by Dulcey Lewis
December 23, 2011
“We want revenge and we want it now! Lesbians! Dykes! Gay Women!”
The six co-founders of the Lesbian Avengers printed 8,000 quarter-sheet flyers bearing these words and, on New York City’s Gay Pride Sunday in the summer of 1992, handed them to every lesbian they saw. Each card instructed the reader to take notice of the men in the world with all of the power, to realize the irrelevance of these men to lesbians everywhere, and to call a printed phone number. “What have you go to lose” it reads, signed, “The Lesbian Avengers.”
The co-founders were Maxine Wolfe, Sarah Schulman, Ana Maria Simo, Marie Honan, Anne-Christine D’Adesky and Anne Maguire. They had come together to create a direct action organizing effort dedicated specifically to dyke visibility with the hope that lesbians of all levels of activist experience could create something fierce. Portions of their Lesbian Avengers’ Dyke Manifesto declared: “We need you. Because we’re not waiting for the rapture. We are the apocalypse. We’ll be your dream and their nightmare.” “Lesbian Avengers don’t have patience for polite politics. Are bored with the boys. Think of stink bombs as all-season accessories.” And “Lesbian Avengers scheme and scream and fight real mean.”
At the first meeting, the Avengers discussed what was to be their debut: an action addressing the Right-wing and conservative opposition to the new Rainbow Curriculum. The proposed Rainbow Curriculum took a multicultural approach to teaching children and included mention of lesbians and gay men. It taught that lesbians, gay men and their families are to be respected, and included several example texts for teachers to educate themselves on lesbian and gay issues. The opposition to the curriculum often relied on brutal homophobia and claimed that the curriculum taught elementary students about anal sex instead of abstinence and other accusations.
The Avengers decided to bring attention to the Rainbow Curriculum controversy by executing an action outside one of the schools that rejected it — P.S. 87 in Middle Village in Queens. They demonstrated their seriousness and determination by targeting an incredibly taboo subject: the intersection of homosexuality, children and education, according to Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance. They arrived one morning before school, preceded by the Lesbian Avenger Marching Band, playing “When the Dykes Come Marching In” and “We Are Family” and wearing T-shirts stating, “I was a Lesbian Child.” Footage of the action shows one woman hoisting a bass drum and holding her sticks aloft, sounding like a circus ringmaster, as she announces, “Ladies and ladies, gentlemen and gentlemen! We are the Lesbian Avengers [instruments clash]! We are here to demand and ensure visibility and survival of lesbians everywhere!”
Once the children arrived at school, the Avengers passed out lavender balloons with “ask about lesbian lives” printed on the side. Where the children all seem excited in the video footage from “The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too” by Janet Baus and Su Friedrich, some of the parents demand that their children either release or return the balloons; however, many of them make it into school, balloons in hand.
This small piece of the action demonstrates the creativity and cleverness of the Avengers: in order to combat the censorship placed on discussing lesbian and gay issues, the balloons would result in students asking their teachers about lesbians and what they were, which would force parents and teachers to give them at least some kind of answer.
With their first action, the Lesbian Avengers exemplified what onlookers would come to know as their style: their distaste for marching permits, love of marching bands and campy props, as well as a sophisticated eye for target, place and time. Choosing a controversial locale — the schoolyard — set the bar for the following years of actions and rhetoric that would place lesbian survival in spaces actively pursuing and maintaining lesbian invisibility while under the guise of neutrality.
In the years to come, the Avengers would eat fire as protest, target homophobic politicians and stink-bomb their elevators, protest a violently bigoted radio station, boycott an entire state based on a homophobic government referendum, organize a traveling Civil Rights training project, hold dances, kiss-ins, performances and vigils and organize the first protest-march for Dykes (which has happened every year since in New York City for almost 20 years now).
In this is the spirit of the Lesbian Avengers: creating a visible, exciting and seductive opportunity for lesbians to reclaim their existence in a world that consistently perpetuates and excuses their erasure. It was the Lesbian Avengers’ goal to ignite a passionate resistance in the hearts and bodies of women so consistently silenced, to empower lesbians to discover and cherish their strength and their possibility. Through this, the Lesbian Avengers created a force that, even explored now, invokes the need to speak, to scream.
Dulcey Lewis lives and works in Baltimore, MD. She’s slowly writing a book on the herstory of the Lesbian Avengers. If you or anyone you know was an Avenger, feel free to contact her at [email protected].
Also see “The Guerrilla Girls” in The Art Perspective curated by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See “The Populist Movement, Reborn At Last, In Occupy” by Rosalyn Baxandall in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.