Karla Jay, founding GLF member
In Tales of the Lavender Menace: a Memoir of Liberation, Karla Jay describes her early days as a feminist and gay liberation activist. Her political life started several years before the Stonewall Riots, and by 1969 she was a leader in the newly formed Gay Liberation Front.
Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s & Gender Studies at Pace University in New York City, Jay has written for Ms Magazine, the Village Voice and the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. I caught up with the GLF founding member to talk about lesbians and the women’s movement, and why a national leader for the gay movement might not be needed after all.
CHRIS DELATORRE: Describe life immediately following the Stonewall Riots.
KARLA JAY: There was a great feeling of exaltation. We knew that we were making history when the GLF started to meet. We organized dances — before that, we had to go to mafia-run bars in NYC. We met other people who shared our goals of political, social, and cultural change.
DELATORRE: 1969. 2009. What’s changed? What hasn’t?
JAY: Many, many things have changed, including civil rights for our communities in some U.S. states and other countries. Some corporations are queer-friendly, and most colleges have a group for students. On a sadder note, many members of our community are still afraid to come out entirely, or even in part.
DELATORRE: In your 2000 memoir Tales of the Lavender Menace, you share detailed accounts of New York City, sex, family and gay activism during what many regard a “turbulent” era in which you came of age. Tell us about the Lavender Menace. How close were you to Rita Mae Brown? Have you maintained relationships with any original GLF or Menace members?
JAY: I’m assuming that you don’t need details of the Lavender Menace action, which is recounted in my memoir. To write that book, I interviewed several members of the Lavender Menace, including Michela Griffo and Ellen Shumsky. Rita Mae Brown and I went to the same graduate school (NYU), and we both belonged to Redstockings and the Lavender Menace, and later Radicalesbians. However, after she left New York and moved to Washington, D.C., we stayed in touch only sporadically. Allen Young and I met in GLF. We worked on four books together, and we remain close friends.
DELATORRE: How were you involved with the National Organization for Women (NOW)? How would you say Betty Friedan viewed the alliance between “butch” or “militant” lesbians and the feminist movement at the time?
JAY: Like many feminists, I attended NOW meetings, but I was turned off by its traditional structure and turned to more radical groups like Redstockings. I don’t think that Friedan distinguished between types of lesbians — she saw all of us as a threat to the women’s movement. She felt that we would give it a bad reputation, and it was she who coined the term “lavender menace.”
DELATORRE: Is there an intersection between the Gay Rights and the Feminist Movements? If so, when did you first realize it? How would you describe your experience in both of those worlds, either separately or combined?
JAY: Again, I can’t give a capsulated version here of what I had to explain at great length in my memoir. I think that both LGBTQ people and women are oppressed by heterosexism, but that doesn’t mean that we are the same. That connection was obvious to me early on. The women’s movement was to a large degree anti-lesbian, and some men in the GLF didn’t like women or were simply sexist, so I felt that I didn’t entirely fit in either camp, but I believed in the liberation efforts of both groups.
DELATORRE: HIV/AIDS made an indelible mark on the LGBT community. We lost a generation of doctors, lawyers, artists and activists, and young people are sometimes left without mentors because of it. What would you say HIV/AIDS did for the Movement?
JAY: I have to disagree with the premise of your question. There are many mentors and heroes all around us, most of whom volunteered their time and money without ever getting any credit. The most serious loss was among African-American male writers and filmmakers — there was really quite a toll taken in that community. The struggle to cure HIV/AIDS did bring together many lesbians and gay men, who had gone their separate ways over the years. What the struggle against HIV most contributed was the idea that individuals — not the government — were going to have to organize, raise money, march, lobby, and fund research for cures. The breast cancer walks are a great example of a lesson learned.
DELATORRE: In the recent New York Times article “Why the Gay Rights Movement Has No National Leader”, Jeremy Peters claims that “another reason for the absence of a nationally prominent gay leader is the highly local nature of the movement,” adding that “unlike the civil rights and the feminist movements, the gay movement lacked a galvanizing national issue.” Your response to this?
JAY: The assumption that we need a national leader is ridiculous. The reality is that we are not one people and do not share race, gender, class, sexual preferences, or a common upbringing. Queers constitute many communities, and it is more fruitful for us to address the issues we want to tackle rather than thinking we all have to support one issue — like marriage.
DELATORRE: What was the most difficult thing for you as you came into womanhood? How did your identity as a lesbian change you, and did you find the need to reconcile your “feminism” with being a lesbian?
JAY: I don’t see any conflict between being a lesbian and a feminist. The feminist movement would be much weaker without the contributions of lesbians. Rather than seeing coming out and struggling for feminism and LGBTQ rights as something difficult, I realize how strong that initial struggle has made me.