Book review

The Explosive Power of the Lesbian Avengers

The Daily Beast

March 22, 2014

The death of arch-homophobe and foamer-at-the-mouth Fred Phelps has led to polarized feelings: do you dance on his grave, simply say “good riddance to bad rubbish,” or just think of him with pity? His Westboro Baptist Church picketed funerals with his ridiculous and vile “God Hates Fags” signs: how can we outdo that for his own? Or do we just turn away from his end-of-life spectacle, and in so doing repudiate the extreme homophobia and prejudice he represented?

These thoughts occur while reading Kelly Cogswell’s Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger because when the direct action group of the book’s title was hot in the early to mid 1990s, that kind of explicit, vicious homophobia was the norm. It’s why the Avengers was set up. This was a time, Cogswell reminds us, of advances and setbacks: greater visibility in the media, yes, but still anti-gay ordinances being set up in cities and states, still a depressing litany of queer-bashings and anti-gay murders.

The Avengers, as their flyers and publicity materials made clear from the beginning, wanted to be different to the earnest activists of yore. Their message was serious, their activism was witty and fast, like their direct action antecedents, ACT UP! and Peter Tatchell’s Outrage! in the UK. The Avengers’ key motif was the slowly fizzing fuse of a bomb, which immediately attracted me because it was shared by my favorite childhood cartoon, Danger Mouse.

Cogswell is witty, far from po-faced raconteur. She recalls the early meetings at New York’s Lesbian and Gay Center, the delicious, secretive planning of the zaps. Their first took place at a Queens school, P.S. 87, in 1992, where officials were seeking to scupper something called The Rainbow Curriculum, devised by the Board of Education to teach children about gay and lesbian lives. The Avengers zapped the school with a marching band, with the women singing “Oh when the dykes come marching in.”

The harassment, beating and eventual murder of Brian Mock, a disabled gay man from Oregon, and Hattie Mae Cohens, an African-American lesbian who tried to protect Mock, led the Avengers to set up an encampment in Greenwich Village and one of the most famous images of their protests, when a group of women, including Cogswell, ate fire. Cogswell recalls the women raising “our flames triumphantly into the air, leaned back, and swallowed them down. The crowd cheered, a little uncertainly, at watching a circus trick transformed into a sacrament.”

The tracing of Cogswell’s time with the Avengers is counterposed with the slightly quieter story of her relationship with Ana María Simo, one of the co-founders of the original Avengers. The moment when they hold hands in the cinema for the first time, there in the dark, Cogswell still unsure what is going on and where it will eventually lead, is a tenderly written interruption to the book’s main political narrative.

The most magnificent Avengers action sounds to be the on-air hijacking of a Spanish-language radio station that spewed homophobia. The women not only invaded the studio and took over the airwaves, but—and this the most delightful bit to read—scattered into the streets to pre-arranged hidey-holes to be picked up by a rescue van afterwards. The success of the Avengers reached a zenith with the Dyke March on Washington they organized in 1993, attended by over 20,000 women, and leading to the formation of over 60 Avengers groups all over the US; the group opened chapters in other countries, too, including the U.K.

Their ascendancy corresponded with a moment of increased lesbian visibility and so-called lesbian chic. Recall the singer k.d. lang, in a barber’s chair,getting shaved by Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair, and Sandra Bernhard and Madonna’s very public flirtation and friendship, and Bernhard playing a lesbian on Roseanne. As Cogswell says, the 1990s “culture wars” played out, much to the fury of bigots, with lesbian and gay politics and advancement in popular culture at its heart.

Reading Cogswell’s account is also to read an object study in not only the exciting birth and life of such groups, but also the flipside, which is their painful decline and fall. Ugly factionalism ultimately split the Avengers, which anyone familiar with the tiring in-fighting of gay political groups will read with a nod-a-long weariness.

Cogswell and other white women stood accused of being racially insensitive to ethnic minority members, and not galvanized enough by ethnic minority concerns. There is one particularly awful scene where, unfairly denounced and humiliated in a meeting, Cogswell’s hand shakes as she struggles to keep her composure taking notes as the brickbats fly in her direction.

Lots of sub-Avengers groups added to further splintering, bad feeling, and paranoia. (“She’s a nut, and her girlfriend is the devil,” Cogswell notes of her chief tormentor.) Letters and justifications and accusations fly: it’s maddening reading now, as all the energy spent fighting each other over semantics and perceived wrongs and slights, and all the shrill accusations of racial insensitivity and time-consuming, emotionally scarring meetings around it, should have been better directed at the homophobes doing gay and lesbian people so much harm. There may have been useful debates to have been had around race and racial inclusion, but the manner of them, as sketched by Cogswell, was unequivocally damaging.

Cogswell left the Avengers, and doesn’t go into detail about what happened next to the group. The zaps have long ceased, but on the Avengers website a 2013 event was listed, so perhaps it remains in alert, or restless slumber.

In 2000, Cogswell helped found The Gully, an online lesbian magazine, which closed six years later. (She was initially delighted she could post things without running them by 600 sub-committees.) She and Simo later shuttle between between New York, Havana, and Paris, where she was most enamored by politicians emphasizing the value of citizenship. She is now a columnist with New York newspaper Gay City News.

Her book quietens after its main stretch in the heart of Avenger-land, as her political passion and dedication is tested, post-9/11. Cogswell writes disparagingly of “Democratic activists yanking Republican fags out of the closet,” of Obama’s flip-flopping. Her ties to the U.S. become “frayed and fragile.” Cogswell feels, like many activists after a fierce time in the sun, she hasn’t made the difference she could have made. The fiasco over Proposition 8, she notes, should have been a case for the Avengers, but they were now “obliterated.” At a conference in Toulouse, Cogswell tried to “wake” a new generation of activists, but she is criticized by someone who says there is more to activism than the brash street activism popularized by the Avengers.

Cogswell doesn’t disagree with that; she absolutely recognizes the power of online mobilizing via Twitter and elsewhere. But she, like me, is mournful that a younger generation doesn’t recognize the value of occupying physical space.

“Every time the Avengers pulled off an action, we weren’t just making lesbians visible or trying to change society,” she writes. “We were changing lesbians. Creating a new kind of dyke who saw public space as hers, who could step out into the street and make noise, be herself, feel at home in the world.” The book ends with a moment she shares with a young gay men in her native Kentucky, he awed by her and the Avengers, and she awed by him determined to stay in that state to do things to advance “the cause.”

Cogswell’s book most powerfully reminds you of the necessary mess of activism. The Avengers bloomed in a moment where laws and attitudes were changing for the better, but not fast or committedly enough; a moment when the general populace was not truly with gay and lesbian people, where acts of violence and murder were commonplace, and marriage equality an absurd-sounding pipe-dream. Doing their thing, then as now—absolutely sensibly and right, looking respectable in their suits—were the campaigners in Washington and City Halls, but outside, causing trouble, causing a scene, being different, claiming that public space, and fighting with wit, passion, and verve, were the likes of the Lesbian Avengers. Thank goodness for them.

Eating Fire: My Life As a Lesbian Avenger is published by University of Minnesota Press, $19.95.