During the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s, lesbian activists played an integral role within both the feminist movement and the gay movement—but that legacy has largely been forgotten in mainstream teachings. A new exhibition at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives aims to change that.
“Lavender Women & Killer Dykes: Lesbians, Feminism, and Community in Chicago,” which is cosponsored by the Chicago Women’s History Center, spotlights the work of lesbians during those decades in Chicago. This includes establishing community and health centers, political action groups, independent publications, bookstores, bars, restaurants, and more.
The exhibition takes its name from two lesbian publications: Lavender Woman and Killer Dyke. Established in 1971, Lavender Woman was the first lesbian newspaper in Chicago and possibly the first gay newspaper in the city. In addition to larger publications, “Lavender Women & Killer Dykes” will also have small zines, short-run publications, and newsletters for community groups on display. Most of these newsletters focused specifically on women’s and lesbian issues, like Kinheart, a health service in Evanston that published a “Lesbian Relationship Handbook,” and Executive Sweet, a group focused on the advocacy of Black women locally. The exhibition will also provide reading lists of notable Chicago lesbians including activists Vernita Gray and Marge Summit, poet Yvonne Zipter, and musician Linda Shear.
“I think we had a worry that we weren’t going to have enough material when we started, and now it’s just an overwhelming amount,” says Jen Dentel, one of the exhibition’s four volunteer cocurators. “This is just a portion of what was happening at the time.”
The initial concept for the exhibition was lesbian feminism in Chicago, but as time went on, the curators became more interested in the relationship between lesbians and feminism. “‘Lesbian feminism’ was sort of a contentious term, which we weren’t aware of going into it,” Dentel says. “We just thought, oh, lesbians and feminism. They go together.”
Being a “lesbian feminist” was more political than anything, according to Dentel, and they often had different views on issues of separatism and radical action. Not only were they lesbians sexually, but they were also visibly lesbian in everything they did—and they were dedicated to exclusively emphasizing the voices of other women. “I think other people were absolutely feminists and lesbians,” Dentel says, “but the term a ‘lesbian feminist’ felt too much like a box.”
While there was political tension between lesbians and “lesbian feminists” nationally, it didn’t deter lesbians in Chicago from making progress within their communities.
“Even though those issues were there, there was a lot of work towards building things,” says Erik Rebain, archivist and cocurator. “If you’re a feminist, if you’re a lesbian—you just kind of came together and you made projects. There were community centers founded and bookstores and publishing presses and cancer projects . . . It was really cool to discover that and share that positive side of it.”
Some of those projects included the construction of Susan B’s, a feminist restaurant in Lakeview from 1973 to 1975, and the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective, which made posters for lesbian and feminist movements.
Even though there are established gay neighborhoods in the city, a lot of the community spaces created during this time were not localized to any one area. It was wherever people could get real estate, and if they couldn’t, it was out of people’s own homes.
Dentel and Rebain, along with cocurators Isabel Singer and David Sievers, worked extensively with Chicago Women’s History Center president Mary Ann Johnson to create something comprehensive that gives young queer people a chance to discover things about their history they might not have previously known.
“When you talk about the 1980s, you’re going to talk about AIDS,” Dentel says. “Which makes sense, but I also think lesbians were doing a lot of other things at that time period that doesn’t get talked about.”
In many ways, the exhibition acts as both an interactive lesbian history lesson and as a time capsule for the women whose lives it depicts.
“I love the personal aspect [of history],” Dente says. “I think anyone can read the big feminist texts of the time and you get something from that, but you don’t get that on-the-ground feel. You can see yourself in it.”
Visitors can get personal glimpses into these histories through photos, concert tickets, and even album covers from lesbian records: Living With Lesbians, Lesbian Concentrate, Love Thy Womanself, Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, and more.
While it can be disheartening to see a city with such a role in queer history like Chicago lose such vital spaces over time, “Lavender Women & Killer Dykes” is making sure that that history will be remembered.
“I think it’s something that’s been forgotten,” Dentel says. “And so many people don’t know anything about our heritage. There are women that we’re profiling that I feel like everyone should know their names, and I don’t know why they don’t. But it’s because they were women, it’s because they were lesbians. There’s this dismissal of all this history that happened, so I hope we can celebrate that.” v