Monday, June 9, 2014

From the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives: The Dyke Olympics and Other Lesbian Pastimes

The audiovisual materials in the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives include an assortment of home movies and recordings of speeches, conferences, dances, parades, concerts, fundraisers, socials, retreats, news stories, comedy routines, television episodes, movies, and documentaries. In addition, there are also thousands of prints, slides, and art depicting everything from the making of documentaries to events like gay pride parades, meetings, classes, camps, protests, parties, retreats, and the Dyke Olympics. As a graduate student researcher on the project, I cataloged and began the process of digitizing these materials.  

The audiovisual collections of the Mazer Archives offer amazing insights into a wide variety of lesbian and ⁄ or feminist communities throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Home videos, photos, and audio recordings illustrate both the everyday lives and influential activism that took place within these communities. While digitizing the audio collection, I listened not only to speeches, lectures, and performances, but also to dozens of social functions ranging from dances to raffles. At these events, anonymous attendees largely discussed their support for one another and pride in their communities. These conversations–along with scrapbooks filled with images of families, celebrations, and travels–illustrate an ethos of compassion, care, and hope often obscured in popular representations of lesbians, gays, and feminists from this period, which tended to focus on AIDS, discrimination, or scandal. While mainstream media represents lesbians always in relation to heterosexuals, the Mazer Archives represent these communities on their own terms. 

At the same time, the many recordings of academic and activist conferences depict the complexity and variety of lesbian identity and feminist praxis. The topics ranged from the history of lesbianism to ecofeminism and the latest in breast cancer research. These conferences demonstrate not only the impact of lesbian and feminist communities on many current global issues, but also the many debates and arguments during the period concerning definitions of feminist theory and how this theory could best be practiced. I became captivated by an administrative meeting at a conference for Jewish lesbians, which quickly turned into an impassioned debate over whether or not male children should be allowed to attend panels or the conference’s childcare program. In order to make the conference a safe and open space for lesbians, the organizers only wanted lesbians to attend. Some in the audience feared that allowing lesbians to bring their sons would make other audience members feel uncomfortable and less inclined to discuss personal and⁄or controversial topics. Others feared that by not allowing sons to attend, those parents who could not afford childcare would be unable to attend. While grappling with a seemingly small issue, this debate exemplifies the complicated and always negotiated nature of feminist praxis at every level of life. These small and enduring moments are also what make the Mazer Archives such an important collection, very much worth preserving and making available to a larger public.

-- Jonathan Cohn
Photos by Elaine Mikels

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