Lesbian Organizing in the ’90s

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

Ann Menasche

WITHIN THE LESBIAN/GAY movement, the women’s movement and the left, there has been an ongoing struggle for recognition of the needs of lesbians for self-organization and visibility. We demand that our lives and our issues be taken seriously.

In the conservative political climate of the past decade, lesbians have suffered some setbacks. In particular, lesbian-feminism as a distinct political current of radical-feminist activism has been itself increasingly pushed onto the margins. That is true not only within the larger society, but within the broader progressive movement as well.

Despite their political importance—and the participation of some lesbians—the most well-known gay/ lesbian groups, like ACT-UP and Queer Nation, remain overwhelmingly male in composition and leadership. Thus they are incapable of fully addressing the specific needs of lesbians. As a consequence, it is perhaps more important than ever before that any socialist group committed to the empowerment of women pay serious attention to efforts of lesbians organized as lesbians.

How We Organized Ourselves

Lesbian Uprising! (LU!) began as a feminist reading group in 1988. A small number of us began meeting in each other’s houses to discuss feminist authors like Audre Lorde, Charlotte Bunch, Janice Raymond and Alice Walker—and the importance of their ideas to our lives as lesbians Our book group still remains a focal point of our organization. These discussions have often been inspiring and thought-provoking serving as a theoretical basis for the political activism of our members and playing a similar role for us that consciousness-raising did in the early days of second-wave feminism.

Throughout our existence, LU! has remained a core group of ten to fifteen lesbians, but we quickly developed an influence in the Bay Area political scene far wider than these numbers suggest Our work has a dual focus: on education and on activism. Who we are is 1erhaps best described by our founding statement Lesbian Uprising! is a feminist political, educational and cultural group of Bay Area Lesbians who envision a return to the radical ideals of women’s liberation. We work to build cooperation and community among all women by educating and encouraging ourselves, other lesbians, and other women in this vision and to strive to be a group through which lesbians may work in coalition with other feminist and peace organizations.”

Our proudest achievement is our newsletter, Lesbian Uprisingsl which started as a one-page calendar of events. Now it is a twenty-page newsletter with approximately 350 subscribers. it is also available in feminist and gay bookstores throughout California. The newsletter includes a comprehensive calendar of political and cultural events, but it has also become an important forum for feminist discussion and debate. It has featured articles on reproductive rights, the Gulf War, violence against women, breast cancer, the environment, the effect of the Free Trade Agreement on women, the fight to defeat the anti-gay initiative in Oregon, and other issues of lesbian politics and culture.

Through the newsletter, too, we’ve been able to network with other feminist and lesbian activists nationally. (To subscribe, send $20 to LU!, P0. Box 423555, San Francisco, CA 94122.)

As a group, our activities have included:

(1) Active participation in the San Francisco Pro-Choice Coalition for the past four years. Though approximately half of the coalition activists are lesbians, LU! members are often the only women who speak openly as lesbians and raise lesbian issues within the coalition. Our group is the first organization that pro-choice activists think of when they want a lesbian speaker.

(2) LU! was the initiator and key organizer of a women’s peace group during the 1991 Gulf War called the Feminist Affiance for Peace. During the war the alliance held meetings of up to fifty women and organized two weekend retreats on feminist peace work LU! also sent a representative to the mixed antiwar coalition.

(3) To publicize the violence against women we held weekly noontime vigils in downtown San Francisco for several months in 1990.

(4) Lesbian Uprising! has marched under our own banner in pro-choice, peace, International Women’s Day and Take Back the Night Demonstrations, and in the yearly Gay Freedom Day Parade.

We have also organized a number of events in our own name. In 1989, we sponsored a tour of Barbara Baum and Cheryl Jamison, two lesbian marines who had been imprisoned by the military for the “crime” of loving other women.

On two occasions we sponsored “Building Lesbian Community Action,” a mini-conference on lesbian activism attended by over 100 lesbians, including representatives from NOW, “Old Wives Tales” (the women’s bookstore), and LABIA (the women’s focus group of Queer Nation). Last year we held a “Lesbian Cultural Uprising,” which highlighted multiracial, multi-cultural artists and performers from the lesbian community.

Currently we are participating in plans to build the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Rights and Liberation planned for April 25, 1993.

Our community building has also included regular social events for lesbians, including ski trips, hikes, video parties, and even a ‘Dyke and Dog picnic.” Given the shrinking number of places available for lesbians to be with other lesbians in the Bay Area, this has been an important contribution.

Unquestionably, Lesbian Uprising! fills a political and social vacuum in the Bay Area. With the backlash against feminism, fewer lesbians are political and those that are, do so exclusively in mixed, usually male run, gay or progressive groups. While the local monthly feminist newspapers we once had in the Bay Area have all folded, the gay press itself has become more male dominated. We are the only political lesbian-only group in existence in our area. Like all activist groups in these hard times, our core has remained small and sometimes we’ve suffered from burn-out However, I think it is impressive that despite the unfavorable political climate, we’ve managed to stay together for over four years.

Who We Are

What kind of women are active in our group? Though we are almost all white, we are quite diverse in age—from our twenties to our sixties. We are mostly clerical workers, with an occasional nurse, street artist, social worker, or other professional. Most of us have many years of activism behind us—primarily in feminist work, including reproductive rights, the Older Women’s League and women’s peace work. Gail DeRita, our editor, is a veteran of women’s peace camps. We are all radicals of one sort or another. Two or three of us consider ourselves socialists, one or two are anarchists, the rest identify exclusively as radical feminists and/or separatists.

Despite the negative stereotype existing in the left against radical feminists and separatists, I have found as a socialist and member of Solidarity that LU! is remark-‘J) ably friendly and an easy place to do political work. Even though there is often vigorous debate, there has never been a serious conflict over my politics. Many women in LU! do prefer to work solely in women-only groups because of the problem of sexism in mixed organizations but most admire and respect the work I do.

Even those who identify as separatists have usually shown a considerable amount of flexibility in how they apply their separatism, including an implicit recognition of the need for alliances For example, during the Gulf War I was the main representative to the mixed antiwar coalition. But when I was unable to make an important coalition steering committee meeting, an LU! member who had expressed antipathy toward working with men volunteered, without my even asking, to attend the meeting in my place. Another example: our newspaper editor, who is also a separatist, told me that she is very interested in attending meetings for the 1993 Gay March, despite its mixed character: When I expressed surprise, she explained to me how important it was that we unite to defeat the attacks of the right- homophobes.

Beyond Patriarchial Culture

I want to emphasize the importance of lesbian-only organizing to a rounded socialist-feminist political perspective Because we live autonomously from men in a patriarchal capitalist culture that permits women little independent existence, lesbians suffer specific oppression as lesbians. As “outsiders” from the heterosexual institution, we are stigmatized as “sick murderous man-haters,” as Hollywood portrayed us in Basic Instinct. Or else we are trivialized, ignored, or rendered invisible.

Lesbians in 1993 can still lose our jobs, be denied any recognition of our partnership or parenting relationships, have our children taken from us, be physically brutalized or even murdered. We can be forced to suffer the most severe rejection imaginable by family, friends and community merely because we choose to love women. Compulsory heterosexuality is unfortunately alive and well in America—and yes, even in the left itself.

Without a specific lesbian organization, lesbians—who are disproportionately active in all progressive organizations—will remain invisible and silenced. And our issues and needs will be ignored. The women’s movement itself has often failed to recognize the degree to which lesbian energy has kept the movement afloat.

Lesbian-only organizing offers unique opportunities for socialists. Because of lesbian oppression and the commitment of many lesbians to a complete feminist overhaul of the existing social order, lesbians are often very open to radical and socialist ideas. After all, a feminist vision is implicitly socialist, whether or not that word is used.

The attitude of Lesbian Uprising! members toward the Democratic Party is a case in point Although, of course, many LU! members probably voted for Clinton as the “lesser evil” last November, there was little enthusiasm for his campaign. On the other hand, our members were quite excited to hold a discussion on hide-pendent political action, particularly talking about the feminist-led Twenty-First Century Party.

At least four LU! members, in addition to myself, attended at least a portion of Solidarity’s west coast women’s retreat in October 1991. Almost half of all the conference participants, and a large portion of the speakers, were lesbians. The success of the women’s retreat not only showed the importance of lesbian activists to Solidarity’s politics, but also indicated how much women from radical feminist and socialist traditions have to learn from each other.

March-April 1993, ATC 43