An Incomplete History...


The Lesbian Avengers began in New York City in 1992 as a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility. They refined media-savvy tactics, often creating actions for their visual appeal, and touched a nerve with the Lesbian Avenger Manifesto. The group quickly spread worldwide after the Avengers organized a Dyke March for lesbian visibility on the eve of the Lesbian and Gay March on Washington in 1993 that mobilized 20,000 lesbians. The Avengers also developed a civil rights organizing project that championed "out" grassroots activism, that not only fought homophobic initiatives, but worked to train activists for the longterm.

Origins
The Lesbian Avengers was founded by Ana Simo, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-christine d'Adesky, Marie Honan, and Anne Maguire, six longtime lesbian activists who were involved in a variety of LGBT groups from the Medusa's Revenge lesbian theater and Women for Women to ACT-UP and ILGO (the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization).

Early in '92, Ana Simo, frustrated at lesbian invisibility, and in particular how lesbians were being erased from the NY Rainbow Curriculum battle, approached Sarah Schulman about starting a lesbian direct action group, "A group totally focused on high-impact street activism, not on talking," Ana said.

Sarah Schulman agreed to participate, and suggested that Ana get in touch with Maxine Wolfe. Sarah had already made a stab at organizing lesbians in '90 or '91 after years of working around women's issues, and then AIDS. She called a community meeting, but according to Maxine Wolfe, it was a total disaster. One woman insisted the group should be doing work on animal rights. Another said it should be abortion. Nobody was talking about lesbian issues.

Maxine immediately said "yes" when Ana approached her. She'd already been thinking of setting up a hotline that lesbians could call when they wanted to hold an action. Anne-christine d'Adesky, Anne Maguire and Marie Honan also signed on, meeting for dinner at Ana's house in May. Before the night was over, the six dykes had a mission, a name, a first action for the first day of school, even a recruiting flyer which they decided to hand out only to dykes on the sideline of the Gay Pride March in June. Maxine said, "We did not want women who were already committed to nine thousand other groups. We wanted to reach women who were new."

They also vowed that if no one else joined them, they would do the first action alone.

They didn't have to. When they held their first meeting at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center, as many as seventy responded to the call to action: "LESBIANS! DYKES! GAY WOMEN!" (...) "We're wasting our lives being careful. Imagine what your life could be. Aren't you ready to make it happen?"

Actions
The New York Avengers expanded rapidly, and pretty soon groups began to spring up around the country. The key to their success was a narrow focus on lesbian issues, and a flair for combining the energy of young activists with experience and media know-how. Avoiding traditional picket lines, sit-ins, and petitions, they created actions with stronger, original images more likely to attract both media coverage and new members.

Their first action took place September 9, 1992 in the borough of Queens where the local right-wing was particularly active trying to suppress a multicultural "Children of the Rainbow" curriculum for elementary schoolchildren. A few segments included information about lesbian and gay lives, but even proponents of the curriculum weren't exactly gay-friendly. As things heated up, they avoided talking about queers, and seemed prepared to dump LGBT people to save the Rainbow Curriculum.

The Avengers decided to take their case to the kids. They had a marching band and handed out balloons instructing them to, "Ask about lesbian lives." Their tee shirts read, "I was lesbian child." At the time, there was some recognition of lesbian and gay parents, most notably in the banning of the children's book, Heather Has Two Mommies. Almost nobody acknowledged then that adults didn't suddenly acquire their sexual orientation on their 21st birthdays, but that we were all, with greater and lesser awareness, gay children who had a big stake in other kids being taught respect in the classroom.

In October, the Avengers held a related protest at the Board of Education in Brooklyn, and continued to follow the issue in a number of ways. In February, for instance, they serenaded Rainbow Curriculum opponent Mary Cummins with lesbian love songs outside her home in Queens.

Fire-Eating
The Avengers ate fire for the first time during an action at the end of October. The New York Times, in one of its few articles on the Avengers, explained:

"[It] grew out of tragedy. Last year, a lesbian and a gay man, Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, burned to death in Salem, Ore., after a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the apartment they shared. A month later, on Halloween, at a memorial to the victims in New York City, the Avengers (then newly organized) gave their response to the deaths. They ate fire, chanting, as they still do: "The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.""

That action, held at a West Village encampment, was later followed by a march down Fifth Avenue in which the Avengers carried torches, and burnt signs with the names of anti-lesbian and gay propositions blamed for the homophobic violence.

Introduced by Jennifer Monson, a choreographer and dancer with circus skills, the use of fire and fire-eating became something of a symbol for the Lesbian Avengers, spreading from the New York group to many others.

Going National
The statistics were clear, campaigns with anti-gay referendums were followed by violence, and the Avengers focused several actions on them. When the Denver mayor came to New York to promote tourism on December 7 and 8th, Avengers trailed him everywhere he went to demand the repeal of Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2. When Self magazine booked a ski-retreat in that state, Avengers sent the rag a letter. When that was ignored, the Avengers invaded the Self offices on January 25, 1993.

When an Avenger group formed in Colorado, dykes there become some of the most active in the country, chaining themselves to the gate of the Governor's Mansion and invading celebrations held by the extreme right.

Early in the year, the Avengers began looking at the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Lesbians were nearly invisible in the programming. The first Dyke March was inevitable.

The Avengers poured enormous resources into preparations for the first Dyke March, contacting almost every dyke bookstore, bar, and LGBT space in the country, and holding fundraisers to produce thousands of flyers and palm cards to distribute in the days leading up to the ground-breaking event. In the process, they found some like-minded groups. The ACT-UP Women's Network, and a small West Coast group also contributed to the Dyke March.

On April 24, the evening before the LGBT March on Washington, 20,000 women took to the streets of the capital in the first Dyke March. In front of the White House, a dozen Lesbian Avengers stunned the crowd by dramatically eating fire. Later Sarah Schulman wrote, "the participants brought the marches home to their cities and countries and created a new tradition."

This April 24 Dyke March in Washington was followed by local Dyke Marches held the day before LGBT Pride Marches, usually in June. New York Avengers pushed a bed down Fifth Avenue declaring "Lesbians Lust for Power." San Francisco Avengers built a 4-foot bomb and got 10,000 in the streets. Atlanta Avengers mobilized 2000. A tradition was born!

The following year, New York City Avengers threw the Internatioal Dyke March to coincide with the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Gay Games IV, and international human rights conferences. It attracted as many as 20,000 marchers from all over the world. American Avengers converged on New York in a "Pride Ride" doing visibility actions along the way. One caravan crossed through the Midwest from Minneapolis via Lansing and Pittsburgh. Another caravan took a southerly route, originating in Houston.

The Dyke March tradition continues in many cities, and has even expanded to Mexico City.

We Recruit
The Avengers actively tried to inspire new chapters. From the beginning, co-founder and writer Sarah Schulman promoted the group everywhere she went on her book tours. The big push really happened at the LGBT March on Washington where members distributed thousands of broadsheets offering a Lesbian Avenger Manifesto, a brief history of the group, and information on how to organize their own chapter. The response was huge, and the Avengers grew exponentially.

There was also the matter of timing. Newsweek reporter Eloise Salholz, covering the massive 1993 LGBT March on Washington, believed the Lesbian Avengers were so popular because they were founded at a moment when lesbians were increasingly tired of working on issues that didn't affect them directly, like AIDS and abortion, while their own problems went unsolved. Most importantly, lesbians were frustrated with invisibility in society at large, and invisibility and misogyny in the LGBT community.

One activist told Salholz, "When a lesbian walks into a room of gay men, it's the same as when she walks into a room of heterosexual men ... You're listened to and then politely ignored." Lesbian Avenger Ann Northrop underlined the point. "We're not going to be invisible anymore ... We are going to be prominent and have power and be part of all decision making."

Salholz's assumptions were largely proved in interviews with Avengers in the 1993 documentary film, Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too edited by Su Friedrich and Janet Baus. Some members, though, joked they also joined to meet girls.

Evolving Avengers
Each Lesbian Avenger chapter set their own priorities and worked on issues important to them. In places like Colorado and Idaho, chapters were sparked into action by antigay initiatives. In Southern states, it was sometimes the weight of the religious right that oppressed them, or symbols of hate like the KKK.

The New York Avengers scattered in several directions. In response to the growing number of anti-gay initiatives, and at the request of small, isolated chapters, several Avengers formed the Lesbian Avengers' Civil Rights Organizing Project, traveling across the country to support dykes fighting anti-gay referendum and ballot propositions. They had particular success in Idaho. Other Avengers worked on international lesbian issues. Some focused on the local intersection of homophobia and racism.

All chapters continued to be inspired by the sense that lesbians were invisible both politically and culturally, sensing visibibility was the first logical step in gaining power.

By '96 there were about sixty chapters with papertrails. More continue to emerge, though without the same force or numbers.

The most visible Avenger legacy remains the annual Dyke March, held in dozens of cities across the world. San Francisco and New York hold the largest marches, with thousands of lesbians taking to the streets every year.

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A Few References

Lesbian Avenger Handbook: A Handy Guide to Homemade Revolution

Video: Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too. Editors, Janet Baus, Su Friedrich. (1993).

Cogswell, Kelly. Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Salholz, Eloise. The Power and the Pride, Newsweek, 1993-06-21.

Pursley, Sara. "Gay Politics in the Heartland: With the Lesbian Avengers in Idaho." The Nation 260 (January 23, 1995) pp 90-94. Download pdf.

Lesbian Avenger Civil Rights Organizing Project: Out Against the Right Handbook

Myers, Steven Lee. IDEAS & TRENDS; How a 'Rainbow Curriculum' Turned Into Fighting Words. New York Times, 1992-12-13.

McKinley, Jr., James C., "Organizing a City: A Celebration From A to Z" New York Times, 1994-06-19.

Branner, Amy C. There was a dyke march? Off Our Backs, Aug. 1994

Brozan, Nadine. Chronicle, New York Times, 1993-01-27.

Simo, Ana. Is Spanish Radio Training Bigots? The Gully online magazine, 2001-08-04.

Duques, Andrés, A visit with the radio shock-jocks of El Vacilón de la Mañana 2007-11-16.

SUNDAY, APRIL 24, 1994; Fire-Eating Lesbians New York Times Magazine, 1994-04-24.

Schulman, Sarah. What Became of Freedom Summer? The Gay and Lesbian Review, January-February, 2004. Volume 11, Number 1

Mexican Dykes Out for Visibility, The Gully online magazine, 2003-02-18.

Also Interesting
Schulman, Sarah. My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years Routledge, 1994.

Atkins, Robert. Girls With Wheatpaste And Webspace. Offers insight into two of the Avengers' image makers.

"This Is about People Dying: The Tactics of Early ACT UP and Lesbian Avengers in New York City" interview with Maxine Wolfe by Laraine Sommella. Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance. eds: Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter. Bay Press, Seattle Washington, 1997

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