The Politics Of Erasure

The Politics of Erasure, we can combat invisibility by claiming our herstory.

The Politics of Erasure, we can combat invisibility by claiming our herstory.

I usually write a column on women’s history for March, one that memorializes our foremothers and addresses the theme of who and where we come from, as women, as lesbians. In the past, I’ve cited some of our icons—Jane Addams, who founded social work, Alice Hamilton, who founded occupational medicine—as examples of lesbians who birthed both our feminist movement and some of our most important social justice movements.

But what about now? How are we making history—or herstory—for the next generation of lesbians, and the generations after that? Who will tell our stories? Or will our stories be told at all?

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. In 1974, Joan Nestle, Deborah Edel, Sahli Cavallo, Pamela Oline, and Julia Stanley, all lesbian members of the Gay Academic Union, founded the Archives. The African American lesbian activist Mabel Hampton was not a founder, but she was deeply involved in the LHA, and there are photos of her in the Archives to document it.

I interviewed Joan Nestle about the LHA years ago for Curve. She told me how the project began, in her New York City apartment on the Upper West Side. The goal was to ensure that our history, our lesbian history, did not disappear. It was a labor of love for those women.

The LHA is now housed in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, in a lovely brownstone that was purchased to hold the myriad artifacts of lesbian life that the founders had collected, first filling Nestle’s pantry, then her whole apartment. More than 20,000 books, 12,000 photographs, and 1,600 periodicals are part of the collection, along with other memorabilia—from buttons to jackets to music to leaflets to matchbooks from lesbian bars.

I’m so grateful for the LHA. It is a touchstone, a bulwark against the increasing trend toward lesbian erasure, the very thing its founders were concerned about when they formed a consciousness-raising group to talk about how lesbians and women were being elided from “patriarchal history.”

Just using the word “patriarchy” now elicits a certain smugness. It feels old-fashioned to some, unnecessary to others.

Yet in the 40 years since the LHA was founded, lesbian voices haven’t become much stronger. Yes, Ellen DeGeneres and Robin Roberts are on TV five days a week, so everyone can see an out lesbian if they want to.

That is a significant change from the early post-Stonewall years. But we still feature the same celebrities over and over in our media. And last December, The Advocate (for which I also write regularly) chose Pope Francis as its person of the year. Not Edie Windsor—the lesbian who went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to have her 40-year partnership with her wife recognized, the lesbian whose battle wound up overturning the law banning same-sex marriage—but Pope Francis.

And it’s not just that startling emblem of lesbian erasure that rankles. There is also the word on the street. What I hear on social media and in the streets is that lesbians—not queers, not gays, not trans, not bis, but lesbians—feel that they are being silenced, that their voices are growing fainter and fainter in the LGBT din, that less and less attention is being paid to them and their issues, that they are lost in their own LGBT community.

One young lesbian I know, who at 23 is classically, sexily butch, said to me recently that she felt the pressures on her to transition from butch lesbian to transman were intense. Yet she didn’t feel male, she felt female, just butch.

A 35-year-old lesbian of color told me that she was tired of being called a token in the radical feminist movement when, for her and her partner, women-only spaces were where they felt safest as women of color. A lesbian in her 70s was succinct: “There is no room to be lesbian anymore. We’re supposed to embrace ‘queer.’ I just want to embrace women. That’s who I love. Lesbians.”

The very issue that Joan Nestle and the other founders of the LHA were concerned about—a patriarchal revision of women’s history—has been realized. In academia, women’s studies departments are now called gender studies.

“Queer”—a word I myself have been using for 20 years now, since my book Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life came out in 1995—is one that I’ve always thought of as inclusive. Now, after I’ve been educated by young working-class lesbians in New York who are members of the Lesbian Mafia, “queer” is a word I try not to use, because I’ve been told repeatedly that it is like “gay” was in the early days of the movement: masculine by preference and as such exclusive of lesbians. It took the mafia to school me.

Nestle wrote early on of the LHA, “The roots of the Archives lie in the silent voices, the love letters destroyed, the pronouns changed, the diaries carefully edited, the pictures never taken, the euphemized distortions that patriarchy would let pass.”
The motto of the LHA is “In memory of the voices we have lost.”

The rules of the LHA are that the space should be open to women and that the collection should be housed in a lesbian community space staffed by lesbians.
Lesbians cannot be excised, ever.

In March 2012, one of the lesbians I have most admired, the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, died. She was the most celebrated literary lesbian in America at the time of her death. I had studied her in college—that’s where I discovered her, in one of my women’s studies courses. She had led me to think differently about my role as a lesbian in this patriarchal culture.

Rich wrote, “It is crucial that we understand lesbian/feminism in the deepest, most radical sense: as that love for ourselves and other women, that commitment to the freedom of all of us, which transcends the category of ‘sexual preference’ and the issue of civil rights, to become a politics of asking women’s questions, demanding a world in which the integrity of all women—not a chosen few—shall be honored and validated in every respect of culture.”

Rich did not want the elision of lesbians from feminism, from literature, from history to continue, or to go unnoticed. She wanted lesbians and lesbianism in the forefront of feminism and our culture.

Lesbians are at the root of our feminist and social history. It isn’t just the nameless suffragists who were actually lesbians, or the nameless union workers who were lesbians. It’s not just the big-name lesbians like Addams or Hamilton, who made their mark on society but whose lesbianism was blotted out. It’s not just the literary lions—Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. It’s ourselves—our lesbian selves.

Where is our current history? Where will our future be?

The LHA wasn’t founded to record celebrity; it was founded to ensure that all lesbians, regardless of race or class status, would matter, would be worthy of archiving, of memorializing. Women whose names may never be known outside their own lesbian families would still have a place in the LHA.

Now, 40 years later, protecting the lesbian identity of the LHA is codified in the bylaws of the Archive.

But who will codify our identity in our own community? Who will ensure that our voices and our lives are recorded and remembered, heard and known, even as “queer” subsumes “lesbian” and the pressure to conform to the male-female binary marginalizes “butch,” “femme,” and “androgynous” in the lesbian community?

In her poem “Diving into the Wreck” Adrienne Rich wrote, “the words are purposes / the words are maps.”

Our words—our lesbian words—are the cartography of our lives. They are the evidence of our existence, what we have been and done in our community. As we commemorate Women’s History Month this year, think about all those bits and pieces of us in the LHA and how determined its founders were to make sure lesbians were not excised from history.

Make your own history. State that you, a lesbian, were here. So they know, in the future, that we existed, we loved, and we would not be silenced, we would not be erased from history. Never again.