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Sex, History And Lesbian Outlaws

Sex, History And Lesbian Outlaws


[Editor's Note: When I got my first job running an LGBT newspaper, I got handed a batch of publications that preceded me. Among them was Lesbian Tide -- the first publicly circulated lesbian publication in Los Angeles and a national news magazine that lesbians traded across the U.S. from 1971 to 1980. Lesbian Tide was co-founded and edited by Jeanne Cordova, a Latina activist, rabble rouser, and journalist, along with dozens of other brave news folks, who helped usher in the era of advocacy journalism: a genre of journalism that intentionally ignores the concept of objectivity and uses fact-based reporting to get across a social and political viewpoint. It wasn't propaganda, but it wasn't quiet, just-the-facts-ma'am reporting either. At an early age, a man told Cordova that "writer's aren't nice." She knew she was already too butch, too dangerous herself to be nice, so being a writer was a journey she wanted.

Many journalists have written from an advocacy angle in the decades since Lesbian Tide stopped publishing in 1980, but few of those women have captured their own stories in book form, which is why Cordova's hefty new memoir, When We Were Outlaws (Bella Books), is such an important addition to the literary cannon of LGBT non-fiction. The book deserves as much literary acclaim as any memoir this year, both because of the breadth of it and because it manages to be captivating, heartbreaking, and gratifying all at once.

Cordova is still a fixture in L.A.'s lesbian scene; in 2008, she co-founded The Lesbian Exploratorium (LEX), a non-profit cultural guerilla group that explores art, culture, and politics. But giving Cordova's book a literary once-over seemed somehow inadequate so I asked one of Cordova's contemporaries, Robin Tyler -- a long time lesbian activist and fellow L.A. rabble rouser who has navigated many of the same paths as Cordova -- to give us her take on When We Were Outlaws. -- Diane Anderson-Minshall]

I started to read Jeanne Cordova's When We Were Outlaws and was absolutely mesmerized by the book. I knew that Jeanne Cordova was a writer. I had been friends with Jeanne in the early 1970s and knew that she was one of the best investigative reporters who ever worked for L.A.'s alternative newspaper, the radical Free Press. I knew also that she was the founder and publisher of The Lesbian Tide, which soon became the largest national newsmagazine of the lesbian feminist decade. And I'd seen with my own presence that she was a key organizer of the first National Lesbian Conference held at UCLA in 1973.

So I knew the book would be good. I was wrong. When We Were Outlaws is not a good book. It is a great book. Cordova has a literary gift that mixes a journalist's bold style with smart sociological overview. And the author's lesbian butch perspective carries a rare voice.

Outlaws is a riveting fast paced piece of literature that takes place in the early to mid 1970s. This true story weaves in and out of a lighting fast radical time. It goes from Angela Davis to Patty Hearst to radical lesbians to the Weather Underground to a neo-Nazi party hell-bent on blowing up any progressive group within its sight. And Cordova was right in the middle of everything.

When We Were Outlaws also tells the story of the first national gay strike, when lesbians -- joined by the Effeminists (a group of anti-sexist men from the Gay Liberation Front who focused their energies on feminist activism) -- struck the young Los Angeles Gay Community Service Center after the Center's male board of directors fired 16 employees, with no warning, simply because the employees supported the concept that lesbians as well as gay men should be on the board of directors. This famous struggle brought Jeanne into conflict with the most powerful gay man in Los Angeles, Morris Kight, the leader of the city's gay movement, founder of the Center, and Cordova's mentor. Knight was a man she considered her "political godfather."

What makes the memoir so compelling is that it is also a love story, a beautiful and sometimes tragic tale about Jeanne's coming to terms with the first great love of her life, Rachel--alongside of her concomitant dedication to a fledgling concept, a lesbian and gay civil rights movement, in which she was becoming a leader. This sweeping memoir depicts a young activist torn between her personal life and political goals. One of the unusual things about her writing is the vivid way she brings scenes alive with dialogue. They are like overhearing conversations with friends, lovers, and other famous activists.

Cordova was a journalist, an activist, and a lover who, like others in her generation, believed, that polyamory and non-monogamous relationships could work. She has the courage to open up her private life, the strengths and weaknesses, internal pains, and mistakes that took her to dark places -- and her expert writing ability takes us every step along the way.

This book, novelized non-fiction, is a major literary accomplishment. It should cross over into the mainstream because it is takes place at the nexus of the New Left, women's liberation, gay liberation, and the lesbian feminist movements -- a seldom written about time period, and an intersection that embroiled hundreds of thousands of Americans.

And of course everyone wants to read a great love story.

Cordova has written two previous books (Kicking The Habit, and Sexism; It's a Nasty Affair) and her essays have appeared in numerous award-winning LBGTQ anthologies, such as Lesbian Nuns, Breaking the Silence, and The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader.

ROBIN TYLER produced the main stages of the first three National LGBT Marches on Washington, 25 Women's Music and Comedy Festivals,
and along with her wife, Diane Olson, was the first lesbian plaintiff in the lawsuit that brought marriage equality to California.

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