“Being an organizer and journalist in the lesbian, gay, feminist and women of color communities — and loving it — has been the focal point of my life. It has been a wild joyous ride,” lesbian publishing pioneer and activist Jeanne Córdova wrote in a “Letter About Dying, to My Lesbian Communities,” an email she distributed to her network in September 2015 while saddled with what she called “chemo-brain.”
Jeanne Córdova, a self-identified Chicana butch lesbian feminist, described her battle with cancer since a 2008 diagnosis and its 2013 comeback, and lately feeling like she was dying “in increments, one piece at a time.” In anticipation of her passing she wanted to tell her lesbian community that she loved us, and also to discuss her plans for her estate.
If you’re familiar with Córdova’s early work within the lesbian feminist community, it might surprise you, as it did me, that she even had an “estate.” Throughout Jeanne’s twenties, she’d struggled to make ends meet and often relied on food stamps while running groundbreaking Los Angeles publication The Lesbian Tide, reporting for LA Weekly and devoting every spare minute to lesbian feminist activism. She was The Tide‘s only full-time employee, finally making a salary of $7,500 a year (around $21k in today’s money) at the time of the magazine’s shuttering in 1980. The Tide, which aimed to do for lesbians what The Advocate did for gay men, remains one of lesbian publishing’s most highly revered and longest-running magazines, covering an unprecedented breadth of topics and filling its pages with ads for feminist and lesbian publications, bars, music and events.
In 1981, Córdova unexpectedly tapped into a profitable project with the launch of the Gay & Lesbian Community Yellow Pages. Coupled with some smart real estate investments, Córdova gradually established a sizable estate and made “an early personal vow” to give half of it back “to the movement.” The majority — $2 million dollars — would go to the Astraea Lesbian Foundation For Justice, and she encouraged her peers to “not think heterosexually [about wealth], like ‘I’ll give it to some random relative that I’ve never met. We need to think about giving to our gay or lesbian youth and institutions like Astraea or other lesbian organizations. They’re the ones who are nurturing our real daughters right now, around the world.”
In this spirit, smaller parcels of the estate were designated to be delivered to a number of like-minded non-profits, projects and publications. Autostraddle.com was one of them.
In July of 2015, Jeanne Córdova reached out to me directly, saying she was considering making a large donation and asking if we expected to be in business for the next five years. “I co-founded and ran the ‘Lesbian Tide‘ for many years and find your site very worthwhile in the same way,” she told me. I couldn’t believe Jeanne Córdova even knew we existed, let alone wanted to help us continue existing.
So I wanted to close out LGBTQ History Month with this story, because I think it’s an important one: because we are stronger when we reach out across generations to understand and support each other. Because this gift from Córdova is meaningful on multiple levels, uniting our past and our present and hopefully our future. Because in the spirit of her extensive work as a reporter, we have been steadily offering higher rates for reported features, hoping to elevate the discourse and tell important stories for and by our community. She made it possible for us to do that.
In her memoir When We Were Outlaws, Córdova details a life I know well — directing lesbian feminist media is hard work for so many specific reasons. The economic pressures, the working with friends/lovers/exes and their friends/lovers/exes, the political conflicts, the emotional processing. It’s complicated, exhausting, and irresistible work, but the rewards are immense. I’m so glad she saw a kindred spirit in Autostraddle.
We weren’t sure when the check would come or what it would be for, but it made landfall in July — and boy did we need it. It’s been a rough year, emotionally and financially, and although year-to-year revenue continues going up (because I’m good at my job), so do expenses. The cost of staying in the game still keeps us always on the verge. That check rescued us from “things are tight” to “things are okay” — and anybody who’s ever run a business or lived on a small budget knows how much time and stress is saved when every proposed expense isn’t an endless saga. That check has brought us much closer to our most pressing short-term goal, which’s to bring another woman of color onto our Senior Editors team.
When Jeanne passed in January 2016, I wrote an obituary that included an extensive history of The Lesbian Tide and its pioneering work, and you should read that, it’s important. Returning to that magazine over the past week while thinking about writing this post has been thrilling and familiar. It’s incredible how much we change and how little we change. The angry letters to the editor and the exhausted letters from the editors. The recaps of feminist conferences, the roundups of lesbian custody battles and hate crimes across the country, the grievances with mainstream feminism and gay men. But there’s so much joy, too, a keen sense of humor and enthusiastic determination. Love for the community radiates from every page, as does sarcastic acknowledgments of dire circumstances: “we realize once again what we realize every month with menstrual regularity — our litany of ‘not-enoughs’: not enough news coverage, not enough graphics, not enough in-depth analysis, not enough staff, not enough time, and of course, not enough money,” followed by a solicitation for help and support “in the most seductive spirit of lesbian love.” It feels like a secret clubhouse we’re all so lucky to be a part of, even when it’s hard.
There’s a pitch-perfect blend of playfulness and righteous anger, nostalgic picture collages from Women’s Music Festivals, biting comics about lesbian relationships, profiles of musicians and witches, calls to action, expansive reader surveys. There’s a mish-mash of visual styles as diverse as the community itself, getting more and more polished as the years go on, invoking some nostalgia for the hand-lettered headlines of yore. It’s easy to see the parallels between them and us.
This post was intended to go up early today, but last night we got some bad news that derailed the evening and some of that bled into this morning and threatened the wilting afternoon. But like I said: it’s Lesbian Herstory Month and we’re doing this.
When We Were Outlaws opens in the aftermath of the 1973 National Lesbian Conference she’d co-coordinated, which she describes as “a moment of divination and a specific kind of hell,” riddled with in-fighting that “split our community into rabidly disparate political ideologies.” Conflicts arose over transgender inclusion, a “divisive rant” from Robin Morgan, Kate Milllet’s “public drunkenness” at her own keynote, and some complications involving the Socialist Worker’s Party. Córdova was traumatized by the experience, enduring “highly charged arguments of warring dyke tribes.” She’d put her heart into it but that hadn’t ended up mattering, not really. Following the conference, she “simply crashed into a full-blown nervous breakdown.” She ended up fleeing Los Angeles and the community she’d midwifed. She spent seven months upstate, laying low while lesbian feminist media descended on her and other easy, misguided targets. She remembers, “All I could do was mark the rising and the setting of the sun as I crouched in random corners of her living room, rocking myself to sleep.”
Whenever I convene with other publishers and movement-builders, regardless of age, we always come around to this — our beloved LGBTQ community’s enormous capacity for generosity and comfort, but also for ruthless accusations of bad faith that cut close to our earnest bleeding hearts. When I’m asked how I, as a woman in the media, handle the chronic harassment from men experienced by most women in the media, I’m hesitant to admit the truth: despite my passionate misandry and the fact that men are solely responsible for a solid bulk of everything bad in the world, the vast majority of social media bullying I experience is not coming from men.
Perhaps this is the way it must be, has always been, will always be. When we’re unclear on the appropriate moment for the personal to become political, when your demographic is chronically exhausted and underpaid, when the work is hard and complicated and, at least for me, when your empathy for all sides of a conflict can override your ability to decisively lead and take defiant risks. Today, reeling from a situation with an ad network pulling out some truly ridiculous stops to avoid paying us a much-needed pile of money they owe us, I was unseated from a fragile precipice by assholes on twitter and combative comments. My skin should be thicker by now, but I think it gets thinner every year, wearing down, exposing vulnerable bones. I spiraled. I’ve spiraled before. Laneia and my ex-girlfriends can tell you all about it. When various forces align to make everything feel impossible and insurmountable and I declare I can’t do this anymore and go hide in my bed.
So I shut off my computer and phone and walked through my yard to the forest behind it, going as far as I could, traipsing through the defiantly picturesque fall foliage, getting brambles stuck on my leggings and mud on my busted boots. I walked in circles like a crazy person. I sat on a log and cried. I looked at the sky even though doing so made me feel like I was in an Abilify commercial, and I wondered how Jeanne Córdova bounced back, and I remembered how reading The Lesbian Tide sometimes feels like looking in the mirror. I wondered how she stayed strong through everything, with limited funding in a hostile political climate, butting against the ridiculous assertion that everybody in a specific demographic group should be fighting for the same thing at the same time, that different focuses cannot co-exist but must compete.
The bulk of When We Were Outlaws traces a conflict between the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center (and the mostly gay men who run it) and lesbian feminists formerly employed by it. Córdova was thrust into the middle of the battle, struggling to reconcile her own opinions and loyalties as well as the relentless criticism and accusations of betrayal from allies on both sides and the pressing urge to break off entirely from gay men in order to achieve lasting change for women. She eventually concludes, “Waging a labor battle, inside a gender war, surrounded by a movement for civil rights, portended an untenable conflict with no exit strategy tied to anything I could have called victory.” That sentence likely seems senseless out of context but it’s not, really, it’s just a pretty dead-on description of so many of the conflicts that threaten not just to tear us apart, but totally wear us out and wipe us out.
Today, in the woods, I did my best to draw strength not from my usual sources, but instead from lesbian history, from our imperfect legacy. From Córdova’s assertion that “sometimes in the losing is the winning; and in the struggle, is the living.” From how she picked up after that conference and went on to organize more conferences, and kept writing, and kept advocating. This gift was about the money, sure, but it was also about the vote of confidence. That maybe this was a calling and I have answered it. I promised her we had five more years, at least. I’ve promised you as much, in so many words too. Because it’s worth it, even when it’s hard.
“You gave me a life’s cause,” Córdova wrote in her Letter, a sentiment I relate to intensely. “It is wonderful to have had a life’s cause: freedom and dignity for lesbians. I believe that’s what lesbian feminism is really about, sharing. We built a movement by telling each other our lives and thoughts about the way life should be. We cut against the grain and re-thought almost everything.”
And then, she remembers, she writes, she thinks: “With just enough left undone for our daughters to re-invent themselves.”