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Karla Jay
(1947 - living) U.S.A.

Karla Jay

Professor, writer, editor, scholar, and activist


Karla Jay is a pioneer in the field of gay and lesbian studies. She is the Director of Women's and Gender Studies and Professor of English at Pace University in New York.

She has published widely, including such titles as Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation (with Allen Young), The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien, Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions (with Joanne Glasgow), and Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation.

Jay's Tales begin in 1968, when Jay was "a well-mannered young woman attending Barnard", not yet a lesbian and certainly not an activist. If Jay's dysfunctional family did not radicalize her, the spirit of the age did: she was literally across the street from Columbia University when the students there rioted (April 23, 1968).

Jay went over to join the revolution, but the men in charge wanted her to make sandwiches. Jay had a happier experience with the Women's Liberation Movement (February 1969), where "[t]here may have been disagreement, but all the arguing was done by women. There were no men here to order us to make sandwiches and to clean up while men did the heavy thinking, the way the Columbia 'revolutionaries' had done."

Even so, many feminists were worried about lesbians involved in Women's Lib; Betty Friedan called them a "lavender menace", hence the title of the book.

In May of 1970 Jay joined Rita Mae Brown, Lois Hart, and other lesbian feminists to "zap" the Second Congress to Unite Women, wearing purple "Lavender Menace" T-shirts and distributing copies of the epochal (wo)manifesto, "The Woman-Identified Woman".

If Karla Jay's experiences with feminism were those of a lesbian in an largely-straight movement, then her experiences with the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) were those of a woman in a male-dominated group. Formed in the aftermath of Stonewall (July 24, 1969), the GLF was a motley group of "drag queens, bar dykes, street people, feminists, radical students, leftists, socialists, Marxists, Maoists, anarchists, libertarians, hippies, and former Yippies", with a program to match.

The GLF was Jay's first contact with such aspects of gay male culture as drag queens and "truck boys" - men who "liked to have sex in the back of the empty trucks that were parked under the Westside Highway".

To Jay's shock, the sexism of some of the men was the biggest obstacle toward immediately and completely immersing herself in GLF. A number of the men were more oppressive to women than any heterosexual guy. Still she agreed with the GLF's radical goals enough to remain active for most of its existence (1969-70).

When Jay temporarily moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1970, she joined the L.A. chapter of GLF, only to find that it was even more male-dominated than the New York group.

One of Jay's reasons to write Tales of the Lavender Menace is to remind us that 1970's lesbians had sex. The conventional wisdom that they didn't is one Jay attributes to "politically driven historical accounts that paint a picture of radical feminists as antisexual."

In retrospect, Jay believes it was "a tragic error" to have downplayed sexuality in "The Woman-Identified Woman", which "allowed straight women to continue thinking that lesbians really didn't do much in the absence of a penis and let them assume that straight women, too, could be 'political lesbians,' since our definition didn't depend on sexual acts.

By 1972, Jay's heyday as an activist was over. In 1972 Jay joined Allen Young to edit Out of the Closets, which was to be the first of four collaborations.


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