Promoting Social Change: LGBT Activism

Kelly Cogswell is a columnist for New York’s Gay City News and the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger. “Eating fire” refers to an initiation performed in front of spectators in which the Avengers lit torches and swallowed fire. In the following interview, Cogswell speaks about writing her memoir and her days with the Lesbian Avengers, a direct action group formed in 1992 to promote lesbian visibility and survival.

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John Wisniewski: What do you feel was accomplished by the activism of The Lesbian Avengers during the 1990′s?

Kelly Cogswell: We got a lot done in purely practical terms, not only pressuring schools to teach about LGBT lives as part of the sadly controversial Rainbow Curriculum, but to acknowledge there are LGBT children. We brought attention to the huge wave of antigay violence, including the ’92 fire-bombing deaths of Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock in Oregon (which is when the Lesbian Avengers learned to eat fire). We took over a bigoted Spanish-language radio station and broadcast our own messages against homophobia, racism, and misogyny. One of our biggest, measurable, successes was the Lesbian Avenger Civil Rights Organizing Project (LACROP) which was a big part of the reason antigay legislation failed in Idaho in ’94. Of course, these are just accomplishments of New York Avengers. Other chapters were busy all over the world.

Probably our most radical act was daring to exist at all. We appeared at a moment (1992) when tons of lesbians were on the street for everything from women’s rights to AIDS research. With the Avengers, lesbians were finally out there for themselves. Every time I look at footage of the first ever Dyke March held in DC in 1993, I’m stuck by how huge it is, and how happy everybody is to be marching under their own banner. That was part of the big LGBT March on Washington, and we used the opportunity to spread the word about the Avengers. A few months later there were thirty chapters, a few months after that, sixty chapters worldwide. We built a global movement of lesbians using direct action to work for their own visibility, their own issues.

People need encouragement to act. And the New York Avengers made a big effort to mobilize people and share skills by creating publications like The Lesbian Avenger Handbook: A Handy Guide to Homemade Revolution, which meant even isolated lesbians could take matters into their own hands. We also produced the documentary video, Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too, which meant other dykes could see what our activism looked like, and hear why we did it.

Style was admittedly a part of our success. It was/is important to take aim at lesbian stereotypes that characterize us as dour, humorless, ugly, man-hating harpies. Those disempowering images keep lesbians in the bars and off the streets. Then as now, we’re afraid of being angry and shrill, and often go out of our way to be agreeable, and polite when we really should be kicking ass. At least for a while, the name Lesbian Avengers allowed us to be superheroes, with room for rage and whimsy in the same package.

JW:  Why do you think that there is a growing interest now in gay activism during the 1990′s and afterwards, through memoirs and documentaries?

KC: I think two things are going on. One is that activists of the ’80′s and 90′s have realized that our work was getting erased from the narrative of social change. Institutions, politicians, lobbyists, and lawyers are all much more visible. Except for a day or two around Pride and Stonewall, the community would just as soon forget how much it owes to the big-mouthed embarrassing queers, the street activists, that have made room for the progress we’ve seen recently. And if activists don’t write these histories and make these films, nobody else will. Lasting change requires lots of different approaches, and it’s important we don’t quietly disappear.

I also think that young queers, like any other young people, are looking for role models that have more radical ambitions. Equality is obviously important. We need rights like same-sex marriage. But equality doesn’t take the place of liberation. And that’s where our activist roots are. I also think we’re starting to wonder what happens after legal equality. We know that racism didn’t end with segregation. Homophobia and antigay violence and discrimination won’t end when we can get married. That requires social change on a much broader, more ambitious scale, and active engagement with larger society. We have to continually figure out new ways to educate people about who we are, what we want, and the issues we still face. Institutions are by nature conservative. Activists have a lot more room to maneuver.

JW: Looking back, is enough attention paid to the welfare and concerns of the gay and lesbian community, by authorities, such as politicians and police departments?

RC: We still have a lot of work to do, and need ongoing support from among politicians, from the cops, in schools. Violence remains one of the biggest issues facing the LGBTQ community. Queers still regularly get harassed and beaten in the street. Trans women and our young people are most at risk. Too often, cops aren’t there to prevent it. Many don’t respond appropriately after it happens. Worst of all is when cops are the culprits.

Bullying in schools is still a huge problem, like discrimination in the workplace. We also need to house our homeless LGBTQ youth, and make sure they get educated. And for that matter, we have to house aging queers that aren’t necessarily welcome in the average institution. All of this requires activists to pressure politicians and local leaders.

JW: Do you still speak with members of The Lesbian Avengers?

RC: Sure. Especially now that I’m doing this project documenting the work of the Lesbian Avengers. Check out the website www.lesbianavengers.com to see how you can get involved.

JW: Could you tell us Kelly, about an upcoming projects?

RC: I’m continuing to think about the experience of being queer, and how homophobia keeps changing shape. For a while in this country, we were considered sexual deviants, mentally ill, and maybe sinners. And then, as if that weren’t enough, in the Nineties, the Christian Right launched a Culture War for the soul of America — declaring us public enemy #1. So, in effect, they created a new category of foreigners, of exiles. This was around the time of the Avengers, so I started thinking about this in Eating Fire. I’d like to go further because this tendency to see us as foreign is much more apparent now in places like Russia and Uganda where homosexuality is essentially defined as a crime against the state, and seen as a manifestation of outside influences.

JW: Why did you choose to write your memoir Eating Fire? What did you hope to convey to readers?

RC: I started writing it as a way to share the story of the Avengers, and encourage activism, though by the time I was done I figured maybe I’d discouraged it instead. Activism brings out the best, but also the worst in people. Gradually, though, the book deepened into a more ambitious look at what activism is, and how we activists fit into the broader story of America. Every time we step on the street, every time we claim our rights, we’re actively engaging with this country’s promises of liberty and justice for all. We’re being citizens in the broadest sense of the world.

lesbianavenger_DVIt’s why I called the book, Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger. I continued to be engaged with activism in different ways, long after the group itself combusted. And Eating Fire seemed right for an activist’s life. Partly to evoke that powerful image of the Lesbian Avengers, but also because it’s grueling to keep paying attention and acting. Sometimes it would be nicer just to turn away, and pretend like everything’s great for everybody.

JW: Are there activist groups that exist today that are similar in aims to The Lesbian Avengers? 

RC: There’s not much activism in general in the LGBT community in New York, though in the last year I’ve been to demos in support of queers in Nigeria. And also protesting the exclusion of openly LGBT marchers in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. ACT-UP is reviving a little, too, and Queer Nation. But there’s nobody here focused on lesbian issues even if we still have many of the same problem.

In France, though, there was such a big backlash to the same-sex marriage legislation that passed there, a lot of queers were mobilized. And there’s a new dyke group called Djendeur Terroristas! I hope they stick around.

John Wisniewski is a freelance writer who resides in West Babylon NY. He has written for L.A. Review of Books, Toronto Review of Books, Paraphilia Magazine, and other publications. Read other articles by John.