We’d been warned all our lives: Don’t go out at night, and most especially don’t go out alone at night. “Alone” implied “unaccompanied by a man.” When I was a student at Georgetown University, a series of rapes and assaults on campus prompted male students to organize an escort service to see female students safely home from the library at night.[1] The Take Back the Night movement that arose in the 1970s believed that women should be able to walk anywhere we wanted any time of day, alone or with others, in safety. Women shouldn’t have to depend on men to protect us from — it was understood, if often not spoken aloud — other men.

I’ve got three Take Back the Night T-shirts, two from particular events (the ones with dates on them), one more general. The 1981 march in D.C. I must have attended. I’m not sure in what city the 1979 event took place, or how I came by the T-shirt. In 1979, there was a Take Back the Night march in D.C. I definitely attended and it definitely had a T-shirt, but not long after the event I donated mine to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Nevertheless, I can see it in my mind’s eye: a big black women’s symbol set on the diagonal, with words clustered around it, all on an orange background. Halloween colors. I don’t remember what the words said. They probably included the date, but I don’t remember that either. The event left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was never going to wear the shirt, so I gave it away.

If you have any info on where this march took place, please let me know! Text: “Women Unite! Take Back the Night, August 18, 1979.”

The organizers had bitterly debated what role men should play in the march. I and most of my lesbian-feminist friends opposed male participation: didn’t it send a message that women needed male support to “take back the night”? The counterargument was that straight women wouldn’t participate if men were excluded. Those opposed to male participation were generally white, lesbian and/or radical feminist, and relatively new to D.C. Those advocating for it were generally black and straight and had deeper roots in the community. The upshot was that men were welcome to join in.

At the event itself, a contingent of black men either worked or pushed their way to the head of the march: after-the-fact reports varied, and I was too far back in the line to see what was happening. However it happened, men wound up leading a march that was supposed to be about women empowering ourselves.

In the next few years I came to realize that what happened that night had its roots in the planning process, and even deeper roots in the explosive mix of racism, sexism, and heterosexism that few of us paid enough attention to and none of us knew how to deal with. Would things have worked out differently if all the lesbians hadn’t been white and all the black women hadn’t been straight?

I wish now that I had kept that T-shirt. If I wore it today, people might say, “Cool shirt! Where did you get it?” None of them would likely know the backstory, and if anyone did — well, I’d want to know what they remembered and what their perspective on the whole thing was, then and in retrospect. What side they were on wouldn’t matter much. If I could teleport back to 1979 with my 2021 consciousness intact, I wouldn’t be standing in exactly the same place either.

That 1979 march taught me plenty, though it took a few years for the lessons to sink in. It’s possible to give something away without letting it go.[2]


I was learning that it wasn’t just the night that we needed to take back, or, more accurately, claim for the first time. Around that time I was volunteering with the Lesbian Resource and Counseling Center (LRCC), the only woman-specific program of the Whitman-Walker Clinic.[3] In these pre-AIDS days, the clinic was one step up from a shoestring operation. Its flagship program was the Gay Men’s VD Clinic, and the vibe was overwhelmingly male.

The LRCC did peer counseling, provided referrals, and hosted a rap group. The clinic administration had agreed that on LRCC nights the clinic space would be women-only, but it was not unusual for the rap group to be interrupted by men lugging in tables and other supplies from that night’s VD clinic, which rotated among the various men’s bars and baths. When confronted about this, one guy’s surly response was typical: “Don’t forget who brings in the money around here.”

Text: “Women Unite / Stop Violence Against Women / Take Back the Night / Washington, DC 1981”

At the LRCC I did pretty much what I’d done at the Washington Area Women’s Center: staff the phone and lead rap groups. I wasn’t involved all that long, however, although I enjoyed the work. More and more I was focusing on the written word, writing and editing; other interests were falling by the wayside. I was contributing fairly regularly to off our backs and the Washington Blade, the D.C.-Baltimore area’s gay newspaper. At the Blade it gradually became apparent who was in charge and whose inclusion was strictly conditional.

Donna J. Harrington and I recounted our experiences in “The Dulling of the Blade,” a lengthy story published in the December 1980 off our backs.[4] Donna had been the Blade’s office manager and a contributing writer for about a year. I had been a contributing writer during roughly the same period, recruited at a time when the gay-male-run paper seemed eager to include lesbians.[5] Over the months, this eagerness deteriorated into hostility that was often blatantly sexist. In researching the story, Donna and I learned that our experiences were not unusual among lesbians working in gay-male-dominated organizations. These outfits had a lot in common with those run by straight men.

The opening two paragraphs from “The Dulling of the Blade”

The editor in chief denied that sexism was an issue; he attributed all problems to “individual personality clashes.” Donna and I disagreed. We concluded “that the gay men who run the Blade have serious problems with lesbian-feminists, and we have come to suspect that they do not believe that lesbian-feminists have enough ‘clout’ to make working with them worth precious male time. Their common response is to get rid of the women who make them uncomfortable. Donna and her predecessor at the Blade and D–– S–– when she was at Philadelphia Gay News had a common experience: as they became more radical, more assertive about feminist issues, and more closely identified with the women’s community, their relationships with their gay male colleagues disintegrated. Their competence and commitment abruptly came under attack.”

Clearly it wasn’t just the night that women needed to take back, and it wasn’t just straight men who were the problem. I didn’t have the patience to deal with them, or much interest in developing the skills necessary to do so. (Many years later, a girlfriend said, with a hint of exasperation, that I had “a complete absence of gush.” I was, and still am, rather pleased with this, but sometimes it does get in the way.)

Before “The Dulling of the Blade” appeared, I was getting more and more frustrated with my job as an editor in the Red Cross publications office. I loved the work. I loved the commute. I loved most of my colleagues and how well we worked together — with one exception. Go back to “1979: I Become an Editor” and you’ll recognize him immediately: Frank. Except it wasn’t so much Frank the individual: in small doses and with the right light, he provided plenty of roll-your-eyes hilarity to compensate somewhat for his incompetence. What grated on me was that he was getting away with it because the American Red Cross was letting him get away with it. Friends who worked in comparably big bureaucracies had comparable stories about incompetent, invariably male co-workers. Big bureaucracies and I were not made for each other. In the spring of 1981 I gave notice; my last day was in late May.

I planned to take a few weeks off, focus on my writing, and then decide what next. “What next” appeared sooner than expected, at my 30th birthday in early June. Watch this space: it’s coming.

If you want to leave a comment and don’t see a Leave a Reply box, click the title of the post and then scroll to the bottom.

Notes

[1] The women’s dorms were on the campus periphery, much closer to Georgetown University Hospital than to the library, classroom buildings, and other centers of student life. Why? You guessed it: because until very recently the overwhelming majority of female Georgetown undergrads were in the nursing school. At night, the walkways were mostly deserted. Co-ed dorms were late coming to conservative, Jesuit-run Georgetown. One argument in their favor was that the two isolated women’s dorms made female students easy targets for predators.

[2] It would be another decade before Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the word intersectionality, to underscore how our identities are multiple, and how the various components can both complement and contradict each other in myriad ways. However, the concept had been out there for years, and not surprisingly it was feminists of color who were in the forefront of developing it. See for instance the classic “Combahee River Collective Statement,” written by a Boston-based collective of Black feminists in 1977, first published the following year, and never more important than it is today.

[3] In the decades since, the clinic has gone big-time as Whitman-Walker Health. In the 1980s the HIV/AIDS crisis pushed other issues — and lesbians — to the periphery, but it seems that from about 1990 onward Whitman-Walker recommitted itself to “close that gap by providing comprehensive and inclusive care for the lesbian, bi, and queer women’s community” by instituting its Lesbian Services program. By the way, the Whitman in the organization’s name honors, you guessed it, Walt Whitman. The Walker is for Dr. Mary Walker, who wasn’t as far as I know a lesbian or even especially woman-identified but who was a woman pioneer in the medical field.

[4] “The Dulling of the Blade” is archived on JSTOR, along with all of oob’s back issues. “Independent researchers” can read up to 100 articles a month on JSTOR if you sign up for a free account. The access URL for the article is http://www.jstor.org/stable/25773405.

[5] I’ve heard this attributed to the vulnerability gay men were feeling in the late 1970s. Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children was in full cry, with white evangelicals at the forefront. A Dade County (FL) ordinance offering some protection on the basis of sexual orientation was overwhelmingly overturned by voters in a June 1977 referendum. In November 1978, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, was assassinated, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone. By 1980, though, at least in D.C., mainstream (straight) politicians were showing up at gay (male) events, so white gay men felt more secure and hence, it seems, less in need of lesbian support. When AIDS (first known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) surfaced in 1981 and quickly became an epidemic, gay men pushed lesbian interests even further to the peripheries — while across the country and around the world many, many lesbians threw themselves into advocating for and taking care of their gay male friends and colleagues.

One thought on “1979–1980: Take Back the Night (and the Clinic, and the Newspaper)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s