Lesbian history in the 1960s and 1970s

In Chapter 8 of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman describes the lesbian revolutions from the 1960s and the 1970s. Up to this point in U.S. history, lesbians were discouraged from organizing in groups because of the view that lesbians were sick, and because of the Great Depression and McCarthyism, but the 1960s brought a new spirit of organizing for liberation.

Picketing became popular as a form of protest, and some newspapers began to mention gay rights. Gay rights activists challenged organized religion’s lack of acceptance and the number of homophile organizations increased. There were gay rights organizations even during the McCarthy era, but they were able to become bolder in the 1960s.

The most important moment in American gay rights history happened in the 1960s, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of—Stonewall!

“On June 28, 1969, in the midst of a New York mayoral campaign—a time when the incumbent often sicced the police on homosexuals to bolster his record as a vice fighter—police officers descended on the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall was a gay bar in Greenwich Village that called itself a private club, open to members only. The police came with a search warrant, authorizing them to investigate reports that liquor was being sold there without a license. The raid had been the third staged by police on Greenwich Village gay bars in recent nights, but this time the response was different. Instead of scampering off in relief when the police booted them out on the street after questioning them, the two hundred working-class patrons—drag queens, third world gay men, and a handful of butch lesbians—congregated in front of the Stonewall and, as blacks and other oppressed groups had done before them in the course of the decade, commenced to stage a riot. Their numbers quickly doubled, and soon—according to some sources—increased tenfold. Before the night was over four policemen were hurt as rioters bombarded them with cobblestone bricks from the Village streets, as well as bottles, garbage, pennies, and an uprooted parking meter. The riots continued the following night. Fires were started all over the neighborhood, condemnations of the police were read aloud and graffiti appeared on the boarded up windows of the Stonewall Inn exhorting everyone to “support gay power” and to “legalize gay bars.” These occurrences, which came to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion, marked the first gay riots in history.” (p144)

The Stonewall Rebellion energized activists and generated more media attention to gays and lesbians as an oppressed group. After Stonewall, new gay publications and organizations were formed, and pride parades commemorated the riot. Gays and lesbians were more empowered to demand their rights.

This was an interesting paragraph:

“The new movement lesbians tended to be a different breed from either working-class or middle-class lesbians of the previous generation. They were often young, college-educated, and politically aware, whatever the socioeconomic background of their parents had been. For those who were born into the working class, the democratization of higher education in the 1960s meant that they might get an education (and the verbal and analytical skills that went along with it) such as only women of middle-class background might have had earlier. Many of those who were born into the middle class purposely declassed themselves in that decade that valued egalitarianism. Thus these young movement lesbians of all classes were able to come together. They were generally comfortable with language and ideas and knew how to organize as working-class lesbians of the previous generation did not, and they were confident that they should have rights no less than any other Americans, as middle-class lesbians of the previous generation were not. Their militance often outstripped the capacities and understanding of both older working-class lesbians and middle-class lesbians, and difficulties emerged between the generations.”

By the 1970s, activists were fighting against police harassment of gay bars in other cities, fighting for same-sex marriage, getting gay lifestyles added to the family studies curriculum, and getting a gay rights platform added to the Democratic Party. Of course, there was a backlash—anti-gay organizations were formed in response.

In the 1960s, attitudes toward sex in general became more permissive. More heterosexual couples were living together, for example, and birth control was more readily available. In this more liberal atmosphere, lesbian sex became less stigmatized. The feminist movement was reinvigorated in the 1960s as well, and during this time, lesbian feminism was born. According to lesbian feminism, women could choose lesbianism as a part of the path toward women’s liberation. The hippie movement in the 1960s gave some women a chance to explore lesbianism, although for some of these women it was simply an experiment. Both the hippie groups and the male left were rather hostile toward women, and this meant that lots of feminist and lesbian women left these groups to form groups of their own.

The rift between the “born this way” lesbians and the political lesbians began in the 1960s, and I don’t think this has been solved even today, although the “born this way” group seems to have the upper hand. Anti-feminists have always called feminists “lesbians” in order to discredit them and as a strategy to scare women away from feminism, but in the 1960s women explored the idea that “lesbian” is synonymous with a female rebel, and saw that becoming a lesbian was a powerful part of the feminist movement. In 1970, the New York group Radicalesbians wrote their famous paper, The Woman Identified Woman, that defined a lesbian as a woman identified woman.

“In one sense, the Radicalesbian group’s definition came full circle, back to the early sexologists’ definition of the lesbian as a woman whose behavior is not appropriate to “womanliness.” But while the sexologists saw such women as rare and congenitally tainted, the new lesbian feminists saw them as ubiquitous and heroic. Lesbianism was to the lesbian-feminists a cure-all for the ills perpetrated by sexism. Lesbianism was “women creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which is at the heart of women’s liberation and the basis for cultural revolution.” And the best news was that any woman could embrace it.”(p152)

I really like the way Faderman describes lesbian feminism. She mentions the realizations women had in consciousness-raising groups—for example, that heterosexual relationships are unequal, and that women’s energy is being spent on taking care of men in marriage. Lesbian feminists provided a critique of heterosexuality and formed their own women’s culture.

Lesbian feminists weren’t very well accepted by the rest of the gay rights movement. They didn’t necessarily get along with the older lesbians who were doing butch/femme roles, which they saw as an imitation of heterosexuality, nor with the “born this way” lesbians who were working with gay men on legal reforms, nor with conservative and closeted lesbians. Heterosexual feminists weren’t comfortable with the separatist program of the lesbian feminists nor did they like the feminist movement being painted as a “bunch of man-hating dykes.”

Faderman describes some of the reasons why lesbian feminists didn’t want to work with gay men. The gay men were concerned about liberating gay sex and gay lifestyles from persecution but had no analysis of power and patriarchy, and their goals were not going to liberate women.

“For many lesbian-feminists the problem stemmed from gay men’s lack of a radical analysis over the questions of sex and sex roles. They accused gay men of being merely reformist—defining the issue of homosexuality as a private matter about with whom you sleep—instead of understanding the deeper political issues such as questions of domination and power. They complained that gay reformists pursued solutions that made no basic changes in the system that oppressed lesbians as women and their reforms would keep power in the hands of the oppressors. As lesbian-feminists, they were not interested in promoting what they saw as trivial laws and mores that would make it possible for everyone to sleep around freely while maintaining the status quo of women’s powerlessness.”(p155)

I am totally on board with lesbian feminists, then! (Big surprise!) My goals are aligned with women’s liberation, and I’ve never seen gay men fighting on behalf of women. I’d much rather work with radical feminists of all sexual orientations than with a group of mixed “born this way” gays and lesbians.

I’ve mentioned that other feminists were not comfortable with this brand of lesbian-feminism, and of course this is still going on today. Here is where we get into the “lavender menace.”

“Although lesbian-feminists saw themselves as feminist rather than gay, they did not enjoy an unalloyed welcome in the women’s movement. Betty Friedan, the founder of NOW, the largest organization of the women’s movement, even went so far as to tell the New York Times in 1973 that lesbians were sent to infiltrate the women’s movement by the CIA as a plot to discredit feminism. However, despite the displeasure of NOW’s founding mother and her supporters, who called lesbians the “lavender menace,” when a showdown actually took place in NOW most heterosexual feminists voted on the side of lesbians.” (p155)

I’ve seen the phrase “the lavender menace” many times. Lots of lesbians these days use this phrase or some variation of it as their screen names on the Internet, and it’s been explained to me that “feminists didn’t used to accept lesbians in their movement.” This is the first time it’s been brought to my attention that Betty Friedan herself coined this phrase, and that she had a paranoid belief that lesbians were sent by the CIA! Holy crap! But it looks like NOW adopted a pro-lesbian position fairly quickly after that.

In Chapter 9, Faderman focuses on the creation of woman-identified woman communities in the 1970s.

“Many lesbian-feminists had discovered lesbianism through the radical feminist movement. They were often women in their twenties who had grown up in the era of the flower child and had learned to approach life with passion and idealism. Their decision to become lesbian feminists stemmed from their disillusionment with the male-created world and their hope of curing its ills. The fruitless war in Vietnam, the proliferaton of ecological problems, the high unemployment rate even among the educated, the general unrest that was left over from the 1960s, all contributed to their radical lesbian-feminist vision that American culture was in deep trouble and drastic measures were required to reverse its unwise course. Since they were convinced through feminism that the root of the problem was male—caused by the greed, egocentrism, and violence that came along with testosterone or male socialization—they believed that only a “woman’s culture,” built on superior female values and women’s love for each other, could rectify all that had gone wrong in male hands. Thus not only was love between women—“lesbianism”—destigmatized among them: it was “aristocraticized.” Although women before the 1970s often became lesbians because of their discontent with the way men behaved, the lesbian-feminists were the first to articulate such motivation and to create a coherent philosophy out of it.”(p167-168)

Oh, I just love this! Young, idealistic women disillusioned with male culture and starting a culture of their own! Sign me up for that! Of course, I don’t think that merely separating from society is enough, as I wrote about here. We need to also make structural changes.

“They wanted to create entirely new institutions and to shape a women’s culture that would embody all the best values that were not male. It would be nonhierarchical, spiritual, and without the jealousy that comes of wanting to possess other human beings, as in monogamy and imperialism. It would be nonracist, nonageist, nonclassist, and nonexploitative—economically or sexually. It would be pro-women and pro-children. These women believed that such a culture could only be formed if women stepped away from the hopelessly corrupt patriarchy and established their own self-sufficient, “women-identified-women” communities into which male values could not infiltrate. Those communities would eventually be built into a strong Lesbian Nation that would exist not necessarily as a geographical entity but as a state of mind and that might even be powerful enough, through its example, to divert the country and the world from their dangerous course.(p168)”

This is so beautiful, although rather utopian. Although, there is a bit of essentialism going on here. If there is such a thing as female values, doesn’t that imply that all females are the same? We’re not all the same and we don’t all have the same values. But I do like the community they were trying to create, and I see these values as positive human values. Michfest was a good step in this direction—it was a woman-only community with strong pro-woman values—and it’s terrible that it has ended.

Faderman continues to describe the work and the vision of the lesbian feminist separatists of the 1970s, and it really is beautiful. Their ideal world was based on socialism and women-run institutions, and if large numbers of women had joined in and sustained this vision, it could have been a massive revolutionary force. Unfortunately, lots of women weren’t interested in joining or could not join. Not all lesbians believe in the politics of separatism—we are in fact a diverse group with many different political beliefs—and all heterosexual women were by default excluded. The group of militant lesbian separatists is doomed to remain small, since the group of women who can choose lesbianism is small, and those who agree with radical politics is small as well. I really do agree with what they were trying to create, and I wish it were possible to carry out this vision fully in the real world. I wish more people were on board with radical politics. That’s one of the reasons I write this blog, of course—to promote radical politics.

Faderman talks a bit about how the enthusiasm and idealism among lesbian feminists sometimes turned into a rigid dogma about how one could behave. For example, it was so important to reject femininity that anyone who wanted to wear a dress and makeup would be seen as not being politically correct. There are still remnants of this sort of dogma left over, which I bring up regularly on this blog. There are still women turning their enthusiasm for feminism into dogma and attempting to kick people out of feminism for some minor infraction. I don’t believe in doing this, but I understand the enthusiasm and the sense of desperation that lead women to be very rigid in their beliefs. The feminist revolution is a matter of life and death for so many women—obviously people are going to get zealous. But I don’t believe that feminism is a set of rules for group membership, I think it’s a liberation movement, and I don’t think that scrutinizing individual women’s behaviors is an effective strategy for liberation.

The lesbian separatist groups ended up in conflicts because of their intense enthusiasm and desire for ideological purity, and their utopian vision was difficult to achieve in real life. But I am very grateful for the work they did and the ideas they promoted. There are still lesbian separatists around and their numbers are quite tiny, but their ideas are obviously powerful—you can tell by the backlash they get from men! And love them or hate them, lesbian separatists did some wonderful things for lesbians by creating lesbian culture and proudly declaring that lesbianism is a positive thing for women.

The next chapter is “Lesbian Sex Wars in the 1980s.” I can’t wait to read that!


6 thoughts on “Lesbian history in the 1960s and 1970s

  1. I came out in to the late 70s and l lived it, It was a time where there were active fights all the time between the butch/fem community and the crowd that insisted you had to be androgynous. It was ugly. Since I had long hair but dressed as an androgyne I used to get met at bar doors with the question, Do you know what kind of bar this is. Thank heavens for belonging to the Girl Scout niche or I never would have survived. The men didn’t accept dykes until the GRID?.AIDS/HIV crisis yet. I always felt caught between the separatists and the fact that I had a gay brother that I loved and was told I had to reject. The West Coast Women’s Music Festival’s birth helped a lot out here.

    Liked by 2 people

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