“Sex, History & Lesbian Outlaws in the Bay Area”
author Jeanne Cordova interviewed by songwriter Margie Adam. Montclair Club, Oakland CA. Sunday, 4/29/12.
SF / Bay Area launch of book, “When We Were Outlaws.”
author Jeanne Cordova interviewed by songwriter Margie Adam. Montclair Club, Oakland CA. Sunday, 4/29/12.
SF / Bay Area launch of book, “When We Were Outlaws.”
MARGIE: Jeanne Córdova's memoir "When We Were Outlaws" takes place at a moment of great transition within the progressive movement in America at the end of the Viet Nam War era. A huge national anti-war mobilization had given birth to more hope and more energy among women and gay and lesbian people. This is the backdrop for Jeanne's award-winning lesbian feminist memoir, "When We Were Outlaws."
During the time you describe - roughly 1970-1976 - you were busy doing many things - sometimes all at once, sometimes one after another. You were you were president of the LA chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, you were publisher and editor in Chief of The Lesbian Tide, also a staff member at the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, and reporter for the LA Free Press and you were one of the principal organizers of the National Lesbian Conference in 1973. Oh, and in your spare time you produced my very first solo concert in LA. I was the musical entertainment part of a Tide fund-raiser you did with Jill Johnston who had just published Lesbian Nation. So... the book begins with a brilliant set piece describing a speech given by Angela Davis at the LA Women's Building in 1974. She was in the middle of her speech, reading from her autobiography, and as you write, she blithely said: Alternative sexual orientations are a bourgeois affectation." Jeanne, would you pick that moment up from there in your book....
JEANNE: “My reporter’s pen stopped scribbling notes. An audible rumble, like a rolling 6.1 earthquake, vibrated through the mostly white, but mostly lesbian audience. Angela also looked up. She stopped speaking. Everyone waited. The wave of the quake subsided. In a rate burst of collective dyke forgiveness, the audience settled back down. Whew! It was my turn to be surprised. They were not going to walk out. No white woman could have said what Davis said and still have an audience. These were volatile years, when dykes brooked no disrespect. But we also knew Davis had earned her veteran activist stripes by being jailed by the FBI..."
MARGIE : Do you think women who had reputations made in the male left were given more credibility, more slack in a way in the women's community than those of us who cut our teeth in the lesbian feminist trenches? Can you imagine any progressive leader with "veteran activist stripes" being let off with homophobic remarks today?
JEANNE: No, today we couldn’t imagine Jesse Jackson, Gloria Steinem, much less a Cherrie Moraga or a Judith Jack Halberstam saying racist, sexist or homophobic comments. It’s more subtle these days, but still there. We can today imagine such leaders saying Tran phobic things. We can imagine Rush Limbaugh calling a young woman a “slut” because she wants health insurance paid birth control. We can imagine a Republican pres. Nominee who refuses to condemn polygamy as violence against women. We can imagine pervasive racism and sexism in the LBGT movement. Just more subtle and insidious today.
MARGIE: I found your later question at the Davis press conference classic Jeanne Cordova. Here's you: "Ms. Davis," I said. "Black Panther leader Huey Newton said recently that the new Gay Liberation Movement was 'a friend and potential ally' in the civil rights struggle. Do you share his point of view?" "I believe that all people have a right to privacy in their personal lives,” Davis said. "But there is a difference between the oppression of racism and economic exploitation... and the quality of discrimination against gay people." What was your reaction in that moment?
JEANNE: I was outraged! Not too shocked, but very angry. It was common in those early days for anyone who was a leader in other movements, to make dismissive or disparaging remarks about queers. That was why I was being hard on Angela. I was trying to get a leader of the black civil rights struggle to publically realize and say to us qays —“Yes, you too are valid freedom fighters.” That night there were black sisters in the room and I knew it would mean so much to them if Angela, who was nakedly a butch –as I describe in detail (book)—would tell her sisters, “It’s OK.” I was also 25 with, as yet, short experience in the working class or black struggles then. But she was so famous among progressives then that I knew a young fool like me would be one of the very few who would pick up on her gayness, make an issue of it, or try to get her to get a clue that her personal life was a political issue.
MARGIE: You write, “Feminism taught that the personal is political. Linking the two was a cornerstone of the feminist revolution, said Redstockings, the foremother cell of Radical Feminism." Then Davis finished her comments with a statement many women - including myself - used at the beginning of own individual journeys toward coming out at a public level: I'm not denying or affirming anything about my private life," she said. "Personal issues are not a relevant part of the political life - (I would have said, 'of my cultural work'"). In your excellent "ENDNOTES" you mention Davis did come out in the 1990s. Tell us about that please...
JEANNE: Thanks for the ENDNOTES compliment. I poured a lot of lesbian history into this section at the end of the memoir—I didn’t want to disturb the storyline, yet I wanted to be historically accurate. … Angela did come out sort of in 1993 at the National Black Gay & Lesbian Leadership Forum using the phrase “my community” several times. And in 1998, in the pages of NY’s OUT Magazine saying her lesbianism was something she was “fine with as a political statement.” She was doing research for her 1999, Blues Legacies & Black Feminism—and she began to come to understand the role sexual desire played in women's liberation. In the 70s and 80s thousands of us had to sit patiently in our seats listening to a leader in one of the social change movements, or another, or someone in elected office, hold forth while NEVER mentioning their queerness. Today, such a comment unleashes a blog flame against that person. Identity denial today though continues on a more subtle level. Explain Kate Millet going back into closet with Veteran Feminists of America new bio.
MARGIE: after the shellacking you took as an organizer of the National Lesbian Conference at UCLA in 1973, you sought refuge at a small lesbian music festival - perhaps the first of its kind - organized by Kate Millet at Sacramento State. In a later chapter, you describe at length a seminal women's music festival in San Diego two years later in 1975. Would you read a piece of that description JC: (read; Lavender Woodstock excerpt) MA: Women's Music has been described as -the soundtrack of the feminist movements -entertainment after a hard day's politics Where do you come down? What role did women's music play in your political and personal life during this time?
JEANNE: I should be honest and say, especially when it first started in 1973, women’s music played no role in my personal or political life! I sort of…didn’t like it…and saw it as an interruption to the radical & political, true and critical focus on politics—street demos, civil disobedience, etc. I’m sure this is because as a child & teenager in a house filled with 14 people trying to get along. My mother would always ell, “Turn that damn thing off!” when one of us would turn on the radio. She saw it as needless confusion to the business of life. This in my house was in fact “business” –construction, building buildings, blueprints. At 19, in the convent, I was sent to Watts and a bit later into the anti-war street demos. This was my introduction to any kind of music! So I began by listening to the lyrics of Joan Baez & Bob Dylan. And they were political lyrics, so I began to see a role for music—as long as it was political. At first, as publisher of the Lesbian Tide, I objected to all the attention lesbian feminists were paying to what I saw as ‘the drivel of entertainment.’ We were supposed to be having a revolution. If music came in anywhere, it should be AFTER the revolution. But my role as publisher of a big lesbian feminist newsmagazine forced me to start covering these musician types (tease Margie). I remember literally watching in my head, the avalanche of popularity sweep into the lesbian feminist movement! Women’s music quickly topped the charts. Our readers couldn’t get enough of these people and their concerts! So years passed, and it was only in 1973 when I met and spent a few months living with Margie Adam, and started listening to her lyrics, watching her hour after hour at the piano that I felt personally, the healing power of music and for the first time, melodies. That’s when I became a convert to women’s music. So I, shamelessly, as a politico, began to use it, produce it, and bring it into political events I organized! And in my book OUTLAWS, music, Especially that of Joan Baez, Margie, and Carole King, plays a large role.
MARGIE: During the period this memoir takes place - you were the publisher and editor in chief of The Lesbian Tide , a lead organizer for the National Lesbian Conference at UCLA, a reporter for the Los Angeles Free Press, a staff member at the Gay Community Services Center, and an event producer - you produced my very first solo concert as a fundraiser for the Tide. Meanwhile, you were also engaged in a passionate exploration of non-monogamy, the radical feminist theory and personal practice - in intense love relationships with other lesbians who took their autonomy and self-respect just as seriously as you did. At the same time you were clarifying your butch self in the midst of relentless pressure from lesbian feminists to move away from the either-or butch-femme identities toward androgyny. Two different and vast subjects of interest - both connected to radical feminist theory. How have your thoughts and feelings evolved since the time in which the memoir is set - the mid-seventies? Are you married? Are you monogamous?
JEANNE: I’m domesticated --with a life partner for two decades, but I am not theoretically, monogamous. I do still believe that non-monogamy, or as we say today, polyamory, is the most natural state for lesbians. But I can’t seem to find a femme that agrees with me! Including the one I’m domesticated to. I don’t know how she feels politically because the mere mention of this topic never gets to a conversational level in our house. But personally, she doesn’t agree with me. Seriously though, my views on this issue have not changed much since the early years of feminism, but I have seen that many queer dykes today, both the boomer generation and on down to Millennials, have continued to invent similar styles of living such as polyamory. So while I’m here in the capital of polyamory, I’d like to point to it and non-monogamy as being very similar. So I would like to pose this question to all those here and elsewhere; What is it about being a lesbian that seems to require that we keep re-inventing new forms of being beyond the gender binary and new forms of relationship beyond the heteronormative dyadic pair?
MARGIE: It may be hard for some to believe today but back in the day, when The Tide put a photo of two women kissing on the cover, the printer refused to print it. When I read that it reminded me of experiences I had in women's music where 1. people refused to rent a building to us for a concert 2. they refused to rent pianos, sound equipment 3. printers refused to print posters/programs with the word LESBIAN included Tell us the story of how you managed the printer...
JEANNE: Yes, there were many forms of censorship back in the day. When I found myself caught in a room with an old, white, cigar smoking, web-press printer, with that issue of The Lesbian Tide below me on a silent press—I had to rely on my butch background. I told him, “I can give you tips for how to get a girl into bed, If you roll that press for as long as we talk.”
MARGIE: The Centerpiece of "When We Were Outlaws" is the story of the struggle you and other lesbian feminists had with the LA GCSC Struggle to include and incorporate lesbians into all levels of the leadership and services of the center. It was fundamentally a struggle between feminism and gay male liberation. Coming to terms with the contradictions inherent in the two movements - one a movement for sexual freedom, the other about replacing male order of hierarchical relationships and creating equalitarian structures of shared power. Would you say these contradictions have resolved themselves?
JEANNE: To a great extent, yes. But not in a way we outlaws might have hoped. In 1976, the Gay Movement stopped being a struggle for sexual liberation and evolved, or devolved, into a struggle for gay rights. 2ndly—also in the late 1970s, radical feminism ceased to control the agenda of Women’s Liberation movement. Liberal feminism took over. The truly radical/ systemic notion of changing the power structure of the patriarchy gave way to a clearer and perhaps more immediate, quest for civil rights in fighting for laws against rape, employment discrimination, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and for the ERA. Choosing the concept of gay civil Rights was a more pragmatic and sexier way to sell our movement to heteronormative society. But we did sell out our radical under pinnings. And I was left with the realization that ALL movements start with radical ideology, but unless they have a real blood—born revolution, like a socialist-styled coup—all movements must adopt a civil rights and assimilationism stance.
MARGIE: You came to a very clear-eyed and devastating conclusion at the end of your involvement in the GCSC Struggle. Would you read those sentences?
JEANNE: "Dykes stood on thin ice, I realized, in both the gay men's and women's movements, trying to negotiate power with no leverage. The women's movement thought lesbian nation was part of the gay movement and gay male leaders sought to palm dykes off onto the women's movement." Given this conclusion…I had to ask myself; what’s a dyke to do? Like Del Martin said in her famous essay five years prior to my conclusion, I was ready to leave working within the Gay Male Movement. Martin put my feelings beautifully in “Goodbye, My Alienated Brothers”, When she said; “Goodbye to the male homophile community. “Gay is “good, but not good enough…goodbye to your old ideas and old values in a time that calls for radical change. Goodbye to the wasteful, meaningless verbiage of empty resolutions made by hollow men of self-proclaimed privilege…I will not be your nigger any longer. Nor was I ever your mother. I must go where the action is… to find acceptance, equality, love and friendship… (to) the women’s movement.” But five years later, in 1975—the year in the book—I’d also fought the long/bitter battle that I talk about in my next book—of pleading with N.O.W. to recognize that lesbianism was a feminist issue. So, I realized Del’s decision couldn’t be mine. I could NOT resolve my activist life by simply leaving gay male movement and switching to Feminist Movement. No, I urgently believed that the answer was to build an Independent Lesbian Movement on a national scale. I became what I called a lesbian primacist. If someone were to look back over the purposeful trail of my political activity and journalism over the last 35 years, you’d see I’ve always been pursuing the building of a lesbian counter-culture and the politics, not of separatism, but of PRIMACY - called Lesbian Nation. I adopted the politics of separatism on a personal --but never on a political level. As a politico I believed that lesbians had to make coalition with gay men, with women’s, black, brown, anti-war movements. But I believed that to be a good solider, you have to go to boot camp—to get the fundamentals, values, goals. And I think that boot camp is lesbian separatism. Another question I’d like to post would be; Is separatism still viable or necessary in any other role than the boot camp concept I’ve suggested. Is lesbian separatism relevant today?
MARGIE: Do you think FEMINISM and SEPARATISM are compatible?
JEANNE: A truly feminist reconstructed world would erase the need for separatism, so to this extent the two are not compatible. But without Separatism it is hard to understand, much less fall in love with, the ideology or memory of a truly feminist world. Emotionally I am inclined to agree with Jill Johnston who said that the feminist solution is Lesbian Nation. That feminism is the theory and lesbian fem. is the practice. But this is a utopian belief and as a politico I’m a pragmatic fighter. So, periodically I drive myself to the gas station—the garden of separatism—and fill up on why I am in this fight to begin with. Separatism remains alive in many pockets of the world … and still serves the purpose us, as Monique Witting featured so visually in Les Guérillères, of reminding us what we are fighting for.
MARGIE: I imagine many women in this room who were lesbian feminist organizers in the era of the 1970s can relate to your experiences of betrayal. Was the betrayal by your political mentor, Morris Kight, at GCSC who you say was a father figure for you - worse than the betrayal you felt by your lesbian sisters at the 1973 National Lesbian Conference at UCLA?
JEANNE: No, the betrayal by my political godfather, hurtful as it was, was not nearly as bad as the personal and political betrayal I felt during & after the National Lesbian Conference. I think for any lesbian betrayal by women is worse than anything a man could make us feel. In the book the answer to this question becomes obvious, if you’re reading closely, because I describe that I did have a full-fledged nervous breakdown after the Conference (but not the strike). What happened at the NLC was a doubled-edged betrayal in that my lover, a Trotskyist, allowed me & the other organizers to be publically blamed for being socialist Trots—when in fact I wasn’t and most others were not. And for 4 months after the Conference all 15 lesbian newspapers across the country wrote bad things about the Organizers of the Conference. I took it all too personally. I should have let it go. At the time, the betrayals felt too huge, overwhelming.
MARGIE: Let's talk about violence. You ask yourself more than once whether your commitment to social change is somehow less valuable because you have not picked up a weapon in the struggle. You question what you would do in a circumstance where that was the next indicated step in a political action in which you were involved. It seems like a theoretical meditation, the exploration of an idealistic young person... and yet... IN GCSC STRUGGLE - there were lesbians calling for violent confrontation - burning the building down, aggressive behavior toward people crossing the picket lines, tires being slashed. You argued against violence over and over again with others in the strike committee. Did any of the strikers turn out to be agent provocateurs?
JEANNE: It’s always a difficult question for a Leftist to answer this question without saying too much. I tried in Outlaws to shine as much light as I can on the subject of the LAPD and the FBI’s invasion and murder of some of our leading activists of the day. It’s hard for young activists today to accept just how brutally Hoover’s FBI tried to thwart us. Watch movie J Edgar. In the book I wrote most about the FBI’s decimation of the Black Panthers & other black radicals. During the strike we did ask each other—which of us could be an FBI informant—because it seemed we had a mole. But no, several people pointed to, but never found specific evidence. In researching my own FBI file and my lesbian conferences at ONE Archive I did find precise evidence that FBI informants did attend both of these early lesbian conferences I organized. 1) Leaflets—first and national conference (next time bring copy of this document). 2) and Outlaws I tell the story of the ACLU sending me 4 pages from my own FBI file that detail an informant’s report of my meeting with the Weather Underground in Chapter 14.
MARGIE: Also in the context of VIOLENCE, the final chapters of the book which describe the deterioration of a significant love relationship include painful disclosures relating to a growing struggle within you with physical and verbal aggression… “The Rage of All Butches” was a very powerful and poignant reading. It seems like the disintegration of the outside political circumstances in which you were involved were mirrored in your personal life. It seems like another extraordinary manifestation of the feminist principle: The personal is political. Am I right on this? Would you care to talk a little about that?
JEANNE: Unfortunately, you are right. I almost left this Chapter out of the book, even after I realized it was indeed the climax of my narrative arc. I got very squeamish about revealing my young Cordova self as someone who could be driven to violent outrage & jealousy by sexuality and fear of loss. Every memoirist is confronted with the question; How much is enough? But I thought if I pull this Chapter, what else will I pull? –the facts that my father was a child beater, the fact that Rachel and I were both daughters of battering fathers, the fact that I didn’t always win politically—that I also failed? In her current book, The Queer Art of Failure, Dr. Judith Jack Halberstam writes “The naming of failure not as the negative space opened up by normalized modes of success, but as a habitable space with its own logic, its own practices and the potential for new collectivities: success is individualized but failure is collective – 99 %! My book understands failure as a practice that builds upon queerness in the sense that queerness is always a failure to conform, to belong, to cohere. Rather than reorienting queerness, we should embrace failure.” I hadn’t read these words 2 years ago when I made the final decision not to cut this Chapter or the theme of handling personal and political violence that runs thru my memoir. But I believed then, and now—all my life—that none of us can or should claim heroism or perfection. History is full of examples of great deeds followed by, even born out of, personal failures. If I was going to write about some of my successes, I felt I needed to show the humility of my failures too. To not do so would be lying. (Also, dull reading!)
MARGIE: Let's talk a bit about LESBIAN IDENTITY vs. COALITION POLITICS -You and I have witnessed a long struggle to include other sexual identities in our civil rights title - Gay gave way to Gay-Lesbian, then Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual, then GAY-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered - and more recently, Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Intersex-Queer-and Questioning. LGBTIQQ. Today many people simply say LGBT to describe our community. Others sum up our complexity with one word: QUEER. What’s you take on what “queer” means today? Do you identify with the word?
JEANNE: In 1999, like everyone over forty, I hated the word "queer." By 2007, I thought oh it’s a catch all, too many letters, alphabet soup in 2010 a, or that the Patriarchy is not filled with men, or that gender is completely fluid, or that feminism was all B.S. because it was mostly led by upper middle class white intellectual women. Lenin & Trotsky, Martin Luther and Malcolm X were all middle class intellectuals. But wait…my point… By 2010, having worked with a younger generation these last 5 years in LEX, I had learned that the Q word was much more than a summation. At a butch conference in LA—I stated from the podium, after Carmen Vasquez’s speech on "Butch as a Feminist Identity," “I don’t know what any of you have learned over this historic weekend, but I want to announce that what I’ve learned makes me publically want to say that I am leaving gay & lesbian movement, as of this moment, renewing my vow to keep fighting, but now under the banner of the Queer Movement.” What is the Queer Movement? As Judith Butler, its primary theorist says; “In the context of Western identity politics the term also acts as a label setting queer-identifying people apart from discourse, ideologies, and lifestyles that typify mainstream LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual) communities as being oppressive or assimilationist.” I’ve come to realize “queer” is not an umbrella word only, but a new politic…that springs out of the thought line of Queer Theory. Studied up on QT. very complex, as a L.F. don’t agree with all of it, esp. its sweeping, post-constructionist generalization That gender identity is all Performativity, indeed a replacement of the ideology underpinning the now liberal gay & lesbian movement. That it did represent a partial departure, but also a building upon the ideology of feminism that took up where it left off. That it did represent all the things I just half way repudiated. That the Queer Movement looks at gender and sexuality as the core habitats. I do believe that the radical core, the outlaw core, of the LBGT Movement has been buried. Heaped on top of it have been so many issues, so called civil rights, like how we want to serve in a military we once didn’t believe in, or how desperately we want to join the patriarchal institution called marriage -- that not even straight people want anymore, or how the best answer is to tell our high school sons/daughters “it gets better---just wait”. “Just wait” brings us full circle back to the 1940’s. Just wait is what made Del Martin leave the homophile movement whose prayer to their members were also “Just wait, it gets better.” But I’m an outlaw and a ‘queer’ so I am not into “waiting.” “Just wait—at age of 5 when I wanted to be a Jesuit…told "just wait”…
MARGIE: for some women this summary terminology: in initials or a single word is problematical because it feels as though, once again, "lesbian" identity is being submerged or disappeared. Others say "lesbian" as a word is antiquated and as an identity is outmoded, essentially an exclusive term meant to separate women-born women from others who identify as queer women. How do you respond to the on-going exploration and challenges of gender identity as it impacts lesbians - and in particular, the "lesbian nation" you have so beautifully described in your book? Do you still use the word “lesbian” to describe your personal or political self? IS THERE A LESBIAN NATION OF ANY SORT TODAY? DO WE NEED ONE?
JEANNE: 1) YES, I still proudly use L word for all my selves. 2) Lesbian Nation still exists. Lesbian Connection has 25 K readers; thousands still go to lesbian music festivals. True, new gens don’t understand fully the concept of LN as Johnston & Whiting, but they/we still live in tribal identity & community & witness each other doing so. and 3) We still NEED Lesbian Nation—and we’re still made-as-hell that the L word remains so erased in the LGBT movement. Erased by the heteronormative world, and so often by our own G, T, and B siblings. As long as this erasure stands, we still need Lesbian Nation because We as queer women, as people who still claim “woman” are not the same as gay men, or transmen, or bisexual men—we need our damn “L”. We need to know our tribe, our heritage—no matter how many other adjectives we choose to also embrace.
MARGIE: I noticed that you dedicated Outlaws to “the queer youth of today whose activism now gives their elders such pride”. Is there anything you’d like to wrap up with, a message to the “queer youth of today”?
JEANNE: reads from page IX… “Each generation of … ending with “what you can make happen tomorrow.”
MARGIE: PLEASE JOIN WITH ME IN THANKING MY BELOVED FRIEND AND COMRADE, JEANNE CÓRDOVA FOR WRITING HER LIFE OUT LOUD, A REMARKABLE MEMOIR OF LOVE AND REVOLUTION - WHEN WE WERE OUTLAWS.
© April 2012 Jeanne Cordova and Margie Adam Interview, All Rights Reserved.