Jeanne Córdova: Iconic Lesbian Activist and Proud Butch
“That was step one in recognizing my social movement when it came knocking – the persistent noise in your head that tells you that the world’s reality and your own don’t match.”
– Lesbian feminist activist Jeanne Córdova in her memoir When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution.
The book tells the story of her involvement in a major social issue that came to light unexpectedly in Los Angeles in the 1970s, as well as her struggles in the Gay Rights movement and an intimate, yet complicated love affair. Córdova’s activist work helped set standards for straight women and lesbians and our expectations of gay and straight men during a time when gender differences complicated our struggles tenfold.
Jeanne Córdova was born on July 18, 1948. Her father was a military man and she was one of twelve children. In her youth, she was something of a troublemaker and at age nineteen, her family discovered that she was a lesbian – this news was not met with open arms. After high school, Córdova joined the Heart of Mary convent in 1966, but she left in 1968 to pursue social work, earning a Master’s Degree in Social Welfare from UCLA in 1972.
Her life in activism began in 1970 when she became the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis. During this time, she opened the first lesbian center in L.A. and pioneered the creation of The Lesbian Tide, one of the leading lesbian magazines in the country. Córdova played a major role in organizing women’s conferences in California, and she also wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press, referred to as the Freep in her book. Additionally, she was part of the Gay Liberation Front, a group of activists with racidal left-wing politics advocating for gay rights.
In June of 1971, Córdova joined forces with Morris Kight, the godfather of gay activism in L.A. Together, they organized the first Pride parade to happen in L.A. on the two-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York. Kight played a major role in creating The Gay Community Services Center (GCSC) to provide support to the gay community in Los Angeles. Córdova’s volunteer work at the center turned into a part-time job, and it soon became apparent that the female employees were not being treated as equals to the men. When complaints were brought to the male staff at the GCSC, all attempts to compromise were overruled and manipulated in the men’s favor. In May of 1975, eleven male and female employees who spoke out against the unfair management of the GCSC were fired without warning. The result was a strike and a legal battle that went on through the summer.
This brings up an interesting concept for the LGBTQ+ community: it cannot just be assumed that two not-straight people will get along simply because they aren’t straight, which seemed to be the assumption in the 70s. Gays and lesbians should have been united to fight for their rights as non-straight people, but there was a lot of work still to be done for the feminist movement. In the early 1970s, there were plenty of men – gay men included – who had reservations about women’s rights. It’s an unpleasant fact about LGBTQ+ history, but one we should acknowledge nonetheless. Think about how far we’ve come as a society on the topic of women’s rights and how much it helped form a more cohesive community. Besides, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s reared its ugly head, the lesbian community was there for the thousands of gay men who were affected. We’re a better community when we work together, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a few fights along the way – kind of like siblings or close friends.
After leaving the GCSC conflict later in 1975, Jeanne Córdova got busy with her work for the rights and equality of women and lesbians all over the country. In 1978, she worked on a campaign protesting the anti-LGBT Briggs Initiative, which would have removed all gay and lesbian teachers from public schools in California. During the 80s, she was one of the founders of the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the Democratic Party and served as one of thirty lesbian delegates to the Democratic National Convention. She was the founder of multiple gay-friendly publications such as The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Press Association, the Community Yellow Pages (the nation’s first and largest LGBTQ+ business directory), the New Age Telephone Book, and Square Peg Magazine (a publication for queer culture and literature).
Her memoir When We Were Outlaws was published in 2011 and it received the Lambda Literary Award for best lesbian memoir/biography, the Golden Crown Literary Society Award for best short story/essay/collections, the American Library Association Stonewall Book Award, and the Judy Grahn Award for lesbian non-fiction. Jeanne Córdova passed away on January 10, 2016, after a battle with cancer. She published one other book called Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story in 1990.
Jeanne Córdova’s story reminds us that the most important factor for our community to succeed is unity. We have our differences, of course, but our biggest difference is what separates us from the heteronormative, cis-gendered world we were raised in. At the end of the day, we are all queer (strange from a conventional viewpoint), and that’s what makes us a community. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, trans, nonbinary, and so much more, we are a people and the love and respect that comes from within are what helps us thrive.
When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution by Jeanne Córdova