner, Sam Ballenger, and their dog Frazier at the church on Lady's Island.

JAY KARR/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • The book "Living In Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South," by photographer Carolyn Sherer, is part of an exhibit that was featured at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and brought in an estimated 20,000 people.

The Rev. Nan White, pastor of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Beaufort, knows what it's like to face discrimination -- not only as a woman in clergy, but also as a lesbian.

"There is this element of deep sadness of those who still live in fear in the 21st century," she said.

White is featured in the visual anthology book "Living In Limbo: Lesbian Families in the Deep South," by photographer Carolyn Sherer.

The book is part of an exhibit that was featured at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute from March 30 to June 10 and brought in an estimated 20,000 people. The project, which features almost life-sized portraits of those who appeared in the book, will hit the road in January and open in yet-to-be-determined locations across the country.

"The visitor log was overwhelmingly positive," Sherer said. "I met several guests from across the country. ... They said they were blown away by the work."

White said she hopes the exhibit will open people's eyes to the many faces of lesbians. The well-rounded exhibit includes portraits of families, couples, a U.S. Army veteran, blacks, middle-aged women and young women.

"The exhibit is the beginning of a tipping point for society in the South and society at large in terms of acceptance in being able to appreciate those human beings who are trying to live and love on the Earth," said White, who came out of the closet at age 42, after she left her church and moved to Beaufort.

White said hiding her sexuality was depressing.

"I lived very much in the closet," she said. "I was scared to death I would be found out and somebody would out me, and I'd lose my job.

"Straight people don't know how painful it is to live in the closet."

In fact, some of the women in the book face away from the camera. White said that illustrates the hurt and frustration many of those who choose to stay in the closet feel. Among their greatest fears are losing their children, losing their jobs or getting kicked out of their families, she said.

At age 16, while working as a Presbyterian church counselor, White said she decided to spend her life in the church. She completed seminary, earned two master's degrees and spent a year in residency as a pastoral counselor. For 15 years, she worked as a director of religious education, mainly in Presbyterian churches. Toward the end of this career, she decided to return to seminary so that she could be ordained as a minister. By the time she was 40, she had her own church in Kentucky. This is where she met her partner, Sam Ballenger. They lived as a couple -- but were closeted. Then she left the church and later moved to Beaufort.

"I could not live in the closet and be a minister and face a congregation in a way that was meaningful and truthful," White said. "Now I live a life of integrity and face my congregation, and they embrace me and Sam as a couple."

Being featured in the book and exhibit was important to White.

"Some growth in opening our minds and hearts has happened over the years, but we've got a long way to go before equality," she said.

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