MOVEABLE TYPE: Misadventures of a Lesbian Grandma and Administrator

The Purple Golf Cart: The Misadventures of a Lesbian Grandma


As a teen growing up Jewish in Florida, Ronni Sanlo was drawn to books about strong women: Margaret Meade, Amelia Earhart, Babe Didrikson. She knew she was different but couldn’t put a name to it.

Ever the original, she even created her own last name of Sanlo, a combination of her parents’ first names, Sanford and Lois Lebman.

After years of searching, she finally found the word homosexual in print, in the 1962 yearbook of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Homosexual: a man who has sex with another man. See Lesbian.” She looked up the cross reference. There it was: “Lesbian: a woman from the Greek Isle of Lesbos.”

Her next encounter with the word lesbian was 17 years later. Married with two children and trying to work up the courage for a divorce, she was visiting family in Los Angeles. Walking with the children along Westwood Boulevard, she saw lesbian in the window of the Sisterhood Bookstore. She went inside and asked for the children’s section.

The Purple Golf Cart: The Misadventures of a Lesbian Grandma is Sanlo’s memoir of self-discovery and growth into leadership on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on campus. The title, cover picture and readable style promise a lighthearted romp but her story is filled with heartbreak, anger and courage.

Bookstore staff gave her the phone number for the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Orlando, where she lived. Through NOW she met other lesbians including some with children. She was no longer alone.

She got up her courage to tell her sisters and brother, pushing past her self-talk, “If they know the truth, they’ll lock me up and throw away the key.” They were warm and affirming, as were her parents.

Loss and more loss

Sanlo and her husband separated when the children were six and three. They worked out joint custody arrangements. In August 1979 they went to court to finalize the divorce. To her shock, the judge (a friend of her mother-inlaw) awarded her husband full custody. She could visit two days every two weeks.

If she fought the ruling she would lose even that, he said, due to her having no rights under Florida law: “Young lady, I’m sure you know the law regarding hom-a-sek-sha-al-a-teh.”

For years she had hid her truth for fear of losing the people she loved. The fear proved justified; in telling the truth she lost custody of her children. Her anger propelled her into local LGBT activism.

A few weeks later she lost her department store job for being a lesbian. Other jobs didn’t last much longer; she was finding that at least in Florida, being employed was incompatible with being out as a lesbian.

So was having a roof over one’s head. After breaking off a relationship with a cocaine-using sex worker, she found herself homeless in Orlando. Later she slept under a bridge in Key West and mentally upgraded herself to bohemian.

Her fortunes began to turn with private-sector jobs at an employment agency and then an insurance company, counseling people with workplace injuries. In 1985 she fulfilled a longtime dream by moving onto a houseboat, named Curious Wine from a poem by Emily Dickinson.

But that year also brought perhaps the deepest heartbreak of all. Her children’s maternal grandmother convinced them, then ages 12 and 9, that all gay people have AIDS and anyone who touches them will die. They then broke off all contact with Sanlo for the rest of their childhood.

Fired as “insubordinate” after turning down a pass from her female, married boss, Sanlo fell into deep depression. One day she sat at the end of a dock with a cement block tied to her feet, ready to end it all. Two friends spotted her in time, pulled her back and held her together until she decided to live.

Higher education leadership

The same state government that had taken away her children hired her for an AIDS surveillance job in Jacksonville that nobody else dared to apply for. As a government worker with a bachelor’s degree in music, she got a tuition waiver for graduate studies at the University of North Florida (UNF).

When Sanlo completed her EdD in 1996, UNF told her that her dissertation title—“Unheard Voices: The Effects of Silence on Lesbian and Gay Educators in Northeast Florida”—would not be printed in the commencement program. She gave them two choices: print it or be sued. They printed it.

By that time she was established at the University of Michigan as director of the Gay and Lesbian Programs Office. In 1995 she introduced the Lavender Graduation so that LGBT students at Michigan, unlike her classmates at UNF, could leave college celebrating their whole selves instead of cowering in shame.

In 1997 UCLA recruited her to direct its LGBT center, with the added lure of a lectureship. For years she taught a residence hall honors seminar titled “LGBT Is Not a Sandwich: Straight Talk on Gay Issues in America.”

Both her children sought her out in their 20s, her daughter during a pregnancy and her son a few years before he came out as gay. In a 12-step program for codependency she related her fear of intimacy to the idea that anyone who knew the truth would leave her.

Her purple golf cart was her 60th birthday gift to herself. Sanlo retired from UCLA as full professor and NASPA recognized her as a “pillar of the profession.” And her alma mater, UNF, brought her back to keynote its first lavender graduation in 2008.

While Sanlo’s story is personal and distinctive, it’s important reading to learn about ourselves, our students and colleagues, about what hasn’t yet changed enough.

It’s not such a lighthearted romp after all, but that promise wasn’t entirely misleading. She acknowledges her pain, anger and depression in a matter-of-fact way that draws the reader in rather than pushing us away.

Sanlo ends by encouraging us all to tell our stories. The truth may piss you off, but it will also set you free.

Be sure to tell Roni you read about the book here. Visit her site at

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. MOVEABLE TYPE: Misadventures of a Lesbian Grandma and Administrator. Women in Higher Education, 21(5), 20.

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