My favorite decade of my life so far, the 1970s exposed me to a wider world, grounded me in who I was, and set me on a path to be the person I am today.
If I had to name my favorite decade of my life so far, it would be the 1970s. I finished high school and college, held my first professional job, and began graduate school during a time of political and social upheaval in this country and the world. The Vietnam War ended, US President Nixon was ousted, and feminism and gay rights found their footing.
I graduated high school in 1973 after two years at the all-girls boarding school, St. Joseph Academy, run by the Adrian Dominicans (the same order as my Aunt Millie) and on the campus of their motherhouse in Adrian, Michigan. I thrived in an all-girls environment, was elected senior class president, and graduated salutatorian. It’s also where one of the good Sisters outed me to my mother, reporting to her that I was involved in “an unsavory relationship with another girl.” My mother did not take it well and later claimed the decision to let me leave home at 16 and go to St. Joe’s was the worse decision she had ever made. On the contrary, it was the best decision I ever made, shaping the rest of my life in so many ways.
The year I had my first lesbian relationship was the same year the American Psychiatric Association eliminated homosexuality as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Although lesbians, gays, and other sexual and gender minorities faced open and aggressive discrimination in the 1970s, even within the “women’s liberation” movement, we also found each other through the growing gay press, lesbian-identified bars, and the nascent womyn’s music scene. I have to wonder if these cultural safety zones might see a resurgence in today’s era of book-banning, “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, attacks on transgender people, and threats to same-sex marriage.
In 1977, I attended the National Drug Abuse Conference in San Francisco. Not only was it my first professional conference (I worked for a state substance abuse agency who sent me to the conference), first time in San Francisco, and first view of the Pacific Ocean, it was my first immersion into gay culture. After feeding my love child fantasies by standing at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, I raced on to dip into gay life San-Francisco style. On Valencia Street, the center of lesbian life in the city, I spent several hours pouring over the shelves at Old Wives Tales Women’s Bookstore. Never had I seen so many books by women, about women. By the time I had completed my tenth (or twentieth) revolution around the store, I had drawn half of the books off the shelves for further examination. I pulled myself away from the bookstore in time to enjoy a late lunch at Artemis Café, a women-only restaurant down the street, then strode on to the center of gay life, Castro Street. There, for the first time in my life, I saw openly affectionate gay men romping down the sidewalk, window shopping at stores selling gay sex toys and paraphernalia, and opening flirting with each other. The scene was beyond my still-limited imagination, but I drank it in as deeply as I could.
As darkness approached, I circled back to Valencia Street for an evening at a women’s dance bar called Amelia’s. Although not much of a dancer, it only took me a few drinks to find myself bumping and hustling with an honest-to-goodness, stoned-out-of-her-mind San Francisco lesbian. Fortunately, I had the good sense to grab a cab back to my Union Square hotel before she succeeded in undressing me right on the dance floor.
Of all the travel I had already done in my life, that trip to San Francisco, and two more that followed in subsequent years, let me explore this culture I had started to claim as my own. The assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, devastated me. It was one of his speeches that called me to accountability over my elongated coming out process.
Milk spoke of the American ideal of equality, proclaiming, “Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets… We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.” Heeding his call, I attended the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979, a march inspired by Milk’s death.
In San Francisco, I had found my people, and even more importantly, legitimacy and acceptance like nothing I had felt before. Closer to home, the 1970s taught me who I was, and although I still struggled with personal acceptance, my life finally made sense.
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