Vanessa Baird meets a subversive with a sense of humour.
‘What’s a lesbian?’ the kids in one of New York’s most conservative Catholic schools innocently asked their teacher. The kids were doing what the balloon they had been given as they came into school that morning told them to do: ‘Ask about lesbians.’
They had been given the balloons by a group of Lesbian Avengers, accompanied by a jaunty little band of musicians in Catholic school uniforms.
The New York education system had been taken over by conservative Catholics who were seeking to ban any mention of homosexuality in state schools.
‘So we gave the kids the balloons knowing they would ask their teacher what a lesbian was,’ Sarah Schulman, co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers says with a smile.
Subversion with humour is a trademark of the Avengers, who have earned quite a reputation for creative, witty and uncompromising actions. Not for the Avengers the ritual of marches, speeches, petitions and pickets. ‘These are things that no-one ought to have to do again,’ says Schulman, categorically. ‘They are predictable, they don’t work, they make people passive.’
Schulman’s lack of patience with predictability comes out in her novels which are racy and politically-engaged affairs, set mainly in New York City and dealing with contemporary gay life there. AIDS features largely – as it has done in her own political life; she was involved in the HIV/AIDS campaign group for seven years.
Schulman was on a whistlestop tour of Britain, promoting her latest book My American History* and meeting up with Avengers groups that had started in Europe. It was her first time in Oxford and she was prepared to be intimidated, she said – which seemed a likely story. A hardcore activist with years of political experience under her belt, she began her radical writing career in 1979 – at the age of 22 – on a small feminist paper, and seems to have breathed politics ever since.
Schulman and fellow activist Maxine Wolfe started the Lesbian Avengers two and a half years ago when they realized that the women in leadership in the mixed gay groups had all been trained in the feminist movement during the 1970s and 1980s. Younger women were only learning the basic political skills very slowly and were not getting into positions of leadership.
Lesbian Avengers drew up three principles: ‘No theoretical discussion of any kind’; ‘If you have an idea you have to do it’; ‘If you disagree you can’t just do a critique, you must propose an alternative’.
‘Now that [the third] has been the most important, because most of those who have come to the Avengers have never had power and they don’t believe that their ideas can be realized. So they get into this obstructionist, negative position in just saying what’s wrong.’
Schulman does not have much time for ‘consciousness-raising’ these days. Far better to focus on actions that are creative with goals that are achievable.
The situation of gay people in the US today is increasingly paradoxical, according to Schulman. Gays are more ‘out’ and making demands on society. But at the same time they are becoming ghettoized as society is becoming more institutionally homophobic. Many had high hopes when Bill Clinton was elected President. ‘The national gay leadership really went into the Democratic Party. They lost their grassroots focus and they started to count on Washington to get things done. But Clinton has done nothing for gay people or people with AIDS.’
In the meantime the Christian Right has started anti-gay ballot measures to deny gay people protection from discrimination in housing and employment. Instead of going for a national strategy they have put it to voters in backwater localities.
‘Gays in these areas had to fight these issues on their own because the national groups were all in Washington. So we decided to start a project based on “Freedom Summer” – when students went to the South to help black people register their vote in 1964. We started by fighting an anti-gay ballot in a small conservative Catholic factory town called Lewiston, Maine. We lost.
‘But then there was an anti-gay ballot in Idaho. This is a really scary, rural, white-supremacist state which has fascist groups like Aryan Nation. We sent eight Avengers full-time to Idaho for three months. We have such an authentic grassroots base we were able to do this without any national office – no paid staff, just by organizing. They campaigned door-to-door in small towns and rural areas explaining what the bill would do. We won by 0.2 per cent.’
This unexpected victory got coverage in the mainstream Left journal The Nation. But coverage of gay news in the Left press is not common. In the past this mattered less because the gay movement was large, politically progressive and so was its press. But things are changing.
‘We have been seeing the emergence of gay conservatives for the first time. Some are real Right-wingers, the kind that supported Reagan. The others are gay “pure capitalists” who are interested in positioning the gay community as a consumer group that can be niche-marketed to. Now, as we know from niche-marketing to black people in the US, you may be presented on television or you can have your own brand of cigarettes but there’s no correlation with your civil rights, or your political or economic power.’
Represented in the media or not, news of Lesbian Avenger activity gets around all the same. Ask Schulman how many Avengers there are and she throws her hands in the air and smiles. There are, she has heard, groups in Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Australia as well as right across the US.
‘Even if the whole thing fell apart tomorrow we will have trained thousands of young women in basic organizing and they are going to be “out” and in leadership and that’s a long-term success.’
* My American History: lesbian and gay life during the Reagan/Bush years is published by Cassell.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995