The Lesbian Avengers are a collection of grassroots human rights organizations for Lesbians. Members are trained in techniques of mainstream activist organizations, and strive to avoid hierarchical structures that could exclude any minorities from participating. Within Gay culture, the Avengers are an umbrella organization with its own traditions.
While the grassroots nature of the organizations makes them difficult to track in their entirety, it is estimated that by 1993 the Avengers had twenty chapters nationally, and has had as many as 55 chapters worldwide in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Formed in New York in 1992 in collaboration with the activist group, AIDS Committee To Unleash Power (ACT UP), the Avengers espoused a similar program to ACT UP’s use of nonviolent confrontation, and would regularly plan public performances to attract attention to their causes. The Avengers differed from ACT UP in that their membership was exclusively Lesbian, and the performances of the Lesbian Avengers were designed to increase Lesbian visibility.
Valentine’s Day Action
One of the most memorable performances of the Avengers was the 1993 “Valentine’s Day Action,” captured in Su Friedrich’s documentary The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too (1993). For this event, participants honored the iconic couple, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. They built a paper maché statue of Alice B. Toklas and placed it next to the statue of her lover, Gertrude Stein, which sits alone in New York City’s Bryant Park. In the inauguration ceremony for the statue, the Lesbian Avengers proclaimed the function of the paper maché Toklas:
…make visible the fact of lesbian existence, and lesbian love in all its forms and expressions — including romantic love, cruising, one-night stands, singles, couples, threesomes, butches, femmes, and those of us who no one has bothered to categorize, the writers, the teachers, the secretaries, the housekeepers, the nurses and the truck drivers, and to make visible the love we have for ourselves and each other when we organize and take direct action together on our own behalf.
In this ceremony, the group called attention to the wide variety of Lesbian experiences, challenging the more established approach to Gay and Lesbian activism that insists on homogenizing in order to project a unified community. Participants recognized that homogenization can create a sense of solidarity and shared goals from the perspective of mainstream and heterosexual audiences but that, within the LGBTQ community, this could mean ignoring differences that are not based on sexual orientation. The Lesbian Avengers cultivate an ethic of inclusiveness in their activism, and insist that visibility is best attained by educating diverse populations. For example, in the “Out Against the Right” manifesto that later became Out Against the Right: An Organizing Handbook, the group warns repeatedly against stereotyping voters. This is an error that often results from the strategy of targeting only the largest populations of sympathetic voters, a system employed by many mainstream activist organizations, including those advocating for Gay rights. These practices often exclude people of lower incomes, those categorized as minorities, or those living in regions with fewer registered voters.
In 2011, the Lesbian Avengers put The Lesbian Avenger Handbook: A Handy Guide to Revolution online. Under the heading of “Tactics” is the following:
What type of action are we planning: symbolic, disruption/interference, education? Avoid old, stale tactics at all costs. Chanting, picketing and the like, alone no longer make an impression; standing passively and listening to speakers is boring and disempowering. Look for daring, new participatory tactics depending on the nature of your action.
New York Avengers have staged overnight encampments, surprised politicians with daring zaps in the halls of the Plaza Hotel, invaded the offices of SELF magazine, marched down Fifth Avenue at rush hour with flaming torches, and handed out balloons that said, “Ask about lesbian lives!” to school children in an anti-gay district. What is the visual design of the action going to be? It should let people know clearly and quickly who we are and why we are there. The more fabulous, witty and original the better.
Challenging Stereotypes and Eating Fire
The Lesbian Avengers is highly critical of the stereotypes applied to Gays and Lesbians. The group’s signature slogan, “We Recruit,” is an appropriation of an anti-homosexual stereotype (LGBTQ people recruit children) deployed by the Christian Right. This appropriation is very closely linked with the act of eating fire, a symbolic expression first performed by the New York Lesbian Avengers that became an important part of many Lesbian Avengers events.
The spectacle of fire-eating is accompanied by the chant: “The fire will not consume us — we take it and make it our own.” This chant is representative of many of the direct-action techniques used and advocated by Lesbian Avengers to take back and make visible aspects of Lesbian identity that have been stereotyped (such as “We Recruit”) or ignored (the silence surrounding Gertrude Stein’s lesbian life partner).
Other examples of Lesbian Avenger traditions include taking back the streets in the annual Dyke March held in a number of cities in the United States, and the Lesbian Avengers’ slogan, “Be the Bomb You Throw,” which encourages Lesbians to embody the changes that they wish to effect upon the world. “Be the Bomb You Throw” echoes the statement, “You must be the change you want to see in the world,” attributed to Mohandas Gandhi.
Lesbian Avengers Website. www.lesbian.org
Schulman, Sarah. My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Friedrich, Su. 1993 . The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too. DVD. Outcast Films.