Kelly Cogswell’s Memoir, Eating Fire

Cogswell, coverI recently finished Kelly Cogswell’s terrific memoir of lesbian feminist activism, Eating Fire, in which she narrates the history of the Lesbian Avengers.  The group was founded by, among others, Sarah Schulman and Ana Simo (Cogswell’s longtime partner), in the early 1990s, as a “direct-action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility” (p. 9).  The history of LGBT activism in the ‘90s is often told through ACT UP and Queer Nation, which makes Cogswell’s story of this lesbian-specific group particularly important and compelling.

Setting the stage for her story, Cogswell rehearses the incestuous dynamics of lesbian friendship circles, and the ways lovers and friends inevitably became collaborators in the political work that so many held dear.  Actions and issues overlapped.  The Avengers included women from the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, who demonstrated against the exclusion of queers from the St. Patrick’s Day March in Manhattan.  Some of the Avengers had also worked for the establishment of the Rainbow Curriculum, developed by the New York City Board of Education in a moment of forward-thinking, inclusive policy.  The lesbian feminists who comprised the Avengers also called attention to ubiquitous hate crimes against gays and lesbians, such as the harassment and eventual murder of Brian Mock (a white, gay, disabled man) and Hattie Mae Cohens (an African-American lesbian) by skinheads in Salem, Oregon.

Cogswell offers a thick description of the U.S. political moment at the time, and also describes the growth of the “official” LGBT movement in the ‘90s, which mostly abandoned radical street activism to work through existing political and social channels.  Although she doesn’t write a lot about ACT UP as the activist exemplar of the moment, and doesn’t dwell on the formation of, for only one example, the Human Rights Campaign, the similarities and differences between the lesbian direct action the Avengers represented and these other groups and organizations is clear.  She recalls Simo telling her how “before she helped start the Avengers she walked around like a ticking bomb, sick of being invisible, of how dykes blabbed in conference rooms while fags took to the streets” (p. 102).

Cogswell, head shot better
Kelly Cogswell

Cogswell spent some time as a graduate student in Performance Studies at New York University, working briefly for Women & Performance Journal, until it became clear the department’s orientation was too academic to accommodate the radical artistic and political commitments of a dyke like her.  She recalls the pre-gentrification East Village when it “really did seem like a small town, and my dyke friends lived just around the corner, dragging their politics and art into the street” (p.6), and the excitement and agony of figuring out where you fit in and where you stood out around the complexities of “belonging” across differences of ethnicity, race, and class, as well as sexuality.

Cogswell’s writing is astute and vital.  She recalls the events she describes in compelling detail, yet avoids the self-congratulatory accounting that sometimes mars memoirs like these.  Instead, she sorts out the good and the bad, always considering how difficult it was for political action groups to do everything “right” by one another as they tried to change a society that barely acknowledged them at all.  Cogswell’s memoir is full of honest ambivalence about how the Avengers operated, what their work meant, and the effect it had on the politics of its day and on generations of future feminist and LGBTQ activists.

Eating Fire appears in tandem with other histories of LGBTQ activism.  Director David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague (2012) was positively reviewed and much discussed, and Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard’s documentary, United in Anger:  A History of Act Up (2012), also circulated recently.  Reading Cogswell’s book, with its emphasis on lesbian activism, reminds me of the grassroots action campaigns in addition to ACT UP that were so much a part of feminist and LGBT and queer organizing in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.  While the kinds of street activism for which the Avengers were known continues to happen globally, the direct, embodied action the Avengers employed has been largely replaced by Internet petitions circulated by and other groups, and by Kickstarter and GoFundMe campaigns for various causes.

How to Survive a Plague

The world has changed since the era Cogswell remembers here, but perhaps not in the ways the Avengers hoped.  They weren’t, after all, campaigning for same-sex marriage; they were attacking the media, corporations, and politicians for their bigotry, their racism, their sexism, and their homophobia, advancing an intersectional analysis that underlined the necessity for structural change.  Cogswell remembers with pride when actions attracted crowds or media attention, or when the people who turned up for organizing meetings actually put their bodies on the line and appeared on the streets.  She also remembers the interpersonal and ideological divides among the Avengers’ activists, along with the internal squabbling and chastisements that often made it difficult to commit to their common work.  And she writes thoughtfully about how the Avengers fractured over racism, bisexuality, and what often felt like competing claims for ideological or identitarian primacy on a micro level while American society continued business as usual on the macro.

Cogswell writes with clarity about this complicated political, feminist, lesbian history.  She uses “lesbian feminist” unapologetically here, as the Lesbian Avengers and so many other activist groups and individuals did at the time.  I miss standing under the banner of that identity.  “Lesbian feminist” has fallen out of vogue on university campuses and in activist communities, as criticisms or hesitations about the meaning of “feminism” make it an often overlooked locution, and as some find “lesbian” too confining and specifically female, when “trans*” or “genderqueer” allows a more capacious performance of identity and set of political commitments.

Cogswell, lesbian feminism
A history of lesbian feminist activism

Reading Eating Fire reminds me that those of us who came of age in the mid-‘70s to ‘80s as proud lesbian feminists held politics that were often inchoate, but full of righteous anger and keen intellectual understandings of interlocking oppression.  The concept of intersectionality that’s recently been re-popularized in LGBT, queer, feminist, and gender and sexuality studies was first theorized by Kimberle Crenshaw and Teresa de Lauretis—in different forms and venues—in the ‘80s.

Cogswell’s narrative demonstrates the difficulties of truly working intersectionally.  Ana Simo, her partner then and now, is a Cuban lesbian, and as a white working-class woman from Kentucky, Cogswell often found herself in political contexts in which she or Simo were singular in terms of race or class.  As her stories demonstrate, it wasn’t easy to form coalitions across multiple identity vectors, or to juggle the competing claims of identities that crisscrossed your own skin.

Jennifer Miller, of Circus Amok, with fire wands
Jennifer Miller, of Circus Amok, with fire wands

The book’s title, Eating Fire, comes from the group’s signature act, when Lesbian Avengers at actions lit wands of fire that they extinguished in their mouths.  The idea was suggested by dancer/choreographer Jennifer Monson, who had friends in alternative circuses like Circus Amok, which Jennifer Miller (the “bearded lady”), directed.  Miller showed them how to dunk a bit of rag wrapped around a coat hanger in lighter fluid or kerosene, then “tilt your head back so the approaching flame doesn’t burn off your nose or hair and insert it into your mouth as you exhale slightly.  Close your lips, it’s extinguished.  Make a mistake and inhale—your lungs explode and you die” (p. 22).  Cogswell’s description of what would happen if they performed this fire-eating wrong underlines the real as well as the metaphorical risks these women took to make themselves visible in public political discourse.

As I read, I wondered what my students in gender and sexuality studies would have to say about Cogswell’s experiences.  In a feminism and popular culture course I taught a couple of years ago, I asked students how many of them had ever been to a political demonstration or a protest march.  One or two raised their hands.  But our subsequent class conversation made me wonder whether marching and demonstrating remains the best way to agitate for political change, whether gathering masses of bodies in one place at one time is a gesture whose moment has passed.  Marching and demonstrating was the sine qua non of my own generation’s activism, but perhaps not for my students’.

Cogswell, 1979 MarchI wonder, though, without those gestures, how we feel ourselves part of a movement for social change.  How does political activism in social media change the experience of being there, and feeling yourself part of a collection of people who hold the same beliefs?  How do we feel and see righteous political anger differently online than in real time and space?  Or am I just romanticizing presence and face-to-face interaction?

My first political march was in 1979, when I drove in a truck with my housemates from Boston to Washington to participate in the national march for lesbian and gay rights.  We took turns riding in the truck bed (which happily, had a cap, since it was October and already cold), and when we arrived in DC, we parked and walked, joining those crowds of happy, brave demonstrators determined to make ourselves seen and heard.  We didn’t know what we were doing; we just joined the throngs of people on DC’s streets and on the Mall, and moved together toward the rally.  Visibility had costs; I wasn’t yet out to my parents, and froze every time I saw a news camera pointed in my direction.  The stakes of our presence felt high, but seeing one another as a mass of strangers with whom we tacitly had something in common was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.

Praxis Axis demonstration, May 2014, in front of Princeton's Frist Student Union
Praxis Axis demonstration, May 2014, in front of Princeton’s Frist Student Union

I want my students to feel those transformative emotions, but at the same time, I realize they might find their affective and political pleasures elsewhere.  Last year, on Princeton’s campus, students from sociologist Tey Meadow’s course, “Queer Citizenship:  Merging Theory and Activism,” sponsored by our Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, staged a demonstration as a group they called Praxis Axis, in which they sat on the steps of the student union (the Frist student union, at that), wearing masks and holding themselves silent as a loop of their demands and university administrators’ responses to sexual assault and mental health policies on campus played on tape.  Another group, also inspired by a class, this one in art-making and graphic display called “Art as Interaction,” put up a three-fold white wall in a similar campus location, inviting people to write down their thoughts, experiences, and observations, especially about things that trouble them.  The action was called “What Will You Bring to the Surface?”  Many posted remarks were critical of campus politics; others were critical of the critics.  But if nothing else, the comment wall and the masked students at Frist called public attention to embodied political discourse, activist gestures on a campus where people presume students are conservative at best or apathetic at worst (a stereotype I haven’t found true).  The reclamation of public space for protest and politically critical discourse reminded me, in however small a way, of the visually-oriented and performative style of the Lesbian Avengers’ campaigns.

People milling about "The Surface" on Princeton's campus, April 2014
People milling about “The Surface” on Princeton’s campus, April 2014

In fact, I appreciate Cogswell’s sage comments about visibility.  She writes,

For a while now, people have also been rolling their eyes a little at the goal of visibility.  Like the idea is passé.  . . .  I always thought about visibility as a jumping-off place, a precondition for having a voice.  Because if you aren’t visible in culture or in politics, or even on the streets, how can you demand anything or participate like a grown-up in the ongoing narrative of your country?  We could disappear and who’d know we’d been gone? . . . Visibility isn’t change itself, but a kind of wedge others can follow.  (p. 231)

Cogswell is refreshingly ecumenical about where and how we find visibility.  She remembers she and Ana gathering at a bar to watch Ellen DeGeneres’s character Ellen Morgan come out on television in ’97.  She recalls, “[W]hen the ultrafamous Oprah Winfrey, playing Ellen’s shrink, said, ‘Good for you.  You’re gay,’ the whole house came down.  It was like we’d finally gotten our green cards, been admitted to the Union, even if only until the next commercial break” (p. 144).  At the same time, she remembers late ‘90s tragedies like the murders of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, TX, and Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, WY, balancing gains in popular representation with the reality of LGBT lives lost.

We need to hear more stories like Cogswell’s, to remind contemporary feminist queer, trans*, and LGBTQI people that political strategies have a genealogy, a history of successes and failures worth learning from and recalling as we retool our tactics for the future.  (Cosgwell notes wryly that when she spoke about the Avengers recently, an archivist asked for her papers, which made her feel like she should “be in the Natural History Museum. . . . it was like proof I really was a fossil, a street activist in the age of the Internet” (p.230).

Cogswell’s book is fascinating, insightful, and moving, as she doesn’t hesitate to mix the personal and the political, a skill lesbian feminists always found worth honing.  I have a feeling it might be worth learning again, as lesbian feminist queer trans* activists, artists, and writers continue our struggle for social justice for all.

The Feminist Spectator

Eating Fire:  My Life as a Lesbian Avenger, by Kelly Cogswell, University of Minnesota Press, 2014.  $19.95 paperback.

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