“In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 1970s”

Adrienne Rich wrote, “The danger lies in forgetting what we had. The flow between generations becomes a trickle, grandchildren tape-recording grandparents’ memories on special occasions perhaps—no casual storytelling jogged by daily life, there being no shared daily life what with migrations, exiles, diasporas, rendings, the search for work. Or there is a shared daily life riddled with holes of silence.”1

This conference is a way to break that silence and to make connections between who we were as dykes in the 70’s, and who we are now, when you can get a degree in queer studies, many young women find “lesbian” a needlessly restrictive label, and those who do locate themselves on that end of Kinsey’s scale sometimes seem to just wanna get married. During those years we believed that if we could only overthrow the patriarchy and love each other well enough, understand the connections and unloose the boundaries that held us prisoner, a new day would come. It came, but not the way we visualized it.

It’s hard to look at a movement that has so much defined one’s life in context. Why didn’t that new day come? How did those who came before us make us who we were, and how did we in turn inform what came next? Where did we fit in to the other movements for social justice of our time? Were we on a fantasy trip, a group high that passed without a ripple or did we actually make changes? Is there, after all, anything worth remembering? This conference is a place to explore these questions. .

And to answer them more concretely. Just what were we up to in the 70’s, besides having sex whenever we could and calling it politics? What did we do? For one thing, we talked. We argued, chanted, reasoned, raised our consciousness and talked until we reached agreement in our collectives even if they went on all night. We unmade words and remade them in our own image, and when outsiders called us dykes, we wore the name proudly. I quote our poets, living and dead here, because they were our heralds, our witnesses, the rock stars we lined up and filled halls to see. But we did not stop with words. The personal was political and Audre Lorde famously said, “You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the masters house.2 So we made our own tools, tore down what we didn’t like, made and remade other things in our own image. We lived in our bodies in what felt like a new way, and with the energy that was produced we taught in our schools and academies, theorized in our books, lived on our land, ran our book stores and music labels and health centers and softball games and film companies and publications and stores and restaurants. And we took action. We marched and protested and organized and got arrested: for peace and against the Vietnam War and imperialism. For gay liberation with our faggot brothers, and for the rights of all women, under the law and in the streets, the right to freedom of choice and abortion and to freedom from abuse by men in the workplace, the family, the academy, We took back the night. We levitated the Pentagon.

It must be hard for young women coming up today who can take each other to the prom and see themselves or a glossy likeness of themselves on TV to remember that we were outlaws, the ones we were taught to watch out for.

“Have you ever committed indecent acts with women” an unmade interlocker asks Judy Grahn in “A Woman is Talking to Death.”

“Yes,” she answers. I have committed acts of indecency with women and most of them were acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.”3

“We are defined as opposite…perverse/ and we are perverse,” Pat Parker agrees. 4

Every time we heard, “I don’t mind gays but why must they be blatent?” and said nothing—
It was an act of perversion.
Every time we let a lesbian mother lose her child and did not fill the courtroom—
It was an act of perversion.
Every time we put on the proper clothes to go to a family wedding and left our lovers at home—
It was an act of perversion.
Every time we heard
“Who I go to bed with is my personal choice— It’s personal not political” and said nothing—
It was an act of perversion.
Everytime we let straight relatives bury our dead and push our lovers away—
It was an act of perversion.

In addition to these failures to act we made other blunders. We struggled with race and class and ableism and ageism and many times we got it wrong. We believed in ourselves passionately with our bodies and our minds and we knew we were right and the others (often other lesbian feminists) were wrong and sometimes those with the loudest voices won. It could be dangerous to stand out, to lead, because we bullied and trashed those who did.
And of course, despite our connections, we were not really one but many, coming from different races and backgrounds and ages and countries and classes and religions and languages. Some of us thought that being a dyke was the most important part of their identity, others put their race or nationality first. Some believed the way was to separate from men, others joined gay men to struggle for gay liberation, while others did not define themselves at all but quietly led lesbian lives and brought up their children as lesbians have always done. The planning of this conference was heartening. If we had thought the young had turned their back on us, we learned that we were wrong, that many younger women’s research is based in the movement that they see as integral in shaping their present and in creating a new future. We were reminded that there was no single lesbian movement in the seventies any more than there is today. The proposals we received were from younger and older women, from academics, political workers, artists, performers and business women. It became clear to us that we had made a difference, and not only to those who still thought of themselves as lesbian feminists. We were relieved to learn that the lives of the common women Judy Grahn celebrated in her poems had indeed been touched and changed by what we did in the seventies. As we planned this conference we were careful not to be nostalgic, or at least not to stop at nostalgia, but rather to look at the cracks, those spaces outside the boundaries, where questions happen. But the conference is also a place to celebrate the joy of that time. It was an amazing thing to be able to travel across the country or to another country and know you would always find a sister friend, maybe a lover, that you would be taken in. It was a good time to be alive and those of us were there feel lucky. Here is Adrienne again, from “21 Love Poems” No poison cup, no penance.

Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us:
that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have
listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to
and these are the forces they had
ranged against us,
and theses are the forces we had
ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us
and within us.5

1. Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There, ch.
11 (1993)
2. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 1984.
3. Judy Grahn, A Woman is Talking to Death.
4. Pat Parker, Movement in Black, 1978
5. Adrienne Rich, 21 Love Poems, 1977