Spinning Straw Men into Gold: Seeking Insight from Old Lesbian Praxis

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Oxfordblues84/Flickr

By Susan Chacin

Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC), a national group with 17 chapters, held its National Gathering, "Lesbian Activism Changing the World," in Oakland, July 23-27, 2014. Pictures of the event are on the OLOC website; main sessions were recorded and are available for purchase.

People often laugh when they hear about OLOC. The idea that old lesbians would organize sounds quaint. This betrays ignorance of two facts:  1) ageism is a problem in our culture and our movements, and 2) lesbian feminists have been at the core of the “second-wave” women’s movement (from the 1960s through the early 1980s) that changed our culture. Many have been leaders in civil rights, labor, community, anti-war and socialist organizing. At least seven women there had been part of the “new communist movement.”  

A manifesto on the key role lesbians saw themselves playing in the women’s movement is “The Woman Identified Woman” written in 1970. But the lesbian nationalist position also left wounds. A woman told me that 32 years ago Alix Dobkin, a veteran singer/songwriter in OLOC leadership, told women who brought male babies to a concert to leave. Now Alix has beloved male grandchildren. I had been turned off in the ‘70s by the ridiculous assertion that lesbians were the only true feminists, but I have been with my female spouse for 26 years and love sharing activism in OLOC with her.

Mingling with over 400 old dykes, I was struck by how previous dividing lines have faded. We are united by feminism, our shock at the backlash against women’s rights, and we are clearer than ever that action against corporate capitalism is the only hope for our world. The separatists were talking to the socialists, the tradeswomen schmoozing with the disabled women, and civil rights veterans singing with the women’s music crowd.

It was not always so. In “Death of a Revolutionary,” Susan Faludi documents Shulamith Firestone’s history. Reading about Firestone, the author of The Dialectic of Sex, you get a glimpse of the bitter disputes in radical feminist circles in the 1960s through the 1980s.

Also tempering this mellowing are the demands of self-care, an awareness of impending mortality and the strain of maintaining activism at a stage when our bodies are slowing down and sometimes falling apart. Keynote speaker Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina disclosed heart-wrenching health and economic challenges she faces. Many in OLOC find that youthful disregard for security manifests today in financial hardship or downright poverty. One-third of attendees got financial assistance, and the budget for scooters and captioning was astronomical. But the organizers of the gathering provided access, and many disabled women participated fully.

One hot topic at the gathering is the tendency for younger women not to identify as “lesbian,” calling themselves “queer” instead. The change reflects the same trend as “women’s studies” programs, hard won by this older generation, morph into “gender studies” at many colleges. OLOC members fear this weakens the focus on women’s oppression and patriarchy. I have been surprised that in the academy, even speaking about “women” can be seen as over-generalizing the experience of females.

The ramifications of this changing terminology are not only academic. OLOC is in the throes of questioning whether transgender lesbians over 60 should be accepted. As of this writing, at least two chapters welcome transgender women, but there are voices in the organization which emphatically argue that OLOC should be open only to “women-born women.” 

While most OLOC members support transgender rights, debate centers on respecting women’s right to meet alone. There are also questions about whether transgender advocates are really contesting women’s roles or rather celebrating a hyper-femininity that many lesbians find oppressive. The debate is wider than OLOC. (For more, see an outstanding article primarily about the MTF -- male to female -- controversy published in August, “What Is a Woman?”) Female to male (FTM) transsexualism is much less controversial in OLOC; anyone identifying as a male is not eligible. But there is a sadness about losing a generation of righteous butches to the current wave of transitions. OLOC members ask whether FTM transsexuals are “buying in” to male privilege and/or following a fad.

As it happened, a transgender lesbian and her partner attended the gathering, and Bay Area organizers insisted that there be no effort to exclude transgender women. The gathering featured a workshop on the history of anti-trans organizing in the lesbian movement, another advocating the position that only “women-born women” should be welcome and a third discussing the future of “lesbian” as an identity. Importantly, OLOC’s gathering did not become the site for the threats or reprisals by either faction, as has been the case so frequently at other events. (Really, read the article referenced in the paragraph above!) 

I am still wrestling with these issues. I believe that we are too quick to draw parallels between oppressions. It is tempting to compare anti-trans positions to racism, sexism and homophobia, but risky too. Our movement lifeboat is too small to throw anyone overboard for disagreements that can be mediated.

Lesbians of color at the gathering referred to a history of bias, ignorance and racist attitudes that white lesbians have been responsible for. Cherríe Moraga, co-editor of the landmark collection by radical women of color, This Bridge Called My Back, gave eloquent voice to this tension in her keynote address. I highly recommend her collection: A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness, Writings, 2000-2010.

However, it was acknowledged that the gathering was intentional about outreach to lesbians of color, and participation was better at this gathering than at previous OLOC events. OLOC received kudos for this, although the group still has a long way to go to achieve real diversity. One lesson for me is that honest efforts to attract people of color can be effective. We need to not let “the best” be the enemy of progress. Since the gathering, we have heard that the event actually assisted reconnections among Bay Area lesbians of color.

Finally, I admit that the gathering raised my consciousness about class. I end with this because class is an identity frequently under-recognized in our movements. What I realized is that although I have maintained a radical position on class, I have underestimated how my middle-class background affects relationships with women from working-class and poor backgrounds. I realize I have been like the white person who believes that because she wants to be an ally of people of color, she could not behave in a biased way. Not so. A gift of age is to keep learning and growing. OLOC is a perfect place for me to do that in the company of wise, experienced activists who are my movement sisters. 

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Susan Chacin is a member of East Bay DSA.  Her original involvement with DSA began in the New American Movement. She was inactive for years until Horace Small became DSA’s National Director, and she went on to serve two terms on the National Political Committee mostly during Frank Llewellyn’s tenure as National Director.  

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