“Lesbians To Watch Out For” Highlights LA’s Oft-Ignored ’90s Lesbian Street Activism

A new exhibit in West Hollywood pays homage to a forgotten herstory.

To some millennials, it might feel like the amount of regular protesting, rallying, and rioting is a hot new trend inspired by Team Trump, but those who have been tirelessly working to demand visibility, equality and other basic human rights won’t be forgotten.

In West Hollywood’s new free exhibit “Lesbians to Watch Out For: ‘90s Queer L.A. Activism,” it’s the queer women of Southern California who are revisiting a pivotal period of time in which they came together against the law, Hollywood, and “fundies” to voice specific demands that related to the treatment of lesbian and bisexual women, who were often given less footing in larger LGBT organizations.

Lesbians to Watch Out For
Trish Bendix

In conjunction with the June Mazer Archives and LEX – The Lesbian Exploratory, long-time activists Judy Sisneros and Lynn Harris Ballen organized the free exhibit, open weekends in June in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, celebrating a decade of street activism from local factions and women’s caucuses of ACT UP and Queer Nation, as well as the LA Dyke March, United Lesbians of African Heritage (ULOAH), Los Angeles Asian Pacific Islander Sisters (LAAPIS), Lesbianas Unidas (LU), Bi-Net, and Transgender Menace. Through oral histories, photographs, magazines, T-shirts, and posters, “Lesbians to Watch Out For” illustrates just how much work queer women were putting into all kinds of efforts, including AIDS-related demonstrations, Hollywood’s homophobia, and issues that were specific to queer women of color that were most often happening outside of gay-centric Weho.

T-shirts from the first LA Dyke March
Trish Bendix

The exhibit offers a herstory that can’t be found anywhere else, namely because Ballen and Sisneros had to work hard to gather it from the activists themselves. Some of the stories included can’t even be found in print, including one woman’s detailing of a police raid that happened in 1991 during a “Jill-Off,” a lesbian sex party held at the then-DTLA space LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions): “Partway through the evening, undercover police targeted women in different parts of the space,” reads a placard dedicated to Vice Raids the community faced. “Korean-American dyke Ingin Kim was one of those arrested, and she remembers ’It was very obvious by the end that they targeted butch lesbians of color.'” Arrestees were eventually ticketed and came to be represented by Lambda Legal, but the charges were dropped when the Rodney King uprising took place soon after.

Queer Nation Poster at Lesbians to Watch Out For
Trish Bendix

The stories coming out of “Lesbians to Watch Out For” are ones rarely included in discussions of LGBT history, yet integral to visibility today. The exhibit includes the West Coast’s debut of the Lesbian Avengers 25th Anniversary series, highlighting the work of New York’s lesbian street activists who created the first-ever Dyke March, a now worldwide rally held in conjunction with most city’s pride celebrations held by and for queer women. (While Los Angeles never had an Avengers chapter, it did have their own lesbian/bi-focused action group: Puss ’N’ Boots.)

The Lesbian Avengers 25th Anniversary Exhibit
Trish Bendix

It’s not only activists featured here, but the lesbian community they inhabited, and those who supported their efforts. From the bookstores, bars, cafes, and other spaces that hosted meetings and events, to the musicians and performance artists who played benefits and fundraisers or participated in public actions, to the publications that gave coverage to their hard work that was frequently left out of other gay press, “Lesbians to Watch Out For” is a reminder of how hard queer women have been working for decades, and how even when they’re not being recognized for it, they’re refusing to go unremembered.

Lesbians to Watch Out For
Trish Bendix

“Lesbians to Watch Out For” is part of City of West Hollywood’s One City One Pride LGBTQ Arts Festival and will be open Fridays from 6pm-9:30pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 1pm-6pm June 14-June 30.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.
@trishbendix