March is Women’s History Month. Cue mainstream media highlighting historical figures—and erasing their lesbianism.
Women’s History Month should also centre the contributions of queer historical women. Like suffragist and abolitionist Susan B. Anthony, whose erotic letters to her female lovers are steamy even by today’s standards. Jane Addams, the founder of modern social work, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and co-founder of the NAACP, who was in two long-term relationships with other women. Dr. Alice Hamilton, founder of industrial medicine and the precursor to OSHA and a pioneering activist in labor legislation, civil liberties, and world peace. Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman in space, astrophysicist and life-long lesbian partnered with the same woman for nearly 30 years. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, civil rights leader and attorney, first woman and first Black person elected to Congress from Texas and partnered with the same woman for over 30 years.
And women’s history is not just about the figures of our past—important and impactful as they might be. Women’s history is also lesbians who have made history in our living present and whose names and achievements you should know about and celebrate and not allow to fade into obscurity. Here are 10 lesbians in their 70s and 80s whose work has had a lasting impact on their communities and on LGBTQ culture and society.
Katherine V. Forrest (born 1939)
The multiple Lambda Literary Award winner changed genre writing with her lesbian detective series, considered the first in the crime genre. Forrest is the author of nearly 20 novels, including the Kate Delafield mystery series. Forrest’s lesbian romance novel Curious Wine is a lesbian classic. Also a longtime editor, Forrest shepherded hundreds of works of lesbian fiction through Naiad Press and Spinster’s Ink. Forrest is credited with bringing open and realistic eroticism to lesbian fiction and to the detective genre. She said, “Sexuality is a part of life and it’s something that readers are interested in as far as characters… Love scenes are unparalleled opportunities to characterize a major character and bring out aspects of them that you can’t in normal everyday scenes.”Of her personal political sensibilities, Forrest said, “We are the only subculture that incorporates both genders, all races, all colors, all creeds… Being visible can make us free…and give us a power we have never known.”
Joan Nestle (born May 12, 1940)
The Lambda Award winning writer and editor, whose erotic writing and memoirs had a groundbreaking influence on lesbian culture and society, is also co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Nestle has said that her work of archiving history as critical to her identity, asserting that, “As a woman, as a lesbian, as a Jew, I know that much of what I call history others will not. But answering that challenge of exclusion is the work of a lifetime.”Nestle writes in a segment for the Jewish Women’s Archive, “More than ever, I believe in a feminism that does not run from the full complexity of women’s lives, from the vital differences between us as well as the connections that bind us.” She adds, “The Lesbian Herstory Archives is a place of remembering, of refusal of historical exile, where as a Jew from working class roots and a femme feminist from the queer 1950s, I could help ensure that shame and assimilation did not win out over our wondrous complexities. The archives must be a home big enough for all of us.”
Judy Grahn (born July 28, 1940)
A poet, essayist and lesbian feminist activist, Grahn has said it was her “lived experience of disenfranchisement as a butch lesbian” that led her to writing poetry. Grahn says she grew up in “an economically poor and spiritually depressed late 1950s New Mexico desert town near the hellish border of West Texas.” Her first poetry collection, Edward the Dyke and Other Poems was released in 1971. Her work, A Woman is Talking to Death, remains a classic of lesbian poetry. In that poem she wrote, “the common woman is as common as the best of bread/ and will rise.” The author of over 20 books, Grahn’s most recent book is the 2021 “Eruptions of Inanna: Justice, Gender, and Erotic Power.” Grahn earned her PhD from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Until 2007, Grahn was the director of the Women’s Spirituality (MA) and Creative Inquiry (MFA) programs at the New College of California and teaches women’s mythology and ancient literature at the California Institute for Integral Studies and other institutions. She has won several literary awards, including the American Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Grahn says, “Gay people are not in the habit of thinking of ourselves as leading our civilization, and yet we do.”
Joan E. Biren, known also as JEB (born July 13, 1944)
A lesbian feminist photographer and filmmaker whose focus is lesbians and other LGBT people, her work has highlighted anti-racism and visibility of lesbian imagery in political and social contexts. Biren was, with Rita Mae Brown and Charlotte Bunch, a founding member of the Furies Collective, a radical experiment in lesbian feminist separatist communal organizing. The Furies Collective also published a journal, The Furies. Biren said she became a photographer because “I needed to see images of lesbians.” Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (1979) and Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987) were innovative and groundbreaking books of photographs of lesbians.
Donna Deitch (born June 8, 1945)
A landmark lesbian film and television director, producer and writer, her 1985 film “Desert Hearts,” based on the Jane Rule novel, “Desert of the Heart,” is a lesbian classic and widely recognized as the first feature film to depict a lesbian love story in a positive way, where neither woman dies (“The Fox”), commits suicide (“The Children’s Hour”) or goes off with a man (“Personal Best”) at the end of the movie. “Desert Hearts” won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Oprah Winfrey hired Deitch after she saw “Desert Hearts,” to direct the four-hour miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place,” one of the first TV miniseries to depict the lives of Black women–including Black lesbians. The series, based on the Gloria Naylor novel of the same name, was nominated for an Emmy. Deitch has directed nearly 50 TV series and made four other feature films. Her film “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing in a Children’s Special. Deitch said of her iconic film “Desert Hearts,” “I made it for myself – it was a film I wanted to see.”
Chrystos (born November 7, 1946, as Christina Smith)
A Menominee writer and two-spirit activist whose books and poems explore indigenous Americans’s civil rights, social justice and feminism, Chrystos is also a lecturer, writing teacher and fine artist. Chrystos writes about how colonialism, genocide, class and gender affect the lives of women, notably lesbians, and Indigenous peoples. The author of several books, Chrystos’ awards and honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Human Rights Freedom of Expression Award, the Sappho Award of Distinction from the Astrea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, a Barbara Deming Grant and the Audre Lorde International Poetry Competition. Chrystos notes that their lesbian identity is “an imperative part” of their work and said, “Being a queer woman has given me independence that is not possible for straight women. I’ve never had a boyfriend I had to appease or tone myself down in order to protect his ego. Being a lesbian is being an outlaw—I get to name my own poisons.”
Barbara Smith (born November 16, 1946)
The lesbian feminist, socialist, scholar, activist, critic, lecturer, author, and publisher of Black feminist thought has also taught at numerous colleges and universities for 25 years. Smith helped craft the concept of intersectionality with the founding of the Combahee River Collective, a class-conscious, sexuality-affirming Black feminist organization focused on the intersections of racial, gender, heterosexist and class oppression for Black women and other women of color. Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980. Smith published collections that have become classics and foundational texts to the new literary canon of women of color that Smith aspired to create. Smith was the first scholar to coin the term “identity politics.” Smith said, “Black women, whose experience is unique, are seldom recognized as a particular social-cultural entity and are seldom thought to be important enough for serious scholarly consideration.”
Cris Williamson (born 1947)
The lesbian feminist singer-songwriter, recording artist, poet and lesbian political activist is a pioneer in the Women’s Music genre. Williamson is credited with having catalyzed the creation of women-owned record companies like Olivia Records in the 1970s. Among her dozens of albums, The Changer and the Changed is considered a lesbian classic, selling over a half-million albums. Williamson has performed with other lesbian artists, notably Meg Christian, Teresa Trull and Tret Fure. She also has a longtime musician association with Bonnie Raitt and they have performed together. Of her music, Williamson said, “I didn’t set out to be an icon, to save the lesbians of the world. But women were hungry. We were starving for someone who talked about what we were thinking and feeling. And somehow I stumbled into a clearing — here are some things I found that maybe would be useful — and I flew them out like model airplanes.”
Lenore Chinn (born June 20, 1949)
The Asian-American artist and realist painter, and lesbian activist was a founding member of Lesbians in the Visual Arts and Queer Cultural Center (QCC) and served on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Chinn is an art curator and an active member of the Asian American Women Artists Association. Chinn speaks widely on the intersection of her Asian and lesbian identities, which is reflected in her work. In an interview for Queer Cultural Center TV, Chinn said of her work, “My signature paintings, with their super realistic, crisply rendered compositions, convey a subtle message of visibility for the socially and politically disenfranchised peoples in my personal social landscape — people of color, women, lesbians, and gay men.” Chinn continued, “Through character studies in contemporary themes I restore cultural difference to center stage, creating a presence which resonates in its luminosity, texture, color, and light. While enticing the viewer with a non-confrontational aesthetic, these narratives simultaneously challenge old world views and compel a rethinking of how we define society’s others.”
Cherríe Moraga (born September 25, 1952)
Chicana writer, feminist activist, poet, essayist and playwright Moraga is a founding member of the social justice activist group La Red Chicana Indígena, an organization of Chicanas fighting for education, culture rights and Indigenous Rights. Moraga has long been viewed as the first to write specifically about Chicana lesbians. Moraga co-edited the classic anthology “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color” with Gloria Anzaldúa in 1981.In “La Guera,” Moraga linked her experiences of being discriminated against as a lesbian to the discrimination her mother experienced as a poor, uneducated Mexican woman. Moraga wrote, “My lesbianism is the avenue through which I have learned the most about silence and oppression, and it continues to be the most tactile reminder to me that we are not free human beings.”Moraga says, “The nationalism I seek is one that decolonizes the brown and female body as it decolonizes the brown and female earth.”