Sunday, September 06, 2009

Recognizing Lesbian History in a Movement Dominated by Gay Men

Longtime GLBT Historical Society board member Ruth Mahaney led a tour of the Society’s “Passionate Struggle” exhibit at the corner of 18th and Castro Street in San Francisco on the evening of September 4, 2009, with an emphasis on lesbian history.

Mahaney has served on the society’s board for 21 years, and she joined to assure that women’s activism is recorded, remembered, and preserved. And Mahaney is well qualified to lead the tour since she is a longtime professor of lesbian/gay history at City College of San Francisco.

She spoke a couple times about the acclaimed film “Milk” and how Sean Penn channeled Harvey Milk. She also felt that Milk was more of an accomplished activist than was interpreted for the screen, and that he worked to build coalitions, especially with women. Mahaney felt that the women who Milk worked with could have been better represented in the film.

Ruth Mahaney spoke about the 70s as the beginning of the women’s liberation movement and also the lesbian feminist movement. And she said that if you do not see large groups of women in photographs and films of that period, it is because they were not in the front of marches and rallies. They were there but the men were in the front and their images became the iconic views that are seen in books, posters, and films.

The GLBT Historical Society (GLBTHS) exhibit is in four sections, and Mahaney stopped in front of display cases to describe the photographs, flyers, buttons, and other memorabilia and their place in women’s lives. She spoke about Mona’s bar, a lesbian hangout, and the infamous Black Car bohemian bar, where lesbians also gathered. Jose Sarria, a waiter at the Black Cat, was also an outspoken activist and was the first openly gay person in the U.S. to run for political office. His opera performances drew huge crowds and he also founded the Imperial Court, which is now one of largest U.S. charities.

Mahaney spoke about San Francisco in 1971, when there were 8 lesbian bars and over 90 gay bars. One remarkable lesbian bar was Scott’s Pit, which was near Duboce Park. Women bikers gathered there and were a surprise to the neighbors, especially when fights broke out. And there were also poetry readings at the bar. The Full Moon Coffee House was on 18th Street a few blocks up from Castro Street. For the first time large groups of women without men gathered in Eureka Valley and it amazed both gay men and straight people when they swarmed to Castro Street after an evening of cultural events. Neighbors spoke about an unfortunate split in the group that climaxed with a chair fight, which ended that venue.

The Women’s Building is of monumental importance and its marvelous exterior mural took two years of dedicated work to complete. The Valencia Corridor was lined with women’s businesses, most of which are gone now. Old Wives Tale Bookstore, Artemis Restaurant, Amelia’s Bar and others welcomed women and well-behaved men. Osento bath house was not a sexual hotspot like the men’s baths, but Mahaney said that sex did happen there. Modern Times Bookstore, which survived that era, is a progressive center for book readings and meetings, and Ruth Mahaney is one of the owners.

Groups like The Lesbian Agenda for Action met to diminish racism, with women of different races talking with each other. Donna Hitchens founded the Lesbian Rights Project that evolved into the acclaimed National Center for Lesbian Rights. Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin and their founding of Daughters of Bilitis in the 50’s — the first lesbian organization in the U.S. — was mentioned, and also Lyon and Martin’s continuing activism.

Major breakthroughs were mentioned, like Jo Daly becoming the first lesbian San Francisco Police Commissioner, and the successful No on 6 grassroots campaign to stop fundamentalists from firing lesbian and gay schoolteachers. And the supervisor elections of out lesbians Roberta Achtenberg and Carole Migden also were milestones.

Ruth Mahany spoke about the hunger for women’s poetry that would draw audiences of 300 to the Women’s Building to hear Pat Parker and Judy Grahan, that evolved into the women’s music scene.

Mahaney spoke in detail about women’s sexuality which she feels has not been correctly written about or filmed. She does not think that the 70’s visuals of liberated lesbians running hand-in-hand through fields of flowers is accurate. The affirming burst of energy that is the Dyke March was mentioned with affection, but like other events, were quickly covered in the one-hour overview.

The attentive group that heard Mahaney’s tour were a mixture of local women and tourists, and their questions were answered with details that rounded out the picture of lesbian lives in the exhibit.

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