Honor Your (Radical) Ancestors

(Rant Ahead.)

Recently, I read a couple of blog-posts that were very difficult for me. One indicted my entire generation (baby-boomer) as the root of all evil, and another was about a writer who claimed (and reiterated in comments) that second-wave radical feminism really had very little impact on feminism.


When I was coming out as queer in the early-to-mid-70s, and later, when I was blossoming into my feminist identity in the late 70s (yes, I was a radical queer before I was a radical feminist), I remember that I deconstructed my own "radical ancestors" (the flaming drag-queens of Stonewall, the clearly demarked butch/femme couples of the 50s and 60s lesbian scene, and the bra-burning 30- and 40-something erstwhile housewives who were attempting to cast off the chains of the patriarchy).

I talked with other young radical queers and radical feminists about how identifying strictly as butch/femme might hold too many seeds of culturally-defined and stultifying gender and sex roles, how the emulation of very traditional glamor imagery by drag-queens might be counter-revolutionary or even fully anti-feminist, and how my straight feminist sisters might be "sleeping with the enemy".

I discussed this stuff, and plumbed the pros and cons of revolutionary and conscious separatism vs. revolutionary and conscious assimilation.

As with most young people, I had complaints about how my "social ancestors" had performed.

Many complaints.

Sometimes they had not been radical enough for my feisty, fresh-faced self.

Sometimes they had been too radical.

Sometimes I wanted to (and did) blame those who I supposed had handed me this pile of crap they called a society (as if they themselves really had such a different level of choice than I did in the raw materials they were working with) -- a society where most people either outright hated me for being queer, or at best, would "tolerate" me if I kept a low profile and didn't make waves. A society that saw me first as female, and thought nothing of dictating an entirely different set of standards and requirements for me as a result.

During my first year of High School (1970), mini-skirts were still popular (well, mini-skirts or long hippy dresses -- depended on which social group you belonged to). But in any case -- dresses were not optional for school wear.

Not only did girls have to wear dresses to school, regardless of Kansas blizzards and sub-zero temperatures (Broce spoke recently in a comment thread about an experience I remember well -- wearing pants under my skirt to the bus-stop where we stood in the freezing cold until the bus came, and then having to take them off before I could board the drafty, unheated school-bus), but in my freshman year, the principal decided it was time to crack down on all us slutty girls who were wearing our skirts too short.

This crack-down resulted in a new morning routine at the school entry -- as the boys skimmed past us (the principal giving them only a cursory glance to make sure that their hair wasn't "on the collar"), all the girls in my school lined up on the stairs, the queue inching upward slowly, as, one by one, we knelt in front of His Majesty Assholyness at the top of the stairs, to assure that our hems touched the floor. (Of course, we would roll our skirt-tops up later, but only if Mr. Badass was not prowling the halls.)

At the time, I didn't really understand what I was feeling -- I didn't know that the crumbling, compressed sense of tinyness that I experienced at the beginning of every school-day that year was. . . . . humiliation. Humiliation that I had somehow earned -- because I was female.

I also did not understand that this ritual was meant to enforce that humiliation -- to burn upon my consciousness the fact that I would be obedient and compliant and kneel and face the crotch of my overlord every day as if it were the most usual thing in the world -- because it was a most reasonable request, after all -- because it was done for my own safety, so that my slutty short skirt didn't get me into "trouble".

My intellect didn't understand all of the nasty nooks and crannies of this ritual, but my psyche sensed it.

At that time, the thought of rebellion -- of refusing to cooperate in my own humiliation was, literally, unthinkable to me -- even the tiny rebellion of rolling my skirt up after felt incredibly transgressive.

Four years later, by the time I graduated High School, I was wearing tattered and patched overalls to school every day. A move to a larger town and school was part of this, but even in my old hometown, the dresses- and skirts-only requirement had been dropped at my previous school by the time I graduated.

I believe that radical feminists made that possible.

When I was a freshman in High School, I had known I was queer for two years, ever since I saw the definition in a health-department sex-ed brochure for teens (believe me, the definition wasn't favorable, but, however much I didn't want to identify with it, I knew that --"a sexual perversion in which a person is attracted to another member of their own sex" -- described me, even at age 12, because I was madly in love with my best friend, and wanted nothing more than to kiss her on the mouth).

By the time I was a senior in HS (many unrequited loves later), and my friends and I were perusing a copy of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask", which Karen had stolen from her parent's bedroom, I still knew enough to "ewww" along with everyone else when we got to the icky homo parts.

But less than two years after this, I was quite happily, if nervously, coming out to a gay man in my theater department, and finding -- not repulsion (even though he had never met a lesbian before -- or so he thought) -- but a welcoming -- into a community of closeted gay men who adopted me as their token lesbian mascot . . . . . or something . . . . (still not entirely clear about all that).

Two years more, and I was coming out to my parents and marching in Gay Pride parades.

I believe that radical queers made that possible.

Sure -- later, more "mainstream" activists made headway as well, but without those pushy bra-burning feminists, and those flamboyant screaming queens, there would have been no pocket of acceptability for those moderate activists to inhabit.

I believe that with my whole. entire. brain.

Later in my life, when the late 80s stirred up the Fundie Right and they began organizing state ballot initiatives to curtail hard-won rights that queer and feminist activist had carved out of an oppressive landscape, there were new radicals: Act Up! was full of fresh, young, angry faces, and I stood by in horror as more assimilated, mainstream queer organizers attempted to marginalize the Act Up! groups, asking them to refrain from attending certain rallies, asking them to curtail their activities and edit their press releases because "we" didn't want to "scare off" straight "allies" who found certain types of queers acceptable, but who could not stomach the "radical element".

It was amazing to me, really, that gay men and lesbians whose success and freedom could be traced back to some outrageous fucking queens in 60s New York would even consider asking Bi queers to shut up (because it screwed with the "I was born that way" meme), asking trans-people to shut up (because it just "wasn't time yet"), asking leathermen and women to disappear from gatherings (because it hurts our "we're just like you" political slogans), and asking Act Up!ers (who were only responding to the outrageous discrimination that was killing thousands of their friends and lovers with predictable anger) to "stop sounding so strident".

It was amazing to me that I was asked to refrain from singing a song about lesbians having sex at a night-time Dyke-Pride event because it wasn't "family friendly". Actually, I wasn't even asked not to sing a specific song, but rather, not to sing "that song".

I countered with: "Well, whether you believe it or not, the real objection that the Right Wingers have with us is that we . . . you know . . . have SEX with each other -- I mean, isn't that what makes me a lesbian?"

The organizers replied with: "Yes, WE know that, but we don't want to upset 'them'."


It was at that moment that I truly began to appreciate my radical ancestors.

Now, I've done some difficult things in my life:

After Measure 8 passed in 1988 in Oregon (an event which "re-radicalized" me after a lazy hiatus in assimilationville circa 1982-88), I swore that I would never take another job where I couldn't be completely out of the closet (this, after ten years of being a social worker who was partially-mostly closeted). In an interview for the job that I both wanted and needed, I told the panel of ten interviewers (all over 65 -- it was a job with an Area Agency on Aging): "I need to let you know that I'm an out lesbian, and if that's going to be any kind of a problem for you, you should not hire me." (I got the job, btw, and all ten of the interviewers gave me private words of encouragement after the interview.)

I've stood in a parking lot collecting signatures for a petition for equal rights for queers, while a huge man screamed: "Pervert! Queer! Faggot! You should be killed! God hates you!" from less than 12 inches away. Close enough for his spit to hit my face, and for me to pray his fists wouldn't follow.

I've walked out of the funeral of a friend who died of AIDS where the preacher (authorized by my friend's parents) gave a 20 minute homily which basically boiled down to "he deserved it".

I've come out to my all-straight-all-the-time midwestern family-of-origin and mustered up the courage to invite my fundamentalist sister and brother-in-law to my "wedding" (such as it was -- and they attended).

I've marched in protests and participated in actions where I stood a chance of being arrested or tear-gassed, but I was fleet (and lucky).

I've tended the bruises and lacerations of friends who were queer-bashed, and stood up to three men who wanted to queer-bash me and my girlfriend outside a dyke bar.

I've intervened on the street between a man who was nearly two feet taller than I was, and the girlfriend he was threatening to hit.

I've volunteered in domestic violence shelters, and stood at the window while someone's ex screamed from the street, while wondering if he was organized enough to plan to a) bomb the place or b) burn it down, or just drunk and enraged at his sudden opportunity to feel what it is to not be the one in power.

I've had the conversation with my parents where I revealed the abuse that I experienced as a child at the hands of their trusted friend.

These things were difficult for me.

But the truth is, I would have done none of them if my radical ancestors had not done things that were much, much more difficult.

And to those who think those radicals were nothing more than a flash in the pan -- to those who think that such radicalism has nothing to do with them, I want to say:

There was a time when being "out" at all (much less considering legal marriage) was not really a choice for any queer -- but some radicals made that choice anyway. They chose to be out, even when this might, and probably would, mean complete ostracization by society, severance from their families, and beatings on the street. Or worse.

There was a time when shaving your legs or not shaving your legs, wearing a bra or not wearing a bra, wearing pants or not wearing pants, leaving your abusive spouse or not leaving your abusive spouse -- was not really a choice for any woman -- but some radicals made that choice anyway. They chose to do things that they knew might, and probably would, mean they would be judged and criticized and fired and expelled and divorced and disowned and beaten. Or worse.

Perhaps those radicals weren't thinking about you when they did these things -- maybe they were only thinking about themselves and what they could stand in that moment -- what they felt they must do for themselves in order to make life bearable (actually, in a way, I hope they were) -- but I know -- I absolutely know -- that I walked into a future where I was more free to choose because of what they chose.

They were my bridge to a more liberated future. They stretched the boundaries so that I had a larger place to live in.

Because of them, I had choices that they could barely conceive of -- without them, I would not live as I do.

So --

Honor your fucking radical ancestors, already.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 12:23 AM  


Beppie said... September 17, 2008 at 2:56 AM  

This is really brilliant.

I spent a lot of time, when I first started to identify as a feminist, trying to distance myself from radical feminism. But eventually I realised that, in doing that, I was distancing myself from feminism altogether. Now, although I don't personally identify as a radical feminist, I recognise that different feminisms often have a symbiotic relationship, rather than an oppositional one-- but that's from my very third-wave perspective. The point that you make here, I think, is that radical feminism enabled all other types of feminism, and that's definitely something that shouldn't be forgotten.

Anonymous said... September 17, 2008 at 7:02 AM  

What a wonderful piece of writing! I am feeling inspired and grateful! Thank you for sharing this!

Anonymous said... September 17, 2008 at 7:09 AM  

Thanks for writing this.

quixote said... September 17, 2008 at 9:21 AM  

As someone who's old enough to remember most of the events you're talking about, all I can say is, "You're right."

It was the radicals who busted us out of the bottle we were all in. The people who liked the confinement have been trying to put it back together again ever since Reagan.

I can't claim to have been one of those radicals (in anything but thought), but anyone who wants to get a fee for what they accomplished should do an easy thought experiment. Find visions of the future from the 50s or 40s. Sure, the flying cars are funny. But pay close attention to the society. Their imagination didn't stretch at all for that. The distance between the social diversity and bandwidth we have now and what they thought we would have is what the radicals gave us.

quixote said... September 17, 2008 at 9:25 AM  

(Arg. I can't seem to fix the typo. That should say "feel" for what they accomplished. Not "fee".)

Anonymous said... September 17, 2008 at 10:23 AM  

You made me cry-- good tears-- but I'm at work and about to go to a meeting. Great post!

Anonymous said... September 17, 2008 at 10:24 AM  

Great post. Thanks.


Anonymous said... September 17, 2008 at 11:18 AM  

I found your blog through Shakesville, and I'm a very big fan of this post. It's easy to forget what our radical predecessors did for us (especially when that sort of information is actively shielded from our senses), which makes it easy to forget that radicalism has an honoured place on the mantle of feminism, LGBTQ rights, racial inclusion, etc. We don't have to hurt anyone, we don't want to make people afraid...we just want to be ourselves, and frankly, that's nowhere near too much to ask.

Thank you kindly for a wonderful post. :D

P.S. I'm barely in my 20s, and I have not-so-fond memories of wearing my Catholic school kilt in the middle of a snowstorm (in Canada!), waiting for the bus. And being reprimanded for my kilt being "too short". And being told that said kilt would get me in trouble if I wore it as a common slut would. Things haven't changed as much as they should have by now, and it's up to my generation (as it was up to generations before mine) to ensure those changes are enacted.

Anonymous said... September 17, 2008 at 12:54 PM  

Every atom in body is filled with admiration and love for my radical ancestors.

Without them, I could not dress as I am now dressed, I could not be a vegetarian, or bisexual, or kiss people with different skin colors, or learn about condoms (and yesterday I only JUST learned about dental-dams, which says a lot about sex-ed and what still needs to be done about it), or think about joining the army, or learn how to protect myself from rape, or even go to court to convict my rapist, or get an abortion or birth control, or have the child without feeling "disgraced". I simply could not do these things or be these things that I am, and need as options in order to be me. And for the people I love to be them.

So I thank all of you, everyone, for being braver than me, and stronger, and for being yourselves--enraged and passionate and wanting to set the world on fire. You really did. You still are. I want to carry that torch and promise to protect it with my whole self, and never let the winds of conservatism dim or blow it out.

I promise to be radical.

Tabatha Atwood said... September 17, 2008 at 6:37 PM  

You know I am with you for the Radical Ancestors- and it is important to honor them not to be ashamed of struggle and our fighters. However, the majority of the Baby Boomers were not radicals- they have had power for a long time and those in power have been i think worse than the people with power in the past because they are so arrogant - they are so sure they are right about everything- they don't even try to reach out beyond their own group. I am a baby boomer and I was and am a radical and a lot of the criticisms I see of "My Generation" is spot on. I think we all could use some cross generational talk.

Anonymous said... September 17, 2008 at 7:01 PM  


Tobes said... September 19, 2008 at 6:05 AM  

Can I honor you with a t-shirt that says "Portly Dyke rocks my fucking socks off"?

This post is the best thing to happen to me today!


NameChanged said... September 20, 2008 at 9:58 PM  

Thank you. I honor my radical ancestors, and I honor my radical internet goddess, TehPortlyDyke!

Lisa said... September 24, 2008 at 1:41 PM  

Awesome and inspiring post. Thanks.

Anonymous said... October 1, 2008 at 11:27 PM  

Thank you. I am about your age, and have not been nearly as brave, but I do honor the radicals of past generations. One of them is a personal ancestor, Crystal Eastman, among other things a founder (in 1920) of the organization which became the NYCLU and then ACLU.

My main acts of radicalism were insisting as a young teen that I would be a Ph.D. academic scientists or doctoral level medical professional (M.D or D.V.M, M.D. finally winning out), and insisting that career came before personal relationships, which at that point I thought had to be male with female. My role model for personal relationships was Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. (Virginity per se wasn't the point, independence and power were the points). Having these ideas in 1966 was fairly radical. I didn't really know how to incorporate being different in terms of intellectual interests with being a girl, and more or less assumed that I was some third gender that had both boy and girl features. I was "queer-brained" before I had the slightest clue about sexual attraction.

I spent so much time working that I didn't become politically active (as opposed to being merely an informed voter who liked to discuss politics) until my 40s. Likewise it didn't occur to me that I could have a relationship until my 40s. So, often I have missed the opportunity to help, but at least I spoke up for LGBT dignity and for women's dignity and reproductive rights to fellow students and colleagues in health care.


Post a Comment