This Washington Area Women’s Center T-shirt was created when I was no longer even tangentially involved with the center, probably after I started working at Lammas in 1981. At that point my center of gravity moved from Northwest D.C. to the southeast and northeast fringes of Capitol Hill. The old Sumner School was no longer within easy walking, biking, or even busing distance. Just as important, the written word was coming to dominate my life — editing, writing, and bookselling — and to draw me into circles and networks of similarly committed women.
This T is more sedate, easier to wear in “polite company” -‑ that is to say, non-feminist, non-lesbian company — than the first WAWC shirt. The labyris symbol is retained but discreetly: only those in the know will recognize it as the head of an ax, or understand what that ax symbolizes.
What catches my eye now is the line under the center’s name: “Creating Unity From Diversity.” Variations of this slogan have become ever more popular in the decades since. It’s conventional wisdom among feminists, liberals, and progressives. It rolls so trippingly off the tongue that we forget how difficult it is.
Part of the Women’s Center’s mission statement declared our intent “to create a space where all women could be comfortable.” My experience taught me that the achievement of this goal was, at best, a long way off. This was my epiphany:
The rap group, of which I was one of the regular leaders, attracted some regulars who came every week and occasional participants who came for the week’s topic. As with other Women’s Center activities, the majority were usually lesbians, but sometimes as many as half the participants were straight women. (Not every woman identified herself, but if someone bent over backwards to avoid giving any clues, the chances were good she wasn’t straight.) Discussions were friendly, everyone seemed comfortable, but it gradually became apparent that the comfort was conditional.
Often several of us would decide to continue the discussion elsewhere after the center closed for the night. There were several reasonably priced options within walking distance where we could get a drink, or coffee, or a bite to eat and talk. Two of them were frequented mostly by gay men but known to be friendly to women (this was not a given with establishments that catered to gay men).
A pattern emerged: When the group mind settled on one of those gay-friendly places, the straight women who’d been ready to come suddenly remembered they had other obligations, or they were just too tired to go out. When we picked one of what we thought of as neighborhood pubs or cafés, everybody went.
These “neighborhood” venues were considered neutral, but of course they weren’t. They were frequented by male-female couples and straight men. At one, the men would be gathered at the bar watching sports on TV and cheering or groaning loudly as the game progressed.
In other words, the lesbians were willing to put up with the discomfort of being in a place where heterosexuality was the norm, and the straight women weren’t willing to do likewise in a place where it wasn’t. This was not surprising, since lesbians and gay men lived most of our lives in places dominated by straight people, starting with our families; they might not be exactly comfortable, but they were certainly familiar. For the straight women, gay-friendly places were anything but.
Women’s Center volunteers talked a fair amount about how to attract more straight women to our activities, like Women’s Nite Out and the rap group and our various classes. How to make straight women more comfortable at the center. I was coming to the conclusion long since reached by some of my sister collective members: that the only way to make most straight women comfortable in a mixed lesbian-straight milieu was for the lesbians to “tone it down”: talk less about our relationships, disguise pronouns when we did, and so on. To make straight women more comfortable, we had to make ourselves less comfortable. Since our comfort options at the time were so limited, this didn’t look like a great alternative.
A few years later, in her great essay “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” (based on a speech given at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in 1981; in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith [New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983]), Bernice Johnson Reagon — scholar, activist, and longtime founder-leader of the black women’s a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock — nailed the whole matter of comfort and discomfort, extending it to encompass all the power differentials in our culture: black and white, female and male, middle class and working class, and so on and on. And especially how these categories intersect: Kimberlé Crenshaw didn’t coin the word “intersectionality” until the end of the 1980s, but feminists were already working on it, with women of color generally leading the way.
Reagon draws the key distinction between coalition and home: Coalition work, she says, “is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort. . . . In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home. You can’t stay there all the time.” We all need some sort of home, a place we can be comfortable enough to recharge before we “go back and coalesce some more.”
Diversity is more abstract than coalition, but it makes some of the same demands. Don’t expect to be comfortable all the time. Pay attention to who does expect to be comfortable, especially if it’s you, and who’s expected to “tone it down.”
This issue has never been more important. If all of us, especially the more privileged among us, aren’t willing to learn to live with some measure of discomfort, I suspect we’re all doomed.
In practice, the Women’s Center created events where all women could be comfortable as long as they were comfortable in women-only spaces. As expected, a significant majority of these women were lesbians, but not all: some identified as bisexual, some as heterosexual, and some were in transition or uncommitted. The Full Moon Cruise in 1980 was more ambitious than the usual Women’s Center event, which is why it got its own T-shirt. Women’s Nite Out happened regularly on the third floor of the Sumner School, and every so often we threw a women’s dance at All Souls Church.
All Souls, the Unitarian Universalist church at 16th and Harvard, N.W., was then as now a hotbed of culturally and politically progressive activity. It was also a stone’s throw from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, home to multiple lesbian group houses, and easily reached by public transportation. Long before rainbow flags started flying from liberal churches and synagogues, All Souls welcomed our events, at some risk to themselves. D.C.’s human rights act, like many such laws, saw no difference between men excluding women and women excluding men, or white people excluding black people and black people excluding white people: justice may not be blind, but when it comes to power imbalances in society, it certainly is myopic.
The threat of being sued wasn’t strictly hypothetical either. Around this time, I was editing as a freelancer a bimonthly newsletter for a non-smokers’ rights group. Its principal, a George Washington University law professor, brought a sex discrimination suit against a D.C. restaurant for requiring men, but not women, to wear jackets. I had zero doubt that he and other legal eagles would thrill to bring a suit against the Women’s Center for excluding men from a dance, and against All Souls for renting us space to do it.
So we were careful. We created the fiction that these were ticketed events, and tickets had to be purchased in advance. PR was largely by word of mouth or very limited circulation media like In Our Own Write. If a man insisted on coming in, we were supposed to let them in, but I don’t recall this ever happening. What I do recall is our delight in appropriating the men’s room, where there was never a line.
Our best protection was that lesbians weren’t just invisible to the heterosexual world; we were literally unimaginable. Only a few years earlier, after all, I had gone to women’s dances at Penn without registering that most of the women there were, if not lesbians, then not exactly straight. The idea of women voluntarily excluding men from any part of our lives, and especially our events, is still problematic. But the distinction that Bernice Johnson Reagan made between home and coalition is still valid. All of us working in the rough-and-tumble wider world need places to regroup and recharge.
Tellingly, it was in this women-only, mostly lesbian world that I started paying much closer attention to the differences among us, and the other ways we were different from the wider world. We were mostly white in what was then a majority-black city, and the age range from youngest to oldest couldn’t have been more than about 15 years. Class-wise, however, we came from a variety of backgrounds, and some of us had had grueling experiences with the mental health establishment, male violence, and/or the legal system. In this women-only space, we talked about things we had never felt comfortable discussing anywhere else.
I picked up this T at a women’s conference at West Virginia U., where Lammas was selling books and records. Probably 1983 or 1984. (Maya Angelou was the keynote speaker.) We dreamed of a universal sisterhood, of “unity from diversity,” but making it happen in real time was far harder — and asked more of us — than we often wanted to acknowledge.