The Power And The Pride

Two, four, six, eight, how do you know your grandma's straight?"the women chanted,many thousands strong, on the eve of the recent gay-and lesbian-rights march in Washington. There were, in fact, lots of grandmotherly types proceeding down Connecticut Avenue that spring evening, along with bare-breasted teenagers in overalls, aging baby boomers in Birkenstocks and bald biker dykes in from the Coast. Advertising execs strode arm in arm with electricians, architects with politicians. As onlookers pondered the stereotype-defying scene, the demonstrators reveled in their sheer numbers. It was, for once, an unabashed display of lesbian clout.

Lesbians have always been the invisible homosexuals. There are an estimated 2 million to 3 million of them in the United States-far fewer than the approximately 5 percent of the population represented by gay men. Activists believe that most lesbians haven't come out. But now, during the dawning of the "Gay '90s," these women are stepping front and center. From the studios of Hollywood to the hearing rooms of the Capitol, lesbians suddenly seem to be out of the closet and in your face. Last June, country singer k. d. lang came out to The Advocate, a bi-weekly gay magazine, giving new meaning to her hit "Constant Craving." Avowed bisexual Sandra Bernhard took her place in the "Roseanne" lineup, playing the lesbian co-owner of a sandwich shop opposite actress Morgan Fairchild. "We're like the Evian water of the '90s," stand-up comic Suzanne Westenhoefer says wryly. "Everybody wants to know a lesbian or to be with a lesbian or just to dress like one."

Why now? As conservatives are quick to note, the election of Bill Clinton contributed to this open atmosphere. Though many homosexuals feel let down by his waffling on the military ban (page 60), they give him credit for being the first president to acknowledge gays and lesbians, let alone promote them. Last month former San Francisco supervisor Roberta Achtenberg became an assistant secretary of housing and urban, development-and the first open homosexual ever confirmed by the U.S. Senate for political office. In the end, however, the new lesbian presence has as much to do with women power as gay power. "Sometimes I think it's like the year of the woman squared," says lesbian comic Kate Clinton (no relation to the president). "It's sort of like the year of the woman loving woman."

Yet lesbians are still struggling to define themselves politically and socially. "Are we the women's part of the gay movement or the lesbian part of the women's movement?" muses Torie Osborn, the head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) in Washington. Obviously, they are both. Lesbian activists have toiled in behalf of issues-notably, AIDS and abortion-that are unlikely to affect them directly. "We have for years and years taken care of A Town Like everybody but ourselves," says Ellen Carton of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

Now lesbians are determined to cast off their role as handmaidens to other activists and stake their own claims. It won't be so easy. For all their new pride, lesbians face a lot of old prejudice. The emergence of openly lesbian couples-publicly affectionate or with their children-may test the limits of America's uneasy tolerance of homosexuality. Even many liberals who watched C-Span's unexpurgated coverage of the gay-rights march were offended by the spectacle of some women-albeit from the lesbian fringes-who were kissing or half naked. More mainstream lesbians themselves worry about the dangers of visibility. A look at some of the gains, goals and battles:

ACTIVISM: "I'm a little amused at this renewed interest in lesbians," says Urvashi Vaid, former executive director of NGLTF. Vaid, who is writing a book about the gay-rights movement, notes that lesbians have played a prominent role in many social fights, from abolition and temperance to civil rights. Like gays generally, they are better educated than the overall population. But they have operated, by and large, from the closet. And when some of them tried to come out, it was their straight sisters who slammed the door shut. During the 1970s, the NOW (National Organization for Women) leadership purged open lesbians, lest their presence somehow taint the movement. They still worked for the cause of ten under the nom de guerre "radical feminists"-but the rebuff caused a good deal of bitterness. Today lesbians can take some measure of vindication from the appointment of Patricia Ireland, who has both a husband and a woman lover, as NOW president.

The '80s brought the devastation of AIDS, and with it a partial healing of an old rift between male and female homosexuals. For many lesbians, the bottom line about gays has always been that they are men, and often sexist to boot." Straight men at least have an incentive to pretend they respect women," jokes Hillary Rosen, vice president of the Recording Industry of America and a member of the board of directors of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a lobbying group. Yet many gay men now recognize the debt they owe lesbians, who embraced At a the cause of AIDS as their own. Lesbians, many of whom belonged to such "caring" professions as nursing and social work, helped start health-care networks. They lobbied for policy change and protested when it didn't happen fast enough. "AIDS did knit us into family," says Vaid. "Before, we existed in parallel worlds."

New fissures, however, have begun to show. While few lesbians would argue that it was wrong to rally round the AIDS fight, there have been rumblings about the need to refocus their energies. Lesbians consider themselves victims of both homophobia and sexism. Some issues now on the table, like the military ban, speak to the homosexuality of lesbians. Others are women's issues, such as pay equity, day care and the ERA. Some overlap, becoming in the process uniquely theirs. "Take reproductive freedom," says New York state legislator Deborah Glick, a lesbian. "It brings up areas of family law that haven't been dealt with, like artificial insemination." Lesbians have also begun demanding more money for research on breast cancer-a worry for all women but, because of its increased risk with childlessness, a particular concern among homosexuals.

But questions about how to reach their goals, and who will lead, continue to bedevil lesbian activists. Like the gay-rights movement generally, the lesbian ranks embody people of different colors, class, education and culture; their issues aren't always the same. Should lesbians pour money into mainstream lobbying groups, or take to the streets with the Lesbian Avengers, a protest outfit formed to attract media attention to lesbian causes? And what about those men, who still dominate gay leadership positions? "When a lesbian walks into a room of gay men, it's the same as when she walks into a room of heterosexual men," says one activist. "You're listened to and then politely ignored."That, politically active lesbians agree, is one thing that must change. "We're not going to be invisible anymore," says Lesbian Avenger Ann Northrop. "We are going to be prominent and have power and be part of all decision making."

YOUTHQUAKE: Coming of age sexually is always a rocky rite of passage; for homosexuals, even more so. But young lesbians seem less and less conflicted about their identity. Girls who "are growing up lesbian today," says Carton, 35, of GLAAD, "watch 'Roseanne,' and they see a main character played by Sandra Bernhard, who's a lesbian, and it's accepted on the show. That's the difference FEMME Traditionally, the between me growing up in the '60s and seeing 'The Children's Hour' with Shirley MacLaine. She finds out she's a lesbian and she kills herself." Growing up in a small, Southern town, Ashley Herrin (who appears on NEWSWEEK's cover with her partner Catherine Angiel) turned to alcohol to deaden her feelings of sexual differentness. Today she's sober and is studying to become a therapist for homosexuals. Not all young lesbians believe they can tell their parents about their sexual orientation even now, but pioneers from the feminist trenches detect a refreshing SEX-POSITIVE Flaunts new sense of self-acceptance. "When I was 21, I was terrified," says Dorothy Allison, lesbian author of the best-selling novel "Bastard Out of Carolina." "These young lesbians aren't seared in the same way. They're living their lives instead of explaining their lives."

On a few campuses around the country, straights have found themselves on the defensive. "Once in a while you'll hear a first-year student slightly upset about being called a breeder or something," says Robin Russell, a recent graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, considered to be a gay mecca by many young homosexuals. The annual Lesbutante Ball is a command performance for lesbian couples in their hutch and femme finery. Earlier this year, at the University of Washington in Seattle, the student government sponsored its first Dyke Visibility Day. The catalogs of some 45 schools contain courses on the homosexual experience.

One common experience that doesn't appear in the course offerings is that of the "four-year lesbian." In today's politically correct atmosphere, say many students, it's become the in thing to experiment sexually. For some, that has meant lesbian relations. Feminist scholar Catharine Stimpson, dean of the graduate school at Rutgers University, says her students consider themselves to be a bisexual "Third Wave." "They're quite condescending about dividing humanity into heterosexual and homosexual," says Stimpson. The "LUG," or "lesbian until graduation" phenomenon, however, has alienated many people-not only straight alumni but lesbians, who suggest that it trivializes their long and difficult journey. "It's funny," says black lesbian author Jacqueline Woodson, 30. "When you go to college, you date all these baby dykes. Then you graduate, and you're still a lesbian, but they've gotten married and secure."

POP CULTURE: On March 10, an article about lesbian comedian Lea DeLaria appeared in the Los Angeles Times, saying, "'The Tonight Show' is off-limits. 'Late Night' won't touch her." Arsenio Hall, DeLaria recalls, figured that if the other shows didn't want her, she was probably right for him. She passed her audition only to encounter resistance from Arsenio's lawyers. They didn't want her to use the word dyke, which, says DeLaria, It was basically my entire act. Arsenio himself walked in and said, 'If she wants to call herself a dyke, then it's not our business'. So there she was, some three weeks later, in a man's suit, beaming out to America: "It's great to be here because it's the 1990s, and it's hip to be queer and I'm a big dyke."

The appearance of an openly gay comic on national television was a rare event, indeed. Though everybody knows the arts are fall of gays and lesbians, the entertainment industry has done its best to keep them in the closet. In the course of working on her forthcoming book on Hollywood, "But Wait a Second, We Haven't Finished Lunch," author Julia Phillips found that lesbians were particularly fearful about coming out. "It seems to me they're like where the guys were 30 years ago," says Phillips. "Hollywood is not really a brave kind of place anyway ... and lesbians are right at the bottom of the list in terms of power structure."

The entertainment industry's treatment of gay and lesbian themes has been a mixed performance. TV has become somewhat more willing to project what lesbians consider to be a realistic image of their lives. Lesbians salute recent episodes of "Roseanne" and "Seinfeld," which portray them as normal people. The movies have a more troubling track record. Male fantasy, lesbians say, drove the siniste portrayal in "Basic Instinct. "I don't know any lesbian icepick killers," says Ellen Carton. "Do you?" The film "Fried Green Tomatoes" left the nature of the relationship between its two heroines ambiguous; the novella on which it was based left no doubt that they were lovers.

Some of Hollywood's reticence comes from an assumption that mainstream America isn't ready for gay and lesbian themes. But a number of lesbian authors have demonstrated their crossover appeal. Little, Brown has published hardcover editions of Sandra Scoppettone's mysteries, which include homosexual love scenes. Novelist Allison was even a little surprised by the success of her earlier, lesbian-oriented books among the public. "Eighty percent of the people at my readings are straight," she says. "It bothered me at first because I wasn't sure if I was being understood. But they read me the way I want to be read, which makes me hopeful."

SEX AND SOCIETY: Legend has it that Queen Victoria asked her ministers, "What do lesbians do?" Many straights still don't get it, but, says psychotherapist JoAnne Loulan, the Dr. Ruth of lesbian sex," it is such a simple concept." For good or ill, lesbians have found it easy to "pass" because society accepts affectionate relations between women without assuming that they're sexual. Some straight men find the notion of two women together titillating. Others tend not to feel threatened by lesbians. because "they can't imagine women having sex without [their] aid," says San Francisco psychology professor John De Cecco.

In fact, the desire to sleep with other women is perhaps the only common denominator in today's extraordinarily diverse lesbian culture. The pluralism is relatively new: in the '70s, the prevailing outlook was separatist and even prudish. Nine years ago, Debra Sundahl and Nan Kinney started On Our Backs, a lesbian magazine intended as a rebuke to feminist orthodoxy. "Women were denying themselves sexual pleasure because of politics," says Sundahl. "If it was male-identified, they decided not to do it." Now, says Carol Queen, an owner of a sexual paraphernalia store in San Francisco called Good Vibrations, "the lesbian community has a somewhat different take on sexual adventuring." There is a vital "sex-positive" scene, with nightly dancing at places like the Clit Club in New York and San Francisco's twice-a-month sex clubs.

Others don't have the energy to party they're the "vanilla lesbians," home with their kids. There have always been lesbian parents, but in previous decades they tended to be women who discovered their sexuality some time after marriage and motherhood. Increasingly, there are lesbian couples who are becoming mothers together. Eileen Rakower, 33, and her partner their daughter; each had a child by artificial insemination Washington march from the same unknown donor. "We have created a family this way, as out lesbians," says Rakower, a lawyer. Interestingly, some of the deepest resistance the two women encountered came from older homosexuals. "What we saw," she says, "was a real self-doubting, self-hatred. We don't get that anymore from people who know us and know our kids," now 4 years old and 20 months old.

Lesbians are well aware that their new prominence brings with it the risk of backlash. Polls about gays suggest that are most tolerant of sexual differences when they don't have to confront them. Many lesbians worry they'll become scapegoats for ultraconservatives-a fear exacerbated by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms's reported attacks on Achtenberg as a "damn lesbian." "The abortion issue has been lost. Now they're looking for a new target," says Dr. Dee Mosbacher, daughter of George Bush's secretary of commerce and a lesbian psychiatrist in San Francisco. "We fit the bill." Such concerns have long kept lesbians in the closet. But since the first salvo of the gay revolution in 1969, homosexuals have stressed the importance of coming out, and visibility remains the most pressing item on today's lesbian agenda. "More and more of us are starting to feel we have no choice," says Washington lobbyist Rosen, "and probably nothing to lose." At the very least, lesbians can claim some of the attention they say has so long, and so unfairly, eluded them.

FEMME

Traditionally, the "feminine" partner; young women are now redefining the role as less submissive

BUTCH

Wears suit, motorcycle jacket or other "manly" gear

LIPSTICK LESBIAN

Part of The Madonna Esthetic. Dolls up, has long nails, wears makeup and skirts.

SEX-POSITIVE

Flaunts female-to-female eroticism, no-guilt, feel-good sex

VANILLA

Likes kissing, holding hands, no rough stuff