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First, an anecdote—then, the review. They’ll link up, I promise.
In early 1975, I was a second-semester freshman at the University of Colorado, and I was enthralled by my first lesbian, a marvelous teaching assistant I’ll call Grace. She introduced me to some of my favorite books, taught me much about critical thinking and even gave me the courage to go to my first “gay mixer” at the nascent Gay and Lesbian Club (not yet affiliated with the university).
As one of her three or four acolytes, I was invited to an end-of-semester party at her apartment on the Hill in Boulder. Bellies full of some vegetarian dish, we commenced talking, smoking weed and drinking red wine made by her sister and some friends at the Duck Lake Commune up near Ward. Suddenly, she got up and went into a closet/darkroom off the living room (she was also an amateur photographer) and retrieved a black and white 8×10 of a woman sleeping on the very floral print sofa we were sitting on. The face was familiar but still it took a few minutes for us to realize the napping figure was Patty Hearst, kidnapped newspaper heiress turned revolutionary bank robber and the object of a nationwide manhunt. We were properly awed. And one of us must have been a snitch.
Three days later, our grades had still not been posted. We went to Grace’s office to see why, but she was gone and her office had been cleaned out. So had her apartment. In fact, no one wanted to talk about what had happened to her, and we were warned by everyone we asked not to get too nosy. We finally got grades for the class a year later, but we never saw or heard from Grace again.
Thankfully, L.A. Free Press reporter and Lesbian Tide founder Jeanne Cordova did not meet the same fate, though her testy meetings with American Nazi Party head Joe Tomassi brought the FBI close to her door. Cordova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws captures the politics of the tumultuous lesbian feminist 1970s and casts some fascinating light on Tomassi as well as the Weather Underground, Angela Davis and, yes, Emily Harris of the Symbionese Liberation Army, Patty Hearst’s kidnappers.
Cordova also details the labor strike against the L.A. Gay Community Services Center, including her betrayal by Morris Kight, her political mentor and founder of the GCSC. The relationship between these two is intense, and Cordova pulls no punches when dealing with either her admiration for him or her scorn. This is one of the most interesting relationships in the book—and one of the saddest, especially when one finally realizes what Kight thought of lesbians in the first place. I would have hoped for better from a
But When We Were Outlaws is not all politics and polemic. Cordova’s shrewd observations are most astonishing when she’s looking at herself and her own love life—particularly her stormy relationship with Rachel, a woman she meets at the GCSC. Rachel comes between Cordova and her wife, BeJo, more than any occasional lover of Cordova’s has before, bringing a dynamic tension to their life as well as the book. Painfully honest and brilliantly written, her personal revelations carry even more urgency and importance than her political leanings, never letting us forget that activists have hearts as well as minds. And they sometimes lose both.
In a lesser writer’s hands, the sheer size of the cast involved in the rallies, meetings, marches and strategy sessions would be confusing, but Cordova knows just when to rein it in. She gives the reader an idea of the scope but keeps her eye on the key players at all times so her narrative never bogs down in extraneous detail. A tricky balance, to be sure, but Cordova’s experience in walking tightropes shows in both her pacing and her prose, which is at once journalistically objective and personally relevant.
But nothing encapsulates either Cordova or the times better than the front cover photo—Cordova wearing shades and leaning on a rail, her arms crossed, wearing a leather wrist strap and an armband, her hair wild and unruly, with a name tag on her chest and a Mona Lisa sneer on her lips, clutching a pack of Kools as if the smokes are all that’s keeping her still enough for someone to snap the picture. I kept going back to it whenever I closed the book to absorb what I’d just read. Clearly, a woman not to be fucked with.
But just as clearly, a woman with incredible stories to tell—and we can only hope that When We Were Outlaws is the first of a series of memoirs. If you’re at all interested in activism or our struggle for freedom and equal rights (and you should be), you owe it to yourself to read this and learn.
And if you’re out there, Grace, I’d love to hear from you.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler