Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 70s

by Amanda Ream
published in Sinister Wisdom, Spring 2011

Here we are now.

I, like so many of my friends in our 20’s and early 30’s, am hungry to be with my elders, my heroines, in a time of political uncertainty, when endless war and economic hardship are the daily grind.  I have a lot of nostalgia for a time I never knew--the 70’s with women’s self-determination, collective life, political engagement, journals, art, music and spirituality.  A new culture born of the sweat and heart and soul of lesbians. A culture I never read about in books or even saw much of the legacy of, by the time I came out and around the bookstores were gone, the covens underground. As Urvashi Vaid has said, the common view is that 70’s lesbians had been replaced by a wittier, smarter more sex positive group of queers.   It feels like the 70s lesbians had been kept from me.

I was born the year of the very first Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, 1976.

One of my mentors as a community organizer, Miriam, was at the first Michigan.  To hear her tell it, her life was transformed by lesbian feminism. She left her husband, left the “left” as she had known it, and started the long process of healing from patriarchy, the kind she faced growing up in the 50s, and in the radical movement of the 60s. Miriam is the bridge generation. She grew up in a time where gay people were considered mentally ill, an impossibility even, found herself in wimmins community, shirtless and with an axe in her hand.

As a woman who wants to connect to my history, and be in the present moment with these incredible women, it was hard, sad even to hear from older dykes that their culture is gone, that they miss the potlucks and music festivals, that they don’t understand, as one workshop put it why “lesbians are disappearing” and why the young didn't keep the culture alive.  Its hard to stand in front of an old dyke and say here we are, the people you could of only dreamed of, proud, queer, 
diverse, radical and being whatever gender we want to be. The trans and queer movements of today like Queeruption, a radical international gathering, and Ida, a queer land project in Tennessee, are your legacy.

The present moment holds so much promise for our radical potential as dykes, just like it did in the 1970s. I have to believe the current repressive political climate, that has left gay organizations to focus on marriage and the military, inherently conservative political programs, is not so unlike the conditions that existed before these wild women of the 1970s took matters in to their own hands and created the world they wanted to live in.  The community building I do today, as a butch dyke in the labor movement feels connected to the women I learned from in ACT UP, who learned from the peace and antinuclear organizing that women did at Seneca and across the country, who learned from the lesbian feminist movement.

I would like nothing more than to be organizing side by side with these older dykes for healthcare justice, and creating lesbian culture. But I fear they don’t see us for who we are.We have expanded the idea of woman to include everyone who believes in and feels it to be integral to who they are, and that includes transwomen, transmen and radical faeries.  We don’t believe our own liberation is possible without recognizing and working at the intersectionality of our identities, including race, class and sexuality with gender.  We have many new tools, including the internet, but they could never replace community as we’ve always known it, the potluck, the skillshare or the singalong.

I hope the door is open, and we can start to see each other more clearly now.  We are the women, old and young, that made all that hard work worth it.

Amanda Ream

San Francisco, CA