Joan E. Biren ’66 to receive honorary degree

By Keely Savoie

Joan Biren, who has devoted her life to documenting lesbian lives and the LGBT community's struggle for justice, will receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts at Mount Holyoke College’s 180th Commencement on May 21. The honor is in recognition of her groundbreaking work and continued devotion to reflecting her community.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1966 with a degree in political science, Biren earned her master’s degree in communications at American University and pursued doctoral studies at the University of Oxford.

When she returned to the United States, she taught herself photography skills that laid the foundation for her future career. As a lesbian, she found a dearth of her own identity reflected in the media.

“I couldn’t picture a life as a lesbian because there were not lesbians living out lives for me to see,” she has said.

Her books “Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians: Photographs by JEB” (1979) and “Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front” (1987) brought unprecedented visibility to lesbian lives.

In the early 1990s, Biren moved on to filmmaking. She produced and wrote “A Simple Matter of Justice,” which documented the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. It was awarded best video at Reel Affirmations, the international LGBTQ film festival in Washington, D.C. 

Retrospectives of Biren’s work have been mounted at George Washington University and at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and have toured nationally. Many of her photographs are in the collection of the Library of Congress. Her films have been seen on SundanceTV and numerous public broadcasting stations.

Besides Biren, this year’s honorary degree recipients are Commencement keynote speaker and renowned labor activist Dolores Huerta and tech entrepreneur and diversity advocate Kathryn Finney.

Previous Mount Holyoke honorary degree recipients include poet Maya Angelou, actress Glenn Close, activist Rosa Parks, reformer Frances Perkins from the class of 1902, and President William McKinley. Mount Holyoke's tradition of awarding honorary degrees to extraordinary individuals dates back to 1894.