L.A. was a pivotal geosocial space where the movement for lesbian rights and lesbian community was publicly pursued and to some extent recorded. As in other locations in the U.S., various ideological and sociological currents came together to form a feminist lesbian/lesbian feminist movement. Some of these currents were the: lesbian and butch/femme tradition, and the gay liberation, civil rights and feminist movements. My study will identify and analyze the dynamics of people, places and events that made up this movement and I will relate it to the national lesbian/gay and other liberation movements of the period in question. This study also examines issues related to methodology such as native vs. outsider research, value exchange and the value of oral history.
Due to the lack of definitive material on this subject, this study is exploratory. My goal is to uncover and identify written materials on the subject and to gather testimony from primary witnesses. This will allow me to make a first level record and analysis of "who, what, when and so what?" My data will come from newspapers and ephemera generated by the community and oral testimony provided by primary participants. Works such as Faderman's 20th century US lesbians and Kennedy and Davis' study of pre-Stonewall Buffalo (NY) bar culture will provide a macro context and material for comparison on what happened in other time periods and geographic locations.
As I do the fieldwork for this ethnohistory, I am neither an observer nor a participant observer in the traditional sense. I am a native investigator/reporter and subject to the vissicitudes inherent in that role. Traditionally, a researcher is not a (native) product of the community she studies and there has been some discussion in the research literature on the pros and cons of insider vs. outsider research. However, most contemporary research on lesbians and gays IS done by native investigators.
I "grew up" so to speak in this LA lesbian and feminist socio-political culture. I was a participant in many of the events that marked this movement's progress through its historical and sociological stages and I know many of the primary protagonists. The women I am interviewing are friends, acquaintances, political allies, former adversaries, etc. My encounter with them is not as an outsider gathering unknown information or that of a stranger cultivating trust in order to be entrusted with information. It is one of an insider encouraging them to testify and contribute their personal and political voice to the record. Because I was there, I am able to supply a name or sequence of events that fills in an informant's memory gap. My insider knowledge also aids in developing a perspective on certain community dynamics that are problematic and which have political/historical significance. These dynamics are often tied to our all too human natures. I classify them under the rubrics of "the lesbian civil wars" (collective) and "lesbian loveland" (personal). The complexity and impact of these dynamics will be discussed as part of the study.
I will now move on to some samples of LA lesbian history:
L. A. responded with great enthusiasm and energy to the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Locally the ground had been set by the Mattachine Society, ONE, and DOB (Daughters of Bilitis) all founded in the 50's. Soon after Stonewall, The Gay Liberation Front emerged as the first "in your face" gay/lesbian political action group in L. A. At that point, political activism provided a new alternative to softball and the bars, which had hitherto been the only public gathering spaces for lesbians.
Del Whan was one of a handful of women members in GLF and photos in The Advocate show her participating in GLF actions. In 1971, she and other women founded what is thought to be the first social services center anywhere for lesbians, the Gay Women's Service Center on Glendale Blvd. In that same year, a number of women left GLF to form Lesbian Feminists and 1971 also saw the birth of the Gay Community Services Center (The "L" word in its title was added in 1982). Early woman energy at the Center included Mina Meyer, Sharon Raphael and Lilene Fifield. In 1972 the Center sponsored the Sisters Liberation house which I had the pleasure of managing for 6 months. Relations between segments of the lesbian community and the Center have not always been easy. But some of these splits had positive results for the lesbian community as women left The Center and set up other projects. In 1972, Lesbian feminists were meeting at the Crenshaw Women's Center near Olympic. Lesbians Feminists was a high energy group: we lobbied N.O.W. in support of their "lesbian resolution" which was passed in 1971 at the National N.O.W Convention -- this was an early, important victory for lesbians; we hosted a Saturday night coffeehouse; supported anti-rape projects; organized gay-straight dialogues and participated in the First National Lesbian Kiss-In at the LA County Museum of Art. After the demise of Lesbian Feminists, and the Women's Center, the Westside Women's Center emerged in Venice and had several reicarnations on Hill Street under names like "Womonspace".
This new found personal and collective sense of freedom generated an interest in meeting with large numbers of lesbians in order to share our excitement and plan and discuss our collective agenda(s). In L.A. lesbian conferences began in 1971 with the Gay Womens' West Coast Conference held at MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) on Union Street. Several hundred women attended. In 1973, Jeanne Cordova, Barbara McClean and many others organized the West Coast Lesbian Conference held at UCLA. The site was secured for us by then UCLA staff-member and now state Assemblywoman, Sheila Kuehl. Almost 2000 women attended this exhilarating event. Another L.A. institution, one considered conservative (USC - University of Southern California) became the site of the annual conference sponsored by the NOW Lesbian Rights Task Force.
Communication mediums for this rapidly proliferating movement were needed. L.A.'s first publicly circulated lesbian publication was The Lesbian Tide founded in 1971 by Jeanne Cordova and friends. Prior to the Tide, Vice Versa had been discretly circulated in 1947-48 by Lisa Ben who still lives in Burbank. Everywoman and Sister were early feminist publications from the late 60's. Lesbians and soon-to-be lesbians were on staff. In 1975 Jinx Beers and friends founded the Lesbian News which is well and alive in '95. Out of L.A. also came the journal Lesbian Ethics begun in 1984 by Jeannette Silveira.
The L. A. lesbian cultural scene included: KPFK Radios's "Lesbian Sisters" and its successor "I AM R U" which have run continuously since the 70's. Local filmaker Jan Oxenberg produced an early lesbian film "Home Movie" in the 70's, and in the 80's former Venice resident Donna Dietch produced the commercially successful "Desert Hearts". The Woman's Building was co©founded by lesbian Arlene Raven, and always included strong lesbian programming. Examples include "An Oral History of Lesbianism" (a theatre piece) in 1979 and "The Great American Lesbian Art Show" in 1980. Writer and performance artist, Terry Wolverton was a constant presence in these Woman's Building projects. The local music scene included talent like Sylvia Kohan, Diane Lindsay and lesbian members of the L.A. Women's Community Chorus under the direction of Sue Fink. Sue was also co-composer of the popular song "Leaping Lesbians". The West Coast Women's Music Festival was organized by Robin Tyler in 1980 and is still an important annual event. As lesbian and feminist publications proliferated, bookstores opened to accomodate the demand. These included Everywoman Bookstore which was open briefly in 1972; Page One which opened in Pasadena in the 70's (and is still there) and Sisterhood Bookstore which opened in December of 1972 and is still on Westwood Blvd. near UCLA. Sisterhood is another community cornerstone.
Other lesbian groups of the 70's and 80's reflected the diverse needs and agendas of our community. Lesbianas LatinaAmericanas met in 1974 in Highland Park. At the Gay Community Services Center, Lilene Fifield applied for and received a groundbreaking (and large) federal grant. This project spun off in 1974 and under Brenda Weathers and later Brenda Underhill, became one of our community's cornerstones, ACW--The Alcoholism Center for Women. Califia Community organized in 1975 by women like Marilyn Murphy and Irene Weiss, became known for its week-long camp-outs and anti-racism/classism workshops. Southern California Women for Understanding (SCWU) founded in 1976 by Myra Riddell, Betty Berzon, Terry De Crescenzo and others came out of the Whitman-Radcliffe Foundation, a co©sexual organization. The National Lesbian Feminist Organization Founding Convention was held at the Santa Monica Bay Women's Club in 1978. Out of debates at that conference over the issues of racism and ethnic parity came Lesbians of Color (LOC) of Los Angeles. LOC held many community workshops on racism and organized the National Lesbians of Color Conference held in Malibu in 1983. Other lesbians of color groups from this time period include: Debretas, started by Deborah Johnson and her partner in the late 70's as a social network for women of color. Both Lesbianas Unidas organized in 1984 and Asian/Pacific lesbians organized in 1985, came out of co-sexual people of color organizations. ULOAH (United Lesbians of African Heritage) was organized in 1990.
In 1984, Connexxus Women's Center/Centro de Mujeres was established with the largest financial base ever generated by any L.A. lesbian organization. Founders included Del Martinez, Lauren Jardine and Judith Wright. Among other programs, Connexxus set up support groups for Latinas and these still continue in East L.A. It sponsored the first Latina Lesbian Mental Health Conference and funded Laura Aguilar's Latina Lesbian Photography Project. It also sponsored The June Mazer Lesbian Collection's move to Southern California from Oakland. Attendance at Connexxus' dances held at Friendship Auditorium grew to reflect the diversity of our community. Connexxus' closing in 1990 was one sign that an era had ended.
Throughout the decades, lesbians have worked in coalition with gay men and heterosexual feminists. Ivy Bottini and many other lesbians fought and won against the Briggs Initiative in 1978. Lesbians helped organize the Marches on Washington beginning in 1979. Beginning in the 80's many lesbians joined in the fight against AIDS. Lesbians worked with feminist women against pornography, and for choice. In the early 80's Dina Bachelor and others fasted for more than a month on behalf of the ERA. Dina later performed the marriage ceremony for 2500 same sex couples at the 1987 March on Washington.
The LA lesbian community is diverse and consists of many and at times conflicting agendas. Some agendas generated need specific groups like The Fat Underground organized by Judy Freespirit and Z Budapest's Wicca. But over the years other agendas gave rise to debate and controversy and at times these differences erupted into the lesbian civil wars. These wars were fought over monogamy/nonmonogamy, butch/femme roles, the strike against The Center, racism and classism, male children at events, SM, priorities in the age of AIDS, separatism, transexuals in the community, etc. These conflicts markedly impacted the activist lesbian community during the 70's and 80's.
Into the 90's the generations and agendas continue to square off: lipstick lesbians with politically correct lesbian feminists; lesbian AIDS activists with lesbian separatists. Co-sexual groups such as ACT UP and co-sexual agencies like GLCSC co-exist with lesbian focused organizations like The June Mazer Lesbian Collection and SCWU. The many groups and events listed in the calendar section of the Lesbian News reflect contemporary lesbian concerns and interests.
The 70's and 80's were exciting times. We came out of the closets individually and flexed our political muscles collectively. There was welcome relief at being out in public in the company of others like ourselves. Positive reinforcement came from impacting institutions like the APA (American Psychological Association); adding courses in lesbian/gay studies at universities; gaining custody rights for lesbian mothers and job protection in cities like L. A. For many, these decades were what one veteran (Patty Harrison) calls the "golden days of lesbianism". These were times when changing the world seemed possible. Many of us succeeded in changing ourselves and mitigating institutional homophobia.
My study will record and celebrate the women who individually and collectively, publicly worked for the civil rights and well-being of lesbians when it was not very safe to do so. Through oral interviews I hope to obtain a level of historically valuable information not found in public/written records. Oral histories done with a cross-section of the community in question als bridge the growing gap between lesbian/gay academics and the general lesbian/gay communities (see Jeffrey Escoffier's article "Inside the Ivory Closet" in Out/Look.)
My mission now is to make those women and those times part of a visible and polyphonic record. My work is also a dialogue with the community and I welcome corrections, additions and comments.