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My History, Queer Histories

1 Jun

Lesbian history made me a dyke. Or at least, that’s how it felt at the time.

I grew up in a small town on the central coast of California. There was nothing like a GSA at my high school during my time there in the mid ’90s. The first openly queer person I knew was classmate during my senior year. Ellen came out just over a month before I graduated, Will & Grace had yet to air, and Willow was still a few years from meeting Tara. All of this to say, the option of being gay was scarcely on my radar. I dismissed as general curiosity any queer feelings I had and left it at that.  In college I started to figure things out but had little idea what to do about it. Not until my last year did I have any queer friends and even then I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go to the campus LGBT center.

Not long after graduation I moved to Sacramento, my first time living in a city. One of the first things I did was look up local gay bars. As luck would have it the gay district (what we would come to call “the corner of gay and gayer”) was just blocks from my apartment. There was something exciting, reassuring, knowing they were there even when I found myself too timid to enter. Then I found it – the local LGBT bookstore. I remember vividly how conspicuous I felt walking in that first time. To my mind this was my first public demonstration of a new identity I was trying to understand. I felt bold and enthusiastic and terrified all at once. With only the cashier as witness, I embraced my lesbianism as I purchased a history of lesbians in the United States.  Ultimately, it was the support of a group of queer feminists that really helped me to know myself and come out but buying that book was a pivotal first step. That history book made me gay.

I speak often of how important the relationship between history and feminism has been to the path I’ve been on since college. But I don’t know that I’ve every told anyone the story of that first trip to an LGBT bookstore. It came to mind this week when the Obama administration announced a National Parks initiative to recognize sites of gay history, beginning with the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall was by no means the first site of queer protest but it marked a shift toward radical resistance and we now celebrate June Pride Month because of those early summer riots. As with other advances in queer visibility, I was left wondering what such news would have meant to a 22 year-old Chelsea trying to figure out how to come out. Here we have the federal government saying that queer lives matter and that we deserve to have our history made visible. There is nothing to be ashamed of; we have have the right live our lives openly and honestly.

Scanning through social media sights I found many posts celebrating this step forward in preserving queer histories. But almost as quickly I came across critiques that painted this initiative as an empty gesture. The LGBT activist group Get Equal initially responded with “No More Studies–give us freedom!”  They explained that “we know our history” and publicized a demonstration at Stonewall during the announcement of the initiative. The Committee on LGBT History quickly responded, explaining that pitting history against campaigns for liberation is counterproductive and divisive. Get Equal made a change with a new tagline, “Don’t stop at our history,” thus making their position less adversarial to the study of queer pasts.

I understand the position of Get Equal and other radical groups who critique the the pace of change and question the federal government’s priorities in addressing  some queer issues over others.  There is nothing I want more than full federal equality and rights protections for the LGBTQ community and I am grateful that there are activist organizations hold the Obama administration accountable. Is same-sex marriage or open military service or a recognition of gay histories enough? Certainly not. But attacking these advancements is counterproductive.

As a queer rights activist and lesbian historian I have grown incredibly comfortable with outing myself as I discuss all manner of queer issues. It is now so natural to me that I can scarcely remember that younger self afraid to enter a bar or bookstore. The longer we are out the easier it can become to forget those days of struggle and fear. And the more radical we become the easier it can be to lose sight of what can make a difference in queer lives.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first person to speak of the importance of radical activists pushing for sweeping transformation. Such work is crucial to creating change. But perspective is crucial too.

It seems as though I have this conversation every time there is a new development in the marriage equality struggle. Inevitably, I’ll see or hear dismissive comments from friends who believe movement priorities should be focused elsewhere. I don’t disagree. We ought to be exerting much more energy ensuring the everyday safety of the LGBTQ community–on the streets, in the workplace, in classrooms, at the doctor’s office, at the borders.   But it can be easy to overlook the fact that for a large portion of the country same-sex marriage is still a radical notion. That, as much as we might want disrupt a system in which legal rights are based on this heteronormative institution, the majority of LGBTQ folk want this right.  Or that, for people of all backgrounds, same-sex marriage offers very real benefits and protections. There are a whole host of issues at play in these types of debates, such as the roles class and race play in who benefits from which rights advancements and whether gays and lesbians will actually step up to support trans* rights. Critical reflection and honest dialogue are critical. But what possible benefit can we find in dismissing or attacking one another? And what can we possibly gain from dismissing the stories of our pasts?

As a queer historian I can tell you that we are only just beginning to know our history. Consider the myth-making that exists around Stonewall and this becomes quite clear. To date, very few people have access to our histories. It is rarely taught in primary and secondary education; several states even have laws banning discussion of LGBTQ histories and issues. At the the college level it is by no means a guaranteed part of history curriculum and universities continue to face backlash for the inclusion of LGBT instruction. Scholars who take up the work often do so with little institutional support, motivated by the belief that bringing our histories to light is a critical part of the queer liberation (for a statement on the work of queer scholars, see Don Romesburg’s response to Get Equal). At a time when LGBT bookstores are all but extinct (that neighborhood bookstore that was so pivotal to my journey closed long ago), the work of researching, documenting, preserving, and making visible queer pasts is more important than ever. One only has look at the stories of mid-century gay men and lesbians trying to find any tidbit of information about homosexuality to understand how transformative it can be to have ready access to  information that provides context for one’s own experiences. And the more ways we have to empower one another, the stronger we become. Surely we can embrace and celebrate these opportunities while also pushing for full equality.

Happy Pride Month, all. I’m off to celebrate with writing about lesbian history. If only I could tell 22 year-old me what was to come, because this dyke historian life is amazing.


a research diary

1 Jul

Thoughts on a journey that continues to knit together the activist and the academic.

May 29
I usually hate talking to people on the plane.  I put on my headphones, read, sleep.  The second leg of my travel to California is a quick flight between Phoenix and San Luis Obispo on one of those uncomfortably small planes. Confusion over row assignments prompted some introductory chatter with my seatmate Betsy, ninety-two years very young.  A fascinating life story unfolded.  Betsy was orphaned in the Appalachians during the Great Depression and completed one year of high school before marrying at sixteen and raising six children.  She bubbled over in describing how she completed high school the same year as her fourth child, learned many a life lesson from her special needs daughter, and traveled across the globe to visit her eldest.  When she asked after my research I was hesitant, but I shared anyway.  She was fascinated to hear of public lesbians in the 1950s and shared her experiences with the young minister at her church in the early 60s who was rumored to be “a homosexual.”  He was an important counselor for her family so when her teen boys began to talk, she sat them down and asked, “do you judge your friends by how they screw?”  With that, the boys learned to treat all people with respect and the minister remained a trusted friend.

Betsy helped me to start an ambitious trip with the reminder that all women have a fascinating story to share, if we give them to space to do so and take the time listen with open mind.

June 3
After several days with my family, I travel north to San Francisco.  Before beginning my archival work at the San Francisco Public Library I enjoy the beautiful clear day and sights of San Francisco City Hall (which would, in just a few weeks, be covered in Pride festivities).


I explore the papers of women who identified as lesbians and feminists.  Their communication networks and level of contact are impressive.  It’s hard to see them suffering for want of email with the flurry of letters that spanned the country and the frequent references to phone calls, personal visits, and political gatherings.   It scarcely mattered where they lived – they all seemed to know (or know of) one another.  And the romantic interludes and sexual entanglements!  Anyone who says lesbian feminists were anti-sex prudes has never read a word penned by these women.  Oh, the L-Word chart I could create to map the lesbian actors of the seventies.  Nancy Stockwell and Charlotte Bunch rush letters to one another between Berkeley and New York, with Nancy describing a planned move of Olivia Records from Los Angeles, conflict at the Women’s Building, and the latest break-up to cause ripples in the political scene.  The letters are typed but quick postscripts and affectionate sign-offs make them personal, touching, real.


June 4
My first interview!  V and I meet at a small cafe.  Not an ideal space for recording an oral history, but it was our only option.   She wears a pageboy and fits me into her morning schedule before her midday tennis.  I sought her out because of her role in a national gay rights group that took off in the seventies, but her stories of the New York scene were an unexpected treat.  Her first feminist event was, of all things, the Second Congress to Unite Women; a striking coincidence given that she was struggling to understand her attraction to women.  As witness to the now infamous Lavender Menace action, she was one of the many women she stood to join the Radicalesbians when they called for support of lesbians’ place within the movement (though, she explained, her knees were shaking the whole time).

June 5
I’m staying with friends and take MUNI to visit the GLBT Historical Society.  This means I get to stop for a coffee on Market and enjoy the rainbow flags that line the street, just blocks from the hotel I stay at during Pride (some distance from the Castro, but a perfect spot to roll out of bed and watch the parade).


In the archive I have the reading room to myself and I pass the day learning about bay area lesbian communities of San Francisco.  Not surprisingly, the papers of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are rich with detail.  It is entirely by chance that I begin with Majority Caucus folders.  Throughout 1975, a group of NOW leaders (including a good number of the self-identified minority women) rejected what they viewed to be a dangerous power grab.  They organized the Majority Caucus to advocate for what they believed to be the true meaning of NOW – ethical feminist practices and the power of the membership.


I was part of my own Majority Caucus – NewNOW – in California some 36 years later, struggling with almost identical issues.  Rather than be burdened with pessimism I found the research cathartic.  I was part of a proud tradition of women who stood for true grassroots feminism and I wasn’t alone in my decision to step away from a national organization when my conscience told me it was time.


June 6
Interview two.  B invited me into her Oakland home where we tucked ourselves away in the corner of the kitchen covered in stray rays of morning sunshine.  The only interruption in our hour and a half conversation was her cat Spike pawing at the door (insert your very own lesbian cat joke here).  Perhaps more than anyone I have met, B lives her politics in each moment of her life.  From the Peace Corps to lesbian separatism,  from lesbian entrepreneurship to community advocacy, she has built a true life of service.

After the interview I race back across the Bay Bridge to return to the GLBT Historical Society.  I open up the first folder of the day and there it is: a letter in Rita Mae Brown’s hand.  Immediately I think of my best friend with whom I can’t wait to share.  Her communications with Del and Phyllis confirm another of my suspicions – false distinctions between types of lesbians mean little in the face of shared politics and the need for mutual support.


June 8
Halfway through my trip and I find myself driving north on 101 surrounded by grapevines, golden hills, and oak trees.


In a small northern California town I meet G.  She guides me through winding dirt roads to get to the guesthouse that will serve as my weekend home.  Introduced by a mutual friend, she invited me to stay at her lesbian collective that has now existed for over 40 years.  G gave me the tour then left me on my own for the rest of the day.  The heat was awful, so I spent most of my time sitting on the floor with my computer (in the woods but still with wifi!) in front of a small fan I found in the corner of closet.  G says they have visitors most every week and as I fall asleep I imagine the love and laughter, sadness and nostalgia this little home has witnessed.

June 9
Promptly at 10am G arrives for our interview.  We talk for hours.  More than anyone else, she wants to speak of the big picture and finds excitement in the conceptual elements of my project. I suspect it is due in large part to her career in the academy.  Almost 40 when she arrived on the scene in 1970 San Francisco, she disrupts all the stereotypes of the generational conflict between “old gays” and lesbian feminists.  She argues that the true ideological difference comes from whether you enter the movement as already gay.  G peppers me with questions too, and when she tells me “you have all the right answers” I suspect this isn’t a compliment.  But she is still kind and caring with offers of support and hugs goodbye.  I travel southeast through the land of confederate flags (seriously, y’all, there’s some scary places in Northern CA) listening to Indigo Girls and anticipating all that awaits in Sacramento.

June 10
Lunch and beer with feministhistorynerd Tom!

June 11
My final day of archival work happens to be at Sac State where I did my Master’s program. I cannot believe I missed the opportunity to spend more time with these papers while I lived in Sacramento.  In them I learn about the rich history of Sacramento NOW that I built upon in my years with the chapter as well as the role Sac State played in fostering the early years of California feminism and the growth of women’s music.  One of my favorite finds? This cheeky cartoon:


June 12
More lunch and beer with feministhistorynerd Tom!

June 13
My final interview of the trip, with E.  Once more to the bay area, kindly invited into another home. This time we sit on a front porch enjoying the bay breeze and watching the day fade away.  I know much more about her life than she seems willing to discuss and I witness a refashioning of life story into a narrative easier to tell.  Perhaps the truth is too painful to relive time and again. Still, she offers a wealth of information: names to track down, organizations to research, publications to read. As I make my way back to the central coast along the dark stretches of highway dotted sparsely with small rural towns I reflect on the strength it must take to continue to give of herself to new generations of lesbian feminists, not knowing what we might expect of her or how far we may push into her past. I am grateful for the loving generosity of the women who will make my project possible and am mindful of the responsibility to do their stories justice.

on leaving waves to the beach

13 May

Fellow feministhistorynerd Tom and I argued over the utility of the wave framework regularly during prelims. Over wine/beer/coffee my friends and I regularly debate whether to continue talking in terms of “waves.” I engage in ongoing discussions with activists about whether there are any useful indicators of political stance in identifying as a second or third (or fourth) wave feminist. Recently, in the the more formal setting of a Women’s History Month panel, I was asked to describe my relationship to the metaphor. Again and again, I find myself struggling with a concept that once seemed to me a matter of fact.

There has been a good deal of scholarship recently pushing us to reconsider how we do the history of feminisms. It is exciting to see this conversation happening, to engage with the literature, and to consider what theses shifts mean in the world of contemporary activism. A lot has been said that I agree with; I won’t reiterate it here. What I don’t find compelling is the argument that the solution to the limitations of the wave trope comes in recasting our understanding of waves. Reframing waves (such as thinking of them as radio waves) is clever, but it isn’t the solution to a historical framework that creates ruptures, conflicts, and oppositions where they need not exist. We are at the point in which we can do justice to historical specificity without using arbitrary boundaries. In my world, where my roles of scholar and activist are inseparable, there is no longer any place for conceptual waves.

To be sure, I acknowledge the important roles that the concepts of “first wave feminism” and second wave feminism” have served in recovering and legitimating a world of women’s activism. Historians have developed the field of women’s history and created spaces for it in the sweeping narratives of American history by using this concept. Thinking in terms of waves empowered certain feminists in the 1960s and 1970s who found strength in the idea of building on the legacy of past generations. And then there’s the fact that it is simply useful shorthand. It is a lot easier to reference “the second wave” rather than use the wordy descriptions like “women’s rights activism in the 1960s and the 1970s” or “women’s liberation of the post-war era.”

What defines these waves? Periods of heightened activity and accomplishment in advancing gender equality. No doubt I’m grateful for the vote, the right to determine if and when to reproduce (as tenuous as these rights are at present), and the concepts such as sexual harassment that help me to understand when I’m being treated inappropriately, to name but a few of the victories that highlight waves. But the periodization of these waves prioritizes certain advances over others and ignores the uneven access women have to such gains when we consider class, race, and sexuality. Thus, “wave feminism” as a framework is biased towards the liberal, white, middle-class heterosexual woman.

This image of what defines the majority of 20th century feminisms persists even if the face of a growing body of literature that demonstrates a much greater diversity of activism motivated by a desire for women’s liberation. These new works dispute first and second wave periodization by showing us that feminism persisted in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They also disrupt the persistent narrow image of what sixties and seventies feminism was, showing feminist motivations among women of color working in race politics and in women-driven movements such as welfare reform and housing advocacy. We are beginning to see vast new spaces of gender activism in which diverse groups of women challenged a patriarchal society in ways that addressed the intersectional oppression.

Yet the wave trope that created a narrative of feminisms which excludes women of color, lesbian, and working class activism continues to dominate. What was created to recover one portion of women’s rights activism has come to stand for the entire story. I do not deny the significance of the gains that came from the women who populate this traditional narrative; their accomplishments were remarkable. But they did not work alone and maintaining the false trope of the second wave hides from view the diverse groups of women who fought to create a new system of gender norms and rights for women, whether alongside traditionally recognized feminists or in their own spaces. Focusing critique on the framework specifically is not meant to deny the spaces where racism, classism, or heterosexism marginalized minority women. We have to consider differential access to power and the tools necessary to create change. But a more constructive approach is to consider the specific spaces, organizations, and events where problems erupted as part of a broader, more complex picture of the multiple feminisms that have historically operated in unison. The persistent stereotypes of wave feminism limit our understanding of historical realities of gender activism.

This isn’t just a scholarly issue. The intimate connections between academia and feminism mean that misunderstanding the past influences the ways generations of feminists relate to one another (a misunderstanding that flows in both directions). Scholar Nancy Hewitt astutely describes the ways in which each wave defines itself as righting the wrongs of the previous, particularly with regards to diversity and inclusion.* This need not be defined in generational terms – all engaged, contemporary feminists are capable of seeing ways we can further gender equality given the advancements made over the decades that precede us. We can strive to break down barriers that continue to exist and address the weakness of predecessors without trashing or dismissing those who came before us. And just because rising feminists look to the past to determine how modern feminisms can improve does not mean we lack appreciation and respect for all that came before us. As a historian and an intergenerational activist, I commonly feel myself floating in between opposing camps of feminism. What I find is that there is so much more that unites than divides, if only we would listen to one another and rid ourselves of a metaphor that says our birth date defines our politics. There are veteran feminists in my life who know better than I what it means to put one’s life on the line for racial equality or know their way around queer politics better than many of my own generational peers. For me, defining myself as a third wave feminist (or a second or a fourth) means defining myself in opposition to the very people with whom I want to learn, work alongside, and celebrate successes (and, of course, do shots of tequila with during moments of backlash and defeat).

Feminism is a cacophony. We are better served by seeing the simultaneous multiplicities of women’s activism, past and present. This is why we need to talk and write inclusively about feminisms, not waves of feminism. Rejecting waves has enriched my life as an activist and empowered me to think creatively as a scholar. So no waves in my dissertation, except for maybe the occasional California lesbian feminist beach scene.


*Nancy Hewitt, “Feminist Frequencies: Regenerating the Wave Metaphor,” Feminist Studies 38, no. 2 (Fall 2012)

Thoughts on Intergenerational Feminism

8 Jul

Intergenerational feminism matters.  And when it works well, it is magic.  When we lay aside the all too often arbitrary distinction of waves, I believe we find more that connects than divides.  I am convinced of the remarkable importance of these relationships, even if they are as difficult as they are rewarding.  The sad reality is, we don’t really have models for these relationships which is, I think, where the difficulty comes from.  They aren’t meant to be unidirectional relations of mentor and mentee.  Learning, support, guidance – it ought to flow in both directions in a sisterhood that spans age and embraces all forms of diversity.  If we could learn to listen more and judge less, forgive each other our misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge, and acknowledge the historical specificity and cultural construction of women’s experience and feminist identity, then we could forge bonds that empower us all and move the movement in ways not yet imagined.

I am not sure where my interest in intergenerational feminism came from.  More than likely it is tied to my love of history, which is what drew me into the world of women’s activism in the first place.  Feminism wasn’t an overt part of my childhood but strong women were.   Their example and my own bookish introspection meant that by my teen years I was questioning double standards, pointing  out inequalities, and finding power in feminism.   By the end of my 20s I had served as the president of the largest statewide feminist organization in the country and at 33, I have 15 years in the movement.  My adult years have all been in service to preserving our legacy and advancing the lives of women and girls.   My path through feminism created spaces in which I worked alongside women of all ages.  Through these years I experienced unfortunate moments of hostility simply as a result of my age.  More often I have faced silent dismissal, relegation to the children’s table.  Fortunately, such moments have typically been surpassed by support, solidarity, and encouragement (in quality, if not in quantity).

I can only speak from my experiences, my side of the generational divide.  But I have been working on this issue for years, cultivating my own relationships and encouraging others to do the same.   I still find myself so frustrated as I observe the misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and mistakes that occur when we let age divide us.

As a rising feminist engaging in cross-generational activism I have learned that stereotypes of second wave feminism and veteran feminists do more damage than good and obscure a more useful, representative history.  We are much better served by getting to know our older sisters and developing a sense of past feminisms through these relationships.  Understanding their perspectives will also add richness and nuance to how we view our own issues.  While building these relationships can at times be difficult, we learn cooperation and respect if we work through the conflict.  Bringing these relationships into our lives doesn’t mean we have to ask for permission – we are already feminists with every right to assume leadership and carry on the legacy of the movement.  We also have the right and the duty to reject and revise the tools and ideology that do harm or no longer serve us.  When our older sisters challenge or question us we gain the opportunity to articulate our positions and make connections.  This said, claiming our place and embarking on this journey is more productive and rewarding when done with respect and acknowledgement of those who precede us.  Through chance lunch seating, shuttle rides to the airport, a shared glass of wine, strategy meetings on red couches, and late night phone calls, I have come to understand that laughter, pain, love, insecurity, pride, and a desire to feel useful transcend age and unite us all.  These small moments matter for in them are often great opportunities for change.  We ought to recognize any opportunity to build relationships with our sisters because friendship, love, and respect is the foundation of our movement.  Allies can often be found in unexpected places and sometimes our older sisters get us in ways we never could have imagined.  And honestly, it sure is nice to hear someone say occasionally, you are right where you need to be and you know just how to do this-trust yourself.

I wish all veteran feminists better understood that my claiming a place in the movement is not meant to push you out, take your torch, or make you obsolete.  We do recognize that you paved the way and made possible the equalities we have today.  It may seem that such rights are taken for granted by most young women; that they are such matter of fact aspects of our daily lives speaks to your successes.  Rising feminists get it.  We are here to protect all you have gained as well as fight on the barricades of our own times.  My issues are often different than yours.  We all need to be at the table in order to truly compose an inclusive movement; you cannot speak for me anymore than I can you.   While we may not have as many years in the movement as you, we still have valuable experiences and important contributions to make.  Think about what you accomplished in the earliest years of your activism – what magic!  Today’s feminist activism often takes different shapes than it has in your lives.  This does not mean that we are any less committed or any less present.  We are everywhere. Our feminism flourishes on campuses and in labor unions, on the internet and in third wave publications, on film and in music.   Sometimes we uses the tools you created, but other times we find it necessary to reevaluate past feminist ideologies or practices. This doesn’t mean we are discounting the importance of your work and all you achieved.  We want to learn from you but we want to do so on an equal footing.  Talking at us or dictating the terms of our belonging or our relationships only serves to alienate us.  When we share the talking and listening equally you might just find that you can learn a thing or two from us.  I want to thank you, work alongside you, and assure you that your legacy will be honored and protected.

Fleeting thoughts in need of much greater detail, this sketch is my way of working through my thoughts on what divides and what might unite.  Ultimately, we don’t have to understand everything about each another, but we do need to find ways to support and empower each of our sisters.  Ask me what I know, what I want to learn, what skills I have to offer, and what I need from you.  Then I’ll do the same.  Let us surprise one another and delight in all that we are capable of accomplishing together.