Two Queer Scholarly Books Distill Ideas About Dyke Networks

Cait McKinney, Jen Jack Gieseking, and I are queer feminist professors. We once identified as lesbians. Cait identifies as non-binary and uses she/her and they/them pronouns; Jen Jack is gender non-conforming and goes by he/him and they/them; I’m a queer lesbian Mom who uses she/her. We come from and make work and home in different feminist generations and cities, but we all do our work within, and also about, feminist, lesbian, queer, and lesbian-feminist communities and their technologies, processes, and places. In the past few months, during COVID, their books Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies (McKinney, Duke, University Press, 2020) and A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians Dykes, and Queers (Gieseking, NYU University Press, 2020) were released. I got mine, like so much else in these strange times, delivered to my house by the USPS. I also attended a lovely and loving online salute to the books on Zoom.

McKinney, Gieseking, and I are queer scholars committed to study and also to sharing what we learn with the communities in which we make home and work. For now, work, home, and digital technologies are almost one and the same. What if anything makes these queer or lesbian? These two important works explain the complex relations between lesbian lived and archived experience and place, the connections between the technologies and processes that queers use to make home and history.

In their complementary and sometimes inter-connected books, McKinney and Gieseking situate their research in historic and ongoing, lived and adapting communities of lesbians, dykes, lgbtq people, gender-non-conforming folks, trans-people, and those who choose the identity where Gieseking currently places themselves, among “other masculine or androgynous women and tgncp.” Both authors spend time with lesbians and queers in the places where we spend time: neighborhoods like Dyke Slope in Brooklyn; lesbian feminist archives like The Lesbian Herstory Archive, also in that neighborhood; lesbian bars like Duchess and feminist bookstores like Judith’s Room, both in Greenwich Village; lesbian-feminist hotlines like New York’s Lesbian Switchboard and Toronto’s Lesbian Phone Line from the 1970s; and Black Lives Matter protests, global, and ongoing.

Their books uncover, rely upon, and share the knowledges, practices, commitments, and ways of living and making change developed by a variety of feminist, lesbian, and queer communities, commencing in the 1970s and continuing until today. The places and technologies that lesbian-feminists made for themselves—and for us—are where these studies begin. Although both authors currently situate themselves within queer or gender nonbinary feminist identities and communities—personally as well as in their work—they establish how their positions developed from and are connected to lesbian-feminist technologies, places, and methods. They map out how feminists, lesbians, and queers responded to, altered, built from, and challenged lesbian-feminist frameworks.

I remember. I was a college student, budding feminist, and nascent queer/AIDS activist in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts in the early 1980s: lesbian-feminism’s heyday and epicenter. All around me and my lesbian and gay friends (I was straight), legions of slightly older, flannel-wearing, and much more principled and powerful women created a sexy, situated, stand-alone life-world in which my friends and I danced, volunteered at rape crisis centers, learned self-defense, listened to womyn’s music, cooked and ate from the Moosewood cookbook, fell in love and moved in, all the while imbibing enough of what we needed so that we could stage a successful days-long sit-in against our sexist college’s antiquated policies on date rape. When I graduated in 1986, I moved to New York City and joined ACT UP. We all did. There, different versions of these self-same lesbian-feminists were building their own activist life-worlds and communities in the city; caring for their dying gay male friends; teaching us non-violent resistance; educating us about feminist self-health and health activism; and providing an ethical, political, organizing logic that would empower AIDS activism then and that stays with me to this day, regardless of when I identify as a “lesbian” or a “queer.”

In the mid-’90s my then lesbian-partner Cheryl Dunye directed her first feature, The Watermelon Woman (1996), which I produced and acted in. Even then, I’m pretty sure that most of our rowdy, arty, activist posse of queers (of color) did not identify as lesbian-feminists, but we all had benefited from, and sometimes pushed against, the institutions and practices that we had inherited from them. In the film, we poke fun at these familiar and familial separatist scenes: in our loving send-up of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (what we called the CLIT: Center for Lesbian Information and Technology; a beloved institution where both McKinney and Gieseking spend time).

A good deal of academic writing can be dry, distanced, and difficult. But this is a tired trope, sort of like “Lesbians can’t be funny.” In this case, these books are steeped in the words, culture, vernacular, ephemera, and ways of interacting that have been refined by decades of lesbians, queers, and other feminists. The details are delightful. The writing is warm. Individuals and communities come to life on the page. Here’s Jackie, “building a world apart in her college apartment in the 80s” as recounted by Jen Jack:

There was also this endless stream of women because … our roommates were kind of experimenting with non-monogamy … it’s just this endless—but it was such a small community that you knew everyone. [group laughter] … It was this sort of feminist community. One of our roommates was then straight but I think now is a dyke. And another one was—he mostly had boyfriends … so it was just this really kind of Dykes to Watch Out For kind of scenario. [group laughter] … this multiracial, multisexed, multigendered environment. And … I really, I really loved that apartment.

And here’s a “long note, scrawled in the margins of a call log,” from the Feminist Hotline, found in their papers and reprinted by Cait:

Where is the schedule for women staffing phones? When are we moving to the ♀︎’s building? Who is working on this LSB [Lesbian Switchboard]? When are we going to have a Wednesday night meeting where ♀♀♀︎ [multiple women] come? ♀♀♀︎ who work our phones? Let’s call a meeting to pull our heads together. Our keys have been ripped off. There are obvious conflicts going on here that are being ignored—overlooked. Let’s talk—we’re good at asking for money—but are we good at asking each of other for support? Do we feel like a collective?

The books are chock full of these lesbian, feminist voices, shared in the form of quotes from research interviews or found in archival writing. The voices, histories, and projects included span different places and times and a significant range of people who self-select their own lesbian, queer, feminist identities. Like me. I’ve been straight, a lesbian, a lesbian Mom, and queer, over these decades. And these are my people! I chose the two quotes above because they feel familiar, resonant, and real, echoing voices and people I knew and cherish from my past (even when they were annoying!). Even if you’ve never been a lesbian or queer, I think you’ll find your own tribe, or at least its forebears. That’s a lot of the fun of these books: the range of registers, encounters, word choices, sex partners, that are described and held in the archives these authors mine, and the prose they use to engage these documents as us, their feminist readers. And then the harder part: from this primary place of lesbian or feminist recognition, there will be some learning to do—terms, concepts, theories. But critically, these too come from our communities.

I’ve always loved things that do what they study: that is, things about queers that are themselves queer. This is part of what I think is the staying power of our now “canon” contribution to the New Queer Cinema, The Watermelon Woman. Our film is about Black lesbian absence and also presence in archives, film, sex and relationships, and community; our film also is Black lesbian lack and presence in archives, film, sex and relationships, and community. 

In their book, Cait studies and talks to lesbian feminist “information activists,” “women who responded to their frustrated desire for information about lesbian history and lesbian life by generating information themselves.” Cait is and does what they study. “I consider documents, interviews, and observation pathways to tracing not only how social movement discourse is formed, what it says, and how and why it has meaning, but also what it does.”

In their book, Jen Jack locates and studies hard-to-find, and still harder to maintain, lesbian and queer spaces and places that were built and also lost over several decades in New York City, what they call “patterns of queering space constellations.” To find and understand these rare and valuable places, he creates a unique research method of “multi-generational group interviews, mental mapping exercises, artifact sharing exercises, and archival research” where “me and my queer body” were always in the midst and mix. “A nerdy, funny, able-bodied” gender non-binary, he explains: “while interested in the production of the city, I frame much of this book through the experience of participants’ bodies producing their spaces” … starting with his own!

Outside their involvement in and their being what they study, what is equally exciting and noteworthy to me is that both authors explain how when they study their particular scholarly subject (information activism; lesbian queer life in cities) this is held in a range of materials but also a set of processes. That is, Cait looks closely at lesbian technological infrastructures, borne from 1970s lesbian-feminism and invented before the digital, such as newsletters, telephone hotlines, and archives. Jen Jack studies the facts and figures of always-changing neighborhoods where lesbians made community and home, if temporarily and partially, by looking at census information, income, rent fluctuations, and racial demographics. To learn and share these histories, good academics that they are, they find and read ephemera: maps, data, records, reports. But then they interview the ephemera’s makers. And after that they do some of this work themselves, live some of this lesbian queer life, right alongside the lesbians and other queers who did and do this work of queer technology and community. Cait volunteers at the Lesbian Herstory Archive, taking on work that has demanded great risk from others so as to understand herself what it feels like to store and share information about sexuality and freedom for women and oppressed communities. And Jen Jack works within groups of lesbians who made the places of queer New York: thinking together about how assimilation, gentrification, gay, queer, and trans identities, racism and sexism, and ultimately capital shaped our cities, and the lives we make in them. “Largely lacking the financial or political capital to secure long-term places, lesbians’ and queers’ places are more scattered and visible only when you know where and when to look.”

I want to emphasize that the authors, often using other lesbians’ lively prose, do this research by taking up the very lesbian-feminist, and queer activist methods they study—what Gieseking calls “a rhetoric of potlucks and protest … dyke politics … dyke ethics.” That is: lesbian feminist ways of making a world, through places and technologies, that are community-based, collaborative, vulnerable, lacking capital and other sorts of support, and always just good enough. McKinney explains it this way: “Through imaginative, improvisational, careful work with information, lesbian feminist make a world, a movement, and a life lived in networks with others.”

So, yes, these books sit in academic fields (Media and Information Studies, and Geography, respectively). You will learn about information activism’s careful processes of storing, sorting, searching for, and retrieving lesbian-feminist knowledge and how that can save our lives. And you will learn about Gieseking’s theory of “constellations,” both a navigational practice and conceptual diagramming where lesbians imagine the routes between the important places in their lives at home in cities, from ACT UP, to The L Word, from the Chelsea Piers to STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries).

But as I celebrate and share what we can learn through these great books, I am left with a contradiction—itself developed in both of these studies—that has also defined a good deal of my own scholarship and art. Lesbian and queer work (and lives) take place, thrive, and also diminish in the archives, neighborhoods, bars, clubs, and streets that we choose, that we make for ourselves, but where we are also, again in turn, often stuck, isolated, under-resourced, made to move on…ghettoized. That is, no one but us wants to be there with us; no one but us wants to see or learn what we do and know; and these perimeters of disinterest and disdain are marked and maintained by invisibility, access to capital, and, often, violence.

Two examples. When Cheryl made The Watermelon Woman, and for most of the life of this beloved film, it was mostly known to and loved by only lesbians, queers, feminists, and our friends and allies, only African-Americans and their friend and allies, and only scholars and our friends and allies. But in the film, Cheryl makes bold, funny, artistic, and intellectual claims about “universal” issues like American film history, the logics of media and photographic archives, and who has access to telling the truth about our own experiences in American culture. The sudden interest of more diverse Americans in the art and experience of Black Americans, born from the summer of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, has brought all kinds of new people to the film; it recently was named one of “25 of the Best Black Comedy Films of All Time: From classics like Coming to America to newer hits like Dope,” in Men’s Health magazine.

Also, I’ve been making AIDS activist videos and writing since the 1980s. This work is known to and used by people within the broader, changing, and enduring “AIDS community.” But in that work, I have made larger claims about many things connected to but not exactly “about” AIDS—for instance, the role of community-made video in a broader media ecology. But believe me, almost no one outside of our AIDS communities attends to these contributions.

Drs. McKinney and Gieseking make important contributions to our understanding of networks, technologies, cybernetics, indexes, and geographies. As one herself, McKinney learns how volunteers at the Lesbian Herstory Archive in Brooklyn “challenge and enrich understandings of technological values such as access, usability, engagement, and preservation…Their work matters in how we understand digitization more broadly, because it offers alternative models in practice for improving technological accessibility, doing digitization ethically, and seeking justice in how data are created to represent marginalized communities.” McKinney learns about informational work that privileges privacy, consent, consensus, feelings, ethics, volunteer and poorly-paid labor, vulnerability, and loss. Scholars, activists, and archivists can learn from the lessons of lesbian-feminists and those who further their methods, ethics, and causes.

Through his theory of “constellations” of space, Gieseking expands understandings of geographic research by relying upon and synching the imagination, the body, space, and network theory: “a queer feminist geographical imagination of urban pasts, presents, and futures that dislodges lesbians and queers (sexual and “other”-wise) from the lgbtq fixation on neighborhood liberation…Constellations speak to how lesbians and queers make sense of the direction in life, their irregular temporalities, and the tropes and myths of their world-making…constellations reveal workarounds and tactics to work for social justice.”

Such workarounds to make spaces and communities where we can live are useful to all humans suffering the violence of gentrification, neoliberalism, unemployment, and illness. In 2020, we have much to learn from lesbian tactics. On the other hand, some of the particular resonance and beauty of these books is underwritten by processes and positions that are what they represent and that speak with words and signs that are only recognizable to us. One of these is a lesbian-feminist commitment to process and transparency.

And here’s the coolest part: our professor-authors are as personal, vulnerable, adaptive, and flexible as their lesbian subjects. As lesbian, queer, feminist scholars and people, could they take on this poignant and principled position, without fear or consequence, if their assumed audience was a broader scholarly readership? To speak to a judgmental, straight male professional Other was never the goal of the communities they study, nor is it for these authors, nor is it for me. That is why I have written this review for and as a queer lesbian feminist reader and to you.

McKinney and Geiseking take the risk of using the empowering tactics they study by eloquently mapping their own transitions, learning, and change within queer, lesbian history, politics, and identity formations. They dare to stay as transparent and vulnerable as those they interview and study, as well as those who will read them. “What was my relationship to ‘lesbian’ and ‘trans’ as a masculine, nonbinary person who is a kind of ‘lesbian,’ doesn’t feel like a ‘woman’ but does not register as ‘trans’ within many circles, either?” asks McKinney in their book. The answer is an archived visibility within community; just good enough; warm, funny, and recognizable to those who know how and want to look. “As I aged—as a white, six-foot masculine-presenting person of sizeable girth with a more sizeable personality—the prospect of being ‘invisible’ or fully acceptable was laughable to me,” answers Geiseking in theirs.

A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers
by Jen Jack Gieseking
New York University Press
Hardcover, 9781479835737, 336 pp.
September 2020

Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies
by Cait McKinney
Duke University Press
Hardcover, 9781478008286, 304 pp.
August 2020

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Two Queer Scholarly Books Distill Ideas About Dyke Networks