Dyke March has a powerful herstory. 20,000 lesbians took to the streets of Washington DC the night before the scheduled March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights and Liberation. It was 1993, and there had never been anything like this protest. As one Dyke Marcher shouted, “This is the largest lesbian demonstration in the history of the world!” Coordinated by the Lesbian Avengers, Dyke March was the first time that so many lesbians grouped together to claim public space. A spectacular act of protest, it challenged not only the injustices of the injustices of the state but the pattern of male dominance within what were then LGB spaces.
The legacy of Dyke March is extraordinary. It set a powerful precedent for lesbian organizing around the world. Women of different colors and creeds united to claim the label of lesbian. The march pushed back against centuries of erasure, oppression, and systematic cruelty. Since that first protest, Dyke Marches have sprung up in cities across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Thousands upon thousands of lesbians have marched for visibility, freedom, and community.
In Dyke March we see the power of collective action. Thousands of lesbians rejected what was considered conventional or safe behavior for women to assert the value of lesbian life in a society that has historically denied not only our worth, but our very existence.
Although it was born of bold lesbian politics, there have been efforts to cut Dyke March from its radical roots. Wikipedia describes Dyke March as a “mostly lesbian-led gathering and protest march.” Mostly, as though Dyke March was not coordinated by and created for lesbian women. Mostly, as though lesbians having our own spaces is not something worth celebrating.
At this year’s San Francisco Dyke March, there was a conflict. A group of lesbians were attacked throughout the march in response to signs they describe as “affirming lesbian autonomy and educating about the dangers of giving children puberty blockers.” The signs bore slogans such as “Lesbian, Not Queer” and “You Can’t Silence Us With Violence. Resist Lesbian Erasure.” Unfortunately, people did attempt to intimidate those women out of the protest. They were targeted and attacked throughout the route. A disabled lesbian was pushed to the ground, her walking stick broken.
The LGBT community is deeply divided over the issue of gender – but regardless of where anybody stands on the subject, we should all be able to agree that violence against women is fundamentally wrong. One in three women will experience violence in her lifetime, a figure that rises significantly for disabled women. Dyke March began in resistance to all the harms patriarchy visits on women, to all the ways lesbians were (and still are) marginalized.
The San Francisco Dyke March website proclaims “Calling All Dykes: Take Up Your Space.” But the lesbians who raised dissenting voices were attacked, and the violence against them went unchallenged. In fact, the official San Francisco Dyke March Facebook page made a post condemning the women who were attacked for “speaking words of hate and using violence.” This post raises more questions than answers.
In what sense are the words on posters violent compared to the act of pushing women to the ground? Controversial, perhaps, but violent? And does having questions or reservations about queer gender politics need to come from a place of hate? With most of the lesbian feminists I know, their resistance is motivated by a commitment to spaces and protections for women. Dyke March, after all, grew from unapologetically woman-centric politics.
Lesbians aren’t a homogeneous group. Despite what the stereotypes say, we don’t all look, dress, or think the same. We’re a diverse range of women with a wide range of opinions and beliefs. Still, a significant number of lesbian women take issue with the way LGBT politics are unfolding. Which is why lesbians keep on speaking up, even knowing they’ll be framed as the villains of the story.
At this year’s Pride in London, a group of lesbians blocked the march in protest of lesbian erasure. Though Pride staff tried to move them on, the women resisted – and led the parade. Their protest was universally condemned by male-led LGBT media, and heavily criticized by others within the community. Few people engaged with the point those women were trying to make. And therein lies the problem.
This tension around gender exists. Nobody wants it to, and nobody enjoys it, because it affects everyone involved. But repressing attempts to engage with sex, gender, and sexuality only adds to that tension. Spaces like Dyke March, where a community comes together to tackle the key issues we’re now facing, should be the ideal place for those discussions to happen.
I used to roll my eyes a bit when certain older feminists would complain about the shift towards online organising. But, in a way, I can see their point. We have lost sight of activism as a disruptive force, and disruption has long since characterised lesbian feminist organising. Remember the lesbians abseiling into the House of Lords? Their protest of Section 28, a homophobic bit of legislature that prevented anything positive being taught about gays and lesbians, was instrumental to that law being scrapped.
There are times when it’s necessary to go deeper than surface-level feelings and look at the power dynamics in play. The reality is that lesbians don’t hold the bulk of power – not in mainstream society, and not in the LGBT community either. In the original Dyke March, women chanted “We’re lesbians! We’re out! We’re out for power!” – words that resonate because of all the ways lesbian women are made marginal.
By sanitising the story of Dyke March, shifting it from herstory to history in order to fit in with the queer ideals popular in the present day, we do a disservice to the lesbians who fought for the rights we enjoy today. It’s worth asking what the Lesbian Avengers, who brought 20,000 women together, would think about the events of this year’s San Francisco Dyke March.