When I called queer historian Lillian Fadermann to discuss the legacy of the Lesbian Avengers — the ’90s activist group that founded the Dyke March — she opened with, “I think it’s important to remember that lesbians used to get lost in the gay-rights movement then, and I think they can still get lost in the LGTBQ+ movement today.” For the past 28 years, the Dyke March has been a meaningful point of congregation for lesbians who long for greater visibility and support in their fight against homophobia and sexism and to celebrate the joys of lesbian life. The activists Ana Maria Simo, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-christine d’Adesky, Anne Maguire, and Marie Honan had these precise aims in mind when they formed the Lesbian Avengers, who exploded onto the New York scene in 1992 with their entertaining and eye-catching demonstrations. At its peak, the group expanded to include 60 chapters on three continents before officially dissolving in 1997. In honor of New York City’s Dyke March on June 26, the Cut spoke to some of the Avengers who helped the direct-action group expand into an international movement.
Carolina Kroon, Avenger and photographer: First, envision a world with no cell phones or computers. Then envision a very different city, both developmentally and in terms of the funkiness of certain pockets of the city. Manhattan was still expensive but affordable, which made it possible for people to be creative and have some of the freedoms that come with that. The East Village was filled with artists who were making the neighborhood fun and hip, kind of like what Bushwick felt like 10 or 15 years ago. And if you were going to find any queers in the city, that was exactly where you found them.
Sarah Schulman: To understand the Lesbian Avengers, you have to go back to a time when the entire government was white and male, the media was white and male, and the whole private sector was white and male. The men who were gay in those worlds were in the closet, and those who weren’t didn’t care about what lesbians had to say about women’s bodies, their representation, or their experience.
Carolina Kroon: It’s hard to imagine now — but in that era, people were not out of the closet very much, and there was no gay visibility in the media. And when there was, it was very much the right wing’s take on the “evil queers” and about the stigmatization of HIV and AIDS. I think there was so much desire to see some depth and diversity in terms of what it meant to be gay and lesbian, because the gay narrative at the time was also very male!
Lillian Faderman: The mainstream women’s movement led by Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women saw lesbians as the “lavender menace” and tried to exclude them. Friedan even did a purge of lesbian activists in New York in the 1970s. Nevertheless, lesbians continued to work on issues such as abortion, which didn’t often directly affect lesbians, and were extremely influential members of groups like ACT UP in the fight against AIDS. It’s not that lesbians decided they didn’t want to work on abortion or AIDS anymore; it’s just that they also wanted something that was unique to their experience. And that was very historically significant in the ’90s.
Ana Maria Simo: I got the idea to do a direct-action group while I was sitting at a café on the corner of Second Avenue in the East Village. All of the sudden, I felt so extraordinarily angry that lesbians were so invisible that I started to see images of bombs exploding in my mind. I’m not a violent person, so I knew after seeing these pictures of destruction that I had to do something about it. I called up Sarah Schulman, who called the other founding members, and invited them to have dinner at my house on 1st Street. By the end of the dinner, we knew what we wanted to do, how we were going to do it, and what our name was.
Sarah Schulman: From the beginning, there was this consensus: It’s a direct-action group, not a theory group or a study group. And that if you didn’t want to do direct action, then this group wouldn’t be for you. After that, we made these cardboard club cards to hand out at various lesbian events. They were small, multicolored, and had a bomb on them with the slogan “Lesbian Avengers: We Want Revenge and We Want It Now!”
Ana Maria Simo: When Pride came, we handed out probably a thousand club cards. We thought we might recruit six or seven new people, but there were 70 at our first meeting.
Kelly Cogswell, Avenger and author of Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger: There were people with different occupations and of different ages and classes, and everyone got along for the most part. There was room for you to be whatever kind of lesbian you were, whether that meant you were a taxi driver or a student or a history professor.
Sarah Schulman: It grew very quickly. It was also a very radical and open organization. Anyone could be in the Avengers if they were willing to fight for lesbian visibility, so it was the opposite of “terf-y.” We voted 99 to one to include trans women and men and were part of the group of people who created Camp Trans.
Anne-christine d’Adesky: The AIDS epidemic was intense. We definitely forged a powerful bond with one another while confronting such painful issues — which we were still very committed to, but we also wanted to have a place to celebrate lesbian life and culture. So when a bunch of us got together, we felt very light on our feet and very cheeky, and we made a point to always, always, always have fun.
The group’s first action was in September 1992. The Avengers showed up at the Queens School District 24 to protest the school board’s blockage of the “Rainbow Curriculum” for elementary-school children, which included mention of gay people in its lessons about diversity. The Avengers paraded through the neighborhood in a lesbian marching band, handed out lavender balloons that said “Ask About Lesbian Lives,” and wore T-shirts that said “I Was a Lesbian Child.” Their dynamic, often humorous, and always highly visual form of protest set the tone for their future actions, which included things like playing spin the bottle on the Staten Island Ferry, raiding the offices of Condé Nast, and staging a demo at a Brooklyn diner with homophobic staff, who had kicked Avenger Valarie Walker out after she kissed her girlfriend in a booth.
Valarie Walker, Avenger: I called a few Avengers, and within 24 hours we went back to the diner and had a live picket outside. Inside, there were eight groups of doubles or triples who were posing as customers. When they got the signal, they stood up and said, “You must remember this! A kiss is just a kiss!” and they all started making out.
Kelly Cogswell: When people are being creative in the service of politics and kind of egging each other on to do more daring things, it’s really magical. People always had these wacky ideas, like serenading our homophobic enemy, Mary Cummins [who opposed the Rainbow Curriculum], on Valentine’s Day, or going ballroom dancing in front of the library, or reuniting a statue of Gertrude Stein with a statue we made of her partner, Alice. Everything we did was really entertaining but also politically useful. Stink-bombing, for example, was very effective!
Anne-christine d’Adesky: We were doing things without permits, and we were confronting the police, which meant we were going to get arrested. But we had a sense of humor, which is a powerful weapon, and a sense of theatricality and play that was disarming. People are expecting angry lesbians, not joyous lesbians, or lesbians on stilts, or lesbians on a giant bed rolling down Fifth Avenue. Rather than convincing people to come to your side, we were working with a politics of attraction and saying, “Hey, come and join us!”
Kelly Cogswell: It felt like an opportunity to change not only everyone else’s opinions about what lesbians were but also our opinions of ourselves. Because the image of a lesbian at the time was sour and angry. There were so many stereotypes, like that we wear horrible clothes, that we have no sense of humor, that we’re either sexually repressed or too sexual. So it was almost as if the only way we could get our issues heard was to not be the angry, man-hating dyke and instead be like, “Look at us — we’re fun and we’re actually cooler than you are!”
Valarie Walker: The Avengers had a huge array of skills. One of them previously worked in a circus and knew how to eat fire. At the time, we felt like we wanted to burn the system to the ground and came to associate ourselves with fire and flames. So when someone said, “Who wants to learn how to eat fire?” I raised my hand, because I’m always looking for new things to add to my résumé! We didn’t do fire-eating often, because it required lots of preparation, but when we did, it was extremely effective.
Ana Maria Simo: We did everything that we could possibly do to engage the mainstream media in New York, particularly the New York Times, but they were very resistant and did not want to talk to us. It was constantly an uphill battle. We even once invaded the offices of Time magazine and Newsweek to ask why [they wouldn’t write about us], but it was a different era. So we had to do everything ourselves. We designed a phone tree, and there was a number you could always call to find out what was going on. That’s how we mobilized. We also had a newsletter and flyers and did wheat-pasting in neighborhoods like the East Village and Park Slope.
On April 24, 1993, the Lesbian Avengers organized the first ever Dyke March in Washington, D.C., where members ate fire in front of the White House. The event drew a crowd of 20,000 people, an incredible feat in the days of pre-internet organizing.
Kelly Cogswell: I died and went to heaven because I had never seen more than maybe 100 dykes in one place. People were ecstatic, and I think that’s because lesbians are often not even visible to each other. Seeing them march through the street and claim it as their own, especially in D.C., which meant claiming a space in the nation, was incredible.
Carolina Kroon: I remember praying so fucking hard that those pictures of the Avengers breathing fire in front of the White House would come out, because I had a sense that it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Fortunately they did, and they ended up being some of the most iconic images of the Avengers. But overall, I think the photos of the group did two things: They created a sense of familiarity for people, who could see them and think, Oh, this could be my neighbor or my family or my co-worker. But they also created validation for the community itself. As more stories came out, being a lesbian became a normal part of human existence.
After four dynamic years, the Lesbian Avengers officially dissolved in 1997 owing, in part, to internal conflicts about the subject of race.
Kelly Cogswell: The Avengers ended badly, so I think most people just wanted to move on and forget about it. But most direct-action groups either end badly or become institutionalized. This wasn’t just a lesbian thing or just an Avenger thing.
Valarie Walker: It’s true that this largely white group didn’t go far enough for me in my Black lesbian existence, but I definitely still felt within my power in that group. I also think the internal fucking fucked the Lesbian Avengers. When you start getting into relationships and you’re happier, you protest less because you’re less outraged. Our tagline was “Lesbian Avengers, We Recruit!” but we stopped recruiting. When you’re in a guerrilla-style group, you need that fresh blood, because that’s what feeds it. We also felt like things were changing. There was the Rainbow Curriculum in schools, and then Ellen came out. Suddenly it felt like gay was okay.
Marlene Colburn, Avenger: When I walked into the first Avenger meeting, I didn’t know a single woman. Now it’s 2021, and most of my dear friends are from the Avengers. We have really stuck with each other over the years.
Last year, Avenger Valarie Walker combined forces with previous Avengers and Dyke March organizers to create the Break the Chains With Love March for Black Lives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. She followed it this year with the Break the Chains: Justice Looks Like Love March on June 19 again with support from Avengers around the world.
Valarie Walker: As soon as I decided to do the [Break the Chains With Love] march, I thought, Oh let me call my buddies. I was the originator and main organizer, but a Lesbian Avenger trained my marshals and another Avenger who lives in Paris helped me with my website. And the Dyke March committee, who were no longer doing their event because of COVID, pivoted their focus and decided to use their resources and finances to help support and uplift Black voices. Now I’m helping them organize the Dyke March this year. So it all feels like one beautiful circle starting and ending with the Avengers.
Lillian Faderman: I think the Lesbian Avengers should be remembered for their daring and determination to make lesbians visible when they were not and for doing it in an amusing and dramatic way. Their Dyke March is still a very important reminder that we’re here, and it continues to morph and evolve with the times. Now it’s not just for dykes; it’s dykes who support Black Lives Matter. I think that’s an important contribution.
Marlene Colburn: After my first month in the Avengers, I really thought that in ten years time, lesbians would rule the world. And here we are, 30 years later, and we’re still just inching, rather than leaping, forward. It’s a great feeling to know that change can happen … It just takes longer than you think it will.
Anne-christine d’Adesky: It annoys me that people even regard the Lesbian Avengers as historical, because our energy and our spirit are still vital and all of us remain very politically engaged today! This is a living history. The way we did our politics has shaped not only the LGBTQ+ movement, but also the kinds of changes we’ve seen unfold in culture. I continue to say that lesbians are an incredible political force and one of the great hidden activist histories of America.