Imagining Lesbian Futures

A provocation by Julie R. Enszer

There has been a lot of handwringing lately about the fates of feminist media, about literary journals and their demise, and I’ve done some scolding of my own about the neglect of universities in sponsoring queer media.

When I started editing Sinister Wisdom, many women asked me curiously why on earth we still needed a lesbian literary journal. This response, combined with some women’s certainty that I did not have the staying power to work with the journal beyond a few issues, only steeled my resolve to build Sinister Wisdom. While the first few years of my editorship were about survival, since the 2016 election, the work of Sinister Wisdom has been about how to publish, promote, and sustain lesbian literature and art while building an organization that can endure.

Today, in 2024, Sinister Wisdom is two years away from its fiftieth anniversary. I have personally edited fifty issues of the journal, and I feel like I have the energy, ideas, passion, and commitment to edit fifty more.
What I am thinking about today is not the day-to-day sustainment of Sinister Wisdom, though that is important, but rather what are we going to do to build a lesbian institution that can serve generations of lesbians that we do not even know and will not even meet in our lifetimes? And, a related question is, why do lesbians and queer women need institutions that can last?
Let me answer the second question first. Lesbians and queer women need institutions that can last because the cycle of inventing and reinventing things anew generationally needs to end. Granted, every generation wants to invent and create according to their own vision, but those creations are better, more powerful, and more transformative if there are some foundational organizations already doing work.
Prior to editing Sinister Wisdom, I worked in the LGBTQ+ movement for twenty years. When I started, LGBTQ+ organizations were severely under-resourced; salaries were paltry and money to run programs was thin. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, that has changed. Yet despite the growth of organizations and the visionary gifts that people have made to support queer work, there are very few endowments supporting organizations long term—and hardly any supporting lesbian and queer women.
Why do endowments matter? Consider educational institutions. Public universities that have not built private endowments are subject to the whims and mores of the current moment—and of their elected legislature. In my home state, Florida, some academic programs face cuts because they explore ideas that state legislators find uncomfortable and objectionable. Without private money to support it, the state institutions are subject to the madness of an elected minority. Other public universities have more substantial endowments: consider my alma mater the University of Michigan. They can fund more student scholarships, faculty research, and events within the community because of an aggregation of donations over time. Then compare public universities to private ones with their large endowments (think Ivy League). More money doesn’t eliminate problems, but it does give people—faculty and students in particular—the time and space to pursue important ideas and projects that contribute to the well-being of everyone.
That is what lesbians and queer women need: time and space for ideas, projects, celebrations, reading, thinking, and creating.
Numerous vital lesbian projects have ended, often because of a lack of financial support, including the Mautner Project (a Washington, D.C., organization that addressed lesbian health issues) and Uncommon Legacy (a national lesbian philanthropic organization). A small number of lesbian organizations do an extraordinary amount of work, including Lesbian Connectionthe Curve Foundation, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Lesbian Political Action Committee (LPAC), Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP), the Astraea Foundation, Sinister Wisdom, and more. Nowhere is there a substantial endowment for the benefit of lesbians and queer women. We can do better in creating lesbian futures.

My vision is that over the next fifty years, Sinister Wisdom will build an endowment to support lesbian imagination in perpetuity. "In perpetuity" are magic words. It means that there is a pot of money that for as long as there are markets paying interest there will be revenue for the organization. What would that mean for Sinister Wisdom? Currently Sinister Wisdom has an operating budget of about $120,000. That covers publishing and printing five issues a year, organizing events, tabling at a few conferences, and some other miscellaneous expenses. We currently have no salaries and compensate people’s labor with modest honoraria. Sinister Wisdom needs to grow to offer paid positions for one or two lesbians doing work for the organization. That is one of the organizational challenges the board is working on as we approach and pass our fiftieth anniversary.
If Sinister Wisdom had an endowment of $5 million (yes, that is, from the perspective of a grassroots lesbian organization, a lot of money; from the perspective of a university, it is modest), every year the endowment could pay the organization $250,000. A core budget of $250,000 would support in today’s dollars the printing of five books each year and a full-time staff person with healthcare and other fringe benefits. That scenario is the minimum necessary for Sinister Wisdom to exist in perpetuity.
How do we get there? We build an endowment. Already visionary lesbians have left substantial gifts to Sinister Wisdom from their estates. Susan Levinkind and Elana Dykewomon both left bequests to Sinister Wisdom (and other lesbian organizations). We are working to build out cash reserve from some of these funds. I hope that more women will make similar gifts to Sinister Wisdom.
It is unlikely that we will build a $5 million dollar endowment with one gift. That endowment vision will be realized with multiple gifts over many years. Yet we must start somewhere. One day must be the first day for a Sinister Wisdom endowment. In the immediate future, Sinister Wisdom’s first fundraising committee is hard at work. (If you would like to join, email me!) We want to modestly grow our annual budget to be able to hire a half-time managing editor for Sinister Wisdom. And I have a gleam in my eye that if we had a managing editor we could grow our online publishing—I’d love to publish new lesbian work online every month and expand our online book coverage at Wild Shrew Literary Review.
Endowments have downsides, of course. Organizations face challenges with people and ideas that money cannot solve. Most often, though, lesbians and queer women’s organizations have faced challenges that money could solve. What if over the next hundred years we faced challenges in an economically rich context? What might happen for us all? We know the challenges of being starved for cash; we have navigated those for many years. Let’s try the other way of being in the world by building an endowment that will support and nurture lesbian writing, lesbian creativity, and lesbian imagination. What might happen to our sinister wisdoms if we funded them with radical hope and optimism about the future?

"Empowerment comes from ideas."

Gloria Anzaldúa

“And the metaphorical lenses we choose are crucial, having the power to magnify, create better focus, and correct our vision.”
― Charlene Carruthers

"Your silence will not protect you."

Audre Lorde

“It’s revolutionary to connect with love”
— Tourmaline

"Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught."

― Leslie Feinberg

“The problem with the use of language of Revolution without praxis is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. “
— Leila Raven