Interview with Lillian Faderman: Chronicles of LGBT struggles

Issue section: 
(333)

Lesbians faced appalling official discrimination in the US in the 1950s. LGBT historian Lillian Faderman tells Rita Mcloughlin that although conditions have changed dramatically we still need to fight for more.

What was it like coming out as a working class lesbian in the 1950s?

The 1950s were probably the worst time ever to be a lesbian in the US. I look at what the Western world is like now for lesbians and it's a different universe. Of course I recognise that young lesbians might have trouble with their families and still feel that there are certain jobs where they can't be out, but they have no conception of the constant fear lesbians lived in then.

I was a working class lesbian and I first came out after meeting a woman in a working class lesbian bar called the Open Door. It was 1956 and I was still a minor with a phoney ID. I describe in my memoir, Naked in the Promised Land, what it was like even walking down the street. Once I jaywalked across the street holding hands with my first lover who was a very butch woman - she was dressed, as it was considered in those days, like a man. Now everyone wears pants and tailored jackets but then that wasn't the case. This policeman stopped us, ostensibly for jaywalking, made us get into the car and drove around the block and parked. It was very threatening. He made her get out of the car. I had no idea what he would do. I thought I was going to be arrested but he just lectured me, saying I didn't look like somebody like Jan (the woman's name) and that she was bad business. Finally he just let us both go.

When I did interviews for my book, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, I heard many worse horror stories of butches and femmes who were picked up and sometimes raped, and I heard horror stories about raids on bars. There were many times when I got to bars just after a raid had taken place, where the bar was empty with just vice squad officers around.

Could you tell us about how lesbians were treated during the witchhunts of senator Joseph McCarthy?

It was particularly middle class women who were concerned about their livelihood during the McCarthy era. If you were a teacher or you worked in any kind of government position and it was discovered that you were lesbian, you could be fired on the grounds of immorality. There were witchhunts of lesbians working in government positions and they were frequently fired.

I was an undergraduate in my first semester at UCLA and when students entered we had to take a battery of tests. I remember well questions that kept appearing on a psychological test all freshmen had to take such as, "Have you ever dreamt of kissing a person of the same sex?", "Do you have affectionate feelings, or erotic feelings, towards a person of the same sex?" But all of us who were homosexual knew if we were smart enough to get into UCLA we had to say no to any question like that.

Once when I was doing research I ran across an article published in a journal called School and Society> in 1954, four years before I became a freshman. It was co-authored by the dean and associate dean of students at UCLA and the thrust of it was that it was the job of deans of students around the country to ferret out homosexuals and make sure that they got treatment for their homosexuality and changed. If they were unwilling to change they were to be expelled from college lest they spread the disease of homosexuality to other students. That was the atmosphere. We had constant reason to be wary, to be in hiding, to try to masquerade.

What were the main differences between the middle class lesbian groups and organisations and the working class lesbians' bar culture?

There was a huge divide. Middle class lesbians for the most part by the 1950s - it was different in earlier eras - were terrified about going to bars. There were occasional exceptions. There was a cocktail lounge, for example, in Los Angeles that I was familiar with. The style was a holdover from the earlier era where the entertainer and co-owner of the bar, Beverly Shaw, modelled herself on Marlene Dietrich. She would sit on the piano and sing, wearing a skirt with high heels and a man-tailored jacket and a bow tie. Middle class lesbians felt pretty conformable going there. The rumour was that Shaw paid the vice squad off, so it was a safe place.

But for the most part middle class lesbians were terrified of the bars because they were often raided. That was true in all the big US cities. Lesbian or lesbian and gay bars weren't safe and the names of everyone who was arrested would be in the newspapers. You would risk losing your job, and middle class lesbians who had extensive training as teachers or social workers or nurses didn't want to blow it all by being arrested. Instead they would have house parties and extended circles of friends who could do things that they considered safe.

For working class lesbians it would have been much harder to invite 20, 30 or 40 friends over to your small digs. So the only place to socialise or form a community was in the bar.

For many working class lesbians the bar culture was an absolutely wonderful thing because that's where they formed friendship circles. They could be who they were - if they were butch they could dress in butch garbs.

Yet it was so dangerous. There was also another danger. Alcoholism was so big in the lesbian community in the 1950s and 1960s because you couldn't stay in the bar unless you bought a drink, and you couldn't nurse one drink all night: you had to have several if you wanted to stay.

The 1969 Stonewall riots saw lesbians and gays fight back against the police in New York. How big a turning point were these events?

The Stonewall riots were certainly an important icon for gay men and lesbians, but at the same time that the riots took place, feminism was becoming very strong in the US, and lesbian feminism was starting to emerge.

Lesbian feminism was vital for many lesbians, particularly in the 1970s, more vital for them than the Stonewall riots. It was an absolutely wonderful era in the US. All sorts of publishing houses were founded and bookstores devoted to women's books were established. So much lesbian feminist philosophy, social philosophy, was written in the 1970s - it was a renaissance of lesbian thought.

What impact did the civil rights movement have on the radical ethnic minority homosexuals?

The civil rights movement had a huge impact on ethnic minority homosexuals, but on other lesbians and gay people as well. I don't think Stonewall would have happened if there hadn't have been a history of black protest and Latino protest, or Chicano protest as it was called in the US in the 1960s, and even the Native American and American Indian protests and Asian-American protests that happened in the 1960s. Slowly women looked around - all women - and realised that they were participating in the civil rights protests yet they weren't free as women and it was time for a women's movement.

Also, and I think this is so interesting and significant, the work around civil rights finally raised the idea that gay people weren't free either, and so those protests began. Without the civil rights movement of the 1960s there wouldn't have been a gay or a feminist movement or a lesbian feminist movement.

In Britain today many argue we have equal rights as gay people due to legislation and social acceptance. But there are those of us who say we still have a long way to go. How close do you think we are to gaining equality?

The bar is always raised. Expectations get higher and higher, which is wonderful. In the 1950s there was no way I would have dreamt of even having this conversation. Even 30 years ago there is no way I would have dreamt that I, as an academic, would have been able to write openly about homosexuality. There is no way I would have dreamt that our new president would have asked an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, to give an invocation at the pre-inaugural celebration. That would have been incredible.

Yet I'm a product not only of the 1950s but also of the present, and I want more. I want the right to marry now, not only because my partner and I have been together for 37 years and it would be good for society to recognise that, but for practical reasons as well. There are over a thousand federal privileges that married heterosexuals have that we don't have.

We have made so much progress, but the more progress you make the more you see there are still steps to take before real equality. It's wonderful that we can now be brave and bold enough to say we want it all. In the 1950s we would have said, "Just stop persecuting us - that's all we ask for." But now we are asking for more - it is our right to ask for more. We're not there yet, but we're so much further than I would have dreamt in the 1950s than we could ever be.