Kelly Cogswell on “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger”

 
 

Lesbians were coming together to demand respect and to be heard. The closet was not an option for these women, who learned how to eat fire in protest of the murder of a lesbian woman and gay man in Salem, Oregon in 1992. They infiltrated women’s luncheons to demand lesbians be recognized as women, too, and risked arrest and police brutality with their outspoken actions. Kelly hopes that her book will remind the world of the group’s existence and influence.

“I just kind of want to restore the Lesbian Avengers to our community because it was so thoroughly erased,” Kelly said. “We’re talking the experience of tens of thousands of hundreds of thousands of lesbians. We’re talking activists, people organizing, not just people marching. We’re talking thousands and thousands of people and they had an impact and all their efforts were erased. So it’s not just to restore the history but to think of what happens to your future if you erase your past. Because it’s easy to do stuff in the future if you know someone’s already done it.”

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Kelly said she wants younger generations of queer women to know that the women of hers did not just “sit around complaining about things.”

“We tend to try to keep our heads down and socialize and pretend things aren’t as awful as they are,” Kelly said. “I mean we’ve had a lot of progress in legal equality but in terms of visibility in society, it’s still relatively minimal. There’s Rachel Maddow, there’s Ellen now, but compared to how many lesbians there are, the percentage—we’re still barely seen, I think. And we still don’t get—what writers do we have in our community that are doing with the lesbian experience that Toni Morrison is doing with the black experience? I think society at large doesn’t see the lesbian experience as something they can relate to.”

Kelly said she had a difficult time finding a publisher who would take on the book. She landed at the University of Minnesota Press but said she felt a large responsibility because getting her version published would mean that another book on the Avengers would likely not see print for a long time.

“It’s so hard to get lesbian stuff published,” Kelly said, “so I felt a horrible pressure to get it right.

Kelly said that she’s heard from a handful of her Avengers peers who find Eating Fire accurate, although it’s ultimately her own story, including her life after leaving the Avengers and New York altogether.

“I’ve heard from a few people and I think the consensus is I got it right pretty much. I mean I made an effort to see everybody’s point of view, even when I was describing how [we were] being kind of horrible to each other. Particularly some of the big players because when you’re working as an activist there’s a lot of intense emotions going on,” Kelly said. ” It can bring out the best in people, but it can bring out the worst in people. And I kind of felt like if I had to—I had to give everybody else a break because I wanted to give myself a break, too. I don’t think I always behaved well either. I think that’s kind of also clear in the book that I was sometimes appalled now. It just gained so much momentum I just think everybody kind of went nuts.”

Gay Rights March

Some of the issues the Avengers faced before their demise were the same kinds of things the community is still struggling with today. Bisexual women were upset with the name and focus of the group, while women of color did not feel accurately represented. Differing opinions on how radical the group should be or what actions were more important than others also contributed to inevitable disagreements, and Kelly ended up leaving before the group met its untimely end.

“I think this is kind of a tricky question because for some reason it seems to mostly affect lesbians,” Kelly said. “No one complains about The Black Panthers only focusing on issues related to being African-American. But for some reason when you’re a lesbian you’re expected to deal with bi issues, you’re expected to deal with trans issues, and these things intersect, I mean I think when you talk about lesbian issues, of course we have to talk about questions of gender. But I think it’s also important for lesbians to be able to talk about lesbian issues and not to feel—I think that lesbians should be more inclusive of lesbians! I think that when we talk about lesbian issues we need to make sure all lesbians are included. But I think it’s OK to say ‘This is a lesbian space. We’re talking about lesbian issues.” And if you decide a space is LGBT space, it better be LGBT and not just G. It depends on how you set it up up front.”

Dyke marches, which still exist in several cities and generally coincide with Prides each year, are open to anyone that is dyke-identified or an ally, but there are struggles facing organizers in 2014, such as if marches should be held in gay neighborhoods or challenge the more homophobic areas of a city. What would the Lesbian Avengers do?

“I think it depends on what your community wants. It can be good to have a dyke march in a lesbian neighborhood because you get to see yourself,” Kelly said. “I mean one of the things about activism is you’re trying to change society but you’re also trying to do something for yourself and see yourself in the context of other lesbians when you’re doing lesbian activism. Because that’s really powerful too. But if you want to create change in the larger community, in your city or your town, then you have to leave safe spaces and go where other people are, where you’re not expected, where you’re not usually seen. I think it depends what your goal is. Or maybe you need more than one march. Or you need a route that starts one place that is a little scarier to you and ends up someplace that’s safer for you.”

But in New York, the Avengers weren’t marching on Christopher Street.

“We chose to go down Fifth Avenue because it was the heart of the city and it was where big parades go down, like the St. Patricks Day parade,” Kelly said. “So we covered Fifth Avenue.”

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Twenty years after the Avengers were created, lesbians have a stronger place in mainstream culture, but Kelly said we are still without the liberation we desperately need.

“I kind of feel like we stopped imagining what we wanted and we kind of shifted from a movement that was based on liberation and the idea that really everyone needed to be liberated from our parents’ world, our parents’ more conservative world and we shifted from liberation to equality and getting legal equality,” Kelly said. I could give you a big speech about why that is important but one thing really needs to work with the other thing because when you really…I always felt like when I was doing the Lesbian Avengers stuff that if lesbians were liberated and able to think bigger, than people like my mother would be freer too. We’re kind of in default mode. We write our check to HRC and the Task Force and get legal equality but it doesn’t deal with homophobia, for one thing. You can’t legislate against homophobia inside the family. You can deal with people who beat the crap out of you but you can’t do much beforehand. We have to think harder about what we want and how we can change the world we live in to make room for us.”

As part of that change, Kelly is seeking to document all of the other chapters of Avengers that existed around the world and hopes that those who were part of the movement will get in touch with her to help make sure the history is preserved.

“I would love to document the other chapters. I’m encouraging people to organize themselves to document what they did or send it to me, just like write up little accounts, xerox fliers, whatever. Because people did really creative things. People had billboards in their communities, lot’s and lot’s of stuff. It wasn’t just in New York people were creative.”

Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger is available now. Visit lesbianavengers.com for more information on the Avengers or how to send your Avengers history with Kelly.

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