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Lesbian writer/activist Jeanne Cordova looks back at her life
by Sarah Toce
2012-05-16

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Her breadth of work in journalism has been weaved throughout our culture's history—staking claim at some of the most precarious moments in the gay-rights movement. For better, for worse, for richer or for poorer, she has been there and she has worn no veil. Jeanne Cordova has written "a memoir of love and revolution," When We Were Outlaws, with a forward by Lillian Faderman.

Cordova began her civil-rights journey by first entering a convent.

"Entering the convent at age 18 was my first step toward becoming a life-long social justice activist. In high school, I made the pivotal decision to join the Immaculate Heart of Mary ( IHM ) order, instead of a cloistered Carmelite novitiate. I chose the IHMs because I saw that they were an out-in-the-field, liberal Order. In the Black ghetto was where I saw poverty, racial injustice and the refuse of capitalism. Here I was radicalized, and knew I had to become a social worker.

"I chose the convent because I knew I wasn't interested in the world of men and women, marriage, children—'that' lifestyle. Being in the service of God within a community of women felt natural and right. I'm sure the fact that I fell in love with God at the age of seven and made a vow to dedicate my life to Him was much informed by my strong Catholic parents' ( one Irish woman and one Mexican dude ) teachings, as well as my latent lesbianism."

Lesbianism that could never be wholly explored until her departure from said religious establishment and the patriarchal ties that bound.

"I left the convent because of my political radicalization and inability to justify the Roman Catholic Church's teachings and actions regarding social justice, and its ongoing battle with my IHM order to keep women in line under patriarchy. My newly realized lesbianism was actually secondary to falling out of love with the Catholic Church, which I had questioned all my life."

In 1972, Cordova met a lover who was the daughter of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Socialist Worker's Party. The inspired activist turned her attention to the Vietnam War protest and began working more steadily for the rights of the LGBT community.

"As I marched and organized with tens of thousands on the streets of L.A., I realized that one day the lesbian and gay struggle, as we called it then, had to grow into a mass movement also, in order to affect civil rights on a federal level. I wondered if we ever would or could become as big as this anti-war movement. It taught me that we needed allies, because we are only 10 percent of the population," Cordova said.

At the age of 22—when most young people are falling in love for the first time—Cordova was earning her masters in Social Work. From there she began organizing the lesbian community into action. One might wonder if she overlooked the potential of a very active love life.

"I did have a totally active love life, but it had to be sandwiched in between the cracks of my movement life; so between 10 p.m. at night and 8 a.m. the next morning. This mostly meant [ my relationships occurred ] in bed having sex."

Organizing the lesbians into a marching herd was also no easy task, according to Cordova.

"One of the hurdles was that most of the professional lesbians—the social workers, nurses, teachers, realtors, chiropractors, dentists, doctors, etc.—were afraid to come out and march or use their real names in print or sign any gay mailing lists. Another big hurdle was talking the dykes into organizing with the gay men; many separatists wanted nothing to do with men and thought of gay men no differently than straight men."

Rallying gay men into action was another issue entirely. "Grappling with the men's eternal sexism was another issue. We dykes had to simultaneously teach the men—every meeting was a 'teaching moment'—not to make sexist assumptions, like 'the girls' will march behind us, or make the coffee."

She added, "The largest hurdle was of course going on TV and radio and finding ways to convince straight people that gays were not criminals who wanted to infect their children. Trying not to hate the straight world for what it did to gays psychologically—the suicides, alcoholism, drugs, and decades of therapy—was very hard for me, personally, having grown up a Catholic. I didn't meet any gay-neutral straights until my 40s."

Perhaps by sheer will, frustration, the desire to change the direction of the gay-liberation movement or everything all rolled into one, Cordova began a publication that would be groundbreaking for its time. The magazine, The Lesbian Tide, was celebrated by the lesbian community at-large, but flew mostly under the radar as far as the straight world was concerned.

Speaking of the magazine, Cordova recalled, " [ The lesbian community ] was outrageously supportive. As I show in Outlaws, over the years about 150 different lesbians and transwoman came to work for free as writers, photographers, layout artists, distributors—everything. It would not have survived without their largely donated staff labor."

Many of The Lesbian Tide's writers would go on to pen books. Among them: Sara Schulman, Karla Jay, Sharon MacDonald, Achy Obejas, Nancy Toder and Shirl Buss.

"We were proud that we paid $10 per story and $5 per photo—but that was ridiculous. As lesbian historian Yolanda Retter, Ph.D., said, The Lesbian Tide became 'the national newspaper of record for the lesbian feminist decade.'"

After The Lesbian Tide folded, Cordova became human-rights editor of the progressive newspaper LA Free Press.

"I was first hired as The Freep's token 'Chicana, feminist, lesbian' columnist. My weekly essays became know as 'that dyke column' by the largely straight readership, but it got people listening to my voice as I covered the [ 1973 ] Battle of the Sexes, the famous tennis match between female ( and closeted lesbian ) tennis player Billie Jean King and male tennis star, Bobby Riggs," said Cordova.

As her politics became better known, she moved into the investigative reporter role and began editing all of the human rights stories for the paper. "In this position I became an integral, full-time, staff member and covered big stories of the day like the kidnapping and capture of Patty Hearst by the leftist urban guerrilla group, the Symbionese Liberation Army," she said. " [ The book ] Outlaws covers the in-depth stories of five or six of my most interesting adventures with Angela Davis, Nazi terrorists, and secret meetings with underground FBI fugitives. It was totally different than my role as publisher and News Editor at The Lesbian Tide. 'The story' was center stage."

Male domination in media was ever-present at this time in her career, according to Cordova.

"The sexism, male rivalry, and politics at The Freep was again, a brain-twister from working with an all-lesbian staff who presumed we were all fighting for the same larger cause on the The Lesbian Tide," she said. "I got a lot of professional training in having to write the same news story for two widely different audiences who looked at American life through widely different lenses. I did get my first book out of those columns [ Sexism; It's a Nasty Affair ] and a core plot line of my third book, Outlaws, from those years." She added, "I'm not sure I slept much during that decade of my life."

Cordova crossed over from being a radical activist to becoming the publisher of the first gay and lesbian telephone directory in the USA called Community Yellow Pages. The move was both a personal and professional one for the journalist.

"In 1980, after 10 years with The Lesbian Tide, my first spouse—the features editor—and I broke up and fewer and fewer women seemed to be coming to help staff. Lesbian feminism was waning and being taken over by a new generation of lipstick lesbians in L.A. I saw that the movement was morphing from its radical base into something more mainstream because the fundamentalist right was launching expensive ballot initiatives against us. It seemed to be it was time for middle class, well-employed lesbians and gays to come out of the closet, meet each other, and start supporting these expensive anti-gay battles," said Cordova.

She added, "On a personal level, at age 33, I was exhausted and tired of being desperately poor … but I wanted to stay in gay publishing. So it occurred to me, 'What if I created a vehicle for professional gays to come out of the closet? What if I could prove that it wouldn't hurt their careers but instead could help them?'"

The Community Yellow Pages took shape and a new movement was formed, but not without hard work and a devout need to succeed by the mastermind herself.

"I started walking the streets of Hollywood talking to shop owners, selling them ads to be in a new telephone book that would be marketing only to gays and lesbians. Miraculously, the idea caught on," she said. "In 1982 we published a 99-page book that looked exactly like a straight telephone book. The next year The Community Yellow Pages ( a nice closet-type name ) doubled to 200 pages. Twenty years later, it was 400 pages, and published 100,000 copies per year. Every lesbian, gay man and gay-friendly straight person in Southern California was using it!"

Concurrently, Cordova became part of the Stonewall Club that her mentor, Morris Kight, founded in 1975.

"Becoming its president from 1979-81, I founded a statewide campaign called 'Destination New York' that was part of a national gay and lesbian effort to seat a record number of queers ( 33 from California among 80 nationally ) as official delegates to the 1980 Democratic National Kennedy/Carter Convention in New York," she said. "In between all this, Stonewall was strongly backing Jerry Brown's candidacy to become governor of California ( yeah, now he's done it again! ) , and we met regularly with L.A. City Council people and other elected officials pushing on them to enact more protections in housing and employment for queers."

The move to elect Brown was critical to the new gay and lesbian civil-rights movement at the time, Cordova said.

When asked what advice, if any, she would give to a young journalist covering the marriage-equality movement today, Cordova said, "In addition to reporting on new states and new news, I'd be interested in analyzing what effect the marriage equality movement was having on the rest of the LBGTQ lifestyle and struggles—what is not being seen. I'd focus on what aspects of the queer relationship lifestyle might help the heterosexual institution of marriage, which seems to be dying and becoming irrelevant to how modern society is recreating itself. I'm also fascinated that marriage and AIDS have been the only two issues that have caught on with the straight world—why is that?"

She added, "The best part [ about media now vs. 20 years ago ] is that we get to know everything much more quickly, and hear 20 dozen points of view on every news item. The worst part is that it's more complex for the individual to find the news she wants. You have to be Internet savvy and know where to go. Also, we get the news faster now, but we only get the headlines—and a short online paragraph—we get much less depth, analysis and truth."

Analysis and truth—two items marked off on her to-do list regarding her new memoir, When We Were Outlaws. Why now, I ask her?

"After 40 years of being an activist, and 20 years of being a lesbian publisher, I was 50. I'd always promised myself that one day I'd return to the love of my life—writing. So I sold the gay and lesbian Community Yellow Pages, sold my house and, for some nutty reason, decided the best place to write this book was all alone in Mexico, my father's homeland. Yes, doing the 'Roots' thing seemed to fit well with doing the writer lifestyle! I'd always wanted to be a full-time writer. I figured I was old enough, and had enough stories to write another memoir, so out popped When We Were Outlaws, a memoir of love and revolution."

Pan to the present time eight years and four drafts later.

"I missed the queer community so much that I had to return to Los Angeles," she said. "I came home in 2007 and plunged back into finishing the book, finding a publisher, and [ rejoining ] lesbian activism. This time I became a cultural activist organizing history, art and cultural events for my queer lesbian tribe in L.A. Right now I am doing that while also writing a sequel to Outlaws which will focus on discovering the legacy of lesbian feminism and what practices and world views queer women today have inherited from this movement."

It appears that a woman's work is never quite done.

Cordova will discuss her book, and her life, at Chicago's Women & Children First Bookstore Friday, June 1, 7:30 p.m., 5233 N. Clark St., in an evening moderated by Chicago author Achy Obejas.


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