Ariel Levy visits “Lesbian Nation”

There are few people who would be able to capture the radical and somewhat contradictory lives of 1970s lesbian separatists with both respect and humor, and The New Yorker picked the right womyn for the job: out lesbian Ariel Levy.

In an article titled “Lesbian Nation” in this week’s New Yorker, Levy primarily focuses on a group of traveling lesbian separatists called the Van Dykes (quite literally, a group of dykes who drove around in a van).

In her article, Levy explains the roots of separatism, dating various separatists living “on the fringes” of American society back to the early 18th century. In the 1970s, lesbian separatists could be found coast to coast, with some charming names: the Gutter Dykes of Berkeley, “several hundred” Radicalesbians in New York, the CLIT Collective and Separatists Enraged Proud and Strong in San Francisco. Most were die-hard anti-war activists as well.

”‘Only women on the land’ was the catchphrase used by separatists to indicate that men, even male children, were banned from Women’s Land,” Levy writes, adding that many groups spelled it “wimmin” or “womyn” to keep men out of their words.

Womyn’s Land could be found nationwide, where both gay and straight-but-gay-for-politics ladies would grow their own food and live by their own principles — but some women wanted more. One of the original Van Dykes, Heather Elizabeth (later called Heather Van Dyke and currently Lamar Van Dyke), ditched the “icy and miserable” farm, and attempted to start with her girlfriend in exchange for life on the road — a van full of dykes who would always stay in the sun and live of the “fruit you picked along the roadside.”

When Levy meets Heather, er Lamar, to hear her story in present-day Seattle, she is intimidated:

“If I weren’t female and gay, I doubt very much that she would have spoken to me,” Levy writes, though Lamar, in her 60s, now associates with males and is in a monogamous relationship with her partner.

Lamar’s life has been a full one, and Levy tells her story well. As you can imagine, being in a van full of lesbians who are all sleeping together (because, of course, they didn’t believe in monogamy) was dramatic. What was even more dramatic was the shift in beliefs over the years. The women who got into the van were vegan, but as years went on and they discovered sadomasochism, “tofu quickly gave way to leather in the vans.”

Many of the women had been married, Lamar three times, and some had children. Their journey in the vans is telling of the feminist movement over the years. What one feminist is against, another would embrace.

In many arguments against separatism, the main points lie in equality: How can you expect equal rights when you don’t want to include others who are different from you in your life? Isn’t the ideal situation for everyone to coexist peacefully and without hate? While this may sound ridiculously naive and idealistic — isn’t that what we all want?

No, says Lamar: “Your generation wants to fit in … Gays in the military and gay marriage? This is what you guys come up with? We didn’t sit around looking at our phone or looking at our computer or looking at the television — we didn’t; sit around looking at screens. We didn’t wait for a screen to give us a signal to do something. We were off doing whatever we wanted.”

The article is funny, smart and incredibly informative. Levy is a brilliant writer and I highly suggest, before making a case for or against separatists, you check it out. (The New Yorker will let you read it for free online; you just have to sign up here.)

While I won’t be venturing off to Womyn’s Lane anytime soon (I’m way too addicted to my screens), I truly respect the lesbian separatists of yesterday and today. Not many people live by their principles anymore.

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