‘We Did Start The Fire’: A History of the Lesbian Avengers
Smoke and Mirrors
Queer activism in the 1990s was highly academic. While prominent activist groups like the Mattachine Society fought the oppression of queer people, the discourse surrounding sexual freedom and expression had no place in the movement. The LGBT movement largely focussed on the issues faced by gay men. It took a rather assimilationist approach, portraying LGBT people as very similar to other straight people: religious, conservative, and dignified. It was premised on a simple idea: respectability politics; if hate was born out of differences, they only had to blend in with the rest of society, and fighting for rights would be much easier. Thus, the queer movement of the 90s took the form of a middle class, white, conservative man, donning a non-descript tweed coat and hat, reading a book in the corner, blurring into the background.
The approach had significant disadvantages. For most queer people, the restricted expression was an uncomfortable (and as some believed, an unnecessary) compromise, and any success built on a compromise would be little more than an illusion of power. Without widespread visibility, there were practically no role models for those growing up in deeply repressed households. Crucially, it gave no protection to those that would stand out no matter what: women and people of color.
The Radicalisation of Hope
“When a lesbian walks into a room of gay men, it’s the same as when she walks into a room of heterosexual men … You’re listened to and then politely ignored.”
While the LGBT+ movement catered almost exclusively to the issues faced by gay men, like AIDS awareness, the Feminist movement was geared towards straight women, reproductive rights being on top of the agenda. Lesbian women could benefit from neither. They were tired of fighting battles that weren’t theirs, of fitting in, of keeping quiet. Six lesbian activists — Ana Simo, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-Christine d’Adesky, Marie Honan, and Anne Maguire — together formed the Lesbian Avengers in 1992. When it came to activism, the avengers pulled out all the stops. In sharp contrast to the mainstream movement of the time, they were angry, loud, and blatantly sexual. They threw modesty out the window and did not hesitate to stoke controversy. They would be seen and heard.
“Roses are Red,
Violets are Violet,
Don’t knock Sodomy,
‘Least till you’ve tried it”
Inferno of Hate
On September 26, 1992, as the LGBT+ movement prepared to fight the viciously homophobic ‘Ballot Measure №9’ (a law that would ban the teaching of LGBT+ topics in schools), a group of neo-Nazis walked down a quiet street in Salem. They had a Molotov cocktail in their hands and two targets in mind. The fire that subsequently ensued in the basement of the apartment in Oregon claimed two lives: the black lesbian woman, Hattie May Cohens and the gay man, Brian Mock. It was by no means the first or last such incident.
The March of the Dragons
On 24 April 1993, in front of the White House, 20,000 women gathered in the first ‘Dyke March’. A group of twelve avengers, in an act of protest against the 1992 arsons against LGBT people, dramatically ate fire to the shock and awe of the massive crowd. It was a symbolic reclamation of the fire that was once used to attack and oppress the community.
“The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.”
Wearing T-shirts that read “I was a Lesbian Child”, a group of avengers handed out balloons with “Ask about Lesbian Lives” to schoolchildren in Queens, to fight for an inclusive curriculum. Their aim was to increase the visibility of lesbians, to break the stereotypes, and give them an ideal to look up to.
The avengers’ heavy campaigning against Colorado’s homophobic Amendment 2 eventually resulted in its defeat in the US Supreme Court in 1996. A similar piece of legislation (Idaho Proposition 1) had been defeated in a referendum through their extensive campaigning in 1994.
The Lesbian Avengers fought a number of battles, for inclusive curricula in schools and against conversion therapy and fatphobia. What resulted was a revolution in the way movements are shaped. The death knell of appeasement politics echoes in the fight for rights to this day.