Outliers and Outlaws: A Public History of Lesbian Community

Prose and Stories, Videos

From Judith Raiskin, Courtney Hermann, and Kerribeth Elliott

In March 2020 we were about to start filming a documentary about lesbian feminist activism in Eugene, OR in the 1960s-1990s. When the pandemic made it impossible to film the lesbian elders, we dedicated our work to curating and digitizing the interviews of The Eugene Lesbian Oral History Project that Judith had filmed the previous two summers. The feminist activist project we worked on this past year shares the activism and lives of this community of lesbians, most of whom are now in their 70s and 80s. Through composite videos the exhibit tells stories about the feminist alternative economies, political activism, cultural collectives, and sexual identities of this generation of lesbian feminist activists.

In the 1960s-90s Eugene, Oregon was known as a “lesbian mecca,” drawing hundreds of young women from across the United States. Many came as part of the counterculture westward migration, identified as feminists, and had been involved in anti-war and civil rights protests. Oregon’s reputation as a rural, forested state with cheap housing was a draw for those looking for communal living and collective work. They founded cornerstone organizations central to Eugene’s history and influenced Oregon’s political landscape and the national LGBTQ civil rights movement. These women worked in collective businesses that were typically considered to be in the male domain (construction, car repair, tree planting), ran printing presses, were the leaders of Eugene community service agencies, worked in City and State government positions, and produced and disseminated lesbian magazines, photographs, music, films, theater and art. They organized against the local, state, and national discriminatory measures that swept the nation in the 1970s-90s. A number were plaintiffs on key lawsuits challenging discriminatory Oregon statutes. Most are now in their 70s and 80s.

As artist and photographer Tee Corinne noted, “The lack of a publicly accessible history is a devastating form of oppression; lesbians face it constantly.” To make this rich feminist political and cultural history accessible to students, scholars, educators and the general public, we have created an interactive website and digital exhibit. The digital exhibit includes 23 edited composite short films that share perspectives from all the narrators, provides historical and scholarly context about their activism, and offers links and ideas for teaching this material. We designed this exhibit for use in high school and college classes to fill a gap in LGBTQ curriculum and for anyone interested in lesbian history and activism. The goal is to reach young people so they can imagine a future and older people so they can celebrate and share their history. Our experience so far is that the exhibit sparks wonderful intergenerational conversations about how to envision and realize authentic living, community building, and work for social justice.

Judith Raiskin is a professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Oregon. Her areas of research and publishing include decolonial literature and cultural studies focusing on gender and comparative feminist theory. She teaches LGBTQ Studies, Disability Studies, and queer archival research. Courtney Hermann is a professor of Film at Portland State University, an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker, and a non-fiction media producer. Courtney’s work is distributed by Public Broadcasting Service and its affiliates, through educational film catalogues, at film festivals, and through impact distribution to community partners. Kerribeth Elliott is an editor of documentary films and, with Courtney, is a co-founder of Boxcar Assembly, a non-fiction film production company.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s