Lesbian Avengers

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The Lesbian Avengers began in New York City in 1992 as "a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility." [1][2] Dozens of other chapters quickly emerged worldwide, a few expanding their mission to include questions of gender, race, and class.

Newsweek reporter Eloise Salholz, covering the 1993 LGBT March on Washington, believed the Lesbian Avengers were so popular because they were founded at a moment when lesbians were increasingly tired of working on issues, like AIDS and abortion, while their own problems went unsolved.[3] Most importantly, lesbians were frustrated with invisibility in society at large, and invisibility and misogyny in the LGBT community.[3]

Though some groups continue to hold demonstrations on an irregular basis (San Francisco Avengers demonstrated against Proposition 8), one of the Lesbian Avengers' most enduring legacy may be the annual Dyke March.

Origins[edit source | visual editor]

The Lesbian Avengers was founded by Ana Maria Simo, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-christine D'Adesky, Marie Honan, and Anne Maguire, six longtime lesbian activists who were involved in a variety of LGBT groups from the Medusa's Revenge lesbian theater to ACT-UP and ILGO (the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization). Their first recruiting flyer, handed out at New York's Pride Parade, invited "LESBIANS! DYKES! GAY WOMEN!" to get involved. "We're wasting our lives being careful. Imagine what your life could be. Aren't you ready to make it happen?" [2] There was a large response when the Lesbian Avengers held their first meeting at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center. The original group grew quickly, dozens of chapters appeared nationally, and even a handful internationally. The London group emerged from OutRage!. One activist told Salholz, "When a lesbian walks into a room of gay men, it's the same as when she walks into a room of heterosexual men ... You're listened to and then politely ignored." Lesbian Avenger Ann Northrop underlined the point. "We're not going to be invisible anymore ... We are going to be prominent and have power and be part of all decision making." [4] Her assumptions were largely proved in interviews with Avengers in the 1993 documentary film, Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too edited by Su Friedrich and Janet Baus. Some members, though, joked they also joined to meet women.[2]

Actions[edit source | visual editor]

Cover of the Lesbian Avenger Handbook

The Lesbian Avengers generally avoided traditional picket lines, sit-ins, and petitions, aiming instead for actions that created stronger, original images more likely to attract both media coverage and new members.

The Lesbian Avenger Handbook encouraged particular attention to the visual elements of the demonstration. "It should let people know clearly and quickly who we are and why we are there. NY Avengers have used a wide range of visuals such as fire eating, a twelve-foot shrine, a huge bomb, a ten-foot plaster statue, flaming torches, etc. The more fabulous, witty, and original, the better." [1]

The targets of the Lesbian Avengers changed often. They have taken on homophobic school boards, misogyny in the gay community[citation needed], and anti-gay referendums. Sometimes their positions seem to change, as well. In the early years, the group opposed attempts to legitimize gay marriage, protesting the notion at an Andrew Sullivan book signing in 1995.[5] By 2008, the Avengers were protesting in favor of marriage equality, and in opposition to Proposition 8.

The New York Lesbian Avengers also developed a Lesbian Avenger Civil Rights Organizing Project,[6][7] traveling across the country to fight anti-gay referendum and ballot propositions.

First Action: Rainbow Curriculum[edit source | visual editor]

On their first action (September 9, 1992), the Lesbian Avengers targeted right-wing attempts to suppress a multicultural "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum for elementary schoolchildren. Ostensibly under attack for including lesbians and gay men in its lessons about diversity,[8] some activists like Ana Maria Simo charged that opponents, besides being homophobic, also had a racist agenda in battling the multicultural curriculum.[2]

Meeting in Queens School District 24 where the opposition to the "Rainbow Curriculum" was strongest, they paraded through the neighborhood with an all-lesbian marching band to a local elementary school where they gave out lavender balloons to children and their parents saying "Ask About Lesbian Lives." They also wore tee-shirts reading, "I was a lesbian child." [2]

This first action exemplified the Avenger approach.[1] They established a strong visual presence with balloons and marching band, offered flyers clearly explaining to passersby their support for the curriculum and denouncing its opponents, and, as in all subsequent actions, made great efforts to reach print and broadcast media.

They also demonstrated without permits,[2] refusing to ask for permission to express themselves. Organizer Kelly Cogswell later elaborated on this principle during the 1994 International Dyke March, "We ask for a permit; they can say no." [9]

Above all, their choice of action reflected their commitment to challenging homophobic stereotypes. In this case, some members objected to going anywhere near children since lesbians and gay men had so often been portrayed as child molesters. Other members thought that was precisely why their presence was essential. And that was the eventual consensus of the group.[2]

Role of Media: Love and Hate[edit source | visual editor]

Press played an important role in the Lesbian Avengers. One article actually characterized them as "a protest outfit formed to attract media attention to lesbian causes." [4] Besides shaping actions for visual impact, there were committees dedicated to outreach and "propaganda." The handbook offered a step by step guide on the processes necessary to attract press attention from mainstream and lesbian and gay media, even examples of press releases.[1]

They had a mixed record of effectiveness with mainstream media. While the group was featured in the 1993 Eloise Salholz's Newsweek article, The Power and the Pride, and actions were occasionally included on local news broadcasts, the Lesbian Avengers were often ignored.[citation needed]

In her discussion of the 1994 International Dyke March, There was a dyke march?, journalist Amy C. Brenner discussed how, despite enormous outreach and the several thousand marchers that attended the event, the event was barely mentioned. Of the fifty articles covering the Stonewall anniversary celebrations in the New York Times, the Dyke March and the several thousand lesbians that attended the event only got nine lines. "Nothing was mentioned in the Washington Post...or the Chicago Tribune...or the Los Angeles Times."

Conflicts over the handling of the press coverage of the Dyke March also occurred within the New York gay and lesbian political community. In an interview, Simo said that a press release sent out by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) after Stonewall 25 initially did not have anything in it about the Dyke March. After the Avengers brought this issue to GLAAD's attention, one line was added to the end of the press release about the lack of mainstream press coverage about the Dyke March.[9][10]

Aware of the power of the press, the Lesbian Avengers sometimes didn't court it, but attacked it. They invaded the offices of Self magazine when that publication planned a trip to Colorado despite a lesbian and gay boycott of the state for hate legislation, and in the resulting media coverage were misnamed "The Lesbian Agenda." [11]

The Avengers also collaborated with Las Buenas Amigas and African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change in a series of actions against homophobic and racist radio programs at La Mega 97.9 in New York, and its parent company, the Spanish Broadcasting System, informing advertisers, staging demonstration, and briefly taking over the radio station and broadcasting their own message.[12][13]

Fire-Eating[edit source | visual editor]

Use of fire and fire-eating became something of a symbol for the Lesbian Avengers, and spread from the New York group to many others. The New York Times, in one of its few articles on the Avengers, explained:

[It] grew out of tragedy. Last year, a lesbian and a gay man, Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, burned to death in Salem, Ore., after a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the apartment they shared. A month later, on Halloween, at a memorial to the victims in New York City, the Avengers (then newly organized) gave their response to the deaths. They ate fire, chanting, as they still do: "The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own."" [14]

That action, held at a West Village encampment, was later followed by a march down Fifth Avenue in which they carried torches, and burnt signs with the names of anti-lesbian and gay propositions blamed for the homophobic violence.[citation needed]

At the Washington Dyke March held during the anniversary celebrations of the Lesbian and Gay March on Washington in 1993, the Lesbian Avengers ate fire in front of the White House surrounded by a crowd of an estimated 20,000 lesbians.[2]

The Dyke March[edit source | visual editor]

According to Lesbian Avenger co-founder Sarah Schulman, "It was at the 1993 March on Washington that the Avengers and ACT-UP Women’s Network created the first Dyke March -- with 20,000 women, marching together with no permit. These participants brought the marches home to their cities and countries and created a new tradition." [15]

This April 24 March in Washington was followed in June 1993 by what was to become an Avenger tradition, the Dyke March held a day or two before LGBT Pride.[citation needed]

The second New York City Dyke March, coinciding with the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Gay Games IV, and international human rights conferences, was actually an International Dyke March, attracting as many as 20,000 marchers from all over the world.[9]

The Dyke March tradition continues in many cities, and has even expanded to Mexico City.[16]

Chapters[edit source | visual editor]

In its heyday, the Lesbian Avengers had as many as fifty-five independent chapters, locally controlled and operated. Besides their shared commitment to lesbian visibility, many held a Dyke March which took place the Saturday before LGBT Pride.

U.S. groups included Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Gainesville, Lansing Michigan, Minneapolis (still active as the Twin Cities Avengers), Philadelphia, Rochester, San Francisco, New Orleans.

The British chapter of the group was formed in 1994 by members of OutRage! One of their most high profile actions was intervening when Sandi Toksvig was dumped by the Save the Children charity after coming out.[17] Following protests organised by the Lesbian Avengers, the charity apologised.[18]

Further reading[edit source | visual editor]

Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, by Kelly J. Cogswell (2014)

See also[edit source | visual editor]

References[edit source | visual editor]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Lesbian Avenger Organizing Handbook Retrieved 2009-3-4.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 "Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too". Archived from the original on March 26, 2010.  Editors Janet Baus, Su Friedrich. (1993)
  3. 3.0 3.1 1993, Eloise Salholz, Newsweek, "The Power and the Pride."
  4. 4.0 4.1 Salholz, Eloise. The Power and the Pride, 1993-06-21, Newsweek.
  5. Cross-Hairs The Atlantic, January 11, 2011
  6. Pursley, Sara. "Gay Politics in the Heartland: With the Lesbian Avengers in Idaho." The Nation 260 (January 23, 1995) pp 90-94.
  7. "Lesbian Avenger Civil Rights Organizing Project: Out Against the Right Handbook". Octobertech.com. 2004-03-16. Retrieved 2014-06-29. 
  8. Myers, Steven Lee. IDEAS & TRENDS; How a 'Rainbow Curriculum' Turned Into Fighting Words. New York Times, 1992-12-13.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 McKinley, Jr., James C., " Organizing a City: A Celebration From A to Z New York Times, 1994-06-19.
  10. Branner, Amy C. There was a dyke march? Off Our Backs, Aug. 1994[dead link]
  11. Brozan, Nadine Chronicle New York Times, 1993-01-27.
  12. Simo, Ana. Is Spanish Radio Training Bigots? The Gully online magazine, 2001-08-04. Accessed April 4, 2009.
  13. Duques, Andrés, A visit with the radio shock-jocks of El Vacilón de la Mañana 2007-11-16. Retrieved 2009-3-4.
  14. SUNDAY, APRIL 24, 1994; Fire-Eating Lesbians New York Times Magazine, 1994-04-24.
  15. Schulman, Sarah. What Became of Freedom Summer? The Gay and Lesbian Review, January–February, 2004. Volume 11, Number 1
  16. Mexican Dykes Out for Visibility The Gully online magazine, 2003-02-18. Retrieved 2009-3-4.
  17. "Lesbians protest over charity ban" 5 Oct 1994 The Independent
  18. David, Smith (November 1994). "Comedian and actress Sandi Toksvig, a well-known face on the popular comedy improvisation TV show, Whose Line is it Anyway, came out as a lesbian in the pages of the Sunday Times and Daily Mirror". Gay Times (Millivres) (194). ISSN 0950-6101. 

Further reading[edit source | visual editor]

External links[edit source | visual editor]