So the story or popular mythology goes, a butch lesbian may have thrown the first brick at Stonewall by urging patrons to resist arrest. But lesbians weren’t just present that famous night—they were absolutely instrumental in the 50-year period of LGBTQ activism that followed.
Joan Nestle, the 79-year-old co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, remembers standing outside the Stonewall Inn the night after the raid, struck by the grittiness of the West Village crowd in contrast to the more buttoned-up, polite “homophile” pickets that had been taking place throughout the 1960s.
“[Stonewall] was a sexualized site. It was in the streets that we acted out our erotic lives,” said Nestle. “Queer sex is a political motivator, and it was clearly evident in the streets of the Village that night.”
Bars like Stonewall were hardly the public face the burgeoning gay rights movement of the time wanted. The gay bars, Nestle explains, were home to “street people”—the deviants and perverts, the trans women and the butch and femme dykes that were chastised by respectable lesbians for playing out what was seen as kinky sex roles through their gender expressions.
That included Stormé DeLarverie, a well-known butch bouncer who spent decades guarding the doors of the city’s gay bars. “Stormé was a tall, broad person who was a protector,” said Nestle. “She always carried a gun. She was wonderful with femme women. When she hugged you, you felt so safe.”
When asked if Stormé was transgender, as some now believe, Nestle said it wasn’t so simple as that. “The word we used at that time was ‘passing woman.’ She passed as a man,” said Nestle. “Stormé was biracial and always fought against being put into boxes. Race and gender were fluid things for her; she didn’t want to commit to either.”
Following Stonewall, lesbian and bi women activists grasped the mantle—and quickly branched off into their own groups.
Kay Tobin Lahusen and Brenda Howard were instrumental in the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance, two groups that organized protests throughout 1970; Howard has been nicknamed the “Mother of Pride” for her work organizing the Christopher Street Liberation Day, which became the first annual Pride event.
That same year, Rubyfruit Jungle author Rita Mae Brown and other members of the group Radicallesbians took over the stage at the 1970 Congress to Unite Women, reading from the first known lesbian feminist statement, titled “The Woman-Identified Woman.”
Brown had recently been fired from the National Organization for Women after then-president Betty Friedan referred to rising lesbian visibility as “the lavender menace;” the activists wore T-shirts reclaiming the phrase.
The 1970s saw lesbian culture and ideology evolve as never before, as queer women sought to break away from the dominance of gay men and the shunning of straight feminism.
“In the ’70s people rejected butch-femme and went into this mode of being androgynous.”
It came in the form of publications like Lesbian Connection and events like Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Lesbians of color branched off in similar ways; Barbara Smith formed the Combahee River Collective in 1974 after breaking off from a national black feminist group that she felt failed to address lesbian issues.
The group’s 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement introduced concepts like “identity politics” and intersectionality, the idea that marginalized people face interlocking systems of oppression.
As much as the 1970s were about solidifying a public sense of lesbian identity and creating a culture just for queer women, there seemed to be one glaring omission—sex.
“In the ’70s people rejected butch-femme and went into this mode of being androgynous,” said Maxine Wolfe, a co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers and the Dyke March, “And there were segments of the community that said butch-femme was taking on these patriarchal roles and things like that. In the ’70s people didn’t want to talk about all that sex stuff, it was very vanilla.”
Wolfe said that all of that changed after the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, where lesbian attendees found themselves coming out to each other in an entirely new way.
“People started standing up and saying they liked rough sex, they talked about S/M and using dildos and all kinds of sex toys,” said Wolfe. “It sort of brought lesbian sex out into the public, with talk about pornography and whether there could be porn just for lesbians that wouldn’t be violent.”
The feminist sex wars of the 1980s hit a peak with the introduction of On Our Backs, a lesbian sex magazine with a title that poked fun at the largely anti-porn feminist newspaper Off Our Backs. Armed with new terminology like “sex-positive feminism,” queer women began producing pornography with a focus on women’s desires, realistic portrayals of lesbian sex, and BDSM and kink.
But as the ’80s progressed, many lesbians watched in horror as their gay friends died from AIDS. Lesbians flooded the ranks of ACT-UP and, energized by the queer direct action groups of the time, a coalition of women branched off from AIDS activism to form the Lesbian Avengers in 1992.
The Avengers’ most enduring legacy was the Dyke March, which first took place the night before the April 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.
Dyke Marches took place a few months later in New York and San Francisco the night before each city’s respective Pride parades, cementing a tradition of the Dyke March as Pride’s kickoff event. Suddenly, lesbians were flooding the streets by the thousands, with a spike in visibility that would continue through the decade.
Until the ’90s, lesbian presence in pop culture was almost non-existent. But a series of firsts would blow the field of representation wide open. In 1992, butch singer k.d. lang won the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal, and her smoldering, masculine good looks and dapper style of dress resulted in New York magazine coining the term “lesbian chic” in 1993 (and lang posing with Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair).
“In 1997, media coverage of Ellen DeGeneres went ballistic when the decision was made to have DeGeneres’ character on her eponymous sitcom come out as gay.”
Then in 1996, Queen Latifah offered up the first major portrayal of a black butch stud in Set It Off, a film that offered viewers a rare glimpse of a butch-femme couple. In 1997, media coverage of Ellen DeGeneres went ballistic when the decision was made to have DeGeneres’ character on her eponymous sitcom come out as gay.
With almost no gay or lesbian characters on TV (forget about trans characters), the story arc caused advertisers to bolt — JCPenney, Chrysler, and Wendy’s pulled ads, affiliate ABC stations in conservative areas refused to air the episode, and ABC started airing the show with a parental advisory warning.
After the show’s cancellation, DeGeneres was blacklisted and unable to work for several years—along with actress Laura Dern, who guest-starred as Ellen’s love interest in the episode.
The arrival of The L Word in 2004 seemed to signal a change; 15 years later the show remains the only TV program ever devoted entirely to a cast of queer women characters. The L Word ushered in lesbian fan culture at the dawn of the internet and social media. With websites like AfterEllen and OurChart, and the emergence of social media and blogging platforms like Friendster and LiveJournal, young lesbians were able to find each other early and fast.
In recent years, social media has made it possible for queer women to connect, collaborate, and date more than ever before. It has also possibly been the cause of lesbian bars shuttering around the country, as what was once the only way to find community is no longer a dire necessity.
Shifting concepts of gender have made it so most “lesbian” communities and events are now made up of not just lesbians but trans men, nonbinary and agender people, pansexuals and bisexuals, with sexual identities adapting to gender multiplicities.
That shift has also caused a backlash; hardline lesbians nicknamed TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) have broken up Pride parades, taken over beloved queer women’s site AfterEllen, and even joined forces with anti-LGBTQ conservatives in their shared hatred of transgender people.
Many other lesbians stand against them, and welcome transgender people as part of the LGBT community, and are anti- the exclusionary attitudes of TERFs.
Wolfe says anti-trans factions have always been part of the lesbian community, but so have trans lesbians. Wolfe recalls a Dyke March a few years back where a group of anti-trans lesbians instigated a protest only to be confronted by one of the trans lesbians on the march committee.
Nestle recalls working alongside trans women in the early days of the feminist liberation movement, and says trans women have worked at the Lesbian Herstory Archives for years. “There are always bigotries in any revolutionary movement that sees itself as under threat, and with the purity of its politics tries to wall itself in,” said Nestle. But lately, such clashes appear to be ramping up.
“We need to find ways to end this rift. We need each other too much.”
Perhaps the lesbian community has come full circle in the 50 years since that riotous night when so many unabashedly queer people fought for the right to wear the clothing they wanted, to exist as the gender they wanted, to wear their preferred sexual roles literally on their sleeves in the form of butch-femme codification.
Queers are still battling with police and with state-sponsored homophobia, but in the lesbian community we are also battling with ourselves and each other over the boundaries of gender identity.
“We need to find ways to end this rift. We need each other too much,” said Nestle. “And that’s America right now, it’s the language of borders and walls and people desperate to protect their territory. This language of rage rather than curiosity and understanding.”