“Your Young Lesbian Sisters”

Queer Girls’ Voices in the Liberation Era

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 Northern Illinois University alittauer@niu.edu

Abstract

Drawing on letters and essays written by teenage girls in the 1970s and early 1980s, and building on my historical research on same-sex desiring girls and girlhoods in the postwar United States, I ask how teenage girls in the 1970s and early 1980s pursued answers to questions about their feelings, practices, and identities and expressed their subjectivities as young lesbian feminists. These young writers, I argue, recognized that they benefitted from more resources and role models than did earlier generations, but they objected to what they saw as adult lesbians’ ageism, caution, and neglect. In reaching out to sympathetic straight and lesbian public figures and publications, girls found new ways to combat the persistent isolation and oppression faced by youth whose autonomy remained severely restricted by familial, educational, and legal structures.

Think back to the days of loneliness when you first knew you loved women and everyone said it was wrong. Do you remember the pain? … Sure it was harder then. Sure, there weren't gay groups or a strong women's movement. You were truly Alone … and it was scary. Today, all these things are more visible—more accepted—more a part of society. It's easier for young lesbians today. No, sisters, it's not. Because today, we knock on your doors and they remain shut in an airtight seal. We come to your meetings and you don't even acknowledge our existence. I smile hopefully at you in the feminist coffeehouse … the women's bookstore, and you quickly add up my jeans and my youth and equivalate me with Trouble … What do your silences and your turned backs tell us? … Let me know that you're there, that you understand, that it's worth it. And that you care.1

This appeal came from a young woman named Tricia from Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 1978, she sent the essay, which she titled “Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?” to 16 different lesbian feminist groups, publications, and leaders, including Olivia Records, author Rita Mae Brown, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives Newsletter. Acknowledging generational differences between lesbians who came of age in the postwar period and in her own liberationist era, she nevertheless insisted that it still took serious initiative to acknowledge feelings of sexual difference and to connect with community. Furthermore, she accused adult lesbians of allowing caution and painful memories to interfere with their responsibility to mentor young women, thereby estranging lesbian youth in new and perhaps particularly painful ways.

Historians have written remarkably little about the lives of same-sex desiring youth like Tricia. I have argued elsewhere (Littauer 2012, 2015) that in the 1940s through the early 1960s, some girls found recognition and connection by mining popular and expert discourses, seeking peer and adult support, and finding their way into lesbian communities, including bars. However, most same-sex desiring and gender nonconforming youth, like most queer adults, faced some combination of isolation, invisibility, confusion, shaming, and persecution. The homophile movement was little help. It emerged in the 1950s, a decade in which politicians and law enforcement authorities encoded the (deeply misguided) belief that gay men and, to a lesser degree, lesbians, were inherently predatory toward children (Braukman 2001; Chauncey 1993; Freedman 1987). To prevent accusations of exploitation or of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, homophile organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis excluded legal minors from membership and from subscription to their national newsletter and magazine, The Ladder (Martin and Lyon 1972).

Legal and cultural frameworks gave postwar youth mixed messages; historian Nicholas Syrett has characterized postwar youth generally as being caught between worlds, treated as children in their families and as legal dependents by the state but regarded by mass media and consumer culture as so-called proto-adults. When it came to same-sex attraction and sexual play between young people, experts in popular magazines and elsewhere waffled, warning parents not to make too much of what was likely a fleeting developmental phase while also encouraging intervention by psychiatrists (for white, middle-class youth) or juvenile justice authorities (for poor youth and youth of color) if romance or attraction became persistent. Youth became a central concern of an explosive and exploding popular literature about sexuality but usually lacked the power to speak publicly or to take action politically in their own interest (Littauer 2015; Syrett 2016).

In the mid- to late-1960s, youth became more politicized and culturally visible, but adolescents remained highly vulnerable structurally. Queer and gender nonconforming teens whose families had rejected them had the least to lose; homeless teens in urban centers participated in spontaneous uprisings and resistance to repression at places such as Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, Dewey's Restaurant in Philadelphia, and, of course, the Stonewall Inn in New York. In San Francisco, queer homeless youth, many of them sex workers, published their own newsletter, Vanguard, in which they protested exploitative housing, economic, and police policies and practices, expressed opposition to the Vietnam War, and shared poetry and personal writing (Stein 2004; Stryker 2017; “Vanguard” 1966–1967). Again, however, these youth were the notable exceptions to the rule; despite teenagers’ remarkable cultural capital in the 1950s and 1960s, they remained tethered to legal and familial structures that limited their access to newly visible subcultures and social movements as John Spurlock (2016) reminds us.

Although legal, economic, and familial constraints persisted in the 1970s and 1980s, youth became increasingly aware of organizations, publications, and public figures who spoke in affirming and respectful ways about—and often as—gay and lesbian people. As the voices of liberationists and activists grew louder and more widespread, teen girls listened and heard. Pronounced caution about interactions between adult women and adolescent girls appears to have survived the transition from homophile to lesbian feminist organizing, however, and was then likely exacerbated by the homophobic campaign of Anita Bryant in the 1980s. This made it difficult for girls to create or to join an intergenerational lesbian conversation. Applying girls’ studies’ emphasis on agency, voice, and identity development to an era when girls had limited but growing access to narrative authority, I argue that although queer youth faced somewhat less isolation and institutional persecution in the liberation era than they did in the postwar years, they continued to struggle in serious and life-limiting ways. Girls, in particular, faced confusion and alienation that they attempted to alleviate by appealing to sympathetic adult women—especially lesbians—for assistance, mentorship, and solidarity. Same-sex desiring girls in the 1970s and early 1980s expressed their need to be seen and supported through their writing of letters to public figures and personal essays in liberationist publications. Some felt the need to speak quite forcefully, accusing lesbian feminists of excluding and dismissing young women because of adults’ anxieties about being seen as predatory or because interacting with teenagers triggered unresolved pain from their own adolescent years.

“Dear Beth”

Among the public voices affirming the humanity and sexuality of same-sex desiring teens in the 1970s was Elizabeth Winship, who began writing a teen advice column for the Boston Globe in 1965. “Dear Beth” went into syndication in 1970 and ultimately appeared in 70 subscribing newspapers. Winship adopted an unusually accepting attitude toward matters of youth sexuality, including homosexuality, which earned the trust of area teens. Among the hundreds of letters she received that mentioned same-sex attraction, confusion was a dominant theme well into the 1980s. In a letter from an unspecified year in the 1970s, for instance, a 14-year-old girl wrote that she had fantasies about touching and kissing two of her friends. With boys, she said, she had “no sexual feelings,” but “when I even look at these girls, I feel a lot of sexual desire. Please explain!” She signed off, “Confused and Scared.”2 Similarly, in 1986, a 13-year-old girl asked whether her practice of sharing intimate showers and touching with her friend meant that the might be a lesbian and whether she was still a virgin.3 Because most communities and families expected girls to share spatial proximity and emotional intimacy, girls found ample opportunity to develop sexual feelings and pursue sexual practices with one another. Hardly new, the cultural context of those experiences had changed, and these girls sought help in understanding the social meanings of their desires and actions.

Sometimes, confusion stemmed not from interpreting one's own desires and actions but from the need to respond to the behavior of others. In 1983, a 14-year-old girl who signed her letter, “AROUSED Lesbian,” sought advice about whether to continue seeing a “lady friend of mine” who “decided to become acquainted with a man” (see Figure 1). With no one else to talk to about the situation, this young letter writer turned to her English teacher, who had “confessed to her” that she was a lesbian. Troublingly, however, “when I talk to her, she tries to touch me.” The author said no more about the teacher, whose alleged advances toward her student reinforced stereotypes about predatory homosexual teachers and, more importantly, must have deepened the girl's sense of isolation and frustration. Revealing remarkable persistence, the letter writer found another channel through which to access information and support, writing to Beth in search of advice about whether to “call the whole thing off” with her girlfriend. After signing off, she added a final question, more serious than the “P.S.” implied: “Is this normal for lesbians?” Only 14 years old, she was trying to figure out what kinds of relationships and dynamics she might expect as she became old enough to join a larger lesbian community. One imagines that she hoped for a change from the encounters she had experienced so far.4

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

Undated letter from a 14-year-old girl to Elizabeth Winship of the Boston Globe. Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Citation: Girlhood Studies 12, 1; 10.3167/ghs.2019.120104

Confusion surrounded not just sexual practices but also the convergence of sexuality and gender identity. In 1984, an 18-year-old self-described tomboy wrote in all capital letters, “I don't like being a girl. I've had dreams constantly of me being a guy having relationships with girls … This really bothers me. I really think I'd be much happier as a male. I've even thought of having a sex change. I am attracted to guys, but not like I am to girls. So am I bisexual, homosexual, or what?” and signed off, “Confused.” Desiring girls from the position of a (female-bodied) masculine subject and also noting some attraction to males, this teen pleaded with Winship to find language to render them visible and coherent. “I truly hope (underlined in the original) that you print this letter, because I'm sure it will help others with the same problem. You're my last resort for an answer.”5 This suggests that the teen had already pursued answers from other (unsatisfying) sources and that their primary goal was finding terminology that would specify and locate their identity. This question of who or what am I? persisted from an earlier, pre-liberation era. Though they contended with fewer overtly stigmatizing labels and less crushing silence than did youth in the 1950s or 1960s, teens like this one still struggled to figure out where they fit in a world carved by and for those with feelings, embodiments, and desires very different from their own.

Unlike youth in earlier decades, however, teens writing “Dear Beth” letters in the 1970s and 1980s knew that they were not alone, and they recognized that advice about their specific situations would likely apply to others, as well. In fact, some girls wrote to Winship in order to educate the columnist on the experience of adolescent lesbianism. In 1985, for instance, a high school junior explained that a friend had recently started a sexual relationship, finding it “a very pleasurable experience,” and that she knew of other girls who had positive experiences with “homosexual affairs.” Her question was, “Do you see any reason why we shouldn't continue our relationship with each other? Are there any negatives about this sort of relationship that we should be aware of?” She framed her feelings and actions in positive terms while also recognizing that there might be broader implications of a same-sex relationship that she should consider. Before signing off, she commented, “I think yo'd [sic] be very surprised if you knew just how many girls are involved in relationships like this.”6 With this comment, she asserted her authority as a teenager with direct experience that rivaled the expertise of the (heterosexual) adult columnist herself. Sensing that they were part of an emerging subset of teens experiencing same-sex desire, youth who wrote “Dear Beth” letters hoped that a sympathetic and knowledgeable adult would help them resolve their confusion, identify appropriate vocabularies, and understand broader cultural meanings of their feelings and actions.

“Dear Phyllis and Del”

Girls and young women in the 1970s and early 1980s seeking validation and guidance also turned to an even more reliable source—high-profile adult lesbians. After the publication of Lesbian/Woman in 1972, authors and pioneering lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin received hundreds of letters from women across the country. In the book, they defended the decision of the Daughters of Bilitis to exclude minors but devoted several pages to the isolation that teen lesbians felt and the need for support services for lesbian youth. Their archival collection includes a folder of letters from teenage lesbians, who not only found and read the book (itself an impressive feat given libraries’ restrictive lending policies, adolescents’ limited access to funds, and obstacles related to disclosure and exposure) but who then took the additional step of writing to Lyon and Martin directly.

Letters from teen lesbians emphasized their gratitude and admiration for Lesbian/Woman, which provided rich information about and an affirming perspective on lesbian life. Girls wrote from all over the nation and from many kinds of environments, including foster homes and juvenile justice facilities. Working against the white bias of the archive, my discussion focuses on letters from two black teenagers. Their resourceful search for information, connection, community, and personal guidance reflects dominant themes of the letters as a whole, but their particular perspectives are grounded in their experiences as young black women.

Writing in 1976 from Brooklyn, New York, to the publisher of Lesbian/Woman, a young woman named Sharon asked for help locating a local chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis or another lesbian organization. She explained that the book had challenged her own stereotypes about lesbians, prompting her to recognize internalized homophobia. She revealed her awareness that she was not alone by referring to herself as “one of the growing teen-agers (black—nineteen) who has deep feelings for other women.” Then she asked for help finding other lesbians. She asked the recipient of the letter to please let Lyon and Martin know that “I am in need of talking with someone of my kind and know how it feels to have these feelings. I wish to have a better outlook about my Lesbian feelings.”7 One wonders whether Sharon especially hoped to find other black lesbians, though she would have little reason to believe that Lyon and Martin would have the interracial network required to help with that. Other women of her “kind,” she hoped, might help her regard her feelings more positively. It must have been difficult to face her doubts and questions on her own.

Writing from Georgia in 1974, a black 17-year-old named Debra faced more pressing problems. She wrote directly to Lyon and Martin, addressing them by their first names and starting off by apologizing for calling them on the phone at 3 am that day. “I'm writing you two because I've searched about 2 yrs. to find someone to talk to, I just recently found your book Lesbian/Woman, and was extremely happy and relieved.” The next few pages tell a detailed story of how she met her girlfriend, Day, two years earlier. “She's white, beautiful and I love her with all my soul,” Debra wrote. They met in high school when Debra played basketball, and Day went to the games. They started spending time together as friends of different races, which lead a few of Debra's friends and most of Day's friends to lose “respect” for them and end their friendships. While certain of Debra's peers expressed discomfort with the interracial friendship, Day's white peers used social isolation to police the lines of racial segregation.

Family relationships also became a problem when Debra's mother received a call from someone who accused Day of being queer. Panicked, her mother called the school, but the two girls were skipping class together and could not be found. “When I got home,” Debra wrote, “it was awful. I kept denying everything. I was dumb founded myself, but happy in a way. I guess you may call this my ‘coming out’ period.” Debra's mother reacted to the threat of sexual contamination that Day represented. After this confrontation, Debra and Day took their relationship to a sexually intimate level and faced persistent harassment and abuse. Responding not only to Debra's gender but also to her blackness, Day's racist foster parents beat her, and the two teens ran away.

At one point, juvenile authorities found Day and incarcerated her for a month, though Day ended up in an emergency shelter from which she ran away to rejoin Debra, whose parents ultimately gave up their efforts to get Debra into psychiatric care, although they continued to pressure her to leave Day and move back home with them. At the time of the letter, the young women were finally working and living together, but Debra had received a college scholarship that required her not to work, so they were trying to figure how to support themselves. They were very vulnerable, not only to parental and legal authorities, but also to racial and sexual violence. Debra noted that they could afford to live only in dangerous neighborhoods but that Day had been raped, and they were scared.

Despite the precariousness of Debra and Day's situation, Debra's main reason for contacting Lyon and Martin was the same as Sharon's and so many others. “Aside from all the history,” she concluded, “I want to meet some lesbians of my age range or older that I can socialize with and be myself … I want other friends I can talk to.” The search for affinity, mentorship, and community drove Sharon, Debra, and other resourceful young people from diverse locations and backgrounds to reach with their words across the borders of age, geography, and status. The homophile movement had produced a cohort of visible gay and lesbian leaders whose organizing and publishing made them visible to young queer people coming of age. Girls struggling to find a place in the lesbian world that Lyon and Martin first helped create through Daughters of Bilitis and then described in Lesbian/Woman looked to their elders for support, elders whose very public existence was new and remarkable.8

“Growing Up Gay”

In the same years that some girls and youth wrote to advice columnists and lesbian authors, others had already developed a pointed political awareness. They marshalled the publishing apparatus and networks of liberationist movements to describe their realities and support other queer youth. The best example of this phenomenon is a group of teenage leftists based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called Youth Liberation, which published a diverse series of pamphlets featuring writing by young people in the 1970s. In 1976, they published “Growing Up Gay,” which included 15 separate articles in three sections: ten on the theme of coming out, two on starting a gay youth group, and three on family life.

In an essay entitled, “I Came Out in Class!” Linda Bieritz, a 17-year-old lesbian, weighed up for her readers the relative merits and drawbacks to coming out in high school. She explained that when her high school psychology class viewed a film on homosexuality, she told her peers that gay people were not only in Greenwich Village but right there, in front of them, speaking. They looked at her with disgust and physically slid their chairs away, though their teacher supported her. Regarding her family, she took an open secret approach that enabled her to continue living at home: “I'm sure my mother knows, but if I actually told her, I don't think that either of us could handle it, at least not while we are living in the same house.” She acknowledged that coming out in school might mean getting beaten up or suspended and harassed, but it could also mean finding another gay person or a sympathizer who “will be a big help in your struggle for survival.”9 Bieritz wrote candidly about her struggles as a high school lesbian, inviting a wider conversation among high school youth about coming out.

In the section on forming high school groups, anonymous authors identified as “young gay people working with the Gay Activists’ Alliance” of New York told the story of the founding of the state's first gay student group at George Washington High (GWH) in 1972. The article credits 18-year-old Elie Lamadrid, a “Third World woman” (a term many politically conscious women of color used in the 1970s and 1980s), for initiating the group and securing faculty and administrative support. Three weeks later, the new group held its first open forum, reportedly attended by 25 people, where Jean O'Leary and Morty Manford from the Gay Activists’ Alliance (GAA) offered information, resources, and encouragement. As of 1976, there were twenty members, the majority of whom were black and Latina young women, and the group was working to expand its social emphasis to incorporate a more political agenda.

The authors urged students at other area high schools to follow the lead of the GWH students and to enlist the help of the GAA and the American Civil Liberties Union in overcoming administrative resistance if necessary. “If we demand the right to form our own groups, our self-pride, confidence, and self-respect will make life in high school much more bearable … We hold our future in our own hands.” The article included a text box with a list of demands for the city high schools of New York, including the right to form social and political gay student groups, the right to be included in curricula related to sexuality and social movements, and the removal of all materials that treated homosexuality as aberrant rather than as “an integral and important part of human sexuality.”10 These young people, including Elie Lamadrid, understood themselves as part of a gay and lesbian movement in which high school students had an important political and social voice.

“Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?”

In addition to describing their realities and encouraging their peers, girls who engaged with liberationist movements also wrote pointed criticisms of adult women who neglected the needs of teens. Adolescent girls wrote with bracing force in the 1970s about their need for feminist and lesbian feminist mentorship and community. They criticized feminists and their organizations for excluding teenagers when adult lesbians, of all people, should have understood the oppression they endured not only as queer women but as minors whose legal authority over their own lives was sharply curtailed because of their age.

In a 1975 letter to The Women's Press, for example, an author who identified herself as Sara, a 14-year-old public high school student, described her “absolute despair” over the “lack of social consciousness” among her peers. With precision and insight, she called upon “the Movement” to address the problems of sexism and gender conformity at their source, rather than waiting for adult women to find consciousness-raising groups in which to attempt to reverse damage incurred years before. At the end of the letter, she turned her attention to the “depressing” reactions of “some feminists” to adolescent lesbianism. A year before the open break between lesbians and straight feminists symbolized by what was known as the lavender menace action against the National Organization of Women and the founding of the Furies Collective in 1971, Sara criticized feminists for refusing to consider the sexual agency of high school women who desired other women. Criticizing a different sexual double standard than radical feminists typically discussed, Sara wrote that feminists “are perfectly willing to accept adolescent heterosexuality, and they are perfectly willing to concede that a person can be advanced intellectually, emotionally, and physically well beyond her years, but not [homo]sexually.” Sara accused feminist women of heterosexist age discrimination, a concept that had not yet been articulated theoretically and which remains markedly under-developed in feminist and queer studies literature.

Sara extended her analysis by applying the feminist critique of women's legal and economic subservience to the conditions of teens whose gender and age rendered them dependent on their parents, usually their breadwinning fathers, or in the absence of parental authority, on foster care or juvenile justice systems. Adopting the politicized language of radical feminism, she called the patriarchal people and systems to which “the adolescent female must remain subservient” her “oppressors.” For youth who suffered from other forms of oppression, such as racism, families often provided solidarity and even protection. Sara pointed out, however, that the adolescent girl “usually cannot turn to her parents.” Same-sex desiring youth often faced oppression at the hands of the very people who controlled their access to spaces, relationships, and resources where youth sought understanding and support. This included counseling, which Sara rightly noted required “money and parental permission” and which carried its own risks.

Revealing a major obstacle to intergenerational lesbian community, Sara lamented adult women's reticence to engage in discussion about lesbianism with minors. The teenage girl, she wrote, “has very little opportunity to meet people of similar interests … particularly if she wants to discuss problems having to do with Lesbianism. (This is because homophile organizations do not allow membership of people under the age of eighteen.)” She was almost certainly referring to the Daughters of Bilitis, the long-standing national organization of predominantly white, middle-class lesbians that restricted both membership and newsletter subscription to women over the age of 21. “I feel that the high school woman is very much in need of a different sort of education,” Sara concluded. “If you have any suggestions or information on what is being done, please correspond. In Sisterhood, Sara.”11

Eight years later, when feminist and lesbian feminist movements had gained further energy and strength, another young woman named Tricia directly addressed adult lesbians, pleading with them to overcome their fear and trauma so that they could assist their “little sisters.” Quoted at the beginning of this article, “Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?” asked readers to think about the young woman in the shadows: “She's young, hurting, and growing. She looks for sisters and for support and guidance, hoping that someone will tell her that it's worth all the pain and all the loneliness … You don't want to think about it because you want to forget … What can you do? Cruise high schools and be arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor?” In this rendering, adult women's fear of legal vulnerability appears as an excuse to avoid confronting memories of their own suffering.

Tricia also exposed as an excuse adult lesbians’ claim that teens in the 1970s had it better than they did in earlier years because of the rise of gay and women's liberation. On the contrary, she insisted, alienation was little better than isolation. Addressing her adult lesbian reader directly, she wrote, “Damn, I've spent hours in the women's bars’ parking lots, watching you through the windows of my car, and grasping every glimpse I could get of you there, being together and laughing, as if it were my only air supply. And once I actually approached you and told you that I just needed to be in some women's space, and you asked me for my I.D. That was all you said.” She asked adults to overcome the pain and fear that distanced them from youth, who deserved and desperately needed a connection to compassionate, experienced adults.

At the end of the letter, Tricia returned to the language of sisterhood to appeal to lesbian feminists’ sense of empathy, responsibility, and legacy. “You speak of change, of reaching out to all women, of forming a new society [but] you're not taking care of your own little sisters, the women you are working and fighting for … Your efforts are important, and needed, and they must go on. But so am I—and I, too, must go on … I need you, sisters, and I need you now (underlined in the original).12 Calling adult lesbians “sisters” was a way to stake a claim to their attention and even their love. Many feminists in the 1970s used the term “sisterhood” to highlight women's shared experience of sexism, though this meant downplaying difference and dominance among women in ways that centered whiteness and alienated women of color. As bell hooks wrote, “The idea of ‘common oppression’ was a false and corrupt platform disguising and mystifying the true nature of women's varied and complex social reality” (1986: 127). The young author of “Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?” evoked this emphasis on commonality, in this case among lesbians on different sides of what she cast as an arbitrarily-imposed and institutionally oppressive line dividing adolescents from adults. Despite their age difference, she implied, sisters share generational status within a family, as well as a responsibility to support one another. As it happens, sisters also tend to share racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds; by identifying age as the only relevant difference between the author and the reader, the letter implicitly appeals for solidarity not only on the basis of gender and sexuality but also race and class.

“Ageism: How We View it as Young Lesbians”

Even deeper in the thick of lesbian feminism were two lesbian separatist teenagers who wrote stridently and politically about ageism. “Birdy,” (17), and “Dancing Womyn,” (19), identified themselves as activists in their small lesbian community in Eureka, California. Appearing in an unidentified publication, an open letter entitled “Ageism: How We View it as Young Lesbians” discussed how structural oppression from legal systems intersected with age discrimination in lesbian communities, leaving the young authors feeling powerless in ways that they refused to accept. Like Tricia, who waited in the parking lot outside women's bars and bookstores, these authors identified one source of their oppression as “womyn's groups” who held events in places that excluded anyone under the age of 21. Historian Anne Finn Enke argues that “the spaces women created in practice revealed that all geographies took shape around privileges and exclusions of race, class, parental status, age, etc.” (2003: 638). Though Enke's article focuses on race and the whiteness of feminist cultural spaces, the mention of age here is significant because age was, in fact, the basis of both formal and informal exclusion from participation in the communities whose existence depended on access to physical space.

Birdy and Dancing Woman deepened their critique of ageism by accusing adult lesbians who excluded or dismissed young women of exacerbating the isolation that adolescent lesbians already faced by virtue of their age and gender. They wrote,

AGEIST JOKES AND REMARKS ISOLATE US AS YOUNG LESBIANS FURTHER INTO OUR AGE AND ITS LIMITATIONS.

Our limitations being: being legally under parental control, easy bait for the juvenile justice system, inability to own and control property, denial of good jobs and/or training, subject to slave labor and low pay, denial of the kinds of education we want, the unlawfulness to participate in sexual activities (age 16 in Ca.), not being taken seriously by most everyone we come in contact with, and moreover being denied the control over our own lives—because of ageist attitudes and laws.

These young women extended feminist analysis of how sexism shaped familial, carceral, labor, and educational institutions to reflect age-based status distinctions, and they held adult feminists accountable for their participation in these systems. They insisted on their legitimacy as political thinkers and actors, concluding, “We are politically aware … We want to make our positions clear—we are feminists—we are militant—we are dykes and we demand to be taken seriously!!!”13 Staking their claim as “dykes” at the center—not the margins—of militant lesbian feminism, they demanded the respect they felt they deserved; although they did not identify themselves as white, their focus on age as the basis of their exclusion suggests that whiteness bolstered their sense of entitlement to inclusion and recognition.

Conclusion

Well before the existence of gay/straight alliances, teen suicide hotlines, zines, Riot grrrl, You Tube, or the It Gets Better Project, queer girls in the 1970s and early 1980s found outlets to ask questions, express desires, and fulfill needs for connection and community. In letters to advice columnists, they shared emotions ranging from bewilderment to proud self-love. In essays and open letters, they articulated intense frustration with adult women liberationists whose efforts to shield themselves from social and legal scrutiny and from the pain of their own memories meant alienating and ignoring youth's longing for lesbian mentorship. Looking back from the present moment, we can see that youth's opportunities to publicly articulate their experiences and subjectivities expanded over time. The internet transformed access to information, self-expression, and community, and LGBTQ youth benefit from robust and devoted social services. At the same time, heightened cultural and political visibility and ever earlier ages of coming out and gender transition have prolonged the period of time in which youth seek to understand and express their sense of difference while still living under the control of their parents, schools, doctors, and other institutional authorities. As LGBTQ youth have become the discrete subjects of social service provision, they have remained largely isolated from mentorship and solidarity within intergenerational queer social networks. Teen girls’ voices from the liberation era calling for attention, engagement, and respect still resonate powerfully today and speak to the ongoing possibilities of queer world-making in the twenty first century.

Notes

1

“Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?” Subject files. Folder: Youth, Gay and Lesbian 1970s. Lesbian Herstory Archives. Brooklyn, New York.

2

Elizabeth C. Winship Papers, 1965-2006; MC 570. Box 1, folder 1. N.d. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

3

Winship Papers. MC 570. Box 3, folder 8. 3 September 1986.

4

Winship Papers. MC 570. Box 1, folder 1. N.d.

5

Winship Papers. MC 570. Box 10, folder 13. 7 August 1984.

6

Winship Papers. MC 570. Box 10, folder 13. January, 1985.

7

Letter, Sharon to Glide Publications, 1 November 1976. Correspondence Teenage Lesbians. November, 1972–August, 1985; n.d. MS Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin and the Daughters of Bilitis Box 24, Folder 4. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society. Archives of Sexuality & Gender. http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6gXKK0.

8

Letter, Debra to Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, n.d. [1974 implied]. Correspondence Teenage Lesbians.

9

Linda Bieritz, “I Came Out in Class!,” Growing Up Gay (Ann Arbor, MI: Youth Liberation Press, 1976), 17. New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

10

“George Washington Goes Gay,” Growing Up Gay (Ann Arbor, MI: Youth Liberation ress, 1976), 20-23. New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

11

“Letters.” Women's Press, vol. 5, no. 6, 1975, p. 18. Archives of Sexuality & Gender, emphasis added. http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6gHEc6.

12

“Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?” Subject files. Folder: Youth, Gay and Lesbian 1970s. Lesbian Herstory Archives. Brooklyn, New York.

13

Birdy and Dancing Womyn, “Ageism: How We View It as Young Lesbians.” June 1977. Subject files. Folder: Youth, Gay and Lesbian 1970s. Lesbian Herstory Archives. Brooklyn, New York.

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  • hooks, bell. 1986. “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity between Women.” Feminist Review 23: 125138.

  • Littauer, Amanda. 2012. “‘Someone to Love’: Teen Girls’ Same-Sex Desire in the 1950s United States.” In Queer 1950s: Locating Sexual Cultures in the West, ed. Heike Bauer and Matt Cook, 6176. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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  • Littauer, Amanda. 2015. Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

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  • Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. 1972. Lesbian/Woman. San Francisco: Glide Publications.

  • Spurlock, John. 2016. Youth and Sexuality in the Twentieth-Century United States. New York: Routledge.

  • Stein, Marc. 2004. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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  • Stryker, Susan. 2017. Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Seal Press.

  • Syrett, Nicholas. 2016. American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

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  • Vanguard.” 19661967. Digital Transgender Archive. https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/col/7s75dc41t (accessed 1 December 2018).

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Contributor Notes

Amanda Littauer is an Associate Professor of History and in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. Her research and teaching focuses on twentieth-century sexual culture, the history of women and girls, and LGBTQ studies. Her first book, Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties, was published in 2015. Her current research addresses the social, cultural, and political worlds of queer youth in the twentieth-century United States. ORCID: 0000-0003-4352-1503. Email: alittauer@niu.edu

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

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    Undated letter from a 14-year-old girl to Elizabeth Winship of the Boston Globe. Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

  • Braukman, Stacy. 2001. “’Nothing Else Matters but Sex’: Cold War Narratives of Deviance and the Search for Lesbian Teachers in Florida, 1959–1963.” Feminist Studies 27 (3): 553575.

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  • Chauncey, George. 1993. “The Postwar Sex Crime Panic.” In True Stories from the American Past, ed. William Graebner, 160178. New York: McGraw Hill.

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  • Enke, Anne. “Smuggling Sex through the Gates: Race, Sexuality, and the Politics of Space in Second Wave Feminism.” American Quarterly 55 (4): 635667.

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  • Freedman, Estelle B. 1987. “’Uncontrolled Desires’: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920–1960.” Journal of American History 27 (1): 83106.

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    • Export Citation
  • hooks, bell. 1986. “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity between Women.” Feminist Review 23: 125138.

  • Littauer, Amanda. 2012. “‘Someone to Love’: Teen Girls’ Same-Sex Desire in the 1950s United States.” In Queer 1950s: Locating Sexual Cultures in the West, ed. Heike Bauer and Matt Cook, 6176. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Littauer, Amanda. 2015. Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Martin, Del, and Phyllis Lyon. 1972. Lesbian/Woman. San Francisco: Glide Publications.

  • Spurlock, John. 2016. Youth and Sexuality in the Twentieth-Century United States. New York: Routledge.

  • Stein, Marc. 2004. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stryker, Susan. 2017. Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Seal Press.

  • Syrett, Nicholas. 2016. American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vanguard.” 19661967. Digital Transgender Archive. https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/col/7s75dc41t (accessed 1 December 2018).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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