Radical books - Feminist writings - Socialist theory - Race liberation - Queer activism
The Lesbian Review of Books
A Legacy of Resistance
by Debbie Culbertson
Gay Resistance: The Hidden History by Sam Deaderick and Tamara Turner. Seattle: Red Letter Press. 1997, 55 pp., $7.00. ISBN 0-932323-03-0.
Two thin booklets, stained from coffee cups and much handling, hold places of honor on my bookshelf. One is a 1980 copy of Adrienne Rich's classic lesbian feminist text, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." The other is Barbara Smith's "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," a groundbreaking analysis of black lesbian literature. These thin booklets, with their fluorescent pink and green covers, were two of the thousands of chapbooks published (often by their authors) in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Smith's booklet was the fifth in a series of pamphlets produced by Out & Out Books, documenting "ideas important in the evolution of lesbian feminism." Rich's booklet was produced by Antelope Publications, whose mission was "to publish current feminist political ideas and, to disseminate them as quickly and inexpensively as possible." In the 1970s and early 1980s, booklets like these printed cheaply and sold for a few dollarswere the frontline protest literature of the lesbian/gay movement. They provided many of us with our first opportunity to see our own experiences accurately and perceptively reflected. As Barbara Smith says in the introduction to her booklet, "I was attempting something unprecedented, something dangerous, merely by writing about Black lesbian writers from any perspective at all."
Many of these classic works are hard to find todaythey are buried in antholo1gies or archived in Women's Resource Centers. This is a real loss, because they provide valuable information about how our self-understanding and movements for change have progressed (and regressed over the past twenty years. Fortunately, some of these manifestos are being re-released. One of these is Cay Resistance: The Hidden History by Sam Deaderick and Tamara Turner, recently re-released in booklet form by Red Letter Press.
When Gay Resistance first appeared as a six-part series in the Freedom Socialnewspaper, its publication was an act of great courage. Lesbian and gay literature was largely banned from mainstream media, libraries, and college courses. In the United States, the religious right, champiby Anita Bryantformer beauty queen and television starwas waging a campaign against gay/lesbian rights.
Gay Resistance is a sweeping analysis of how gays and lesbians have resisted oppression since antiquity. "Sweeping" is probably an understate The booklet begins in ancient Greece and endsa mere 47 pages later in the United States in 1980. This short length and broad scope means (hat the book does not really work as history per se and was probably not intended to do so. The lack of footnotes and references is a further limitation. However, the book does work well as a framework for analyzing lesbian/gay resistance in any age.
According to Deaderick and Turner, ancient matriarchal cultures did not exclude homoerotic behavior and perhaps even held it in special regard. The oppression of gays and lesbians is rooted in the development of a number of social, political, and economic institutions and systems. These include monogamy, patriarchy, religion (particularly Judaism and Christianity), the Roman Catholic Church, colonialism, industrialization, fascism, Stalinism, McCarthyism, and capitalism.
Gay Resistance also provides examples of the ways we have resisted (and continue to resist). The creation of our own literature, the establishment of research institutes promoting a more liberating view of human sexuality, political activism, and the creation of our own organizations are all powerful tools for change.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Gay Resistance is its inclusion of women's experience. Lesbian experience in ancient Greece is explored, and the impact of monogamy and capitalism on women is threaded throughout. This is one political pamphlet in which women's experience is definitely not "tacked on."
The booklet closes with an analysis of the internal challenges that fragmented the American gay/lesbian movement in the late 1970s. For non-Americans this is probably the weakest part of the book. At times it degenerates into a diatribe against "liberals" and a valorization of the pure politics of Marxist activists. Living in Canada, where democratic socialism has played an important role in both government and society at large, I found some of the debates to be unconstructive at best.
The booklet has a number of other limitations. Although there arc numerous references to other cultures in the first part of the booklet, the section focusing on current resistance and internal politics in the lesbian/gay movement is both American centered and lacking in a sense of cultural diversity. The powerful organizing and grassroots efforts of gays and lesbians from minority communities and from the South are not represented here. Readers who want to know more about movement politics from these perspectives should read the works of Dionne Brand, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Makeda Silvera, Jewelle L. Gomez, and Barbara Smith.
I also found the pamphlet's critique of religion as a force in history against lesbians and gays to be simplistic and dismissive. Christian and Jewish experiis much more complex than is suggested by the authors of Gay Resis. There are numerous examples of the ways in which women throughout Christian history have sought and estabalternative religious communities free from male domination. For them many of whom were lesbianChristian faith was liberating as well as oppressive. Jewish feminists have also reflected on the experience of Jewish lesbians and their religious experiences.
A lot has changed since Gay Resistance was written. The construction of gender, transgenderism, bisexuality, butch-femme, S/M, and "queer politics” are all part of the current rich discussion about sexuality. And gay resistance is no longer a "hidden history." There is now an abundance of books and educational resources exploring and documenting gay and lesbian lives and experience. Recent works of note include Defiant Desire, an excellent book on gay/ lesbian politics in South Africa by Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron. Two Canadian books of special note are Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology, edited by Makeda Silvera (Sister Vision Press) and Bread Out of Stone by Dionne Brand (Coach House).
There have been other changes, too. Today there are queer studies programs at some universities, and some government legislation has become more progressive. In Canada, for instance, every province but Alberta now includes sexual orientation in their human rights legislation, and Alberta will probably soon follow suit, depending on the outcome of a current Supreme Court case. Finally, Christian and Jewish religious history and experihas been revisited from the perspective of lesbians and gay men. Authors like Virginia Mollenkott, Sally Boyle, Melanie Morrison, Carter Heyward, and Malcolm Boyd are just a few of the writers who have reclaimed faith, from a lesbian/gay perspective.
"Zines" and Internet "cafes" are just a few of the excellent new venues for radical ideas and perspectives. Yet, for me, there will always be a role for political pamlike Gay Resistance. My new copy will take its place with Rich's and Smith's pamphlets. Like them, it's already dog-and covered in coffee cup stains, too.
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