Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Black lesbians display
their Sapphic history

NEWS


heather@whimsymedia.com

Cathy Cade, left, Bea Sullivan, and moderator Lisbet Tellefsen share a laugh during a panel on black lesbians in the Bay Area. Photo: Lydia Gonzales
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More than 60 black lesbians and their friends were drawn to the "Spotlight on African American Lesbians" exhibit and panel discussion at the GLBT Historical Society earlier this month, where they reminisced and remarked upon their contributions to queer life.

The exhibit, the first on the West Coast, features the debut of "Keepin' On: Images of African American Lesbians," which was originally curated in 1991 by Morgan Gwenwald, Paula Grant, and Georgia Brooks from the Brooklyn Lesbian Herstory Archives.

While African American lesbians have been included in previous historical society exhibits, this was the first time the organization hosted an exhibit explicitly focused on African American queer women, said co-organizers Cathy Cade and Lisbet Tellefsen.

A second exhibit, "Bay Area African American Lesbian Publications," marks the beginning of the society's queer women of color collection. Editor Marlene Bonner donated a complete set of Onyx , a newsletter for black lesbians, which was one of three Bay Area publications devoted to black lesbians during the past 20 years.

Ache: A Journal for Lesbians of African Descent, co-founded by Tellefsen, was the longest-running African American lesbian journal and was published from 1989 to 1993. Onyx was published from 1982 to 1984, and during the early 2000s, Stephanie Daniels published Issues magazine for a brief period.

The exhibits are on display through December 23.

Cade and Tellefsen wanted to bring African American lesbians' experience to life – in particular West Coast lesbians – in hopes of igniting a movement to collect and archive black queer women's history, they said.

"This is like a dream come true for me," said Cade, 67, a longtime civil rights lesbian-feminist activist and personal historian and photographer. "This is a very big deal for me."

During the 1960s Cade, who is white, was active in the civil rights movement, she said.

"There are things about the black community and the black lesbian community that every human being would want to have be a part of their community, be a part of their history," said Cade. "By having these exhibits we get to put that out into the world and let people remember it, let people learn it, let people take it on as inspiration."

African American lesbians and their friends filled a small room and spilled down the society's hallway to listen to four community leaders reminisce about half a century of stories about bars, girlfriends, parties, and social change.

The four panelists were Lenn Keller, filmmaker, artist, historian, and activist; Terry King, member of African American Lesbians Over 40, a nearly 20-year-old non-bar focused social group for black lesbians; Mary Midgett, an author and co-founder of Bay Area Black Lesbians and Gays and past president of Lesbian and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action; and Peggy Moore, California political director of Organizing for America and the founder of Sistahs Steppin' in Pride.

Having fun and changing the world

"I joined the Army, screwed my eyes out, and had a good time," said Midgett, 73, laughing about her younger years. "I stayed drunk and I had a good time."

"There were no African American lesbians in San Francisco," said Midgett, who moved to the Bay Area during the mid-1970s. She eventually found Amelia's, a popular lesbian bar at the time, and was "hooked up with the black community." She then moved to Oakland because that was where the black lesbians were, she said.

Keller recalled the dyke house collectives scattered around San Francisco in the 1970s and noted that "each had their own personalities and the dramas going on." Like other black lesbians who made their way to California during that time, she quickly found her home in Oakland after making brief stops in Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Other panelists nodded in agreement, recalling a very small openly gay community until the 1980s, when queer women of color discovered Oakland and settled there. This was after the first black lesbian conference held in San Francisco. Until that time Pat Norman was the lone black lesbian force in the Bay Area's LGBT movement.

Panelists remembered Norman, the first African American lesbian to sit on the powerful San Francisco Police Commission and then on the city's Fire Commission. She later served on the city's Human Rights Commission. She is believed to be the first out black lesbian to run for political office; her race for supervisor in 1984 ended in defeat.

Two years ago Norman was honored with San Francisco Pride's Lifetime Achievement Award and moved to Hawaii to live with her son.

Norman paved the way for politically inclined lesbians like Moore, who moved to the Bay Area during the early 1990s when the black lesbian movement was "closing down," she said.

She could get her groove on at the Box, a popular lesbian club during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but like others before her she had a difficult time finding her community, she said.

"I didn't find people who looked like me," said Moore. She also didn't find people "doing stuff to represent my community" at the time.

Moore struck out on her own to create the community she craved. She founded Sistahs Steppin' in Pride in 2002. She ran unsuccessfully for Oakland City Council several years ago.

"It's my pride of being an African American woman, my sense of sisterhood, and my experience of sisterhood is the foundation and essence of Sistahs Steppin' in Pride," Moore said about creating the East Bay's annual lesbian pride festival and Dyke March.

History needs to live

Tellefsen wants future generations to feel a sense of pride by having access to their history.

Panelists lamented the loss of nearly all of the social gathering places from bars to cafes to bookstores, adversely affecting younger generations and their ability to gather, socialize, and organize.

"One of the things that I feel is universal no matter what era you come up in is a sense of isolation and feeling that you are the only one," said Tellefsen, 48, a black lesbian who grew up in the East Bay.

She said that she felt isolated in spite of being raised in the hotbed of the lesbian-feminist movement.

"I felt disconnected from it. Nobody looked like me. I felt alone," Tellefsen said.

A digital archivist and a longtime donor to the GLBT Historical Society, Tellefsen recognized she was in a unique position to begin organizing black lesbian history.

Cade also pointed out that technology makes it easier than ever before to preserve history.

More important to Tellefsen is finding ways to engage new generations of queer youths of color in their history and provide access to the stories and materials, she said.

"What informed my growth and really, my connection to culture, was I had access to the materials, to images, to the artwork, the culture of black lesbians before me," said Tellefsen. "It was powerful."

Moore agreed that information was important for history to be passed along.

"Information is important to transfer so that we know that we have a history, that people know that they have a history," said Moore, adding that her generation was very interested in the "people who came before us."

"We were really, really interested in them," said Moore. "A lot of what we learned and a lot of who we became had to do with what we learned about them and how they negotiated their lives."

Cade and Tellefsen hope that the exhibits will attract women interested in joining the society's women's committee to help continue to document queer women's history, in particular lesbian and bisexual women of color.

The women's committee meets monthly at the GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission St., Suite 300, San Francisco. For more information contact Aimee Forster at (415) 777-5455 ext. 5# or aimee@glbthistory.org. For more information, visit www.glbthistory.org.






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