An Oral History of the Lesbian AvengersBreaking News
tags: womens history, LGBTQ history, social movements, Lesbian History, Queer Liberation
When I called queer historian Lillian Fadermann to discuss the legacy of the Lesbian Avengers — the ’90s activist group that founded the Dyke March — she opened with, “I think it’s important to remember that lesbians used to get lost in the gay-rights movement then, and I think they can still get lost in the LGTBQ+ movement today.” For the past 28 years, the Dyke March has been a meaningful point of congregation for lesbians who long for greater visibility and support in their fight against homophobia and sexism and to celebrate the joys of lesbian life. The activists Ana Maria Simo, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-christine d’Adesky, Anne Maguire, and Marie Honan had these precise aims in mind when they formed the Lesbian Avengers, who exploded onto the New York scene in 1992 with their entertaining and eye-catching demonstrations. At its peak, the group expanded to include 60 chapters on three continents before officially dissolving in 1997. In honor of New York City’s Dyke March on June 26, the Cut spoke to some of the Avengers who helped the direct-action group expand into an international movement.
Carolina Kroon, Avenger and photographer: First, envision a world with no cell phones or computers. Then envision a very different city, both developmentally and in terms of the funkiness of certain pockets of the city. Manhattan was still expensive but affordable, which made it possible for people to be creative and have some of the freedoms that come with that. The East Village was filled with artists who were making the neighborhood fun and hip, kind of like what Bushwick felt like 10 or 15 years ago. And if you were going to find any queers in the city, that was exactly where you found them.
Sarah Schulman: To understand the Lesbian Avengers, you have to go back to a time when the entire government was white and male, the media was white and male, and the whole private sector was white and male. The men who were gay in those worlds were in the closet, and those who weren’t didn’t care about what lesbians had to say about women’s bodies, their representation, or their experience.
Carolina Kroon: It’s hard to imagine now — but in that era, people were not out of the closet very much, and there was no gay visibility in the media. And when there was, it was very much the right wing’s take on the “evil queers” and about the stigmatization of HIV and AIDS. I think there was so much desire to see some depth and diversity in terms of what it meant to be gay and lesbian, because the gay narrative at the time was also very male!
Lillian Faderman: The mainstream women’s movement led by Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women saw lesbians as the “lavender menace” and tried to exclude them. Friedan even did a purge of lesbian activists in New York in the 1970s. Nevertheless, lesbians continued to work on issues such as abortion, which didn’t often directly affect lesbians, and were extremely influential members of groups like ACT UP in the fight against AIDS. It’s not that lesbians decided they didn’t want to work on abortion or AIDS anymore; it’s just that they also wanted something that was unique to their experience. And that was very historically significant in the ’90s.
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