We thought the world we built would be forever: An Interview with Lenn Keller
Maybe it has something to do with turning 29, but it seems that all I want to do lately is talk with older generations of queer artists and political organizers about their lives and work. Last week I met with Lenn Keller, a Bay Area filmmaker and photographer whose practice straddles the worlds of artmaking, political activism, and queerness. I first saw Lenn’s work in 2010 when her exhibition Fierce Sistahs: Art, Activism, and Community of Lesbians of Color in the Bay Area, 1975–2000 was on display at the San Francisco Public Library. Fierce Sistahs was a collection of photographs and ephemera documenting the political and social lives of lesbians of color from pride parades to workshops to community gatherings. Shortly after, I included Lenn’s series of portraits of gender noncomforming youth of color into the exhibition Suggestions of A Life Being Lived, which I co-curated with Danny Orendorff, at SFCamerawork. Lenn is a living vestige of the Bay Area’s history of lesbian culture and political movements centered on the experiences of women of color. We talked about this history, and how the politics of the Bay Area attempt to erode lesbian culture, as well as her film A Persistent Desire, which traces the evolution of butch-femme identities and dynamics. While my posting this interview in June is perhaps a nod to San Francisco’s Pride festivities, Lenn’s work and experience reveal a complex legacy that extends well beyond the month and provides a historical context to our current manifestations of queer protest, survival, and joy.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: You began collecting ephemera from various political and lesbian events in 1975 that was later included in your Fierce Sistahs exhibit. I’ve been thinking about this period of time in the United States and how its history is written. Two of the many political movements at the time were the Gay Liberation movement, a predominately white and affluent movement, and the Black Power movement, which was criticized for being sexist and homophobic. Fierce Sistahs is situated in the space between these two narratives and describes the experience of lesbians of color in the Bay Area. What was the impact of lesbians of color within this dichotomized political landscape?
Lenn Keller: Many lesbians of color coming out in the 1970s were already active in political struggles. We were a part of antiwar, women’s, black power, Chicano, and Native American movements — however, as women, and as lesbian or bisexual women, we were marginalized because of homophobia and sexism. There was a major exodus, many of us felt like we had to leave those organizations, while some stayed active in those other struggles, as well. It was very challenging. Lesbian and bisexual women of color were often in leadership roles, and were instrumental in the founding and running of many resources for women, including women’s health collectives, women’s rape crisis centers, battered women’s shelters, etc.
ASR: Can you talk specifically about some events and actions you worked on in an attempt to bridge the political concerns of the queer and black communities?
LK: Yes. In 1978 Proposition 6 (or the Briggs Initiative) was on the ballot in California. The goal of the initiative was to ban lesbians and gays and “their sympathizers” from working in California public schools. I was a part of a group called the East Bay Action Coalition Against the Briggs Initiative, and as an organizing strategy we held events at various community centers, including the Oakland Community Learning Center, which was one of the meeting spots of the Black Panthers. We held an event there to create coalition with the black community.
Our political events would frequently have a forum and speakers who talked about the issues, and then we always had dancing and food, of course! The band that played at this event was the Alberta Jackson Band. They were an all-women’s blues and rock band, and they played often at women’s and gay and lesbian events.
ASR: Leave it to the queers to make a dance party out of a political event! This is how you organize people! Proposition 6 was defeated, right?
LK: Yeah, we partied, and we defeated Proposition 6!
ASR: The impact of lesbians of color coming out within civil rights or social and economic justice movements was huge, then. To say, “I’m out, I’m gay, and I’m a part of this movement,” was saying the struggles are related.
LK: I am thinking of something else that is going on as we speak … This weekend there are two film festivals happening simultaneously in the Bay Area: we have the San Francisco Black Film Festival, and we have Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. Because I want to see films in both of the festivals, I’m forced to choose, and I’m going to miss out on seeing things that may never get distribution. So, I may never see them, and I’m pissed! Why can’t communities get together and coordinate? There are many months in the year when there are no film festivals happening! The fact is, we’re not going to effect permanent societal change until we learn how to support and work together.
ASR: Right. Making that choice, having to say either I go to the Black Film Festival or I go to Frameline seems like a familiar choice, like you’re saying either you’re seen as black or you’re seen as gay. Again, the struggles aren’t seen as connected.
LK: And of course they are connected! The purpose of both festivals is essentially the same, to provide a public space for the kinds of images you’re not going to see anywhere else.
ASR: Yet there is a long history of these communities being separated and disconnected. What were your impressions of the politics when you first moved to the Bay Area, and how did you, as an activist and artist, get involved? I’m thinking of some of the flyers and posters included in Fierce Sistahs.
LK: Well, when I first arrived in San Francisco in 1975 the Gay Freedom Day parade, which is what it was called then, was basically all about white men. My household — I lived in one of many dyke households, the 8th Street house in Berkeley — made signs to take to the Gay Freedom parade to protest the lack of lesbian visibility and inclusion. The message of our signs was basically, “We lesbians are here, too.” The next year, some women from the Berkeley Women’s Center made flyers as a call to get black lesbians out and visible at the parade, because we were invisible at that point. Lesbians fought for several years for visibility and inclusion. In 1976, after much struggle, the Dykes on Bikes, who now traditionally lead the parade, made their first appearance. That year, the slogan was “Diversity Is Our Strength.” Finally in 1981, the parade name changed from Gay Freedom Day to International Lesbian & Gay Freedom Day parade, which was momentous. Soon after bisexuals started demanding inclusion, and this process has continued to expand to include more sexual minority communities.
ASR: The evolution from the “gay pride parade” to GLBTQI indicates — at least, hopefully — an inclusivity and self-reflexivity around gender and sexualities, but what about race? Can you talk about how racism in the queer community was addressed back then?
LK: In the 1970s the lesbian community was much more focused on issues of race and antiracism than it is now. We organized numerous community workshops about race and class in the lesbian community. There were a few gay men who joined us, but it was mostly lesbian and bisexual women. The goals of the workshops were to raise consciousness about white privilege, to unlearn racism, to afford women of color space to speak about their experiences of racism outside and within the lesbian and gay communities.
ASR: I think about the reputation of California and the Bay Area as being so progressive and the ways in which this often results in some real apathy around doing the actual work to unlearn racism.
LK: Exactly. It’s become rather insidious. Because the Bay Area is known for being a very progressive and diverse place, and it’s understood that certain attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors are considered not “P.C.” So, unexamined attitudes tend to go underground. San Francisco in particular has become very white. And because it still has an image of being “cutting-edge” and “radical” — like how green the city is, or the freedom of expression here — issues of class, white privilege, and racism are not being addressed.
Perhaps not to the same degree, but even in the progressive and queer movements it perpetuates itself. White people who see themselves as progressive and/or radical, especially in San Francisco, often have fewer opportunities with people of color, or situations where they’d be forced to confront their privilege. We — the “99%” — are not going to be effective in changing things without having those necessary interactions and dialogues. Doing this essential work requires a deep desire for social justice, a whole lot of courage, and the ability to act toward others with respect, and love.
ASR: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. That work is never done, and it has to start with the self. I know of groups today that really take on issues of racial and economic justice and queer liberation: the White Noise Collective, Queers for Economic Justice, and HAVOQ/Pride At Work, and many more informal groups. These conversations about racism within queer spaces are a continuation of the work you all were doing in the ’70s.
LK: Yeah, we’ve got to keep doing this work. I’m glad to hear there are folks like the White Noise Collective.
ASR: How was the dyke scene in the ’70s and ’80s visible within the city itself? What physical sites existed for us then?
LK: When I arrived in ’75 there were already a number of spaces that had been created, and many more were created over the next 10 years. There were bars like the Jubilee, the Driftwood, and the Bacchanal in the East Bay, and in San Francisco we had Maud’s, Wild Side West, Mona’s 440 Club, Peg’s Place, A Little More, and others. But what I thought was especially cool were all the non-bar “women’s spaces” — places for political activism, education, and networking. It’s funny, “women’s” was code for lesbian in those days. There were bookstores like Old Wives Tales on Valencia in San Francisco, and A Woman’s Place Bookstore on Broadway and College in Oakland. There were also cafes, which were amazing places to hang out and hook up with people. There was the Full Moon and Artemis cafes in San Francisco, and the Brick Hut Café in Berkeley.
The bookstores were amazing spots to hang out. People were very well connected. There were actually physical bulletin boards for jobs, housing, events, rides across the country, etc. This was how we networked back then, before the Internet and cell phones.
ASR: How do you think that changed the community or the culture? Today there aren’t any lesbian bookstores in San Francisco, there aren’t any lesbian cafes, there aren’t afternoon hangouts. We make it happen on our own: we have book clubs and skill-shares and hiking groups, but as far as physical places in the city, most of them are bars. This signifies a dramatic shift in the culture, and of course dyke culture has been affected by the economics of the city.
LK: Right. Now that we no longer have those physical spaces, our means of connecting with each other in person is a lot more difficult. Preserving and disseminating our history has become very difficult, too. The local existing archives have not focused on lesbian or queer people of color history, so we have few and less than optimal options for preserving and sharing our histories. For example, if you hadn’t initiated this interview, how would this information be passed on? It saddens me when I hear young queer women say, “We’re the first ones to do this or that,” in reference to things that have been done before here. But, how would they know any different? I think it’s very important to a person’s self-esteem and empowerment to know that you are part of a cultural legacy. Which is why I’m working hard to figure out a way to preserve my archives and make them accessible.
ASR: It can feel like a void. There is a lack of intergenerational connection between queers. Or rather, the culture and physical environments do not facilitate or support these relationships.
LK: That’s absolutely right. In the ’70s to be lesbian within the lesbian feminist community was practically synonymous with being an activist. We saw ourselves as a counter-culture. We wanted to build a completely different world — that was our vision and mission. We mistrusted the media, and didn’t want to be a part of mainstream consumerism, and did not want to be “normalized.” And not just because of our sexual orientation, but because we clearly felt and saw all the injustice, inequalities, and dysfunction, and we didn’t want to be a part of perpetuating that. We wanted to create something different — a world that was safe for women, and socially and economically just.
That vision was gradually eroded as we went into the 1980s and Reagan took office, and Proposition 13 which was voted in at the same time had a very detrimental effect on public programs. Social services were cut drastically, real estate values shot up. It was at this point that the homeless problem in the Bay Area really began. We were seeing that all the important work we had been doing was seriously threatened. It was a devastating time. There were high levels of unemployment followed by the mysterious appearance of massive amounts of crack cocaine simultaneously in communities of color in urban areas throughout the nation, followed by the subsequent “war on drugs,” which served only to incarcerate those same communities. We thought what we were building was only going to grow and get stronger. We didn’t think things could get worse, but they did. A lot of what we’d built was destroyed.
ASR: So, as a result of these shifts, places like A Woman’s Place or the Full Moon Café went under because the working class lesbians who ran them could no longer afford to rent or buy the properties, right?
LK: That’s exactly right, most of us were not a part of the owning class. The only building I can think of owned by lesbians or women was the Women’s Building. Most of the bars had disappeared by the late ’80s, and I remember when the Lexington Club was bought in the late 1990s — the older dykes were really proud of them because the only other bar left was Wild Side West. Even if we never stepped foot in there, we felt like it was a really good thing that the Lexington existed.
ASR: You started photographing your community in 1981. I’m wondering if maybe you were unconsciously acting on the erosion of the lesbian scene in San Francisco; if your impulse to begin documenting was a result of all that was being taken away.
LK: Actually there were a number of reasons why I began photographing. Because of Reagan, we were all feeling the need to step up our efforts, and I needed a way to connect my activism with art. Also, the lesbian of color community was growing rapidly, and there were tons of cultural events happening. I’m not sure what my exact thought process was, but I felt it was important to document what was going on, and I became very passionate about photographing lesbians and lesbians of color.
ASR: I want to talk about butch-femme and your film A Persistent Desire — I love that title, by the way. Can you describe the film?
LK: A Persistent Desire (inspired by the book The Persistent Desire, edited by Joan Nestle) will be a feature-length film about the evolution of butch-femme identities and dynamics. I started working on the film about 11 years ago. I encountered a number of obstacles, including having a serious car accident, and later becoming ill with Lyme Disease. The film has been put on hold several times, and I want to complete it in the near future if I can find adequate support. I think the culture of butch-femme is an incredibly important part of lesbian and queer history.
ASR: How do you define butch-femme in your own terms?
LK: I see femme and butch identities as being gender nonconforming, which means they disrupt the status quo. The idea of a femme-identified woman has its roots in lesbian culture. But, I think a femme can be any woman who has gone beyond her conditioning to embrace her own constructed femininity that is empowering for her. For me a butch is a woman who sees her masculinity as natural to herself and her body, and who accepts, embraces, and is empowered by her own presentation and performance of masculine codes. I think butch-femme is a complementary energetic yin-yang kind of erotic dynamic between women.
It does tend to look like it’s mimicking what we are taught is a heterosexual dynamic. In my mind that heterosexual dynamic is also a myth. We are taught that all heterosexual couples have this perfect yin-yang dynamic, and it’s not true. They end up feeling very out of sorts, too. Many women involved with men think they are not feminine enough, and many heterosexual men think they are not man enough, which is all very ridiculous, because everyone is fine the way they are.
ASR: It’s like the script isn’t working for anybody.
LK: Exactly! The thing about butch-femme is that it really draws attention to gender as presentation and performance. The butch-femme dynamic persists because it’s a real and valid archetypal dynamic. Often when I interview people for the film they become very inarticulate about it, but they keep saying, “it’s hot, it’s hot!” And I have to concur! But that’s because I resonate with it. Either you resonate with it or you don’t, and if you don’t, it’s difficult to understand.
ASR: Sure, identifying as butch or identifying as femme and the butch-femme dynamic is only one part of an evolving spectrum of queer identities, relationships, and dynamics.
LK: So true, and they are all valid! Butch-femme is not a heterosexist imitation, which is not to say that butches and femmes don’t act out stereotypes. Some people do because they don’t have any other models.
ASR: Queer communities are certainly not exempt from misogyny and sexism. The moments in my life when that internalized oppression shows its face are really painful. You’ve told me that it took you a long time to come out as butch because you assumed it meant being sexist.
LK: It took me 20 years to claim butch. I wrote an essay called “A Feminist Butch Is Not an Oxymoron” that was published in Sinister Wisdom. It’s about my process of coming out as butch. I had heard that butches acted like sexist men, and I had zero interest in that. But I knew something was going on with me. I began to notice a pattern in the kind of women I was attracted to over time, and there was a consistent thread. There was a special kind of erotic dynamic, that I didn’t know to articulate or how to frame.
ASR: Having come up politically in communities that work against the gender binary and binary thinking, when presented initially with butch-femme it’s easy to assume it is oppressive because it was replicating that binary, right? But that’s not necessarily the case, these identities are self-reflexive and do challenge the script. Tell me about the butch support group you facilitate.
LK: The Butch-Stud Support group happens at the Pacific Center, and it’s all ages. The intentions for the group are butch empowerment, mentorship, networking, support, fun, friendship, solidarity, activism, and creating a strong, visible community that affirms and reflects female-identified butches and studs, and whatever other labels do or do not use and their sexualities. The operative thing is that we are masculine of center and female identified. Being butch, stud, etc. is an alternative way of being masculine, and we want to hold a supportive space for women who feel good about their femaleness.
ASR: I have to say, hearing you say earlier that lesbianism was synonymous with activism when you were in your 20s made my heart swell. There are many of us in my generation who believe this and live this, but it’s not an automatic equation these days.
LK: I was a part of the first wave of hundreds of thousands of people who came out during the ’70s. All of us coming out at the same time had a deeply transformative effect on society. Coming out was a very political act at that time, so it was a lot easier for us to see that particular struggle connected to all the other struggles. We were always looking at the interconnectedness of all these different struggles, and lesbians were at the forefront of seeing this. Following the trajectory of any marginalized group, as they become more accepted they become more assimilated and lose that radical edge. Back then it wasn’t about assimilation, we were saying, “No, we’re not like you. We’re trying to do something completely different. We have different values, and we still deserve the same rights.”
ASR: I see you as someone in my circle of elders and a mentor. Whose work has influenced you? Whose shoulders do you stand on?
LK: That’s a real hard one to answer, because I have more influences than I can begin to name here; I feel like I stand on so many shoulders, although I mostly didn’t have benefit of their direct guidance. In particular, I feel a great appreciation and debt to all the butches before me and now. They did and still do withstand brutal harassment, discrimination, and violence to just be themselves in a society that is still learning to accept masculine females.