Gay Freedom Day Parade, San Francisco, California, June 1979. Photographer unknown, c/o @chicagotribune.
BY FELON EVANS
The end of Pride weekend. I skipped the Parade but went to a concert Friday and then to a Lesbian Potluck this afternoon.
Pride has lost a lot of its meaning for me, but the reason why we have a Pride has not. I came out in the mid-70s. Coming out to family and friends was not difficult for me but coming out to the larger world often felt dangerous. I was closeted with neighbors and landlords because it could cost you your housing. My girlfriend became my “roommate.” There was the bedroom you shared and then a spare room made to look like a second bedroom in case family visited. We would de-dyke the house before certain people would come over. If you had friendly neighbors, it was likely that you kept your lesbian books out of the living room.
I was closeted at work, too, and it meant that I kept a distance from co-workers, especially when they were talking about their personal relationships. Going to work meant always hiding a secret about who you were. Even being closeted, I was still fired from my job at a domestic violence shelter for being a lesbian. The Reagan Administration put a proviso on grants to DV shelters across America that in order to receive federal funding, they had to get rid of their lesbian staff. The Board called me in and said “You are a lesbian and can no longer work here.” When I went to an attorney, he asked me to show him where it was illegal to fire me for my sexual orientation.
Being a lesbian in the 70s and 80s also meant going to bars. We had wonderful music and dances and concerts and AA meetings, and bars were an important part of that community. We could not afford to be oblivious to the fact that something as ordinary as one’s own life could induce hatred in someone else. The bar I went to in Cleveland had one of those little windows in the door they would peep out of to check you out before you could gain admittance. Bars had to be careful. One night , two lesbians in our community left the bar and were kidnapped, raped, and shot and left for dead. One of them survived. It rocked our community to its core, and yet we still went to the bar because it was part of our community.
Not being able to talk openly about being a lesbian meant that you had to send out signals in a conversation or an interaction if you thought another woman was gay. A certain type of direct eye-contact, held a bit longer than usual, a nod of the head as you walked by each other on the sidewalk were used to determine if someone was likely a lesbian. Lesbians hug differently than do straight women and that was often a sign you could count on.
I was both disadvantaged and advantaged in being a Lesbian. It is stressful to hide something as fundamental as your relationships and community. There was danger and discrimination, the times we would get yelled at on the street or at a concert or denied admittance to a restaurant on Valentine’s Day or how your girlfriend would be treated differently by hospital staff if you went to the hospital . Once a van full of men pulled up and several men jumped out with baseball bats and ran at my girlfriend and I. She had her large dog with us and the dog growled and lunged at them. They jumped back in the van and peeled off. I don’t know what would have happened had we not had the dog, but I have every reason to believe we would have been hurt by them.
Through it all, community is what helped us survive that type of emotional and psychic trauma, it’s what ameliorated shame, what provided us with some great coping skills and survival strategies. Our community is where we went after the bad family interactions, after the bad work experiences, after the firing or the insensitive doctor asking again what kind of birth control you use, even after you came out to her.
We so often get attached to a narrative of suffering as if that makes us more “authentic.” Anyone who came out back in the day has been through the shit. It takes a toll on a human being. And yet it also has allowed me to be part of a community of survivors who faced bigotry with both anger and humor, with resilience and guts.
What I want to celebrate on Pride is not the freedom to be myself but rather the gift of a community that held one another up, that endured shitty treatment and insensitivity and outright hate and still insisted on loving other women.
Tonight I went to a lesbian potluck with typical potluck food and ordinary lesbians talking about our commonplace lives, remarking on how much easier things are now. And yet we are all part of an extraordinary phenomenon, a community of women in what has been a lesbophobic culture, many of whom have endured decades of hostility for our choices, and who are undeterred in our insistence on loving each other.
Thank you Lesbian community. You are who I celebrate on Pride Weekend.