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Eating Fire: A Brief History of the Lesbian Avengers in NYC

Lesbian Avengers Eating Fire Demonstration. Photo by Carolina Kroon.
Lesbian Avengers Eating Fire Demonstration. Photo by Carolina Kroon.

Tonight at the Hudson Park Library at 6:30pm, lesbian activist, independent journalist and East Village author Kelly Cogswell will discuss her new book at our free public program, “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger”, detailing the origins of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct action group born in 1992 from the Queer arts and activist scene of the East Village.

About the Lesbian Avengers

In Spring 1992,  New York activists Ana Simo, Maxine Wolfe, Sarah Schulman, Anne-Christine d’Adesky, Marie Honan and Anne Maguire met in the East Village to establish a lesbian direct action group, which they named  the Lesbian Avengers, with the intent of mobilizing grassroots activism to increase lesbian visibility and survival. The first meeting took place in July at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Center in the West Village at 208 West 13th Street, with over fifty women in attendance. It was not long before the group expanded in numbers and took to the city’s streets.

One of the Lesbian Avengers’ first direct actions included picketing a conservative school district in Queens, demanding that the information about lesbians and gay men included in the Board of Education’s “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum be part of the school’s multicultural curriculum, including sex education.

In another demonstration, on October 31st 1992, the Avengers literally ate fire on the streets of the West Village in response to a hate crime in Salem, Oregon, in which a lesbian and gay man, Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock, were burned to death in their own home during the last days of a heated campaign to pass a statewide ballot measure in Oregon which would have classified homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse” and would have required the state government to be assertive in discouraging homosexuality, teaching that it is a moral offense similar to pedophilia, sadism and masochism (the measure was defeated that November, albeit narrowly, in part due to the public horror over this hate crime which many blamed upon the toxic environment created by the campaign to pass the ballot measure). The New York Times Magazine stated, “They ate fire, chanting, as they still do: “The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.” The Avengers continued to demonstrate by marching with torches, and burnt signs with the names of anti-lesbian and gay propositions blamed for the homophobic violence.

These and many other of the Lesbian Avengers activities were chronicled in their publication “Communique from the Frontline” in which they described their demonstrations in the city.

Communiqué No. 1. Designed by Carrie Moyer.
Communiqué No. 1. Designed by Carrie Moyer.

In 1993, after their first successful march on Washington, the Lesbian Avengers organized their first New York City Dyke March down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park on the eve of the NYC Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. It was evident that the Lesbian Avengers’ momentum continued to grow, drawing thousands from across the country for what became an International Dyke March down Fifth Avenue, which coincided with the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Today, the Dyke March is still held on the eve of the Gay Pride parades across the world.

The First International Dyke March on Fifth Avenue, 1994. Photo by Carolina Kroon.
The First International Dyke March on Fifth Avenue, 1994. Photo by Carolina Kroon.

As the group became more visible, the Lesbian Avengers grew into a global movement.  A few lesbian activists even left New York City to help organize chapters in smaller towns and cities across the country, forming a Lesbian Avengers’ Civil Rights Organizing Project.

Only a few years after the first meeting on 13th Street, there were over 50 chapters established worldwide. The Lesbian Avengers continued to meet and organize in Greenwich Village until 1998. When asked about the importance of the East Village, Cogswell said “The Avengers recruited lesbians from all over the city, but at least in the beginning, the local networks of friends were really important.” She later said, “In 1992, East Village lesbians had a clear sense of identity, and how we fit into the national picture. You couldn’t escape it, whether you were involved in ACT-UP, or the EV theater scene. You just had to look around. Your friends were dying of AIDS to the applause of the Christian Right. Artists like Holly Hughes and the NEA 4 were getting attacked in national forums because they dealt with sexuality. She was getting piles of death threats in her mailbox.” (Read more of the EV GRIEVE interview with Cogswell here)

Although they no longer have a presence in the East Village, is there still a need for the Lesbian Avengers? Have the battles they fought been won? Or have they just changed? We invite you to come and listen to Kelly Cogswell and share your views on how the lesbian scene in Greenwich Village has changed in recent years.

To read more about Greenwich Village LGBT History, please see our LGBT resource section.

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