Women’s History Month commemorates our trailblazers who advanced gender, gender identity and racial equality. The price of conscience was often high – arrest, prison, poverty, injury, even death. We must never forget how far we’ve come, how much these women have risked, and how far we still have to go.
My own “good trouble” (as John Lewis used to say) began while at UC Berkeley. In 1965, I came out as a lesbian and social activist to my parents who disowned me and cut off all financial assistance. That didn’t prevent me from getting my degree or silence my voice against racial segregation and the shameful war in Vietnam.
One May night in 1969, I, along with seventeen others, broke into the Selective Service office on Chicago’s Southside. We stuffed over 40,000 draft records into sacks, dragged them to the adjacent parking lot and set them on fire. We selected the Southside, the urban epicenter of a large Black community, to make our statement linking the Vietnam War, the compulsory military draft, and racism.
By 1969, the majority of Black Americans opposed the war into which they were disproportionately drafted. When Muhammad Ali refused induction into the Army, he said it all: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
I’ll never meet the guys whose files we burned that night, but I hold onto the hope that they never were drafted, never lost their lives in some paddy field in Vietnam. My act of conscience set me on a collision course with the government for many years, nineteen of which I lived underground fearing arrest. I was never captured, rather I voluntarily surrendered in 1989; living under an alias, however successful, wasn’t a life. Those years are the subject of my memoir published during Women’s History Month last year, when Covid shuttered public life.
The ‘60s Civil Rights and Peace Movements set the stage for the women’s and gay liberation movements of the ’70s, but their leadership was overwhelmingly male and supporters had to appear to be straight. The ’60s sexual freedom, often called “free love,” was strictly heterosexual. James Baldwin moved to France to be himself, while I hid my truth in the closet.
Sexual outlaws in those days hung out in gay bars and bathhouses with no windows, fearful of police raids. On June 28, 1969, we fought back at Stonewall — an uprising that changed everything.
In February 1972, I was a fugitive working in Atlanta. I spent weekend nights at a well-known drag bar. The bartender there was a casual lover. One morning, she showed me a newsletter she picked up while in D.C. I opened it to the cover page, steno reproduced with a Celtic title font: The Furies, January 1972, Lesbian/Feminist Monthly, V.1.
The caption read Orestes Pursued by Furies. I discovered that The Furies was a lesbian collective, the name harkening back to ancient Greece. The Furies were powerful female spirits sent by the gods to torment Orestes for killing his mother (who had killed his father).
What followed was a stunning manifesto: “Sexism is the root of all other oppressions. Lesbianism is not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy.”
For the first time, I read these compelling words: Women’s Movement, Lesbian-Feminist. In my fugitive seclusion, I was unaware that women were organizing nationally to combat job discrimination, negative stereotypes, rape, abortion rights, and sexual harassment.
The Furies took it even farther. They believed that lesbians should form their own group in order to be taken seriously by straight women. I refilled my coffee, going through the manifesto again and again.
Was my life, my commitment to the peace movement, really just a sideshow to the root problem of sexism? My mentors and leaders were always male—Dr. Martin Luther King, Tom Hayden, Father Phil and Dan Berrigan. I never thought that following strong, idealistic men was accepting the patriarchy, or that the price I paid for activism by living in the closet was too high.
The Furies were pursuing me, urging me to go deeper and challenge myself. It was time I looked at being a lesbian as more than furtive sex on the weekend. On the back page, I learned that The Furies were planning a March open reading. A dicey idea crossed my mind: Head up to D.C. by myself and listen.
In a soft drizzle, I found the collective’s funky apartment building in the Capitol Hill Historic District, checking first to see that no one was sitting and watching me from a parked car. The front door glass was plastered with flyers. A women’s symbol dangled from a window lock latch. The door was ajar. In the hallway just inside, a twenty-something woman was talking intently with her arm around another in a purple T-shirt.
She turned towards me. “Hi, you here for the reading?” My eyes darted over her dark aura of hair — flying as if by internal electricity — her pudgy nose and bushy eyebrows.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Hope it’s okay. I’m Catlin.” Neither my original name nor alias was Catlin.
“Mine’s Jenny. Hang out for a while, as we’re starting late.” I sensed she was sizing up my bleached hair (which was my flimsy attempt at physical disguise) and what that meant.
Turning into the living room, I noticed a speaker’s table, sagging sofa, and several rows of folding chairs, every seat or available space occupied. Jenny and other members of the collective walked in and took seats on the podium. Everyone quieted down.
Jenny gave a raised fist greeting. “Welcome, lavender menace!” Giggles in reaction. “We’re not waiting around for Betty Freidan to let us join the National Organization of Women!” A volley of clapping. I surmised that the women’s liberation movement was afraid of being labeled as “dykes” by having real ones around. Jenny pulled her speaking notes out of a folder.
“To those newbies, we’re a collective called The Furies, living and working together in D.C. We’re urban, rural, black, white, from different parts of the country and class backgrounds. Some of us are die-hard dykes, others just came out. But all of us are committed to ending oppression by attacking its root cause—male supremacy.”
Jenny’s speech was like a radical foreign language. I was still grappling with the basics of sexism, but her words were thrilling. The cops had to be aware of these dykes. A jolt of panic ran down my spine. What if I was sitting next to an informer? Would l be recognized?
A short-haired woman with a rough voice followed her, reciting her poetry. I had never heard verses dedicated to a female lover, both explicit and tender like this.
That trip to The Furies changed my mindset and my life. I had put my body on the line to resist the Vietnam War, but I didn’t dare to be who I was. The Furies showed me a new and deeper kind of woman-identified liberation. I realized that no matter what, I wanted to live an open, lesbian life in a place that I loved and where I first loved a woman. I thought of the Bay Area as my Avalon, the homeland of troublemakers, change-makers, and free souls. During my college years, I had peeled off a childhood of lies. And there, I found a wild, piercing love.
It’s a surreal story, but in a few short weeks, I left Atlanta for good with a new birth certificate. It was risky as hell to go back to San Francisco, but nothing else would do, even if it meant my arrest. But I came back anyway.
I found a vibrant lesbian scene – artists, poets, musicians, our own nightlife, and not in some corner of a guy’s bar. There was women’s music, the likes of Meg Christian, Holly Near, Sweet Honey & The Rock, and Cris Williamson, to name a few, who wrote and performed songs about the lesbian experience.
Now in my seventies, I haven’t recanted the ideals of my youth or discarded what The Furies taught me. I embrace my gender identity, even though my life has been fraught with hard times. I still wake up with my mind on freedom, still trying to change this country, which seems so consumed by hate, conspiracy nonsense, and violence.
I’ve been channeling my Covid frustration and anxiety into what I believe in and what I value. Last year, I worked as a text moderator for the Biden/Harris campaign, then pitched in to help elect Warnock and Ossoff to the U.S. Senate.
During this Women’s History month, I’m not yearning for the “old normal.” We have so much unfinished business – gender equality, racial justice, voting rights, climate change. We all sit on the shoulders of women like Rosa Parks, RBG, Del Martin, and Phyllis Lyon who struggled for freedom and justice for all.
However, if we don’t carry on their legacy, to live openly and fearlessly, we’ll lose what they fought so hard to achieve — what we’re celebrating this month. We’ll lose not only what we have, but what those after us will inherit.