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

This past October, CLAGS hosted a historic conference to commemorate, celebrate, and evaluate the diverse contributions of lesbians over the course of the 1970s. The conference culminated a semester-long series of events that unfurled over the Spring 2010 term. In planning for the conference, the organizing committee (made up of Melissa Gasparotto, Andrea Freud Loewenstein, Roberta Sklar, Urvashi Vaid, and myself) imagined this conference as embracing as broad a field of lesbian lives as it could. We sent out a preliminary call for papers, asking for suggestions, additions and amplifications, as well as sending out a significantly expanded cfp. And what an amazing array of proposals we received: panels on women’s bookstores, musical festivals, lesbian sexual politics, lesbian mothering (and the experiences of their children), black lesbian organizing, women’s softball teams, the birth of lesbian studies, Jewish lesbians, transnational lesbian politics, to name but a few. Equally exciting were the proposals that came from younger women (and a couple of men), who were engaging lesbian experiences in the 1970s as meaningful topics for academic study and political analysis. It was clear that this conference was going to be immense in both size and historical importance. We scheduled two-and-a-half days of panel discussions, performances, film screenings, workshops, roundtables, and plenaries, to be capped by a performance and conversation by two legendary lesbian performers, Alix Dobkin and Linda Tillery, hosted by the LGBT Community Center downtown. We also coordinated with StoryCorps and filmmaker Lesli Klainberg to record the stories of conference-goers both in audio and on video, allowing the conference to add to the historical record of lesbian lives in the 1970s.

When the first morning of the conference arrived, we were astounded by the long line of women waiting to register. We had expected that about 250 people would be attending the conference; it soon became clear that this number was a woefully low estimate. By the end of the conference, almost 450 people had registered, filling the halls of the Graduate Center with more lesbians than the building has ever seen and most likely ever will see! It’s hard to single out a single presentation to represent the conference: indeed, the organizers’ goal was not representativeness exactly, but to attempt to reproduce as closely as possible the sense of continual and diverse activity that characterized lesbian lives of the 1970s. However, the three plenary sessions that kicked off each day provided thematic links over the course of the conference. On the first morning, Blanche Wiesen Cook moderated a conversation between Charlotte Bunch, co-founder of the radical lesbian group the Furies and long-time human and women’s rights activist, as well as Michelle Parkerson, award-winning filmmaker. Cook, Bunch, and Parkerson all emerged into the 1970s from very different places in their lives, in the US, and in politics, and their conversation meditated upon the radical changes lesbians effected over the course of the decade, and the ways in which the 1970s shaped them as activists, as intellectuals, and as people. The plenary the next day, “Defining the Boundaries of Lesbian Identity,” was structured as a roundtable between Lisa Duggan, Joan Gibbs, and Urvashi Vaid, moderated by Sarah Schulman. Tackling the conflicts and successes of lesbian organizing in the 1970s, all three participants challenge conference-goers to question their own stereotypes of 1970s-era lesbians, and instead to think about the enormous variety of political and cultural work that effloresced during the decade. And finally, the joint performance by Alix Dobkin and Linda Tillery brought together two musicians of very different styles telling interconnecting stories to an enthusiastic multigenerational audience.

Given that the arts and creative culture were such a crucial part of lesbian experience in the 1970s, we dedicated an entire track of the conference to a performance and film festival that ran alongside the panels and presentations. From the feminist theater of the Crackpot Crones to lesbian home movies curated by Sharon Thompson, the festival entertained, educated, and challenged viewers. And no event about 1970s lesbians could be without a poetry reading! We were thrilled to welcome a wide variety of poets—among them Cheryl Clarke, Luzma Umpierre, Fran Winant, Joan Larkin, and Chocolate Waters—as well as Elizabeth Lorde Rollins, who read from her own work and the work of her mother, Audre Lorde. But even these provocative plenaries and inspiring performances can’t fully encompass the experience of the conference itself. “Intense” was the word most often spoken by conference-goers: the sheer number and variety of presentations, the serendipitous reunions between women who had not seen each other in years or even decades, the lively discussions in hallways and elevators, the buried controversies that sparked up again, the productive interchanges between older and younger women and between women and men, all combined into a bubbling lesbian gumbo. The massive logistical work of the conference could not have been done without the help of our conference intern Crys Raffa, and the epic contributions of our conference co-ordinator, Wendy Loomis, and CLAGS finance director Jasmina Sinanovic. Thanks, too, must go to the major sponsors of the conference, the Arcus Foundation and The Gill Foundation.