Saturday, September 25, 2010

Putting Dykes in Their Place: 70's Lesbians

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The Seventies were the "Me" decade of disco, bell bottoms, and platform shoes. They were also the decade of agitation for social change. Antiwar protestors demanded U.S. troops leave Vietnam. Feminists fought for Roe vs. Wade. The energy crisis converted oil addicts into environmentalists. The Black Panthers stalked across America's urban centers.

Queers, too, were still getting their riot on in a post-Stonewall explosion of art, politics, and sex. Warhol came out. Gay rights ordinances were being passed, then repealed. Harvey Milk managed to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Amendment in California. Fags were screwing their brains out in bathhouses, while dykes did what? Run off to womyn's land and sit around campfires in flannel shirts?

The reality is a lot more complex and interesting, and the point of the upcoming conference, "In Amerika They Call Us Dykes, Lesbian Lives in the 1970's." It features readings, films, and a wide-ranging set of panels including the inevitable "Women's Communities and Women's Land" "Lesbians at Play: Bars, Softball Fields, and other Lesbian Places", and "Women's Music and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival." They also have "Black Lesbian Herstory in the 70s", "Strange Bedfellows: Lesbian Feminism and Sadomasochism," and "Building Lesbian Institutions."

Sarah Chinn, director of CLAGS, conference organizer, said the Seventies was chosen because it was a time of revolutionary change, in which a generation of women "could have an identity that wasn't available to them before: openly lesbian women," and that freedom and uncertainty led to an explosion of cultural and political activity that spawned current institutions, and much of today's LGBT politics and theory.

Case in point is conference volunteer, Urvashi Vaid, who was 18 years old in 1976 and thrilled to tell me that the program was loaded with big names like Alix Dobkin, Charlotte Bunch, Blanche Cook, and Cheryl Clarke, "lesbians that were active when I was a baby dyke and coming up."

The writer and political activist credits her political formation to the major voices of the time like Audre Lorde, even meeting Barbara Smith and the members of the Combahee River Collective that had radical and influential ideas about identity and the "simultaneity of oppressions."

Vaid was also schooled in feminist bookstores and women's spaces. "It was really different coming out in those days. Without institutions, without the internet, you felt like you were the only one. It was why feminist culture and lesbian music was so important, why Alix Dobkin was so important, why the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival was so important. It gave us a chance to get together and see each other. It wasn't always about the music. Personally, I was listening to punk and rock. My favorite musician at the time was Patti Smith. But I'd go to a Holly Near concert for the community."

Controversial these days for periodic outbreaks of transphobia, Michigan was also the site of a massive outrage in 1972 when uberseparatists, The Van Dykes actually put on the first S & M "workshop". The Van Dykes were also responsible for a tee shirt that made the rounds of the feel-good women's music festivals that had a drawing of Patty Hearst holding a machine gun and "Killer Dyke" printed above.

Such are the contradictions of dyke culture in the Seventies. Some formed collectives. Others critiqued collectives as a form of tyranny. Some dykes fought pornography, while others were embracing sexual experimentation and nonmonogamy. Pat Califia, now a transman, was writing wildly popular pornography, while others burnt it. Many remained rooted in feminism and the abortion fight. But after repeated bashing at the hands of feminists like Betty Friedan, many members of the "Lavender Menace" went permanently AWOL.

A dyke could go from one extreme to another, trying on ideas like clothes, wearing them awhile, then tossing them aside, maybe with her last girlfriend. A burgeoning alternative media helped make it possible. Instead of starting blogs, everybody with access to a copy machine or a couple hundred bucks began their own magazine. Salsa Soul Sisters started Azalea: A Magazine for Third World Lesbians. There was also Heresies, Sinister Wisdom, which still exists today, The Furies, and Trivia, recently resurrected as an online publication.

Olivia Records, a women's music label begun by lesbian feminists, emerged from the women's music scene and soon became one of the targets of Anita Bryant's anti-homo crusade. They responded to the orange juice spokeswoman with the classic 1977 LP, "Lesbian Concentrate," that included Meg Christian's "Ode To A Gym Teacher" and Sue Fink's "Leaping Lesbians".

Lesbians started to claim physical spaces, creating utopias in rural areas, as well as in bars, coffee houses, sport leagues, bookstores, and theaters like Medusa's Revenge. Lesbians also began establishing more formal institutions. In 1975, the Lesbian Herstory Archive took root in Joan Nestle's apartment. In 1977, legal scholar Donna Hitchens started the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Lesbians participated in Lambda Legal almost from its start in 1973. Jean O'Leary, after a rocky road with mixed groups, was asked to co-direct the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The conference covers almost all of that. But as Sarah Chinn acknowledged, "There will always be gaps." I noticed some in the fine arts. MIA (mostly) is the work begun by filmmakers like Barbara Hammer, performance artists like Muriel Miguel, Lois Weaver (Spiderwoman Theater), Peggy Shaw, Julia Dares (Hot Peaches), writer and performer Lola Pashalinski (Ridiculous Theatrical Company), and New Journalist Jill Johnston, who died earlier this week.

A writer for the Village Voice, Johnston created the scandal of the decade at a 1971 debate on feminism by reading a feminist-lesbian manifesto announcing that "all women are lesbians except those that don't know it yet," then bringing friends to the stage, making out, and rolling all over the floor. Norman Mailer, the moderator, demanded the women stop. "Come on, Jill, be a lady."

She just laughed, lifted up a girl and kissed her hard. It was the Seventies.

In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 70s, October 8-10, Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, City University of New York, pre-registration suggested.

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