It’s been more than 20 years since the Lesbian Avengers got their start in New York City, but their legacy has been largely ignored despite their major successes and influence on dyke culture. The activist group began with a flier in 1992, posing the question: “Imagine what your life could be. Are you willing to make it happen?”
Writer Kelly Cogswell was one of the original Avengers and she shares her experiences within the group in her new book Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger. She was inspired to write the book after being asked to speak on the Avengers and realizing that little documentation of their efforts existed, and that includes more than 50 chapters of Avengers around the world.
“I was thinking of all of us,” Kelly said. “You know I’m using my story to tell the story of the Avengers because it make it more real for people. ‘This is what it was like at a meeting, this is what it was like to do a demo.’ I feel like this is all of our story, all of our history.”
The Lesbian Avengers was founded by six gay women in New York in 1992. Fed up with feeling invisibility, violence and intolerance, they recruited their lesbian sisters for direct actions and demonstrations, most of which Kelly details in her book. A member from the beginning, Kelly writes candidly about both the successes and the failures of the Avengers, and the ultimate undoing of the New York chapter that left many feeling disillusioned, Kelly included.
“I was kind of traumatized by the Lesbian Avengers for a while,” Kelly said. But when she realized there was no one documenting the work they’d done, she felt compelled to build the archives and write the book about her experiences.
“I think what made a difference was I had to start from the beginning,” Kelly said. “Back in 1992, what were things like? What were things like at the very first meeting? And then as I started to write about what we did I was able to recognize just what our accomplishments were. You know the Avengers ended badly but all activist groups end badly. They split, they fight with each other. Other kinds of activist groups end up shooting each other. All we really did was make each other cry.”
The Lesbian Avengers were plagued with the same kinds of issues most activist groups are: Differences in opinions met from extremely passionate and stubborn people.
“But we had huge huge accomplishments and also I knew there had been a lot of chapters but when I started doing research I found there were probably around 60 Lesbian Avengers chapters all over the world,” Kelly said. “And I started thinking just how much we we accomplished, even though in New York things ended badly. But that doesn’t erase what we accomplished and that doesn’t erase the impact the Avengers had. Because there were 50 chapters in the U.S. and chapters in Canada and Australia. And there was a huge chapter in London that was really active and all these dykes were out there creating visibility for everybody and what I’m finding out is that lots and lots of people participated in dyke marches, like in DC and New York—and they still have huge ones in San Francisco. And so when I go around doing these readings, I’m finding lesbians that are like ‘I was there.'”
Eating Fire shares the stories of the work that the Avengers did, from their first “Rainbow Curriculum” demonstration about homophobia in schools to their creating the first ever Dyke March at the 1993 LGBT Rally on Washington.
“I think the biggest legacy is the Dyke March you see going in those cities, by and large started by Lesbian Avengers chapters, even after the Avengers disappeared,” Kelly said. “But one of the things that we did that I think is still really really radical is that we took on the issue of homophobia in school and the school district needed to deal with the fact that there are lesbian and queer kids in schools, but also, if you don’t teach kids early on to—I hate the word tolerate really—but to essentially not beat the crap out of each other. Then they grow up and actually do that because most gay bashers and queer bashers are actually quite young. They’re full of hate and rage. If you get to them really really young, even when they’re in second grade, third grade, fourth grade, they can deal with the fact there’s lot’s of different people in the world. ”
“We thought if you’re gonna do it go big! That was the thing with the Lesbian Avengers. We were not a modest group,” Kelly said. “Some gave us shit for that. But that was the good thing about the Lesbian Avengers. And when they were holding that big LGBT march in D.C. you know there’s very little concentration on lesbians, so we’ll have a dyke march! The biggest dyke march ever. I think the idea behind the Avengers was we need to be more ambitious, we need to think bigger. There has to be some way not to always be handing out fliers and to actually change the culture for us.”