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Radical Reading: When We Were Outlaws

Jeanne Córdova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws: a memoir of Love & Revolution, recently released from Spinsters Ink, fills an important gap in the existing first-person accounts of the history of gay and lesbian liberation, but suffers from an unfortunately inconsistent tone.  When students take up gay or lesbian history in the US, the starting point is often the Stonewall Riots.  The picture of gay and lesbian liberation has a decidedly East Coast slant, or it is told more generally in the context of national movements–homophiles, gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and so on.  Córdova’s strength is in the details she provides on the day-to-day life of lesbian activism in 1970s Los Angeles, centered around the strike against the Gay Community Services Center.  Her weakness lies in a tendency towards melodrama and an inflation of her own importance in the broader story.

The reason why accounts such as Martin Duberman’s Stonewall are so gripping and effective is that the narrator or the individual subjects of the story are portrayed as mere players in a bigger picture.  The power of those individuals in the narrative comes from how subtly their story is told.  Córdova has an amazing story–the details of the relationships between gay men and lesbians in LA at the time, the struggle between gay liberation and labor movements, and Córdova’s journalistic relationship with “her Nazi” are particularly interesting.  There is a good balance between broader themes and particularly interesting historical snapshots in the book.  Where it starts to come apart is Córdova’s tendency to drop into melodrama in describing her personal romantic relationships, non-monogamy in the movement, and her own role as an activist.  The dialogue doesn’t come alive, and whenever Córdova focuses directly on analyzing herself at the time or her role in the movement, the subtlety that helps a reader relate to a narrator is lost.  The dynamics of butch and femme in the 1970s LA lesbian community and the trend of non-monogamy are interesting, but the moralistic tone that weaves through the narrative will make it uncomfortable for some.

I would recommend this account for those who are particularly interested in first-person history of lesbian liberation on the West Coast, but with reservations.  A shorter, more tightly controlled narrative would be more effective in communicating this particular story.