Herstory Live: The Lesbian Avengers School You On Their Ass-Kicking Roots

This is an except from a work in progress, “Eating Fire: My Life As A Lesbian Avenger” covering 20 years from Pat Buchanan’s Culture War to the War on Terror.


On September 9, 1992, the first day of school in New York City, I scrounged a token and took the subway out to Middle Village, Queens with my ex, Amy Parker. Most of the school district was racially mixed, with shops as likely to have Mexican tortillas as Turkish preserves, or cartons of kimchi. Middle Village, though, was a mostly white working class neighborhood that couldn’t boast much except a cemetery housing John Gotti and Lucky Luciano, and the Long Island Expressway.

We were the most interesting thing to happen there in ages. And while we would have made a splash if we’d come in black leather and raising our fists like the Black Panthers or ACT-UP, the Lesbian Avenger Concept Committee decided what we really needed was Souza. Souza, and pink balloons reading, “Ask about lesbian lives.” It was ridiculous, absurd, delightful though I wouldn’t have admitted it then.

Jenny Romaine, an artist Amy knew from Performance Studies, pulled together a brass band, kitting them out in the knee socks and plaid skirts of Catholic school uniforms. She herself carried a big bass drum. Some Avengers wore tee-shirts that read, “I was a lesbian child.” I turned one down, saying I couldn’t afford it, which I couldn’t, but refused even when Ana Simo, the mild-mannered Cuban playwright, offered me a discount. I still didn’t like the word lesbian. A few other Avengers were still shocked by the combination, even at the last minute warning, “They barely believe we exist. And to hint there are lesbian children. No. We’re provoking them.”

When we were all there, the sixty of us marched down Metropolitan Avenue to the elementary school, P.S. 87, singing at the top of our lungs, “Oh when the dykes, oh when the dykes, oh when the dykes come marching in.” We revised a few other Dixieland standards, and proclaimed, “We are family. I’ve got all my sisters with me.” One banner read, “Teach About Lesbian Lives” and another “The Lesbian Avengers.” Somebody clutched an enormous bunch of pink balloons reading “Ask About Lesbian Lives,” which had created a ruckus at the printer’s who kept misspelling l-e-s-b-i-a-n.

We were met with disbelief, anger, fear, a few approving nods, but mostly the typical New Yorker’s disinterest. Like them, I pretended I was totally cool with it. Hell, I did this kind of thing four or five times a week. No big deal. Like it was no big deal that when we got to the elementary school, the cops came with their thick blue arms and shiny shoes and tried to get us to leave.

At the civil disobedience training session, Maxine Wolfe explained it was perfectly legal to have a picket and hand out flyers. It was a public sidewalk for crying out loud. And she’d been doing demos since the ’60s, first for worker’s rights, then women, then people with AIDS. But then who knows what cops will do? Nothing, as it turned out. Maybe it was our unshakeable knowledge of our rights, or how we continued singing, handing out balloons, giving interviews, and flyers, while our negotiators negotiated with them. Or maybe they just took one look at this group of relatively innocuous females in knee socks and plaid skirts, and thought, “What the heck. It’s New York. Let’s go get donuts.”

More than one kid got their first lesson in the real world when an Avenger handed them a lavender balloon and their red-faced mother grabbed it away. No way is my little Sean or Antonio or Karen gonna be like that. As for the Xerox of our alternative alphabet –A for Acceptance, Action and W.H. Auden. B for James Baldwin, Rita Mae Brown, and boycotting bigotry — some got tucked into pockets, others pointedly ripped into shreds. Though not in front of me. I think I stayed with the other picketers tracing that tiny oval on the sidewalk and avoiding confrontation. Maybe I held a sign for a while, feeling goofy and embarrassed, as I always did, at so much emotion being displayed.

The weather was nice, anyway, one of those perfect fall days with dark blue skies and white fluffy clouds which did not send forth lightning bolts or hail, or anything at all to kill the lesbians. Nope, nobody died, there in front of the school yard. Neither were kids converted, or perverted, or particularly traumatized except when their angry moms grabbed their shiny balloons and let them float away. We just signaled to the world we existed. We’d been kids ourselves in school. The only thing different about us as adult lesbians were a few additional years. And self-awareness. Which was just beginning on my part.

Funny, I write that like it’s nothing. Just signaling to the world we existed. When it was like setting off a bomb. What else could it be? Lesbians plus elementary school children. We knew it was benign, but not them with their dirty minds. And it was one of the first (and last) times anybody dared confront them directly.

We left en masse when the last student entered the school. In those days, bigots would sometimes haunt queer demos, and when people broke off from the pack, grab a few stragglers and beat the crap out of them. So together, Avengers set off for their day jobs, or classes, or coffee shops. The media dykes went to send more press releases. And I remember at the next meeting, Maxine or Ana or somebody arrived triumphantly waving copies of Newsday and other rags that had covered the demo. We’d done it. We’d launched the Lesbian Avengers, and the city had taken note.

About the Author: Kelly Cogswell is an independent journalist and VJ specializing in society, culture, and politics. Former co-editor of The Gully online magazine offering “queer views on everything,” she’s been recognized by the New York Press Association for her column at New York’s Gay City News. She also directs the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project.

For more on the Lesbian Avengers check out lesbianavengers.com.

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    • You femalefaggets will be sad the rest of your lifes and I bet when its Christmas and you see real familys who are married a man and women and tge kids opening their presences you will cry ha HAHAHAHAha and it was not him it was you who blew if

  1. I love getting learning lesbian history (or herstory…) These guys are so awesome.

  2. Damn! That’s right during the Autostraddle International Meetup event in my city (Oh Autostraddle, why are you taking over my life?). Any chance we can catch the roundtable on youtube afterwards, or is it live streaming only?

    • We’re going to try to record it so it stays up on the ustream site. But if that doesn’t work, or the quality sucks, we’ll put the highlights up on youtube. Just check lesbianavengers.com for a link.

  3. You know, I recognize the advancements we’ve made and how hard things were in the past, but sometimes I really wish I’d been the age I am now in the 90s. There seems to have been so much more physical activism and community. But maybe that’s just the way it seems from these stories/the community that still exists between my friends who were activists in the 90s.

    Anyway, you all rock amazing socks and I love these articles/think they’re crucial. Thank you for sharing.

    • The thing is that there are plenty of issues to get working on (and I don’t mean gay flipping marriage), so make some community and get to it! AIDS is not over, kids are being bullied to death, our community elders are being shoved back in closets, and if you want to look beyond your borders (I’m assuming you’re in a nice Western country), there are plenty of places where things are pretty bad. Be part of the change that you want to see!

  4. Lesbian Avengers sound awesome.I feel embarrased I’d never heard of them before this. Thanks AS.

  5. After your introduction of the panel, what is the source of the next section beginning, “There used to be a saloon next door run by this German-American anarchist Justus Schwab…”? What sites are being spoken about in this paragraph? (What is the exact location of this historic saloon? And what is address of Ana Simo’s home, the site at which the Lesbian Avengers were founded?) Is this section from a portion of the panel that was not filmed? If so, who is speaking? And where can I find an audio or written transcript of the entire three-hour-panel?

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