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    AC Benus
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

The Great Mirror of Same-Sex Love - Prose - 45. Alison Laurie Part II “A Kamp Girl’s Activism in Europe”

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Alison Laurie Part II –

“A Kamp Girl’s Activism in Europe”

 

I was pleased to find six other kamps on board the Castel Felice, and the five-week trip was interesting. We tried to find the “others” at Naples, but ended up in a brothel full of drag queens.

On arriving in London I went straight to the Gateways, already an herstoric [sic] place in 1964, and also found the Robin Hood. To me it seemed like a multitude of Lesbians, but the best was yet to come. Within a week I was able to go to an MRG meeting – the first known Lesbian organization in Britain, which I had left Aotearoa/ New Zealand to find.

MRG had members all over Britain, ran advertisements in newspapers, and held monthly meetings in London as well as special-interest group meetings. Many of the women who had started it were “colonials,” as we were called at that time, from Australia, “South Africa,” “Rhodesia,” and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Some of the “South African” women – whites – had tried in small ways to oppose apartheid and felt that they had more than one reason to reject their country and live in London.

My first political work as a [Gay] girl – for in London we were not kamp, and we were not yet women – was to help mail out Arena Three, the monthly magazine, and to start getting up and talking at meetings. There were often a hundred or so [Gay] girls at meetings, so this was quite intimidating at first. Then I volunteered to run a group. The weekly Literary Group met at my flat and a dozen of us read Dylan Thomas and other male authors very seriously.

It did not occur to us to read many women authors. We knew of few Lesbian books except The Well of Loneliness, which we’d all read and reread, and with no women’s bookshops, or movement, or politics, why should it have? We were Lesbians, not women, so why read women authors particularly?

Bryan Magee from the BBC wanted to make a TV program about female [Gay people] – he had just made one about male [Gay people]. We were all very pleased at his interest. I was assigned the task of showing him around the clubs. I took him to the Robin Hood and the Gateways and introduced him to the girls. Everyone was thrilled that the BBC would do a documentary on “sex variants” like us, pleased that people like him were “sympathetic.”

Other people came and wanted to do research; MRG cooperated enthusiastically. We went along and filled out questionnaires, did inkblot tests. It was so nice that the experts were willing to study us, perhaps prove that we were mentally normal. This would help us to win acceptance. We looked forward to a time when we might be tolerated, might be allowed to live in peace, might be granted a few crumbs from the table.

This was a very radical view. Most London Lesbians, who did not belong to MRG, thought that nothing could change and that the less the outside world knew about us the better. Then no one would suspect that we existed. That was much safer.

Then, in Easter 1965, I went as part of the MRG delegation to a Lesbian conference in Holland. We became aware of this conference when an American Lesbian living in Amsterdam visited London. Otherwise there had been few international links that we knew about.

That conference changed my life. There were 300 Lesbians there, mainly from the Dutch mixed homophile organization, the COC. Holland had no laws against [same-sex love]; their society was quite tolerant of “variants,” apparently. At the conference many Lesbians talked about social change – although no one except the British delegation was wearing slacks – they all looked very serious and conservative. I was very impressed. My expectations began to expand. If not quite equal to heterosexuals, perhaps almost so ... ?

I left London, and with Lesbian friends, explored Europe on the thumb. My decision to live in Copenhagen was based on a tall, Danish Lesbian that I met in the piano bar Lille Rosenberg one romantic night, so it was hardly political at first. But I soon became involved with the Forbund of 1948, which was another of the European mixed homophile postwar organizations. I helped with mailings, until one day, I found that I could speak Danish well enough to say a few things at meetings. As time went by I could say more and more, and I began to think and feel like a Dane.

I visited the United States, but returned to Denmark. The States seemed so apolitical, so disorganized apart from the Daughters of Bilitis, which I thought wasn’t as effective as the Danish F48. The Americans might be more free-wheeling and have lots more bars, but the Danes were getting articles into the newspapers about homophiles. And anyway, the bars in New York were all mafia-controlled, with thugs wearing guns guarding the doors, and everywhere in the States it seemed you could be arrested for wearing more than three items of male clothing. I had put away my tie and butch identity when I left Aotearoa/New Zealand, and was now trying out that new word “femme” as an identity, but I still wore pants and shirts.

And I liked being a homophile. Homophile was such a wonderful word; so much less sexualized somehow than being a dirty old h*m*s*x**l. More dignified too; very Greek and everything. I liked the Danish beer, and the piano bars where you danced waltzes, and the discos, which were just beginning with wilder, louder music, and the Danish Lesbians who made jokes in bed and laughed a lot.

My new lover was Norwegian, though, and as we moved in together on New Year’s Eve in 1969, neither of us knew that within a year, our whole world would have changed.

When we read about New York’s Stonewall riots (the first large-scale Lesbian and Gay rebellion against police harassment) that June, we were amazed. Homophile men and women rioting in the streets! We held weekend seminars to discuss it. Something called Gay Liberation had happened. What was it all about?

The new ideas were mind-blowing. You could be Lesbian, Gay; or however you wanted to be. You didn’t have to integrate into society, or beg for tolerance and acceptance. You could do your own thing. You could be free to be yourself. You could – and should – come out of the closet.

We held our first public demonstration in the Faelled Park in the middle of Copenhagen. There were hippies all around with long hair and beads, smoking hashish. People talked about civil rights, made comparisons with the Black civil rights movement in the States. People talked about the anti-Vietnam war movement. The sun was shining. At that moment everything seemed possible. We were going to free at last, we were Gay people, liberating ourselves and the world.

Then more things happened. A small group of heterosexual women calling themselves Redstockings who said they were feminist, whatever that was (something to do with that old suffrage movement, perhaps), invited the Gay women from F48 to meet with them at a weekend seminar. We went, dubiously, and they talked about something called Women’s Liberation. They said that they thought that we were oppressed by the Gay men in F48, and that we should do something about it. And they said that we were oppressed by society in general as women!

We went away and started our own consciousness-raising groups to talk about all this. It was an amazing discovery, that we shared an oppression with 51 percent of the population, instead of our Gay 10 percent. And what was even more amazing was that these women said that we were their sisters. They said they felt solidarity with us.

Soon we started a group called the Q-Activists – Q for queer and for qvinde, an Old Danish word for women. We met at the newly seized women’s house, an empty building we had helped our sisters liberate from the Copenhagen municipality. The top floor was Lesbian space, and we began to refer to ourselves as Lesbians, that frightening word we had always avoided.

We used the Q-Activists as a pressure group within the F48, to get more women onto the committee, and to get a women-only night at the Pan Club, owned by the organization. We held a Scandinavian Lesbian conference at the women’s house in 1972, and though not many came, it was a start.

I went to the States again that year too, because that was where it was all happening now. I worked on an issue of The Lesbian Tide, met Lesbians who were starting groups and magazines everywhere. I started to call myself a Lesbian-feminist.

“All women are Lesbian, except those who don’t know it yet,” and “feminism the theory, Lesbianism the practice,” and “in a society where men oppress women, to be Lesbian is a sign of mental health” were the slogans. Butch and femme were laid to rest. We were roleless, liberated – and any woman could choose to be Lesbian – should choose to be Lesbian. Few did, as yet.

We read Elizabeth Gould The First Sex, and became excited about the matriarchy. Men were mutants, we said, women were actually superior to them!

The ideas were all developing. They were new, stimulating. I felt I was part of a movement which was forming them, finding them, exploring them. There were no limits anymore. I felt a strong urge to return to Aotearoa/New Zealand. Letters from friends implied that the revolution might actually reach there too.

I packed a VW combi van with supplies and American Lesbian magazines like The Lesbian Tide and The Furies, and with my Norwegian lover and an escaped American headmistress, set off from Denmark to drive overland to Aotearoa/New Zealand, shipping the vehicle across intervening oceans. We arrived in early 1973, to a blazing January. Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation had already started in Auckland and in Wellington

We were mainly in Wellington at first, where I was asked to speak at some early abortion meetings, and here and there about Gay Liberation overseas. About six of us went to a Gay Liberation party in Auckland, following a meeting where men had said they really wanted more Lesbian involvement. We were all bashed up at the party by drunken misogynists and everyone ended up feeling that it was quite impossible to work with any of the men. As for me, I went back to Wellington and worked in the mixed Gay Liberation group until we split after a dance with half the takings and announced that we were going to organize separately as Lesbians.

We met with Christchurch Lesbians, and Sisters for Homophile Equality (SHE) was formed in both Christchurch and in Wellington. We might call ourselves Lesbians, but you couldn’t have an organization with that in the title.... SHE was New Zealand’s first and only national Lesbian organization. We started Circle magazine in December 1973, and reprinted articles from my American Lesbian magazines, which I was busily distributing around the country. Lesbian feminism hit Aotearoa/New Zealand as a fully formed blast from abroad, but fell on fertile ground, among many of the Lesbians from Gay liberation for starters.

Lesbians wrote to Circle from all over Aotearoa/New Zealand, and issues were put out from Christchurch and Auckland as well as Wellington. We held a national Lesbian conference at Victoria University in Wellington at Easter 1974, and got media coverage although we held out for women journalists only. We were on radio talk-backs, [and] were mentioned in the news. And we held a Lesbian demo outside Parliament. We often sang "I Am Woman" and did ring dances. We believed in the sisterhood and the matriarchy-to-come.

I returned to Denmark in 1975 and was part of a group trying to set up an international Lesbian front. To my surprise all kinds of new Lesbians were “coming out” of the women’s movement. Although we had wanted this to happen, it was surprising when it did, and difficult to adjust to. I had known some of the women as heterosexual feminists and it was hard to accept them as the new experts on Lesbian political theory. They seemed in some way to lack what I felt was a Lesbian identity, though I was unable to analyze quite why.

I went to a Lesbian conference in Amsterdam, with women who didn’t know and couldn’t have cared that there had been one there ten years before, and how important it had been. I sought out some of those 1965 Lesbians and found them now quite antipolitical. “We can’t stand all these new Lesbians,” they said, “they’re so negative.” I disagreed, of course, on principle, but somehow there was less joy in the air. Unemployment was starting to happen in Europe, political discussions seemed different, we talked more about rape and violence; about men and what they were doing to the world. We talked less and less about sisterhood until finally we didn’t talk about it at all, because none of us could really believe in it quite the way we had when the sun shone and it was always summer, and the whole world was poised on the brink of change.

I asked one of the new Lesbians to dance at a social after a meeting. Then I tried to kiss her, gently, as we had been doing for the previous five years. She pushed me away roughly and said I was behaving like a man. I felt hurt and didn’t understand. I got drunk in a corner with some twenty-year-olds, crying into the schnapps bottle and trying to explain to them that there was something happening now that wasn’t what I thought I’d fought to achieve. Something uptight, critical, rejecting. Something not quite – Lesbian.

I was only 35, but I was beginning to feel like an old woman of the movement. Most of the Lesbians my age were not to be found in the Lesbian movement. Many were back working in the mixed homophile organizations, now changing their names to associations of Gay men and women. Or they were branching out to start women’s refuges; getting involved in the peace movement; active in the political women’s movement.

I had moved to Norway and found that the only Lesbian group I wanted to work in was one called The Panthers, involved in social and cultural activities of Lesbian poetry, discussions, and sing-alongs.

I got involved with the Norwegian F48, and a huge split over Marxist-Leninist politics, which resulted in the formation of the Workers’ Homophile Association (AHF) – which turned out to be not at all Marxist anyway. It all made for interesting political intrigues, but I grew tired and began working very hard so that I could spend part of each year back in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

My work as a tour guide made saving money easy, especially doing lots of trips through the USSR, where there were few consumer temptations. I did, of course, and dangerously, search for Soviet Lesbians whenever I could.

Back in Aotearoa/New Zealand, by 1977, SHE was dying, though Circle still continued. Many Lesbians had come out through the women’s movement here too, and certain conflicts were beginning to emerge. Lesbian sisterhood had turned out to be far more complicated than had imagined.

We were conscious of other oppression, like race and class, which created differences between Lesbians. As yet we had little analysis of any of this and few Lesbians attempted to really do anything about it. In 1978 a Lesbian center started in Wellington and political work included forays into the Human Rights Commission, where chief commissioner Downey had concluded that “some kinds of discrimination cannot be outlawed.” Newsletters were published, women’s bookshops began providing regular access to the flood of books coming off the international women’s presses, and women’s music was strumming and beating its discs into every Lesbian home. There were crafts, too, and poetry, and women’s art in the Women’s Gallery.

Overseas again, there was […] the International Lesbian Information Service (ILIS) and the International Association of Lesbians, Gay Women, and Gay Men (IGA), providing regular international networking and holding annual conferences for delegates from as many as 30 countries.

Many Lesbians were beginning to work with Gay men again, though tentatively, and only on specific issues. Others continued to develop a strong separatist politics, and some women were moving to the land. Pornography became an important issue, though as yet no Lesbian analysis had been made.

As for me, I returned to Aotearoa/New Zealand permanently. It was 1982, and I worked on a couple of issues of Circle for old times’ sake, and then got into Lesbian broadcasting on our first Lesbian radio program, which still runs weekly here in Wellington. We performed some Lesbian plays, saw the first Lesbian center die and another begin, to vanish in its turn. We saw several Lesbian clubs come and go in Wellington and other places too, and Lesbian phone-in services develop around the country. There were regular but informal links with Lesbians everywhere.

But when the [same-sex] law reform campaign came, we had no Lesbian political organization to tackle it and had to develop strategies on the run. We battled against a U.S.-inspired moral majority (so-called), which petitioned against us door-to-door, and whose hatred thundered at us from public platforms throughout the country. They gathered a claimed 800,000 signatures from our population of three million: from children, old people in nursing homes, [even] frightened Lesbians and Gay men, and with many multiple signatures. They presented their petition to Parliament in a Nuremburg-style rally with God, the family, and our colonial flags waving while anthems were sung. We fought them and some of us were arrested; we disrupted their meetings and we ripped up their petitions when we could.

We won some and lost some; [same-sex love between males] was decriminalized, but human rights were ruled out for the time being. It was 1986 and many of us were exhausted by that campaign but we have survived it.

What do the political dykes of the eighties have in common with the kamp girls of the fifties? Our ability to survive is the single most important thing.

Not all of the kamp girls did survive. Some are dead, lost to suicide, or the slow deaths of stress diseases. Others married, to live a daily lie; a double life made tolerable by tranquilizers or booze, and perhaps an affair with the woman down the road. Some married Gay men to provide a double disguise for two frightened people. Others lost their minds into alcoholism, living half lives in the shadows, while other good women were attacked by the shock treatments and drugs of psychiatric institutions. And every single one of us carries scars.

And I know how easy it would be to put us all right back into the fifties, with the no-communication and the no-visibility and a relentless search that finds you only four others.

Close the bookshops and ban or burn the magazines and the books; prohibit the phone lines and the public advertising; close the clubs and the centers. Only now do I know that there was world-wide movement once before – the first wave of Lesbian and Gay Liberation smashed at its German center by the Nazis in 1938 and throughout the rest of occupied Europe from 1938 onward. It vanished with few traces; the first great Nazi book-burning in Berlin was of the Lesbian and Gay books, manuscripts, and records from an institute founded in the 1890s. I have heard Lesbian and Gay historians say that what was remarkable about the surviving copies of the last issues of the Lesbian and Gay magazines of the time is that were so unsuspecting. Their last issues wrote of next month’s dance, next issue’s feature. They were all closed down without warning. I look at Clause 28 in Britain and I wonder what new state treachery is in store for us.

My own search for the others began in the fifties, long after the Homocaust of Europe [sic]. As yet we know very little about the lives of earlier Lesbians in Aotearoa/New Zealand, either in the prewar period, or during the past thousand years since the migrations, or after the white invasion of the nineteenth century.

My search for others continues – back into our Lesbian past, in our present, and on into our future. Sometimes I find them, and when I do I am convinced more and more of our ability to survive against all odds, and to reemerge from our hiding places in even the worst of societies. To find the others we may need to redefine what we mean by Lesbian, what we mean by sex, and how we understand love. But the others are always there somewhere if you keep on looking.

—Alison Laurie,[i]

oral testimony circa 1989

 

 


 

 

 


[i] “A Kamp Girl’s Activism in Europe” Alison Laurie Coming Out: An Anthology of International Gay and Lesbian Writings [Stephen Likosky, Editor] (New York 1992), ps. 259-277. Originally published in Finding the Lesbians: Personal Accounts from Around the World [Julia Penelope / Sarah Valentine, Editors] (New York 1990)

https://archive.org/details/comingoutantholo00liko/page/258/mode/2up

 

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Copyright © 2021 AC Benus; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Here is the voice of an activist’s life. How I should like to have had the privilege of interviewing her. 

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What an awesome look into a long life of supporting and promoting the rights of lesbians. I liked the glimpse of Denmark.

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On 2/4/2022 at 2:10 PM, Parker Owens said:

Here is the voice of an activist’s life. How I should like to have had the privilege of interviewing her. 

Thank you, Parker. Reading Laurie's account is like reading the abstract for a filmscript. I truly love how under-emphasized things are presented: went driving in the park; stopped a couple to ask the time; moved in together the next week. Or, how about: packed the VW van in Denmark and drove to New Zealand (!!!) So many wonderfully, can't make this stuff up, moments. Her life does warrant a big-production film, imo :)

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On 2/7/2022 at 12:26 PM, Timothy M. said:

What an awesome look into a long life of supporting and promoting the rights of lesbians. I liked the glimpse of Denmark.

Thank you, @Timothy M.. I'm holding in my hands the December 1954 issue of One Magazine. Near the end, they provide a directory of Gay Rights organizations around the world, and Denmark, with an astounding four, has more than any other country listed :) And in a separate matrix, One is listed as having a whopping three subscribers in Denmark. Understanding the difficulties of sending anything "deviant" like Gay Rights material in the mail in 1954, international mail, no less, the number is a hopeful sign for things about to change    

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