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Reunion and Disunion: Novelist Terry Wolverton on Three Decades of Activism

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 11, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment
Tags: Cheryl Klein, feminism, Labrys Reunion, Lilac Mines, Terry Wolverton

[CherylHeadshot 05-07-08.jpgEditor's Note: Cheryl Klein is the author of Lilac Mines (Manic D Press) and The Commuters (City Works Press). She works for the California office of Poets & Writers, Inc. and lives in Los Angeles. She blogs about art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com.

Below, Klein interviews fellow writer Terry Wolverton. Stay tuned for Wolverton's interview of Klein tomorrow.]

When I came out in 2000, I didn't encounter a single negative reaction. My parents couldn't wait to take my first girlfriend to our family's favorite restaurant. My best friend mused, "If I was into girls, I think I'd go for trashy ones." And the gay guys I knew were relieved to be set free from the confused crushes I'd harbored for them.

"For people who find coming out a relatively easy process, it is hard to understand the experience of people who have undergone great suffering in order to come out," says writer Terry Wolverton, who is quick to point out that the process is still plenty difficult for many. "And for people who did suffer huge consequences for coming out and did it anyway, there is a tendency to want some acknowledgment and respect for the pain and loss. And therein lies the gap."

Terry examines the differences between generations of queer and feminist women in her seventh book, The Labrys Reunion (Spinsters Ink), which was released within a month of my own novel, Lilac Mines. I was interested in the so-called gap too, and was inspired to research the lesbian communities of the sixties and seventies for my book--in part because I quickly realized that even when coming out is easy, developing a full and fulfilling identity requires role models. People like Terry, who have not only blazed trails, but who want to forge friendships with the strange new creatures who walk them.

In The Labrys Reunion the alumni of a radical 1970s women's institute are forced to face the legacy of their movement (or perhaps the lack thereof, they worry) when one of the women's daughters is raped and murdered. They're angry that such violence still takes place, and they're only slightly less angry at the girl's Gen X friends, a baffling group of slackers, gun-toters, gender-benders and savage art critics who mock their movement.

Conflict is nothing new to these characters, though. Labrys is based on a real institute called Sagaris, which Wolverton herself attended in 1975. "The current of ideas and energy was electric," Terry remembers, recalling faculty like Rita Mae Brown. "At the same time, it was hell, in the way that activist gatherings can be hell. It seemed that many of the women were engaged in political-correctness one-upsmanship (I'm sure there's a tortured feminist configuration of this--one-upswomynship?--but you know what I mean). So many women had grievances over issues of class and race and sexual orientation and whether boy children could be in childcare and whether the organizing collective should be paid and--you name it.... By the time the second session took place, there was a split and a group of women moved across town to start an alternative alternative institute. Such was the 1970s."

Despite such fissures, Terry took the spirit of communal creation to heart, going on to lead the famous Woman's Building in Los Angeles and found a literary center called Writers at Work, where I first met her as a student. I sometimes conflate the artistic and feminist spirits, maybe because both are so close to me, but at certain points in history the individualism of the former has seemed in conflict with the communalism of the latter. Back in the day, some lesbian feminists preferred uniform androgyny to anything that looked like an echo of hetero gender roles. So I was a little surprised to see Terry's protagonist, a performance artist named Gwen, shimmy into brightly colored mini skirts.

In the 1970s, Terry recalls, "There was a lot of disparagement of the butch and femme women of the preceding generation, an ignorant refusal to acknowledge how their bravery had paved the way for our existence. As an artist, Gwen kind of refused to play by the rules. She's dismissed for being an artist, is not seen as being serious politically, but that identity buys her the space to be a femme and to relate to butch women."

In the novel, a young man named Devon wears dresses, shies away from masculine imagery and fantacizes about sleeping with his female friend. I wondered if Terry saw his fluidity as emblematic of the younger LGBT generation.

"My book is set in 1996," Terry reminds me. "One could imagine Devon finding a trans consciousness and community in a few years, but trans people are just starting to develop a movement.... In my view, the characters of the younger generation are kind of groping their way toward their identities--gender, sexual, racial--without but perhaps still in reaction to the kind of powerful social movements of my generation."

So what are the movements that will shape the current and next generations of gay artists and activists?

"I think it's the extreme right, who will seemingly stop at nothing to enforce its belief system. These forces are not only a threat to LGBT people and empowered women, but to communities of color, poor people and immigrants. The second biggest issue is how can the abovementioned groups, who may perceive themselves as separate or even in opposition, come together to defend ourselves?"

In the women's movement, Terry witnessed firsthand how people with seemingly common goals could turn on each other, with gay and straight women sometimes falling on opposite sides. "There were sometimes very real political differences," she says, "with some women seeking to make a place for women within the existing power structure and others wanting to dismantle that structure and build a new model of society.... Lesbians tended to feel they had less to gain in the existing structures."

One of the existing structures that affects queer writers like Terry and I is the publishing industry. Though it's hardly anyone's go-to symbol of patriarchy, many LGBT writers find it hard to get their work published, especially by mainstream corporate houses.

"Throughout the 1990s, the independent network that supported gay and lesbian publishing began to be eroded," Terry explains. In this way, the DIY spirit that launched so many lesbian writers was a victim of its own success, with large publishing companies snatching up small presses' best-selling authors. "When I started writing Labrys in 1988, I thought I had a chance of getting a mainstream publisher to take it.... By the time I was ready to start marketing it, there seemed to be no mainstream publishers willing to take on a book by and about lesbians, and precious few independent presses either."

Yes, she did say 1988. The Labrys Reunion is twenty years in the making, and all the richer for it, reflecting the twists and turns of history as well as Terry's growth as a writer as she continued to revise it. Such perseverance is just one of the reasons I admire her. Both writing and political activism require planting many seeds and waiting a long, long time to see if any of them flower.

At Terry's book party in July, she stood before a packed house at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock, in Los Angeles. After explaining the book's long journey, she smiled and shrugged. "It's proof that if you live long enough, things have a way of working out."


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Angela Brightfeather | August 11, 2009 2:23 PM

Cheryl,

Just a wonderful piece and so interesting and well written. Thank you for jogging memories and feelings from back in the 70's. It was a time when people were exploding with good intent and dreams of a better world for GLBT people. It tagged along and was dragged along, in part by the hope that "free love" would also mean for everyone, with the side benefit of being able to openly express that love, no matter who it was with.

The failures and triumphs of those years were the litmus test for many activists in the GLBT community. Those still around and talking about it can easily be called survivors and founders at the very least, of a very fluid and changing movement that is setting new dynamics today for society with the advent of so many innovative and thrilling new-gen people now seeking equality.

Thank you.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Angela. I'm so grateful to the "survivors and founders" you describe.

Fascinating article. "...developing a full and fulfilling identity requires role models" struck me because a few months ago I came across lesbian comedian Bridget McManus and soon described her as the role model I didn't know I needed when it came to being totally out. The twist for me at 35 is that my gay role models tend to be some years younger than I am, part of the generation that grew up with queer media exposure.

I suppose as the LGBTQ community continues to evolve, I'm looking for greater acceptance of fluidity, whether it's sexuality or gender roles, and more flexibility, i.e., less intractable points of view from smaller subsets of LGBTQ.