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Sunday Book Review: Hey Daddy, What Was It Like To Be A Lesbian Feminist in the 1970s?

February 26, 2012, 1:33 pm

Jeanne Córdova, When We Were Outlaws:  a Memoir of Love and Revolution (Midway, FL: Spinsters, Inc., 2011), 256 pp. $14.95 paper. Citations refer to locations on the ebook version.

“I have always been fascinated by how a noisy swelling called a social movement arrives on the doorsteps of an individual’s life and how she responds to it,” longtime activist, writer and organizer Jeanne Córdova writes in the forward to her memoir When We Were Outlaws. “Most ignore the calling of the unfathomable energies of our times.  For the rest of us — how does one recognize a social movement when it comes calling at your door?” (115)

Today, being legible as queer or trans does not necessarily require a political community or a movement. Large numbers of GLBT folks seem quite eager to be politically indistinguishable from the heteronormative mainstream, preferring to participate in activism through Visa or Mastercard.   However, Córdova evokes the passion and commitment of a 1970s grassroots sexual politics that will surely speak across the generational divide. Portions of this fast-paced memoir offer context for how and why a young Chicana religious came to radical lesbian politics in Los Angeles. It chronicles valuable lessons she learned from a strong-willed father who rejected her when she came out as a lesbian and a radical, and illustrates how a career as a writer and activist drove — and was driven by — the tireless energy of radical feminism as it crested in 1970s southern California.

When We Were Outlaws recreates a queer Los Angeles world that historians have only begun to document, one in which an unapologetic and fantastically intelligent butch like Córdova flourished.  The spiritual glue of the book is the movement’s emotional heat, and the political intensity of a pre- The L-Word community (you know, the one where lesbians rented and didn’t worry about whether their infant daughter would get into Harvard.)  It was a political and an erotic landscape within which many feminisms flourished and came to grief. But a butch-femme world that feminism didn’t actually kill, regardless of what you have read elsewhere, fans the flames.  Significantly, the narrative spine of the book is the blossoming of a new love affair in that intense atmosphere, and Córdova’s inability to explain to her exciting new lover why she goes to political meetings when she could be converting their powerful sexual connection into a new relationship.

Exploring 24 months between 1973 and 1975, during which Córdova was working as a journalist at the Free Press, or Freep, it seems like she is constantly in motion: going to political meetings, rushing off to the latest lesbian restaurant (where everybody not only knows your name but who you slept with last night and why she’s pissed off), doing an interview with a domestic terrorist, running interference between political factions and coping with the near-collapse of the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center.

The memoir often has so many details and explanations of this labyrinthine political world it may make the average reader want to bang her head against the wall.  The story stalls on these details and, at the same time, the details also do an effective job of recreating an atmosphere in which things that seem insignificant now were of crucial importance then. When We Were Outlaws also makes an important contribution to what we know about the period by demonstrating the affective and practical overlaps between radical worlds in southern California:  organizers like Córdova could simultaneously have a hand in lesbian, feminist, gay liberation, labor, anti-war and anti-racist politics, all the time wondering how they were going to pin six jobs together to pay for rent, food and the Chevy transmission that just dropped onto Santa Monica Boulevard.

But Córdova also provides important insight into the tensions that feminism created in the gay and lesbian liberation movement. This history has also been sketched by Karla Jay in her memoir of New York queer activism, Tales of the Lavender Menace (Basic Books, 2000), but we don’t know enough about it. Hence, there is a common misconception that it was feminist homophobia and the so-called “sex wars” that represented the chief fault lines in a radical feminism doomed by its own intolerance. In fact, numerous fractures in feminism and gay liberation politics emerged early on. Not only did the interests and political priorities of men and women diverge within gay liberation but, as Córdova points out, gay liberation’s call to “come out, come out, wherever you are” after 1969 expanded the number of activists willing to put their queer shoulders to the wheel. The sexual revolution brought lesbians to the city as fast as they could leave their boyfriends and get there; consequently, finding common ground within the frame of identity politics became a difficult organizing task.

The success of the movement produced a paradox that contemporary organizers might do well to study.  The rise of radical lesbian feminism expanded the circle of organizers well beyond a committed few who could find consensus on what “lesbian” interests were, how such interests could be activated, and whether lesbians wanted to risk the sexism that gay men sometimes brought to the table.  As Córdova writes, “the Center’s rapid hiring had brought lesbians of wildly different political backgrounds into forced proximity.

Among us, there were lesbians from the hinterlands of suburbia who called themselves gay women and had grown up thinking of themselves as homosexual.  This group felt that gay men were our brothers.  They clashed with those among us who were feminists and felt that the cause of our second-class lives was the male-constructed world of patriarchy.  These newly converted lesbian feminists were sure there was little difference between straight and gay men.  Also among us were activists from the New Left who…had grown up on an anti-war, down-with-the-Establishment diet.  To them, being a lesbian was only the latest in their litany of oppressions. (1438-1439)

These tensions, which resulted in a “midnight massacre” of many of the Center’s most committed lesbian organizers in 1973, are one of several dynamics that emerge to test Córdova’s faith, as well as her emotional and political commitments.  Just recovering from her role as an organizer for the first National Lesbian Conference at UCLA, an experience that “left me feeling battered by the very tribe of women that I’d made a lifetime vow to serve” (373), her personal and political life go into overdrive.  As a journalist she starts receiving demands from a white supremacist who insists on front page stories in the Freep in exchange for not bombing a radical bookstore (yet.)  She becomes the subject of FBI surveillance because of an interview with Emily Harris of the Symbionese Liberation (SLA), on the run in the aftermath of the Patty Hearst kidnapping and several bank robberies.

Simultaneously, Córdova suffers the betrayal of a longtime mentor, Morris Kight, her “political godfather.” (440) Kight fronts for the faction of gay men who expel her and other lesbian feminists from the Board of the GCSC.  Córdova then becomes reluctantly enmeshed in a lawsuit filed against the Center on behalf of the lesbians and effeminist men who are fired as part of the purge that she fears will break this crucial community institution’s finances.  If that isn’t enough excitement for you, When We Were Outlaws also records the possibilities and difficulties of open sexual relationships.  As Córdova navigates between her work as a journalist and the crisis at the Center, she also traverses the perils of non-monogamy in a world where everyone knows (and has slept with) everybody. Navigating lesbian bed death, Córdova and her partner BeJo practice their commitment to each other through the elaborate rituals and negotiations familiar to anyone who has been in an open relationship.  Enter Rachel, a novice activist and new love interest who becomes an obsession; BeJo (who spends much of the book tolerating the fact that Córdova is breaking nearly all the rules they have established) then turns the table on her wandering butch to take another lover — who is, of course, a mutual friend.

This is a good old-fashioned lesbian book, after all.

When Córdova uses the language of vows and callings she’s not kidding:  this is how she sees the world.  She began her activist career after high school in the novitiate, joining the Immaculate Heart of Mary, an order that was committed to community organizing and the anti-war movement. Completing an MSW in social work, she wrote a thesis on organizing the lesbian community in Los Angeles.  Subsequently, she left the order and put her education to use, becoming president of the L.A. chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis and launching The Lesbian Tide, a publication which played a large role in fusing the remnants of women’s homophile politics with radical feminism.

This queer past is truly another country, one that can be found in places like the Los Angeles’s One Archives and occasional film clips in documentaries.  But it is a past which has barely been written.  While some of the lesbian drama is cringeworthy, you have to admire Córdova for recalling her own history as a raging young butch in all its heroism, egomania and confusion.  Of course, it would have been nice to have some reflection on the contradictions between Córdova’s public role as a social justice advocate, her big talk about open relationships, and her private assumption that all the femmes in her life would simply wait around until she graced them with her presence.

On the other hand, do butch lesbians and other sentient people throw their politics and good sense out the window when in the throws of sudden, inexplicable lust? Yes, they do. Does female masculinity carry its own challenges when it comes to reproducing sexist power dynamics?  Yes, it does. I was glad she didn’t hide it, or dull the impact of her insensitivity to her lovers by reflecting on these incidents through the therapy she has surely had since. While watching Córdova shred her political and domestic life over a woman who wasn’t worth it isn’t pretty, it welcomes us into movement dynamics that have only been described in the abstract and which were highly erotic in nature.

The memoir also portrays the relations between lesbians and gay men during the late sexual revolution through layers of complexity and contradiction that even historians who lived through that period have barely documented. Córdova’s love for her mentor, Morris Kight, survives his betrayal, prefiguring the alliance between gay men and lesbians that is yet to come during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.  As Córdova points out (surely this observation is the outcome of therapy?) Morris’s stubbornness in the face of lesbian demands that the Center rehire them was familiar: “I knew the mind behind the face fed on power.  Just like Dad….Before the strike, I’d even let myself believe that Morris loved me like a daughter.  My father, on the other hand, thought that being a gay activist was tantamount to championing Lucifer’s right of return to heaven.” (6821)

How do you recognize a social movement when it comes knocking at your door? Córdova’s memoir does not exactly answer this question, in part because it isn’t clear that she ever met a social movement that she did not recognize immediately and rush at with complete abandon.  In addition, as she points out later in the book, history throws us different activisms at different times and we can’t necessarily pattern contemporary commitments on past political experiences.  While I agree with this, Córdova’s book still has a lot to offer young activists, not to mention emerging transmen, bois, genderqueers and young femmes who want to know what it was really like to be a butch lesbian “back in the old days.” Academic feminists of my generation, particularly we butches who trailed Córdova by less than a decade but looked to lesbian feminists like her as role models, know that this comes up in office hours at least once a semester. I, for one, will now take the opportunity to give curious students a copy of this book as required reading, and then return to the serious and time-consuming business of being a radical lesbian feminist butch.

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