Lesbian Books

Published July 8, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

my girlfriend and I have an inside joke called "lesbian moment," two words which we invoke whenever things get rather, well, lesbian. Like when we decided to go to therapy together, as a preventative measure mind you, and the inevitable first question was "Your therapist or mine?" Or when we were going to a movie with my girlfriend's ex-girlfriend's ex-girlfriend's ex-girlfriend and her current girlfriend and their first words to us were "Sorry we're late -- we burned the tofu burgers."
As inside jokes go, it's amusing and harmless, enabling us to step outside our insular lesbian existence for a moment and laugh at ourselves. But it's harder -- and riskier -- when you try to translate those inside jokes to the outside world. Which makes brave souls of Lindsy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt, who have chronicled the vast number of lesbian moments they experienced while on the road researching their new book, "The Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America."
Making sense of lesbian mores is a trickier endeavor now that our world's been shaken up by lesbian chic, that 1993 phenomenon in which every magazine from New York to Newsweek discovered dykedom. After the heady thrill of seeing lesbians on the cover, I experienced the distinct impulse to head for cover; I wished we had never wished for so much visibility. Suddenly lesbian life became lesbian lite. What's more, the media coverage tended to play into and play up the divisions among us: young vs. old, beautiful vs. unattractive, butch/femme vs. femme/femme, Seventies vs. Nineties. It didn't leave a lot of room for those of us who don't fit comfortably into binary oppositions. And after a while it became almost impossible to know what being a lesbian meant; after all, the sapphic cinema hit of 1995 was directed by a self-described lesbian -- who happens to be in a long-term relationship with a man.
What's a dyke to do? Pick up "The Girls Next Door," that's what. Finally someone has made sense of this mess.
With tongue firmly in chic, the authors conducted more than a hundred interviews with lesbians of varying races, abilities, ages, regions, and proclivities. In addition to these oral histories, they use three major events as a framework for analyzing the current state of lesbian affairs: the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, where thousands of "womyn-born-womyn" (i.e. no man-made women allowed) gather in the woods for six days of topless frolicking and processing; the elaborate party weekend accompanying the LPGA's Dinah Shore Golf Tournament in Palm Springs, known simply as "Dinah" among its glamorous denizens; and, finally, a road trip with the Austin, Texas, chapter of the ACT-UP!-inspired Lesbian Avengers, as they unhinge the Bible Belt en route to New York. As the authors write in their introduction, "these three milieus represent wildly disparate slices of lesbian life, as different as Birkenstocks, high heels, and Doc Martens."
Thankfully, Van Gelder and Brandt -- who previously trotted the globe together for an off-beat and irreverent lesbian travel guide -- are more than able to walk in everyone's shoes. This is a cross-country trip across the lesbian nation, with stops ranging from s/m habits to Catholic nuns. The result is a look at contemporary lesbian life that is thorough, honest, intimate, and hilarious.
The authors are serious journalists who are able to poke fun both at themselves and their subjects. Van Gelder and Brandt treat people fairly, but everyone's nonetheless fair game -- from the self-described "aspiring Amish/Hispanic punk rocker" (who they wryly point out is neither Amish nor Hispanic but has worked in those communities "and really admired both") to the Palm Springs party promoter who earnestly confesses that it's not the money that drives her but, rather, the deep longing to make up for having once, as a child, thrown a party that no one attended.
Some of these lesbian moments verge on true satire. And, interestingly, "The Girls Next Door" generates many more belly laughs than an intentional parody of lesbian life, Helen Eisenbach's heavy-handed new book, "Lesbianism Made Easy." Eisenbach -- who fails to grasp the distinction between making fun of people and being funny -- may make lesbianism easy but Van Gelder and Brandt make it easy and easy to read. Their tone is breezy but acerbic; describing one woman's 14 body piercings, including metal studs, rings, and barbells, they comment "Clearly, this is a woman who always has to get to the airport an hour early." And chronic punsters such as myself can't help but appreciate lines like "The women who come are famously sexy, rich, successful, and gorgeous: the cliterati." The downside to all this unbridled fun is that the authors can sometimes fail to rein themselves in. Someone (an editor?!) should have nixed such verbal travesties as "Their personal style might be called Bartleby the Shimmerer" or ". . . there were so many newly visible s/m lesbians that you might have guessed someone was giving out frequent flayer miles." A little prose-ac would be in order.
But despite these excesses, Van Gelder and Brandt's overall analysis is a thoughtful and balanced one, delivering kudos along with salvos: The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival may have bland vegetarian food, too many rules (loud and rowdy behavior is confined to the area designated The Twilight Zone), and a host of white women named Dreamwalker and Wolfsong, but it can also be a life-changing experience for many attendees, giving them a taste, so to speak, of women-only utopia. The fire-eating Lesbian Avengers may sometimes be full of hot air but their in-your-face activism probably pushes the envelope more than any letter-writing campaign ever will. And the lipsticked divas who organize Dinah may be shallow, catty, and image-obsessed but . . . well, they sure throw a good party.
While the book leaves everyone's ideology (not to mention their wardrobe) open to intense scrutiny, it also creates bridges across the ideological divides and highlights the moments where all those distinctions between young and old, lipstick and leather, butch and femme break down. We see, for example, a meeting of the minds between twentysomething punk rockers and fiftysomething folkies in the mosh pit at Michigan. And from these disparate subcultures emerges a more cohesive and coherent picture of lesbianism than all the magazine articles of 1993 combined.
Some muffdivers will no doubt be miffed by the authors' glib commentary and willingness to expose our dirty laundry, but the book is as much about opening minds (and arms) as it is about raising eyebrows. And I, for one, will take cheeky lesbians over lesbian chic any day.

By Julie Felner

Julie Felner is an editor and writer whose work has appeared in Ms., the Village Voice and Tart.

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