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 Dyke identity, that specific nomenclature of the fierce woman-identified woman, has been replaced by the more inclusive queer, as a new era of thoughtful LGBT activists proclaim their disidentification with the categories woman and lesbian.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 and insights.
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 internet.
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 nuptials.
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.
Adapted from The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture, by Bonnie J. Morris. Reprinted with permission from SUNY Press.