Looking at Lesbian Feminism 1970 – 2005: Conversations Across Generations

What has become of lesbian feminism?
Over 100 activists, scholars, and
writers convened at the CUNY Graduate
Center on Friday, October 28, 2005, for
intergenerational discussions about
lesbian-feminism. Activists from the first
‘organized’ lesbian movement paired
with lesbian activists who came out
post-lesbian-feminism to talk about
lesbian-feminism and the body, culture,
sex, and movement building. Together
with a moderator, participants in the
four featured discussions shared
convictions and experiences about class,
race, transgender politics, misogyny,
privilege, dating strategies, sexual styles,
and liberation struggles.
E. Francis White, Mistress of
Ceremonies, said in her introductory
remarks, “ If CLAGS is going to put on
an event about lesbian-feminism, it
doesn’t assume a middle class white
women’s movement; the roots are more
complex than that.” Organizers Marcia
Gallo and Polly Thistlethwaite worked
with a planning team that shared that
conviction: Marion Banzhaf, Jennifer
Cheng, Paisley Currah, Carmen Vazquez,
and Fran White.
Mandy Hu moderating “the body”
discussion posed a challenging question right off the bat. She asked how post
lesbian-feminist transgender identities
challenged lesbian-feminist identities.
Marion Banzhaf, a veteran of women’s
health, reproductive rights, and AIDS
movements, responded by tracing links
among those and transgender politics.
“Lesbian feminism demystified the body
using tools taken from the
establishment,” she said, likening this to
the trans movement’s challenging the
medical establishment. Carolyn
Connelly, performer and Babeland
education coordinator, voiced concerns
about lesbian feminism and transphobia.
Discussion followed about the role of
misogyny and male supremacy,
economic obstacles for sex-reassignment
surgery, and a perceived threat to
butches posed by FTM identities.
The culture discussion followed,
with poet Staceyann Chin talking about
lesbian invisibility in relation to the
visibility of her color. With lawyer Karen
Thompson moderating Chin and
filmmaker Tami Gold, the culture
discussion featured three women talking
passionately about still having to “wear
all the isms” in a world that fails to
recognize fem identities. Chin
contrasted her real world with the
glamorous lesbians on Showtime’s “The
L-Word” saying, “Some days I go out
and don’t look all that sharp.” The
difference between lesbians imagined
and lesbians in the neighborhood is an
endless source of struggle, irony, and
Filmmaker Jean Carlomusto
moderated activist participants Jennifer
Cheng and Carmen Vazquez in the
conversation about s-e-x. Cheng calls
herself a “queer sex-positive femme
lesbian who loves her sneakers as well as
her stilettos,” and recounted her
program to date women of color
given the relatively larger response
she was getting from white women.
Both Cheng and Vazquez both said
they went looking for great sex and
became lesbians as a result, not the
other way ‘round. Butch-identified
Vazquez said “sex is a gender thing,”
connected to intimate exchange of
power and vulnerability. She
embraces both femaleness and maleness
in her female body. Neither Cheng nor
Vazquez embraced the stereotypical
lesbian-feminist model of “side-by-side
reciprocal sex.”
With psychotherapist Judy Wenning
moderating, poet Cheryl Clarke,
historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, and
writer Surina Khan rounded out the
afternoon’s featured conversations.
Clarke recounted her early path as a
writer. Cook and Khan emphasized the
contributions by lesbian feminists of
color to the discussions of racism which
played later in feminist arenas with
reverberations beyond and outside of
feminist circles. This
conversation addressed
the conservative political
backlash and the
changing faces of
resistance to new and old
forms of resistance to
reinforced and re-imaged
oppressions. It also
wound around to
confessions from some
who did like to watch the L-Word.
Over 30 have signed up to
participate in a yahoo group to follow
up these conversations in an online
forum. Contact the CLAGS office
(clags@gc.cuny.edu) for more
The conference was funded by the
New York Council for the Humanities.
WBAI (99.5 FM – Pacifica Radio) in New
York City, taped the conference for
broadcast at a time still to be
announced. To listen to the raw,
unedited tapes, go online to the
Archives page at www.clags.org.

Polly Thistlethwaite is an
Associate Professor and
Associate Librarian for
Public Services at the
The Graduate Center, CUNY.
She has worked extensively
with the Lesbian Herstory
Archives, and she was
recently awarded a
PSC/CUNY Research
Grant to study GLBT
public history in Berlin.