Memorial set for lesbian scholar Yolanda Retter Vargas

  • by Jeanne Cordova and Lynn Harris Ballen
  • Wednesday September 19, 2007
Share this Post:

A memorial to celebrate the life of pioneer Latina lesbian activist Yolanda Retter Vargas will be held at Metropolitan Community Church in West Hollywood on Saturday, September 29. Ms. Retter died at her home in Los Angeles on August 18. She was 59.

The cause was cancer.

An activist and scholar, Ms. Retter was a major force in the early L.A. lesbian movement as a fierce advocate for lesbians of color. In her last two decades Yolanda became a highly educated and much sought after librarian, archivist, and editor.

Ms. Retter worked as head librarian-archivist at the Chicano Studies Resource Center at UCLA for the past four years.

"Learning mattered to her because it could help change the world. Yolanda exemplified the CSRC's mission 'Research that makes a difference' in everything that she did at the center, and in the many other things that she did in the world," said Chon Noriega, her supervisor at the center.

She co-edited and contributed to a number of significant books on lesbian and gay culture and history, including the Lambda Literary award-winning Queers in Space: Communities, Public Places, Sites of Resistance (1997). Her most recent (and somewhat autobiographical) essay, "Sisterhood is Possible" appears in the anthology Time It Was: American Stories from the Sixties (Prentice Hall; 2007).

In her early years, and by self-definition, Ms. Retter was "a lesbian history and visibility activist." Her life's work was dedicated to collecting, preserving, and honoring overlooked history. She is the author of the highly-respected Lesbian History Project Web site, a content-rich archive containing important chronology and hundreds of entries celebrating lesbian "herstory" and notable lesbians.

Ms. Retter saw her purpose in life as being "a gadfly on the body politic." She challenged movement leaders and was ahead of her time in raising consciousness on behalf of Latina lesbians and women of color. Her confrontational style earned her the proudly worn nickname "Yolanda the Terrible" or "Y the T."

Born in Connecticut of a North American father and Peruvian mother, Ms. Retter spent much of her childhood in El Salvador. The racism she experienced when she returned to school in Connecticut at age 12 set the tone for her activism on issues of race in the lesbian movement. After moving to California for her bachelor's degree in sociology at Pitzer College, she became involved in the embryonic Southern California lesbian movement.

In the early 1970s, Ms. Retter was among the lesbians who formed radical civil rights organizations and was a founding member of Lesbianas Latina Americas in 1974. A member of the national conference planning committee of Lesbians of Color (1978 to 1983), Ms. Retter was also a founding member of Lesbianas Latinas in 1980, and later involved in Lesbianas Unidas. 

In these years, Ms. Retter remained proudly and exclusively committed to working on issues for and about women. She was a board member of the last Lesbian Center in Los Angeles, Connexxus/Centro Mujeres. And in 1988, through her job as director of women's programs of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center's Lesbian Central, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show .

Ms. Retter worked as a volunteer in the prison and parole programs of the L.A. center, was manager of the center's Liberation House in 1972 and was director of the Pasadena Rape Hotline in 1977. She also devoted herself as founding archivist of the Lesbian Legacy Collection at the International Gay & Lesbian Archives (USC) and spent many volunteer hours at the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives (West Hollywood).

In the last 20 years of her life, Ms. Retter brought together her lifelong love of books and identity politics. She earned her master's degree in library science at UCLA (1983) and a master's degree in social work at UCLA(1987) with a thesis on Latina lesbian identity development. In the early 1990s she moved to New Mexico, where she earned a doctorate in American studies with her dissertation, "On the Side of Angels: Lesbian Activism in Los Angeles, 1970-1990."

From 1989 to 1991 she ran the Los Angeles Public Library Chicano Resource Collection where she created the first "Latino biography" database.

Pursuing her devotion to people of color issues, Ms. Retter became a research consultant for exhibits and for films such as the HBO movie Walk Out, the story of how East L.A. Latino teenagers protested in 1968. She lent her critical cultural eye as a diversity content consultant to gay and feminist historical books such as Feminists Who Changed America, 1963-1975.

Ms. Retter received many awards and honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the USC "Queer Frontiers" conference in 1995. In June she received a Rainbow Key Award from the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board of the West Hollywood City Council.

Among her more personal and eccentric talents, Ms. Retter was a carpenter and a licensed airplane mechanic. In her private business she bought and sold rare books. She often captained security as a chief monitor for community events. She was security coordinator for the people of color contingent for the first March on Washington in 1979.

Ms. Retter added her mother's maiden name, Vargas, to her own in the early 1990s in the Latina tradition. Her uncle, Alberto Vargas, was the famous pinup artist and her grandfather, Max Vargas, a renowned photographer. She made several research trips to her ancestral Peru. Her essays on Peruvian photography appeared in exhibit catalogs and Latin American photography journals. And her essay on marginalized groups and archives is upcoming in a collection from Libraries Unlimited.

Ms. Retter is survived by her life partner of 13 years, Leslie Golden Stampler and Stampler's children; her beloved dogs; and her father, stepmother, and six siblings.

Next weekend's memorial will be held at 1 p.m. MCC is located at 8714 Santa Monica Boulevard.

Guests are invited to bring a written page of history, a Yolanda story, poem, button, or photo for inclusion in a book that will be compiled for the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives of Los Angeles. The Mazer is producing a multimedia presentation for the memorial. Photos for inclusion in this presentation should be sent to: The Mazer Collection at mailto:[email protected].

Donations can be made to the Yolanda Retter Foundation, c/o The Law Office of Karen L. Mateer, 618 S. Lake Ave, Pasadena, CA 91106.

Ms. Retter has left her memoirs and scholarly papers to the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. Her Web sites on lesbian and women of color history were expected back online at the end of August.

Partners Jeanne Cordova and Lynn Harris Ballen were longtime friends and colleagues of Ms. Retter. For more information contact Ballen at mailto:[email protected].