Today in LGBT History: The Lesbian Avengers

From The Huffington Post:

Back in 1992, a radical activist group called the Lesbian Avengers staged a demonstration in front of a schoolyard in Queens, N.Y., handing kids balloons instructing them to “ask about lesbian lives.” The flyers that they posted around the neighborhood carried a far less anodyne message than Freedom to Marry’s: “The lesbian avengers are coming to make the world safe for baby dykes everywhere.”

The Lesbian Avengers are the focus of a new memoir by one of the group’s founding members, Kelly Cogswell. She waxes nostalgic for the radicalism of the era, and like many of her contemporaries, laments the gay rights movement’s embrace of conservative mainstream ideals.

Her book, “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” begins in 1992, the year a group of artists and activists in New York formed the Avengers. In the summer of that year, at the Republican National Convention in Texas, Pat Buchanan declared a “cultural war” against liberals, atheists, feminists and “the homosexual rights movement.”

It was a full five years before Ellen DeGeneres would announce on Oprah that she was a lesbian. Even as gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign and ACT UP, an organization dedicated to fighting AIDS, made headlines, lesbians were by and large left out of the national conversation. For several years, the Avengers worked to change that, employing provocative slogans — “We Recruit,” declared one poster, featuring a sexy Pam Grier wearing a bra and hoisting a rifle — and flashy protest strategies. The title of Cogswell’s book refers to a frequently deployed protest technique, where avengers would set alight strips of cloth soaked in lighter fluid, dip the burning rags into their mouths, then exhale flames.

The grade school in Queens was the group’s first target, after school board officials in the area refused to adopt a “rainbow” curriculum — a program designed to teach first graders about ethnic and racial diversity in the city — because three of its 443 pages urged teachers to include references to gay men and lesbians.

Not every woman who attended the early Avengers meetings supported the group’s strategy, Cogswell recalls in her book. The Avengers “sneered a little at the dykes who would turn up as regularly as Cassandra to point an irate finger and accuse us of setting back the movement a hundred years by going anywhere near children. ‘My god, they already think we’re pedophiles,’ they’d wail.”

But Newsday and other local publications covered the protest, and the Avengers began to plan their next actions. In 1993, they organized a Dyke March in Washington that drew 20,000 lesbians, and Newsweek ran a cover story about it, heralding it as the dawn of a new era. “Now lesbians are determined to cast off their role as handmaidens to other activists and stake their own claims,” the article read.

Read the full article

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