The ‘Mother of Lesbian History’ Looks Back — and Forward
Lillian Faderman’s work has transformed our understanding of the LGBT community’s past.
Lillian Faderman is a mother and grandmother, but these aren’t the only titles that make her proud: The La Jolla resident is known, depending on who you talk to, as the “mother of lesbian history” or the “foremother of gay and lesbian studies.”
Over the past four decades, Faderman’s books have revealed the hidden history of female same-sex romance and uncovered how American lesbians pioneered social movements that transformed our society. She’s also written landmark books about gay rights, pioneering politician Harvey Milk and more. Three of her works have been named Notable Books by The New York Times, a remarkable accomplishment for any author.
Faderman, who turns 81 on Sunday at the tail end of San Diego’s Pride Week, isn’t done. She recently curated an exhibit about local LGBTQ+ history at the San Diego History Center, and she’s now finishing her work on an upcoming book. In an interview, she talked about her awakening as a Southern California teenager, the influential roles of lesbians in America’s past and San Diego’s surprising history as a vanguard of LGBT activism.
You write in your memoir about working as a pin-up model and burlesque dancer as a young woman. You also describe learning about the greater gay world as a teenager in Los Angeles in the 1950s. What was that like?
What I knew is that I had crushes on women. I didn’t know it was a thing, and it never occurred that being gay could be an identity. But that didn’t stop me.
I went to the library, found books on psychology, and looked up homosexuals. I read some terrible things. But then a gay friend said, “I want to take you to some places that I’ve discovered, where people hang out and are called gay.” I’d never heard the word “gay” before. So he took me to a couple of men’s bars, then he said there are girls’ bars like this too.
Then we went to the Open Door [an L.A. lesbian bar], and it was like an epiphany: I realized this could be a way to live, not just a neurosis like those books said. It was a way of life.
What led you to write about lesbian history?
I was an English professor, and I was very interested in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. There were some poems that just seem to me to be love poems written not to the “Master,” which most biographers talked about, but to another woman. They really seemed to me to be what I would have called lesbian poems. I wanted to find out more, and I discovered unexpurgated letters that were clearly passionate love letters.
That really started me on my search for what biographers cut out because they thought they were saving the reputation of their subjects. I worked all the way back from the 19th century to the 17th century and then all the way through to the 20th century. My book “Surpassing the Love of Men” [about the history of romance between women] came out in 1981, followed by “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America” in 1991.
How was life different for lesbians compared to gay men?
It was easier for lesbians to hide in various areas, because people didn’t want to think of the fact that two women could be sexual without the help of a man. There was even a term – “Boston marriage” – for two women who lived together. They were typically educated, middle-class, and with professions so they could be self-supporting. I don’t think most people who used the term dwelt on the sexual possibilities.
You discovered that lesbians were at the forefronts of major social movements such as women’s suffrage, social work and higher education for women. What did you learn about them?
I found wonderful letters by Susan B. Anthony who called Emily Gross [the Chicago wife of a rich businessman] “my lover.” I also discovered that heads of the major suffrage organizations, such as Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, had long-term domestic relationships with other women.
I also found a telegram that Jane Addams [the social work pioneer] had sent. She wired ahead to make sure that that on her travels, she and [companion] Mary Rozet Smith would have a double bed. It’s interesting that she wasn’t shy about doing this.
How did lesbians end up in these roles?
It just makes perfect sense that women who were not going to get married and not going to be supported by men became invested in the professions, in higher education and in suffrage.
Women’s colleges, for example, were often headed by women we would call lesbians because they had such an investment in improving the position of women. They knew that without higher education, they could not get into these jobs that had been closed to women before.
Let’s talk about San Diego. World War II played in bringing gay men and lesbians here, and many stayed. As I wrote a few years ago, a bestselling tell-all book sneered that “the fairy fleet has landed and taken over the nation’s most important naval base.”
The authors were disgusting, but what I love about “USA Confidential” is that it was a guide long before the days of the Internet. It alerted people who were gay and lesbians that if they go to San Diego, or New York or San Francisco or wherever, they would find a community. It was wonderful.
What makes our LGBT history here unique?
One way we stand apart is how early the gay movement really took fire here in so many incredible ways. We weren’t as early as New York or Los Angeles, but we were very, very early compared to the rest of the country.
For instance, the first Gay Liberation Front chapter was founded in New York shortly after Stonewall in 1969. The second was founded in Los Angeles just a couple of months later. Then, early on in 1970, a chapter was founded mostly by students at San Diego State, which also offered one of the first gay studies courses. At the same time, we had one of the first “gay-ins” in the country, and San Diego’s first pride march came early, in 1974. About 400 people marched in 1975.
And in 1974, an illegal police crackdown at a Mission Valley department store restroom united the gay community in protest.
The police were awful. But in the 1980s, Bob Burgreen, who was then the assistant chief, said the San Diego Police Department would not discriminate against gay and lesbian officers. Then he became police chief and led the San Diego police officers contingent in the pride march.
It’s very sad that police officers and sheriff’s deputies have been disinvited to march in pride parades. We worked so hard to make things better with law enforcement. I know that there are still lousy law enforcement officers who are still corrupt, who hate LGBTQ people and hassle trans people, but not those who want to march in our pride parades. This is just such a negation of the progress that we’ve made.
But having said that, I know that each new generation has to do it for themselves. The younger generation does not see through the same lens because they didn’t live through what I lived through.
What are you working on now?
A book called “Woman: The American History of an Idea,” which will come out in March 2022. It’s about the evolution of the idea of woman.
What’s next for you and your wife, Phyllis Irwin?
We’ve been fortunate. Nothing has slowed down. In October, Phyllis, who is 92, and I will have been together for 50 years. [They met as professors at Fresno State College, now Cal State Fresno.] She keeps me going. She’s a pianist, and she’s still giving public performances. She’s also writing a lesbian mystery, and a mystery we wrote together under a pseudonym is being re-released next April under our own names.
Have you thought about retiring?
No, why would I? I just find myself intensely interested in the world. I think I always have been, just intensely interested in discovering new ideas. But now it seems to be somehow even more passionate because I know that this doesn’t go on forever.