Harmony Goldberg

We thought the world we built would be forever: An Interview with Lenn Keller

We thought the world we built would be forever: An Interview with Lenn Keller
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Adrienne Skye Roberts: You began collecting ephemera from various political and lesbian events in 1975 that was later included in your Fierce Sistahs exhibit. I’ve been thinking about this period of time in the United States and how its history is written. Two of the many political movements at the time were the Gay Liberation movement, a predominately white and affluent movement, and the Black Power movement, which was criticized for being sexist and homophobic. Fierce Sistahs is situated in the space between these two narratives and describes the experience of lesbians of color in the Bay Area. What was the impact of lesbians of color within this dichotomized political landscape?

Lenn Keller: Many lesbians of color coming out in the 1970s were already active in political struggles. We were a part of antiwar, women’s, black power, Chicano, and Native American movements — however, as women, and as lesbian or bisexual women, we were marginalized because of homophobia and sexism. There was a major exodus, many of us felt like we had to leave those organizations, while some stayed active in those other struggles, as well. It was very challenging. Lesbian and bisexual women of color were often in leadership roles, and were instrumental in the founding and running of many resources for women, including women’s health collectives, women’s rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, etc.

2 briggsiniativeASR: Can you talk specifically about some events and actions you worked on in an attempt to bridge the political concerns of the queer and black communities?

LK: Yes. In 1978 Proposition 6 (or the Briggs Initiative) was on the ballot in California. The goal of the initiative was to ban lesbians and gays and “their sympathizers” from working in California public schools. I was a part of a group called the East Bay Action Coalition Against the Briggs Initiative, and as an organizing strategy we held events at various community centers, including the Oakland Community Learning Center, which was one of the meeting spots of the Black Panthers. We held an event there to create coalition with the black community.

Our political events would frequently have a forum and speakers who talked about the issues, and then we always had dancing and food, of course! The band that played at this event was the Alberta Jackson Band. They were an all-women’s blues and rock band, and they played often at women’s and gay and lesbian events.

ASR: Leave it to the queers to make a dance party out of a political event! This is how you organize people! Proposition 6 was defeated, right?

LK: Yeah, we partied, and we defeated Proposition 6!

ASR: The impact of lesbians of color coming out within civil rights or social and economic justice movements was huge, then. To say, “I’m out, I’m gay, and I’m a part of this movement,” was saying the struggles are related.

LK: I am thinking of something else that is going on as we speak … This weekend there are two film festivals happening simultaneously in the Bay Area: we have the San Francisco Black Film Festival, and we have Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Because I want to see films in both of the festivals, I’m forced to choose, and I’m going to miss out on seeing things that may never get distribution. So, I may never see them, and I’m pissed! Why can’t communities get together and coordinate? There are many months in the year when there are no film festivals happening! The fact is, we’re not going to effect permanent societal change until we learn how to support and work together.

ASR: Right. Making that choice, having to say either I go to the Black Film Festival or I go to Frameline seems like a familiar choice, like you’re saying either you’re seen as black or you’re seen as gay. Again, the struggles aren’t seen as connected.

LK: And of course they are connected! The purpose of both festivals is essentially the same, to provide a public space for the kinds of images you’re not going to see anywhere else.

ASR: Yet there is a long history of these communities being separated and disconnected. What were your impressions of the politics when you first moved to the Bay Area, and how did you, as an activist and artist, get involved? I’m thinking of some of the flyers and posters included in Fierce Sistahs.

LK: Well, when I first arrived in San Francisco in 1975 the Gay Freedom Day parade, which is what it was called then, was basically all about white men. My household — I lived in one of many dyke households, the 8th Street house in Berkeley — made signs to take to the Gay Freedom parade to protest the lack of lesbian visibility and inclusion. The message of our signs was basically, “We lesbians are here, too.” The next year, some women from the Berkeley Women’s Center made flyers as a call to get black lesbians out and visible at the parade, because we were invisible at that point. Lesbians fought for several years for visibility and inclusion. In 1976, after much struggle, the Dykes on Bikes, who now traditionally lead the parade, made their first appearance. That year, the slogan was “Diversity Is Our Strength.”  Finally in 1981, the parade name changed from Gay Freedom Day to International Lesbian & Gay Freedom Day parade, which was momentous. Soon after bisexuals started demanding inclusion, and this process has continued to expand to include more sexual minority communities.

ASR: The evolution from the “gay pride parade” to GLBTQI indicates — at least, hopefully — an inclusivity and self-reflexivity around gender and sexualities, but what about race? Can you talk about how racism in the queer community was addressed back then?

LK: In the 1970s the lesbian community was much more focused on issues of race and antiracism than it is now. We organized numerous community workshops about race and class in the lesbian community. There were a few gay men who joined us, but it was mostly lesbian and bisexual women. The goals of the workshops were to raise consciousness about white privilege, to unlearn racism, to afford women of color space to speak about their experiences of racism outside and within the lesbian and gay communities.

ASR: I think about the reputation of California and the Bay Area as being so progressive and the ways in which this often results in some real apathy around doing the actual work to unlearn racism.

LK: Exactly. It’s become rather insidious. Because the Bay Area is known for being a very progressive and diverse place, and it’s understood that certain attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors are considered not “P.C.” So, unexamined attitudes tend to go underground. San Francisco in particular has become very white. And because it still has an image of being “cutting-edge” and “radical” — like how green the city is, or the freedom of expression here — issues of class, white privilege, and racism are not being addressed.

Perhaps not to the same degree, but even in the progressive and queer movements it perpetuates itself. White people who see themselves as progressive and/or radical, especially in San Francisco, often have fewer opportunities with people of color, or situations where they’d be forced to confront their privilege. We — the “99%” — are not going to be effective in changing things without having those necessary interactions and dialogues. Doing this essential work requires a deep desire for social justice, a whole lot of courage, and the ability to act toward others with respect, and love.

ASR: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. That work is never done, and it has to start with the self. I know of groups today that really take on issues of racial and economic justice and queer liberation: the White Noise Collective, Queers for Economic Justice, and HAVOQ/Pride At Work, and many more informal groups. These conversations about racism within queer spaces are a continuation of the work you all were doing in the ’70s.

LK: Yeah, we’ve got to keep doing this work. I’m glad to hear there are folks like the White Noise Collective.

ASR: How was the dyke scene in the ’70s and ’80s visible within the city itself? What physical sites existed for us then?

LK: When I arrived in ’75 there were already a number of spaces that had been created, and many more were created over the next 10 years. There were bars like the Jubilee, the Driftwood, and the Bacchanal in the East Bay, and in San Francisco we had Maud’s, Wild Side West, Mona’s 440 Club, Peg’s Place, A Little More, and others. But what I thought was especially cool were all the non-bar “women’s spaces” — places for political activism, education, and networking. It’s funny, “women’s” was code for lesbian in those days. There were bookstores like Old Wives Tales on Valencia in San Francisco, and A Woman’s Place Bookstore on Broadway and College in Oakland. There were also cafes, which were amazing places to hang out and hook up with people. There was the Full Moon and Artemis cafes in San Francisco, and the Brick Hut Café in Berkeley.3 blackwomenflyer

The bookstores were amazing spots to hang out. People were very well connected. There were actually physical bulletin boards for jobs, housing, events, rides across the country, etc. This was how we networked back then, before the Internet and cell phones.

ASR: How do you think that changed the community or the culture? Today there aren’t any lesbian bookstores in San Francisco, there aren’t any lesbian cafes, there aren’t afternoon hangouts. We make it happen on our own: we have book clubs and skill-shares and hiking groups, but as far as physical places in the city, most of them are bars. This signifies a dramatic shift in the culture, and of course dyke culture has been affected by the economics of the city.

LK: Right. Now that we no longer have those physical spaces, our means of connecting with each other in person is a lot more difficult. Preserving and disseminating our history has become very difficult, too. The local existing archives have not focused on lesbian or queer people of color history, so we have few and less than optimal options for preserving and sharing our histories. For example, if you hadn’t initiated this interview, how would this information be passed on? It saddens me when I hear young queer women say, “We’re the first ones to do this or that,” in reference to things that have been done before here. But, how would they know any different? I think it’s very important to a person’s self-esteem and empowerment to know that you are part of a cultural legacy. Which is why I’m working hard to figure out a way to preserve my archives and make them accessible.

ASR: It can feel like a void. There is a lack

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