Friday, August 3, 2018

Lessons From Foremothers and Former Selves

Carol Seajay, Pell, Tiana Arruda, Kit Quan, 1982 
We were either closeted or forcibly ghettoized in the those decades. The late sixties, seventies and early eighties brought so much change to the lives of women and lesbians. A lot of us looked different and distinctly lesbian but none of us aspired to the female sex-role stereotypes. Obsequious, flirtatious, decked-out, made-up heterosexual women were the norm then and seem to have made a comeback since. But we really had to be circumspect in dealing with the outside world. There were no job or housing protections and, we were vulnerable to discrimination. Organizing was imperative. There was so much work to be done.

I defined myself as a radical lesbian feminist in those early days. I went to San Francisco State and took groundbreaking women's studies classes from pioneers like Sally Gearhart. I hung out at bars like Scotts, Maude's, Kelley's, Pegs Place and A Little More. It wasn't just the Michigan Women's Music Festival that was happening. Old Wives Tales Women's Bookstore opened, followed by Artemis Society. Plexus newspaper emerged. Osento Hot Tub flourished in a Victorian on Valencia Street. The Women's Press Project began printing pamphlets and books by lesbians. The laws were against us, lesbians were hated and under attack by fellow citizens and police, but it was a heady time in our community, full of hope and promise.

I think my first break with the radical feminist philosophy was when the realization dawned that I didn’t necessarily believe that women were special and could save the world. I was attracted to women. I loved and respected many of them. But I could look back at history and find women falling on the morally incorrect side. Some early suffragists supported racism. In every struggle against fascism there were lots of women taking a stand with murderous dictators. Fighting for more than just lesbians rights seemed necessary. As a Jew and a working-class affiliated woman, often a strictly radical lesbian feminist analysis didn’t speak to every aspect of me. Because I found many lesbians ignorant of these other components of struggle, the romance between me and this simplistic take on the world, faded.

The political work I did with lesbian groups like Lesbian Schoolworkers, Lesbians Against Police Violence and Revolting Lesbians were organized around lesbian liberation but also tackling other issues of oppression like...racism, poverty, and class struggle.

During the day I was a working stiff. To survive in that arena required me to make alliances with all different kinds of people. The line between gender and demographic groups. I’m an odd individual. The folks I liked, and who liked me, varied tremendously. I made friends where I could, usually with people who minimally identified with the workaday world and had other, more interesting and creative pursuits. They helped ease my way through the forest of b-s and artifice. I never stopped going to concerts or conferences or music festivals for dykes, I just stopped seeing that road as the only possible path through life’s jungle.

As organizational work toward lesbian protections found some success, I felt less confined to one small community. My friends became more eclectic, square pegs but not necessarily lesbian ones. Maybe coalition was possible. Perhaps we can explore our place in a broader society. I left the so-called safety of lesbian community for the prospect of a larger life, much the same way I’d left the Jewish community in which I was raised, to take my chances with the larger, multi-racial, diverse world. My family warned me often that, because of hostility,  I would regret that decision, but that was not the case. 

So where does all this leave me today? Older, but still much the same. I incorporate new information and curse the times we are living in. I still despise sex roles for humans but respect each person's right to call themselves whatever they want. And I do the same. As a writer and an individual, I have no desire to generalize or tar everyone with the same broad brush. But I am not willing to toss aside the fore-mothers of lesbian-feminism either. When I see young women throwing out the baby with the bathwater, it saddens me. I want to tell them to read, to study, to learn about what we were up against, the obstacles we encountered and faced down making life a bit easier now for everyone.

It is foolish to place leaders of another time in current society to decide how you feel about them. In order to see the Second Wave generation of feminism clearly, you must first rise to a height where the entire picture comes into view. Many young people are incapable or unwilling to do so. But not all. There are folks, like myself, who will value those who came before them, the lessons that ancestors teach. Violence and hatred have moved large groups of people throughout history, but have left behind nothing which inspires goodwill or pride.

Those who dismiss their elders will get their comeuppance with time. Life is impermanent, yours as well as ours. If you believe you know everything and will live forever, time will prove otherwise. The past is not your enemy. Those who cleared the path before you are not your foes. If you willfully choose to ignore history, it will rear up and bite you at the most inopportune moments. Who knows? Years from today, you may find yourself writing a piece, like this one, engaged in the very same argument. And then, perhaps, you will choose to reflect back on your former self with wisdom and compassion.