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Pioneering LGBT journalist and activist Jeanne Córdova is back with a third book, When We Were Outlaws: a memoir of Love & Revolution. A sweeping memoir, a raw and intimate chronicle of a young activist torn between conflicting personal longings and political goals. This is a rare view of a radical lesbian activist’s life during the early struggle for gay rights, Women’s Liberation, and the New Left of the 1970s.
Joan Nestle, grande dame femme author, blurbs the book saying it’s "A riveting, first-hand telling of a dangerous creative time. The lesbian feminist ‘70s with their messy, sexy, bold social and personal visions live again on Córdova’s pages!"
Former editor of The Advocate, Mark Thompson, calls Córdova “the James Dean of the lesbian scene.” And Stuart Timmons, author of The Trouble with Harry Hay, comments “this story discusses the contradictions of feminism, the then real debate about violent overthrow of the government, and the huge divide and uneasy alliance between lesbians and gay men.”
In 1975, the twenty-something activist Córdova is living with one woman and falling in love with another, but her passionate beliefs tell her that her first duty is “to the revolution.” She becomes an investigative reporter for the famous, underground L.A. Free Press and finds herself involved with the Weather Underground, Angela Davis, and Emily Harris of the Symbionese Liberation Army. At the same time she is creating her own newsmagazine, The Lesbian Tide, destined to become the voice of the national lesbian feminist movement.
With an introduction by renowned lesbian historian Lillian Faderman, When We Were Outlaws paints a vivid portrait of activism and the search for self-identity, set against the turbulent landscape of multiple struggles for social change that swept hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets.
By turns provocative and daringly honest, Córdova renders emblematic scenes of the era—ranging from strike protests to utopian music festivals, to underground meetings with radical fugitives—with period detail and evocative characters. For those who came of age in the ‘70s, and for those who weren’t around but still ask ‘What was it like?’ – Outlaws takes you back to re-live it. It also offers insights about ethics, decision making and strategy, still relevant today.
AN INTERVIEW WITH “OUTLAWS” AUTHOR JEANNE CÓRDOVA
by Katherine V. Forrest
KVF: Even though I lived in Los Angeles during the time you describe in When We Were Outlaws, your memoir reads like a gripping suspense novel. Also, very unusual for a memoir, it focuses on the events of one singular year in your life. Why did you choose that year, and what led you to this decision, Jeanne?
JC: I wrote Outlaws as a novelized memoir with suspense because I know people like novels. We all love a story. I didn’t want this lesbian history to be sidelined as dry when it’s so rich with emotion.
I sat down in 1999 to write a love story. I’d been writing journalism and political essays for two decades, but never challenged myself to write a basic love-story novel. I began with a certain woman, an unresolved love affair. That took me to the years 1974 to 1976. To my surprise the story began spinning its way into lesbian and gay and New Left politics—by way of the original love story, because this is how I was living my life when I met and fell in love with “Rachel”. A couple of years into this project I called her to say, “Hey—guess what, our story is turning into a political drama.” She just shrugged and said, “I’m not surprised, that’s who you are.”
As I began to tell the story of Córdova and Rachel, I got into all the activist’s machinations and dramas of my life in 1975. I began to see that this was a critical year in the rise and development of Lesbian Nation as well as the real end of sixties radicalism. And I began to see that the real love story I was writing about was about me and my life’s love—Lesbian Nation.
After that, the story got so big and sweeping that I just had to end it before I got to 1,000pages. It’s still 450 pages! I tend to lead a very full life—but that year was an epoch unto itself. Looking back my first memoir, Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story, it was also only one crucial year in my life. I like big thick slices of pie, one at time.
KVF: Given the candor of the details you share, clearly it was an emotional journey of major proportions, revisiting this era of your life, especially your emotional life during this time. Can you share the experience of that writing journey with us?
JC: This is a painful question. In the early ‘90s I went to an OutWrite writer’s Conference in Boston, Mass. I remember it clearly. It snowed. I froze. But I heard the keynoter Dorothy Allison say, “If you’re not bleeding on the page you should probably throw the page away.” So that was my guide. When I bled, jumped out of the chair, hyperventilated, and swore— ‘I’m not writing about this!’ I kept coming back, popped a tranquilizer, and just kept going. I don’t know that I want to share this part in too much detail. I might scare writers away from looking for answers in their deepest shadow self.
There are two scenes, the most vulnerable and therefore dangerous scenes, that I debated dropping out of the book. I told myself all kinds of rationalizations like, “Don’t worry, you’ll never get published and no one will ever know.” Fear has crushed many a writer. I suggest that writers go into denial and stay there as long as you can while you keep writing the truth. The other thought I had was—I’m no perfect human being. I’m well acquainted with my faults. A large part of memoir is being vulnerable.
So yes, I cried a lot. In fact, this is getting hard. I have to go watch ‘CSI’ now. Click/close/log off…
KVF: What was the experience like in researching this book?
JC: Later… I’m feeling better now. Katherine, what else did you want to pry into? Ah, yes, research. We might have to ask my spouse and Research Editor this question. She is an internet maven and did most of the hard research of impossible-to-find questions. About 85% of this book, facts and research included, came out of my memory. But she fact checked most of it. Many writers have told me that you can’t write a good book while living with a lover, it’s too polyamorous/non-monogamous. I am very blessed to have a partner who can compartmentalize.
KVF: Since this is one year out of a life of great significance to us in the lesbian community, do you plan another book—or books?
JC: Yes, writing Outlaws focused me on the importance of the lesbian feminist generation, how and why we built a movement, and what long term changes we wrought or informed. So, I believe my next book will begin with the story of the birth of that movement and follow its development thru, say 1985. I’d also like to write a book aboutmy biological family, my 11 siblings, who are wacky yet very talented and unusual parents. We have a University President, ex-space scientist, an economist on the FED Board, a chiropractor, a Harvard MBA realtor, two family businesses cum zany CEO’s, an attorney who keeps us all out of jail…the list goes on.
KVF: Your work as an activist and journalist is one of the building blocks of our lesbian community. Would you tell us how you view our lesbian world today that you helped bring into being?
JC: Thank you. Ah, that’s a big question. Large swaths of our lesbian world, those women who can look or act like society’s version of an acceptable woman, are today free to declare themselves gay without losing their family, job, or apartment. Having grown up in a world in which one could lose all of these things, I’m very proud that my generation built this platform of freedom for our daughters.
But I’m not always proud that so many lesbians choose to do little in their lives besides consume the fruits of equality without regard for others whose race, class, or gender appearance puts them still at risk. Despite the single-issue focus on our questionable desire to get married, the new battlefront has moved from gay equality to discrimination against the queer—the one who doesn’t fit in. Recently I’ve gone to work as an activist on the gender justice frontier because, as an open butch, I see and feelthe rank discrimination against all of us who were born with a cross or trans gender presentation or identity.
This sexism is what’s behind the “bullying” of young feminine boys and masculine girls. With others, I just founded an organization called Butch Nation that I hope will address this often life-threatening gender identity choice. Like being gay, I don’t think it’s a choice. As I say in the author’s note of When We Were Outlaws, many of us still experience the persistent pain of not being acceptable. So I would hope that lesbian nation does not walk away from the struggle when the job is only half done.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pioneer Jeanne Córdova is one of the founding organizers of the West Coast LGBTQ movement. Córdova also published The Lesbian Tide, "the national voice of record for the lesbian feminist era of the 1970s." Her writing includes books and essays in award-winning anthologies such as 'Lesbian Nuns: Breaking the Silence' and 'Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader.' Most recently, Córdova chaired the Butch Voices LA Conference in 2010, and later co-founded Butch Nation, a feminist organization for masculine women. She and her pack of guerilla cultural activists, LEX: The Lesbian Exploratorium, create political, art and history happenings around Los Angeles.