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notes from activist meetings in Paris in the Seventies
Notes from lesbian activist days in Paris, 1971

notes from activist meetings in Paris in the Seventies

notes from activist meetings in Paris in the Seventies

notes from activist meetings in Paris in the Seventies

notes from activist meetings in Paris in the Seventies

poster for a lesbian ball that never happened
A poster for the ball that wasn't.
Shortly after leaving France for New York. blank

Interview in French with Stéphanie Delon, Jeanne Magazine #85 April 2021. Here is the English original slightly edited.

In a few words?

I'm a writer. Lesbian activist. Citizen journalist (when I feel like).

France Take 1

I escaped the island-prison on December 20, 1967 after waiting for about 2 years for the infamous "exit permit". I arrived in Paris by train from Madrid in early January 1968.

This was my first trip abroad. So, I could only compare Madrid and Paris to Cuba, and they both came ahead just for being non-Cuba. In particular, no State Security dragging you out of your home and dumping you in jail and then a psychiatric institution for 3 months for an unreason. I tell the story here, in Spanish: Ana María Simo: "Cuba es dolorosa. Trato de no verla"

Madrid felt surprisingly provincial and old fashioned. I also picked up some serious repressive vibes of the Hispanic kind.

Paris was as visually breathtaking as advertised. But I had no opinion or feelings about her inhabitants. That would come later. My first few months in the city were consumed by a search for food and a place to sleep.

The Métro ladies loathed me and expressed it loudly. I wondered why, since I was always cleanly dressed and respectful. Some French guy told me that French people were xenophobic, piously exempting himself. So, I figured it was my accent and hesitant French that unleashed the Métro ladies' wrath. Although I shed a few tears the first and second time they slammed me, I accepted it like one accepts a peculiar tribal custom discovered in a remote location and time. Luckily, with just a few coins in my pocket on any given day and half a baguette the best I could do, I hardly ever took the Métro.

Besides, I had better things to do, like roaming all over the city, crumpled map in hand, reading vast amount of books in public libraries and, the high point of my week, attending Roland Barthes seminar in St. Germain. That was the main reason why I had chosen Paris as my land of exile.

Uprooting is a brutal and perplexing process. The rug being pulled out from under you is physical and metaphysical. Re-rooting is never total, even if you think so. I was never totally rooted in Cuba, or even "Ana" --an otherness I felt since I was 4 or 5 years old. Perhaps that helped me reconstruct myself elsewhere, instead of wallowing in nostalgia.

May '68 was extremely joyful and liberating for me. I was able to protest, loudly, in public! for the first time in my life (coming from a totalitarian country that, ironically, so many in France worshipped and still idealize). I liked the movement's irreverence and creativity, it's anti-authority thing. That's why I joined the (mostly) boys running up and down Boulevard Saint Michel with the CRS chasing them. I didn't share their specific beef with the French government, De Gaulle, or even less their university system. My allegiance was more universal: I felt part of the city, part of an imaginary community of anti-authoritarians. Looking back, I realize I was a total outsider who was about to shed most of her skin. On the joyous May '68 Parisian streets I found the beginnings of a new skin.

Activism 101

I first heard about the MLF and later the FHAR at the Faculté de Vincennes where I was studying. I started going to their amazing meetings at Beaux Arts. By 1970, I was familiar with U.S. feminist thinking, and aware of Stonewall. I was ready to join an activist community.

I frequented the MLF, but kept tabs on the FHAR, where a small group of out lesbians sat on the back row at Beaux Arts. The MLF was ovewhelmingly straight, both in membership and in their thinking, and the FHAR dykes were inaudible in the midst of a crushingly male audience.

So, I concluded that lesbians needed a room of our own, political and otherwise. And that we should build an autonomous group with a foot on the feminist movement and another foot on what was shaping up as a gay male movement.

Lesbians were increasingly vocal within the MLF, demanding meaningful inclusion, and had started meeting by themselves by the spring of 1971, under various labels, particularly Gouines Rouges. I kept notes from this period. You can find them in the column to the left.

On Friday evening, May 28, 1971, the first General Assembly of lesbians from the MLF and the FHAR met at Beaux Arts. It massively approved (with only 3 or 4 MLF women objecting) "the union of all homosexual women in a single distinct and autonomous group that would be part of both the MLF and the FHAR while keeping its own political identity and specificity." There was no agreement on a name for the new lesbian autonomous group--a bad omen, I now see.

At the lesbian autonomous group's first meeting, Tuesday, June 8 also at Beaux Arts, Antoinette Fouque's troops disembarked en masse, packed the meeting, and undid all our hard work.

We continued our efforts, though, notably organizing the first public Dyke Ball in French history. Sponsored by the MLF and FHAR lesbians, it should have kicked off at 10 p.m. on Tuesday June 24 at Les Halles, then awash in anti-demolition protests. It never did. We found the door to our venue chained and padlocked, and the managers AWOL. My sound system was trapped inside for days, but I eventually got it back, intact.

The idea of an autonomous lesbian group connected to both the MLF and the FHAR didn't gain enough traction to overcome the violent hetero pushback, and the ambivalence of dykes. At the time, I felt that some were afraid to weaken the MLF or, worse, cut ties with the mother-ship, which carried not just their political project, but their friends and lovers.

I didn't see autonomy as a mortal risk, but as a great opportunity for all. And as the only way to keep lesbians in the MLF and the MLF in lesbians, in every possible sense.

By late 1972, I had given up on feminism as a home for lesbians, and vice-versa.

New York City

In New York next, I co-founded Medusa's Revenge (1976-1981) with the actress and director Magaly Alabau, another Cuban exile.

A direct descendant of my Paris experience, Medusa's Revenge was a lesbian theatre ensemble anchored in a lesbian "room of our own"—a large, well-equipped, non- commercial performance and community space off the Bowery. A space open to other lesbian performers as well as to the lesbian community at large, complete with film screenings and dyke parties. We often had up to 500-600 women at our parties.

The Birth of the Lesbian Avengers, 1992

I was enraged by the invisibility of lesbians in the public arena. When rage begins to make you sick and you have visions of bombs exploding, it's time to act. So I contacted some other lesbians, and the six of us (Maxine Wolfe, Sarah Schulman, Marie Honan, Anne Maguire et Anne-christine d'Adesky) had an amazing brain-storming session over dinner at my place.

Like me, they all wanted a direct action group, not a talk group. Name, purpose, structure, next organizing steps, etc. were quickly hatched. It was great fun, and eminently practical. All the stars must have been aligned that spring night.

In general, I prefer action to talk. And effective, fun action requires smart planning. I didn't have a chance to try that in France, so it was great that the Avenger co-founders had the know-how.

I especially loved the first action in front of the grade school in Queens. It was awesome. My other favorite is the occupation of Radio Mega, a homophobic Spanish-language station, which I coordinated. I was inspired by Costa Gavras' État de siège, minus the murderous violence. The minute details of the kidnapping were fascinating, and our own (peaceful) Radio Mega action was also chronometrically rehearsed. We even had a get-away car. None of us got arrested. Logistics is 50% of a succesful action and image-creation is the other 50%. We had both.

The Avenger Process

At the weekly Avengers meeting, anyone could propose an action and have interested people sign up. They would then work on the specifics on their own and return with a detailed plan at the next meeting, where it would be approved, or not.

In other words: If you want an action, then you personally have to develop and organize it. You own it. The group won't do it for you.

I was elated (when the group became a worldwide movement with dozens of chapters, including groups in Germany, Australia, France), but kept my nose to the grindstone. So as not to rest on our laurels.

Avenger Legacy

Now I can see it was a unique experience. An exceptional, one-in-a-million confluence of talent, energy, imagination, humor, and (I know it sounds corny) love. We loved each other—until we didn't. I retain the good times.

The Lesbian Avengers could have lasted a few more years. But direct action groups are by nature ephemeral. Or maybe cyclical (if lesbians are like the phoenix). And that's not a bad thing.

I don't know, what the legacy of the Lesbian Avengers is, but if I had to give a message to lesbians today, it would be that we are like the phoenix. We get erased every decade or two, but we always come back. It's up to us. Maybe it's time to try organizing again with women. Who knows. Can't be worse than staying in LGBT purgatory.