MICKEY ELIASON

I was destined to receive Vol 1, Issue 1, as I saw the unfolding of my own queer life in that issue. Both OUT/LOOK and I had a professional coming out in spring of 1988, and I was reading many of the authors who were featured in that issue as part of my education about my own queer past and current politics. In this piece, I tell my own coming out story and react to some of the articles in the issue that were most centrally related to my own personal experience.

Dyke in the Making

I had been expecting the package to arrive over the past few days, and picked it up at the mailbox with some excitement. As soon as I reached my apartment, I opened the brown paper wrapping and held the magazine in my hands. I had thought that I might recognize the cover, but I did not.

1988…I cast my thoughts to the past, trying to remember what was happening in my own life when this magazine first appeared. I was living in Iowa City, and had just started a faculty position in the College of Nursing. I don’t think I was aware of OUT/LOOK right away; it was not for another year or so that the local progressive bookstore started carrying it. But once aware of its presence, I think I read nearly every other issue.

If a magazine were like a person, it would have a backstory—no doubt OUT/LOOK had a long history before it appeared in 1988. It was conceived in someone’s mind, grew into its terrible twos demanding to be heard, and matured into childhood before it made its debut in public, and then it reached its peak creativity and died later. It left memories and a legacy. Because one of the most powerful lessons of my lesbian feminist education was that “the personal is political,” I knew that what was happening in the LGBTQ movement was impacting my personal life so I decided to track the parallels in my own life to the issues raised in this inaugural volume. If I thought of my life in phases, 1988 was in the beginning of my Phase 3; becoming an LGBTQ scholar, and OUT/LOOK was part of my professional and personal development. But first, I needed to go back and see what came first, and how OUT/LOOK figured into my own historical and cultural understandings. OUT/LOOK has a coming out story and so do I.

Phase 1: Pre-Dyke Years (birth to age 30)

Growing up in rural Iowa with no lesbian role models in my community or in the media, I knew that I was different from about age 10 on. Maybe the photos of me at age 3 showed I was already headed to dyke-dom—I was a tomboy for sure. 

Dyke in the making, circa 1956.

Later, images like the cover shot of Gladys Bentley would appeal to me, and I would wonder at the courage it took those women to be proudly butch. When I think of my own growing up and having crushes on girls for as long as I can remember, I think that theories of sexual orientation as an inborn or essential component of the human being make sense. So many of us report being different for as long as we can remember. Later, I would align firmly with a social constructionist viewpoint, but my own developmental trajectory appears to show a very stable orientation to women from an early age, with no deviations to this day (in my mid 60s). But the force to conform was strong in me, and I did not reveal my attraction to girls to anyone until I was nearly 30. But the process started sooner. I began to “butch up” by cutting my hair shorter each year and doing jock things like ride a bicycle across the state. Here I am in 1977, madly in love with a coworker named Sue (cropped out of the photo since she never knew). But I did not label myself as a lesbian yet. Would it have helped to have OUT/LOOK available then? Probably not, because I was already living in a town with an out and active lesbian community, but I was carefully avoiding places at school like the Women’s Center and progressive organizations so I would not have to face my truth. You cannot see what you are not ready to see.

Dyke in denial, with bicycle circa 1977.

It takes a lot of energy to live as I was living—in love with my best friend and coworker that I saw every day, but hiding how I felt about her. I don’t know how I did it. OUT/LOOK was not yet in my life—but it had not come out yet either, so maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Coming out is a process.

Phase 2: Coming Out, Baby Dyke (1984-87)

Proud out baby dyke circa 1986.

I grew up in a stoic Scandinavian Midwest culture that was masterful in the art of denial. I was painfully shy as a child and young adult and desperately wanted to just blend in. So even after years of crushes on girls and women, I did not let myself acknowledge that I was a lesbian until about age 30. I lived in the lesbian haven of Iowa City, but worked at the medical campus, which was much more conservative than the rest of the university. I sublimated my sexual desires into drive for higher education. The year I finished my PhD (1984) was the year I came out to myself. I really knew I was a lesbian all along, but shortly after my graduation, when I was actually thinking of starting another degree program, my inner dyke wisdom voice finally said, “Enough! Come out already.”

Two events helped me decide that I was definitely a lesbian. The first was finding lesbian community. I started my search by cutting out an ad from the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper, about a coming out group at the Unitarian Church. For three consecutive weeks, I drove to the church at the designated time. The first time, I merely drove by. The second time, I parked the car, but did not get out. The third time, I actually went in. The group was welcoming, but it was constituted of a male facilitator and five very cute 18-22 year old men. Luckily, the facilitator said at the end of the group. “I will make desserts and introduce you to the lesbians.” He did that a few weeks later, and I started my exploration of the diverse and confusing lesbian cliques in my small community. I maintained some doubts along the way, until the second event. In early 1985, I took an afternoon off and went to a noon matinee on a Tuesday to see Desert Hearts. I did not want to be seen at a “lesbian movie” until I was sure. Ninety-six minutes later, I was sure.

Desert Hearts, 1985
I still have a cowboy boot fetish.

During that time, I sought out publications to help me understand my own sexual orientation and how to manage being an out and proud dyke. I read mostly coming out stories and was obsessed particularly with coming out to parents, as I had much anxiety about that. I discovered the WRAC (Women’s Resource and Action Center) on campus, and started attending events or just hanging out in the lobby or the library. The first periodicals I encountered there included Lesbian Connection, the well-worn, mimeographed pages that listed lesbian contacts in communities across the country as well as short essays and stories. Then I discovered Common Lives, Lesbian Lives (1981-1996) a periodical that was based in WRAC in Iowa City. I had my first lesbian-themed essays published in Common Lives—one was entitled “Cagney and Lacey: The lost episode” that stemmed from a serious crush on the Christine Cagney character. I volunteered for the lesbian collective that produced it and avidly read all the back issues.

Common Lives, Lesbian Lives
First influential publication.

I met my first girlfriend at WRAC, I think, although it might have been at a softball game. Anyway, she worked at WRAC, introduced me to the political side of being a lesbian, and helped launch me into phase 3. She also taught me about the complexities of lesbian relationships and was a participant in my first lesbian triangle (not threesome, regrettably) of many to come. In other words, she was still emotionally entangled with an ex-lover when we began (a condition I have labeled lesbian ex-lover fusion disorder in my recent writing), and our relationship was doomed from the beginning. But in true lesbian fashion, we remained close friends for many years thereafter.

Phase 3: Becoming a Professional Lesbian (1988-2004)

Academic dyke, femming up a bit for the newspaper, circa 1996.

I accepted a faculty position in the College of Nursing in January of 1988 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in a very homophobic pediatrics department. I did not come out in my job interview, and was still closeted to most of my coworkers. But a faculty position came with greater protection—the University of Iowa was among the first in the nation to have a human rights code that included sexual orientation, although it was strangely worded as “affectional preference.” I decided that I could be out and become an LGBTQ researcher. So OUT/LOOK and I share a professional coming out anniversary in 1988.

I knew that there was much work to do in the field of nursing to address both sexism and homophobia, and set about to study nurses’ attitudes for the next few years. At the beginning of this phase, I was optimistic that I had found my niche. By the mid 1990s, when I was denied tenure because of my research on LGBTQ issues, I had turned more jaded. On the other hand, it made me all the more determined to study LGBTQ health issues and I persevered. The tenure denial was overturned, and life went on.

In the meantime, I was learning more about lesbian life from my community and my mostly failed relationships than from scholarly study of the topic. Magazines like OUT/LOOK that blended academic essays with culture, politics, and personal stories helped me to integrate the personal and the professional for myself.

Phase 4: Becoming a Queer Elder (2005-present)

Getting an award in 2014
Is there life after a lifetime achievement award?

In 2005, I moved to San Francisco in search of a place where I could merge my personal, political, and research goals. To be perfectly honest, there was also a most intriguing, beautiful, and deep woman who influenced my decision to move. The relationship did not work out, but I found a new home. By 2007, I had landed at San Francisco State University where social justice pedagogy and values are the norm, and I have many out LGBTQ colleagues. Now as I reach my elder-dyke years, I recognize the value of the magazines and books about lesbian life that shaped me and let me see the wide diversity of LGBTQ experiences beyond my own rather restricted development in a mostly White rural state, in a community framed by lesbian feminism. Part of the task of older adulthood is to re-evaluate life events and gain a broader perspective. I can examine the articles in that inaugural issue of OUT/LOOK and see how they related to my own life—both personal and professional– as well as the LGBTQ movement as a whole.

Looking Back: OUT/LOOK Vol 1/Issue 1

The March on Washington

One of the articles that I found the most thought provoking in the issue was Paul Horowitz’ analysis of the 1987 March on Washington. I was not ready emotionally or politically to attend this, and in fact, because of the narcissism of my individual coming out process, was only barely cognizant of the March at the time it happened. I attended the 1993 March on Washington, because I was in a very different frame of mind by then. Given what I know now, 30 years later, what can I make of Horowitz’ critique of the March? I did some analysis of the main points of his articles and comment on where we seem to be now.

Then: Horowitz asked what comes next after the march, and noted that the march showed to the world our numbers, strengths, and commitment, but he lamented that the movement to organize the march was largely unorganized, and that there was no influential spokesperson.

Now: We will still do not have a spokesperson, and if anything, our movements are even more fragmented and unfocused.

Then: Horowitz claimed that the media clung to two issues highlighted by the 1987 march: gay civil rights and AIDS, and was concerned that this meant “complex ideas and subtle shadings are just beyond the competence of the national media.”

Now: Today, with the increase in sexual and gender fluidity and nonbinary identities, the complexities are hard to grasp for people of my generation who identified as lesbian or gay, much less the national media or general public. Our movements have always presented complex and complicated problems to the general discourse. A sign of the times is that most of the articles in this issue of OUT/LOOK use the phrase “gay and lesbian” whereas today we are a virtual alphabet soup of identities. We still do not know who we are exactly, so we are dozens, maybe even hundreds of fragmented sub-communities. Yet, considerable progress has been made in the two main issues of the 1987 march. HIV/AIDS care has advanced to the point where it can be treated as a chronic illness rather than a death sentence. Prevention efforts have worked well in some communities, but not evenly across all communities, so in some ways, we are still in the throes of the epidemic. Stigma is still present, but much less than in the 1980s. And we have federal marriage equality now. I never imagined that this would happen in my lifetime, but now I fear that I will live to see many of the hard-earned rights rolled back in my lifetime by this current administration. I watch in dismay as progress made in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and religious freedom are being overturned by the conservative, hateful forces in our government. We can never be complacent.

Then: Horowitz lamented that the 1987 march did not do enough to secure the support and participation by allies, and attributed that lack of support internalized homophobia: “we expect rejection so we don’t even ask.”

Now: Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the current political climate is so readily able and willing to revoke the rights we won in more liberal times; perhaps we did not do enough to build those allies in government. Could we have foreseen our current political climate?

Then: Next, Horowitz launches into a discussion of essentialism versus social constructionist perspectives on gender and sexuality. He seems to blame the march organizers for an essentialist bent “since we are essentially different, we can’t trust anyone but ourselves.” The strengths of an essentialist viewpoint is that it builds community solidarity and leads to our communities creating its own resources and culture. But, he argues, social constructionist perspectives focus on the relevance of culture and history in creating the conditions for our understandings of sex and gender. He cited authors like Jonathan Katz, John D’Emilio, and Carol Vance, all of whom I was reading in 1988 as I learned about the history, culture, and politics of sexual identities. Horowitz proposed that in terms of political organizing, social constructionism leads to a broader focus on the “sexual order” as a whole, and recruited heterosexual allies, who are as much influenced by the cultural/historical context as are LGBTQ people. He suggested that a constructionist perspective offers more hope that things can change.

Now: I was curious that he never mentioned the role of feminist scholars in theorizing how gender affects sexual identifications, and who explored the origins of homophobia in sexism. Nor does he mention any of the work on race and racism and the intersections of oppressions. Most of the influences on my early lesbian/LGBTQ upbringing were not mentioned (Audre Lorde, the many authors in This Bridge Called My Back, Angela Davis, and many more).

Then: Horowitz next comments on the leadership/organizing of the 1987 march. I did not know this history, so was interested to learn that a three-day conference in 1986 of lesbian and gay activists, mostly from the east coast, elected representatives to serve on the organizing committee and created the platform for the march. Horowitz called this group “an arbitrary, unrepresentative group.”

Now: I wonder, even today, if any large event like that could be organized by representative leadership. We still don’t know who we are as a community, so how could there be adequate representation? Horowitz refers to some “personal ego-tripping” and “top-down militancy” but gives no details, but he obviously did not like what he labeled as the “leftist bias” of the event with its focus on demonstrations. He seems to suggest that electoral politics and local grass-roots organizing is better than national marches. It seems today that we recognize the need for both kinds of efforts. A result of our non-binary thinking has been to rid ourselves of these either/or thought processes.

Then: Horowitz also mentioned that existing national organizations were not “nurtured and strengthened” by the march, because there was not a sufficient level of trust in these organizations.

Now: This may still be true today—the same big two organizations are still in existence (Human Rights Campaign founded in 1980, and National LGBTQ Task Force in 1973) but neither seem to be high priorities for the ordinary LGBTQ community member. These are not well known organizations like the ACLU, NAACP, or NOW. As I write this, in a few days there will be another March on Washington (June 10, 2017), also organized by a small group and not sponsored by any national LGBTQ group.

Then: Near the end of the article, Horowitz argues that the success of the march was not “political” but rather personal. Participants were energized, bonded across gender, race, and class lines, thus starting some healing processes. Horowitz optimistically concludes, “I have to believe that many white people deepened their sensitivity to what racial minorities have felt about life in the U.S., and that many men were moved by the tremendous and powerful outpouring of lesbian anger and determination about the health crisis which might affect them so much less directly than it affects us.”

Now: While progress may have been made in a sense of unity at large national demonstrations, or even at local organizing events, we as a community still have much work to do to address the racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and other forms of oppression that are preventing our communities from truly uniting. As part of my phase 2 process of coming out, one of the most powerful agents of change and growth was my short involvement in a local consciousness raising group at the Women’s Resource and Action Center. The Women Against Racism Committee addressed these issues head on in circles of women; there were conflicts and misunderstandings, tears and anger, hurt feelings and manifestations of guilt and shame, but the support of the group through all of these painful emotions made it possible for many of us to begin unlearning the oppression we had been spoon-fed since birth. Women Against Racism hosted a conference that was a big part of my education as a feminist and anti-oppression activist.

I don’t see those types of feminist consciousness-raising groups much anymore, but it seems we have a desperate need for them. In addition, when I attended the 1993 March on Washington, the Lesbian Avengers (founded in 1992 in New York City to address lesbian invisibility), organized a dyke march on the night before the March. Obviously, many women felt the previous march had not included their issues in the ways they wanted.

More of OUT/LOOK Vol 1, Issue 1

Other articles in the issue were less polarizing for me. Esther Newton’s Of Yams, Grinders, and Gays: The anthropology of homosexuality provided a more richly detailed account of the social constructionist perspective than Horowitz, and she acknowledged that “identity is a complex mosaic—fragile, contested, changing, and fuzzy around the edges.” Her parting words were particularly powerful: “History has placed gay people here. From here, we are making history.”

Jewelle Gomez, in a piece called “I lost it at the movies” wrote a more personal account of being a lesbian within a family. She noted that like me, she had always known she was a lesbian (I don’t think she experienced as much denial of it as I did, though). The first label she heard was “bulldagger,” a term that I did not ever hear in my White rural upbringing, and only encountered in Phase 3 when I started studying lesbian history. Gomez’s story of coming in race, gender, class, and geographic contexts was the very kind of story I had been drawn to in Phase 2. I needed to hear coming out stories to help me understand myself, and others. From comparing the differences, I could understand the different intersections of race/gender/class/sexuality, and from the similarities I could see the potential for community. Much like Gomez, over time I felt “my family was as relieved as I to finally know who I was.”

I read with much interest, an article about lesbian fashion. Lisa Duggan noted that “gay men often claimed that too many lesbians sported the Drab Dyke look, which the fashionable fellows interpreted as indicative of simple tastelessness or a more complicated coded kind of sartorial hostility.” She went on to suggest that lesbian fashion was “1970s political puritanism, 1980s butch-fem revival with a punk influence,” which she thought brought a new eroticism or even “High Pervert” fashion to lesbian communities.

Well, in Iowa City, we were at least ten, maybe 20 years behind the coastal lesbian fashions. When I came out in the mid 1980s, there was still a lesbian dress code: blue jeans, flannel, Birkenstocks or utilitarian workboots, depending on the season. The look was an androgynous one, at least for the activist and academic groups. Butch/femme looks did not come back until the late 1990s, and I don’t recall ever seeing a “High Pervert” in a public arena in Iowa City. I guess I’m still sporting the Drab Dyke look of short hair, no make-up, and comfortable loose clothing and flat shoes that can accommodate my bunions without pain. It seems neither tasteless nor particularly hostile. Articles on lesbian fashion have always struck me as rather frivolous—it seems like we have a lot more important issues to worry about than a lesbian’s baggy jeans.

MICKEY ELIASON
  • Mickey Eliason is a professor at San Francisco State University and has studied LGBTQ development and health issues for over 30 years. She is also the author of the Dyke Diagnostic Manual, a satirical commentary on some of the unique conditions of contemporary lesbian life. After reading her assigned volume of OUT/LOOK, she may have to add the Drab Dyke to her book. After 50 years of living in Iowa, she migrated to the west coast to live with the lesbian seagulls of San Francisco that she had heard about on the news.

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Queer Nation kiss-in at the cable car turnaround.
© Rick Gerharter
San Francisco, 1991.