In Memoriam: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Poet, Activist, and Lesbian Mother

In Memoriam: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Poet, Activist, and Lesbian Mother

Minnie Bruce Pratt, an acclaimed poet, essayist, and activist who wrote, among other things, about losing custody of her children when she came out as a lesbian, died on July 4 of an aggressive brain tumor at age 76.

Minnie Bruce Pratt. Photo: Rachel Fus, 2008
Minnie Bruce Pratt. Photo: Rachel Fus, 2008

Early Life, Coming Out, and Losing Custody

Pratt was born in 1946 in Selma, Alabama, and graduated from Bibb County High School when it was under segregation, says her website. She received her B.A. at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When Pratt came out as a lesbian in 1975, while living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, she had been married to a man for almost 10 years and had two sons, ages 6 and 7, she wrote in her 1995 memoir S/HE. In a 2011 piece for the Poetry Foundation, she elaborated:

My husband used the anti-sodomy laws in North Carolina in 1975 to take my children away, arguing that as a lesbian, I was engaging in illegal, felonious behavior. My “unorthodox” belief in the equality of women within heterosexual marriage—seen as an attack on the “role of the father in the family”—was the final proof I was an “unfit mother.”

Her husband was given custody. She did not even appear in court during the judgment, “since my lawyer feared that ‘calling the attention of the court’ to my lesbian identity would mean that I would never see my children again,” she explained in her widely-read essay, “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” from Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (1984), co-authored with Barbara Smith and Elly Bulkin. She reflected, “I had learned that I could be either a lesbian or a mother of my children, either in the wilderness or on holy ground, but not both.”

She managed to keep visitation rights to sons Ben and Ransom—but her husband then moved them hundreds of miles away to Kentucky. Her essay notes that she could have “stolen them and run away,” but “I could not justify taking them from all their kin, or their father, in this way.”

The loss fueled her activism, however. She wrote, “I became determined to break the powers of the world: they would change, the powers that tried to keep me from touching my children because I touched another woman in love.” Over the succeeding years, she became deeply involved as an activist and organizer at the intersection of women’s and gender issues, LGBTQ issues, anti-racist work, and anti-imperialist initiatives, and her writing reflects these themes.

Minnie Bruce Pratt. Photo: Leslie Feinberg, 2009
Minnie Bruce Pratt. Photo: Leslie Feinberg, 2009

She “struggled to stay connected” with her sons, she wrote in a 2011 piece for the Poetry Foundation. They visited her at times, though, even helping her collate her first book of poetry. She drove around the South both to see them and to do readings of her book, part of the flourishing Women in Print movement that sought to disseminate feminist and lesbian writings. (Bonus fact: She printed the volume on the presses of Lollipop Power, a feminist children’s book publisher that also published the first LGBTQ-inclusive picture book, Jane Severance’s When Megan Went Away.)

Yet their separation still cut deep. “I paid for my freedom with my children,” she observed in one poem of her second book of poetry, Crime Against Nature (1990). That volume, about her relationship with her sons and losing custody, was dedicated to them and won the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize (now the James Laughlin Award) from the Academy of American Poets. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

In another poem of that volume, she asks readers to imagine a room of women dancing together or playing pool, presumably at a lesbian bar or club. She writes of how there are more mothers in the room than one might presume, but even the women tell themselves there are not. The impact of the era’s custody battles is clear:

Here, we hardly call our children’s names out loud.
We’ve lost them once, or fear we may. We’re careful
what we say. In the clanging silence, pain falls
on our hearts, year in and out, like water cutting
a groove in stone, seeking a channel, a way out,
pain running like water through the glittering room.

She managed to maintain relationships with her children, however, unlike so many queer parents of the era. It was her sons who posted on her website in June about her declining health, and on July 2, her death.

A Storied Career

Pratt’s books and poems have received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the American Library Association, the Poetry Society of America, Lambda Literary, and the Publishing Triangle. Along with lesbian writers Chrystos and Audre Lorde, she received the Lillian Hellman-Dashiell Hammett Award from the Fund for Free Expression to writers “who have been victimized by political persecution.” Her essay “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” has been adopted in hundreds of college classrooms as a teaching model for diversity issues. She was also a managing editor of Workers World/Mundo Obrero newspaper. Her most recent book is Magnified (2021).

She held positions as an adjunct teacher for 45 years, including at historically Black universities, and ended her teaching career as an on-contract Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Writing & Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where she also helped develop a Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Studies Program.

Pratt was predeceased by her partner and spouse of more than 22 years, Leslie Feinberg, trans activist, theoretician, and author of Stone Butch Blues, who died in 2014. She is survived by “her two sons and their partners, five grandchildren, and a chosen family of friends and loved ones,” according to her obituary at the Syracuse Post Standard.

Donations in her memory may be made to the Friends of Dorothy House in Syracuse, N.Y., per her son’s posting on her website. They also note that a public celebration of her life will take place in the near future, with details to follow.

Pratt is one of three pioneering lesbian mothers who have died this month; the others are Cheri A. Pies and Susan Love. May their memories and their work continue to sustain us.

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