“A Simple Dream and a Simple Revolution” © 2011 Judy Grahn

I want to tell you why I decided to call this community website (as well as a section from my memoir), “A Simple Revolution.”  This phrase is adapted from my sister poet and friend Pat Parker’s poem, “It’s a Simple Dream.”  In her poem, published in 1974, about four years into Gay Women’s Liberation, the narrator asserts that she doesn’t want a revolution that is of the vanguard, or of the masses or that turns the world all over, that she as a black gay woman just wants to walk down the streets holding hands with her lover, go to a bar, use a public bathroom—and not be arrested by the police, harassed by white bikers, beaten by her black brothers, screamed at by ladies (that is to say, straight women) in bathrooms. She begins by describing her movement past: “I have placed this body/placed this mind/in lots of dreams/in malcolm’s and martin’s/in mao’s and huey’s/in george’s and angela’s/”.

Parker is listing major movements that impacted her and her generation, from the peaceful marches for integration led by Martin Luther King to the early “Black Power” message of Malcolm X, which would morph into the vanguard message “Power to the People,” issuing from the Black Panthers led by Huey Newton. Here in California the writings and actions of George Jackson, a black prisoner in Soledad who advocated prisoner self-defense, and the activism of Angela Davis, whose work toward ending the prison-industrial complex and its neo-slavery has been tireless, caught the imaginations of all kinds of progressive young people in 1970, Pat Parker, according to her poem, obviously among them.

So now in 1974 she is using her new poem, “It’s a Simple Dream” to articulate a position taken on behalf of gay women and men and the efforts of queer people within leftist movements: “I have placed this body & mind/in lots of dreams/dreams of other people,” and then the poet continues with these startling emphatic lines:  “now I’m tired/now you listen!” Pat directly addresses the left and demands that gay people have full authentic entry into leftist movement: “now you listen!/ I have a dream too./it’s a simple dream.”

It’s not a simple dream of course, and therein lies the power of the poetry.  And the power of our movement, which promoted what I want to describe as “a simple revolution” for very complex purposes. To solve, or at least seriously address, all at the same time, issues of racism, classism, queerness, and feminism. Parker’s examples of how she had placed her body and mind in Maoist and Marxist movements, make it clear that anti-imperialism also must be part of this revolution. We were on quite a roll, as were militant feminists all over the country.

The lesbians who turned out for Gay Women’s Liberation meetings and actions had been involved in lots of movements, from Civil Rights to being allies of the Black Panthers.  Parker had been a member of the Black Panthers. Some self-defined as socialists, some communists, some sexual and women’s liberationists. Many more of the people attracted to our meetings had probably never belonged to anything resembling a party or a political affiliation, yet had been drawn to antiwar demonstrations.

To distance ourselves from the large theoretically-based political movements, those of us in my living collective often called ourselves “anarchists,” though let’s be careful here, as to us, “anarchism” certainly didn’t mean mindless violence; it meant militancy without ideology. Non-affiliated militancy. And “militancy” meant absolute insistence and persistence. We were activists, we weren’t laid back, we weren’t waiting for anyone else to liberate us. We opposed the Vietnam War yet were not necessarily into Peace and Love, more like “No Justice, No Peace.”

Not connected to a structured, overarching ideology also meant that the broad base of activist leaders, in roles that shifted personnel constantly, would also constantly stay in touch with what the people around us wanted to see happen and said they needed, rather than imposing shoulds from theories and tracts of the 19th century. Everything was up for discussion. Now, bonded in activist loyalty to each other, we would help to open the floodgates of the multiple forms of feminism, those tempestuous, lively mass movements that have continually redefined themselves as they spread worldwide, with as many fractious factions and additions as rivers have feeder-creeks. Cultural workers, as we artists and performers were called, both reflected and led. We helped develop some terms, phrases and images that would initially stand in for ideology: women-loving-women, woman-centered, rape culture, male domination, patriarchy, male-identified, sisterhood, sister love, gyn-ecology, lesbian nation, army of lovers, dyke, common woman, commonality.

A “simple revolution” has no blueprint, and no preconceived outcome. It also has, ideally, no idealized leaders, though everyone involved is encouraged to take leadership. A “simple revolution” asks, “What do people say they need? What do I need? What does the economy and the earth and the spirit in people need? What does the ending of prejudice need? What do our authentic selves need?” Pat Parker’s poem brought her individual, specific needs into sharp relief to make the point that freedom has many paths, and all of them need to be taken into account for the genuine social revolution we envisioned to succeed.


July 2011

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Community Forum

  1. mariKo says:

    Well mostly we did a lot of gabbing, figuring things out as I remember. Often sitting in the bar. I do remember a Zap we did at the offices of the Women’s Counseling Service(?). They did abortion counseling and education about sexuality I guess. We noticed the deal was wholly het oriented so got in at night and posted signs such as Gay is Good, Sex is not just about men or something like that I’d have to look back and think about it.

    As for the S.F. GWL meeting, I suppose the fear of exposure as gay, (or maybe as political?) was very high and I was an unknown, not to be assumed trustworthy. Which reminds me the variable ethics of the closet is still an issue in our community.

  2. Judy says:

    Wow, MariKo
    That’s amazing that you formed your group so early. What activities did you do?
    and that camera story, that could have been my house I suppose, but no one knows how many GWL households there were by then. What would you say people were so afraid of, to not want their pictures taken?

    thanks for posting this information

  3. mariKo says:

    In July of 1970 Diane Denne, Debbie Chase, and I came together out of local women’s liberation groups in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, thus founding Gay Women’s Liberation in that state. In December Debbie and I visited a house in San Francisco for a meeting of GWL there. What I remember is having a camera with me (it was my first visit to California), and being told to take the film out of it or give up the camera, even though I had not been trying to take any pictures of people there at all.

  4. Liza Cowan says:

    Hi Judy,

    Well I’m a New Yorker, so mostly I will stand on the sidelines and cheer. Yay. Super use of contemporary technologies to build community based histories. I’ve posted a bit about your project at the DYKE A Quarterly online annotated archive. http://bit.ly/nHwk7N

    This is very exciting. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!!

    Liza Cowan for

    • Judy says:

      Thanks Liza for posting this on DYKE Quarterly site.
      And about New York, part of what I am working on right now is some of the connections I experienced, between the coasts–lots of folks travled back and forth East and West through the seventies and beyond–among them, us poets….would love to hear from some of those coast traveling women…

  5. Sue Hilton says:

    I wasn’t in the Bay Area but I was in New Haven, and later kind of on the edge of the Bay Area scene. I agree that a lot of what we were doing was discussing theory, but we were also sharing the ideas of Women’s Liberation with lots of people–I know in the beginning I thought that we would change the perspective of all kinds of women everywhere and then the problems would solve themselves. And we were certainly creating non-bar lesbian space, which helped lesbians, and participating in demonstrations against the war in vietnam. And some of us were creating battered women’s shelters and learning and teaching martial arts and self defense.
    Of course the real conundrum is how do you “solve real and pressing problems”–and that’s how we got so stuck on theory, maybe if we understand more about the lives of the “ladies” in the restrooms and the black brothers on the street and what makes them angry, and maybe if we tried to do something about some of that, we could solve our immediate problems better. But I still don’t know the best way to do that, or even if any of the ways we try to change things are working–well, I think they do work to some degree, many of the issues Pat talks about are better (at least some places), but then other things get worse.

    • Judy says:

      Yes, it’s a never-ending process, isn’t it? i used to think that “change” was a sort of one-time thing–now I understand that a simple revolution is an everyday life–

  6. Marial Dreamwalker says:

    I love how you are inquiring into the deep and complex need for planetary healing. I think these are powerful and evocative questions you are asking. There is much need in the world, in our country, and in our immediate neighborhood. I believe as we continue to look honestly about each of our individual contribution to violence and injustice–weather it has been direct or by ommission; through word, intent–against ourselves or against another, that this will lead us to a place of compassion and understanding of our similarities and weaken the filters of “other.”

  7. Judy says:

    Iris Crider,
    did you have a chance to read my response in the other string of comments?
    of course I remember you well, and always run across your picture and poetry in Lesbians Speak Out….

  8. Judy says:

    I guess the question this piece needs to be asking is, if you were there during the early seventies, to what extent were we solving real and pressing problems rather than discussing revolutionary theories?

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