The Lesbian Avengers Will Not Be Commodified

At least, not by the Gap.

By Ainara Tiefenthäler

Among the many rainbow-colored products and sparkly knickknacks for sale during Pride month this year, a T-shirt briefly available from the Gap stood out for its sober design. Printed on a plain white crew neck with short sleeves was a bomb encircled by the words “The Lesbian Avengers.”

The logo originated with an unsung radical activist group that had its heyday almost three decades ago. Seeing its insignia at a mass-market retail chain left people familiar with the group confused and divided over whether the T-shirt was more evidence of the corporate commodification of L.G.B.T.Q. allyship or a sign of growing recognition of a marginalized community.

Others were outraged. One of the founders of the Lesbian Avengers, the journalist and novelist Sarah Schulman, tweeted on May 19: “I just heard about this today and of course they stole it.” Activists, including members of former Lesbian Avengers chapters around the country, expressed their frustration on social media.

A letter published on June 18 by three founding members of the Lesbian Avengers, including Ms. Schulman, demanded that the company “halt its production, sale” and “distribution” of the T-shirt, calling the act a “commodification and co-optation of our lives and history.”

“Our lesbian history and movement are not for sale,” the letter read. “The Lesbian Avenger name and our bomb logo have always existed and been made available as open-source name/graphics to be used in good faith only by and for Lesbian Avengers activities, actions and projects — not to be sold or used to raise funds by a commercial venture.”

By then, the shirt had disappeared from the Gap’s site. But its back story turned out to be more complicated than a case of coldblooded corporate appropriation.

The designer of the logo, Carrie Moyer, a Lesbian Avenger herself, had sold it to the Gap.

“To be honest, at first, I didn’t even think they were going to want to use it because it’s more provocative than how they’re attempting to depict gay people,” Ms. Moyer said of the Gap and the bomb logo. “It’s kind of like a teaser for a history that very little is known about.”

As Ms. Moyer told the website Autostraddle, “the idea of having this sort of mass dispersal of T-shirts, was like, wow, this is a way to get information out that seems really expedient.”

This did nothing to sway the perspective of other Avengers, who view any corporate branding of the group’s history and ideas as antithetical to its mission.

“What’s visibility without substance?” Ms. Schulman said.

Building ‘a Presence Around Lesbianism’

The Lesbian Avengers were founded in 1992, a year that Ana Maria Simo, a playwright and activist, remembers as an angry one. George H.W. Bush was running for re-election in part on his foreign policy successes, especially the relatively bloodless conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, in which 148 Americans died.

But AIDS had claimed over 140,000 lives in the United States alone. The federal government was still responding with indifference both to the virus that decimated a generation of gay men and to the activism that it had ignited.

More urgently, Ms. Simo was incensed by the gentrification of the East Village, which had been something of a safe haven for lesbians, and by a vicious fight over whether New York City public schools should adopt an elementary school curriculum, known as “Children of the Rainbow,” that affirmed the existence of gay people and other minorities.

She invited a group of women to dinner at her home, all of whom had experience as activists: Ms. Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-Christine d’Adesky, Marie Honan and Anne Maguire. Over wine and cheese, they planned to start a group that would fight for lesbian visibility.

“It was called The Avengers because Diana Rigg was a lesbian icon on the TV show ‘The Avengers’,” said Ms. Schulman.

The group’s mission was to increase awareness of lesbians — and promote their rights — both within queer culture (radical lesbian politics were mostly associated with second-wave feminists living in insular communities) and the mainstream.

“Lesbians are invisible, and we don’t want to be invisible,” Ms. Simo said recently over Zoom. “We want to make our existence known to the world. We want the streets to belong to us. We want to be out there.”

That June, at the Gay Pride March in New York City, members handed out “club cards,” colorful pamphlets that read “Lesbians! Dykes! Gay Women!” and “We want revenge and we want it now!”

Printed at the bottom of the handouts was a little icon of a bomb — Ms. Simo’s spur-of-the-moment addition, a nod to her “little obsession” with revolutionary movements of the past. It “was kind of a 19th-century anarchist type of thing,” she said.

The leaflet landed in the hands of Ms. Moyer, a graphic designer who was immediately taken by the group’s romanticized revolutionary stylings. She joined the Lesbian Avengers shortly afterward, putting her skills to use making print materials and eventually designing the group’s official logo: a lit bomb, ringed by the words “The Lesbian Avengers” in a bold sans-serif typeface called Frutiger.

“Separatist lesbian culture was kind of willfully low-tech. Everything was sort of homemade,” Ms. Moyer said. “Having a presence around lesbianism that looked like it was part of the sort of sophisticated visual world — part of the world in general, the world that was targeted to everyone — felt really important.”

The logo was put to a vote. Not everyone was a fan at first. Ms. d’Adesky said she worried the imagery read as aggressive.

But, she said, “humor was going to be part of our messaging because there was a stereotype that remained in the culture around: You are angry, humorless lesbians.” She grew to embrace the bomb.

Like their logo, the Lesbian Avengers’s activism was in-your-face and tongue-in-cheek. (Their manifesto calling on “all lesbians” read, in part, “closeted lesbians, queer boys and sympathetic straights should give us money.”) At their first action, outside a Queens elementary school where the school board had rejected the Children of the Rainbow curriculum, the Avengers arrived with a marching band, handing out purple balloons to children that read, “Ask About Lesbian Lives.”

On Valentine’s Day in 1993, they gave out chocolate kisses in Grand Central Terminal with the message “You’ve just been kissed by a lesbian,” and unveiled a papier-mâché figure of the lesbian socialite Alice B. Toklas next to the sculpture of the writer Gertrude Stein — Toklas’s more famous lover — in Bryant Park.

At the New York City memorial for a lesbian and a gay man who had burned to death in Salem, Ore., after a Molotov cocktail was tossed into their apartment, members of the Lesbian Avengers ate fire and chanted: “The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.” (Fire-eating eventually became one of the group’s hallmarks.) Chapters cropped up in dozens of cities across the country and even abroad, many using the bomb logo, which the New York group made available for reproduction.

The Lesbian Avengers’s longest lasting legacy is the annual Dyke March, which was first held on April 24, 1993, on the eve of the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, one of the largest protests against L.G.B.T.Q. discrimination ever held in the United States.

In response to what the Avengers saw as a male-dominated events calendar — and in the spirit of civil disobedience — the group called on women to take to the streets of the capital without a permit the day before. “We didn’t even realize how brilliant we were by doing it in D.C., where people had come from all over the world,” Ms. Schulman said. “The women went home to their towns and their cities and they did the same. The next year these marches were everywhere, without any coordination, and some of them still exist.”

The Dyke March will convene for the 29th time this weekend in cities including New York and San Francisco — in many places, still without a permit.

Amplification or Commodification?

In late 2019, Ms. Moyer, the logo’s designer, was connected to the Gap through Avram Finkelstein — a friend, former ACT UP member and co-founder of the collective that made the famous “Silence=Death” anti-AIDS graphic — who was collaborating with the retailer on a line of graphic T-shirts.

The Gap T-shirt was modeled on an original Lesbian Avengers T-shirt from the 1990s. But where the original tee featured the words “We Recruit” on the back (a satirical sendup of right-wing fears that gay people were “recruiting” children into their lifestyle), the Gap version sported a paragraph on the history of the Avengers, including the names of the six founders.

Ms. Simo said she found out by stumbling across a screenshot of the Gap’s website: “It was a really bizarre thing to see.”

Like other Lesbian Avengers members who spoke with The New York Times, Ms. Simo said she was not contacted by either Ms. Moyer or the Gap in advance, but found out about the shirt through social media.

“Somebody tweeted at me the page from the Gap,” Ms. Schulman said. “I said, ‘Oh, they stole it from us.’”

In an interview, Ms. Moyer said she did not contact all of the Lesbian Avengers founders before licensing the image but did confer with one of them: Maxine Wolfe.

“The thing that won out was that the historical information would be on the back and would get to people who otherwise would not get it. And it wasn’t information like, ‘Smile, it’s Pride,’ but information about a direct action group,” Ms. Wolfe said. “More people have been speaking about the Lesbian Avengers than have in a long, long time.”

Ms. Moyer received $7,000 from the Gap for the use of the logo on the shirt, all of which, she said, she donated to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, which has been collecting and preserving lesbian history for over four decades.

“I saw the whole interaction as a way to support” the archives, Ms. Moyer said, “this place that has basically preserved our history since the beginning.”

But she also said she had never signed off on a finalized design that would list the names of the founders on the back of the shirt. She said she was surprised both by the shirt’s release this spring, which she learned about on Facebook, and by the text on its back, which she had not approved.

When she spoke to the Gap, the person who had initially been in charge of the project had left the company. “I found out that the copy on the back of the T-shirts (listing the names of the founders) was never replaced with the correct text,” Ms. Moyer wrote in an email to the Times. “This violates the contract I signed.”

About 1,100 shirts were produced in total, and the shirts were sold only online, a spokesperson for the Gap said. The company also said that it had a long history of supporting the L.G.B.T.Q. community, noting that in the 1980s it became “involved in the fight against AIDS through donations to AIDS foundations,” and that the company donates every year to “organizations that help raise awareness on critical issues happening with the LGBTQ+ community.”

Ms. Moyer stands by her initial decision to license the Lesbian Avengers logo: “I designed the logo, and that logo is out in the world and in a bajillion places,” she said. She pointed out that several websites without any affiliation to the Lesbian Avengers sold merchandise featuring the design.

But for Ms. Schulman, Ms. Simo and Ms. d’Adesky, the commercialization of the logo by a multinational corporation was irreconcilable with the anti-establishment ethos of the group. “The nature of the beast is that it needs to be fed,” Ms. Simo said. “Now everybody is the hero of the day when they can become commodities that can be sold.”

This specific disagreement speaks to a much bigger question when it comes to progress for the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Pride month, in this era, comes with a sort of motion sickness for many who fought not just for visibility but also for their lives and basic rights. And while there may be Pride flags in storefronts, and more queer characters on television — and potentially, more T-shirts with activist logos — the number of hate crimes against L.G.B.T.Q. people reported by the F.B.I. hasn’t changed much over two decades; there are legislative assaults on trans rights nationwide; and functionally no lesbian spaces are left in the country.

Pride provides a moment of collective catharsis — a celebration of the humor and playfulness that has kept queer people alive. With rah-rah rainbow merch, corporations play to that legacy while also cashing in on images of acceptance and inclusion that may be more palatable to the majority culture than reflective of the daily realities of queer people, who continue to fight for their safety and rights.

The Lesbian Avengers T-shirt sold by the Gap managed, in its fleeting existence, to cut across both of those realities. It bypassed love-is-love platitudes to sell a memory of a community’s radical roots — for $34.95. In its contradictions, the short-lived shirt has become a fraught collector’s item for this moment in L.G.B.T.Q. history: a limited edition item that is as unlikely to beat people into consumerist apathy as it is to shock them into revolutionary fervor.

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