The term “Lesbian Avengers” probably conjures images of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch in a sapphic embrace. But 25 years ago it was a small group of real-world activists who banded together to fight for visibility and equality—for queer women and the LGBT community as a whole.
The Lesbian Avengers started in New York with just six members but once they began distributing The Lesbian Avenger Handbook, the group grew to encompass more than 60 chapters throughout the U.S., Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and Australia.
All before the advent of Twitter or Facebook.
When they organized the first dyke march at the 1993 March on Washington, more than 20,000 people joined in. The Avengers donned homemade shields and capes for the occasion, leading the charge like their superhero namesakes.
The group emerged at a time when AIDS put gay men in the media spotlight, but many lesbians felt invisible in society, and marginalized even within the gay rights movement. Throughout the 1990s, the Avengers garnered attention with direct-action protests and creative tactics: There was the time they lit stink bombs in protest of Texas’s sodomy ban. And the queer kiss-in at an ABC affiliate when the network hesitated to broadcast Roseanne’s “lesbian kiss.”
There was even fire-eating in front of the White House after a a anti-LGBT firebombing killed two people in Oregon. (Fire-eating became something of a ritual for the Avengers.)
Now, on the 25th anniversary of the group’s founding, former members have launched “Lesbian Avengers 25,” a mobile exhibit documenting its powerful history.
“We were already planning the exhibit when the election happened,” says Kelly Cogswell, author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger and co-curator of the exhibit. “But suddenly it feels much more urgent to remember that the LGBT community has a past full of radical organizing, and that it’s possible to create change by getting out into the streets.”
“It’s good to remember that activism works,” she tells me, “because everyone needs a sense of hope right now.” Cogswell and her former Lesbian Avenger cohorts are hopeful the exhibition will help reignite that DIY activist spark, and bridge the gap between the movement’s history and our current challenges.
“The Lesbian Avengers started the year Pat Buchanan went to the Republican National Convention and made a speech announcing that we were in a ’culture war,'” she explains. “He basically said that the enemies of what he considered ’true America’ were people of color, women, queers, and environmentalists. That sounds a whole lot like what we’re facing today.”
Back then, Buchanan and the Christian Right were edged out of the primaries, and more or less pushed to the fringes. Ironically, while there’s been more acceptance of LGBT people in general, “we’re being defined as enemies of the state much more openly,” she says.
“Now it’s not a loud minority, but the president of the United States himself, and a very powerful majority.”
Decades before “intersectionality” entered the common vocabulary, the Lesbian Avengers were keenly aware that the struggles of queer women were inextricably tied to the struggles of women seeking abortions, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized groups.
“You had to be crazy not to see the connections between communities,” Cogswell says, “Not to see that the people who hate you for being gay generally have a whole laundry list of other people they hate, too. We recognized that we were all in this together, and we would all have to work together to win.”
With intersectionality comes in-fighting, and Cogswell admits the Lesbian Avengers made their share of mistakes. But she cautions today’s activists against “devouring themselves” from the inside. “Remember that your shared enemies are outside the room. It’s important to keep things in perspective and work to resolve your differences.”
When it comes to strategizing a movement, her advice is to break complex issues down into smaller parts. ACT UP was successful, she offers, “because they didn’t just hold a demonstration saying, ’AIDS is bad and we’re dying from it.'” They tackled specific issues like pressuring the medical community to increase AIDS funding, and pharmaceutical companies to lower the prices of effective drugs.
But even while the fight can sometimes be life-or-death, Cogswell says it’s vital to find joy—and even humor.
“When you’re dealing with really horrible stuff—and God knows, with Trump we really are—passion and humor are very useful tools,” she says. “Satire can be a powerful weapon, and if you’re an activist, you need to find moments of joy and lightheartedness if you’re going to stay in it for the long haul.”
The Lesbian Avengers ultimately disbanded, but Cogswell hopes their legacy can still inspire a new generation.
“One of the great things about the mobile exhibit is that it clearly states, ’This is how activism works and this is how anyone can do it.’ If you stick to it, you can successfully push back against Trump, racists, homophobes—all the people who wish you didn’t exist. The main thing is, you have to start.”
The Lesbian Avengers mobile exhibit will be on display at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division (BGSQD) in New York through June 4. Visit the Lesbian Avengers website for details on other stops.