1. What is a lesbian ?
Soon after I came out, I rattled off a list of lesbians for my mom, to help her – us – understand that history has benefited immensely from my kind. I started with Emily Dickinson and was starting to make my way up to Eleanor Roosevelt when my mom cut me off. “Emily Dickinson? Are you sure? No, I don’t think so,” she said. Sensing the direction of our conversation, I skipped Eleanor and cited Ellen, the Universally Appreciated Lesbian, Thanks to Finding Nemo. My mom said, “Ellen! Yes, Ellen. Ha ha, she is so funny!” And this was the instant when I knew that being gay was O.K. (Thank you, Ellen.)
For my part, I’m not sure when I was exposed to the concept of lesbianism. Growing up in a little bubble of a community near Orange County, I didn’t have the requisite language to describe such relationships between women. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that my recognition came so late, but it really wasn’t until Ellen came out in “The Puppy Episode” that I really understood the term “lesbian” (sure, I saw Ellen on Time’s groundbreaking cover at the market, but even that “shocking” headline – “Yep, I’m Gay” – held back the L-word). And then I faced the confusing struggle to scream my presence in a culture that blissfully hummed along as it denied the morality of my existence: was I a dyke, lipstick lesbian (no), boi, baby butch? And how do I translate these needs for definition to those who view gender as equivalent to sex, self-expression as synonymous to experimentation?
“GenderPlay in Lesbian Culture”, an exhibit at the ONE Archives in West Hollywood, invites the lesbian community and the general public to explore these issues of identity. Analyzing lesbian culture from a distinctly lesbian point of view, co-curator and predominant lesbian rights activist Jeanne Cordova hopes that the exhibit will “teach our community, all the generations, about our own history and culture, and show what a unique culture it is that must be preserved.”
Jeanne Cordova, co-curator Lynn Ballen, and the lesbians guerillas in the midst of cultural re-education, after the jump.
Jeanne and her partner, Lynn Ballen are the co-founders of the Lesbian Exploratorium (LEX), which is billed as a “lesbian cultural guerilla group” and is comprised of a diverse group of about 10 lesbians, from archivists to activists. Lynn and Jeanne (a former UCLA graduate student) returned to Los Angeles after a long absence to find that though the local lesbian “scene” was socially thriving (i.e., Dinah Shore (which will survive any LPGA-related cutbacks), Girlbar, etc.), it lacked the socio-political-cultural urgency that once vibrated throughout the community. Trekking to Dinah Shore for the first time last year, Lynn was wowed by the “amazing energy, comfort, and shared need that we still have to be within our own community.” Determined to tap into this underlying but pervasive feeling of “tribal-ness,” the pair set out to rediscover and record lesbian art, culture, and history. A friend suggested the name “Exploratorium” to signify the group’s open-ended mission, and thus LEX was born.
One of the overarching goals of LEX is to develop and foster a dialogue between the dangerously open lezzies of the 70s and the fashionably open lezzies, bis, and everyone else in between and beyond the lesbian spectrum of the present day. “My generation of lesbians have no idea what you kids are doing, and I think many of us are pleasantly surprised at what we’re finding – you’re so open, so creative, much more than we were, or could have been,” Jeanne says. “GenderPlay” is the first step to build the bridge between the generations.
The curators hope that the installation gives the generations the chance to learn about each other, and to invigorate each “to preserve what is unique about our culture, lesbian culture.” In particular, by tracing the history of lesbian identity – from women who passed as men to fight in the Civil War to the butche/femme dichotomy of the ‘50s to the lipstick lesbians of the ‘80s to the Maddow Endowment of “a new gender” on television today – Jeanne hopes that my generation “will learn about lesbian history and culture, and find a sense of place” in this distinguished timeline. Lynn adds that most historically oppressed groups have “affirmational and relational bonds to family to fall back on. Lesbians don’t have these automatic bonds.”
One of the most interesting aspects of “GenderPlay” is its invitation – its challenge, perhaps – to interact with it. Visitors may define themselves on a Post-It and display it, out and proudly, on the exhibit wall. Some adamantly proclaim “No Label”; others more academically clock in as “Gender Queer.” Jeanne observes that there is a cross-generational “hunt for description” and that the most striking difference is length: “Where we used one word, you use three.” (Ah, touché – a girl once introduced herself to me as an “industrial-techno dyke.” I still don’t know what that is, but it involves boots spray-painted in hot silver.) Lynn notes the fluidity of these labels, recalling that many define themselves one way upon walking into the exhibit, only to re-define themselves on their way out.
Nonetheless, these categories have their limits – like all political and academic discussions over labels and categorization, the tendency to over-categorize can be self-destructive. Rather than stoking the fire of identity politics, Jeanne and Lynn both carefully point out that these labels should be used “as a tool, to start a conversation, not end it” and that the community must be willing to “even move past these labels if necessary.”
4. From Lipstick to Chapstick
Some of the stickiest Post-Its in my mind were ones that play off of “lipstick lesbian” – i.e., “lipgloss lesbian.” A“GenderPlay” panel focuses exclusively on the lipstick era, and I was surprised to find that this particular subculture dominated the Los Angeles landscape in the 1980s. Jeanne theorizes that the rise of the lipstick lesbian culture was “probably due to the dominance of the movie industry, which required women to look a specific, very traditionally feminine way in order to be employable.” Adding to this and illustrating how quickly culture can react to its information producers, one of the most popular lesbian magazines began to more heavily feature lesbians of the ultra-feminine, ultra-Hollywood type.
According to Jeanne, lipstick culture dominated in Los Angeles until the 1990s, “when the queer women took it away.” Lipsticks were accused of mainstreaming lesbianism for the masses, conforming to heterosexual constructs of femininity without the inconvenient and controversial lesbian culture, history, or politics. Jeanne and Lynn agree, “We have to mainstream the culture within our own community … Lesbian culture is history, lesbian contributions, the 1970s, art, sisterhood, and communal tribal-ness.” More than that, it’s “our own set of shared (subversive) values, style, music, humor, traditions” (as Lynn points out, this definition is not universal –the Chinese lesbians in Saving Face likely had different issues than the dust-tripping American lezzies in Desert Hearts).
5. Sharing our toaster ovens
Jeanne and Lynn also see LEX as a means of re-opening safe spots for women to openly discuss and share their experiences. Jeanne was surprised at the number of women, mostly my age, who have never discussed women- or lesbian-specific issues within a group of other women. In contrast to the more explicit discrimination of the past, today’s subtle forms of sexism regretfully cloak the need for such spaces. Hearing Jeanne and Lynn talk about the significance of such gatherings, my naivety was struck by our shared issues: simplistically interpreted commonplace violence against women; sexism (I’m reminded of an interview that Gillian Anderson did recently in which she noted, with righteous bitterness, that though she and “X-Files” co-star David Duchovny had “equal dialogue,” she nonetheless was directed to “walk behind him, never side by side”); abortion; and for lesbians and the trans community, the need for visibility that accurately depicts, and challenges the larger community to accept, their contributions (watching Milk, for example, one would think that that Anne Kronenberg was the only lezzie in San Francisco fighting against the Briggs initiative). This open space is real estate we still need.
Turning to the future, I asked Jeanne and Lynn about the marriage equality debate and the state of the lesbian rights movement. “Marriage is not an issue that I would have chosen,” Jeanne says, but, reflecting on her earlier days as an ardent activist, “sometimes in politics, issues are forced on your plate by the right wingers and you have to deal with it as it comes.” Predicting that marriage equality will be achieved at the state level over the next 5 years, Jeanne and Lynn quickly turn to other issues: gays in the military, lesbian rights on a federal level, and adoption rights. To achieve our goals, Jeanne urges the lesbian community to forge a “strong alliance with young queer women, especially young queer women of color.” Finally, Jeanne reminds me that “the lesbian movement has to be independent from the gay and women’s movement – we have our own issues that can’t be overlooked.”
LEX, too, is part of this future. Jeanne and Lynn hope to continue to use their exhibits as tools to teach the public, and the lesbian community in particular, about history and culture, and to bring all ages on the gender spectrum together to discuss how to move forward. “I’m curious, too, about what it really means to ‘see something from a lesbian point of view,’” Lynn says.
In August, LEX will unveil a huge wall of lesbian-centric publications, from 1948 to 2008. This will include Burbank-based Lisa Ben’s hugely influential Vice Versa, the first magazine targeted to lesbians, to Jeanne’s own hugely influential Lesbian Tide, published in Los Angeles during the 1970s. When asked whether she would publish again, Jeanne laughed and said, “I’ve been thinking about it. But, I don’t know, with these quick deadlines and everything, I would need one of you kids to show us how it’s done today.”
7. What this lesbian is
“GenderPlay” ends it run Saturday, May 23. Go. I walked away from “GenderPlay” with a greater sense of who I am and where I belong: somewhere between Ellen’s Converses and Rachel Maddow’s coif. Where’s my Post-It?
“GenderPlay in Lesbian Culture” at the One Archives
626 N. Robertson Ave.
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Exhibit is open Friday 4 – 8pm & Saturday 1 – 5pm
Free (donations accepted)