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Book looks at Lesbian Avengers
BOOKS
by Sarah Toce
2014-05-21

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If you've never heard of the Lesbian Avengers, you're probably not alone. Lesbians of all races, shapes, sizes and ethnicities are about to go back to school with Kelly Cogswell's depiction of the first lesbian-centered group on the books.

Cogswell's savvyï申Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger ( University of Minnesota Press ) is at once a sharp image of an underserved community and a reflection of a time that has been nearly lost in activist history. The creative coming-of-age memoir is the first in-depth account of the influential New York Lesbian Avengers chapter. Cogswell's tale is a tumultuous one at times, leaving readers to both want to lean in and duck for cover—all while steadily grasping their book in hand.

Chronicling the historical impact of the Lesbian Avengers was no simple task for Cogswell, but it was 100-percent inspired.

"It was kind of horrible, because some of [the book contained] the worst moments of my life, but the way I wrote it was essentially to pretend like nobody was going to read it," Cogswell said. "I kind of use that as a technique generally when I write, because otherwise you start censoring yourself and telling little lies."

Authors sometimes take the liberty of embellishing select memories, but Cogswell said she didn't take the path most traveled. In fact, she dropped a few rose petals during the peacekeeping effort.

"I tried to be as straightforward as possible [in writing this book]. Everyone has different takes on events and I'm aware of that, but I tried to be factually accurate and also relatively generous," Cogswell said. "The way I felt about things 25 years ago—maybe some people I hated and I thought they were the devil—time goes by and you think, 'Well, it was a little more complicated than that.' And then you find yourself eventually doing some of the same things you hated other people for doing, so you can't say these people were horrible people, because they're you, too."

It was a careful practice Cogswell kept with her throughout the painstaking process of writing Avenger.

"I tried not to whitewash other people [for their actions] and also not whitewash myself," she said. "Especially when I was writing about the activist years, that particular activity tends to make people a little crazy. Because you're under—you're doing this thing that's really exciting, so your adrenaline is swelling, but at the same time you're usually under a lot of external pressure, because activists don't get supported in the community a lot. They tend to be seen as loud mouth idiots I think."

The accountability is not entirely off the backs of activists, however.

"Activists themselves don't always make it easy because they don't necessarily understand the role institutions are playing," said Cogswell. "When you're an activist you're under a lot of pressure—and you're not getting paid."

How are these two groups married? Coswell clarified: "The people with institutions have a huge amount of power and a huge amount of money. At the same time, activists give institutions room to maneuver. They're like the stormtroopers that go out there and call attention to issues that then the institutions can kind of move behind and address them in ways that are safer. They can say, 'Oh, well, we're the reasonable ones.' If you don't have activists, the institutions tend to move further and further to the right."

The often-controversial term "dyke" is used at length throughout Avenger. Cogswell said it was purposeful.

"I decided I would just write how I talk and how other people I know talk," she said. "I didn't actually realize that it was still considered such a loaded word until a few weeks ago when I was dealing with girls that hardly use even the word 'lesbian' to describe themselves. They'd just talk about 'girl parties' or 'girl' this or 'girl' that and they don't use the word 'lesbian.' They were horrified at the word 'dyke,' and I'm like, 'Wow.'"

Cogswell added, "I think it's a word that is more common among activists who chose to reclaim that language. The term 'Dyke March' was used for the first dyke march in D.C.—the word 'lesbian' wasn't. As a young person coming out, I didn't know that women's marches were often code for, 'This is a lesbian march.' I thought women's marches were for women. They made lesbians invisible. You had to kind of be in the know to understand that some of those marches were actually dyke marches."

That hurdle was forever altered with the birth of the Lesbian Avengers.

"In the Lesbian Avengers, we wanted to do a march to bring attention to lesbians," said Cogswell. "So we thought, 'Well, we're not even going to use the semi-acceptable word 'lesbian.' We will just go straight for the word that is even more radical, more shocking, more … whatever."

The discussion of the word that shall not be spoken leads into another touchy community subject: the use of the word 'faggot.' When asked if men should use the term 'dyke,' Cogswell is clear: "They shouldn't necessarily be using it. Do they use the word 'fags' to talk about themselves? I think dyke is one of those words that we can use and they can't. And that's okay, and I think it's important to talk in this community about language."

Going back to the Lesbian Avengers group itself, there is a miniscule amount of information on the group. It's an issue Cogswell said she understood.

"The Lesbian Avengers were written about briefly by Sarah Schulman during the Lesbian Avengers, in her book My American History. It has been written about very little since," Cogswell explained. "To be fair, though, Act Up was near to falling into that same pit of oblivion except for the films that came out recently. A lot of young queers, I think—to use another annoying word—also had never heard of Act Up, even though now apparently there are classes in universities that are about activism, which to me is so weird. That's how you learn about activism? Okay. And they do talk about Act Up in Queer Nation, but the Lesbian Avengers has just been erased."

The misinformation and apparent lack of interest in lesbian history isn't lost on Cogswell. "I've wondered, is it purely misogyny? Is it that the Avengers, for some of us, ended badly and we didn't want to hear about it ourselves?"

Perhaps the nature of the group itself was misplaced.

"I don't think it was sufficiently understood that there ended up being close to 60 chapters of the Avengers all over the world. This was not some brief phenomenon here and there of a few direct action groups. It was actually a lesbian movement," she added.

Did politics play a role in the apparent erasure of the Avengers? Perhaps, said Cogswell.

"The whole country was getting more conservative, right? Clinton was kind of a blip of liberalism, but even he was moving to the right in many ways, like my God, his whole Defense of Marriage Act thing," she said. "What happens in our community is never separated from what happens in our cities, in our country, and what's going on in the world at large. So if the country is taking a rightward turn, you can bet that what's going to happen in the gay community is going to take a rightward turn.

"And it's not a surprise that the next kind of manifestation, our next big issue when we finally re-emerged ended up being marriage. [This] is a hugely important fight, and something that gives us hugely important civil rights, but it's also a somewhat conservative issue. And, of course, we're going to try to sweep under the rug the annoying Queer Nation people, [the] ACT-UP people and the Lesbian Avengers. Our biggest argument during the late '90s and early years of the millennium [was] essentially, 'We're just the same as you!' [Yet] you have to get rid of the most marginal members of your community."

The concept gives rise to some additional complex issues.

Cogswell said, "It raises lots and lots of questions—one of them being, 'Does difference have anything to contribute to the mainstream?' 'Does being queer give you a perspective that can allow you not just to be ostracized from the mainstream, but actually to give something beneficial to the mainstream?' 'Does being a person of color mean that you have something unique to give back to the community?'

"It's seen, generally, in biology that it's good to have many different species of things, so for instance, if all you plant is potatoes and you get a rot in your potato you end up starving to death. But if you have many different kinds of crops and your potatoes go one year, there will still be something left to eat. It's the idea that difference is a good thing."

Another good thing: not erasing one group's place in the LGBT movement.

"The success of the Lesbian Avengers belongs to all of us," said Cogswell. "[The Lesbian Avengers are a] part of American history. It's part of a global history. While I don't want LGBT people to be erased in the grand scheme of things, I do want lesbians to be seen as part of the grand scheme of things."

For more about Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger and author Kelly Cogswell, visit www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/eating-fire.


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