A Contested Vision: California Lesbian Feminisms and Telling Queer Stories through Oral Histories

Monday, January 5, 2015: 8:50 AM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Chelsea Del Rio, University of Michigan
When lesbian feminism emerges in feminist and gay liberation histories it commonly does so briefly, from the periphery, and at moments of conflict and rupture. With little space provided to view lesbian politics on its own terms, scholars commonly leave behind overly simplistic sketches that do little to contest those well-worn stereotypes of lesbian feminists as dour, anti-sex, man-hating, and insular. While there are behaviors and positions upon which such tropes are grounded, they do not reflect the complexity and diversity of a distinct lesbian feminist movement. 

Focusing on lesbian feminists in 1970s California, I consider rigid borders alongside spaces of fluidity and negotiation that characterized their activism. Where some opted for male-free separatist collectives, others worked side-by-side with gay man, working to challenge their misogyny. While some prided their anti-trans policies, others reached out to include trans women in lesbian culture. While some insisted upon narrow definitions of lesbian identity, others embraced a culture of women-identified women that made spaces for all sisters. Considering where lesbians contested or rejected boundaries as well as where they constructed them exposes communities of activism that included intersectionality, sex positivity, and queer identity politics.

Presenting a multidimensional history of lesbian activism is complicated by the paucity of sources and the challenges of engaging with queer pasts. Thus, this paper also considers the ways in which the practice of queer history calls for reaching beyond the archive. By conducting oral history interviews I find the nuance of lesbian-centered narratives and provide lesbian feminists the opportunity to create a source base that documents a movement that was truly their own.

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