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The lesbians’ vengeance | Yael Schechner (2021)


At the New York City Pride in June 1992, six longtime lesbian activists handed out some 8,000 pamphlets in neon green, which read:

"Lesbians, Dykes, Gay Women – We want revenge and we want it now […] if you don’t want to take it anymore and are ready to strike, call us now […] What have you got to lose?"

(Schulman, 1994, 279)

by Carolina Kroon, 1993

That was the invitation for the first meeting of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct action group founded in New York that same year, seeking to bring lesbian struggles and narratives to the fore. The group’s stated goal was to focus on issues concerning lesbian survival and visibility, and the founders, who had previous experience in political activism, effectively established the group’s objectives as a fait accompli before opening it up for more women to join. Its first meeting was attended by dozens of women of diverse age groups and ethnic backgrounds: The members’ ages ranged from 20 to 50, and they came from a variety of backgrounds, including Black and Latinx lesbians.

Having assumed major roles in campaigns identified with gay men (HIV/AIDS) and heterosexual women (abortion rights), they felt they had had enough of their distinct needs and problems not being recognized, leading to the decision to start a new action group dealing specifically with lesbian issues. They sought to create a new lesbian identity that was fearless, impolite, not ashamed to demand what they deserve. Very early on in the group’s activity, strong emphasis was put on militant imagery. The choice of name was inspired by British action TV series “The Avengers” (Walsh, 2004, 8); the group’s logo featured a bomb with a burning fuse, and a lot of its promotional material showed women wielding weapons.

The group employed target-oriented theatrical and artistic tactics in its activity: Group members were physically present in the public space to carry out their actions, in a direct, unmediated manner, and in most cases while deliberately disturbing the order and the rules of that space. Their actions often had been an immediate response to a specific situation, rather than part of a long-term strategy. This has come to be known as “zap,” a form of direct action committed by a relatively small group of people with a specific goal.

The first action the group opted for was discussed as early as its first meeting. It would be a demonstration in front of a conservative school in Queens, planned for the first day of school, later that summer. What sparked the initiative were reactions to a decision by the school’s district administrator to remove a New York City Board of Education curriculum, called “Children of the Rainbow.” The program dealt with multiculturalism, and a tiny segment of the chapter dealing with families included references to gay men and lesbian women. A relentless homophobic campaign by the city’s conservative right found a target in this content, and brought to the curriculum’s removal (Rand, 2003, 121. Walsh, 12). The district board’s president dubbed the curriculum “dangerously misleading lesbian/homosexual propaganda,” perpetrating “as big a lie as any concocted by Hitler or Stalin” (Lee Myers, 1992).

On the first day of school that year at 7 a.m., more than 60 members of the group showed up at Queen’s Middle Village neighborhood, wearing shirts that read, “I was a lesbian child.” They marched down the main street with a band playing what they called “lesbian polka” (lyrics made up by the group’s members to the tunes of traditional songs), holding a banner: “Teach about lesbians.” They stood at the entrance to the school, handing out to students hundreds of lavender balloons, which had text on them:

"Ask about lesbian lives".

Many parents didn’t seem to take notice of the balloons their children were given, but some ordered their kids to let them go. These parents then had to explain to their sobbing child, “Why?” Their objection played into the hands of the activists who asked children to ask their parents “about lesbian lives.” Despite hostile reactions from the police and some local residents, the action was a success: Any child going into school that morning heard the word “lesbian,” perhaps for the first time, and educational staff had to talk to the children about lesbians, despite the restrictions imposed by the school district.

The Lesbian Avengers’ politics didn’t come out of anywhere; they were standing on the shoulders of giants. Theories of lesbian feminism and lesbian movements that preceded the group’s establishment clearly reverberate through its activity. One of the first lesbian groups that saw lesbianism as a feminist strategy was the Lavender Menace [1], a pioneering protest group for the lesbian-feminist movement. Its most well-known action was spreading a pamphlet at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City on May 1, 1970. This document, “The Radicalesbian Manifesto,” was one of the first to identify lesbianism as a feminist political practice; the group’s members did not view their lesbianism as a mere sexual tendency, but rather a revolutionary political identity. Lesbianism isn’t a threat for feminism, but a direct progression from it: Being a lesbian means first and foremost being committed to fighting the patriarchy and identifying with other women, instead of men. The opening words of this manifesto already show similarities in rhetoric between the Lavender Menace and the Lesbian Avengers: “What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion” (Radicalesbians, 1970, 112). The written material the Avengers left behind also features rage and anger as prominent motifs, as is the example with an interview with one of the founders, where she spoke about the motivation to start the group:

"Because I'm a lesbian I'm angry all the time, so in order not to be angry I'm an Avenger".

(Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too)

by Carolina Kroon

Many of the key issues mentioned in the Radicalesbians’ manifesto are be the ones the Avengers would be occupied with, primarily (in)visibility: The Radicalesbians argued that “To be a woman who belongs to no man is to be invisible” (ibid, 116), and the Avengers’ stated goal was to work on lesbian visibility and survival. A decade after the Radicalesbian Manifesto, an essay by Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” is published, laying down another milestone in lesbian-feminist theory. In her essay, Rich coined the term “lesbian existence,” which would appear at great length in the Lesbian Avengers’ rhetoric. Much like the Radicalesbians, Rich saw lesbianism as a revolutionary identity: “Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life [...] We may first begin to perceive it as a form of nay-saying to patriarchy, an act or resistance” (Rich, 1980, 649).

Apart from early lesbian feminism, another issue that fundamentally influenced the Lesbian Avengers was the HIV/AIDS crisis, and particularly the activity of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a direct action group operating in New York starting in the late 1980s. They were directly linked: Most of the founding Avengers had been longtime activists with ACT UP, and for the best part of the ‘90s had been members of both organizations. HIV/AIDS advocacy work gave the founders rich experience in political organizing; there, they were inspired to implement the same strategies for lesbian issues, too. The founders wanted to form a group that would appeal directly to positions of power, just like they learned from their years of experience with ACT UP. As Sarah Schulman put it:

"One of the greatest gifts I have received from ACT UP, and there are many, has been from men's higher sense of entitlement. They have always been told that they are important, and so they expect a higher level of response. In the women's movements, while we have challenged every power institution in the culture, we were unable to directly address them."

(Schulman. 216)

Ann Northrop, one of the group’s founders, describes constructive reciprocity between different movements:

"One thing I like to say about ACT UP when people say, "What were you doing there in a room of predominantly men?" And I say it was one of the only rooms of men that I could walk into where the men were asking the women for instruction and help and asking actively to be taught feminist values. It was really a room full of love and mutual respect for many years. And that was thrilling."

Their involvement with ACT UP inspired the founding Avengers to pick direct action as a key strategy. But this wasn’t a choice made out of inertia or the force of habit. First, the practice of direct action informed the group’s internal organizational structure; the founders believed direct action is the only way to create an inclusive, open, non-hierarchical and democratic organization that encourages individual participation (Walsh, 17). In this form of action there is no mediator, and whoever proposes an idea would also be the one to execute it. Direct action allows for an alternative, anarchic organizational structure, without any named positions. The group’s democracy was not representative: Each member had an equal voice, and each had the power to set the agenda. Furthermore, direct action, which was often carried out without permits or against the law, suited very well the image the group’s members wanted to convey to the general public; it fulfilled their wish to be seen as threatening, unexpected, shameless and without any boundaries. Their manifesto opens with these words:

"We'll be your dream and their nightmare […] We want your house, your job, your frequent flyers miles. We will sell your jewelry to subsidize our movement."

(שם, 295)

"A group totally focused on high-impact street activism, not on talking"[2]

What direct action effectively does is disturb the order, by invading or occupying a specific public space in a way that goes against what is expected of people in that space. This tactic was a clear expression of the Avengers’ mistrust in state institutions and their aim to dismantle the existing order along with its social constructs. They didn’t ask to take responsibility over certain institutions and reform them, based on the assumption that the establishment was homophobic in its essence. Therefore, there is no use in trying to “fix” it. This strategy, then, undermines liberal democracy and its boundaries.

The Avengers wouldn’t join the game of so-called polite politics: They didn’t go for petitions, representatives and reforms, but rather exerted direct force. When the Queens school district chief removed content that deals with lesbianism from the curriculum, they didn’t turn to any official asking to reinstate it, but simply waited for students at the entrance to the school. In their Dyke Manifesto, published in 1993, the group’s members clearly state their attitudes towards seeking reforms:

"The are many ideas in the lesbian community about what kind of strategies to employ – electoral and legal reform, therapy groups, social services. These are all valid strategies, but they are not the strategies of the Avengers […] We don’t have patience for polite politics."

(Schulman, 290)

They were fundamentally against public and political activity that goes “by the rules” of liberal democracy, seeing such activity as an expression of a choice to collaborate with the establishment and the existing social constructs. Only direct action that would cross the boundaries of “decent politics” was a possibility for them. Following on from their refusal to partake in establishment politics, the Avengers spoke out against the liberal right's rhetoric, which doesn’t seek to revolutionize the existing system, but rather expand it to include more people. Sara Schulman detailed the issues she thinks are not on the lesbian agenda: “We have been told that lesbian issues are only custody, artificial insemination, adoption and gay marriage. Well, I disagree” (ibid, 217).

"We have been told that lesbian issues are only custody, Artificial insemination, adoption and gay marriage. Well, I disagree."

(שם, 217)

Their opposition to liberal democracy was also evident in their view of the public space. Their activity always included local, direct intervention in the public space, and in locations with potential for exposure. The prevalent notion of the public space is closely tied together with what is socially acceptable as “private,” which is not in the public sphere. When the Queen's district chief removed the “Rainbow” curriculum, she did so arguing homosexuality was a private issue that must not be discussed at a public institution, namely school (Schulman, 281). The liberal rhetoric underscores the right to privacy, so far as to maintain that right even if an individual doesn’t seek it. In her essay, “Epistemology of the Closet,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes the privacy endowed to a closeted person as “very equivocal” (Sedgwick, 1990, 71). In some cases, people are being pushed back into the closet in the name of privacy, and in a bid to hide or conceal homosexuality in the public eye and maintain a seemingly heterosexual public space.

The Lesbian Avengers would not cooperate with pushing sexuality over into the private space. Their aim was to take to the streets what had been seen as an individual’s “personal issue,” their homosexuality. That way they sought to undermine the heterosexualizaion of the public space. A group of women claiming ownership, albeit temporary, of the public space, came as a surprise to law enforcement, who often had no actual plan to handle or respond to their action. Rachel Shearer, one of the group’s members, described that in an interview:

"Nobody seems to know what to do with us, nobody is used to having a group of angry lesbians descend upon them. It's amazing what we can get away with".

(Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too)

The Lesbian Avengers, therefore, carried out many actions with the purpose of giving lesbianism presence in places it had been invisible in. On Valentine’s Day Eve in 1993, for example, they held a “skate-in,” drawing from the US civil rights movement’s sit-ins, where a person or a group of people “occupy” a place as a form of protest. The group’s members held hands and kissed as they were ice skating at the Rockefeller Center. A day later, on Valentine’s, they had lesbian waltz at Bryant Park (Rand, 123) and gave out Hershey’s Kisses at Grand Central Station, with a note that read:

"You've just been kissed by a lesbian"

by Saskia Scheffer. skate in

The group’s members not only sought to make lesbianism present in the public space and in everyday life, but in history, too. That same Valentine’s Day in 1993, they unveiled a statue they created in the image of Alice B. Toklas, placing it in Bryant Park, alongside that of Gertrude Stein. They called the inauguration of the statue “Politically Incorrect Domestic Bliss” (Schulman, 305). Maxine Wolfe, one of the group’s founders, gave the opening remarks:

"On behalf of the Lesbian Avengers, I'd like to welcome you all to the unveiling and instillation of our Alice B. Toklas statue, to be placed next to the statue of Gertrude Stein, her lover […] We decided to use Valentine's Day, a day when heterosexual love reigns supreme, to make visible the face of lesbian existence and lesbian love."

(Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too)

Stein’s statue, which was installed there just months prior, was one of the handful in New York City of a woman. Stein, an author, poet and leader of a literary salon, was culturally recognized in her lifetime, but her sexual identity had usually been blurred. Toklas, who was Stein’s partner for 39 years, is often described in biographies of her partner using the cautious, non-binding “companion” (Schulman, 72).

Placing Toklas next to Stein, the Avengers sought to bring lesbian existence back into history. Coined by Adrienne Rich, she believed lesbian existence had been deliberately erased from history to aggressively lead women to heterosexuality: “The destruction of records and memorabilia and letters documenting the realities of lesbian existence must be taken very seriously as a means of keeping heterosexuality compulsory for women” (Rich, 649). The Avengers heeded Rich’s call to bring lesbianism back to history, refusing to cooperate with the omission and erasure of Stein’s sexual identity. They reunited the couple on Valentine’s Day, so as not to leave any room for doubt as to the nature of their relationship, as “lesbian existence suggests both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence” (ibid, 648).

"Homophobia is out there, we might as well play with it a little bit"[3]

by Saskia Scheffer

A particularly interesting characteristic of the group was their attitudes towards the homophobic rhetoric of the time. The Avengers realized that, like theorist David Halperin later claimed, the homophobic discourse cannot be won over with rational arguments, as it is founded upon logical fallacies (Haleprin, 46). Halperin argues that opposing homophobic rhetoric can come from the marginalized, contrarian position the discourse itself forces upon the oppressed group. Therefore, the most effective way to counter homophobia is “creative appropriation and resignification” (ibid, 48), which is appropriating homophobic phrases or images in a way that ridicules them, turning homophobic rhetoric on its head.

The Lesbian Avengers acknowledged homophobia and didn’t try to fight it with tolerance and acceptance. They used homophobia to resist it, using their position in the margins to ridicule homophobic rhetoric and use it against the homophobes. A key tactic they used was defiantly adopting negative stereotypes: Instead of shaking them off, the group’s members wore these stereotypes with pride, preemptively neutralizing any potential negative comments. One of the group’s founders, Anne-christine d’Adesky, spoke about it in an interview:

"We were quite willing to embrace the stereotypes… They call us child molesters and our response is to say, yeah, we recruit.".

(Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too)

That is, embracing stereotypes brings with it the prospect of confronting the audience with their own homophobia. Hostile reactions by the audience were an inseparable part of the pre-planning of any of the group’s actions, and not only were they taken into consideration, but made full use of. Another example of reversing the homophobic discourse can be found in what had become the Lesbian Avengers’ most well-known trademark: eating fire. It started on October 31, 1992, at a demonstration held by the Avengers in protest of a hate crime in Salem, Oregon, where a lesbian woman and a gay man were burnt to death in their home. Their way of dealing with such violent homophobia, in the form of arson, was to physically eat up the murderous fire. During that protest, one of the group’s members spoke:

"We take the fire of action into our hearts, into our bodies […] Their fire will not consume us, we take that fire and we make it our own"

(Rand, 123)

by Kelly Cogswell

The act of eating fire is meant to symbolize a refusal to surrender to violence. The group’s members sought to use the same thing that was used for violence, but this time for non-violent opposition to it.

The Lesbian Avengers were most active in 1992-1994, and the group finally disbanded in 1996. The most prominent legacy they left behind is Dyke March, a Pride event for LBTQ+ women, held every year on Pride Eve. It was first held on April 24, 1993, the day before the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. It was one of the largest demonstrations against LGBTQ+ discrimination the United States had ever seen, and much like many Pride events of our time, controlled by men. In reaction, the Avengers called on women to take to the streets of Washington a day earlier, without a protest permit. More than 20,000 women from across the country came to DC’s Dyke March. A year later, without any coordination, similar marches were held in many cities across the United States. Even earlier, in June 1993, the group’s members organized New York City’s first Dyke March.

by kelly sansculotte

The Dyke March is still held annually in many cities a day before the main Pride march. Keeping true to its Lesbian Avengers roots, the New York march has been running for three decades without any permits from either the city of the police, and any corporate sponsorship or merchandise is banned. In the reality of established, commercialized Pride events, it seems almost unimaginable.

The Lesbian Avengers also left a significant mark on the history of queer and lesbian feminism. Together with the groups, they emerged from, they had redefined the LGBTQ+ rights movement, its agenda, and forms of action. They were clever enough to seize the potential in their marginalized position, constantly reinventing new ways to not play by the rules.

In her essay reviewing the work of the Black Laundry action group, Amalia Ziv argues that political activism has a distinct identity role (Ziv, 315). Following on from Ziv, it may be argued that despite being an organization with clear political objectives, the group was also an expression of identity for its members. The Lesbian Avengers, as a social group, let its members show their self-identity, which had been silenced their entire lives, while constantly confronting homophobia and homophobes.

"There's an enormous amount of power in walking into a room and scaring the shit out of very powerful people."

(Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too)

Yael Schechner
photo: Omri Goldzak

Yael Schechner

Director Of Curriculum And Instruction at Her Academy, a vocational school for women transitioning out of sex work and abuse. Holds a B.A. in History and Gender Studies from Tel Aviv University.


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, 1990.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 4, 1980, pp.631-660.

Radicalesbians. “The Woman-Identified Woman.” 1970.

Lee Myers, Steven. IDEAS & TRENDS; How a ‘Rainbow Curriculum’ Turned into Fighting Words. New York Times, p. 6., December 13, 1992.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford Paperbacks, 1997.

Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project. “Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too.” YouTube.

Masters, Jeffery. Ann Northrop: What We Can Learn from Three Decades of ACT UP. Advocate, 2020.

Walsh, Dawn. “The Lesbian Avengers: Placing Them in the Center of the Spotlight.” Diss. 2004. Abstract. (n.d.).

Rand, Erin J. “An Appetite for Activism: The Lesbian Avengers and the Queer Politics of Visibility.” Women's Studies in Communication, vol. 36, no. 2, 2013, pp. 121-141.

Schulman, Sarah. My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life during the Reagan and Bush Years. Routledge, 1994.

Ziv, Amalia. “Transgressing Gender, Betraying Nationality: The Performative Politics of Black Laundry” [in Hebrew]. Another Sex: Selected Essyes in Israeli Queer and LGBT Studies. Resling, 2016.

[1] שם הקבוצה נבחר כתגובה לאמירה משנת 1969 של בטי פרידן, יושבת הראש של ארגון הנשים הלאומי, בה תיארה את הסכנה בהיקשרות התנועה הפמיניסטית עם זו הלסבית.

[2] Ana Simo, a founding member of the Lesbian Avengers, quoted in

[3] Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project


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