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National Hispanic Heritage Month and Hispanic Lesbian History

4 Oct

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time when Americans honor the contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. I live in New Mexico, a state with a rich Hispanic culture, and I study history at the University of New Mexico. My current project uncovers how lesbians and gay men constructed formative identities, cultures, and activism in New Mexico in the 1920s through the 1980s, which has been a challenging task because of the paucity of written sources on LGBTQ history in the state. It has been even more difficult to find Hispanic lesbian voices. Hispanic women began writing about their lesbianism in fictional terms and this literature first addressed their virtual absence in history. With the rise of the Third World women’s movement and the publication of texts, starting with the work of Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, a new field emerged in the 1980s.

Expanding on these beginnings, two important anthologies demonstrated the continued growth of the field: Juanita Ramos’ Campaneras: Latina Lesbians (1987) and Carla Trujillo’s Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (1990). Trujillo was born in New Mexico and her anthology includes three other women born and raised in the state and one that moved there later in life. New Mexico affords scholars an opportunity to better understand the flourishing of Hispanic lesbian representations. One space in which I have uncovered Hispanic lesbians’ historic lives is in rural areas and small towns. As historian Yolanda Chavez Leyva argues, Hispanic lesbian histories challenges the urban-based paradigm in the field as many lived at home or close to family members and negotiated their sexual orientation within familial structures rather than in large cities. I am curious to hear from other scholars who work in this field to see what spaces they have examined. Church? Work? Bars? How might LGBTQ scholars better incorporate Hispanic gay men and lesbians’ experiences into our field?

Fire it up!

20 Mar

Does this thing still work?

Clearly I am not pulling my own weight around here. Despite having completed coursework and passing my comprehensive exams nearly a year ago, I’ve still not made the time to contribute to this worthy endeavor. Well, it’s time to crank this puppy back up.

So, while I work on my long, long over-due response to Chelsea’s thoughtful post about waves, I present to you for your amusement a news item I ran across recently while doing dissertation research. It’s a coat check for husbands–brilliant! It originally appeared in the November 12, 1910 edition of Dry Goods Economist, 45.

Husband Coat Check

your feminist guffaw

17 Jul

The Pussycat League!  I can’t possibly imagine why I haven’t heard about this feminist organization, formed in 1969:

pussycat league

While they shared causes with these organizations (and let’s pause for a moment and relish the thought of how the women of these groups would have responded to this collective grouping), these pussycats sought equality by turning on men through “the power of enticement.”  I’m guessing there weren’t many lesbians in the pussycat ranks, in spite of the group’s name sounding like a hotbed of sapphic activity.

Their plans for bringing about legalized abortion in New York? A hospitality suite during legislative hearings on abortion where “Pussycats will be on hand to shine shoes for harried legislators, sew on buttons and render other feminine assistance.”  Part of me wants to say, well fuck – if darning socks is the solution to safeguarding abortion rights, hand me sewing kit.  The rest of me feels a little pukey that I’d even consider that.

(From the article, “Pussycats Purr for Rights of Women” in LA Times, Nov. 23, 1969)

archival cry

5 Jul

It is striking how much a single passage in a single document can convey.  In an intimate letter penned “about 5 a.m.” on a spring day in 1975, Diane reaches out to “Del & Phyl” shortly after the death of her partner Ginny.  Diane and Ginny met in California in 1960 and, preceding the first wave of rural lesbian separatism, purchased an Arkansas farm in 1963.    Sitting at Ginny’s desk Diane writes,

Ginny’s mother is with me until this Friday.  She is wonderful & has helped so very much — she has always understood what the relationship between us was but it was never mentioned.  But now that Ginny is gone we’ve had long conversations about it and [she] is in the process reading your book [Lesbian/Woman].  She is 77.  It has been very comforting to be able to talk to her.  Ginny was buried as a veteran — the flag draped cofin [sic] — the flag removed & folded & presented with ceremony to the next of kin.  Faith (G’s mo.) asked to have the flag presented to me but regulations would not allow it — so when they made the little speech & handed the flag to her — she turned & handed it to me — in front of god & everybody.

Neighbors & friends gay & otherwise have been very supportive.

Let me know the details of when you are free for I need you, every minute I can get.*

This reflection on a relationship ended far too soon is revealing in many ways.  We see the nuanced response of a mother whose only point of reference was a time before public lesbianism.   Diane shows us her side of a close friendship with lesbian rights pioneers Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.  They offered comfort not only as friends but as activist authors; their book Lesbian/Woman is pictured here as a resource not just for lesbians but for those seeking greater understanding of them.  The funeral services indicate Ginny survived the anti-gay military purges of the Cold War era.

What is most striking though is the added burden Diane experienced as a result of 1975 homophobia.  Relationships with her partner’s family, plans for funeral services, and reactions of friends and community — in each space there is tension and concern over whether she will find support or derision in her grieving.  Her final sentence indicates a comfort to be found only in the company of her old friends, a lesbian couple who could certainly understand some of the fears she navigated in those days.

Here they are, Diane and Ginny, in 1965 (featured in an article from the newspaper Tulsa World).

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*This letter is found in the Phyllis Lyon/Del Martin Papers, Box 26, Folder 10.

california snapshot

13 Jun

Exhaustion has set in and I cannot wait to get home to the kitties.  What a wonderful trip in so many ways.  All that is left is one final interview tonight, a few hundred miles to my hometown, and a day with the family tomorrow before I fly back to Michigan on Saturday.

After a day or two of sleep, I’ll be sorting through all of the research and transcribing interviews.  I’ll also share with you my own California travel diary with some of my favorite tidbits of lesbian feminist history.  Until then, here is a view of the lesbian feminist collective where I spent the weekend.

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A feminist by any other name?

18 Sep

As if the term “feminist” wasn’t tricky enough in our daily lives (not tricky bad, just tricky complicated), trying to figure how, when, where, and for whom to use it when writing about the past is exponentially more so.   There are, of course, those easy cases in which women (and men, too) claimed the identity proudly. But what about all of the cases in which individuals lived their lives in feminist ways, or when groups act collectively to improve the lives of women, but did not publicly claim the title?  Perhaps they didn’t identify with the term, perhaps they weren’t familiar with it, or perhaps the term wasn’t available to them.  Regardless the reason, how do we discuss and explain their history?

On October 15th I am presenting a paper at the Western Historical Association about the Daughter’s of Bilitis (DOB), a lesbian group founded in 1955.  The eight founders initially envisioned a social group that would create a space for lesbian friendship during an oppressive social climate.  Within a year, a few of the original members and several new ones set out to improve the lives of lesbians by creating a publication (The Ladder), holding informational sessions (such as what to do when arrested at a gay bar), and evaluating the medical literature that defined them as deviants.  Many members would come to publicly identify as feminists and join feminist organizations as women’s liberation exploded onto the scene at the end of the 1960s.  They claimed no such identity, however, for most of the organizations first ten years.

My closest colleagues know I have been preoccupied for some time with DOB (as well as other public lesbians in the decades preceding Stonewall) and what appear to be actions, ideas, and sentiments that are “feministesque”.  Or at least, the seem to be feminist to me.   They maintained the significance of woman only space.  They asserted the need for fair employment and wages.  They debated the ways in which their experience of homosexuality was gendered.  They responded to limitations, inequalities, and dangers as gay women.   Do I call them feminists?  Do I call their work feminist in nature?  Do I describe them as “protofeminist?”   Is an activist for women’s rights by any other name still a feminist?

How do you define and use identity categories and terms in your work?  How do you define feminist pasts?  How do you use the term in your scholarship?