Okay but, I don’t think people appreciate kissing enough. Like, you’re just sitting there with someone and transferring your energy to each other and it’s so beautiful. In that moment, it seems like all your worry just melts away. There’s no school, no work, no priorities, it’s just the two of you in the moment. Stop fighting, just kiss.
My generation of lesbian activists, who honed our identity politics
and confronted racism and classism in the spaces of women’s music events
and women’s bookstores, are approaching a cultural expiration date.
Having achieved many of the radical goals we pursued through the late 20th
century—same-sex marriage, antidiscrimination laws, openly lesbian
celebrities and politicians—we are indeed celebrating new opportunities
to be out and proud. Yet having been permitted to be “out,” many of us
are now spending the energy of our menopausal years pushing back against
encroaching disappearance; our own invisibility. Dyke identity, that specific nomenclature of the fierce woman-identified woman, has been replaced by the more inclusive queer, as a new era of thoughtful LGBT activists proclaim their disidentification with the categories woman and lesbian.
The recent, ongoing interrogation of those categories in academic
theory and cyberactivism clashes with concurrent efforts to preserve, as
historically meaningful and valuable, the past 40 years of lesbian
cultural spaces. Yet making peace with the radical separatist past is an
important historical step for those charting the progression of LGBT
visibility, rights, and power. The present impasse, in the LGBT
movement, is over how to frame lesbians’ successful construction of an
autonomous subculture that was not G, that was not T, but L.
My concern is that as we advance further into the 21st century, we are witnessing the almost flippant dismissal of recent, late 20th-century
lesbian culture, particularly the loss of physical sites such as
women’s bookstores and women’s music festivals and their material
legacies (books, journals, albums, tapes, magazine interviews with
artists). This was a specific performance culture: a movement through
which fresh ideas about woman-loving were transmitted via song, speech,
and the written word and marketed to a like-minded audience at
quasi-public but distinctively lesbian-feminist spaces. At its peak,
lesbian performance culture in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s was every bit as
unique as gay male drag, punk rock, Seattle grunge, and other genres,
particularly because it put a new face on the tradition of grassroots
American folk. However, because most women’s music recording artists
earned very little money, and not only neglected but rejected commercial
male approval and participation, their contributions are difficult to
place on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame timeline.
Despite so many gains in LGBT rights, sexism and sex discrimination
have not been vanquished, and scholarly support for examining women’s
lives and communities remains contested. The traditional academic canon,
with its focus on male achievement and leadership, embeds many
contributions by gay men through the ages, whereas lesbians have had
barely a generation and a half of scholarly scrutiny (corresponding to
how recently women were allowed to attend college at all). Although
women’s studies programs have always been charged with pushing a lesbian
agenda, or just being controlled by man-hating lesbians, this was never
true and is even less true now. In fact, as women’s studies programs
expand to attract male and trans-identifying faculty and students, many
administrators are backing away from the word women altogether, striving for inclusion by renaming departments gender studies.
Although various woman-identified, lesbian separatist platforms and events that characterized a self-proclaimed dyke subculture
throughout the 1970s–’90s still exist, they aren’t yet popular subjects
of historical inquiry. Instead, these remaining activists and
institutions have become popular subjects of criticism and contempt.
Despite a wealth of feminist scholarship on aging, elder abuse, and the
intersectionality of ageism and sexism in older women’s economic
vulnerability, far less work has been produced on the aging lesbian, who
(whether activist veteran or not) offers a wealth of generational tales
The disappearance of lesbian spaces is also one aspect of the aging
baby-boomer generation. Many, though not all, of the most creative,
visionary, and accomplished lesbian activists from the 1970s and ’80s
were born in the late 1940s and early ’50s, their politics informed by
childhoods spent crouched in Cold War air raid drills, McCarthy hearings
on new television sets, and the civil rights movement. It’s not
coincidental that the lesbian-feminist movement included intense
scrutiny of militarism and racism and turned politics into a musical
stance. Although younger women (and men) may feel that Americans born
between 1945 and 1961 have been studied enough, have indeed monopolized
cultural attention for decades, are a tiresomely overcredited American
demographic, with lesbians it’s a different story. Despite our national
fascination with the 1970s, most historians still fail to inscribe the
accomplishments of that decade’s lesbian pioneers in our national
textbooks. Right now, it’s imperative that we find better ways for the
vanishing ideas, sites, and inherited stuff of late 20th-century
lesbian culture to be valued, preserved, and known by future
generations. Later, we’ll wish we had these feisty dykes in front of us
to explain what they did—and what it meant—and how they did it with no
Who’s still willing to bat for Team L? Once an empowered statement of out and proud, it’s now an identity buried within the topical hierarchy of queer studies, gay marriage, gender
identity. The disappearance of the L may be due in part to
mainstreaming LGBTQ civil rights issues into one catch phrase, but it’s
also an intentional disruption of what the aging “flannel shirt lesbian”
stereotype signifies: a person who symbolizes folk guitar at festivals
in the woods; politically correct potlucks attended by crystal-wearing
numerologists in Birkenstocks and bi-level haircuts. These images are
all white, as well as derisive. If the L-defined woman and her
separatist cultural spaces are troubling remnants of an exclusive,
retroactive essentialism, why would anyone want to interview her now?
Lost in the stereotype is the backstory of unlearning racism workshops,
disability activism, drum circles, and poverty activism, which
characterized events of the 1980s and ’90s.
Generational change is inevitable, healthy, and necessary to
progress. What I am living through right now is a painful transitional
moment in which some of those older lesbian institutions are
still going strong, and seeking participation and funding, while a
current generation of activists are distancing themselves from such
events, or even demonstrating against them. Younger, queer activists
were vocal in opposing the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival; right-wing
religious groups once eager to shut the festival down had moved on to
bigger targets. This dynamic—a next generation of feminists attacking
earlier lesbian institutions and disparaging their participants as less
evolved—is not unique to the 21st century or the United States; it is embedded in Jill Gardiner’s powerful book From the Closet to the Screen, which
describes a 1970–71 Gay Liberation Front “zap” against London’s
Gateways Club bar. As this generational shift grinds on, how should the
most recent decades of cultural production be interpreted, understood,
and preserved? How will we use the tools of history to examine something
we know existed as an investigable community?
For veterans of a certain kind of lesbian activism, who poured time,
energy, and resources into sustaining alternative spaces when other
doors were closed to us, the triumph of civil rights is a bittersweet
victory if our tremendous efforts and contributions are to be written
out of the record. The fearless Amazon generation that built an entire
network of lesbian music festivals, albums, bookstores, bars, presses,
production companies, publications, and softball teams is teetering on
the brink of oblivion, just gray-haired enough to be brushed aside with
an impatient “good riddance” by younger activists, yet too recent a
movement to enjoy critical historical acclaim.
The mainstreaming of gay rights and gay marriage, the end of Don’t
Ask, Don’t Tell, the elevation of Ellen DeGeneres to talk show mogul and
cosmetics cover girl on billboards in every mall, and the gradual
inclusion of same-sex couples by institutions of faith was inconceivable
when I first came out as a lesbian teenager—on the eve of Ronald
Reagan’s election, in 1980. There were few youth support services, no
anti-bullying programs in schools, no LGBT studies conferences in
academia. In fact, at age 19 I attended my first lesbian concert less
than half a mile from the gates of Georgetown University, then in the
midst of its costly legal battle against its own gay students, who
simply wanted to form a campus group. Thirty years later, this same
Jesuit campus now hosts an annual Lavender Graduation, as well as
funding a well-staffed LGBT Center and paying me a handsome part-time
salary to lecture on lesbian history. Today we see far greater
representation of LGBT families and couples on prime time television and
in commercially successful films. Thankfully, across global
entertainment networks there are also more and more heterosexual artists
willing to speak out for equality (and/or to play LGBT roles). This
gradually LGBT-friendly media is redefining who “lesbian stars” are.
But while it is a victory to see lesbians gaining acceptance into the
mainstream of American culture—due to stronger civil rights
protections, informed political allies, and other successful
advocacy—recent media validation has been limited to those lesbian
couples with “successful” roles or individual women who are beautiful,
able-bodied, affluent, and white. Less often depicted is working-class
lesbian culture, which thrives in small towns and urban bars; in house
parties and social events where women still meet as they always have.
And the politically engaged lesbian activist is portrayed as dressed for
Congress. For better or for worse, the stereotype of the angry radical
lesbian marching with fist raised against the patriarchy has been
replaced by the embossed wedding invitation to Megan and Carmen’s
This shift in media representation idealizes lesbians’ participation
in the American dream: settling down with a partner, marrying a
beautiful wife, raising children, being active in the local school PTA
and church community. It’s a wholesome, nonthreatening participation in
middle-class values by women who just happen to be gay. This is
the image mainstream LGBT groups have promoted since the late 1990s:
lesbians as soccer moms, as consumers, as participants in faith, nuclear
family, and military service. Vanishing from this landscape are the
many large-scale gatherings once typifying dyke subculture, where talking points included some very tough critiques of church, state, family dynamics, and military imperialism.
We’re still here. But there we were. And we remember.
"Why is there no Straight Pride, when there's a gay one?"
Okay one, it’s not “gay” pride. It’s LGBT pride. Without Trans women, there’d be no pride. Because it’s not all about rainbows and glitter and drag queens and “pride”. It’s about standing in a world that tells you you should not exist, you are wrong, you are an abomination and saying, “you are alright”. It is about remembering the lives lost every day to hate crime, the ones ruined every day from assaults. It is about saying, "we will not be silent. We will not have our rights debated or stripped away and take it lying down. We will not go back to a past where our very existence was illegal”. It is about knowing the fight is not over, not for all of us. It is saying, “we will be with you and you will never be alone” to confused and scared kids, to ones who have nobody left because their own family, threw them out, disgusted by them, as if they were an old candy wrapper, into a garbage. It is about remembering and acknowledging that people have died for our rights, and respecting them.
It is about saying, “go ahead, throw your sticks and throw your stones.” To the ones who let hate and bitterness fuel them. It is saying, "we started riots with our hands and stones because we were tired of being treated as if we were scum beneath your shoe.”
It is not about pride. It has never just been, about “pride”. It is about putting on a smile and a brave face for a day or two, and knowing that our fight is not over yet.
So let me know, when you get anything other than just some eye rolls, maybe a few jokes and laughs for being straight. You do not need a pride.
And saying that you do, or that it’s “not fair”? It just goes to further show just why WE do.