When Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old black teenager, was ambushed and murdered by a white mob in 1989, it brought attention to New York’s deep and ancient racial divide. A group of teachers and administrators responded by creating “Children of the Rainbow,” a program for first-graders to promote understanding and respect. Students would learn Mexican hat dances and Greek New Year bread, and in over 400 pages of recommended learning activities there was also a 6-page section on families, which included three references to homosexuals and to lesbians.
Some parents, school board members, and clergy viewed books as Heather has two moms, Daddy’s roommateand Gloria goes to Gay Pride as amounting, in the words of board member Mary A. Cummins, to “dangerously misleading lesbian/gay propaganda.” Cummins accused Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez of promoting “a lie as big as any lie concocted by Hitler or Stalin.”
Playwright and theater director Ana Simo closely followed the escalating rhetoric, which reflected the hatred and repression that gay men and lesbians face on a daily basis. She invited Maxine Wolfe, Sarah Schulman, Anne-christine d’Adesky, Marie Honan and Anne Maguire to develop a response strategy. They were already involved in women’s and gay rights, as well as HIV/AIDS activism, but Simo says that as lesbians, their priorities were often pushed aside. “No more talks, no community building,” Simo explained, “The goal was to do something on the street.”
Inspired by Emma Peel, the smart and capable spy played by Diana Rigg in the 1960s TV show The Avengersthey were called the Lesbian Avengers. Their first action, in September 1992, was to show up at a school in Queens where opposition to the new curriculum was particularly strong. They arrived with a marching band led by women wearing T-shirts that said “I was a lesbian kid” and handed out lavender balloons, urging kids and parents to “learn about lesbian life.” “It wasn’t a protest,” says Simo, “it was more of a performance with a political end result.”
Zaps like this have had significant precedents, says historian Lillian Faderman. In 1968, New York’s radical women protested the Miss America pageant by trashing their bras, hairspray and girdles on the Atlantic City boardwalk. In 1970, the Radicalesbians hijacked a meeting of the National Organization for Women, in T-shirts that identified them as the “lavender menace” (a mocking reference to Betty Friedan’s lesbian bashing).
Faderman says that for the Lesbian Avengers, humor was often as effective as rage. “They handed out chocolate kisses in Grand Central Station on Valentine’s Day with the message ‘You just got kissed by a lesbian,'” says Faderman, “And they also put up a playful sculpture of Alice B. Toklas kissing Gertrude Stein at Bryant Park.”
Overturning an accusation that had long been leveled against LGBTQ people, the Lesbian Avengers’ motto was “We’re hiring” and they did – with flyers and palm cards, which were stuffed into phone booths, boxes newspapers and cash machines. One featured blaxploitation star Pam Grier with a gun, another a housewife in an apron with a bomb on her cake platter. Artist Carrie Moyer, who designed the playful agitprop, explains “Part of it was to counter this stereotype that I and a lot of other people had grown up with, that lesbians were that dour, humorless kind of people. ”
The Lesbian Avengers also plastered posters around New York City that closely mimicked commercial advertisements, creating visibility, Moyer says, while making a broader public point of view: “We can show up in all of these places. It doesn’t have to be just the cover. from a gay magazine.” One such location was the nation’s capital. When the Lesbian Avengers held the first Dyke March in 1993, on the eve of the March on Washington for Equal Rights and Liberation of Lesbians , gays and bisexuals, 20,000 lesbians showed up.
Within a few years, membership of the Lesbian Avengers grew to over 50 chapters nationwide. A spin-off television network, Dyke TV, airs on 78 public-access channels, covering everything from headlines to movie reviews.
By the late 90s, lesbians had moved from the fringes into the mainstream, landing on the covers of Vanity Fthe air and Time, and soon in the advertisements of large companies such as Subaru. It was a sea change, recalls historian Lillian Faderman. “I came to what we called the ‘gay girl’ community in the 1950s and I think we saw ourselves as young lesbians – although we rarely used the word ‘lesbians’, we were all ‘gay – I think we saw ourselves as outlaws, and if we were lucky, under the radar. If we weren’t under the radar, we were in trouble.
The Lesbian Avengers disbanded in 1997, although its name and logo controversially resurfaced in a collection of Pride t-shirts sold by Gap last year. Whether one sees it as progress or commodification, it seems that visibility alone is not enough to thwart negative reactions. Although some studies suggest that nearly 40% of children today identify as LGBTQ, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ measures have been introduced in state legislatures this year, including dozens of so-called “Don ‘t Say Gay”, which aim to limit discussions. gender and sexuality in the classroom.
That’s why activism is always important, says Carrie Moyer, “You have to be in a room with other people where you’re actually talking about things. The kind of passion around creating change is fueled by the fact of ‘be together.”
They will when Dyke Marches take place in cities across the country this month, including the 30th New York City Dyke March, which takes place on June 25. Two of the organizers, Jade Watts and Christina Nadler, say a younger generation of activists has added a few more colors to the rainbow and has closer ties to other social justice movements. But Watts says one thing hasn’t changed: “40,000 dykes marching down 5th Avenue is saying something.”
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