A Rich Herstory

Lesbian Archivists: Still Diggin' the Seventies

Online Extra: Kat Duff talks about life as a lesbian Austinite in the Seventies (sound, 1:34). [ .AIFF (349K) | .WAV (748K) | Transcript ]

Austin Lesbian Activism Project member Desha Melton (left) contributes to the archives.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Aaaah, the Seventies in Austin: Armadillo World Headquarters, food co-ops, drugs, Students for a Democratic Society, and... lesbians? You betcha. In the counter-cultural, consciousness-raising hullabaloo of those times, another movement was quietly underway.

"It was a brainstorming period," recalls Meg Barnett, who in 1992 founded the Austin Lesbian Activism Project (ALA) to collect the written, oral, and video histories of lesbians living in Austin in the 1970s. Barnett and four other volunteer grassroots archivers are bent on telling the "herstory" of the lesbian community during this decade.

A recent meeting of the group at a member's home in South Austin found all five women energetically involved in making editing decisions for a documentary ALA is producing for International Women's Day, March 8 (the documentary will be televised on ACAC (née ACTV) and simulcast audio on KOOP). The group was watching a May '96 interview of two of its own members, Desha Melton and Vicki Killgore, old friends reminiscing about their old stomping grounds, the people they knew, and the things they did.

Melton, who today is a vivacious nurse administrator, describes herself as militant during the Seventies. In 1975, after the Texas Penal Code had been revised allowing women to go topless, Melton wasted no time putting the law to test. She fastidiously checked with state, county, and city authorities, all of whom assured her that she could not be prosecuted for going topless in public. One hot afternoon, a bare-breasted Melton was tending to the plants in her yard when she decided to visit a friend. She hopped on her bike, still shirtless, and rode down West Lynn Street. On the way, several men heckled and hollered. Then a police car signaled her to pull over. The officers asked Melton what, exactly, was she doing riding around without a shirt. Melton proceeded to recite precisely which penal code statute permitted her to go topless in public. At that point, the cops were prepared to let the issue rest, but as Melton herself acknowledges, she became a "smartass," and asked for the cops' badge numbers. At that point, they ordered her into the squad car for a trip to the station. But first they wanted to take her home to pick up a shirt. She refused, but later relented. Mayhem continued when Melton arrived at the station, and the judge refused to indict her first on a charge of disturbing the peace, and then for disorderly conduct. The "case" was thrown out of court, and Melton was free to return home.

To witness Melton recall this event is to observe a woman who, although mellowed since those days of what was then considered overtly political action, is still making political statements of another sort -- through the acts of recording and archiving this decade.

But with such a specific subject of study, ALA is apt to be seen as a project for researchers of the obscure, who love nothing more than poring over dusty Seventies memorabilia. But as Barnett puts it, "Lesbians in general are pack rats, and collect and save... we understand that unless we preserve what's important to us, no one will." ALA is taking that second step and making that history accessible and durable, Barnett says. On another front, ALA's intensity is spurred on by the threat of fading memories and women's cancers, which appear to be striking the population from which ALA pulls its potential respondents. Whereas women's cancers (breast, ovarian, cervical, and uterine) strike about one of every eight women, the figures are even more frightening for lesbians -- cancer strikes one out of every three.

The group takes any information anyone submits, as long as it relates to Austin, the Seventies, and lesbians. Alexis Danzig, a member of the 20-woman Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, lauds this policy of inclusiveness. Danzig crossed about 8,000 miles in three months in 1996 touring the country giving slide shows about the Brooklyn Archives. When she came to Austin, she found something unique. "You can't buy this," she says of the work being turned out by the ALA volunteers. "Their uniqueness is their energy," she says. ALA will be passing on their archiving skills as well, through a program with OutYouth of Austin, whereby OutYouth members will operate the video equipment during interviews.

Barnett lists several reasons why ALA concentrates on the Seventies (their efforts actually extend from the late Sixties through the early Eighties). As the state capital, Austin was naturally a haven for political thinkers in the Seventies, and the city at the time was considered a hotbed of radical movements, which today are considered fairly mainstream. Take the now overused term of being politically correct, for example. "Political correctness was invented in the Seventies by lesbians and has now, 20 years later, sort of trickled out into mainstream culture and they're picking it up and using it as a club on each other just like we did in the Seventies," Barnett says.

Barnett, who grew up in rural Texas, recalls how essential Austin was to the hippie lifestyle. The low cost of living, the drug culture, and the university environment combined to make Austin fertile ground for the sort of political and personal experimentation ALA is now archiving. Barnett, a young and "starry-eyed" visitor to Austin in the Seventies, proclaims that "there was no other lesbian life in Texas. There were things in Dallas and Houston, there were bars, but if you wanted to be around real lesbians, you came to Austin." Good times or no, ALA members realize the dangers of over- glorifying the Seventies. "We were in our 20s, we were sex-crazed, we were drug-crazed," Barnett laughs.

Between the sex and drugs, there was, ironically, a lot of attention being paid to health. The fruitarian movement, a political step beyond vegetarianism, was one rather radical line of thought. "There was this whole movement of women who thought that the ability to parthenogically reproduce would be partially related to what you ate," Barnett recalls. "The belief -- at least the belief in the circle that I ran with -- was that if you were fruitarian, and if you knew certain chants, and you did certain things, then you would be able to use two of your own eggs and create a child. And we were avidly trying."

For Barnett, the movement is a uniquely Seventies one because "it seemed like a legitimate enterprise." Apparently, "nobody made fun of" the fruitarians, nor of the breatharians, who held the notion that a highly evolved izndividual truly in touch with their inner consciousness should be able to obtain all necessary nutrition from the air and water.

This is not to say, of course, that ALA depends on fringe movements for their material, or that all Seventies movements were ineffectual; ALA will be busy for some time recording the influence and history of such lasting Seventies Austin institutions as Bookwoman, Rita Starpattern's Women and Their Work, the Center for Battered Women, the Austin Lesbian and Gay Political Caucus, and the legal struggles to pass the fair housing ordinance (1982), the equal employment opportunity clause (1975), and the public accommodations ordinance (April 1976).

Rather than tailor the archives to reflect a single, unified opinion of Seventies history, ALA members are pleased to find entirely contradictory stories of the same event. Texas' first publicly advertised lesbian dance, planned by the Austin Lesbian Organization (ALO) in March of 1975, is just such an example. The dance was held at the Austin Women's Center while, next door, UT's spirit club, the Silver Spurs, were having a party. "When the two groups got wind of each other," Barnett recalls, "it was sort of inevitable that there would be a conflict, and there was..." Disputes arose between the Austin Women's Center and the lesbians over who provoked what, and who was to blame for the incident.

"The lesbians got really upset with the Austin Women's Center, and the Austin Women's Center got really upset with the lesbians," Barnett says. ALO's newsletter, GTAT (Goodbye to All That), from which ALA has gleaned much of its historical information, supplied one version of the event, and ALA is now busy documenting the other side of the story.

ALA intends to store their findings at the Center for American History, the Austin History Center, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. In addition to the archiving project, ALA has applied for a Paul Robeson grant, which would provide the funds to produce 17 half-hour radio shows to be distributed to communities across the U.S. ALA plans to produce about 20 minutes of each show at WATER (Women's Access to Technology and Electronic Resources), leaving a five to 10-minute gap in each program so that the various communities to which ALA sends the broadcasts can include their own local lesbian and gay history. The format for the programs allows for Seventies women-produced music, readings of significant political texts from the era, excerpts from relevant oral histories ALA has compiled, and narration that stresses the links between various Seventies events and present-day political movements.

How does Barnett think she will reflect on the Nineties decade? "I think I would be surprised that the revolution hasn't happened yet," she says. She pauses, and upon further reflection, realizes that perhaps the revolution has happened, though it takes a historian such as herself and her fellow archivers to recognize it.

Interested readers should contact ALA at 326-5634 or access its website at http://www.monsterbit.com/water

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