In June I had the opportunity to attend “Lesbian Liberation Across Media.” It was a film screening put on collaboratively by queer archives and media projects in Canada, and hosted by some of my personal academic heroes.1
One central theme from this screening was control over media. But equally important were the themes of learning from and critically engaging with the histories of lesbian activism.
Lesbian feminism, like feminism more broadly, has had both great and harmful historical moments. A critical approach to these histories as we move forward with intersectional activism is a crucial part of working to be anti-racist and to center trangender folks in our advocacy.
“The existence of these Archives will enable us to formulate our living Herstory and to create an Archive representing a diverse range of Lesbian lives and cultures.”Lesbian Herstory Archives, NY
The first film we watched, A Working Women’s Collective, focussed on print media. Lesbian feminist printing presses gave lesbians control over content and production. One interviewee in the film spoke about “feeling effective with printing.” They could “not only do what [they] do well, but cause ripples as well.”
It turns out there was a feminist printing collective, Press Gang, in Vancouver from 1970-1993!
I wonder if lesbians2 today find digital media lends a similar sense of effectiveness. Certainly access, though still limited by intersecting barriers to technology, has expanded. More lesbians have the means and the skills to craft online content than had the access and skills needed to run a printing press, and there is more reach to folks in rural communities.
But what about control? There is often a reliance on externally operated platforms, such as Instagram, for sharing our art and messages.
In the words of our screening co-hosts Constance Crompton and Michelle Shwartz, lesbian feminists from past generations “could not trust that universities and government archives would be interested in lesbian materials, just as Jeanette Howard Foster could not rely on commercial publishers to help disseminate her bibliography” of “references to romantic relationships between women in literature and poetry.”34
Perhaps this is another argument for web first publishing, though the same questions can be asked of blogging platforms, open source software, and hosting companies.
From print-based communication, the screening next turned to Labyris Rising, which is a film packed with lesbian signifiers. It features LOOT (Lesbian Organization of Toronto) and the first lesbian bar in Toronto, Fly by Night Lounge. Watching this film was like getting a history of the lesbian aesthetic. Cats and plaid felt familiar, but there was a lot of symbolism that left me questioning my queer visual literacy.
Primarily, as a lesbian of this generation, I’ve got to tell you that I didn’t know what a “labyris” was before this screening. Embarrassed, I made that confession to someone else, but she also hadn’t heard of this lesbian symbol.
Before this screening, I had never been part of a conversation, even digitally, with so many queer women at the same time. It made me wonder: what is the role of media today in supporting intergenerational knowledge sharing?
“The labrys is a double-headed axe. In Greek and Roman mythology, it’s associated with Amazons, as well as various goddesses including Laphria, Artemis, and Demeter. In the 1970s, lesbians embraced it as a symbol representing lesbian feminism.”Erika W. Smith, “Violets, Bi-Angles, And Double Moons: A Guide To LGBTQ+ Symbols,” Refinery29, 2019.
When communities unacknowledged by the mainstream create their own media they can also centre their own heroes, and pass their names down through the generations as part of self-defined histories.
We can, for example, centre leaders like Christine Bearchell. Christine Bearchel was a prolific activist, and her contribution to the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement in Canada is the topic of the final short film from the screening called Proud Lives: Christine Bearchell.
“They think that when they pick on us that they’re picking on the weakest. Well, they made a mistake this time! We’re going to show them just how strong we are. They can’t get away with this shit anymore! No more shit!Chris Bearchell at the demonstration protesting the bath raids, midnight, February 6, 1981, Toronto.
Oh hey while you’re here, the organizers from this event also sent all donations to: the Trans People of Colour Project. Check it out!
- “Lesbian Liberation Across Media” was created by The Humanities Data Lab, The Spoken Web, the Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada Project, the University of Toronto Media Commons Archives, and the ArQuives.
- “Lesbian” as used in this article refers to all folks identifying as such. This author recognizes and works to dismantle the ongoing, harmful legacy of TERF/TEV branches of lesbian feminism and its trans exclusionary ideologies.
- Constance Crompton and Michelle Schwartz. “Remaking History: Lesbian Feminist Historical Methods in the Digital Humanities,” in Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, ed. Elizabeth Losh and Jaqueline Wernimont. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2018) 131-156. pp. 139 and 134 respectively.
- There are so many contemporary problems with the black box of social media algorithms, from deleted accounts to shadow banning and unwanted advertising.