“We Saw Each Other” © 2011 Judy Grahn
We held the first all-women’s dance of our west coast Gay Women’s Liberation movement in Berkeley in 1970, in a very plain green-walled rented, or maybe donated, hall. Several dyke volunteers guarded the doors to make sure men stayed away. All-women’s dances were happening in 1970 in New York and Boston as well, and perhaps other places, indicating that activist lesbians were on a similar energy beam and had moved outside the bar scenes. The guarded, possessive quality of typical gay bar life fell away for a while; we connected with each other in an eroticism of promises and power. A communal erotic and rebellious beat took hold of us; we began to dance with whoever was there, not as a romantic arrangement, but as a flirtatious soaking up and spreading of a new exhilarating vibrational rate. As I remember these were not couple dances, more geometric figures—four, five-sided, or circular—and the dancing was vigorous, interactive. In that first rush of sexual solidarity, we saw each other as a group of warriors, Gay Women’s Liberation’s handsome warriors. We saw each other, and in that first bursting we liked what we saw.
Having been told so often, so many ways, how ugly we lesbians were—how plain how old-maidish how “no man would want you” how criminal, unwomanly, undesirable, dishonorable, disorderly, filthy, manhating, whorish, inhuman, insanely jealous, and just yucky we were in our very existence, we were astonished to discover our collective beauty. I was not the only one to experience ecstatic exuberance and all-encompassing heart-opening desire at the women’s dances and to be swept up in a river of sheer beauty: sexy, powerful, gorgeous, lip-swelling hair-shaking spit-flowing eye-flashing, hip-rotating, knee twisting, thigh pumping, pheromone coursing, fingers expressing, sultry spicy sweat smelling complexly exhilarating female potentiality. We raised up storms of change as we stomped the floor with our dancing, not because we were dancing, but because our dancing celebrated our commitment to each other.
The dancing was more about our eyes meeting than about touching, our arms and hips flashing out really big promises. Oxytocin, that hormonal mama love drug, flew everywhere. Aesthetics begins with erotic love, and now, because we had a viable movement, we had an aesthetic: we had beauty and courage and loyalty toward each other and toward ourselves. We had hot but somewhat undifferentiated desire that seemed to start as a hunger in our blood, a pulse-pain in our hearts—and what was it for, what was it for, what were we going to do with it? That was our question.
Our solidarity was not an instant panacea, would not immediately restore us to full human status, make us citizens, help us understand our differences, turn us into nice people. But our solidarity and respect for each other was the strongest weapon we, or anyone, could have, and while it lasted we would use it to its fullest advantage. We could see qualities we seemed to have in common and begin to associate them with what we meant by “dyke,” like our willingness to be out in public with our militant lesbian poetry and clothes and postures and attitudes, and like the idealism that shone from our faces, and the honest, plain-spokenness of our speech, and our willingness to fight for justice. Even now those of us still acting as “activists” trust each other’s word know we can call on each other in certain kinds of crises and know we will show up.
This loyalty, I think, spread into the women’s movement as a whole, where women had bumped into the long-standing, entrenched misconception about female friendship being impossible. We heard a story about two straight women, mothers and ex-wives of leftist men, who had been together in a consciousness raising group and had decided to live together. They moved into the same house, sharing the same kitchen. Within days they were fighting, to the point, the story went, that they were out on the street screaming into each other’s faces, and pulling each other’s hair. And splitting up. This was the classic stereotype about women at the time—that we could never be friends with each other. Women were believed to be untrustworthy: jealous of each other, since all women were understood to be rivals for perpetually desirable men, or rivals for fame, “beauty” or success of any kind. This social disconnection is completely dangerous, as disconnected women will turn away when one of them is in trouble with a man or group of men—and by extension is in any kind of trouble—and will say, fearfully, cold-heartedly, mercilessly, ‘she must have brought it on herself.’
Our dyke networks in general had couple relationships but very free sexual interactions outside of these commitments. Perhaps I just wasn’t looking or didn’t go to the bars enough, but I didn’t see as much of that isolated couple-lockstep sexual jealousy among us as activist lesbians. The possessive jealousy, so typical of isolated and frightened lesbian couples, vaporized for awhile in the new openness. We became radiantly eroticized, toward all of us, and a sort of blanket of love permeated the air. Out of this we committed to take risks for each other, to show up and put lives on the line. We had taken risks in other parts of the earlier, broader movement for civil rights and ending the war, but not with this same erotic suffusion. Now, this social loyalty to other lesbians, and by extension to women in general, impacted us very personally; we valued each other more than we had and thus valued ourselves more too. As female beings. This created loyalty to each other as lesbians and as women, which many of us had never experienced. As Laura Brown put it, “I love that we were making it up, being as strong as you could be, and as kind, and as loving as you could be. We had an ethic that love would make each other stronger…”
Over the next few years after 1970, this militant lover-love spread out experientially to bisexual and straight women in a diffused sort of way and produced a new loyalty among women. Women who fell in love with each other even for a short time or even in a virtually physical way—you know, dreams, fantasies, noticing their own attraction to a woman in a way that includes her breasts and lips but that isn’t competitive, and so being open to the possibility of physical sexual relationships even if never acted upon—women who now knew what it was or might be like to be intimate with another woman, and to be reflected positively in another woman’s eyes. This helped them love themselves more and it helped them understand each other empathically. As this love spread across many layers of society, women became more capable of female friendships and loyalties.
In the third year of our dyke revolution, in one section of my fifteen-page poem “A Woman Is Talking to Death,” I tried to capture this sense of lesbian love as a caring about other women. The section called “A Mock Interrogation” has these lines:Have you ever held hands with a woman? Yes, many times—women about to deliver, women about to have breasts removed, wombs removed, miscarriages, women having epileptic fits, having asthma, cancer, women having breast bone marrow sucked out of them by nervous or in- different interns, women with heart conditions, who were vomiting, overdosed, depressed, drunk, lonely to the point of extinction: women who had been run over, beaten up. deserted. starved. women who had been bitten by rats; and women who were happy, who were celebrating, who were dancing with me in large circles or alone, women who were climbing mountains or up and down walls, or trucks or roofs and needed a boost up, or I did; women who simply wanted to hold my hand because they liked me, some women who wanted to hold my hand because they liked me better than anyone.
(from The Judy Grahn Reader. Aunt Lute Books. ©2009)
I set this poetic scene in my work and life situations, as well as in the movement as I experienced it. For me the love I felt for my comrade dyke/lovers never ended. Still today, women from that tumultuous era, even those with whom I had serious difficulties—I still love them. Seeing them again after forty years, again my insides melt. Interviewing any one of them, I notice the appealing slant of her cheekbone, the brightness of her eyes, the cocky turn of her head. This isn’t about sex; I had sex with very few of them. Though maybe it mattered that the permission was there, that we might have sex. Recently and somewhat mischievously I asked Pat Jackson, not having seen her for thirty-five years, not having ever had sex with her or even cuddled all night with her, if she had ever loved me. She looked at the wall, looked at the table, looked at the wall again. “Love you!” she said. “Love you?” another pause. She fixed brilliant blue eyes on me. “I would die for you.”