Female Activism and Representation for the LGBT Community
“During the twentieth century, aspects of the private lives of women became public and politicized. One of the most prominent aspects, arguably the most personal and private one, was sexuality. Beginning in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, women explored the topic of previously “deviant” sexualities (whether it was their own or others’) in the public sphere through writing novels and film. Their efforts helped advance the acceptance of women as sexual beings and empowered women of marginalized sexual and gender identities to advocate for their rights both in politics and through the judicial system. These women, who increased the visibility of marginalized sexualities through their writing and directing, played a vital role in the sexual revolution.
In the early 1900s, the gendered differences between women and men were more important than their commonalities as humans. Institutions such as schools and the media taught that women were chaste and private beings that were morally superior to men, perhaps because birth control was unavailable at the time. Society encouraged men to explore their sexuality before marriage but expected women to remain virgins— a phenomenon known as the sexual double standard. However, the controlled containment of female sexuality became even more oppressive during the Cold War era.
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As the Truman presidency worked to contain communism abroad, the sexuality of women and the LGBTQ community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) was similarly contained. For the LGBTQ community, both society and the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental illness and this “sexual perversion” was grounds for job loss. Gays and lesbians were deemed a security risk and targeted alongside suspected communists in the Red Scare era. For women, a 1953 report by Alfred Kinsey titled “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” found that 90% of women surveyed engaged in “premarital petting” and half had engaged in premarital sex. The findings shocked the nation and female sexuality outside of marriage was deemed dangerous. According to the opinions of society at the time, female victims of incest were “promiscuous” and unwed mothers “got themselves pregnant.”
The hostility towards female and marginalized sexualities continued until the dawn of the sexual revolution via the introduction of birth control. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for contraceptive use. Most people expected that the pill would help curtail population growth in developing countries and allow married couples to control when they started and expanded their families. But no one anticipated the profound effect the pill had on unmarried women. For heterosexual women, the pill was a promise of sexual equality and freedom from the sexual double standard. And as more and more unmarried women gained access to the pill through activism in the judicial system, the sexual revolution gained traction.
With the acceptance of female sexuality came marginally greater acceptance of sexual identities previously considered “deviant.” For example, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While this official recognition helped, the increased visibility of the LGBTQ community during this era mostly happened through representation in books and film. One year later, Patricia Nell Warren released one of the first popular books that openly displayed a romantic and sexual relationship between two men. The Front Runner is the love story of a track coach and one of his athletes; the former was closeted and the latter came out publicly. Before and after beginning their relationship, both men experienced discrimination because of their sexuality. During the story, the young athlete encourages his partner to overcome his hesitation and proudly accept his sexual orientation in the public sphere.
Warren wrote The Front Runner from her own experience as a lesbian in sports and sought to share the tension that was ever-present in gay athletes of this era: hide their identity and focus on their athletic career or publicly come out and face possible repercussions. It became extremely popular, selling over 11 million copies translated into 10 languages, perhaps because it perfectly captured the moment of change she wrote it in. Unlike novels of the past, such as Gillian Freeman’s 1961 The Leather Boys which depicted a heterosexual marriage jeopardized because of homosexual attraction, Warren’s novel did not represent the relationship between the two characters as secretive or taboo. She wanted to challenge the stereotype that gay men are solely involved in the arts or alternative bohemian lifestyles (like Alan’s lifestyle as portrayed in Valerie Taylor’s The Girls in 3-B) and showed that homosexual relationships are just as fulfilling and happy as heterosexual ones. Essentially, she represented gay relationships as normal, which spoke to the young generation growing up in the sexual revolution and gave hope to the older generation that still remembered the policies of containment during the 1950s.
Because Freeman and Warren’s books centered around relationships between two men, one might wonder if relationships between women received the same attention. Before the sexual revolution, Valerie Taylor’s The Girls in 3B explores a lesbian relationship through the character Barby. Although Barby and her partner achieve a happy ending, quite revolutionary for this period in lesbian literature, Taylor does use Barby’s experience with abuse as a reason for her turn to the lesbian lifestyle and she portrayed it as secretive and taboo. In contrast, Barbara Hammer’s many “essay-like” films and documentaries painted a bold and unapologetic picture of lesbian sexuality. One 1974 film, “Dyketactics”, consists of montages of nude women and lesbian lovemaking in a picturesque forest setting. Others focused on masturbation (“Multiple Orgasms”) and a comparison between the male gaze and how women view their own sexuality (“No No Nooky T.V.”).
Hammer also explored important figures and events in queer history in her work, such as her documentary “The Female Closet” (1998) which told the story of the 20th-century lesbian photographer Alice Austen and “Snow Job” (1986) which covered the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Her films even explored topics that may still be considered as taboo, such as her 1974 film “Menses” on menstruation. While her films never became popular or widely viewed, as Warren’s The Front Runner did, she was recognized with several awards that allowed her to finance her work and retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern. Hammer was a pioneer of lesbian film and her work is some of the earliest documentation of lesbians on camera in an authentic way that was devoid of the male gaze. Certainly, Hammer was a documentarian of a crucial period in queer history.
As visibility and acceptance started becoming a reality for gays and lesbians during the sexual revolution, one group remained in the shadows— transgender people. Barbra Siperstein came out as a transgender woman to her wife Carol in the 1980s. However, likely due to the backlash of the New Right against the LGBTQ community and the panic of the AIDS epidemic, Barbra and her wife kept her identity a secret. She only started her public activism after Carol passed away in 2001. At that point, much of the groundwork had been laid for LGBTQ community in terms of visibility and, in some cases, acceptance. The time was right for transgender activism.
Siperstein served as the first transgender member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee from 2011 to 2017. While serving, she helped convince the democratic party to add gender identity as a class of protected rights. In her home state of New Jersey, she lobbied against conversion therapy, a damaging program designed to try to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and in support of access to healthcare programs designed for transgender people. She was also a delegate for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Just before her death, a law bearing her name went into effect which allowed citizens of New Jersey to change the gender on their birth certificates without proof of sex reassignment surgery. None of Siperstein’s political activism would have been possible without the foundation set by queer activists, writers, and filmmakers like Warren and Hammer.
Another figure at the center of recent legal battles was Sharon Mattes. In the 1990s, Mattes was involved in a highly publicized custody case in which her mother claimed that she and her female partner were unfit parents for her son Tyler. Mattes sought opinions from various courts that gave different rulings, but she eventually lost custody of her son. Interestingly, her son’s father (also her ex-husband) Dennis Doustou believed that Mattes should maintain custody of their son. However, her own mother said “I don’t care how my daughter lives her life, but Tyler is going to be mentally and physically harmed because of their relationship. It’s unfit.” While Siperstein and other trans activists benefited from queer writers and filmmakers who brought visibility to LGBTQ causes, Mattes was hurt by them. During the court battles, Mattes and her partner April Wade allowed the creation of a television movie based on the custody dispute titled “Two Mothers for Zachary.” However, the Henrico County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court ruled in 1996 that Mattes was an unfit parent because of the movie, stating that “Tyler was made the poster boy for a cause he could not and did not enlist.”
Ultimately, Gillian Freeman, Patricia Warren, Valerie Taylor, Barbara Hammer, Barbra Siperstein, and Sharon Mattes each played a role in advancing the visibility and representation of queer issues. Each helped, in part, to bring women from submissive and chaste beings who could do no wrong to the complex and sexual people they truly are. From writing about homosexual relationships to explicitly showing female sexuality onscreen to lobbying and tearing through the judicial system for rights, each woman did the LGBTQ community and dominant society a great service. They each contributed to a growing narrative: that queer people are people who deserve the right to live an ordinary life with the person they love and a family. That they do not deserve to be contained, feared, or looked down upon. That they are normal people who love and feel, just like straight people. And in doing their part, they allowed people today to continue their fight. Today, queer activists have helped to legalize (and normalize) gay marriage and fight bathroom bills. But it would not have happened without these women and their tireless work during the era of containment, the sexual revolution, and the backlash of the New Right. And for that, we should all be grateful.”