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

Join us on Saturday, October 13, from 3-6pm EST, as the Lesbian Avengers host a live-streamed roundtable and panel from Dixon Place in NYC. The panel will feature playwright and Avenger co-founder Ana Simo, performer Carmelita Tropicana, filmmaker and Avenger Su Friedrich, videomaker and Avenger Harriet Hirshorn, musician and Avenger Eve Sicular, and other special guests.

Explore the Avengers’ roots in the East Village of the ’80s and ’90s, which was a hotbed of dyke activism, dyke art, laboratory of queer identity, and flashpoint of a nationwide culture war declared by Pat Buchanan at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

This is an incredible opportunity to chat with Avengers and hear their amazing stories, so don’t miss it! 

There used to be a saloon next door run by this German-American anarchist Justus Schwab (1847-1900). All the radicals would hang out there, including Emma Goldman and Ambrose Bierce. I only know because they put up a plaque a couple months ago. Maybe I’ll put my own up here. “At this spot, in 1992, the Lesbian Avengers were founded by resident Ana Simo and her co-conspirators Maxine Wolfe, Sarah Schulman, Anne-christine d’Adesky, Marie Honan and Anne Maguire.”

It was an iffy proposition, starting a lesbian direct action group, and required a good dinner and lots of wine, as most revolutions do. In the ’90s, lesbians fought against AIDS, and for abortion and women’s health care. They stood up for animal rights and sweat shop workers. But for lesbians, as lesbians? Not so much.

For this, the neighborhood made its contribution, almost as much as all the talent and experience in the room. Five of the six lived and worked in the East Village, perfectly matched to the cheap rent and rabid dissatisfaction apparent in the street. Every flat surface had a sticker on it, or flyer. Lampposts were perfect for pink triangles announcing Silence=Death, or posters advertising for an ACT-UP or WHAM (Women’s Health Action Mobilization) demo, or poetry slam. Ads weren’t always what they seemed. Sometimes they were advertising movies. Sometimes, if Dyke Action Machine was involved, they might be offering co-opted images of lesbian power.

It was a kind of evolutionary soup, a crucible of artists and queers, and activists, with an enormously long history of agitating immigrants. And since at least the late ’70s, when projects like the all-dyke Medusa’s Revenge Theater started up, it had been a laboratory of identity. If you weren’t careful, a bite from a radioactive Spiderwoman might transform the quirk of your sexual orientation that you thought was either a horrible tragedy or just a spare appendage, into an intrinsic, essential part of yourself. New superhuman powers included X-ray bullshit detection, and the instant assessment of the web of life.

That’s why ACT-UP didn’t just take on one hospital, one bigoted priest, but the entire church, the whole medical system, the government that supported it, the nation that held it all in place. And why at WOW, Women’s One World theater, lesbian performers like Holly Hughes, author of The Well of Horniness, Carmelita Tropicana, and later the Five Lesbian Brothers, didn’t just separate themselves off to the side, they re-envisioned the entire world.

I was still pretty fresh from the potlucks and softball dykes of Kentucky when my friend Amy Parker took me to see the Brothers at WOW. My god, they blew my mind. The intrigue, the sex, the hilarious, unmitigated muff-diving desire. They didn’t just put our dyke selves front and center. They reduced the outside universe to a mythology fainter than shadows on a cave wall. You could play with them, or laugh at them until your face cracked.

That’s what made queers so dangerous in the ’80s and ’90s. We were getting bigger and bigger. Indivisible. Taking up more space. Imagining ourselves as part of the city, of the country. In his essays written in the death throes of AIDS, David Wojnarowicz took on all of America. “My rage is really about the fact that WHEN I WAS TOLD THAT I’D CONTRACTED THIS VIRUS IT DIDN’T TAKE ME LONG TO REALIZE THAT I’D CONTRACTED A DISEASED SOCIETY AS WELL.”

Poet Eileen Myles didn’t just stick to her poems but ran for president in ’92. If a bastard like Pat Buchanan could run for president, somebody like Myles had better, too. And just a couple weeks before the Lesbian Avengers’ first action, the failed presidential candidate Buchanan went to the ’92 Republican National Convention in August, and gave a speech declaring war, a Culture War, complete with a blitzkrieg campaign to divide and conquer those minorities increasingly encroaching on straight white male power. He set the “brave people of Koreatown” in opposition to the (black), welfare-ridden mobs of the LA riots, and unleashed everybody against the bra-burning feminists, tree-huggers, and homos.

“Friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.”  – Buchanan

It was good to have it spelled out. It confirmed the decision of those first six Avengers to go big, launch the group by taking sides on one of the most important issues in New York City: the Rainbow Curriculum. Its purpose was to teach school kids tolerance, mostly of racial and ethnic difference, but also of women and queers. But even though only a few of the 400 odd pages mentioned lesbians or gay men, the Christian Right used queers as a wedge in their D & C campaign, and attacked it as the “gay” curriculum. By getting involved, the Lesbian Avengers not only inserted a lesbian voice into the city, but entered the nationwide battle for the soul of the country.

The first action is still almost unthinkably daring. We didn’t chain ourselves to anything, or clash with cops. We stood outside an elementary school in Queens as open dykes, and gave balloons to school kids that encouraged them to, “Ask about Lesbian Lives.” Some of our tee shirts read, “I was a lesbian child.”

The rest is history. The Rainbow Curriculum got squashed, but not the Avengers. Dykes everywhere embraced our in-your-face mix of humor and anger, and the goal of lesbian visibility. Two years after that first action, the fire-eating Lesbian Avengers had become an international lesbian movement. We mobilized twenty thousand dykes for a march on Washington, and almost as many for the International Dyke March in New York. There were more than sixty chapters worldwide. As a legacy, we left behind Dyke Marches that continue from San Francisco to London, and a changing cultural space we helped expand. Especially inside dyke brains.

next: read an excerpt from Kelly Cogswell’s upcoming work, “Eating Fire,” describing the Lesbian Avengers’ first demonstration in front of an elementary school

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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.

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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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15 Comments

  1. 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?

  2. 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!

  3. 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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