Joy and Nakedness at San Francisco’s Dyke March
Phyllis Christopher writes:
“In San Francisco, the night before the annual Pride parade is reserved for the Dyke March, a celebration of lesbian life throughout the city. It was like our Christmas – the biggest night of the year – and half of us would be so hungover we wouldn’t make it to Pride the next day.
I remember getting a call from an editor at On Our Backs, a lesbian magazine run by women that billed itself as offering “entertainment for the adventurous lesbian”. It was a bedrock of the lesbian community – one of the few ways to communicate with one another, and to celebrate sex and educate each other about it at a time when AIDS had brought so much devastation to queer communities. The editor wanted me to shoot a kiss-in, but the tone of her voice sounded almost guilty – like she couldn’t quite bring herself to ask me to work on the biggest party night of the year, but to me, it was the most fun I could imagine.
Lesbians from all over the country, many of whom I knew, had gathered in the park, mingling and chatting to whoever came along – gay, straight, whatever gender. But when the Dyke March began, the crowds cleared and the Dykes on Bikes took the lead, with the rest of us forming a column behind.
I’ve always found something beautiful about that moment: people stepping aside to give lesbians their space, to celebrate and applaud them. Many of the women would march shirtless as a gesture of their freedom. It was a time for lesbians to assert themselves in the public sphere, a moment of safety and joy.
The rules of the Dyke March were pretty much “anything goes as long as it’s fun”. Women were celebrating being half naked, feeling safe and supported by everyone. There were no protestors because there were simply too many queer people in San Francisco. It was a moment of wild abandon, marching through the street, climbing bus stops, on top of cars, hanging out of windows.
The photo above was taken on 18th Street in the Castro, one of the centres of queer life in San Francisco. Anyone who had an apartment on the march route would take full advantage of their windows. Every year, the inhabitants of houses would lean out of the windows, often with signs, screaming for the crowd and the crowd would scream back.
More than 20 years later, this image still hits me in my gut: I feel the power in it. It encapsulates a kind of joy that, at the time, was absolutely necessary. It was a way of celebrating sex in the face of the death wrought by AIDS, and in opposition to voices on the right who blamed us for the epidemic. We couldn’t marry and job security was still uneven for queer people. We still felt like outlaws.
I have immense respect for the women who let me photograph them. It was a real political statement. But there was a feeling that it was also essential to let other gay women know that they were not alone. There’s always this stereotype of the lesbian as angry. Often we had reason to be. But sometimes, we were too busy having a great time.”
An exhibition of Phyllis Christopher’s work is at the Baltic, Gateshead, until 20 March.
Her book “Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and protest, 1988 – 2003” is out now, cost £24.00.
Bi Community News
Bi Community News (commonly shortened to BCN) is a bimonthly magazine, and the United Kingdom’s only magazine serving the bisexual population. It includes many articles reflecting bisexual life and media representation as well as news from the bisexual community.
The current editor is Jen Yockney MBE, who interviewed Norman for the latest issue (Winter 2021):
As part of Manchester Pride there was a display for a local LGBT+ Oral Histories Project. Set in a public garden an assortment of posters of ordinary queer folk were tagged with QR codes that let you listen to their stories.
I went to the launch event and as someone who goes to LGBT talks fairly often it was a delight to have the first speaker talk about their experiences as an older bi man – that felt so rare. As the opening medley by a women-and enby choir came to an end, Norman talked about his experiences coming out as a bi man in later life. I grabbed him for a quick chat afterwards.
Norman: “It does me good talking about my story and I’m glad if it helps others as well, especially the older people.
I’m 71 and for the older LGBTQ – and bisexual, which is sort of swathed in between – I’m very proud to be part of the Pride in the gay village, which I’ve only started coming to in the last two years and feels so very comfortable. I’m part of an older LGBTQ people’s group and we meet in person again now. That group has let me make some lovely friends to laugh and joke with but be supporting and welcoming.”
How did he find his sense of being bi?
“We have sometimes not known which way to go as bi people – and when I was young, I was so very in love with my wife and really wanted to be straight. It took a long long time, it’s only in the last few years I have accepted I am bisexual. I’ve always said when bad things happen in life something good comes out of it and I loved my wife very much. I could not come out while she was here, but here I am now and it can be the same for other people.
It was difficult a few years after we got married I’d kept this to myself. When I told my wife, she told me that she already knew. She was intuitive and clever and she said: no, we are going to stick together. We would laugh and joke, she’d say that if I met a man I should bring him back for her, and she knew I was not so comfortable with some of the chatter of the men folk and would draw me in to being with her and her friends in social settings.”
His face lights up as he explains that the exhibition had got him on local TV and radio. “I’m thinking the more this gets into the media the more we can help people – there are people out there where there is still stigma about being LGBTQ, it’s why we still have a gay village where people can be themselves
For other older bis: “My advice is try to talk to someone, if there is no one then phone up a helpline. A doctor may be able to send you to a counsellor, or you can google for help groups for LGBTQ that are out there. Don’t do what I did and bottle it up for years because of others – you need to think of yourself. I have a relative in Bury and I’ve told her, she’s not told her husband yet but after he sees me on TV tomorrow – I am not worried at all what will happen any more, because I am me.”
Chatting with an older bi man made me reflect on the generation gap not just for bis but in the wider LGBT community, between people who grew up more recently who have been able to take so much freedom for granted.
Debates on same sex marriage are the best part of a decade old now – you can be old enough to marry and barely remember it being limited by gender. Never mind how long ago things like Section 28 or sex between men being legal is.
Yet hundreds of thousands – maybe millions? – of us grew up before all that. So many queers grew up with laws telling us we weren’t right or that we should make particular life choices to fit in better with cis and hetero normality. The lack of reflection of our lives in the media was its own version of the crass misrepresentations of social media campaigns today about the imaginary threat posed by trans people getting the same rights to function in society as cis folk are used to. It’s more often an issue for bis as we are more likely to have wound up in mixed gender relationships, with all the pressures that can bring around not coming out as it might either unsettle our partner or make friends assume there is a break up on the horizon.