The Lesbian Separatist War

1976 conference, poster by co-coordinator Kaymarion [Raymond]

In May 1976, I went to a workshop on Horizontal Hostility at the Women and Violence conference held at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. When the facilitator Carol Drexler attempted to open the workshop, one lesbian requested a lesbian-only session. This came in spite of there being a lesbian-only lesbian and violence workshop convened by Jacqueline Letalien earlier in the day. I agreed to facilitate a session and, after locating an empty room, we reconvened with only lesbians in the room.

As we tried to procede again, she began haranguing me, starting with why she had to ask for a separate session. She was speaking with such vehemence that spit flew out of her mouth. She went on for the entire scheduled time. There was no way to respond to her or stop her from verbally attacking me and other lesbians for political incorrectness. I wound up sitting on the floor next to my best friend and weeping. This kind of aggressive barrage became so frequent in the 1970s within feminist and lesbian communities that it came be referred to as trashing someone. This was a national phenomenon.

from the conference program schedule

That workshop was one of the last attempts to negotiate a ceasefire in what we came to call Northampton’s [Lesbian] Sep’ War. Instead of continuing to try to work together, some lesbians left town in disgusted disillusionment; others stopped speaking to each other; while small groups continued to gather around shared interests regardless of criticism.

It was not a phenomena unique to Northampton Lesbians. Black feminist Florence Kennedy used the term “horizontal hostility” in an essay published in 1970 to describe how oppressed people turn on each other in oppressive ways. The destructive divisiveness within New York City’s Radical Feminists from the early seventies is also well documented .

The series of linked occurrences in the Northampton area over roughly a two year period was large, loud, and painful enough for me to think of it as a war, even though it was actually confined, to begin with, to more politicized Lesbians. The vehemence of some of that conflict reverberated outward and caused lesbians to take sides against each other. It caused many lesbians to think less fondly of the new ideal of Lesbian community.  I have to come to think of the mid-seventies as the time when concept of “the Community” as “they,” made up of something or someone other than oneself, was added to our local lesbian vocabulary. The idea of political correctness came to us during this time, as well. “P.C.” had nothing to do with, as yet unknown, personal computers.

The idea of Lesbian Separatism had been introduced to the Valley primarily via the CLIT papers in early 1974. The fact that many local lesbians had adopted these ideas led to the establishment of Lesbian Gardens in the third floor space rented by the Valley Women’s Union on Main St. in Northampton. Separatism was not a totally new idea. Amherst Women’s Liberation, which established the Valley Women’s Center at 200 Main St. in 1970, had earlier debated and decided against male membership. Gay women, as well, had organized separately from gay men in the first Valley group the Student Homophile League at UMass/Amherst in 1971.

A major contributing factor to the conflicts in 1975 was the rapidly increasing number of lesbians willing to come out and meet some place other than the bars in Springfield and Chicopee. The Old South St. Study Group, described below, estimated that Northampton’s political lesbian community grew from twenty to two hundred over a short six month period, with another two hundred lesbians associated with its more social aspects. Those original twenty (estimated) lesbians had struggled together as feminists in the Valley Women’s Center and/or Union. They knew each other, and had learned to speak across differences with an assumption of good will. The same could not be said of all of the newcomers.

A group of Northampton Lesbians who were part of or witness to these struggles later gathered to try to make sense of what happened. Calling themselves the #13 Old South Street Study Group they identified and analyzed a series of conflicts in 1975-76 in the Valley. They wrote a paper which was published in the Lesbian Connection in 1977.LC had a national circulation and was published in Michigan. It concluded, ”Though we share a common oppression as dykes, our solutions are different, and we often engage in power struggles over what the community should look like.”

Many of the arguments among Lesbians in the Valley during this period were about where to draw the line in defining Lesbian space, and also about how Lesbians should focus their organizing energy. The Study Group started its analysis with the differences evident within what came to be called the Dyke Patrol in Northampton. Formed during the summer of 1975 in reaction to male threats of violence to lesbians going to the Gala bar, the group provided presence and escort to those at the Gala, Zelda’s, Lesbian Gardens, and occasional women’s dances. Some within the group objected to protecting male-owned businesses and straight women, wanting to only put energy into protecting Lesbian space. Others thought the group should be teaching self-defense in the bars. The group disbanded after five months when street threats appeared to end.

the Gala Cafe. Handtinted photo by Sandra Leigh Russell, used by permission of the photographer.

The next event identified by the Study Group was the unilateral decision at the end of 1975 by a small number of Lesbians to make the third floor space of the Women’s Center used by Lesbian Gardens into a 24-hour Lesbian space. This prevented the original, though occasional, use of the space for large meetings of the Valley Women’s Union membership and women’s events. According to the Study Group, other lesbians objected to the decision and the way it was made, both at the time and later. Still, the decision was never rescinded. I infer from this that the radical norm of consensual decision-making was ignored by a few. That created a breach in common trust that the group found no way to correct. It was, as well, an increase in the ideological distance between lesbians who perceived straight women to be the enemy and those who didn’t.

Over the winter of 1975-76, a larger group of Lesbian Separatists confronted the Amherst Feminist Repertory Company (AFRC) to demand change. The lesbian-led theatre company had formed at the beginning of 1975 to present original plays about women’s lives. They were rehearsing their second production, “Women On My Mind,” in a large UMass dormitory lounge when Separatists walked in and demanded to speak to the AFRC lesbians. After the straight women left the room, the Separatists criticized the company for putting on a production that shared content about lesbian lives with men and for allowing a straight woman to act the part of a lesbian coming out. They demanded that AFARC change this. What would happen if they didn’t was left hanging in the air as the Separatists marched out of the room.

I was an accidental witness to this confrontation, having gone to the rehearsal after working late at Everywoman’s Center on the UMass campus in hopes of getting a ride home. AFARC’s sound person lived at Green Street . So too did one of the lesbians in the group of Separatists, which included several former tenants, as well. I rode home with the sound tech. It wasn’t long before word spread of this action.  There were many arguments. Lesbians began taking increasingly rigid sides as rumors grew that the Separatists were going to picket the play performance and a counter group would block them.

The play was scheduled to be staged in mid-May 1976 at Bowker Auditorium at UMass. It was not legal to have women-only, let alone lesbian-only, events in that space. The work-around that AFARC had invented was to schedule a one night first performance for women-only that was labeled a “dress rehearsal.”  AFARC was not going to cancel the production or replace the straight actress playing the role of a lesbian coming out.

benefit became a default community meeting about the disagreements

VWU’s Susan Saxe Defense Committee had planned an April benefit to raise legal funds but, because of the increasing distress, turned it into a lesbian community meeting instead.  The meeting was held, according to the recollection of the Old South Street Study Group, “in order that the hostilities, tensions, and rumors which had been growing around many issues and events be aired.” I heard that this meeting was of limited value however because many of those directly involved didn’t attend.

The Horizontal Hostility workshop I organized at the beginning of May was the next attempt to figure out how to deal with internal dissension. Again, a Separatist demanded lesbian-only space during the workshop, and, as I described in the first paragraph of this account, I got targeted by someone’s “rage masquerading as radicalism,” as happened among feminists elsewhere.

The AFRC production went on stage two weeks later as scheduled without any protesting pickets. I was there. As I recall it played to a full and enthusiastic house full of mostly feminists who enjoyed the humorous account of running a women’s center.

One more attempt at dialogue between lesbians was hosted the next month. In June, the Susan Saxe Committee planned lesbian-only small group discussions of various issues. As this agenda was being initially presented by the Committee, however, heated argument broke out. The focus of the meeting got lost, and according to the article by the Study Group, people “literally stopped hearing each other, and past dynamics took over—screaming at each other, assuming sides, not wanting to appear disloyal to friends, etc.”

The Study Group went on to conclude that lack of experience in power dynamics and leadership let a few lesbians take power over others and that many lesbians let them. Their “ harshly critical and absolutist” behavior did not take into consideration the range and complexity of applying Separatism in lesbians’ individual lives; and some Separatists’ “impatient and simplistic” dismissal of other issues further increased  alienation of lesbians from each other.

part one of the study groups report in Lesbian Connection

The fallout from this intense period of conflict was a very active period of Lesbians (and lesbians) voting with their feet. The growth of Lesbian activities did not falter because of this failure to unite around a common vision. Rather, the budding of Lesbian community was pushed into multiple new forms in 1976-77 as Lesbians simply went toward what they wanted. In spite of a few additional sniping attacks from the more rabid, the blossoming of Lesbian culture in the Valley was to become vigorous.

Years later, walking across the Smith college campus after an Adrienne Rich reading, I saw two women holding hands. I was somewhat bemused to recognize the (former) leader of the Separatist group that confronted the theater group now partnered with the (at one time) straight actress who played the role of a lesbian coming out.    

SOURCES:

__Kennedy, Florynce. “Institutionalized Oppression vs. the female.” Sisterhood is Powerful anthology. Robin Morgan editor. 1970.

__Old South Street Study Group. ”Analysis of a Lesbian Community.” Lesbian Connection. East Lansing, Michigan. Part one, July 1977. Part two, Sep. 1977.

__Faludi, Susan. ”Death of a Revolutionary: Shulamith Firestone helped to create a new society. But she couldn’t live in it.” The New Yorker. April 15,2013. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary

__Joreem.  “Trashing: the Dark Side of Sisterhood.” Originally published in Ms. Magazine April 1976, prompting a record number of letters in response, most sharing similar experiences. In which she quotes Anselma Dell’Olio “…rage masquerading as a pseudo-egalitarian radicalism.”  https://www.cwluherstory.org/classic-feminist-writings-articles/trashing-the-dark-side-of-sisterhood

further reference on horizontal hostility and feminism;

__Joreen. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” the Second Wave. 1972.

https://fromwickedtowedded.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/6bb41-tyrannystructureless.pdf

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3 thoughts on “The Lesbian Separatist War

  1. KM, I am amazed at what you remember! Or maybe you have careful extensive notes. I was already in California pretty shortly after a 1975 graduation, so i missed lots after that although I heard about it. I wish I remembered better what I was part of. Too much marijuana, I think. I am so glad you are writing as much as you are. I was certainly aware of and touched by Lesbian Separatism in Berkeley, plus I read and heard about its manifestations around the country. A few hours with you in April won’t be enough! With love, Jackie

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was a chaotic time to come to the Valley. I was newly out, had been out for 10 months when I came here. I had nightmares about being verbally assaulted by separatists at a time when my lesbianism was still in the formation stages. Literally nightmares. Like when you’re asleep. I know who some of those radical women were, and they scared the beejezus out of me. And I was very, very happy when the most vocal and the angriest of the lot left town. I’m a simple, peaceful woman as a rule.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. oh my, this brings on my movement-related PTSD. And as I have experienced a couple of times in my life, even recently- you just haven’t been trashed until you have been trashed by a lesbian “community”.
    I landed in the lesbian communities of LA and Berkeley in the early 70s, and it was the pc separatist element that quickly elicited my teen rebel girl persona, who liked to show up in thrift store girly pink chiffon blouses just to annoy people. Being 18, I tended toward extremes, and did try being separatist for about 15 minutes. The uniform looked bad on me, and I really wasn’t interested in talking about men so much, or in trashing women so much.
    I think that the first popularization of the phrase “horizontal hostility” may have been in the book Black Rage- but it certainly fits.

    Liked by 1 person

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