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    Historical Lesbian Migrations

    10.13.16 FINAL.small_Page_23_Image_0006By Lucy Jane Bledsoe

    In 1944, when my aunt and namesake Lucybelle Bledsoe was 21 years old, she shot off the family farm in Arkansas, under the cover of the war, and headed straight for Greenwich Village. She got an apartment on West 12th Street. Thousands of women—many of them queer like my aunt—did the same and used the distraction of the war, not to mention the availability of good jobs that previously hadn’t been open to women, to flee small lives and launch themselves into much bigger, more exciting ones. Call it the first wave of lesbian migration.

    In 1977 I fled a small conservative college town in Massachusetts for the wilds of Berkeley, California. I didn’t realize it at the time—I thought of myself as a late arrival for the summer of love and was searching for scraps of what Janis Joplin might have left behind—but I was part of the second wave of lesbian migration.

    10.13.16 FINAL.small_Page_23_Image_0008
    10.13.16 FINAL.small_Page_23_Image_0007

    Summer of love and Janis Joplin long past, I soon found gratification of a new order. Thousands of us packed into the Berkeley Community Theatre for Cris Williamson concerts, long rows of women (womyn) with their arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying back in forth as Williamson implored us to be drops of water.

    Can we be like drops of water falling on the stone

    Splashing, breaking, dispersing in air

    Weaker than the stone by far, but be aware

    That as time goes by the rock will wear away.

    Oh, we felt powerful. I am woman, hear me roar. We built an entire movement on the strength of these songs. In the East Bay alone, lesbians founded the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective, A Woman’s Place Bookstore, the Brick Hut Cafe, Plexus newspaper, a couple of bars, and even a lesbian-owned and patronized gelato shop.

    In 1978 word spread that Jill Johnston, author of Lesbian Nation, would be speaking at “the Bach,” short for the Bacchanal, the lesbian bar at the top of Solano Avenue (now Britt Marie’s). Though just 21, I’d been frequenting the bar for a couple of years, using the fake ID I’d fashioned with an X-Acto knife and a fine-point Sharpie. A philosophy major at Cal, I wouldn’t have missed the Johnston event for anything. She sat on a high bar stool and spoke haughtily, clearly feeling like lesbian royalty. A woman in the audience, nervous and trying to impress, asked what Johnston thought about some Heideggerian idea. Johnston brushed her long hair off her neck, smirked, and said, “Heide-who-dian?”

    The liveliest bar was a place in Oakland called the Jubilee. No sign marked the entry; there was just a plain door on which you had to knock and ask for admittance. A woman would open a tiny window in the door, much like the Wizard of Oz, and ask your business. Once she was satisfied that you understood this was a lesbian establishment, she’d let you in. Downstairs there was a tame, quiet bar with a few tables, which was a nice cover for the party on the second floor. Anything could happen on the Jubilee’s dance floor. My girlfriend at the time almost broke up with me when I refused to go home with a couple of women who invited us to join them for a foursome.

    For breakfast on weekend mornings, everyone waited in line for one of the few tables at the Brick Hut on Adeline, another lesbian outpost, run by a notoriously grouchy collective. I made the mistake one morning of ordering an orange juice, forgetting about the boycott. Anita Bryant, spokeswoman for orange juice sales, had become famous for her anti-gay campaign. My gaffe earned me a stern lecture from our waiter.

    We had a blast in the seventies. The feeling of community was giant and palpable. We did believe we were drops of water, wearing down the patriarchy. Our young hearts swelled with pride and joy in the new world we were envisioning and creating. We young lesbian feminists had come to Mecca—Berkeley, California—and believed with every cell in our bodies that change was nigh. It was a heady time in history.

    Of course, we were wrong. The slaughter in Orlando, forty years later, proved once again that change is glacial. That hate is tenacious. But Orlando also reminded me of how much we need to remember our history, and how grateful I am for the courage of my aunt and namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe, who came out in the forties. Yet her story, and the stories of other women from her era, are absent from documented history. Much of the reason for this is explained in Stanford historian Estelle Freedman’s essay, “The Burning of Letters Continues,” in which she shows how lesbians in the past, fearing detection, literally burned the evidence of their lives and loves. I’ve spent the last few years uncovering my aunt’s story, depending primarily on interviews with her coworkers and friends.

    Surprisingly, not much more documentation exists for the second wave of lesbian migration, the one that washed upon the shores of Berkeley. Lenn Keller, long time Bay Area resident, is working to change that. In 2014 she founded the Bay Area Lesbian History Archives Project. An activist, photographer, and filmmaker, Keller is using her archiving, photography, and filmmaking skills to gather documentation, stories, and oral histories with the goal of preserving this unique history. More about the project can be found on the website http://labryshealthcarecircle.com/ace/balhap.html

    Another historian, Juliana Delgado Lopera, has published a stunning collection of bilingual oral histories and illustrations by LGBT Latin@ immigrants who arrived in the United States during the 80s and 90s. ¡Cuéntamelo! is available on Lopera’s website: http://www.julianadlopera.com

    Both Lenn Keller and Juliana Delgado Lopera will join me in conversation for the launch of my book, A Thin Bright Line, about my aunt’s mid-century queer life and adventures, on October 16, 5 pm, at Laurel Bookstore in downtown Oakland, 1423 Broadway. The amazing Stanford historian Estelle Freedman will join me for a conversation about A Thin Bright Line at Booksmith in San Francisco (1644 Haight Street) on November 1, 7:30 pm.

    Four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and Stonewall Book Award winner Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the author of a collection of short stories, a collection of narrative nonfiction, and four novels, including “The Big Bang Symphony.” Her new novel, “A Thin Bright Line,” is published by the University of Wisconsin Press. For more information: http://www.lucyjanebledsoe.com/index.htm