Notable Gay Women in the LGBT Rights Movement?
February 1, 2009 4:45 PM   Subscribe

Where are the lesbians in the history of the Gay Rights Movement?

After seeing Milk over the weekend, I realised that my knowledge of gay women in the Gay Rights Movement is very poor. Much of the well-known notable points in gay history are male-oriented - Stonewall, Harvey Milk, Matthew Sheppard. Even the AIDS crisis devastated the gay male community more than the gay female community.

Who is the gay female equivalent of Harvey Milk? Regarding his position in government, not his assassination.

The film itself almost entirely excludes women, except for one notable lesbian character - Anne Kronenberg. Was this really representative of that era? Or of Castro Street in particular?

Educate me on the more notable names of gay women in the history of the LGBT Rights Movement.
posted by crossoverman to Human Relations (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I will leave someone far, far better qualified than I to answer the historical aspects of this question, but this recent thread covers the radical lesbian separatist movement in detail. This was a vital and relevant force in the gay rights movement that borne out of many lesbians' frustration at feeling overlooked and dismissed in the larger gay rights movement--remember how in Milk, the lesbian political director is received with suspicion and mockery among Harvey's gay male minions? Take that reaction and compound it exponentially during the 70s and 80s. Like lots of identity movement, the larger gay movement frequently assumed the primacy of a "main" identity, in this case, homosexuality, and then fell prey to the same bigotry when tasked to recognize "secondary" identities, which was gender in this case. A parallel example is how the mainstream second wave feminist movement suppressed both gay and non-white identities lest they seem too radical or fractured.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:56 PM on February 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded Dauhgters of Bilitis in San Francisco in 1955. They also wrote a book called Lesbian/Woman in 1972 that chronicled the early lesbian rights movement.

Martin and Lyon were together for over 50 years until Martin died recently. They were the first couple married in San Francisco when the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
posted by Sublimity at 5:01 PM on February 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Elaine Noble

Jean O'Leary

Barbara Gittings

I read about these women in Profiles and Gay and Lesbian Courage.
posted by Pants! at 5:02 PM on February 1, 2009

Margarethe Cammermeyer immediately comes to mind.
posted by sueinnyc at 5:12 PM on February 1, 2009

Best answer: Also check out Charlotte Bunch--her Lesbians In Revolt text is considered a key manifesto for the lesbian rights movement in the 70s.
posted by zoomorphic at 5:12 PM on February 1, 2009

Fresh Air segment about Del Martin.
posted by Caduceus at 5:28 PM on February 1, 2009

1974: Kathy Kozachenko becomes the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the United States by taking a seat on the Ann Arbor City Council.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:48 PM on February 1, 2009

Also, Virginia Apuzzo: "She became involved with the National Gay Task Force (later renamed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), working to have a gay and lesbian plank included in the Democratic Party's 1976 platform. Although this attempt was not successful, the Task Force continued its efforts and saw such a plank, co-authored by Apuzzo, adopted in 1980."
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:55 PM on February 1, 2009

Not political leaders per se but important: Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson.
posted by Morrigan at 6:04 PM on February 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

Perhaps premature and not *exactly* on point but I feel I would be remiss not to add the name Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir on this historic day.
posted by Morrigan at 6:10 PM on February 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Check out Lillian Faderman's excellent Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.
posted by scody at 6:18 PM on February 1, 2009

Another great book: Tales of the Lavender Menace by Karla Jay
posted by kimdog at 7:29 PM on February 1, 2009

I think a lot of lesbian activism was absorbed into the 70s feminist movement, and sometimes became equated with it, both in the eyes of activists and opponents -- so it was more identified with women's issues than with sexual orientation issues for at least a couple decades...lesbian activisim showed up again during the 'sex wars' of 1990s feminism. But overall I think lesbian politics pre-Milennium identified itself with the overall fight for women's legitimacy, equality, freedom, and personal agency, sexual and otherwise, and that historically there were real and meaningful differences between issues of women's sexual freedom and acceptance and men's, because of the de-facto second class status of women at least until the contemporary era. There is probably an overdue recontextualizing of lesbian activism that would reassign it from feminist activism to queer-rights activism; though there are also some really strong reasons to see its relevance in terms of the development of feminism instead of the development of LGBT rights and culture.

It's an interesting question. If we accept "queer liberation" as epitomized by Milk and other male gay-rights activists like those in ACT UP and the early 80s/90s gay-rights movement, aren't we just accepting maleness as the dominant sexual characteristic yet again? If these issues weren't important to men, would we even be constructing them in the same way we do, bundling lesbians into 'gay rights' history? it's a big topic and I'm out of my depth in speculating about it, but I want to chime in and make the point that women's and men's sexuality and sexual variation has been differently conceived in 20th century history, and that before the 80s and 90s I'm not aware that much common cause was ever identified.
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on February 1, 2009

Response by poster: Certainly the lesbian separatist thread and the Lavender Menace link here suggests the feminist movement didn't necessarily want to be associated with the lesbian movement necessarily - though Del Martin and the Daughters of Bilitis did seem to work closely with the National Organisation of Women.

I certainly think the maleness of the "queer liberation" history I know about is what has made me question whether the movements were altogether separate, had notably different agendas or whether it's yet another case of the male story dominating or suppressing the female story.
posted by crossoverman at 9:20 PM on February 1, 2009

Response by poster: Lots of great answers here - it's a great start to my reading more about this subject.
posted by crossoverman at 9:21 PM on February 1, 2009

First out lesbian Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin.
posted by davidstandaford at 1:09 AM on February 2, 2009

At times, there was considerable hostility between out lesbians and mainstream feminists.

"The term "Lavender Menace" was coined by Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1969 to describe the presence of lesbians in the early women's rights movement. Betty Friedan and others believed the presence of lesbians was hurting the movement. She went so far as to omit the Daughters of Bilitis from the list of sponsors of the First Congress to Unite Women in November 1969. ..."
posted by Carol Anne at 6:06 AM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

I wish I had more references at my fingertips, but I recall being at an NGLTF conference workshop in the late '90s where there was a good deal of discussion how the gay and lesbian movements really united in the '80s and that a big part of the eventual recognition of the AIDS crisis had to do with lesbians working behind the scenes on behalf of something that was still primarily affecting gay men.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:02 AM on February 2, 2009

Certainly the lesbian separatist thread and the Lavender Menace link here suggests the feminist movement didn't necessarily want to be associated with the lesbian movement necessarily

I really think this has been overstated in retrospect. Certainly elements within the feminist movement didn't want to be associated with the lesbian movement. But at the same time, other elements within the movement merged with and/or became the lesbian movement. The fact that something like Lavender Menace was even written shows that it was divisive, but also that lesbian political activity within the feminist movement was strong and significant and even attractive to women who did not initially identify as straight.

I was aware of this because of members of my own family who were involved in the 70s women's rights movement. Several were involved in feminist discussion groups, readings, women's studies classes, etc., and for one of them, her involvement in the movement became deeper and deeper until she took on the declared status of "political lesbian." She and other women who identified as lesbian were among the driving forces behind the establishment of women's health clinics, professional collectives, counseling services, support groups, etc. Their work was feminist, but it was also lesbian. And also, feminist. I do believe it was through separatism that a "queer" identity emerged for women, and that is perhaps what caused a new degree of identification with gay men. Both groups now had a widespread and visible distinct identity, a history of marginalization even within their own gender community, frequently a rejection of monogamy and interest in exploring new relationship structures - things that had been much less obvious a part of lesbian identity before the 1960s.

I certainly think the maleness of the "queer liberation" history I know about is what has made me question whether the movements were altogether separate, had notably different agendas or whether it's yet another case of the male story dominating or suppressing the female story.

I honestly think that little common cause with men was felt during the height of the 70s women's liberation movement. Gender relations were strained even between straight women and straight men who continued in traditional relationships. I think that though there may have been discussions and consciousness raising around queer lifestyles for both men and women, attempts to unite men's and women's non-heterosexual lifestyles, and consider them as a single phenomenon with shared political objectives, were really pretty rare until the early 80s. I agree that the AIDS crisis and the onset of Reaganism may have helped to create that sense of common cause.

Much is made of the hostility to lesbianism by other feminists, and I don't mean to say there weren't long and vociferous arguments, but from our vantage point in history I think that lesbian activism was inseparable from the 1960s and 70s feminist movement and vice versa, and that throughout the 70s it stayed largely separate from gay male activism.

The reason I started thinking about this again and came back to post was that an article appeared in this week's New Yorker about the lesbian separatist movement. It's not yet available online, but it was a good read, and does as good a job as my family did of describing the blow-by-blow social developments within the women's movement, and how a lesbian self-awareness and group identity developed through and with the activities, questions, and discussions of feminism, and how the tenor of the times all but precluded collusion with gay men on political activity.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

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