The lesbian Joseph Smith

Ariel Levy takes us on a cinematic '70s road trip through an "alternate, penisless" society.

By Amy Benfer

Published February 24, 2009 4:02PM (EST)

Ariel Levy first met Lamar Van Dyke, a tattooed, leather jacketed, 61-year-old radical lesbian sitting in the back of a bookstore in Seattle. She writes: "She looked like Johnny Cash, but bigger, tougher." Throughout the course of her vastly entertaining, eight-page New Yorker feature on the Van Dykes, "a roving band of van-driving vegans who shaved their heads" and crossed the continent in the late '70s in search of dyke heaven, Levy and others struggle to find words to adequately describe the woman whom would probably have been called the Van Dyke leader, had they not considered hierarchy to be patriarchal. Bruce Breyer, who was married to Van Dyke when she was named Heather (before she ditched him for a house guest who resembled Faye Dunaway) calls her "the Merry Prankster of the women’s movement." When Lamar, then known as Heather Elizabeth, manages to entice a caravan of women, most of whom are her ex-girlfriends, to roll into San Antonio, Levy christens the scene, " 'An Affair to Remember' -- with radical lesbians." Later, she describes her "as a kind of lesbian Joseph Smith, driving around the continent looking for the promised land with a band of wives and ex-wives and future wives in tow."

Besides having the kind of obvious charisma that leads others to imagine her as a rock star, a cinematic character and a prophet, Lamar Van Dyke has been a pregnant teenage runaway (she conceived her daughter after a one-night stand with a Black Panther, then gave her up for adoption), a three-time divorcee (her husbands included a halfway house shrink, a biker and No.3, who was all about "hiding out from the FBI and running around the world using fake names and crossing borders"), a tattoo artist and a worker for a Seattle Internet Service Provider called Speakeasy (her current line of work). But Levy deftly manages to use the high jinx of the Van Dykes to bring us back one generation, when "any sense of gay life as normal life was relatively new and still flimsy" and "lesbianism had been transformed from a criminal activity practiced by the mentally ill into a radical political gesture embraced by the women's movement."

Taking their cues from the black separatist movement, and others outside the mainstream who felt "estranged from normalcy," the Van Dykes joined a nationwide movement of other women --at the height, anyone's best guess is that they numbered "thousands" -- who were committed to living in an "alternate, penisless reality." Says Levy, "They were kind of serious about this, but they were kind of kidding. Or they were completely serious, but they knew it was funny." Like Malcolm X, Heather "wanted a name that reflected her emancipation, not a reminder of her past as chattel," and as Levy notes, the women's choice for a group surname was pretty accurate -- "they were, after all, dykes who lived in a van."

The Van Dykes hit the road in 1977, a few hours after Heather, then unhappily mired in the more complicated aspects of a failed experiment with utopian lesbian communal farm life, met a cute, tanned woman in town and decided to ditch her then-girlfriend and go to Mexico instead. It isn't entirely clear why a group that believed the world was suffering from "testosterone poisoning" would think they had a reasonable chance of finding solace in a mostly Catholic country to the south, but one gets the overwhelming impression that the quest was part of the thing.

There also was quite a bit of sexual tension. At the time, lesbianism itself was complicated by the fact that, for some women, it was "not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice." Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that some women confused lesbianism with celibacy. As evidence, Levy digs up a 1975 essay called "Nobody Has to Get Fucked" in which Barbara Lipschutz urges women to "free the libido from the tyranny of orgasm-seeking. Sometimes hugging is nicer." One can see where some might have have come up with the mistaken notion that most lesbians prefer to cuddle. The Van Dykes, however, had no such issues. Says Chris Fox, the woman Heather ditched back at the farm who later joined the Van Dykes: "It's so weird that people talk about feminism being anti-sex  -- as if. As if! People were fucking their brains out."

Most of the Van Dykes, in fact, were fucking or had once been fucking Heather, which makes it less surprising that the majority of their merry band of meek vegans got hooked on the drama of lesbian sadomasochism. "Tofu quickly gave way to leather in the vans," and Heather entered her "Hugh Hefner and dinner jackets" phase. (It did, however, get them and their ilk ostracized from some of the more mainstream women’s music festivals. Snips Bonnie J. Morris: "Festivals offer safe space for women in recovery from violence. Whips and chains or dog collars don’t suit this goal.")

When Levy digs up Lamar Van Dyke in Seattle, the older woman expresses impatience with what she sees as the conformity of gay women of Levy’s generation. "Your generation wants to fit in," Van Dyke says, "Gays in the military and gay marriage? This is what you guys have come up with?" But Van Dyke has hardly rejected her political family, or, for that matter, her genetic family. One of the most subtle, telling details in the piece is when Levy describes the portraits of Van Dyke's daughter, with whom she was reunited as an adult, and grandchildren that cover her apartment, including one of her granddaughter, Monique in one of the most hetero-normative poses known to womankind -- in a teal dress at her high school prom -- proudly displayed on Van Dyke's piano.

But this "big pirate of a woman," is also, writes Levy, a rarity of sorts: "A woman in her sixties who has been resolutely doing as she pleases for as long as she can remember is not easy to come by, in movies or in books, or in life." It's hard not to see her as a cinematic action hero. And honestly, it's the first time in ages I’ve actually wanted to see a great piece of writing start a bidding war for film rights. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to see this woman on the big screen?

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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