Getting Playful with Gender


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You mentioned before that you created the arc of a storyline through the years the exhibit covers—where do you think that story is going?
Cordova: It seems clear that one’s body is now an option to be looked at or changed. I think that technological advance wasn’t there 20 years ago. So that brings in a whole new set of options to young queer kids that we didn’t have. And young people can go on an exploration.

I think there will be gay people and lesbians—there always have been, so there always will be. I’m not one of those lesbian feminists who’re overly threatened that a lot of young lesbians might want to become guys. When I was younger an awful lot of straight women came into the lesbian movement because of the politics, the women’s movement—then, I would say, 10 to 15 percent of them decided, “Well I’m heterosexual.” They got more in touch with who they were after the political emphasis was over, and I see the same thing [happening] with trans people. There are a number of women who think they are lesbians who really are transgender and they want to pursue that to a total extent or a half extent or whatever. But I don’t see that as threatening to the integrity of the lesbian community. That probably always was, there were women in my generation who would have liked to have switched out. I welcome the trans kids, and I think that is one of the natural continuums of being gay and lesbian: questioning gender.

Ballen: And the minute we take a step into being lesbians, we’re questioning gender roles anyway. So it’s at that intersection of gender and sexuality, a crossroads.

You’ve said that you think that every lesbian has visited that intersection at some point, whether or not she’s aware of it or not.
Cordova: I really do. I think once you decide that you’re gay, you’ve stepped away from the gender norm even if you’re femme or a butch guy because you’re sleeping with [someone of the] same gender, and you’re also having different feelings and doing different things. I think femme lesbians are very different to straight women. You know, having slept with both a lot I can tell from personal experience, they’re really different. [Laughs] And so, I think all femmes and all androgynous and butch lesbians, just by virtue of that, trying to have relationship, you stumble into, “How are we going to work out having a relationship in terms of the male-female continuum? Where are we going to divide things? How are we going to work it?”

Ballen: I joke that straight people will be grateful to us that we’ve worked this out for them now. It gave them more permission to play with gender roles.

Cordova: It already has. I think the gay movement has significantly changed what heterosexuals are in terms of roles. And even what it means to be men—I think the women have changed that because I see today’s young men, both gay and straight, and they’re nothing like the macho men of the ’50s and ’60s. The sexism that was so endemic to men of my generation—me being 60—is totally different. These young guys are so much less sexist and so much more willing, it feels to me, and they see women as their peers.

Do you think gender play is becoming more mainstream? Has it lost its political power?
Cordova: I don’t think so. Because it seems to me that we are talking about different issues than about gay liberation and lesbian liberation and, you know, civil rights. I think the question today is more pin pointed around one’s body and gender specifically. We never consciously played with gender in any parts of the movement I was in during the lesbian feminist ’70s or ’80s, and I think the lipstick lesbians were not consciously playing with gender. I think they were kind of playing with assimilation and celebrity and all those things. So, I do think that the questions have been raised more concretely today and they’ve gone much further. I mean, we have lesbians photographers like Cathy Opie getting into the Guggenheim with her outrageous gender queer stuff. And to me, gender play might be just be breaking into the mainstream. I don’t think it has gone mainstream yet. I think like Opie is an exception and, you know, lipstick lesbian chick and The L Word and all that has been mainstreamed, but I don’t think queerness has been mainstreamed. Look at Rachel Maddow, who is a present-day phenomenon. You know, somebody even said, “She might be a new gender on television.”

Who said that?
Ballen: Oh, it was Helen Boyd of My Husband Betty.

Will the exhibit be showing anywhere other than ONE Archives?
Cordova: Yeah, we’re open to that and we’ve designed it in such a way as it could be shipped pretty easily.

Tell me about the Lesbian Exploratorium Project.
Cordova: For right now we decided that we didn’t want to become a nonprofit organization and get wrapped up in bureaucracy, which inevitably happens once you do that. We wanted to become a kind of a zap action squad that produced or participated in lesbian culture, made things happen more in Los Angeles.

So, for our first project, we built a lesbian wall that will be unveiled at ONE Archive in August. It’s a big wall, designed by the collage artist Cathy Cade, that’s made up of covers of lesbian publications. It spans 60 years, from 1948 to 2008. So, that’s the kind of thing we do. We see an opening or someone is willing—especially if they’re an organized group—and they say, “We want lesbian content.” Well, we’re the content.

GenderPlay in Lesbian Culture runs for two months, March 14 to May 23 at the ONE Archives Gallery & Museum at 626 N. Robertson Blvd. in West Hollywood. It is proudly co-produced by LEX and the ONE Gay & Lesbian Archives, with co-sponsorship from the City of West Hollywood and LA Pride/Christopher St. West.

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