“The ‘L’ Word”: Politicized Lesbian Identity in 1990s Bellingham, Washington
By Nova Clark
“The L Word” was a volunteer made, alternative newspaper from 1994-1996, distributed in Bellingham, Washington. The paper’s self-proclaimed goal was to serve the “women loving women” community of Whatcom County. The paper was created by a lesbian named Mary, and run entirely by volunteers. The content of the paper makes it clear that this was one of the only lesbian focused pieces of media in Bellingham in the 1990s. The ads in the paper reference very few lesbian centered groups or places. Over the four issues available at The Washington State Archives, the paper loses its founder and original editor, and is taken up by a new editor sometime between April 1994 and September 1995. The staff itself was small, with only five to six names being listed on each edition. There was a suggested a 15 dollar yearly subscription fee, and the paper stressed their commitment to keeping their subscribers information private. It is unclear how the paper was distributed, how large their readership was, or how long the paper existed. How did “The ‘L’ Word” facilitate lesbian identity groups in Bellingham in the 1990’s?
“The L Word” follows a consistent pattern. Each edition has a running head on the bottom of the page explaining their subscription fees, announcing the newspaper staff, and thanking their readers and advertisers. Each edition also has a theme, and includes a “Rosie Can Do” box, which gives direction on how to complete household or maintenance topics, a “Dykes To Watch Out For” comic by Alison Bechdel, a “Java Jane” advice column, and at least some margin of news information. Most editions also contain advertisements from local businesses, spanning from Vancouver, BC, to Bellingham to Seattle. The newspaper focuses on local community opportunities and political action. They promoted potlucks, LGBTQ friendly coffee shops, and other community events.
Whatcom County is a relatively rural area in northwest Washington state, with Bellingham being the most densely populated city. Bellingham is home to Western Washington University, a large public state school. While the township of Bellingham is regarded as relatively liberal, the surrounding rural areas are quite conservation. There were no federal protections for homosexuals in the 1990’s. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 did not include discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity, nor did the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Gay people could still be and were still being fired for being gay. However, Washington State provided protection against employment discrimination beginning in 1991, under an executive order from then Governor Booth Gardner. This was reaffirmed in 1993 by Governor Mike Lowry (Exec. Order, 1993). The ladies, and others, who read “The L Word” would have been relatively safe in Bellingham.
There was a budding LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in 1990’s Bellingham. The Sean Humphrey House, a home for gay men fighting aids, was created in 1995. The local university, Western Washington University, housed a Women’s Resource Center and a LGBT Resource Center. There was a Lesbian Coffeehouse meeting once a month in Bellingham from 1990-1993, providing a space for women to meet, talk, and have a safe community. This was a volunteer run effort to create a space for local “womyn”. The first Bellingham Pride Parade was in 1999, with just six or so picnic tables at Fairhaven Park (Bellingham Pride, 2017). While Bellingham may have embraced this community, there was historical trauma they could not fix.
The Lavender Scare was a federally supported discrimination program. Spurred on by Joseph McCarthy in 1950, the federal government sought out anyone who was believed to be gay, and fired them from their jobs. McCarthy believed that the State Department had been “infiltrated by homosexuals and that they posed a threat equally as grave as national security” (Johnson, 2004). This effort was then approved by President Eisenhower in 1953 when he signed an executive order demanding anyone gay to be fired. In official documents, gay people were referred to as “sex perverts.” A 1950 Senate report from 1950 entitled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Perverts in the U.S. Government” states:
Those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons. In addition, there is an abundance of evidence to sustain the conclusion that indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility. One homosexual and pollute a Government office (Williams, 2003, p. 65).
This overtly homophobic rhetoric had detrimental effects. These discriminatory acts were carried out through highly unethical means. The government specifically sought out gay people by looking for signs of gender nonconformance. They utilized local police forces, asking them to attend local gay rights meetings and then report back to the government about who was there. They asked other government employees to out gay people. Employees suspected of homosexuality were interrogated and forced to reveal their private sexual lives. This issue went to the Supreme Court. The plaintiff, a gay man fired by the government, was forced to write his own brief, and argued that this type of discrimination was just as wrong as racial or religious discrimination. He lost. This behavior was not corrected or apologized for until 1969. This historical incident is widely overlooked. The Lavender Scare worked in tandem with the Red Scare to punish marginalized people. These discriminatory acts specifically targeted lesbian women. The firing of so many lesbians broke down social circles, and left lesbians with no way to support themselves without marrying a man. Loss of social, financial, and emotional security was a huge setback to the entire community (Toops, 2013, p. 96).
This state sanctioned discrimination came before Stonewall, and the Gay Rights movement. The Stonewall Riots were a violent clash between the New York police detectives and protesters. The Stonewall Inn was a local gay club and the detectives allegedly entered to shut the bar down for selling liquor without a license. Three transgender women were arrested, and a mob grew outside to protest. There is no consensus on who started the violence, but that night became a rallying point for the budding gay rights movement. The first gay power meeting was held in Greenwich Village just twelve days later. The AIDS crisis began in the early 1980’s. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 600,000 people had contracted AIDS by 1996.The aids crisis uniquely affected gay men, and all gay people, through medically permitted homophobia. The Federal Drug Administration refused process new drugs in a timely manner, or lower the price of the only HIV medication on the market. This newspaper falls in a long line of political and community action to bring queer people forward, out of the shadows, and to give them their own spaces. All of this is to say, lesbians existed and had been persecuted for many, many years before the start of “The L Word”.
In “Re-Sourcing Queer Subjectivities: Sexual Identity and Lesbian/Gay Print Media,” Robert Cover situates gay/lesbian print media as a mediation of sexual identity. He discusses the formation of a “community” through print media, and how they provide the codes of performativity for a given identity group. This work combines the dominant study of media with the, then, lesser known queer studies field to build a more complete view of how print media interpolates and mediates lesbian/gay identity. “Because we exist everywhere but each of us must consciously identify himself or herself as a gay person, newspaper and magazines are uniquely important to our social movement” (Cover, 2002, p. 109). Reflected in Martha Vicinus’ work “The History of Lesbian History,” the field of queer studies is a vital starting point for LGBTQ social movements. Both Cover and Vicinus stress the importance of this framework as the correct historical and academic social context.
Cover discusses the manner through which lesbian/gay people can find the media, while simultaneously critiquing the production of such media. Cover writes:
All such discourses are variously mediated through processes of production, reading, access, censorship (implicit or explicit), production values endemic to the culture of late capitalism, the economics of labour relations and the labour of audiences (Cover, p. 110).
Cover utilizes Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities to frame the use of print media as a tool for shaping, creating, and maintaining identity. He says, “In the case of the imagined lesbian/gay community, it is the lesbian/gay print media which effectively permit the circulation of the symbols such as “pride” “outness” and essential “difference”, imaged and imagined bodies, codes of desire and the desirable, trappings of identity based lifestyle and consumption” (p. 113). He argues that the interpellation of lesbian/gay identities through print media is not a retrospective understanding of self, but a “re-cognition” of the identity through the media in question. The reader is not seeing themselves in the media; they are creating the identity in accordance to the media. This argument disrupts the idea of an imagined lesbian community outside of the paper. That community is constituted through the reading of the symbols of identity in the media itself.
This source is particularly valuable to this analysis because it grounds the work in a body of evidence supporting the need for lesbian media, while simultaneously disrupting the baseline assumptions of how that media functions. Cover goes on to say, “This claim, (of lesbian invisibility), however, does point to the historical need for an independent lesbian/ gay press to carry out not just lesbian/gay-specific news, but to assist in the building of political minoritarian community.” (p. 111). “The L Word” is filling that historical need, during the mid-1990s.
“The History of Lesbian History” by Martha Vicinus outlines historical use of the word lesbian, and the five paradigms shifts of lesbian studies within the past thirty years. The illumination of the mechanisms of historical representation strengthen Cover’s assertion of the importance of media in social movement. Vicinus outlines influential works like Gloria Anzaldua’s and Cherrie Moraga’s “This Bridge Called My Back” (1981) and Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980). Works like these were widely used and taken up by the queer community, and are the basis for queer social movements.
Lesbian as a historical artifact created at a particular period and used only intermittently as a self-defining noun. …The word lesbian has several political advantages: it asserts the fact of sex and it provides boundaries to a subject that at times seems in danger of disappearing into such overbroad categories as “queer” or “non normative”. It also focuses attention on questions such as: When did it become possible to think about, or publicly acknowledge, erotic desire between women? When and how did women themselves articulate this desire? (Vicinus, 2012, p. 576).
Vicinus’s work is useful for situating “The L Word” in an academic, historical context. It takes this alternative newspaper and sets it gently into a history of women, and a history of disagreement. Tracing the lines from social constructionism to queer theory, Vicinus provides historical background into the framework “The L Word” probably used. The article also offers some suggestions for what to avoid in this analysis, namely a white, euro and cis centric analysis. Vicinus explores the paradigm used within the 1990’s, queer theory, and the universalizing effects. “The plasticity of queer expands the understanding of sexual acts and identifications beyond familiar binaries and categories” (Vicinus, p.572). Indeed, Vicinus’ analysis of “transgender studies” illuminates the gender obsession displayed in “The L Word.” As Susan Stryker astutely notes, in the mid-1990s the “discussion of gender diversity was still subsumed within a discussion of sexual desire- as if the only reason to express gender was to signal the mode of ones attractions and availabilities to potential sex partners” (Vicinus, p.574).
These sources work together to situate “The L Word” within a field of study and within a historical context for that field. Cover offers the mechanisms of how “The L Word” functioned, while Vicinus offers an illumination of the historical context of the paper.
Through historical and textual analysis, I will investigate the overlapping and interacting identity groups represented in these newspapers to explore how the paper facilitated a lesbian identity. Some of the articles are by members of the staff, some are sent in by readers of the paper, and still others are advertisements from the community. The intersections of these sources and their language use illuminate the in and out groups within each group (Fairclough, 1995). “The L Word” presents both primary and secondary discourses. The analysis will utilize three issues spanning from 1995 to 1996, the timeframe is limited because of the availability of this historical artifact. I have searched through the entire Miscellaneous Gay, Lesbian Studies Collection at the Washington State Archives for relevant information, and there are only four issues available of “The L Word.” I have chosen to not include the first edition, from April 1994, because it is by a different editor and the editor regards it as a “newsletter.” This issue contains only a front page, and a four-page spread of book titles. It does not follow any of the same patterns or rule as the later issue. This issue is an obvious outlier in the collection, and as such will not be a part of my analysis.
The issues I will analyze are from October and November 1995, and January/February 1996. These three issues have the same format, editor, and consistent aspects, like advice columns and comics. The editions available at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies Archives span from April of 1994 to January of 1996. “The L Word” covers topics ranging from coming out advice, committed relationships, marriage, pornography, hetero culture, feminism, sexism, politics, education, activism and more. Each of the editions edited by Susan M. Adams had a theme. September 1995 was about feminism. October 1995 was about food, and the January/February 1996 edition was about Love and Lust. The front page of these three editions also has a “what’s coming up” box on the front cover, showing November 1995’s theme to be motherhood, December 1995’s theme was Religion, March 1996 was about Work, and April 1996 was about health. The newspaper appears to frame itself as a lifestyle theme, where lesbians could come for all their reading needs.
Through textual analysis of the identity words, like queer, lesbian, womyn, and butch, I will explore the formation of the overall lesbian identity during this time frame. Using a sociolinguistic perspective, I can explore how the identity terms used by the paper create different social identities (Zimman, 2014). While this paper was written by volunteers, there are ads, questions, and comments sent in by readers that give my research a broader view of the community at the time. The demographic information of both the paper’s staff and readers are unknown, but the sexual identity of both groups is strong enough to bring them together.
The purposive and chosen language utilized by “The L Word” functions to interpolate and mediated a group of gendered and politicized subjects (Figure 1). The newspaper teaches its audience what to say as an in member, how to act, who to act with, and how to consume. “The L Word” utilizes language that is gendered, language of consumption, and political language. “The L Word” is a social process of indoctrination through language or semiosis (Wodak 122). The paper is creating gendered consumers. I will analyze each for their function within the discourse.
The language used in “The L Word” is nearly always binaristic, and “women” focused. The motto or slogan of the paper is “The newsletter by, for and about women loving women”. This gendered language is differentiated through the author either the newspaper staff, the ad in columns (like “Java Jane”), and the materials written in by the readers.
The staff of the newspaper almost exclusively uses the word women. Multiple advertisers and columnists use “womyn” instead. The y spelling is historically used TERF’s, or trans exclusionary radical feminists, to exclude people not assigned female at birth. The first known usage of this spelling was by the Michigan Womyns Music festival in 1976. The festival was created for “womyn born womyn” and was created and operated by only women. This came to a head in 1991 when a transgender woman was kicked out of the festival (Williams, 2013). The festival ran until 2015 with the Human Rights Campaign, Equality Michigan, The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National LGBTQ Task Force protested the exclusionary nature of the musical festival, and it closed. The use of “y” in women as synonymous with this type of trans exclusive feminism from the start of its usage.
The usage of “womyn” in “The L Word” is extremely limited. Out of 32 uses of the word women, only twice is it spelled with a ‘y’. Both usages come from a satire article written by an anonymous source. The article is a social commentary on the division between vegetarians and carnivores. Besides this clear exception, he usage of “women” is clearly a purposive and thoughtful political choice on behalf of the paper’s editor and staff. Advertisers only use the word “women” five times over the three issues, and never once spell it with a “y”. Indeed, even in referencing the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, the writers of “The L Word” choose to spell it “women”. This is a clear and purposeful use of the non-exclusionary spelling.
This political choice is not without contest, however. Over the three issues available, there is only one mention of transgender women. This is in a “Java Jane” box (Figure 2). There is no “Jane” listed in the staff box on the bottom of each page, so it is likely a feature borrowed from some other media source. The column includes a coffee cup graphic, and readers can write in their questions for “Jane” to answer. One reader wrote in to ask about a “nice transgendered lesbian”. They said their best friend Rita is “a very committed feminist” and calls the trans women “he or it” and “refuses to speak to her”. The question asker doesn’t know how to proceed. Jane answers by saying “we have so much to learn from one another. I hope you and Rita are close enough to talk about this.” She also encourages the reader to not “pass judgement” on each other. It is likely that this column is not written by a member of “The L Word” staff, however, it is likely that they chose whether to include it each edition. Of the three issues, only two contain a Java Jane column. While the messages conveyed through the column are not coming directly from the staff, the paper is endorsing the social messages conveyed.
These examples of inclusionary and exclusionary language usage demonstrate the inclusive social messages “The L Word” provided, and thus the lesbian community reading the paper was likely quite inclusive to transgender women.
The usage and lack thereof of “dyke” in “The L Word” is also worthy of note. The word dyke appears twice by the staff, and never by any advertisers. The first known usage of the word dyke was in 1896 and was slang for “the vulva”. The word and its variant, “bulldyke”, came up again in 1923 in AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, as pejorative slang word for lesbian activities. The word has gone through phases of derogatory and reclaimed usage, but most notably used by the “Dykes on Bikes” starting in the 1970s. A group of lesbians participating in the San Francisco Pride Parade. They attempted to have their name officially trademarked, and were sued by lawyer Michael Demott who said the name was “disparaging to men” and “immoral” (Bendix, 2014). The group was unable to register the name with the United States Patent and Trademark Office until 2006.
The term has a deep seated political meaning because of the history of its usage. The Dyke March started in 1993 as a way to reclaim the term, to bring visibility to the lesbian community within the broader queer community, and to use “dyke” as power (Bendix, 2017). During the timeframe of “The L Word”, dyke would have been coming back into popular usage as a politically charged term for lesbian. The staff of the paper use it only twice, and no ads ever utilize the term. The newspaper does, however, print the comic “Dykes To Watch Out For.” A long running comic series by Alison Bechdel, “Dykes To Watch Out For” is a cult classic queer media piece. It was started in 1983 and became a syndicated comic strip in 1985, appearing in 50-60 different newspapers (Booker, 911). The comic explores the lives of lesbians and their partners, going through their experiences with politics, marriage, children, mental illness, and more. “Dykes to Watch Out For” appears 4 times in the three issues of “The L Word”. The comics are new, all from the same year of publication as the newspaper. This reproduction of “Dykes To Watch Out For” is a badge of pride for the readers and creators of “The L Word”. A culturally and socially palatable form of lesbianism, “Dykes To Watch Out For” is a pride flag of a newspaper column. The reprinting of the iconic comic strip was no doubt a beloved form of pride and reclamation for the readers of “The L Word.”
“Dykes to Watch Out For” is also inherently and outspokenly political. Mo, the long suffering main character, comes out, tries to get a job as an out lesbian, is polyamorous, debates the validity of state sanctioned same sex marriage, and goes to therapy. The comic ironically criticizes the mainstream gay rights movement as “A bunch of white gay men trying to convince the homophobes to like them because they’re just normal, sexist, racist, God-fearing, profit-driven boys next door!” (Douglas, 2009). There is no reproducing or disseminating “Dykes To Watch Out For” without an endorsement of the highly critical politics of the characters. The usage of “Dykes To Watch Out For” by “The L Word” is an endorsement of a political lesbian identity.
The readers of “The L Word” were not interpellated by the media itself; they were created by it. The newspaper was breeding and teaching a culture and identity of lesbians, a culture that was inclusive and political.
“The L Word” constituted the identity of the readers, of lesbians, through the purposive usage of identity terms. The lesbians who read “The L Word” were likely very inclusive. The paper supports a politic of inclusion through their use of identity language like “women”. The paper regularly accepted advertisements that supported other identity groups, like a bisexual support group. Writers of the paper strategically avoided trans exclusive language, and published content that reaffirmed transgender identities. The lesbians who read the paper were constituted through their group membership as “The L Word” readers to be accepting of others.
“The L Word” also constituted readers that were politically engaged. The inclusive nature of “The L Word” was inherently political, supporting trans folks, direct local action, and veganism. The repeated usage of the word “dyke” by both the readers and writers of the paper was also purposeful and political. Dyke has always been a politicized word, one used first against the community and later by the community. This intentional usage created a reader who was both a part of the long political history of lesbianism, and an active constituent of it.
“The L Word” facilitated a politicized, engaged, and inclusive lesbian identity for its readers. The reader was not interpellated by the paper but constituted through it.
Nova Clark is a recent Western Washington University graduate working as a resume writer. They’re interested in queer studies, and making their little portion of the world a kinder place.
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