the lesbian avengers
The Lesbian Avengers was founded in 1992 by ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) activist and author, Sarah Schulman to raise lesbian visibility. Through direct action, the Lesbian Avengers turn political ideals into “concrete confrontation”. They conduct letter writing campaigns, visibility actions, and guerrilla publicity campaigns “all the while flaunting their lesbionic outrageousness” (Lesbian Avengers Chicago 2001). The Boston Lesbian Avengers describe their politics as “feminist, transfeminist, radical, and sex positive” (Montgomery 2001).
When founded in 1992, the original six Lesbian Avengers had a vision for grass-roots lesbian activism that would start as a visibility project and would eventually become a larger social lesbian movement. On Gay Pride Day that year, these women handed out 8,000 fluorescent green cards that said, “Lesbians! Dykes! Gay Women! We want revenge and we want it now”. Fifty lesbians came to the first meeting in New York. That year, in collaboration with ACT-UP and other Washington D.C. area groups, the first Dyke March was held, it drew 20,000 women. As a point of principle, no permit was obtained. According to Sarah Schulman, it was “the largest lesbian event in the history of the world” (Retter 1999). At the White House on their way to the Washington Monument, the marching Avengers stopped and demonstrated their aptitude as fire-eaters. This activity has become a trademark of the Avengers.
A year before the Lesbian Avengers were founded, Oregon skinheads killed a lesbian and a gay man by throwing a Molotov Cocktail into their home. This was done in retaliation for their working against the passage of an amendment to Oregon’s constitution that would have labeled homosexuality “perverse”. When the Lesbian Avengers eat fire, they take that very element that was used against them and consume it in a symbolic act while non-firing eating Avengers chant, “The fire will not consume us – we take it and make it our own” (DC Lesbian Avengers 2000). Lesbian Avengers eat fire to show that they can conquer their fears, and that they will not be intimidated. Not all Avengers eat fire, just the ones who want to (Boston Avenger Interview 2001). It is important for the Avengers to explain this background when asked why they need to “show off” by eating fire for an audience. Of course, “This isn’t to say that we don’t get off from the act, it’s a major rush” (D.C. Avengers 2000).
The purpose of the Lesbian Avengers is to identify and promote lesbian issues and perspectives while empowering lesbians to become experienced organizers who can participate in political rebellion. Founding members of the Lesbian Avengers feared that lesbians and lesbian issues were lost in the gay movement that tends to focus upon gay men and their struggles with HIV and gay bashing.
The Twin Cities Avengers changed our name in the early 2000s to emphasize our inclusive mission and membership. We recognize our history and the persistance of the same oppression that prompted the founding of the Lesbian Avengers.
Lesbian in/visibility in the co-gender movement has been an issue since homosexual women and men began organizing. In the 1970s, “Gay Liberation” was an umbrella term that was supposed to include both lesbians and gay males. With the advent of feminism and analyses of sexism, lesbians who felt that their agenda was being subsumed under a male one, left to form their own movement and/or demanded that the term “lesbian” be used to distinguish female homosexuals from male ones.
One sees the effects of this demand in the name changes that co-gender organizations founded in the early 1970s, made in the 1980s. For example, the National Gay Task Force became NGLTF, by adding the “L” word to its name. Similarly, the Gay Community Services Center in Los Angeles, became the GLCSC for a time.
One 90s response to the invisibility of lesbians was Lesbian Avengers, founded in 1992 by six New York lesbian activists who wanted a lesbian direct-action group. The Avengers soon gained a reputation for engaging in guerrilla-type “zaps,” street theatre and other political actions. According to Sarah Schulman, a co-founder of the Avengers, the group decided to have a lesbian march as part of the 1993 March on Washington.
Great ideas sometimes manifest simultaneously. Judy Sisneros, a member of the National ACT UP Women’s Committee, recalls that in late 1992, her group also began networking to produce a march, and later collaborated with the Lesbian Avengers and other D.C. groups. The first Dyke march drew 20,000 women. As a point of principle, no permit was obtained. According to Sarah Schulman, it was “the largest lesbian event in the history of the world.” When the March reached the White House on its way to the Washington Monument, the Avengers stopped and demonstrated their prowess as fire-eaters. This activity has become a trademark of the Avengers.
Sarah Schulman, noted that by the summer of 1993, “the Dyke March had caught on around the country.” The first San Francisco Dyke March in 1993, drew 10,000 women, while the one in New York City drew 3000. Chicago held its first march in 1996, and 1000 women showed up. The first LA March in 1994, drew 350 women, while 1500 showed up for the one in 1997. Lesbian activist veterans from the 1970s who attend the L.A. Dyke March, will note that unlike marches from the 1970s, these events are multi-generational, and multicultural.
Attempts to create a lesbian presence during gay pride, is like most lesbian projects, vulnerable to controversy. Some lesbians and gay men disapprove of a “separate” or “radical” lesbian event. Lesbians involved in organizing the event itself, may also differ vehemently with one another about political ideology. For example, in 1998, long-time lesbian activist Alix Dobkin, was invited to sing and speak at the Philadelphia Dyke March. However, after Alix wrote an article in Chicago’s Frontlines, on the importance of lesbian-only space and its not being open to Male-to Female transgender people, she was “disinvited” by the March organizers. In the end after much debate and struggle, she was reinvited.
Internationally, the idea of lesbian-focused pride marches has begun to catch on. The first Dyke March in Vancouver, British Columbia, was held in June, 1995. Ireland held its first Dyke March in 1998. In the same year, Toronto held its third Dyke March. As in other dyke marches, dykes on bykes, leather, bare breasts, waving flags, cheering, singing and dancing were part of the event.
In Japan, according to The Daily Yomiuri newspaper, “More than 200 people” participated in the “Dyke March, Tokyo ’97.” At the event, “women, many with buzz cuts and wearing karate uniforms or black suits, paraded along a six-kilometer route…loud music blaring from portable stereos and the colorful costumes attracted the most attention.”
The Dyke March signifies an attempt to promote lesbian activism and visibility in a co-gender, often politically apathetic environment, where many agendas compete for contributors and participants. Lisa Kung, a founding member of Atlanta Avengers, noted that the Dyke March “is about empowerment [for lesbians].”
In the midst of a co-gender movement that also seeks to integrate transgendered, bisexual and intersexed constituencies, the Dyke March, is a symbol of lesbian visibility, specificity, longevity and diversity.