Getting Playful with Gender
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There is a group of lesbians in Los Angeles standing at the intersection of gender and sexuality and surveying the terrain. The Lesbian Exploratorium Project’s (LEX) latest exhibit, GenderPlay in Lesbian Culture, now showing at Los Angeles’ ONE Archive, is a testament to the individuals who have stood outside the normative gender binary, from Calamity Jane and the estimated 400 female soldiers who passed as men to fight in the Civil War, to MSNBC’s newest media darling, Rachel Maddow. Produced and curated by LEX members Jeanne Cordova, a veteran lesbian activist and former publisher of the Lesbian Tide, and Lynn Ballen, the exhibit brings together hundreds of historic and cultural artifacts that show how gender has been defined over generations and how it might be defined in the future.
What was the impetus behind the show? How did you think through what you wanted to include?
Lynn Ballen: Well, Jeanne has a long time history as an activist and an organizer and also a publisher, in the gay and lesbian community. We had formed this group, LEX out of a group of friends who were writers and filmmakers and activists, all of whom are really eager to have more lesbian cultural events in Los Angeles. We started off with the inspiration—there’s a slideshow about passing women, there was one put together by the, I think she was the editor of the Lesbian Tide at the time. And there was also…[one] put together up in San Francisco, though the San Francisco Historical Society, I believe.
So, that was sort of the beginning of the idea, and when we sat down with—we pulled together about 15 women and had sort of the first mixed brainstorming session…and I mentioned this personal fascination with the passing-women concept as, like, a beginning of something. Everyone jumped on it because it fit so well with where genderqueer and gender identity is going right now. And so we sort of filled in the blanks; we created a story arc from there.
Jeanne Cordova: Yeah, I think when we had gone places and seen the younger generation and what they are doing with gender was also inspiring. We wanted to have some sort of event where the lesbian feminist generation and the queer young women could meet each other and exchange ideas. The older ones would find out where the kids are at and why, and where they’re going. And the kids would find out how the older generation kind of started the movement.
It does seem to me that you guys are trying to start that dialogue between lesbians of different generations.
Ballen: Yeah, and that was really important to us.
What do you hope they’ll take from it?
Cordova: Oh, I hope that the older lesbian feminist generation…learn that they are not the only definition of lesbians out there. That it was an era and feminism still lives on, but they need to see what the kids are doing, specifically with their gender and politics. And then the young people need to see that they didn’t pop up like toast from nowhere and that a lot of people paid a lot, especially in the other generations, you know, in the Civil War and in the ’40s and ’50s, when lesbians were killed for being lesbians. And, we wanted to show them that. That they walk on hallowed ground, that they should feel part of a very long family tree.
Why was it important to include first person accounts?
Cordova: That was Lynn’s idea.
Ballen: Yeah, I think it was really to give voice to these women—I found that there were sort of pieces of history in all different places and there’re some amazing anthologies…some great academic history books, but it was very hard to find all of this in one place.
Cordova: I think the other reason I heard you say…was that feminism often looks to the personal experience of the individual to tell the historical story. Rather than give you a third person narrative—“Well this is the way it was, blah, blah, blah,”—which is much more removed. And I think people learn best by getting emotionally up close to an individual and hearing their story.
Did you find it difficult to find evidence of gender play back as far as the Civil War?
Ballen: Yeah, there was some writing and research done by, initially a woman who was a civil war reenactor who was kicked out because she was a women dressed as a man, from a civil war reenactment of the battle of Antietam. So anyway, she went and did research of at least 150 women who were known to have passed. And then [there were] personal letters, diaries, anecdotes that were passed down, so they estimate at least 400.
Cordova: Another thing that surprised me is that a number of photos are from straight libraries, like the Boston Public Library or the New York Public Library. There’s not a lot of this kind of material in the lesbian and gay archives, and when there is they’re kind of not organized enough to get their hands on it. So you can go and get it and put it on the Internet, and as an archivist I found that kind of interesting, that our archives really need funding.