In the 70s, radical lesbians traveled the country in vans, looking for a lesbian paradise. Ariel Levy has a long and fascinating piece in this week's New Yorker on these "Van Dykes" and their history.
As Levy explains, the late seventies were a time of lesbian separatism in America, a time when it made sense to say, in the words of separatist publication The Furies, that lesbianism was "not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice which every woman must make if she is to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy." But for the Van Dykes it was both — they refused to speak to men except waiters and mechanics, believed the world was suffering from "testosterone poisoning," and tried to stop their vans only on Women's Land, "places owned by women where all women, and only women, were welcome." However, they were far from the "celibate 'political lesbianism'" of such activists as Barbara Lipschutz, who said women should "free the libido from the tyranny of orgasm-seeking. Sometimes hugging is nicer." Ex-Van Dyke Chris Fox says of her time with the group, "people were fucking their brains out."
The Van Dykes embraced sadomasochism — according to Levy, "it was permission to focus on what turned them on, rather than what was politically correct, a way of appropriating the lust and power hunger that feminist doctrine had deemed male." Their practice of S&M angered other feminists, who thought that "lesbians should permit themselves only those sexual interests that reflect superior female ideals" and that "whips and chains or dog collars in public space" would disturb those recovering from domestic or sexual violence. But for the Van Dykes, S&M was an expression of identity as well as desire. The group's de facto leader, Lamar Van Dyke, says,
I felt like I had been in trouble my whole life for being too big, too loud, too demanding, too bossy, too everything that I am. When I discovered this S&M thing, it was actually a place where people loved me for those things. It was very liberating and quite a treat.
Lamar Van Dyke is perhaps the most inspiring figure in Levy's piece. Now living in Seattle, Van Dyke works for an Internet-service provider, where she works and speaks with men. "But," says Levy,
she is still wild, a big pirate of a woman. Regardless of the different people of different genders she has chosen over the years as her comrades, Van Dyke's primary loyalty has always been to her own adventure. A woman in her sixties who has been resolutely doing as she pleases for as long as she can remember is not easy to come by, in movies or in books, or in life.
The political climate may have changed a great deal since the late seventies, but it's a sad sign of our times that a woman who does what she wants still seems like a radical.
Lesbian Nation [The New Yorker - abstract only]
[Illustration by Edward Koren via the New Yorker]