The Revolutionary Is the One who Begins Again
When I came out in 1985, at the age of twenty-two, I remember…
Reading Andrea Dworkin and Audre Lorde and Susan Brownmiller and Robin Morgan and Joanna Russ and Kate Millett and Susan Griffin and Paula Gunn Allen and Gloria Anzuldua and … hearing the music of Meg Christian and Holly Near and Heather Bishop and Alix Dobkin and …seeing the art of Tee Corinne and Judy Chicago and Georgia O'Keefe and Pauline McGeorge and …talking with my friends, my teachers, my co-workers…about all this politic and art and music and…
Action! The Alberta Status of Women Action Committee opened a Lethbridge chapter in the fall of 1983 (ASWAC, a somewhat unfortunate acronym—but hey, irony is women's work). I joined in 1985, because I had decided, after years of razzing my feminist friends that perhaps, after all, they were on to something. There was something about women…I was engaged to marry a man, but…there was something about women…
One morning I awoke to Ferron singing "Testimony" on the CBC morning radio show. Listen to that! A feminist on the radio! And not only that—a lesbian! Somehow I could tell, by the timbre of her voice, by the womanliness of her lyrics, the call to revolution—a lesbian on CBC. I hadn't even had coffee yet, and I felt big. Hopeful, excited—like I was part of something bigger than just me. Perhaps, even in Lethbridge, Alberta, an uprising of women.
Some of my friends were with men who hit them. A few of my friends were women struggling to raise children on their own. I was young, but already I had seen women suffering because of men's power. My mom, about 6 years earlier, had helped a friend of hers escape a violent husband. I'd forgotten this. I thought I and my friends had invented feminism. Feminism was in the air. And it was on the ground. Transition houses were opening in Alberta cities. Take Back the Night marches were held in Calgary, I heard about them, and some of my friends had driven the three hours north to go. ASWAC held all-candidates meetings during municipal and provincial elections, and sent delegates to women's conferences in Innisfail and Edmonton, and to the National Action Committee on the Status of Women Annual General Meeting in Ottawa. We became a public voice for women's liberation in Southern Alberta. We talked about opening a shelter for women; we talked about starting a crisis line for women who had been raped.
We already had a suicide crisis line, (with which I was a volunteer), and most of the callers, seemed to me, were men who wanted to jack off to the sound of a young woman's voice.
Sigh. This was "helping"?
I had never been so sparked up by something, never felt so powerful or so connected to something greater than myself.I was learning things fast, though. Simple, heartbreaking things. Women had been burnt at the stake for being witches. For living as lesbians. For "passing" as men. Women were mostly attacked by men they knew. And by men for whom they had regard, even love.
Ah, and there were other things I was discovering. I was discovering the depth and breadth and history of women's strength. I met Annie Wise! She was long dead by the time I met her in 1985. I was doing research for a professor of mine, and I saw her leap out at me from a tiny column in the Winnipeg Free Press, an edition from October, 1895:
Annie Wise, an anarchist, was arrested from the steps of London's City Hall where she was singing songs and making speeches to draw public attention to the plight of the poor and the unemployed. When asked by the judge if she had anything to say for herself, she replied, "I know no more, nor care no more, for your laws than for the laws of Timbuktu. For they were made by men, for men, and have nothing to do with me!"
She was sentenced to three days in jail.Many years later, I learned from lesbian at a dinner party that Annie was from the North Country of England, she was a Geordie. "Geordie" is the name taken up by the working class men who laboured in the mines, and the women who worried for them, raised children, tended small mean gardens, stretched a tuppence to wrap a thin blanket around the backs of their families and their neighbours…and sang ribald songs of hardship and revolt. Annie is still famous in Newcastle and other Tyneside villages and towns. She never married and for all of her long life, she always agitated for better. My friend, who was from Annie's home town, she said, "Oh, sure, she was a dyke." And we laughed and toasted her with sparkling water. She turned the wheel one revolution. She is still changing the world.
These were things I was learning. I learned that women talked differently from men, that we were trained to tilt our heads for photographs, take narrow steps, keep our backs to walls. But feminists were figuring it out: stepping away from the walls, taking up space, marching in the streets, taking up room. I was surrounded. Surrounded by feminists. I was part of an ages- old movement. A tide of women, washing over the patriarchy, wearing it away.
Do you ever hear the "coming out" stories of other lesbians? There seems to be a staticky silence where they used to be. Perhaps being the age I am now, we've all told them so much we don't think we need to anymore. Or maybe it's the times we are in now, when everyone is "Queer" no one is a lesbian. It's a confusing place to be, no longer marginalized and maligned (as much), but not really belonging.
I saw myself in the coming out stories of other lesbians, perhaps you will see yourself in mine.
I fell in love with my best friend, as I had with other best friends—in high school, in college, at various work places. This time, though, I took that extra step. I broke up with my fiancé, and I declared my love to my friend.
She was a feminist—one of the women I'd razzed so mercilessly just a few months before. She said, "Erin, I'm straight, I don't want to sleep with you." She tried to distance herself from me. I tried to hold her closer. I tried to stop calling her, but then she would call me. I mentioned a few times that if we were a man and a woman, we'd be lovers already. She agreed, but said she just was not ready. That perhaps she would never be ready. She said she was worried that sleeping together would ruin our friendship. And she needed our friendship. We both did.
One day, in the fall, we were trying to do homework together in my apartment. She threw down her glasses and said, "Erin, do you want to risk our friendship?"
"I sure do," I said, and leapt into her arms.
That was a brilliant wonderful painful joyous young autumn, that was. You know how that is? That new love feeling? Everything she said was funny, and she laughed at everything I said, too. I looked up to her, and she asked my opinion about politics and music and we talked about important ideas for long late hours. All those clichés were true, my heart sped up when she was near, my breath was shallow, all my nerve endings sparked desire.
We were students, so we studied and wrote and we worked on the student newspaper together and went to peace marches and concerts and women-only dances (in Lethbridge! We didn't know how lucky we were, then) and fancied ourselves subversives. She was not gay, she said, she just loved me. She said.
I, on the other hand, leapt headlong into Amazon Nation. Remember Meg Christian's song, "Leaping Lesbians"? Hah! Imagine driving around Lethbridge, Alberta, in the middle 1980's with that song streaming out the windows, and laughing young women singing along. Do you remember?
I was dangerous to her, though. I never "came out" of the closet, because I was never in a closet. I left school in the springtime as a blatant heterosexual, and I returned in the fall a blatant lesbian. And because my lover and I were always together, people assumed that she, too, was a lesbian, a notion she attempted to dispel wherever she went. We could not hold hands. We could not arrive at parties together or leave together. I was not to know whether we would spend the night together, until she would say, as she left, "come over, would you?" and I would stay at the party for another hour, two more drinks, maybe more, depending…and then I'd practically sprint to her house, her attic apartment, to take her in my arms, and whisper my love for her. I wanted to shout, I always wanted to shout, but I had to whisper. Avert my eyes, contain my desire.
We traveled together to conferences in Saskatoon and Abbotsford, and we spray-painted parts of every town we went to. "Porn Sells—Women Pay" on the wall of a XXX video store; or "Learn to Kill" on a Canadian Forces Recruitment Centre. I had a picture of me standing beside that one. It was a winter day, in a small Saskatchewan city. I was leaning against the brick wall. I wore a fedora tilted over one eye, a cigarette balanced on my lip. Insouciant. Young. A little self-righteous and earnest, I have to say. Grasping the wheel. Turning one revolution.
She left me, that first lover. She remained a feminist, but ran back to the men. We were lovers for only a few months, and she started seeing a boy we knew from a class we were in. He was a philosophy major. Skinny, smart. Left-wing. A little scared of women, I thought. But I thought that about all men, then. She didn't tell him about me. All he knew was that we were friends. Inseparable. Until he came along.
I didn't understand. We were going to travel, we were going to write political tracts, make speeches, sing songs, set fire to flags… She could never answer my plaintive question, "why? How could things have changed so much, so fast?" I wanted to scream and cry and raise my fists to the sky. But in the same way that I had to whisper my fervent love, I also had to whisper my disappointment and grief. No one could know.
No Turning Back
I left Lethbridge with my head full of dreams but my heart in tatters. Disappointed in love for the first time in my short life. There was, however, no turning back. I loved her, but I also loved women and I carry in my belly still that hot coal of love. It often rises in righteous flames. I love the timbre of our voices, the fury of our rage, the magic of our music, our bodies, our ideas, ourselves. I love women. I was never going back. I began to understand, with that first heartbreak, how terrible and scarring this was going to be, this lesbian life. But I was never going back—I was now part of an uprising of women, and I could never turn from that. The music of our voices together stitched my tattered heart.
More than once, I stood between a man and the woman he was attacking (on the street, in their home, on the phone—) and the man would scream at me, "Fucking dyke! Fucking whore!" (as if they are the same, dykes and whores). Back then, to get an abortion, women had to go before a tribunal of three doctors and tell them why carrying a pregnancy to term would be detrimental to our physical or mental health.
Often, it was lesbian women who walked with women to abortion clinics, past the protesters with their aborted fetus posters. Lesbians were answering the phones of the rape crisis lines, and running the transition houses and tearing off to get women out of danger. Lesbians were spray-painting sexist billboards and blowing up pornography stores.
After university, I read and thought and argued my fool head off about women's liberation. I went off tree-planting. I wanted to get as far from the source of my heartache as possible, so I went on a new adventure. I took my asthmatic, allergic self off to the wilds of Northern Ontario to plug little chemically bathed trees into the scarred earth.
I've never worked so hard in my life, or eaten so well. There was nothing to do but eat, plant trees, play music and argue politics with privileged young folk from Queens University. Even then, so young, I was sure of myself, sure of being a lesbian, sure of the truth of my chosen path. I was a feminist, and a lesbian. Two parts of a whole woman. I called my tent "the pleasure dome," and I drank too much with my new friends when we had a day off in Thunder Bay.
The hard work and the big weather and the early morning loons and lots of writing and the new friends gave me courage—mended my tender heart—I returned to Lethbridge for the fall. Got a job as a short-order cook, and argued politics with the very conservative waiter, a Business major at the University. Got tips for my superior liver and onions. Sang radical lesbian feminist songs in the kitchen. Sometimes felt lonesome.
I wanted something else, to sing songs with more voices. I yearned for more movement in general. So I moved to BC to be closer to the radicals. Before then, I had never been to an International Women's Day march. And in 1987, my first year in BC, there was a flat-bed truck leading the march—and on the bed was a righteous rock band of feminists! Maybe lesbians, at that!
I was in heaven. My first march—in the company of lesbians! Whoa. You are NOT in Alberta anymore, young Erin. We were there, right behind the truck, dancing and singing along. Hundreds of women, hundreds of us.
Where have they gone? I hear the echo of their voices, the last twang of a guitar string through a megaphone, a murmur, the crumpling of paper, the sound of boots on gravel…but where have we all gone?
We were women together, lesbians—and we were alive. We were going to change the world. Lesbian and Feminist, how could they be separate things? Before moved to the big city of Vancouver for good, a friend read my tarot cards. "A big house," he said, "I see you in a big house full of women." I wondered where this house was, where these women were, but he could not be more precise. I found that big house, though, and it didn't take me long. I went looking for the feminists. I found them at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter. I walked into the house and saw the stencils painted on the floor of women dancing together, with speech bubbles rising from their gaily painted heads—"If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution" they said. Celebrations of women stenciled on the floor. I had arrived.
An Uprising of Women
At first it was terrifying, answering the phones, hearing the stories, trying to figure out how to make a revolution one battered woman at a time. Then it was exciting: tearing off to the hospital in the middle of the night; standing beside a woman as she made her statement to the police; going off with a few other women on a raid to get her stuff out of her place. Planning actions, writing articles and speeches—standing on the steps of the Art Gallery with banners and megaphones—taking the streets with hundreds of women, Taking Back the Night.
It's difficult, though, to be an uprising of women, in the face of constant backlash. Seems that there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Transition houses are still full of women, government houses and corporate boardrooms are still full of men. Womens work—our revolutions—have been "disappeared." Where was/is our history? Where did our ancestors go? Annie Wise? What of the nameless ones, the women who helped their friends get away, the women who caught the babies, the women who knew how to make a miscarriage happen? We don't know their names, but they too had their shoulders to the wheel, they turned, they pushed, they slipped and fell. They rose up, too.In Toronto, there's a building that was built at the turn of the last century, on the archway of the door is: WCTU. The Women's Christian Temperance Union had their own building! What has become of them? What has become of us?
One of the women I worked with at Rape Relief, one of the ones we called "the old guard" (she'd been there since the late 70s, and had started a transition house in her home town before that) said, "We were so naïve when we started—we thought, 'well, we just tell them all what's going on, and reveal the damage, and they'll stop'." She said, "But they didn't. They haven't. We wanted to work ourselves out of a job, but so far we have not been successful." She said something like that.
The endless phone calls, the house of the revolving door, the litany of horrors—it began to wear on me. Gradually, despair crept in. Every night I smoked a joint to take the edge off. Drank a beer. Or three or four or six. My lover and I fought all the time. We started off so young and lively and loving—and here we were, three years later, sniping and picking and nagging and "pass that j over here, would ya?". I forgot about the wheel, forgot about the uprising. All I could see was the lineup of wounded women, one after another after another. Selfish, frightened me, I stepped away from my sisters with their shoulders at the wheel. I cast my eyes down, I did not look up. I gave up for a while.
It was a political act to sober up. And to quit smoking. A woman who can't breathe can't think so good, nor can she holler so loud. A woman who is walking straight and thinking clear and breathing deep, she can take up her share of space, and she can make space for other women, too.
I took other risks, then—joined Rape Relief again, went to graduate school, seventeen years after getting my B.A., started telling stories and singing in public. Started feeling some of that youthful exuberance again. I found my place at the wheel again, and women held on to me, steadied me there so I could push with all my might.
There's something in the story of lesbians and feminists that's analogous to the old Irish stories of the selkies, the sirens and mermaids from Scotland and other sea-bound lands. Those mysterious powerful creatures of the depths who both lured the men of the sea to their deaths, and were lured sometimes, by the men to the land…
Lesbians, too, have been lured to land—to the stability of marriage and babies—something we'd seen other women do, and it looked, if not exactly easy, and maybe a bit boring, at least stable; at least we could copy what our mothers did, what the other ladies in the neighbourhood did, or what the women on TV did, even, and make up a kind of lesbian version. It's not inventing another world, but maybe it's not exactly fitting into the one our parents had, either.
Some of us have shed our "selkie" skin, put it on a shelf and now live in the world of men (or the world that men made). We don't hear the songs of the other selkies, we look and act just like "regular" women.
Is there still a yearning, though? For the songs, for the fierce winds on the edge that make you feel alive? Or is this enough now? Marriage, babies, grandchildren, signing a petition now and then, reading feminist novels…haven't spray-painted a porn shop in a while…do we miss that stuff?
In the stories of the selkies, sometimes the children of the selkie woman find her old skin and ask her about it—then she puts it on and goes back to the sea. Other stories have her husband burning her skin so she can never go back. And others tell about the husband taking a foolish chance on the sea, going out fishing in a storm or something, and his Selkie wife, to save him, assumes her other life, returns to the ocean and saves him, but can never return to land again. Sometimes her return to her ocean homeland is a release, freedom for her—sometimes it is not.
I nearly went to land. Even if there was not a lot of depth, it felt like solid ground under my feet. My lover was a fairly recent lesbian and she had a romantic idea about what lesbian life would be like. She thought we would always be completely enraptured with one another. When the rush of first big love eased off a bit after a year or so, and we started to look a little more flawed and human to each other, she was very disappointed. She thought that a lesbian love affair would maintain that early intensity forever. I thought we had settled into something sweet. We had some stuff to work out, but we had time.
I had never been so warmly welcomed into a lover's family. The comfort of their care and financial stability was like a blanket for a while.Her mother said I was like another daughter, her sisters and brother-in-law called me sister. We helped each other in times of trouble and teased each other like siblings do. I nearly forgot that I didn't really belong.
Worse, I nearly forgot that I didn't WANT to belong. They are good people. I will always love them and be grateful for their kindness to me. But staying with this lover would have meant giving up. I wanted her approval and I loved her so much I forgot that I wanted to re-invent the world with lots of women, and instead re-invented her. I made up that she was an activist. I made up that I was still an activist. The skin in which I'd come to her was peeling away, slipping into a back corner of a cupboard. Life with her was all very nice and safe.
But she saw my life as unstable, insecure, undisciplined, dangerous. She was wealthy. I am not. She wanted me to move in with her. She wanted to be "normal." She wanted someone who had a career, her own pension plan, who wanted to marry and settle down. She understood before I did that I was not ever going to be that woman. She chose stability and turned away from me. It seemed so sudden. Devastating.
Eventually…finally…enervating. In losing her, I found the way home. She gave me my skin back, my life. It was frightening, but over time, I found my way home. I hope I don't give it up again.
Maybe it was a little like that for the selkie when her child found her old skin and held it up asking, "Mommy, what's this?" And the selkie, now a matron, maybe middle-aged now and a bit more fleshy, squeezed herself into it again, and felt a little uncomfortable, afraid, exhilarated, home. "Bye-bye, baby, Mama's gotta fly" (or swim, as the case may be), "Tell Daddy there are TV dinners in the freezer."
Perhaps "extinct" is a bit alarmist, but "endangered"? Maybe. These days, I don't feel that same sense of exhilaration I did when I was a new lesbian. A lot of lesbians of my acquaintance are married with children. A friend of mine who once argued for feminists to boycott weddings finally caved to her lover's demand for that kind of commitment and married her. And as righteous and firm as she was about boycotting the institution before she entered it, she is now that fierce a proponent. What happened? She wore a white GOWN at her wedding, too…weirdest thing I've ever seen. I'd quit drinking by that time, but that day was a test, to be sure.
I love them, and my other "straight" lesbian friends, and I love their children, but we understand that they have turned away from the revolution. We wave to one another—they on the shore, me bobbing about humming old Ferron songs and lobbing paint bombs at the porn shops in their "inclusive, diverse" neighborhoods. They will be beside me if I ever do anything to get thrown in jail, I'm sure of that. They donate regularly to women's groups and to relief efforts. But they're not out raisin' a ruckus. Neither am I so much, not any more. I did my spray-painting. Though there are some American Apparel ads that are begging for a radical makeover…Now my ruckus-making is a bit quieter. I don't belong to any women's groups any more, though I still answer the phone at the rape crisis centre, and work at the drop-in centre for women living in the (notorious) downtown eastside—but mostly, I write, read, research, write.
So, the buzz has worn off, and here I am, listening for that youthful music, trying to regain that optimism, that faith, that exuberant energy and the understanding that we are on the cusp of something big. I'm still a radical feminist. I still believe that the revolution is happening, and that we will win, but it is glacial in its advance, I tell ya. Whew.
And Again, Begin!
Tonight, I went to a feminist dinner party. The second of a series, I hope a long long series. Most of the women at the party are lesbians. None of us are queer, either, thank you very much.1 We are all privileged: white, educated in universities, living in a wealthy North American city. None of us are poor now, though we are not from the same class background. We were once much more active feminists than we are at present. All of us miss the action we were part of. We miss singing songs of peace and freedom together. Kicking up a fuss, sticking our necks out.We don't know what happened to the revolution we still believe in. It's urgent that we remember, though. We have not yet, even now, in 2010, "worked ourselves out of a job." There is still so much sexist violence aimed at all of us—so many men still buying and selling women in prostitution, and escalating their violence against their wives and girlfriends. There is corporate greed and the widening gap between those with those with way too much and those with way too little (never just enough) and all this paranoia about terrorism. There's so much work to do on all fronts. It feels overwhelming.
These dinner parties, they might be a start. At the first one, we told each other stories about our mothers' resistance. Tonight we talked about death and making space for ritual and care for the dying and the living. We are circling around the wheel again, deciding where to place our weight, holding each other steady in the sucking mud of patriarchy. We are beginning again.
Lesbians are not extinct. Perhaps we're endangered, but we're a feisty, resourceful bunch. All in all, we'll both survive and invent. Humanity depends on us.
- 1 "Queer" is an umbrella term that has come to mean everyone, really, and no one. It's got no spine, that word, it just globs all over everyone and turns us all to mush.
About the author
Erin Graham is a no-neck, knuckle-draggin' dyke from the Canadian Prairies. She lives in Vancouver, BC, alone in a tiny apartment, about three miles from her delightful, smart and radical lover and surrounded by lesbians and activists. She goes to a neighborhood gym most days to heave around great plates of black iron and is solid in sobriety. She is a storyteller and a stand-up comic. She still misses the prairie sky—the wide horizon, the endless sunsets, the big vibrant weather. Vancouver's nice and all, but the climate's kind of passive-aggressive, you know? Oh sure, lovely summers, but then come October and 'boom!' pouty chilly drizzle all winter long. Ah well. You can ride a bike all year anyhow. She's wrapped up in Vancouver, there's the PhD in progress, the wide, wild network of friends and allies, lovers and ex-lovers, the history she holds now—but every time she crosses the mountains, she sheds her city skin and dives into the sweet-smelling feel of home, where she first decided that she would become a feminist and a lesbian, where she first learned the songs. And where she first heard the stories about those radical Vancouver women (of whom she now IS one. Lucky woman). Life is a big circle. She still works to end violence against women and her present focus is on working to abolish prostitution. Her PhD work, that thing that takes up most of her waking hours (and many of her sleeping ones, too) challenges the increasing pathologizing of women in prostitution and the medicalizing, normalizing approaches now known as "harm reduction" directed toward them.
For an updated list of works published in TRIVIA, please see this author's contributor page.
For an updated list of works published in TRIVIA, please see this author's contributor page.