The Official Website Of Urvashi Vaid

Lesbian Concentrate

Notes on Lesbians, History and Philanthropy

” I would argue that lesbians [today] do not know what constitutes our issues, don’t know what we ought to do with our political energies, don’t know how to support each other and not working in a strong way to build a society that respects and values and cherishes women.”

This is an outline for a presentation made at a Lesbians and Philanthropy gathering hosted by the Horizons Community Foundation in San Francisco in 1999.

There are two broad sections of this talk. The first section offers an analysis of contemporary lesbian life in the US and where lesbians find ourselves today – a sort of annotated history of lesbian politics in the last thirty years. The second section offers some observations about lesbian giving today. In the process I hope to raise some questions that must be answered to develop a strategic philanthropy that aims at lesbian lives.

Lesbian Context

Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen the rise and fading back of a lesbian feminist movement. When I came into the community of lesbians as a baby dyke in the late 1970’s, the bay area was ground zero but lesbian movement was found literally everywhere – Madison, Lincoln, Nebraska, Chapel Hill NC, Cincinnati, Tallahassee, St. Louis, all were hotbeds of lesbian feminism in the 70’s.
Today, one would be hard pressed to identify lesbian centers in this clear a way.

The lesbian cultural movement was the backbone of our community – through this network of cultural workers, we built the modern lesbian community. The network of independent women producers, the coffehouses, the  feminist bookstores, the tours that Olivia Records and Redwood records and  Roadwork and other independent women’s producers organized were the vehicles through which we built a self-conscious lesbian culture.

This was a separatist culture initially – in the sense that its values were grounded in a singular focus on women, not men; and that it was aggressively against patriarchy in every form and against heterosexism in every form.

And it was an explicitly political and radical culture  – you did not go to the Michigan women’s music festival to get marketed to by major corporations, but to get immersed in a sense of community.  You went to see and be among thousands of other lesbians of every type and to hear messages from the stage that were political and progressive and feminist – messages which all expressed the interconnectedness of lesbian issues with social justice issues.  We proclaimed to each other that we were warriors against racism, we marched against the US intervention in El Salvador in the 1980’s, we led the women’s peace actions at the arms depot in Seneca and a lesbian organized the million person march on the United Nations for nuclear disarmament in 1982.   We were providing support to prisoners, and organizing labor unions, we were volunteering and building the battered women’s shelter network and the rape crisis centers and the women’s self help health movement; we were fighting with each other about sex and the role of sexuality in our culture and lives, we were fighting the right wing and the homophobic left wing.

And while all this was happening – from the 1970’s until the mid 1980′ s as another lesbian revolution was also taking shape. It was a revolution of lesbians who identified more as gay women than as separatist dykes, it was the women who had never been and never wanted to go to Michigan, but who were living their lives, as openly as they dared, often with great courage. This was the revolution of women professionals and small business owners; of women in the academy.  It was also the revolution of lesbians who were jock girls and working class girls who lived as out dykes, without the protection of a middle class lesian movement.  There was a movement of punk dykes making a different kind of music who followed Patti Smith in the 1970’s (would not have been caught dead at Michigan) or Melissa Etheridge in the late 1980’s to today. These were the gals who packed the women’s bars and the mixed bars in major cities all over the country.

I would argue that the explicitly radical lesbian feminist mass movement collapsed in the mid-1980’s  for two reasons.  Because it could not support or sustain itself financially. And because the external realities of AIDS and the fights against the Right occupied the energies of lots of lesbian political activists. It could not support itself – women did not support the independents, the rigid politics of that era alienated many other women and they did not want to support the artists, a backlash against feminism (so beautifully detailed by Susan Faludi) affected our perception of our own brand of lesbian feminism….and changes in our community institutions resulted in the co-gendering of a previously all-male political movement…this co-gendering ironically happened in the context of an epidemic that disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual women.

In the 1990’s, lesbian feminism has been nearly invisible, even as lesbians have become more culturally visible. So in 1993, KD Lang was on the cover of New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and a host of other publications and we were told this was the era of lesbian chic…Chastity, Candace, Ellen, Melissa and Julie, and other prominent dykes are out or have been outed in the worlds of entertainment as never before…and today more lesbian political leaders exist in our nation than openly gay men – from the wonderful Carole Migden to Sheila Keuhl to the scores of judges and openly lesbian elected and appointed officials throughout this state; the great Tina Podlodowski in Seattle’s City Council; the wonderful black lesbian Mary Morten who works as the Mayor’s Liaison to sexual minority communities in Chicago; Maine State Treasurer Dale McCormick; NYC City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, and State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick; Former White House Assistant to the President Ginny Apuzzo, and current Deputy Chief of Staff Karen Tramantano – are just a few examples of lesbians in positions of political power.

Ironically, all this power and visibility have come at the same time that lesbian movement and movement building have collapsed – in other words we have made progress in visibility and political power not necessarily because of a formal organized effort on the part of dykes, but despite it.

In the 1990’s the institutions that served lesbians grew only modestly in power and influence, nor were new ones formed (the Lesbian Herstory Archives, National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lesbian Community Project, in Portland, and Astraea Foundation are examples of survivors who have continued against the odds. Indeed today only a handful of lesbian specific programs and projects exist around the country – most lesbian movement is found in the grassroots organizations of ad hoc lesbians who produce the nation’s dyke marches; or form lesbian avenger chapters.  Lesbians are now a diaspora.  Not a Movement.

Mainstream institutions like the one I work for [NGLTF], began to be increasingly run by lesbians or straight women, but are not necessarily feminist in their program – indeed today it is controversial to argue that we should not be a single-gay-rights- issue alone movement but one that screens politicians around their support for choice, and their positions on racial justice.

And the sense among lesbians of what constitutes our movement, what forms our agenda, radically shifted in the 1990’s to the present time – where I would argue that lesbians do not know what constitutes our issues, don’t know what we ought to do with our political energies, don’t know how to support each other and not working in a strong way to build a society that respects and values and cherishes women.

The collapse of US lesbian feminism is a complicated phenomena, my outline of the history is really cursory and shallow. The collapse of lesbian politics in the 1990’s was best epitomized to me in the National Lesbian Conference – held in 1991 in Atlanta Georgia. No one has written an analysis of what happened at this conference, what its goals were and why it failed so appallingly. Indeed about 3000 lesbians who attended have all taken a vow of silence to not talk about the bizarre experience that was the NLC.  Why the NLC collapsed and why the lesbian feminist movement has struggled is a reflection I think of at least four challenges that faced us:
(1)  how to turn a politics of identity into a politics that could appeal to people outside our narrow identities;
(2)  how not to be paralyzed by the impossibility of perfect inclusiveness – indeed in a larger sense, how to live with each other’s imperfections;
(3)  how to connect the different classes of lesbians in the service of a common cause; and
(4)  how to be successful when our fundamental premise – our love of women and our desire to liberate women to be powerful and free – was and I would argue still is NOT shared by most men and women today.

Some Observations on Lesbian Issues and Giving

The world is hostile to women:

  • Kosovo – New York Times article – rape and treatment of women who are raped
  • Honor killing in many muslim countries – little penalty of men who rape or kill women, more of a penalty on women for having a body
  • Promise Keepers ethos in US of women at home graciously submitting to their husbands
  • The inevitability of marriage in most of the world – idea of a single woman is rare, no wonder that in this country too there is an assault on single women – penalties for single women who are mothers built into welfare bull
  • Female genital mutilation in Africa
  • Female sexual slavery for girls and women – as inevitable or sole option – practiced all over the world
  • The world is hostile to lesbians:

  • The idea of a vibrant and autonomous female sexuality without men is radical and not popularly endorsed or even seen
  • Gender rigidity is the norm and gender nonconformity is punished harshly
  • The prevalence of violence against women and lesbians is real (1/4 of all the reported hate violence based on sexual orientation in America is against lesbians – likely underreported)
  • Custody and visitation often contested and sometimes denied to lesbians of their own children
  • Creation of family poses many obstacles and opportunities
  • Discrimination real – outright prejudice, harassment on the job (sexual harassment in the military against lesbians is best documented example), glass ceiling in employment
  • Low self-esteem for women and girls
  • Now, all these issues or problems do not just happen to lesbians – violence, prejudice, harassment affect gay men, bisexuals, transgender men and women as well – but each of these situations affects lesbians in particular ways. Crafting a strategy to support lesbians through systematically increasing giving requires philanthropy to address these kinds of issues.

    It also requires philanthropists to answer a few threshold questions:
    1) how do you define the lesbian community or communities you are seeking to assist?
    2)  how do you define a lesbian issue? What kind of movement are you trying to build – a lesbian one, a GLBT one, a progressive and feminist one or all of the above?
    3)  What are the facts and realities of different kinds of lesbian lives? What do lesbians want or care about?
    4)  Do we want to build political power for lesbians, why or why not?

    An effective giving strategy will start with clarity about our goals as philanthropists, it will require data gathering and consultation with practitioners and many different organizations, and it will require trial and error to implement (and consistent evaluation throughout to learn and assess as we go forward).

    Defining Community:
    What lesbians do you want to serve? In the past few years, I have encountered the following kinds of lesbian realities: a young lesbian in Montana whose father held a gun to her head and institutionalized her to convert her — she fled when she turned of age; a lesbian corporate executive who is closeted in her workplace; an Arab lesbian who called me for advice because she is living here illegally because she is afraid of honor killing by her family which knows she is gay and rejects her;an African American lesbian in the academy who is passed over for tenure; the lesbian runaway who is getting support through a GLBT youth program; a lesbian in prison; a coupled, with kids, suburban lesbian struggling to find child care and hold a job; the lesbian clergy woman who is facing discrimination as a woman and a lesbian; the lesbian moms in Beverly Hills; the lesbian artist who cannot get her work produced; the lesbian sex worker; the lesbian immigrants; the lesbian politician.

    It is a challenge to define a community out of so many diverse racial and class experiences. But the truth is that all of these communities of women need some kind of support and attention from our political and service institutions.

    A lesbian-oriented approach to philanthropy might best start with the question: which lesbians does this proposed project seek to serve? Which lesbian communities are we going to try to support and strengthen, and to what end?

    Defining Issues:
    For many years, the question of what issues to lesbians uniquely face has been baffling to people. In part the puzzlement comes from the truth that there are many issues that affect us as women as much as they affect us as lesbians: so when the government fails to research women, we too are swept up in the neglect. But the neglect of lesbians has been and remains a reality to this day on any number of issues that are on our movement’s agenda.

    Interestingly, the issues that lesbians have long cared about and that most affect our lives are the most important issues facing the movement today. Think about the old lesbian feminist political agenda, it used to involve: violence, family, economic issues, health care, welfare, housing, social security, disability rights, coalition politics, sex and politics. These are the lesbian issues of our day. It is much deeper than nondiscrimination policies or laws.

    It is about ending the violence that is in our society. Violence against women remains at record highs. The violence of Columbine is bred in the misogyny and heterosexism that leads kids to taunt each other for gender nonconformity, that leads schools to not act to stop such harassment, that leads our culture to glorify maladaptive forms of social behavior like machismo while disdaining the quiche-eating esthete!

    A lesbian agenda involves a detailed set of family Policy issues because we are at the heart of the revolution in new family creation. Family policy will be and ought to be a major issue raised by us in the 2000 election cycle – Bush has already said horrible things about lgbt families….these issues involve, parenting barriers, adoption and foster care, creating new forms of relationship that are legally recognized, marriage, child care, school reform, domestic partnership and much more.

    Economic Issues have always mattered to women – we earn 75 cents to a man’s dollar (depending on race and location). Creating opportunity for women, equal pay for equal work matter. To poor and low income lesbians, the welfare bill and the cutbacks in the safety net matters a great deal – and indeed have targetted single mothers ruthlessly —-with no one standing up for these women. Women’s economic status is affected by our educational access, our addiction to substances, and perhaps even by luck. Lesbians are found not just in the professional fields but in the homeless shelters – ask any provider and they will tell you that a LARGE number of their clients are lesbians – yet no surveys or hard data exist on this population and its needs.

    Health issues remain a huge lesbian concern – because of the disproportionate share of dollars spent on men’s health versus the health of women – in research, care, treatment and prevention. Breast and other forms of cancer; reproductive issues; sexually transmitted diseases; menopause; drug and alcohol addiction; mental health issues and more – these are all issues and policy frameworks that affect lesbians.

    Aging is a major lesbian and feminist issue – because of the longer life expectancy of women, we are the ones who suffer from the horrible lack of support and services that exist for the elderly. Ageism is a reality in our GLBT community institutions that is thankfully being challenged and addressed. But homophobia exists in every insitution serving elders and we need a multi year process to tackle this.

    Coalition politics and the notion that lesbian, gay, bi and trans institutions can have a multi-issue agenda, can be progressive remains a lesbian contribution to our world and I would argue one made by lesbians of color – like Audre Lorde, Gloria Andalzua, Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Cherrie Moraga, Merle Woo, Bernice Johnson Reagon. Each were among the early pioneers in the articulation of such intersectional politics.

    Sex and politics – whether the issue is reproductive rights and access to abortion or simply access to sex education for young girls; whether it is the freedom to be sexually active, to have a public sexuality – that is denied to all women still – sexual freedom is a critical issue of concern to lesbians. Large numbers of lesbians work in the sex industry – a complicated situation which involves both women who are in control over their situations and others who are truly at the mercy of their situations.

    I list these issues – and could go on for hours – to detail that there are specific problems and opportunities that lesbians encounter in each of these areas. Let no one here say they cannot name a lesbian issue – there are many issues.

    Gathering data and information on lesbians
    The question becomes are we giving in ways that force existing institutions in the GLBT communities to address these issues from the persepecttive of lesbians. Why don’t some of the existing GLBT AIDS institutions expand to serve lesbians with life threatening illnesses as well? Do the concerns and realities of women and lesbians get factored in to the work of all our many social service organizations – or is the assumption that is unspokenly made that all the constituents are male?

    I think one critical initial need for lesbian philanthropy is the need for much more information about the lived experience of diverse lesbians.

    Giving Matters and Creates Power
    Part of the reason the mainstream glbt movement is not more explicitly feminist is that there are few women donors who wield their bias in support of lesbians. In other words the low visibility and priority of lesbian politics, of feminism and lesbian-specific issues in our movement is in part a direct result of the shyness of lesbian donors to exercise their financial power. Male donors do not feel shy at all to do so. They are aggressively funding a whole array of issues they care about – and it is a majority of male donors who are funding a variety of institutions and capacities in our movement that serve both men and women – for example the legal organizations (LLDEF, ACLU), the HRC and NGLTF, the community centers, GLSEN, Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, to name some. I know that I am being simplistic, and the dreaded word — essentialist– but I believe my statements are based on empirical fact. My point is not that all women or all men believe one thing and behave in the same way, but rather that we need to look at why women are not giving in larger numbers and amounts to our social movement and the impact that this might have on the agenda of our movement organizations.

    A few large donors in our movement are very influential and can set the agenda of the movement by what they choose to fund.  Male donors often question women leaders like me any time the movement goes in a feminist direction. One example: I have sat in on a couple of donor advisory boards and had to have the discussion of why its important to fund feminist or lesbian projects – men say well we get criticized for funding men’s projects, why should we fund women’s projects. 

    In another example, recently a prominent donor whom I was asking for money opened the conversation with me by musing why was it that all the highest staff positions in the NGLTF were held by women? Did I think that was a problem? I answered that the leading staff positions in the organization he sat on were held by men, and did he see that as a problem? He said they were conscious of it, and I said so were we, but that I did not see that it seemed to make a whit of difference in our politics and agenda.  That in itself is a sad reflection on (and self-criticism I would make of) NGLTF and any number of other movement institutions run by women today,  that when feminists – be they men or women — run these institutions, it really does not matter much because women do not operate these institutions differently from institutions run by others who are not feminist.

    Very few lesbian donors use their giving to pressure and steer organizations in our movement to engage feminist positions – no lesbian donor I know has used her power and clout to insist on a pro-choice agenda by a gay organization — if they had, why would HRCF endorse anti-choice candidates. Few lesbians have given a large gift to a gender studies program or a women’s studies program to do lesbian and gay work – but lots of men I know have established schoarships at universities or to fund gay and lesbian studies programs.

    Donors also wield a LOT of political power in our skewed, money counts campaign finance system. Political donors in our movement have largely been men – very few lesbian donors are meeting with Gephardt, the DCCC, the Gore campaign, the Bradley campaign to push them on issues that matter to us as lesbians and feminists

    The most common reason I am given for why there are so few lesbian major donors is that women earn less than men and therefore fewer have means to give as much.  This may be factually true but it is also an excuse that gives a free pass to those lesbians who could be giving much more from doing so. Indeed, there are a large number of wealthy and upper middle class lesbians — enough in my experience to actually make the kind of impact that we have seen male donors make through their philanthropy.  But we are simply not putting our resources into GLBT or even feminist philanthropy. Instead I think we tend to put our resources into our families (of origin and of choice).

    A key limitation in lesbian philanthropy seems to be fear: Fear of being public about having money and lots of it; fear of being criticized for supporting a particular cause or institution that you might care about; fear of using money as a tool to be powerful; fear of doing the wrong thing; fear of not having enough resources to be secure in the future (why give it away when you need it). Any giving strategy aimed at lesbians needs to address these different kinds of worries with practical advice.

    Finally, there is a lack of role modeling and mentoring in general among women and among lesbian donors. We need a number of lesbians to step up and step out as leaders in philanthropy and as mentors to a wider circle of potential donors. People give to people — this is the truism of fundraising. Women will give to their peers but we need some major heavy hitters to step out as lesbians and challenge and inspire us to give more.

    In our time together I hope we can discuss why we think lesbians give and why we may not give to our fullest potential. The power to influence the direction of our political movement, as well as the power to create institutions and movements that can address our deepest worries and priorities lies in our own hands.

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