“Lesbians! Dykes! Gay Women! We want revenge and we want it now.” If you had been a woman at the 1992 New York Gay Pride March, a flyer with those words might have been shoved into your sweaty hand. Keep reading: “We’re wasting our lives being careful. Imagine what your life could be. Aren’t you ready to make it happen?”
That flyer was printed and distributed by the thousands by six lesbians, Ana Maria Simo, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-christine d’Adesky, Marie Honan, and Anne Maguire, who had been involved in in ACT-UP, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, and other queer and feminist direct action groups. Tired of lesbian issues being sidelined, they decided to form a group that was for, by, and about dykes: the Lesbian Avengers.
Their call resonated. The first Avengers meeting brought more than fifty women to the New York LGBT Center, and they were already planning their first action. In response to homophobic attacks on the proposed Rainbow Curriculum, a New York City curriculum that addressed race, class, and sexual orientation, Avengers rallied at an elementary school in Queens, in the district of bigoted district school board member Mary Cummins. A marching band played as dykes wearing “I was a lesbian child” t-shirts gave lavender balloons with the slogan “Teach About Lesbian Lives” to families taking their kids in to the first day of the school year.
This confrontational but light-hearted style of activism was a hallmark of Avenger actions. Groups of Avengers sang lesbian love songs outside Cummins’s home for Valentine’s Day. They constructed a statue of Alice B. Toklas to reunite her with the statue of her long-time lover, Gertrude Stein, in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, in a ceremony of poetry and spontaneous all-woman waltzing. And, most famously, the Avengers organized the first (and then the annual) Dyke March in New York – a celebration of queer women’s lives that spread around the country.
But the Avengers also took on serious issues. In October 1992, they organized a torch-lit march to Greenwich Village, in memory of Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, a black lesbian and white gay man, who had been killed when their home was destroyed by a homophobic arson attack. The march ended at a make-shift shrine, where Avengers debuted their most dramatic act of resistance. Chanting “their fire will not consume us, we take it and make it our own,” about half a dozen Avengers ate fire.
Watch: Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too (2014)
Throughout the early 1990s, Avengers chapters sprang up all over the United States and even internationally. The New York Avengers also ventured far from home: to Tampa, FL to agitate in support of an HIV-positive lesbian who had been burned out of her home; to Maine and Idaho to organize against anti-LGBT ordinances; to Washington, DC for the 1993 LGBT March on Washington.
Like most direct action groups, the Avengers were fairly short-lived. By 1996, many Avengers chapters had folded or disintegrated. But one legacy of the Avengers endures: the annual Dyke Marches around the country still embody the Avengers’ anarchic spirit of resistance, fun, rage, and love.
Kelly Cogswell, Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (2014)
Sarah Schulman, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years (1994)