In Louisiana in the 1970s, a number of organizations advocated on behalf of women’s issues. Not the least of these were the Baton Rouge and New Orleans chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Louisiana Women’s Political Caucus (LWPC). In New Orleans, many feminist activists were lesbians, which was not necessarily the case in other parts of the state.
It would be misleading, if not inaccurate, however, to say this was an area of lesbian activism. Many of the lesbians in the feminist movement are quick to point out that they were feminists first and lesbians second. Clay Latimer has said, “the ERA and other concerns that applied to ALL women were priorities, and that other topics (such as lesbian rights) could be addressed after we succeeded in the broader areas. I felt that I was discriminated against more often as a woman than as a lesbian.” (quoted in Janet Allured’s Remapping Second-Wave Feminism: The Long Women’s Rights Movement in Louisiana, 1950—1997)
In terms of lesbian activism, Vicki Combs and a few other lesbians formed a local Daughters of Bilitis chapter in the late 1960s. Historian Janet Allured writes: “The New Orleans chapter, headed for many years by Sharon Dauzat, offered safe space for lesbians in an intellectual, political, non-bar environment. In a chapter of 30 to 40 members, mostly in their twenties, anywhere from six to ten were African American, and three were of Asian descent. The New Orleans chapter continued into the 1980s, more than twenty years after the national organization had become defunct.”
One of the earliest efforts at gay political activism in New Orleans occurred in 1970 when Lynn Miller, a graduate student at Tulane University, and David Solomon, founder of the New Orleans Metropolitan Community Church, formed a local chapter of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which was born from a split in the Mattachine Society in the wake of Stonewall.
The national Gay Liberation Front had been founded in New York in 1969 a few weeks after the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn. At that time, the major voice for gay rights was the conservative Mattachine Society, whose response to the Stonewall riot was a call for gays to settle down and work within the system to bring about change. This conservative, measured response angered some within the Mattachine Society who felt the time had come to give up on traditional and gradual reform. When the leadership of the Mattachine Society denounced the group’s public support of a Black Panther rally, several members abandoned the Mattachine Society to form the Gay Liberation Front. This break represented a new way of thinking about gay rights. Instead of slowly gaining acceptance within the existing society, the radicals who formed the Gay Liberation Front called for the creation of a new society.
In January 1971, the New Orleans GLF (roughly 75 people) marched on City Hall and staged a demonstration protesting police harassment. The group made three demands:
“(1) an immediate end of all hostility, brutality, entrapment and harassment by the New Orleans Police of gay men and women and of their places of gathering; (2) the formation of a Governor’s Panel empowered to conduct a complete and thorough investigation of the police methods and actions against gay people. On this panel shall sit one gay man and one gay woman; and (3) the immediate suspension from duty of Police Superintendent Clarence Giarusso and head of the Vice Squad Souler, until the Governor’s Panel has completed its investigation. Should the panel find against these men, they shall be terminated immediately.”
The demonstration and the protestors’ demands received some coverage in the local papers but were, for the most part, generally disregarded. They did not go unnoticed, however. Straight New Orleans was shocked not only at the visibility of gay people but also, perhaps more so, at the alarming fact that they were demanding things.
Because of the male chauvinism within the GLF, Miller grew disillusioned and left the group. The New Orleans chapter of the GLF disbanded shortly thereafter. From the outset, the group had been plagued by an issue that would eventually play out on a national scale. Lesbians felt the group was too preoccupied with the concerns of gay men. This split between lesbians and gay men was emblematic of tensions throughout the movement. As Second-Wave Feminism began to gain steam, many politically-minded lesbians devoted their efforts to women’s liberation. In her landmark 1995 work, Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid offers a critical survey of the gay and lesbian movement since Stonewall, and drawing on the work of historian George Chauncey, she observes:
“The first fallacy—that oppression based on gender and sexual-orientation discrimination is not connected—is evident throughout our movement. Gay male leaders talk about a coalition with the women’s movement as if it were something separate to begin with. Conversely, the mainstream women’s movement has retreated from its critique of gender itself to the less threatening critique of gender inequality. Lesbian activists who bridge both movements are handicapped by the sexism of the former and the homophobia of the latter and have been unable to make either acknowledge the value of accepting both movements as subsets of one common movement.”
The fallacy Vaid describes above is essentially what caused the breakup of the New Orleans GLF, but during its short existence, the N.O. GLF did publish the first locally gay-identified magazine (really more of a newsletter) called Sunflower. The first edition featured testimonials from several men, of whom one was straight, who were harassed, beaten, and arrested while in or near Cabrini Park in the French Quarter. The group also staged a “Gay In” at City Park. Soon after the group fizzled out, some members went on to establish the local Metropolitan Community Church.
Although times have certainly changed in the last half-century, misogyny persists. New high profile sexual harassment cases seem to emerge every month. The ERA has still not been ratified. Women continue to make less money than men for the same work. Reproductive rights are under constant attack from the right. There is still much to do. If history teaches us anything, it’s that lesbians will continue to fight the good fight.