A Conversation with Jeanne Cordova By Jerry L. Wheeler

Writer/activist Jeanne Cordova contributions to LGBT culture are both profound and foundational. From her work at The Lesbian Tide and the Los Angeles Free Press to her ceaseless organizing for change, her outspoken manner has challenged many institutions—all for the better. She recently shared some of her thoughts with us on her new book, When We Were Outlaws, as well as the current state of LGBT activism.

JW:     Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Jeanne. 

JC:       Thanks for putting me through this rigorous experience. I’ve never been asked most of these questions. 

JW:     As an activist yourself, what’s your take on the Occupy movement?

JC:       The concept of the Occupy movement is the single most radical and potentially the most important activism of this decade. I’ve been urging young queer activists to get involved, to earn your stripes, in this movement because the issue of income inequality and the loss of democracy in America touches every queer life. If the right continues their take over of every equal or good about our society, we queers will be the first to be thrown under the bus by the oligarchy of greed=straight=oppression of all. 

JW:     How do you see the state of LGBT activism today?

JC:       After decades of radical struggle, LGBT activism today has moved into the “consolidation” phase of a social movement where the grass roots are mostly called upon to write checks to the organizations composing Gay Incorporated as they work within the system to lobby our way into full equality. 

JW:     Is gay marriage the best issue for the movement or are other agenda items more important?

JC:       To keep a social movement healthy means it needs to stay broad based with 3 or 4 issues leading our agenda. As Saul Alinsky noted in his famous “Rules for Radicals,” once a movement becomes single-issued it often stalls out when that issue stalls, or activists for whom that issue is not so urgent leave the movement. I believe the LBGTQ movement should be politically focused on anti-gay discrimination laws which affect jobs and housing in Middle America, where there is no such thing as equality. Gender justice struggles are also a logical next step for LGBT activists and organizers. And building viable coalitions with people of color and their issues also broadens the base and reach of LGBT activism.

JW:     Do social networking sites like Facebook help activist movements or do they  hinder them by rendering face to face meetings less necessary?

JC:       I think they do both, depending on the global milieu one is trying to forge a movement in. For lots of cultural reasons FB/twitter/etc. seemed to work extremely well in the Middle East. They work very well as an underground surprise tool in regimes which don’t allow freedom of assembly or speech. And yet, I’ve recently been butch organizing in two settings—one in which the leadership depended heavily on social media, and another whose steering committee met regularly face-to-face. The latter group was able to establish deeper and clearer goals and relationship trust. The former group had a hard time trusting or building in new members. It became very innnzy. After an organization’s core infrastructure and first layer of leadership is formed, social media is a great tool for “calling in the troops” to a demo, event, or meeting. Yet FB organizing alone has many limits. It is no substitute for the depth of conversation or the slow working out of goals and interpersonal trust that a leadership group needs to establish to carry out a project. We activists seem to be trying to work out how to use these new social media tools; when and where are they helpful? What are their limits and liabilities? Consensus building is more enhanced when individuals sit in a circle and see the facial expressions, tone, and politics of each other. Obviously, this is a good subject for a book, one with an international focus. I wonder what Saul Alinsky’s take on how to use social media for community organizing would be?

JW:     There seems to have always been, as typified by your relationship with Morris Kight (fellow activist and founder of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center—ed.), a schism between gay men and lesbians—where do you think this comes from, and how can it be overcome?

JC:       The once vast differences between gay men and lesbians was, and still is, based on the fact that most men and most women are fundamentally as different as Mars and Venus. As such, we lesbian women and gay men face all the problems due to the difference in our nature as women and men. In the 1950’s, as we can see from the TV shows Pan Am and Mad Men, men and women were raised to be very different, with women getting the brunt of male chauvinism and sexism. The men of my father’s generation were, in their relationship to women, sexist pigs. Yet today’s men are largely the sons of feminist and/or independent women. They have grown up viewing women as largely equal. With the passing generations, men and women have become more and more integrated. Today high-schoolers run in packs peopled by both genders (as well as gender-benders). Today’s men are FAR less sexist by nature than men of my generation. Today’s women take for granted their equal place in college, the boardroom, co-parentage, and friendship between the sexes. There is far less basis for lesbian separatist lifestyles among people between 15 and 40 years old. (Although some women, and some men, still chose to live separately for philosophical, religious, and other reasons.) The schism between gay men and lesbians is much less deep and wide today. However, our differences as men—to whom say, sexual issues are critical—and women to whom child raising issues are paramount, will remain as long as the societal roles of men and women remain different. But, they are disappearing in Western societies. The so called “war on terror” I believe is really a war about the position of women in advanced societies vs. the role of women in more tribal traditional societies. Men will never be the first to extend freedom to women. No one gives power away. Women have to take it, as do people of color in a systemically racist society.

JW:     As a journalist raised on typewriters and paste-up, how do you feel about the impending death of print media? Will you miss the romance or have you already embraced the new technology?

JC:       I don’t think all print media is dead. It will live on, like the radio after TV, but be a much less dominant form. I think the younger generations will place more value on it as they age and see & feel the pleasure of it. I love the new technology, it does many things print cannot do, and faster, and more dispersive. Print media will remain for those who seek an in depth knowledge of selected educative subjects.

JW:     The front cover photo of you on When We Were Outlaws is very emblematic of both you and the times—do you recall the circumstances under which it was taken and what you were thinking of at the time?

JC:       I was 23 years old and at the first lesbian conference of which I was a core organizer. It was the West Coast Gay Women’s Conference, held at MCC Los Angeles in 1971. Seven hundred women came, many of them “old gay” and just as many of the “new gay” lesbian feminists type. Leaning against the rail capturing a moment between solving logistic problems, I was half brooding—“What’s the next thing that might go wrong that I should anticipate? Will that room be big enough, will the mikes work? And half dazed with shock and awe, like, OMG where had all these hundreds of dykes come from, and how big, really, was our movement? What was its future?

JW:     Were there times during the writing of the details of your relationships with Rachel and BeJo where you thought you might be going too far and getting too personal?

JC:       Yeah sure, there were lots of times when I thought; Oh shit, I hope my father will die before my mother feels compelled to read him this book? (He did die, at 89, a year before it came out). Do I have the right to tell the world this piece of truth about him?

And with BeJo, I was shocked that she didn’t demand to see it as I wrote it, or ask me to make changes as she did read parts of it. I was reminded of how deep and loyal friendship can grow after 40 years. Bejo and I are still close friends.

With regard to Rachel, I asked her many times to read parts of the manuscript. I wondered if she’d ask me to at least delete the third sex scene, the most vulnerable one. I kept telling her I was getting personal, including sex scenes. She seemed to want me to give her a pseudonym, which I did, due to the intimacy. And it was important to her that I said in the Endnotes that she did choose to stop drinking, went to rehab and got sober. But she kept saying, “I’ll read it when you are finished with the book.” To my knowledge she has not read it at all, even now. I have no explanation for this, only gratitude that these two women allowed and encouraged me to write this book.

As for “going too far” with myself, yes, there were times when I wanted to cut certain scenes, like the chapter “The Rage of all Butches” that included behavior I wasn’t proud of and didn’t want out there in print. But I felt I couldn’t be half-honest and tell the brave things I did and yet leave out my sins. That wouldn’t be right, especially in a memoir. Most of all I worried about hurting my mother who did so much to keep her kids alive and on-course. This was the hardest fear to overcome. Finally I decided my mother was one tough woman who I should assume has faced her husband’s and her daughter’s flaws, and would therefore take this too in her own stride. I am proud of her; she overcame my ambiguity and insisted I give her my book at the family Christmas party last month. Besides obsessing about what my mother would think, I had the unusual privilege of being in a 20 year relationship with a woman, also a writer, who
had a real arduous 10 years watching me write in such detail about a former lover. We lesbians are always in our lover’s business big time. I don’t think many spouses would put up with another lover in their partner’s lives for so long. It was a real brain twister, heaps of dissonance, for me, for her, for our marriage. Yes, plenty of screaming, “How could you!” and “I will not read or edit THOSE (love scenes) pages.” Especially since my partner was intimately involved as my research editor for the politics. So I feel very lucky, not to mention loved, that she respected my writing and found ways to separate our lives from my life in writing this memoir. May all writers be so blessed!

JW:     What do you most want people to take away from When We Were Outlaws?

JC:       I want the young kids to know they CAN be activists. That’s it a noble, exciting, growth-filled ‘career path.’ I want other writers to overcome their doubts and find the courage to just DO it. I wanted to honor other butch women through my writing. Most of all I wanted to tell the legacy of lesbian feminism and to show that the boomer women were, in Brokaw’s terminology, “the courageous generation.”

Many thanks to Jeanne Cordova for her honesty and her tireless work. More   information can be found at: www.jeannecordova.com. You can purchase When We Were Outlaws from Spinsters Ink, Amazon, or Barnes and Nobel.

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