Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The Ghost of Sisterhood Past has paid me a startling visit...

In 1977 I moved to Durango, Colorado to join a lesbian-separatist land collective there. It was a brave and heady experiment on my part, and from that choice, I became an intermittent vegetarian, began learning about classism, turned into a children's rights advocate, learned about matriarchies and goddess-based religions, moved from feminism into lesbian-feminist revolution, became trained in peer counseling and the work of undoing my conditioning, and returned to writing poetry in earnest (I wrote over 300 poems in 1978).

A roller coaster of a year.

On March 22, 1978 (just over 30 years ago), I moved with two of my collective members to San Francisco, in search of expanded lesbian revolutionary horizons. (Plus, I was hoping for a new girlfriend.) I've stated in other scraps of memoir that San Francisco was not my first choice (somewhere in the Oregon Women's Land network was), and my persuasion to that eventual location was based on three factors: something I/we read in Lesbian Connection about an anti-rape vigilante group in the Bay Area; something I/we read (perhaps in Lesbian Tide?) about work with lesbian teenagers in San Francisco; and something I/we read in DYKE: A Quarterly. I've been unable to remember the content of the latter influence, only the printed source.

(Oregon Women’s Land Trust Meeting, 1970s, © Ruth Mountaingrove)

Those of you who are reader of my Great American Lesbian Novel Ginny Bates will recognize elements from the book in my life story here.

That year, Lesbian Connection had a story about how a group of women (feminists to be sure, lesbians by intimation though not necessarily) were tracking down men who had committed rapes but gotten off on technicalities of some sort. In the first act of retaliation, they broke into the guy's house, overpowered him, castrated him (and somebody in the group had medical training, because he did not die from it), painted his genitals purple with gentian violet, and dumped him, bound and unconscious, on the steps of the county hospital with "rapist" emblazoned on his chest.

The ensuing hue and cry consumed the city. Far more media attention and governmental outrage was devoted to this than to any rape, however vicious and premeditated.

The second time the group struck, they beat the guy up (focusing on the genitals), did the purple staining and labeling, and again dumped him naked in a public place. The liberal white boys in the area went berserk, and apparently could not think or talk of anything else. (Wonder why.)

(© by the unmistakeable Jill Posener)

The third time they broke into a known offender's house, they were all wearing T-shirts under their jackets which read CASTRATE RAPISTS. When they took off their coats, standing with silent menace in a ring around the guy, he passed out. When he woke up, he was naked in public with a purple crotch and RAPIST on his chest.

Ditto for the fourth guy. Men were beginning to live in terror, especially men who knew they were rapists. (What a wide cast that net covers is up for speculation.)

When my two thinking-about-moving housemates and I read this story, our instanteous reaction was that we wanted to be in that vigilante group. We had all orginally met each other at a major anti-rape endeavor in the Dallas/Fort Worth area called the Kitty Genovese Project. We would not be able to just visit San Francisco and try to hook up with the group, however. Their identify was a deep secret. But if we lived there in the Bay Area, made the right personal connections, maybe we could find a way in.

The second draw for San Francisco was that the city/county had set up a foster parenting program for lesbian and gay runaway teens showing up there without a home or resources. Like a few other major metropolitan areas in the U.S., San Franciso was a magnet for any kid who came out early in a locale where being lesbian/gay was not a safe option (which was most of the country then). A social worker named Sue Saperstein had somehow persuaded a SF government body to fund placing these runaways in foster homes headed by stable, well-vetted lesbians and gays. The three of us talked over providing such a refuge. I had been an out teenager and was a coparent, another was also a coparent, and the third had been a teen runaway who nearly died on the streets. It was an issue close to our hearts.

But the third arrow which had directed me to the Bay Area remained partially obscured to my memory, except that I thought it had something to do with a discussion which arose from reading our household copy of DYKE: A Quarterly. Obscured, that is, until last week.

(Prepublication photo for DYKE -- Liza Cowan is back left; front right is Alix Dobkin and to her right is Penny House; © Liza Cowan)

In the last year, I have become friends with Liza Cowan, one of the founders of lesbian separatism, a major player in lesbian-feminism way back when, and the co-editor of DYKE. We got together online and have burned up the wires with talk ever since. It's ironic that we never met in person, given the crossovers in our community connections. I remembered getting a postcard from Liza and her coeditor, Penny House, at one point when I wrote them a letter to ask a question about why they had named their publication company "Tomato" (I still have the postcard somewhere). I put Liza into my novel, Ginny Bates, before I ever established a personal relationship with her because Liza was a famous figure then in the lives of like-minded lesbians. The relationship of my characters Myra and Ginny with the herstorical Liza Cowan is entirely typical.

(Table of contents page for DYKE #6)

Last week, Liza was rooting through her old copies of DYKE, searching for the answer to some other question regarding lesbian-feminist herstory, when she came upon a Letter to the Editor in the last issue of DYKE ever published, the Animal Issue, DYKE #6, Summer 1978. The letter was responding to an issue which had talked about Jewish lesbians and was written sometime earlier, likely the winter of 1978. It was from Meg Barnett in Durango, Colorado. Yep, me. And it's not just a perfect snapshot of who I was at that time (a snapshot which moves me deeply), it solves a mystery. I reproduce it for you here exactly:

Dear Liza and Penny,

What an issue! The best yet. It created a lot of discussion between us here and was read cover to cover by whichever of us could lay her hands on it. In particular, I was moved to alter or form opinions on the subject of transsexuals and Jewish Lesbians. I had categorized being Jewish with belonging to a religion, and I had no more tolerance for it than I had for Christianity (though I spent a lot more time denouncing Christianity because it is so much more pervasive and destructive). Now I see it as a culture, separate from the patriarchal monotheism that bears the same name; and, even more important, I recognize my own ignorance as a form of anti-Semitism that I must correct. Though I certainly don't expect you to have to use your energy in educating me about a culture that has ben denied to me (partly through my own acceptance of that denial), as a result of the patriachy's insistent division of us into enemy forces, still, I'd like to see further articles on how the ways of life non-majority groups has played a role in the development and identity of wimmin from those groups.

As for transsexuality (is there such a state of being?), I haven't given much thought to it. I had lumped it in with faggotry, transvestism, etc. as categories that the patriarchy associated with dykes just because we were all different from Ozzie and Harriet. As part of my refusal to belong to such a collection of categories, I avoided analysis of areas that weren't immediately pressing on my existence as a dyke. However, I am learning that the tiny number of areas that seem unrelated to me grow smaller every day -- what a revolution we are building! Your views were astute and blunt, and have whetted my appetite for more.

I loved the piece on Lesbian hobos. I think it's one of the most significant reclamations of herstory to be written -- it is appropriate that Dyke published it. All in all, it will be very hard to wait for your next issue.

Meg Barnet (sic)

What's most impressive to me about this letter is how clearly I already had my voice then, at age 22. But equally of note is that it marks, definitively, the point at which I realized my profound ignorance about Jewish culture AND my decision to overcome this ignorance. I could not, at that time, name a Jew I knew personally. (Hard for me to imagine now, but it's true.) And when Liza called me to read me this letter, a memory came back to me.

As a result of the Jewish lesbian question sparked by DYKE, I had a long conversation with Sapphora, one of the housemates who was trying to persuade me to move to San Francisco. We had gone to the Chief Diner in Durango, a place where we were sure to not run into any of the other lesbians we knew for a couple of reasons: (1) It was a diner, serving the lesbian-feminist version of tref, and (2) it had a giant neon sign of a stereotypical Plains Indian chief, completely politically offensive. Once a week, we sneaked away for a meal here to talk over things we couldn't bring up elsewhere. We had both been raised poor/working class, so diners were comfortable for us. In addition, we could order from the breakfast menu all day long, and we would each get a minute steak, eggs over easy, hashed browns, and a fountain Coke. In our world, two of those four items were strictly forbidden (meat and Coke), and a third, hashed browns, were not on the generally approved list. A rule-breaking meal for rule-breaking conversations.

(Chief Diner on North Main, Durango, Colorado)

But after that issue of DYKE came out, I now recall confessing to Sapphora my ignorance and my determination to overcome it. She began pointing out how many of the leaders in feminism and lesbian-feminism were Jews. I knew about Alix and Liza. I hadn't realized that many of the Furies and Radicalesbians, founders of Olivia and a whole array of poets and essayists, were also Jews. I can remember sitting in that booth, mid afternoon, sweet caffeine hitting my system and reeling from an entire set of connections I'd never made.

At some point, Sapphora saw her chance. She was extraordinarily good at manipulating me. She said "You know, that woman Sue Saperstein who's heading up the foster program for teen dykes? That's a Jewish name."

"Really?" I said. I wanted to know how she could tell, but I was feeling a little raw about my stupidity.

"There's a huge Jewish dyke presence in San Francisco, ya know. Only place where there's more is New York" said Sapphora casually.

(Inside the Chief Diner, Durango, Colorado)

And that's that did it, sisters and brothers. That's how my course got charted. It may have been a con job, but it was an honest one: I did land in a thick community of Jewish dykes, and I was never happier. I didn't just correct my ignorance, I transformed myself into the next best thing to a Jew, the fiercest ally on the planet, and in turn, those women, my sisters, gave me the remaining bulk of my political and social education. It made me who I am today.

(Sue Saperstein in recent years)

Within a week of moving to San Fran, by the way, I did locate Sue Saperstein at a BACABI event where she spoke. I fell for her, head over heels. She was unbelievably beautiful, and passionate in her sense of justice. She was also ten years older than me, and while it must have been obvious how smitten I was, she managed to gently sidestep all my romantic longing even as I joined every group she ever attended.

(Maggie a year after moving to the Bay Area from Colorado, at Bean Hollow Beach)

So there's the story, morning glory. Thanks, in varying degrees, to Liza and Penny, Sapphora, and Sue Saperstein for getting me from A to B. Thanks to our generation for making connections every way we could. And thanks to me for choosing to never stop growing.


liza said...

Those postcards of The Chief Diner are priceless. And, may I add, I LOVE DINERS!

The Lesbian Hoboes drawing is by Roberta Gregory, who still works as a cartoonist, to illustrate the essay by JR Roberts.

Maggie, I love the way you are writing history.Not just because you write about me -although I must admit I love that too - but because you are writing your story interwoven with thorough research. I've been concerned that our moment, our movement, has been crumpled into the dustbin of history.

But, like a good rag picking historian, you are rescuing those stories- the events, the context, the theories, the writing, the art, the personalities, and the relevance of all of the above to the present day. Thank you.

kat said...

Liza said: Maggie, I love the way you are writing history.

Me too. I love history, but it's so much more interesting to hear the history from those who participated. Especially since your narratives are so excellently written, and are so wonderfully compelling.

I have to thank you (and you too, Liza) for your parts in herstory!

Maggie Jochild said...

Ah, I appreciate you both so much.

Engaging in this "rag-picking" (such a poetic and precise term, Lize) has helped me emotionally almost more than I can express. Before I began writing it down, and posting at this blog, I frequently had a fairly negative self-image of myself as a young woman, focused on the errors I made, the people I hurt, and how much I failed to understand.

All of which are still true. It's often easy to write about these times in my life because SO MUCH has changed internally for me. But I see the thread of my smarts, my good intentions, my hunger for connection and information, throughout all the episodes of my past and I kinda like that girl and woman. Sometimes I adore her, as when she said "I'm gonna find out about Jews, I refuse to stay this dumb".

It's like writing about Myra, but much sweeter.

letsdance said...

now i understand a little better how maggie became such a fount of information....

i didn't understand your need to keep learning and growing. it's part of who you are and why i admire you so much.

Anonymous said...

I LOVE THIS!! Thanks so much for writing this, Maggie, I find I can never get enough of our herstory, told by those of us who actually lived it and can show us the artifacts and who remember this woman and that woman and how it came to be that this thing happened, and whatever.

Your blog is always such a treat to read!

kittent said...

I'm so glad I found your blog. During Womyn's History Month I was preparing a show for Womyn Making Waves (womyn's music & music by women, Sunday 1-3pm Central time http://weft.org) and I was desperately searching for digital versions of some of the old standards. To my delight I found "Living With Lavender Jane" so I bought that for me and the station and I found your blog. (I also found "Lesbian Concentrate" on vinyl, bought it and had a techie friend transfer it to cd because it needed to be heard.

Thank you.