Dykes, Direct Action, and Eating Fire: A History of the Lesbian Avengers

a 1994 photo of women eating firethe cover of eating fire: my life as a lesbian avenger

Kelly Cogswell’s new book details the origins of the Lesbian Avengers—seen at left eating fire at a Dyke March in the early 1990s (photo by Carolina Kroon).

Before reading Kelly Cogswell’s book Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, I confess I didn’t know about Dyke TV. I didn’t know about the first and largest Dyke March in DC that 20,000 people attended in April of 1993. I certainly didn’t know my undergraduate English professor from Hunter College, Sarah Chinn, was a part of the Lesbian Avengers.  I learned all of this while reading the book and then watching the documentary the Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too recently made available streaming for free on the Lesbian Avengers documentary project. A history lost to a generation of dykes is now being reclaimed, largely due to work of Kelly Cogswell.

In the mid 1990s, the Lesbian Avengers emerged in the East Village as a direct-action group. They grew to an international lesbian movement with 60 chapters. As the New York Times reports in a 1994 article:

“Fire-eating, their dramatic trademark, grew out of tragedy. Last year, a lesbian and a gay man, Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, burned to death in Salem, Ore., after a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the apartment they shared. A month later, on Halloween, at a memorial to the victims in New York City, the Avengers (then newly organized) gave their response to the deaths. They ate fire, chanting, as they still do: ‘The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.’”

Maxine Wolfe, one of the founders of the Avengers, speaks in the documentary of the need for lesbians to organize for lesbian issues. She defiantly states,  “We need to get a hold of the idea that our lives are not fine. If we do not do this for ourselves, no one else will.” The Lesbian Avengers events marked the first activist demonstrations that most of the lesbian participants ever organized on their own behalf, after years of organizing for other groups.

Why was there such a hesitance to claim our rights and identity? When I spoke with her, Cogswell noted that it’s important to remember that lesbians are not exempt from homophobia or lesbophobia. In her memoir she writes, “If lesbian was a dirty word, what were lesbians in the flesh?” That sentence knocked the wind out of me. I heard the echoes of arguments I’ve had with others about the need for inclusion of LGBT issues in global women’s rights work, where I’ve been met with the claim that lesbian issues are too radical for global feminist work today. I’m left with the question, “If our rights are too radical to fight for, what does that make us?”

In 1994, the Lesbian Avengers took on the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), insisting the group begin including lesbians in their calculations.   Even today, tragic cases of women being raped as a result of homophobia and transphobia remain largely undocumented outside of the work of international LGBT groups such as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. This is a terrible oversight. As Cogswell astutely observed in our interview, “Lesbians are at the crossroads of misogyny and homophobia.” In reference to the recent Isla Vista murders at the hands of Elliot Rodgers attributed to his misogyny Cogwell said, “Imagine if that guy sees you as not just rejecting him, but as rejecting his whole category.” A similarly disturbing misogyny is exhibited by the brutal acts of “corrective rape” against lesbians such as those reported in South Africa and Asia.

When I asked Cogswell why women’s organizations continue to fall short in terms of including violence against lesbians as violence against women, she argued it’s because dykes aren’t seen as women. She explained, “I think there needs to be an understanding that fighting for dykes will benefit women.” After all, it was only in 2011 that Hilary Clinton proclaimed gay rights are human rights. Lesbian journalist E.J. Graff frequently writes about how gay rights are women’s rights—a position I could stand to hear more often and from more feminists.

a flyer from the lesbian avengers has a retro waitress saying: we recruit

A flyer advertising the Lesbian Avengers, designed by Carrie Moyer.

In 2012 I interviewed Charlotte Bunch for Autostraddle about her work in the international women’s rights movement as an out lesbian and activist. Bunch has been advocating for lesbians within the international arena for decades and was also a part of the Furies, a group of lesbians in the United States rejecting sexism and patriarchy in the 70s. At the end of our interview, she handed me a booklet she co-wrote in 2000 with Claudia Hinojosa, “Lesbians Travel the Roads of Feminism Globally.” The publication reflects on global feminist lesbian activism and in the final section Bunch writes:

Lesbians are of course everywhere, and the impetus for making our realities and views known keeps growing around the world. Clearly, that so much has happened in just over two decades indicates how much can be done when lesbians find spaces to come together and to come out. The context for this work, however, is often discouraging, as violence and hostility still greet efforts to establish our human rights. Nevertheless, the means of resistance and survival among our sisters throughout the world is remarkable. While lesbian activity does not take the same form everywhere, we can learn from the direct diversity of ways that we continue to assert our rights and visions.

During our interview Bunch argued, “Rights never change by waiting for somebody else to give you permission.” Instead, to get women’s issues on the international agenda she states, “We simply decided at a certain point that these were human rights and we were going to fight for them as such.”

Similarly, the Lesbians Avengers fought for visibility through direct actions that refused to let homophobia and hate-crimes go quietly unnoticed. The Lesbian Avenger Handbook: A Handy Guide to Homemade Revolution by author and Avenger Sarah Schulman, is also now available online. Cogswell sees direct action as an important tool for all minorities, explaining, “Direct action is essentially a form of communication but the important thing is that it’s in public spaces and for lesbians to claim that right is still really huge.” This handbook remains a helpful resource for organizing direct action events, flyering, marching and movement building.

kelly cogswell

Author Kelly Cogswell (photo by Uzi Parnes). 

Dykes of color played a huge part in the Lesbian Avengers, including the work of Cogswell’s girlfriend and group co-founder Ana Simo. The memoir doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of classism and racism within the group. Cogswell writes, “It wasn’t that we wanted to just highlight issues of dykes of color, but that we wanted lesbian visibility to reflect us all.” The transphobic charges raised against some lesbian separatists are certainly no small part of this puzzle either.

Activism is messy, human work. Cogswell believes it’s important we remember this and explains, “We need to engage in radical acts of imagining what we want.” The reemergence of the history of the Lesbian Avengers is an important reminder of where lesbian organizing has been and the potential for where this imagining may take us in the future.

Check out Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger and if you’re in NYC catch Kelly Cogswell at Bluckstockings on June 21st.

Jamie J. Hagen is a freelance writer and doctoral student in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.  

by Jamie Hagen
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Jamie J. Hagen is a freelance writer and doctoral student in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.

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