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Reflecting Back / Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations Editor Interview

Reflecting Back on Sinister Wisdom 101: Variations (2016) with Alexis Clements

Tell me about the issue of Sinister Wisdom that you edited. What were you most proud of in the issue? What was most challenging?

At the time that I was working on Variations, the Sinister Wisdom issue I edited (Sinister Wisdom 101), I was also working on a documentary film project titled All We’ve Got, which focuses on LGBTQ women’s spaces. I’m excited to report that the film will be premiering this fall, but when I started work on Variations, I was only about a year into the documentary. I was still conducting interviews and steeping myself in research about the history and present of LGBTQ women’s communities. I was also participating in two different such communities at the time, the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the WOW Café Theatre.

All of this had me asking big questions about what it means to create spaces tied to aspects of our identities and how we define those identities. Having spent about five years volunteering on and off at the Lesbian Herstory Archives at that point, and having had the privilege of participating in Flavia Rando’s Lesbian Lives class there, I also had developed a pretty rich sense of the layered complexity of lesbian identity. Not all people who identify as lesbian sleep only with women, for instance. Not all people who identity as lesbian identify as women. Differences in the labels people use to identify themselves vary in significant ways across race and ethnicity and class. I was also very well aware at that time that there were some lesbian-identified people who were trying to revise history and claim that there was only ever one way to be a lesbian, that all lesbians had somehow agreed about that, and anyone who deviated from that supposedly agreed upon identity should be kicked out.

Consensus around how to be a lesbian has never existed. From as early as the 1950s, there were women who felt forced to conform to butch/femme identities in lesbian spaces and there were those who felt rejected by others because they embraced butch/femme identities. There were people who were welcomed into organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis and those who were excluded. There were women who felt pressured in the 1970s to conform to certain ways of dressing and wearing their hair in order to fit into communities of politically active lesbians. There were the sex wars. There were intense conflicts wiithin lesbian communities about whether or not it was okay for lesbians to bcome mothers. There were ardent separatists and those who didn’t want anything to do with separatism. There are the longstanding challenges faced by women of color participating in majority white lesbian spaces. There are women who love women who wanted nothing to do with the term lesbian. There are people who think of bring a lesbian as something altogether different than being a woman. And there are the many attempts to limit trans lesbians’ participation in lesbian communities going back as far as the early 1970s, including threats of physical violence and even death lobbed by cis lesbians at trans lesbians, all in an attempt to limit lesbian identity to something that it never was.

There is no one way to be lesbian, there never has been. For me the rich complexity of lesbian identity is something to be celebrated and embraced, and it speaks the rich complexity of every identity.

This is a subject I obviously feel passionately about and am fascinated by. I, myself, feel both limited and confined by terms like lesbian, while at the same time I am energized and enriched by legacies of lesbians pushing against what it means to be a woman and also playing critical roles in driving political change in this country across the past century. Those contradictions are fraught and exciting. After all, there’s no good sex without friction. ;-)

All of that made working on this issue incredibly challenging and rewarding. It’s impossible to represent the full breadth of lesbian identity, let alone in a single issue of a journal. But the conversations I had in putting this volume together, including some difficult conversations, helped me, and, I hope, helped Sinister Wisdom and its community of readers to remember that the purpose of participating in community is not to seek out only those people we agree with in order to nod along in sameness, but to love one another enough to move through the inevitable conflicts we face and build a wider, ever-evolving community that can not only embrace but also instigate change.

I call myself a lesbian because I want to claim the political power attached to that word. I don’t embrace that identity to draw lines around who I fuck or how I represent my gender.

What impact do you think your issue had?

It’s very hard to get a sense of the impact the volume had. I know what conversations I was interested in, but with written text, it’s harder to know what conversations readers might have had after reading it.

That said, I can speak to what I did witness or experience, and that includes the launch event for the issue, which we held at Dixon Place here in New York City. It was an incredibly fun evening that represented a chance to connect some of the writing and ideas in the volume with actual people. It also represented an opportunity to build, at least for one night, the kind of broad and open lesbian community I aspire to be part of. I remain grateful to everyone who participated.

The other impact that I can speak to directly is the impact of the portrait on the cover.

It’s with sadness that I share the news that Janie Martinez, the woman depicted in Clarity Haynes’ gorgeous painting, passed away this summer. This was particularly sad news when thinking about the impact of that volume because more than any other comment, I heard from people about that portrait. People expressed such gratitude for it, such love and affirmation in seeing a reflection of aspects of their own bodies or those of their lovers.

After posting about Janie’s passing on social media, Clarity reminded me that Janie, a talented performer and an ardent activist, joined Clarity on stage at that launch event for a reading of texts from Clarity’s Breast Portrait Project (the series of paintings that includes Janie’s portrait). And it was from that reading that I got the sense of Janie’s incredible generosity and joyous spirit.

What also strikes me about that portrait, and was a big reason for wanting to include Clarity’s work in the volume, was the depth of the relationships that Clarity forms with many of her sitters, including Janie. While some people encountering her work on gallery walls may only ever know it as painting, the reality is that Clarity work is drawn from and directly engaging with questions of community, identity, and human connection. Her Breast Portrait Project has been ongoing for over 20 years now, engaging people at women’s music festivals, at community events, and in lengthy sessions in her studio. It confronts the complexities of who we are, how we’re perceived, how we are affirmed or not affirmed, our gender, our well-being, and so much more. And each painting represents an ongoing conversation and relationship with both her subjects and her audience. All of which is to say, I can take no credit for the impact of that portrait, but I can call attention to the fact that it very much had one, and for that I am deeply grateful to both Clarity and Janie.

What does Sinister Wisdom mean to you?

Sinister Wisdom is an access point for me, to a community of people that I have not been able to be in a room with, but whose work and ideas I get to sit down with and consider because this forum exists. It’s an access point to history. It’s an access point to things that make me uncomfortable and frustrate me - an integral part of all communities. And it is also a signal of Julie Enszer’s incredible determination, energy, and love in continuing the work of keeping this journal going and helping it to evolve and bring generations together.

Is there anything about the issue you edited that you would change now?

Of course I wish I could have made it a bit longer, but constraints are productive, and, in the end, I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to the volume. Although it was sometimes tough to juggle the work of putting together the volume with the film and my day job, the reality is that it was incredibly productive for me to work on this volume while thinking about the topics in the film. The volume became part the process, part of a long and ongoing conversation I feel engaged in, around identity and community, that has taken many forms, from the play I completed in 2012 titled Unknown (which will also have its world premiere this fall with the 20% Theater Company in Minneapolis), and now with the film. I suspect it is a conversation that will continue to come up in my work.

What lesbian literature or creative work has impacted you since working with Sinister Wisdom?

There’s too many to name, so I’ll just share the three most recent books I’ve read written by and/or about lesbians that impacted me:

"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

"Live your lives, honorably and with dignity."

Andrea Dworkin