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Does serving Sweet ‘n Low in a restaurant perpetuate patriarchal standards for women to be thin and beautiful? Should a lesbian newsmonthly print poems by a woman in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA)? Will boycotting the Gay Community Services Center (GCSC) end sexism or will it destroy the organization?
These questions evoke the summer of 1975 in Jeanne Córdova’s new memoir, When We Were Outlaws (Spinster Ink). In 1975, Córdova is working as a writer/columnist for the L.A. Free Press, publishing the nationally-influential Lesbian Tide, picketing the Gay Community Service Center(GCSC) in Los Angles, and negotiating a new love affair within her non-monogamous relationship. Córdova expertly narrates all of these stories—and more—with drama, compelling dialogue, and wit. Clearly written, with close attention to historical details, When We Were Outlaws is an important contribution to the burgeoning collection of memoirs by lesbian-feminists.
The central plot, the memoir of revolution, recounts a conflict between lesbian-feminists and the GCSC. The board of the GCSC fired sixteen lesbian-feminist staffers, whom they deemed dissidents for trying to introduce feminist principles and practices at the GCSC. The story is a dramatic encounter of power and exposes different political ideologies within gay liberation and lesbian-feminism. Morris Kight, a mentor and father-figure to Córdova, is a key figure and a shrewd—albeit disappointing—actor in the drama. Although the picketing ends and there is a negotiated settlement to the conflict, ultimately, final resolution comes when the Briggs Amendment is introduced in California. Gay men and lesbians must put aside their political differences and join together in common cause. This story is an important history of alliance and conflict in local communities between lesbians and gay men, and it has national resonances to which Córdova alludes. It is also a story that could be pedantic and tiresome, but Córdova never lets that happen; in her hands, the strike becomes a dramatic incident to anchor her explorations of political actions, and their meanings, in the mid-1970s.
Equally entertaining is Córdova’s memoir of love. Córdova’s primary, non-monogamous relationship is with BeJo Gehrke. In May 1975, Córdova’s meets another woman, Rachel, at a demonstration. The two begin a passionate affair on Mondays and Fridays, the negotiated off days for Córdova and BeJo. What is fascinating about the story is the detail Córdova provides about how she organizes her non-monogamous life. Too many accounts of non-monogamy gloss over the details; Córdova explores the difficulties—both practical and emotional—of non-monogamy as well as the joys. She portrays non-monogamy as an important, and viable, political and personal position. It is an invigorating perspective amid the modern drumbeat for marriage, monogamously.
One of the most interesting elements of the memoir is Córdova’s quest to interview Emily Harris, a soldier in the SLA. Cordova’s work for the L.A. Free Press leads her to chronicle radical activism, on both the left and the right. Córdova interviews Angela Davis and asks her about her sexual orientation. She maps connections between lesbian-feminists and fugitives in the SLA—an important and fertile area of the memoir. She also interviews Joe Tomassi, a neo-Nazi militant. With extraordinary texture and compassion, Córdova reflects on her own choices to not take up firearms in her own revolutionary struggles as a lesbian-feminist. After interviewing Tomassi, Córdova realizes “that hatred for one person or hatred for all of humanity must be made of the same essence.” Moreover, she has the “disturbing thought” that “maybe my motivations and Tomassi’s were similar.” (210) This type of empathy and self-reflection characterizes the entire memoir. When Córdova finally interviews Harris in early January 1976, she illuminates the vibrant connections and disjunctions between queer activists of the 1970s and political revolutionaries. These stories and the questions and histories they open are an important part of the memoir.
When We Were Outlaws joins other memoirs of lesbian-feminists from the 1970s including Bettina Aptheker’s Intimate Politics, Alix Dobkin’s My Red Blood, and Terry Castle’s autobiographical writing in The Professor and Other Stories. Córdova’s writing doesn’t have the same sonorous qualities of Castle’s writing. In fact, there are moments where the prose is clunky and hackneyed, but When We Were Outlaws is content-rich and driven by a compelling plot. These two things make reading When We Were Outlaws a joy. Córdova also delivers fun lesbian gossip, including a lovely portrayal of Robin Tyler, and a bit of sex—the maraschino cherry in the Manhattan. Reading Córdova’s stories of activism, lesbian-feminism, and queer history is a delight. Personal histories like Córdova’s are vital to understanding more fully our queer past. I hope we see many more published because if we wait too long, they will be lost.
When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution
By Jeanne Córdova
Paperback, 9781935226512, 436pp