I’ve been systematically writing about each decade of lesbian history while reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman, but when I got past the section on lesbian sex wars I ran out of steam. Not because of the sex wars, but because of what came after that. In the 1980s we had a return to conservatism, followed by the AIDS crisis. The recent decades have seen a lot of depressing stuff. It’s not all bad, though. Here’s a short summary!
From chapter 11 of Odd Girls:
“While the 1970s rode on the steam of the social revolution that had been set in motion by the flower children of the ’60s, the momentum appeared to have been lost in the ’80s as mainstream America returned to more conservative times. Although the effects of the sexual revolution of the previous decade could not be totally eradicated and the sexual ethos of the 1980s was light-years away from times such as the McCarthy era, the “New Right” became vociferous in its desire to turn back the clock.”
I was born in the 1980s, and I have only known conservative times. Governments are consistently introducing more cutbacks and austerity for the working class, wages are not keeping up with the cost of living, activist movements have been subdued, the anti-feminist backlash is in full swing, and gender roles are being enshrined into law. People who are supposedly on the Left are not talking about overthrowing capitalism; instead they are drowning in identity politics.
Getting back to the book, Faderman lists some ways that the lesbian community sobered up in the 1980s. They literally sobered up—apparently Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were flooded with lesbians. I guess the several decades of bar culture took their toll, and the lesbian community was full of problem drinkers. Lesbians also became less militant—the strict rules of political correctness from the 1970s loosened, lesbians wore makeup again and started getting professional jobs instead of working on building separatist communities. They began to join mainstream society instead of being separate.
In my opinion, joining mainstream society is both positive and negative at once. The good thing about it is that we actually were accepted enough by mainstream society that we could join it. Obviously, I want us to be accepted and allowed to enter the same institutions as heterosexuals are. However, joining the mainstream also means losing lesbian community. I know lots of lesbians in real life, and we get together sometimes for a wedding or a milestone birthday party but generally we live our separate lives. This does weaken lesbians as a group, because without strong lesbian community, young women just coming out don’t have a community of support—I believe they still need that, especially since they’re now being taught that they’re not really women.
When the AIDS crisis happened, many lesbians joined gay men in activism. Separatism took a back seat as the gay and lesbian community joined together in defense against attacks from the deadly disease and the antagonistic right wing. The newly united gay and lesbian community created the largest civil rights march in American history—the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which drew 650,000 people. Gay and lesbian groups lobbied for civil rights and got more support from public officials. They also created the militant groups ACT-UP and Queer Nation.
Because the community was less rigid than it had been in the 1970s, more diversity could flourish. Pride festivals started having more stages set up at once to cater to different types of people. Lesbians from racial minority groups became more visible as women organized with their specific groups. Organizations also formed for fat lesbians, disabled lesbians, lesbian mothers, and old lesbians.
Fantastic things happened musically in this period. Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, and Ani Difranco rose to fame. Other famous lesbians started coming out, too, such as the Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O’Donnell.
Here are the videos of Ellen’s “lebanese” sketch on Rosie O’Donnell’s show in 1996 (embedded below) in which she sort of comes out, and the episode of her TV show from 1997 where her character announces she is gay. These days it’s hard to imagine a time when Ellen wasn’t out!
Of course, we all know what happened in the 2000s, because we’re still living it now. Everybody and their uncle are now part of the LGBT alphabet soup, “queer” means everyone, exclusion is a cardinal sin, and corporate America is on board with gay rights now that they can profit from them. Lillian Faderman stops at the 1990s, but to read about the current situation for lesbians and gays, see Julie Bindel’s book Straight Expectations.
And the major issue for the 2010s: the battle of the TERFs vs. the sparklegenders. Ugh. I can’t imagine what’s going to happen next. Probably the 2020s will be the decade of lawsuits from lesbians who were transgendered as children.