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Selene Michaels

WHY A LESBIAN ARCHIVE?

Lesbians are and have long been society’s most renegade women. For this reason, regardless of the culture, lesbian history has often been buried and erased. Though it’s likely that lesbians have always existed, because of this erasure, it’s difficult to prove. These omissions distort our collective understanding of the past. 

 

The Bay Area has long been home to one of the largest and most diverse lesbian communities in the world, rich in visionary activism, art and culture. Our current focus is on collecting the memorabilia and oral histories of lesbians who were visible and active during the 1970s and 1980s. Lesbians were leaders in the fight for women’s liberation. They broke barriers to make it possible for women to see themselves as more than society’s limited ideas of what they could be. 

 

Today there is little trace of the culture and communities that Bay Area lesbians created during those decades. Those trailblazers are now aging, dying, downsizing and leaving the Bay Area.  We are now at a critical moment, as two decades of this history are at risk of being lost forever if that history is not soon captured. 

 

BALA is uniquely positioned, geographically and through community ties, to capture this rich history. We think that to lose this legacy would be a tragedy -- that Bay Area lesbian history should be an integral part of the historic record and is essential to the accurate documentation of Bay Area, women’s, LGBTQ+ and American history.

BAY AREA LESBIAN HISTORY 

1940's

During World War II, women enjoyed new freedoms and self confidence, as they moved to urban centers to perform work that had previously been done my men. Women were able to move about unchaperoned and live together. Lesbians began going to nightclubs, such as Mona’s Club 440 in San Francisco, where there were male and female impersonators. It was at this time that the first lesbian subcultures started to form and lesbians began to develop an awareness of themselves as a community. When the war ended, and the soldiers returned, women were forced out of their jobs, but many lesbians remained in the urban areas.

1950's

The 1950s were dominated by the repression and atmosphere of fear known as the McCarthy era. While the Red Scare targeted communists, the Lavender Scare, targeted gay men and lesbians. The Lavender Scare was characterized by pervasive propaganda that gays and lesbians were perverts. Laws were enacted to criminalize homosexuality and cross dressing. There were frequent bar raids and arrests that were accompanied by people’s identities being revealed in the newspaper, causing them to lose their jobs. Out of this atmosphere, the homophile movement began. The lesbian feminist and gay rights activist couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization, along with the publication, The Ladder, in San Francisco.

1960's

During the 1960s, lesbians were active in every progressive movement including civil rights, Native American self determination, black liberation, women’s reproductive rights, anti-Viet Nam war, free speech, labor, environmental, peace movement, anti-nuclear, disability rights, anti-imperialist, women’s liberation and gay rights.

1970's

During the 1970’s, the Bay Area became a major hub of progressive political activity, art and culture. Women came out as lesbians in unprecedented numbers and there was a massive migration from all over the country to the Bay Area. These women created a lesbian feminist culture that promoted women’s equality and empowerment. Through consciousness raising groups, women sought to understand and break down traditional sex roles. They were influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s, and incorporated values such as freedom of expression, women’s spirituality, connection to the earth, anti-capitalism, collective working and living, and expansion of human potential. 

Bay Area lesbians created a never before seen alternative culture that included music and visual and performing arts. They owned and operated collectives and businesses, including auto repair shops, newspapers, presses, bookstores, restaurants, bars and cafes. They founded nonprofit organizations: schools, camps, women’s health clinics, legal advocacy services, rape crisis centers, domestic abuse shelters mental health services, gay and lesbian centers and apprenticeship trade programs for women.

1980's

Bay Area lesbians continued to be at the forefront of the feminist movement – advocating and fighting for women’s, lesbian and gay rights and ending sexism, racism, classism and other isms. Lesbians were also involved in anti-apartheid South Africa divestment, anti-nuclear protests and supporting anti-imperialism movements in Puerto Rico and Central America. Bay Area lesbians were a major source of support to gay men who were the first victims of the AIDS crisis, and were leaders and activists in the ACT UP movement. Lesbians founded food banks, hospices and other support services. They provided nursing, and health advocacy for gay men, instrumental in establishing San Francisco General’s Wards 86 and 5A, which became international models of compassionate care. By the late 1980s, lesbian activism began to wane and the cultural structures they had built became unsustainable, due in large part to the impact of Reaganomics. Many shifted from activism to establishing careers and having children.

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