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Before The Marriage Equality Movement, These Lesbians Were Targeting Children In School Yards

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In the past week, debate has raged over who should receive the lion's share of the credit for the recent successes of the gay rights movement: unprecedented public support, prominent conservative endorsements and a wave of friendly rulings from courts across the United States.

A new book by New York Times reporter Jo Becker throws its weight behind Chad Griffin, the head of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT rights organization in the United States, and the two straight lawyers he recruited to overturn Proposition 8, California's gay marriage ban. Many have criticized the book for downplaying the role of other activists, including Evan Wolfson, the head of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, who helped design the conservative-friendly message that has undergirded the movement's recent successes: gay people value love, commitment and family, just like everyone else.

Last month, Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming, became the latest conservative figure to echo these sentiments in an announcement of his support for same-sex marriage. "I have had a wonderful married life. Why shouldn't somebody else have the joy of marriage?" he said in a video produced by Freedom to Marry. "Live and let live. It is very simple."

Times have certainly changed. Back in 1992, a radical activist group called the Lesbian Avengers staged a demonstration in front of a schoolyard in Queens, N.Y., handing kids balloons instructing them to "ask about lesbian lives." The flyers that they posted around the neighborhood carried a far less anodyne message than Freedom to Marry's: "The lesbian avengers are coming to make the world safe for baby dykes everywhere."

The Lesbian Avengers are the focus of a new memoir by one of the group's founding members, Kelly Cogswell. She waxes nostalgic for the radicalism of the era, and like many of her contemporaries, laments the gay rights movement's embrace of conservative mainstream ideals.

Her book, "Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger," begins in 1992, the year a group of artists and activists in New York formed the Avengers. In the summer of that year, at the Republican National Convention in Texas, Pat Buchanan declared a “cultural war” against liberals, atheists, feminists and “the homosexual rights movement.”

It was a full five years before Ellen DeGeneres would announce on Oprah that she was a lesbian. Even as gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign and ACT UP, an organization dedicated to fighting AIDS, made headlines, lesbians were by and large left out of the national conversation. For several years, the Avengers worked to change that, employing provocative slogans -- "We Recruit," declared one poster, featuring a sexy Pam Grier wearing a bra and hoisting a rifle -- and flashy protest strategies. The title of Cogswell's book refers to a frequently deployed protest technique, where avengers would set alight strips of cloth soaked in lighter fluid, dip the burning rags into their mouths, then exhale flames.

The grade school in Queens was the group's first target, after school board officials in the area refused to adopt a "rainbow" curriculum -- a program designed to teach first graders about ethnic and racial diversity in the city -- because three of its 443 pages urged teachers to include references to gay men and lesbians.

Not every woman who attended the early Avengers meetings supported the group's strategy, Cogswell recalls in her book. The Avengers "sneered a little at the dykes who would turn up as regularly as Cassandra to point an irate finger and accuse us of setting back the movement a hundred years by going anywhere near children. 'My god, they already think we’re pedophiles,' they’d wail."

But Newsday and other local publications covered the protest, and the Avengers began to plan their next actions. In 1993, they organized a Dyke March in Washington that drew 20,000 lesbians, and Newsweek ran a cover story about it, heralding it as the dawn of a new era. "Now lesbians are determined to cast off their role as handmaidens to other activists and stake their own claims," the article read.

The book isn't only about the Avengers' stunts. Long sections are concerned more with Cogswell's personal and romantic travails than her political efforts. But the parts that do focus on the Avengers convey the excitement and energy that Cogswell and her allies felt as they took to the streets, and demanded that the public, and especially the press, recognize the simple fact of their existence.

In one passage, she describes how the Avengers infiltrated a black-tie dinner for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, interrupting the proceedings to urge the attendees to acknowledge lesbians in their work. In another, she writes about how the Avengers didn't get permits for their actions. Unlike the gay men who presided over the AIDS awareness movement, and later, the fight for marriage equality, they were rarely interested in striving for specific legal changes, and were determined to operate outside of the mainstream channels of political advocacy work.

By 1995, the Avengers had disbanded. It's not exactly surprising that this leftist, leaderless group imploded under the strain of countless disagreements over race and politics. But whether this band of rebels had any lasting effect on the broader culture remains an open question. In a recent interview, Cogswell was ambivalent about both the legacy of the Avengers and the gains of the gay rights movement, saying she didn't think lesbians were any more visible today than in the past. "When in a movie do you see just two lesbians walking down the street as extras?" she said. "You know when you're a full member of society when you get to be the extra in something."

She's not alone in feeling alienated by the LGBT movement's march toward respectability. Su Friedrich, a former Avenger who teaches video production at Princeton, lamented the focus on marriage equality as the ultimate goal. "Back in the day I don't think we were imagining that everyone was going to be living in the suburbs and having kids," she said.

Michael Bronski, a professor at Harvard and the author of "A Queer History Of The United States," sees the Avengers as a wonderful, vibrant chapter that undoubtedly helped push the concerns of lesbians into the national conversation, but he's less certain about what they achieved in the long run. Instead, he suggested that radical groups on both sides of the fight may have had less of an influence on the lives of gay people than most observers imagine.

"We tend to view the gay movement as radical extremes," Bronski said. "The reality is I think that you have this pretty consistent drumbeat and march toward the middle of the road and towards a mainstream acceptable image of outsiders that keeps expanding. America's genius has actually been, slowly and through a lot of horrible things, accepting people."

Few people would disagree that the country is more accepting of gays today than ever before, and perhaps that explains why radical groups like the Avengers are no longer as visible. But just because the movement has won the fight over marriage in 17 states doesn't mean there's no place for the raucous tactics that the Avengers embraced. Being gay can still get you fired or denied housing. Hate crimes against LGBT people continue. It's possible to debate whether lesbians have become more visible since the '90s, but no one can contend that the battle for equality is over.

Cogswell says she's "burned out" on activism, but her book is filling with longing for the sound of protest and the taste of fire. "I can still hear their voices," she writes of her fellow fighters. "Maybe because we’re still being attacked, no matter how many times we climb on the deck of that metaphorical destroyer and wave a giant banner, 'Victory.'"

Around the Web

Tick-Tock: The Explosive Power of the Lesbian Avengers

History of Lesbian Avengers Chronicled in "Eating Fire"

Op-ed: Holding Out for a (Gay) Hero

Eating Fire — University of Minnesota Press

The Lesbian Avengers Handbook - ACT UP new york

Young Avengers Wins the GLAAD Media Award