Table of Contents
Almost two decades later, it's time to share the Lesbian Avengers' story and skills with a new generation. All you need are daring, creativity, and organization to subvert your enemies, and wake up your friends. Politics isn't just for the rich and connected. Your city and country are yours. Using the power of the street, direct action will give you a voice even if you don't have your own lobbyists and war chests.
In that spirit, I'm pleased to present the third edition of The Lesbian Avenger Handbook: A Handy Guide to Homemade Revolution. Typos have been corrected, and tech advances have been acknowledged to bring us into the 21st century.
So get busy. Wreak havoc. Avenge.
July 24, 2011
There is a wide spectrum of opinion in the lesbian community about what kinds of strategies to employ. Some people want to be in therapy groups. Some people want to work on electoral and legal reform. As a direct action, activist group, the Lesbian Avengers is not for everybody, nor should it be. It is for women who want to be involved in activism, work in community, be creative, do shit-work, take responsibility on a regular basis, have their minds blown, change their opinions and share organizing skills. Other strategies are also valid, but the Avengers reason for existing is direct action.
The Lesbian Avengers were founded in June 1992 by six experienced political activists. They had a vision for a grassroots lesbian activism that would go beyond visibility to a larger goal of movement building. On Gay Pride Day that year, these six handed out 8,000 fluorescent green club cards that said, "Lesbians! Dykes! Gay Women! We want revenge and we want it now." Fifty lesbians came to the first meeting. Since that time, an increasing number of lesbians have come to the Avengers in the spirit of cooperation, negotiation and flexibility in order to build a community of skilled political organizers committed to action.
What follows is concrete information on how to organize a direct action group. The more efficient your frameworks are, the more encouragement there will be for creative, imaginative work. We have left space in the margins throughout this handbook for you to add your own ideas, inspirations and lists of contacts. Go girl!
Often we begin the meeting by going around the room and having each dyke introduce herself. Sometimes we end by going around again so each woman can say what tasks and responsibilities she has taken on for the following week. Hopefully, everyone in the room will have taken on some kind of responsibility.
The point of meetings is to keep them as short as possible, and get work done in an effective manner, but still give people time for productive discussion about the politics and creation of the action. Since most of the hammering out of details and brainstorming for creative silliness happens outside the general meeting, in committees, the role of the facilitator is crucial in keeping things focused.
Facilitators volunteer from the floor and usually serve four weeks. We hold a facilitator training every few months and women without experience cannot facilitate without first going through a training. We also ask people facilitating for the first time to invite someone more experienced to sit next to them and help them through their first few weeks.
The facilitator is responsible for setting the agenda at each meeting. But more importantly, she is responsible for creating an atmosphere of efficient respect. If people in the meeting that night are vague and inexperienced, the facilitator must listen closely and try to focus discussion around specific proposals for action. If people come to the meeting with rigidity or negativity, the facilitator needs to diffuse the tension and insure that the Avenger meeting is a place for free exchange of ideas. (See Appendix 1, for advice on conflict resolution). People have to be able to offer their perspectives without being attacked and to have space to explore ideas. Our meetings need to be flexible and conducive to creative thought. It is the facilitator's job to keep people pro-active, encourage them to make concrete suggestions, propose alternatives and take responsibility for their ideas. She must ensure that proposals are presented in a way that allows the largest number of Avengers to be involved.
The facilitator should set an agenda focused around the most important business-keep things like teach-ins and announcements until the end. She needs to keep the meetings running smoothly and with focus on the task at hand. Usually the discussion should not run longer than ten or fifteen minutes, at which point the facilitator can offer the room the option to vote or to continue the discussion at a deeper level. If she sees that people are repeating each other, she can ask if anyone has something new to add.
PLANNING AN ACTION
When Avengers have an idea for an action they can bring a precise, specific proposal to the floor, or they can come to the floor with a vague idea and pass around a sign-up sheet for those interested in developing the project. Those who sign up then meet separately as a committee and return to the group with a specific proposal. This way the large group discussion will revolve around a concrete proposal creating a framework for a more constructive and satisfying, task-oriented discussion.
Once the large picture of an action is approved by the Avengers, the committee gets to work on specifics. It is in committee that all the brilliant, wacky ideas can come to fruition. Every action planning committee needs two co-coordinators who are responsible for following up with everyone who took on tasks, and for presenting the action to the floor at each step.
Co-coordinators need to be sure that their committee addresses the following questions and issues:
Concepts: What is the goal of this action? Who are we trying to reach? What is our message?
Logistics: What are the time, date, place and length of the action? Do these choices make sense given the goals and message of the action? How much space do we have? Will the action take place inside or outside? Are there any obstructions? Where are the entrances and exits? Will we have to contend with security? Will the action take place on public or private property? How wide is the street for banners and props? The location needs to be scouted as early as possible. How many people will be participating? Will they be Avengers only? Lesbians only? Anyone? What kinds of props and supplies are needed? Who will transport them to and from the action?
Tactics: What type of action are we planning: symbolic, disruption/interference, education? Avoid old, stale tactics at all costs. Chanting, picketing and the like, alone no longer make an impression; standing passively and listening to speakers is boring and disempowering. Look for daring, new participatory tactics depending on the nature of your action.
New York Avengers have staged overnight encampments, surprised politicians with daring zaps in the halls of the Plaza Hotel, invaded the offices of SELF magazine, marched down Fifth Avenue at rush hour with flaming torches and handed out balloons that said, "Ask about lesbian lives!" to school children in an anti-gay district. What is the visual design of the action going to be? It should let people know clearly and quickly who we are and why we are there. The more fabulous, witty and original the better. New York Avengers have used a wide range of visuals such as fire-eating, a 12-foot shrine, a huge bomb and a ten-foot plaster statue. The more original, the better!
Contingencies: Actions should be as well planned as possible so everyone knows why we are there and feels involved. But, there is no way we can know everything in advance so we also have to be ready to make decisions on the spot in a quick and supportive way. Considering the following questions in advance can help you act instantly when necessary during the course of an action:
PRELIMINARY LIST OF TASKS FOR YOUR ACTION
Graphics: flyers, posters, banners, signs, props
Remember-the point is to involve as many Avengers as possible in the organizing. One easy way to do this is if each committee member responsible for a task comes to the large group with a sign-up sheet (ie. Sign up to distribute flyers at the lesbian bars," "Sign up to learn baton twirling for the action," etc.). They then contact each person on the sheet to remind her of the time and place where the work will be done. The more organized the co-coordinators are, the easier it will be for people to participate.
Once you've decided on a target-an openly homophobic lawyer, a Cardinal, a way-ward pol-plan a dramatic action. It's important to have a clear message, so keep it simple. The details of your position can be spelled out in the fact sheet you distribute at the action, which should clearly explain why you're staging an action, and give facts to back up your stance.
The visual design of our actions is a crucial part of Avenger work. In general we try to make each action look different from our previous events and have a style and presentation that has never been used by anyone before. Props (floats, shrines, burning torches, paper-mâché bombs, plaster statues... whatever!) play a huge part in this. Graphics need to be eye-catching, meaningful, and visually exciting. The more creative, imaginative and individual our actions look, the more inspiring and fun they will be.
The design of an action usually begins with the preliminary flyer announcing the event to the community. Innovative design, contemporary, clever graphics, and even the color of the paper are all important ways to convey to the viewer how fearless, open and new our approach is.To date, our invitational leaflets have been one of the Avengers' strongest calling cards. (See Appendix 3 for example graphics created by the NYC Avengers.)
Usually the flyer features a slogan or phrase that will be a constant theme throughout the action. We try to never use a cliché or tired old rhetoric. Instead we've been able to come up with a wide range of eye-catching titles. When we built a shrine to the two gay people burned to death in Oregon, our demo posters said "DON'T LET THEM REST IN PEACE." When we dogged the mayor of Denver for 48 hours, the signs said "BOYCOTT THE HATE STATE" when we held our New Year's Eve party, the poster featured a picture of 70's Blaxploitation film star, Pam Grier, in hot pants holding a rifle. The poster advertised "ACTIVIST A GO-GO."
Our Valentine's Day action honoring Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas celebrated "POLITICALLY INCORRECT DOMESTIC BLISS." Our demo banners favoring the New York City Department of Education's multicultural curriculum said "LIGHTEN UP! TEACH ABOUT LESBIAN LIVES." The banners for the torchlight parade down Fifth Avenue said "WAKE UP! IT'S HAPPENING HERE," and for the March on Washington said "LESBIAN AVENGERS: OUT FOR POWER." Whether the theme is whimsical or angry, our slogans have been clear, clever and strong.
Don't forget to put contact information for your group on all your flyers, posters and other materials, so potential Avengers can find you. Remember to include the bomb logo and to include our tag, "The Lesbian Avengers is a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility." Get the word out. It is important to recognize that good graphics-plastered all over the place, far enough in advance-can make or break your action. With this in mind, the entire graphics/promotion process needs to begin AT LEAST 3-4 weeks BEFORE the date of the action. At that time, the working group needs to meet with the designer to conceptualize what the poster will look like. In addition, the working group should provide the designer with the following:
Find out who has access to free Xerox at their offices. Give them advance warning and assistance transporting the guerrilla copies.
AUDIO: MARCHING BANDS
This is our activist pool. Whenever we have an action we contact everyone on the list. Whenever we need people to leaflet, wheatpaste, work on a dance or build props, we contact the list.
At every dance or public event we are sure to have a supporters' contact list at the door. This is our constituent base. They receive notices for all actions and events. Since these people have never come to meetings, we wouldn't call them for help with preparing for an action-but when it comes to filling the streets or our bank accounts-they are the ones we count on the most. Likewise for contacts from websites and social media sites. Designate a Contact List Diva responsible for keeping it current, and getting the word out every time you have an action or need help.
LEAFLETTING AND WHEATPASTING
Wheatpasting is the activist term for adhering flat art onto outdoor establishments so that the unsuspecting community becomes a captive audience. As long as we have bodies, a real world presence is still key. Here are the supplies you will need.
Mix the wheatpaste according to the instructions on the package. Mixing slowly with hot water helps you avoid lumps, but if you're on the run, a bottle of water from a deli will do.
You need three people for an effective, speedy team. One to paste, one to slap down the flyer and one to stand lookout. The paster coats the surface where the flyer will be placed. The slapper slaps down the flyer on the pasty place, and the paster puts a finishing top coat on the flyer. The lookout checks casually for police and large homophobic people. If she sees any, she should inform the rest of the team immediately and they should leave the area.
The best sites for wheatpasting are lampposts, mailboxes, deserted storefronts, construction sites and dumpsters. Avoid brick walls or other uneven surfaces when possible. Try to put up a large block of posters in one place for a more arresting visual message. Yes, it is illegal, but the law is rarely enforced in New York. Still, it's best to keep your activities on vampire standard time.
At our parties we usually come up with a fun theme, make thorough preparations, have great music and also provide a media room with videos and flyers. Parties are not just fun, they're an organizing tool. We see how well the community likes us, have a chance to let our supporters know what we are doing, and we sign up lesbians on our mailing lists.
A good party takes about a month to organize. It requires two co-coordinators. The first thing they should do is make a list of specific tasks and bring sign-up sheets to the general meeting so that the most Avengers possible are involved in the planning and creation of the event. The co-coordinators should make sure they have recruited dykes to handle the following tasks:
Venue: Locate an unusual space, not familiar to your audience but large enough for dancing, lounging, hanging out, entertainment, etc.
Publicity: Generate an eye-catching flyer early enough to claim that day-try to avoid conflicts with other large community events. (E)mail the flyer to your mailing list. Distribute huge numbers of them early. Let newsletters, newspapers, radio shows, blogs, twitter followers etc. know in advance. Wheatpaste vigorously.
Music: Music is the key to a great party. If no live DJ will volunteer their time, then find someone with diverse and extensive musical knowledge. A good sound system is absolutely essential.
Door and security: Two women post themselves at the door to collect money and to be sure that every person who enters signs up on the contact list. Someone else should pick up the cash regularly and store it in a safe place. A few Avengers should stay on alert for security problems at all times.
Food and drink: Locate the nearest all-night deli for extra ice and beer. Provide some non alcoholic beverages as well. Large plastic garbage cans and bags are best for ice control.
Set-up/clean-up: You will need to schedule shifts to handle set-up, decorations and clean-up. Sign people up to work at different times throughout the party to clear up bottles, etc. Be sure you have plenty of toilet paper and towels on hand.
Media room: Two Avengers can take charge of displaying fabulous video and propaganda devices.
Special events: Go-go girls, kissing booths, tarot cards, etc.- whatever pops into your imagination. In addition to throwing parties and other fundraising events, we pass around an envelope labeled "ACTIONS" at every meeting and ask each person to throw in a dollar or two. We sell t-shirts and videos, but they are also organizing tools. We don't want to get too bogged down in the merchandising business.
Avengers and friends can also throw private parties to celebrate birthdays or other occasions and ask guests to make a donation to the Avengers instead of bringing presents.
We have to keep legitimate records of expenses so that the IRS has no reason to harass us at tax time. Write your name and a simple note about what the receipt was for on each one: for example, "Supplies for November 19 action." You don't have to go into detail about the expenses because we only use general categories like Xerox, Supplies, Postage, Transportation. Put all your receipts in an envelope, or staple them together, and bring them to the next meeting. Please don't expect to get a cash refund.
Call every local radio and TV station and ask them directly for the names of people on staff (not only news staff) who are particularly interested in LGBT stories. Make personal contact with anyone in any media outlet who is openly lesbian.
Four days before your action send your press release to your entire media list and then spend the next few days making follow-up phone calls encouraging the press to attend your event. Always use the same press release format that includes the Lesbian Avenger bomb logo, our tag line-The LESBIAN AVENGERS is a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility-the day, time, and place of your general meeting. Also include contact information including website, email, phone, etc. so that interested dykes can find more information.
At the action itself, speak to every member of the press and get her or his name and contact info. That way you know who has responded, who to add to your list and whom you can call afterwards for more follow-up. Personal contact is the best way to get coverage.
Translation: Fact sheets and press releases to the Spanish language press should be translated into Spanish. Ditto for other languages. Translators need enough advance time to do a good job and get their draft to the designer without cramping her schedule either.
LGBT Press: The LGBT press ranges from glossy national magazines to typewritten bar rags. There are hundreds of newsletters, newspapers, websites, and blogs around the country. Sending press releases, communiqués, links, and clippings to the LGBT media is another good way of encouraging the spirit of activism among lesbians and inspiring them to establish new Avenger chapters. It also provides crucial coverage of our issues, something that can't necessarily be expected of the mainstream media.
Websites & Social Media: Traditional media still has the largest reach, but we are no longer dependent on it to get our message out. Create a presence online. Post all press releases, carefully written, to your own website or other networking sites, along with documentation of actions like photos and video. Tweet & re-tweet the news. Post links. Promote your content shamelessly.
Make sure your videos are easy to find online, dedicating a page or channel. These videos are not just a record for the press, but are your best organizing tools for recruiting new activists. When the Avenger phenomenon had never been seen before, video was key to sharing the type of actions and spirit that defined us. Video should also be used to document any unusual confrontations with police.
The following tips for marshals are provided as a reference and cannot replace a formal marshal training.
1. The role of the police at an action
2. The role of marshals
3. What's legal?
4. What you technically need a permit for (in New York, though the New York Avengers have done these things without permits)
5. What do marshals do on a picket?
6. What do marshals do on a march
7. What marshals don't do
8. Dealing with problems
The goal of those doing support is to track the arrestees through the system and wait for them to be released. Support people have a responsibility and an obligation to remain until the last person is released. It is important for those on the inside to know that they have the support of those on the outside.
Before the action, legal support dykes collect support sheets (See Appendix 2) filled out in duplicate. One copy stays with the support coordinator on-site and one copy should be kept off-site in case the support coordinator gets arrested by mistake.
During the action try to avoid getting arrested. Keep a list of people as they are being arrested. Ask them to shout out their names if you don't recognize them. If you witness any police violence, try to get badge numbers. And ask someone to video discretely. You don't want their tape seized. Politely ask police (ranking officer if possible) what precinct the arrestees are being taken to. Once the arrestees are taken away, go meet them at the precinct. When the paddy wagons arrive, try to let the people inside know that you are there for them.
After the action hang out and wait until the last person is released. Check off names as Avengers are released and get as much information as you can about the conditions inside the precinct jail (i.e. Are people being treated well?). Contact the attorney, and collect summonses for the attorney while making sure that the arrestees know when to appear in court.
POLICE & PERMITS
Since the Avengers started working together, we have found that certain organizing ideas help us keep our work pro-active, gratifying and successful. One outstanding revelation has been to stay away from abstract theoretical discussions. It is easy to create false polarities when there is nothing concrete on the table, but when our political discussion revolves around the creation and purpose of an action, it is much easier to come to agreement and share insights.
Another idea that has surfaced in our work is to encourage each Avenger to take responsibility for her own suggestions-in other words, to be willing to make them happen. This way, "Someone should..." becomes, "I will" or "Who will do this with me?"
Because lesbians have been so excluded from power many of us have developed a negative stance where the only influence we have is to say "no." The Avengers is a place where lesbians can have their ideas realized, where we can each have an impact. A crucial part of that process is learning how to propose alternative solutions instead of just offering critiques. So, if you disagree with the proposal on the floor, instead of just tearing it apart, propose another way of realizing the goal.
If an issue on the floor is contentious and only has the approval of a small majority, instead of proceeding based on a direct vote-we try to enter into a phase of negotiated compromise. During this period, every party must be willing to be flexible and open until we find a solution that most people are comfortable with. This commitment to negotiation overrides factions and closed analysis.
In order to focus on the issues at hand rather than on the numbers or strength of presentation of individuals on either side, we can alternate pro and con speakers. This way, both sides will have equal representation and the issues will have a chance to emerge. Under these circumstances, we all try to refrain from speaking unless we have something new to add to the discussion. We also try, despite the passion of our positions, to treat other Avengers as respectfully as possible, focusing our passion on the issue and not on people.
We have also found it productive to take a non-binding preliminary or straw vote. If that vote is severely divided (whether in a positive or negative direction) we can, before taking a final vote, attempt to come up with a constructive alternative which attempts to speak to the issues where disagreement exists.
If a particularly divisive discussion is taking place at the end of the meeting when everyone is exhausted, we can vote to table the discussion to the beginning of the next meeting. In that way, we can consider an issue seriously rather than simply acting just to get the discussion over with.
Either the facilitator and/or the members can decide/request that any of the above methods of conflict resolution be implemented. Of course, if, after all parties negotiate in good faith, we still cannot come up with a solution, the majority vote will determine the final outcome.
Logos, Forms, Graphics
Media List Sample
Additional text by
Cover photo by Carolina Kroon
© 1993, 2011 Lesbian Avenger Productions
The Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project