Remembering the Lesbians in Lesbian/Gay Liberation
By Ann Menasche
Under patriarchy, lesbians are not supposed to exist. Women – “normal” women at least – are supposed to need men to be complete, for love, for sex, for economic survival, for family, for legitimacy. In such a world, there is no place for lesbians; if a few manage to exist, they are seen as freaks or pariahs. Not surprising that we rarely appear in history or when we are named at all, we are portrayed as lonely spinsters pining after some man. (Remember the lies told about 19th century poet Emily Dickenson, who had a lifelong passionate relationship with her sister-in-law.)
In the mid-to-late 20th century, ideas of traditional womanhood began to be challenged as women as a sex gained increased independence. By the height of the Second Wave of feminism in the late 60s and 70s, lesbians had begun to emerge from the shadows and establish themselves among the leadership of the newly emerged Feminist and Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movements. And as the synergy of Lesbian/Gay Liberation and Radical Feminism freed more women to be able to pursue a lesbian life, a vibrant culture of Lesbian Feminism emerged. That culture produced socially conscious music, poetry, books, publishing houses, newspapers, feminist theatre, coffee houses, and festivals run by and for women that inspired and sustained us and helped fuel the political activism of the time. And in this environment we began to rediscover the lesbians that came before us. We no longer felt so alone.
But times have changed again and lesbians are being rendered invisible once more. Even the contributions lesbians made to the Movement for Lesbian and Gay Liberation are being forgotten. Many factors have contributed to this disappearing of lesbians from history, from our public consciousness, and often from ourselves and each other. While lesbians have won some mainstream acceptance through marriage equality, the accumulated losses have begun to be greater than the gains. Hard economic times, a conservative political climate, the growth and increased power of the Christian fundamentalist Right and a growing backlash against feminism have conspired to make lesbian existence harder once more. Independent lesbian culture has been destroyed. Even the lesbian bars that, despite their flaws, provided a place to meet and find community with other lesbians are now gone. In their place is a sense of utter isolation and despair among many lesbians. And there is often no place to turn for support except perhaps online forums.
Moreover, though the illusion that we’ve already won our rights is widespread, the reality is quite different. Lesbians in the United States can still lose their jobs, be disowned by their parents, lose custody of their children, and be raped or murdered for loving other women. Anti-lesbian prejudice is everywhere.
One of the most destructive influences on lesbians, which is erasing us from history and undermining the possibility of lesbian existence in the present, is gender identity ideology. As this ideology has become increasingly predominant, overwhelming our lesbian/gay communities and incorporating itself into law and culture, lesbians have felt ourselves surrounded on all sides. We are being pressured and guilt-tripped on the one hand to accept men calling themselves women into our communities and our bedrooms. At the same time, rebellious young girls with same-sex feelings, and lesbian adults are being convinced in growing numbers they are really “men” and are being coerced or swayed into “transitioning.” As women’s liberation no longer appears to be a realistic goal, some of this vulnerability to the forces of transgenderism and extreme body modification may be summed up by the phrase “if you can’t beat them, join them.” How else escape the violent heavy hand of misogyny on our bodies and lives but to pass as male?
Without question, Lesbians have become extremely marginalized within the modern LGBTQ+ “alphabet soup” – the corporatized stepchild of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement. LGBT centers in the name of trans-inclusion, refuse to provide space for lesbians to even meet together outside of the presence of males. We are not welcome at Pride and even the Dyke March has been taken from us by “lesbians” with male genitalia and their supporters. And as lesbians have been virtually disappeared, so has the role we played in the struggles that came before us been disappeared as well.
Our lesbian foremothers are once again gone from the history books, or are posthumously “transitioned,” described as “queer,” or treated merely as a footnote. But lesbians fueled the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement from its start. It would not have happened without us. And it is time to give credit where credit is due.
The Stonewall Rebellion on June 28, 1969 was not led by individuals identifying as transgender. Transgenderism barely existed at that time even as a concept. What existed was large numbers of lesbians and gay men, some of whom cross dressed or dressed in drag, but did not thereby deny either their sex or their homosexuality. Drag queens and butch lesbians were among those who found community at the Stonewall Inn in New York, a bar owned and operated by the mafia but one of the few places that same sex couples could dance together. Police raids were commonplace but that historic night as police dragged patrons out of the bar and beat them, one butch lesbian, Storme DeLaverie, decided she had had enough. When a police officer shoved her and called her a “faggot”, she punched him in the face. Four officers assaulted her and one hit her on the head with a billy club. Bleeding from the head, and dragged toward the police van, she yelled “Why don’t you guys do something?” The rebellion was on and lasted six nights. Lesbian and Gay Liberation was born.
Martha Shelley, a lesbian with strong left-wing politics, had passed by the Stonewall on the fateful night but thought she was seeing an anti-war protest. She had no idea that the people throwing rocks at the cops were gay. When she realized what she had missed, she contacted the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattichine Society and made a proposal for them to jointly sponsor a protest march. On July 27, 1969, 200 lesbians and gays marched in Greenwich Village, in what was to become the world’s first Gay Pride Parade. The organizing committee formed itself into the Gay Liberation Front, a revolutionary group that demanded not assimilation but a complete overhaul of the patriarchal, racist, imperialist system. A new movement was launched, initiated by a lesbian.
Almost a decade later in 1978 in San Francisco another lesbian was the central leader in the successful movement to defend Lesbian and Gay Rights then under attack. This was the struggle against the attempt by Christian fundamentalists to pass the Briggs Initiative, a proposition that would have banned gay teachers and all supporters of Lesbian/Gay Rights in the schools. Though everyone knows about Harvey Milk, many giving him credit for the defeat of the Briggs Initiative, it was actually Nancy Elnor, a lesbian-feminist and socialist, someone virtually no one has heard of, who was far more responsible for that victory. I knew Nancy personally and worked together with her in the Bay Area Coalition against the Briggs Initiative. We were on and off again lovers, our personal interaction often stormy, but my admiration for her never waned.
Nancy worked long hours, doing amazing grassroots organizing work always accompanied by her German Shepherd “Bianca” and put together a mass movement that brought out tens of thousands into the streets against Briggs. She brought in organized labor and every progressive organization in San Francisco to join the cause, and chaired packed meetings of activists. The Coalition under her leadership, organized a televised debate between Milk and Sally Gearhart on the one side and Briggs and one of his cohorts on the other. A thousand people watched the debate on a big screen in a local high school auditorium. Nancy’s in-the-streets movement building done through distributing thousands of flyers, making hundreds of phone calls, and attending dozens of meetings (there was no Internet) set an example for the whole state, helped change the political climate, and put us on the path to victory. Nancy died young but I’ll never forget her.
As many lesbians celebrate Pride with varying degrees of ambivalence or else consciously ignore the festivities as no longer speaking to us, it is important to remember and celebrate the heroic leadership of our lesbian foremothers who changed history. If we did it once, we can do it again.