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Tales of the Lavender Menace:
A Memoir of Liberation


Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook

Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation by Karla Jay; Basic Books; 278 pages; $25.00.

talelavend.jpg - 18.52 K The years after the Stonewall Uprising (1969-1973) are truly the "heroic age" of lesbian and gay liberation.

Inspired by the pre-Stonewall homophile movement; the counterculture; and the civil rights, feminist, antiwar and youth movements, a small but dynamic group of activists sent our struggle into a more militant direction, increased our visibility and encouraged others, myself included, to come out of the closet.

The work of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), as recorded in 1971-72 by Donn Teal (The Gay Militants), Peter Fisher (The Gay Mystique) and Lige Clarke and Jack Nichols (I Have More Fun With You Than Anybody), helped a 19-year old Miami college boy come to terms with his sexuality.

One of the books that inspired me then - and inspires me now - was Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, an anthology of post-Stonewall writings edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young.

Since then I've had the honor of meeting both Jay and Young, through the good graces of our mutual friend, activist Mark Silber (thanks, Mark!).

In the case of Karla Jay, I've had the pleasure of following from afar her career as an activist, author, scholar, editor and (now) Director of Women's and Gender Studies and Professor of English at Pace University in New York.

Tragically, the epidemics of AIDS, cancer, drugs and violence have taken the lives of many of the heroic age's heroes before they could write their memoirs.

Others have been more fortunate, surviving long enough to be interviewed by Eric Marcus (Making History), Charles Kaiser (The Gay Metropolis), or John Loughery (The Other Side of Silence).

Jay herself was one of six activists featured in Martin Duberman's Stonewall, though she was not present at the Riots. ("Hearing people reminisce, I get the impression that everybody was there except me.")

Previous Reviews from the GayToday Archive:
Review: The Gay Militants

Review: The Gay Metropolis

Review: Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures

Related Sites:
Karla Jay
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In Tales of the Lavender Menace, Jay gives her own spin on the heroic age; a period which found her simultaneously going to college, trying to make ends meet, juggling a few love affairs, and taking part groups like the Redstockings, Radicalesbians, and the GLFs of both New York and Los Angeles.

Jay's Tales begin in 1968, when Jay was "a well-mannered young woman attending Barnard", not yet a lesbian and certainly not an activist. If Jay's dysfunctional family did not radicalize her, the spirit of the age did: she was literally across the street from Columbia University when the students there rioted (April 23, 1968).

Jay went over to join the revolution, but the men in charge wanted her to make sandwiches. Jay had a happier experience with the Women's Liberation Movement (February 1969), where "[t]here may have been disagreement, but all the arguing was done by women. There were no men here to order us to make sandwiches and to clean up while men did the heavy thinking, the way the Columbia 'revolutionaries' had done."

Even so, many feminists were worried about lesbians involved in Women's Lib; Betty Friedan called them a "lavender menace", hence the title of this book.

In May of 1970 Jay joined Rita Mae Brown, Lois Hart, and other lesbian feminists to "zap" the Second Congress to Unite Women, wearing purple "Lavender Menace" T-shirts and distributing copies of the epochal (wo)manifesto, "The Woman-Identified Woman".
kjay.jpg - 10.17 K Karla Jay

If Karla Jay's experiences with feminism were those of a lesbian in an largely-straight movement, then her experiences with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) were those of a woman in a male-dominated group. Formed in the aftermath of Stonewall (July 24, 1969), the GLF was a motley group of "drag queens, bar dykes, street people, feminists, radical students, leftists, socialists, Marxists, Maoists, anarchists, libertarians, hippies, and former Yippies", with a program to match.

The GLF was Jay's first contact with such aspects of gay male culture as drag queens and "truck boys" - men who "liked to have sex in the back of the empty trucks that were parked under the Westside Highway".

To Jay's shock, "the sexism of some of the men was --for me, at least--the biggest obstacle toward immediately and completely immersing myself in GLF.

A number of the men were more oppressive to women than any heterosexual guy I had known." Still she agreed with the GLF's radical goals enough to remain active for most of its existence (1969-70).

When Jay temporarily moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1970, she joined the L.A. chapter of GLF, only to find that it was even more male-dominated than the New York group.

One of Jay's reasons to write Tales of the Lavender Menace is to remind us that 1970's lesbians had sex. The conventional wisdom that they didn't is one Jay attributes to "politically driven historical accounts that paint a picture of radical feminists as antisexual."

In retrospect, Jay believes it was "a tragic error" to have downplayed sexuality in "The Woman-Identified Woman", which "allowed straight women to continue thinking that lesbians really didn't do much in the absence of a penis and let them assume that straight women, too, could be 'political lesbians,' since our definition didn't depend on sexual acts.

Subsequent generations of lesbians, having read this, and only this, manifesto have Incorrectly concluded that the Stonewall generation didn't have sex." If nothing else, we learn from Jay's Tales that Jay had plenty of sex.

One of Jay's most interesting (to say the least) experiences was with Oakland's Psychedelic Venus Church, an omnisexual orgy club masquerading as a religion. The Church's "minster", Jefferson Fuck Poland (his legal name), was a pedophile who later got in trouble for having a sexual relationship with an eight-year old girl.

By 1972, Jay's heyday as an activist was over. In her Tales she bemoans the "fragmentation and fracturing" that destroyed both GLF and radical feminist groups, not to mention the "'barracuda behavior' (biting anything that shines) ..., which is one reason no unifying leader has ever emerged in the gay, lesbian, or women's movements."

"I still believed that GLF's radicalism and its two-pronged political and cultural approaches to activism were the best routes to gay liberation. I did not – and still do not - choose to put my energy behind the legislative thrust of groups such as GAA and their descendants."

stonewall30a2.jpg - 26.21 K Christopher Street Liberation Parade in the early 1970s In 1972 Jay joined Allen Young to edit Out of the Closets, which was to be the first of four collaborations. "Out of the Closets marked the beginning of a different kind of political activism for me.

Although I joined a number of other political groups later on, writing and public speaking became my main tools for activism". Militancy is an attribute of the young, and Jay, like the rest of us, was only getting older.

Still, one could argue that Jay (and Young) did more for our communities by compiling Out of the Closets than by taking part in any number of demonstrations, protests or zaps.

Tales of the Lavender Menace, like all memoirs, are very subjective. In fact, most of the achievements of the heroic age were the work of the GAA, and Jay's account only perpetuates the myth (begun by Duberman) that the GLF was really at the heart of it all.

On the other hand, Jay's depictions of her fellow-activists are right on target, especially when she punctures self-inflated egos like Rita Mae Brown ("our Jay Gatsby") and Rev. Troy Perry ("a master at grabbing attention").

Most of all, Tales of the Lavender Menace takes us back to a more idealistic time, one when we could still believe anything was possible. Now older and wiser, Jay can look back with satisfaction at all she had done.


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