Responses to this shirt, and to the slogan on it, range from “Yes!” to puzzled to “What a terrible thing to say!”
True, without context, it does sound right out of the Pat Robertson quote book. He’s the white televangelist who very famously said that “the feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
To which my stock response has long been “I never had a husband to leave, ‘kill your children’ is total BS, and the last three are fine with me.”
Need I say that many feminists don’t practice witchcraft, oppose capitalism, or become lesbians, but over the decades the feminist movement has encouraged women to explore and develop religious traditions that don’t put men first; pay closer attention to how current economic systems support patriarchy and white supremacy (and vice versa); and come out and/or become more visible as lesbians.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, the overwhelmingly white, straight, middle-class-and-up leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other mainstream feminist organizations didn’t want to hear it. Opponents were accusing them of being man-haters, socialists, atheists, and dykes, among other things.[i] Straight feminists, led by Betty Friedan, in their efforts to persuade the general public otherwise, threw lesbians under the bus and called us the “lavender menace.” To them we were, at best, a fifth column within the women’s movement. At times it seemed they had a hard time acknowledging that lesbians were women.
Radical feminists and lesbians from NOW, the Gay Liberation Front, and other groups rose to the occasion. Calling themselves the Lavender Menace,[ii] in May 1970 they disrupted the NOW-sponsored Second Congress to Unite Women, which despite its name had excluded all lesbian-related items from the agenda, by appearing in matching LAVENDER MENACE T-shirts and passing out copies of “The Woman-Identified Woman.” This manifesto/essay is now widely acknowledged to be a key document in U.S. feminist and lesbian history.
So in 1977 I came out into a community that was well aware of that history, many of whose members had played major and minor roles in making it. Before long I was learning and embracing it, partly by osmosis and partly by reading. My copy of Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young (1972),[iii] has my name and “August ’77” written on the title page. It includes “The Woman-Identified Woman” and also Radicalesbians’ 1970 essay “Leaving the Gay Men Behind,” which over the next few years I came to agree with 100%. The latter, by the way, includes the line, in all caps, “WOMEN’S LIBERATION IS A LESBIAN PLOT.”
To me in the late 1970s — and, come to think of it, in 2021 — this made good sense: who has more to gain from women’s economic, legal, and political equality than women who are less likely to benefit from the cultural assumption that heads of household (etc.) are, and should continue to be, male? When I said that women’s liberation is a lesbian plot, it was at least partly tongue-in-cheek, because “plot” suggests something sneaky and clandestine. From the Lavender Menace action onward, we were not.
The T-shirt, however, says “Feminism is a lesbian plot” because “Women’s liberation” was too long to fit without a weird line break. The two aren’t quite synonymous, but for they’re close enough. The shirt — which is unique, and the only tie-dye in my collection — was made for me by a D.C. housemate, the endlessly creative Beverly.
Beverly was pursuing her master’s in African studies at Howard and working for a Catholic women’s organization. She played the mandolin, favored long colorful skirts when most of us dressed urban dyke casual when we weren’t at work, and was handy with tools. She rescued a small table from a Mount Pleasant alley, installed dowels between its legs to stabilize it, and gave it to me. It’s the perfect height for kneading bread on, I’ve still got it, and that’s what I use it for.[iv] Beverly also created the “I’d rather be reading Adrienne Rich” sticker that’s on one of my old file cabinets.
She managed to procure one of the “Someone in Your Life Is Gay” posters that were then appearing on D.C. buses. She stuck it up on a wall in our second-floor hallway, and we surrounded it with news photos depicting male public figures embracing, holding hands, or kissing each other. (The Gay Activists Alliance had to go to court to get WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, to accept advertising featuring the poster.)
We were feeling our way toward what it meant to be a woman in a world where “woman” was defined entirely in terms of, and in relation to, “man.” Hence the importance of language: the recognition that “mankind” really did not include us, masculine pronouns were not inclusive, and lesbians really had to be not only included but recognized and acknowledged in the National Organization for Women. We were discovering and inventing all the “ways a woman can be,” as singer-songwriter Teresa Trull sang it. This took, and still takes, plenty of practice, and the practice has to happen in the midst of unrelenting hostility and suspicion and confusion.
Individual lesbians are far more visible in “the mainstream” (some sections of it anyway), and often more readily identifiable in our local communities, than they/we were four decades ago, but lesbian culture and politics are harder to find. In large part I attribute this to the dearth of women-only and lesbian-friendly spaces, including bookstores, music festivals, and publications. Not coincidentally, in the popular mind “lesbian” seems to have become an either/or proposition: either you are or you aren’t, and it’s almost entirely about sex.
So it’s invigorating to go back to the writings that shaped my worldview in the 1970s and 1980s, like “The Woman-Identified Woman.” Now as then its first answer to the question “What is a lesbian?” — “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion” — strikes me as, well, hyperbolic. What follows, however, is golden: “She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society — perhaps then but certainly later — cares to allow her.”
Judy Grahn’s poem “A History of Lesbianism” is spare and decidedly undramatic — until the very last lines:
The subject of lesbianism is very ordinary; it’s the question of male domination that makes everybody angry.
The great lesbian singer-songwriter-activist Alix Dobkin died earlier this month, on May 19, three weeks after being stricken with a ruptured brain aneurysm and stroke. In those three weeks, a mostly lesbian, virtually all-women vigil sprang into existence on the CaringBridge website. Across decades and generations, we shared our memories of Alix and how her music had saved and challenged and changed us. I’ve never stopped playing Alix’s music, but during those three weeks I played it almost nonstop.
So I’m closing this post with something she wrote in the liner notes for her 1992 retrospective CD, Love & Politics: A 30-Year Saga, about a line in her song “View from Gay Head” (yeah, it was written in that Gay Head, now Aquinnah). When she sang “Any woman can be a lesbian,” some took it to mean that every woman should be a lesbian. To which she wrote: “All I really meant was that every woman has some capacity for deep self-love and primary love for women, which is what being a Lesbian meant to me then and means to me now.”
What she said. Blessed be, Alix.
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[i] In the popular mind these are still commonly conflated, and a few decades ago the conflation was epidemic. I could go on about how erroneous this is, but instead I’ll offer a counter-suggestion: that what angers, terrifies, and/or confuses many men, women, and patriarchal society in general isn’t that lesbians hate men but that we manage to do pretty well without their approval and support.
[ii] The Lavender Menace action is covered in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a crucial documentary about the early “second wave” of U.S. feminism, 1966 to 1971. It’s available for home viewing on DVD (check your library), and at the moment you can find it on YouTube.
[iii] New York University Press published a 20th anniversary edition of Out of the Closets in 1992, with a new introduction by the editors and a foreword by historian John D’Emilio. Still in print, it remains a wonderful intro to the lesbian and gay ferment going on in the late 1960s and very early ’70s — and a reminder that many of these issues are still with us.
[iv] Beverly also gave me the big beige-and-brown McCoy bowl that I’m still using to mix and raise dough in. Another housemate gave me Beard on Bread, which I’ve used so often that it’s now held together with strapping tape. Over the years, housemates, neighbors, and friends have come up with many ways to encourage my bread-baking habit.