by Evelyn Bailey
From the very beginning of time, women have been viewed as the “weaker” sex. However, when you look at the women who wrote our history with their lives, they can hardly be identified as “weak”!
The women involved in the gay history of Rochester in the 1970s came out of a closeted frightened homosexual culture. Community meeting places consisted of bars that were commonly raided by police once a month on average, with those arrested exposed in newspapers.
In response, eight women in San Francisco met in their living rooms in 1955 to socialize and have a place to dance. When they decided to make it a regular meeting, they became the first organization for lesbians in the U.S., titled the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). The DOB began publishing a magazine titled The Ladder in 1956; inside the front cover of every issue was their mission statement, the first of which stated was “Education of the variant”.
It was intended to provide women with knowledge about homosexuality—specifically relating to women, and famous lesbians in history. However, by 1956 the term “lesbian” had such a negative meaning that the DOB refused to use it as a descriptor, choosing “variant” instead. The DOB spread to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and The Ladder was mailed to hundreds—eventually thousands—of DOB members discussing the nature of homosexuality, sometimes challenging the idea that it was a sickness, with readers offering their own reasons why they were lesbians, and suggesting ways to cope with the condition or society’s response to it.
As a reflection of categories of sexuality so sharply defined by the government and society at large, lesbian subculture developed extremely rigid gender roles between women, particularly among the working class in the U.S. and Canada. Although many municipalities had enacted laws against cross-dressing, some women would socialize in bars as butches: dressed in men’s clothing and mirroring traditional masculine behavior. Others wore traditionally feminine clothing and assumed a more diminutive role as femmes.
Butch and femme modes of socialization were so integral within lesbian bars that women who refused to choose between the two were ignored, or at least were unable to date anyone, and butch women becoming romantically involved with other butch women or femmes with other femmes was unacceptable. Butch women were not a novelty in the 1950s; even in Harlem and Greenwich Village in the 1920s some women assumed these personae.
In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the roles were pervasive and not limited to North America: from 1940 to 1970, butch/femme bar culture flourished in Britain, though there were fewer class distinctions. They further identified members of a group that had been marginalized; women who had been rejected by most of society had an inside view of an exclusive group of people that took a high amount of knowledge to function in. Butch and femme were considered coarse by American lesbians of higher social standing during this period. Here in Rochester, the Riverview Bar on South Ave. by the inner loop was the hub of the lesbian bar culture in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. Many wealthier women married to satisfy their familial obligations, and others escaped to Europe to live as expatriates.
The social rigidity of the 1950s and early 1960s encountered a backlash as social movements to improve the standing of African Americans, the poor, women, and gays all became prominent. Of the latter two, the gay rights movement and the feminist movement connected after a violent confrontation occurred in New York City in the 1969 Stonewall riots. What followed was a movement characterized by a surge of gay activism and feminist consciousness that further transformed the definition of lesbian.
The sexual revolution in the 1970s introduced the differentiation between identity and sexual behavior for women. Many women took advantage of their new social freedom to try new experiences. Women who previously identified as heterosexual tried sleeping with women, though many maintained their heterosexual identity.
However, with the advent of second wave feminism, lesbian as a political identity grew to describe a social philosophy among women, often overshadowing sexual desire as a defining trait. A militant feminist organization named Radicalesbians published a manifesto in 1970 entitled “The Woman-Identified Woman” that declared, “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion”.
Militant feminists expressed their disdain with an inherently sexist and patriarchal society, and concluded the most effective way to overcome sexism and attain the equality of women would be to deny men any power or pleasure from women. For women who subscribed to this philosophy — dubbing themselves lesbian-feminists — lesbian was a term chosen by women to describe any woman who dedicated her approach to social interaction and political motivation to the welfare of women. Sexual desire was not the defining characteristic of a lesbian-feminist, but rather her focus on politics. Independence from men as oppressors was a central tenet of lesbian-feminism, and many believers strove to separate themselves physically and economically from traditional male-centered culture. In the ideal society, named Lesbian Nation, “woman” and “lesbian” were interchangeable.
Onto this stage step the women of the Gay Liberation Front at the University of Rochester. In 1970, the political feminist climate was challenging. The women of the Gay Liberation Front were tenacious and courageous. Patti Evans, Karen Hagberg, Sue Minor, Debbie Lestz and many others to follow, were the voices of gay men and women on the U of R Campus, the Eastman School of Music, and the greater Rochester Community.
“ Gay Liberation is more than a group of oppressed people joined together to seek freedom and justice. Gay Liberation is a call to power.” These are the first two sentences of Debbie Lestz’s article, “A Manifesto”, in the first edition of The Empty Closet. They reflect the sense of empowerment that gay liberation and the feminist movement gave women in the early ‘70s.
Sue Minor, in the 1971 February–March issue of The Empty Closet, reported on the Women’s Liberation Movement in Rochester. Sue stated that Rochester’s Women’s Liberation has about 60 women who range in occupations from secretaries to students to full-time mothers and from ages 18 to 37.
Rochester women’s liberation consists of six small groups which met one night a week at the homes of the wome. These groups gathered in a citywide meeting once each month to exchange ideas and to build closer ties amongst all the women. The connecting thread in these groups was that in this male defined culture it was necessary for women to share their views and feelings essential in developing respect for each other and to break the bonds of male dominance.
To accomplish this goal, the small groups worked on consciousness-raising. Unlike male-dominated meetings, each woman in Women’s Liberation participated in the free-flowing discussion and in the decision-making processes.
Societally-ingrained competitiveness and distrust for one another were dealt with in these non- directed groups. Since men were not present, the women looked to each other for approval and support; in contrast to our society which views the woman through the power, accomplishments, and ego of men. Through conscious-raising groups, women shifted from self-hate that the male defined culture had taught them to self acceptance.
Another form of oppression that consciousness-raising groups focused on was sexual oppression. Women’s Liberation negated rigid sex roles that were part of the dehumanization process acting upon women. Sex roles subordinate women to men and forbid women the primacy of asserting their own needs. It was the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which was at the heart of Women’s Liberation and the basis for the Cultural Revolution.
Patti Evans and Karen Hagberg were two of the shoulders the GLF Speakers Bureau stood on. Both Patti and Karen said in the 1971 April–May issue of The Empty Closet that everyone attending their engagements felt good about finally being able to discuss openly a previously taboo subject with people who were willing to be honest about themselves with others. The previously misinformed curiosity of the audience made itself felt by the barrage of questions directed to the members of the GLF. They came to feel that they were answering a need that had, until then, gone largely ignored. The basic format of each speaking engagement was to read a short brief prepared statement, which was then followed by a brief informal talk on the gay liberation and the organization in Rochester. After this there would be time for questions and discussion.
In February 1972, Patti Evans invited gay women to form the first gay consciousness raising group for women in the City. In February 1973, Grow, Gay Revolution of Women, as the women’s group came to be called, celebrated its first Anniversary. GROW held their meetings at the “Women’s Center” at 185 East Ave.
In May of 1973, GROW called a meeting at the “Women’s Center” on Rape. This meeting was the beginning of the founding of the Rape Crisis Center.
In November 1973 GROW opened an office at the Genesee Coop, 713 Monroe Ave., second floor. The story is told that when the women moved to the Coop, the room they were in was heated. The Gay Alliance, mostly a men’s organization at the time, had their offices at 812 Brown St., in the back of a broken down garage that was unheated. The two groups, GROW and the Gay Alliance, determined that it would be of mutual benefit to both groups to combine their resources and work together. In April 1974, the Gay Alliance moves to the Genesee Coop. As they say, the rest is history!
Shoulders To Stand On is proud of the many women, gay and straight, whose achievements, contributions, and strength have furthered the cause of equal rights and justice for women to be free to be who they are.