BCRW @ 50

1980s: Lesbian Sexuality

While lesbians were more or less absent from conversations around women’s issues in the early 1970s, growing lesbian activism and visibility within the women’s movement meant that lesbians were able to enjoy some attention in BCRW’s programming in the 1980s. In her talk at the 1987 Scholar and Feminist Conference, writer Ginny Vida paid homage to lesbian activist milestones. One of these was the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970, where lesbians confronted feminist organizers and declared their right to participate openly in the feminist movement. At the time, mainstream feminist political groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) hoped to make their politics appeal to men. Seeing lesbians as a threat to the women’s movement’s image and respectability, well-known feminist and founder of NOW Betty Friedan pejoratively referred to lesbians as “the lavendar menace.” Lesbians were not considered part of the movement or invited to be on the panel at NOW’s Second Conference to Unite Women. In response, a group of lesbians decided they would interrupt the event to make themselves heard. 

At the Second Congress to Unite Women, the group, who Vida referred to as “Rita Mae Brown and her cronies,” inconspicuously attended the conference wearing sweatshirts. As part of their action, they killed the lights during the conference, stood up from their seats and unzipped their sweatshirts. When the lights came back on, the audience saw women amongst them, standing up with pink shirts that read, “Lavender Menace,” on them. Meanwhile, some women from the group marched down the aisle of chairs, carrying signs that read, “Take a lesbian to lunch this week” and “Women’s liberation is a lesbian plot.” They took over the mic and began to speak on lesbian issues, such as their experiences of being institutionalized for being lesbian, and tried to push against stereotypes to appeal to the feminists in the women’s movement. Ginny Vida saw the interruption of the Second Crongress to Unite Women as a hallmark moment which marked the beginnings of lesbian visibility within the women’s movement.

As lesbians became more accepted and eventually incorporated into the mainstreams of feminist politics, lesbian issues became a topic of focus at BCRW during the 1980’s. Joan Nestle and other members of the Lesbian Herstory Archives spoke on reclaiming lesbian herstory at the Scholar and Feminist Conference in 1980. After acknowledging the implicit homophobia in the conference organizers’ treatment of her and the other representatives from the LHA, she names the other manifestations of homophobia that they face. She argued that the straight world has appropriated lesbians and lesbian identity, and that because of this, lesbians have no history and are condemned to lose their memory. She pointed out how lesbian herstory was considerred valueless by straight society. While universities pay a fortune for one letter by James Joyce, “We find our culture on sale for five cents,” she said. Not only are lesbians resigned to cultural and historic undesirability and erasure, she argued, but they are defined and overwritten by the sexologists and straight authorities who endlessly pathologize their existence. Other talks held at BCRW in this time included Lisa Duggan’s workshop, “The Social Enforcement of Heterosexuality and Lesbian Resistance in the 1920s” and “Lesbian Rights and the Struggle for Reproductive Freedom” in 1981, “Lesbianism and the Social Function of Taboo” in 1979, and “Lesbian Mothers ‘Choosing Children’” in 1986. These events marked a shift in BCRW’s feminist engagement with the topic of sex and sexuality to explicitly include and focus on lesbian experience and sexuality.

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