Jean Roberta's Reviews > When We Were Outlaws

When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Cordova
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May 01, 12

Read in December, 2011

Remember the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst by a group of self-defined revolutionaries, the Symbionese Liberation Army? Remember the music of Joan Baez, Janis Ian and the first openly lesbian singer-songwriters of the 1970s?

Jeanne Cordova was a young journalist and political activist in Los Angeles at the time, and she has written a gripping account of it. The major political and cultural events covered by the author as Human Rights Editor of “the Freep” (The L.A. Free Press) and founder of The Lesbian Tide (1971-1980) form a dramatic background to the story of a lesbian love affair. Each chapter of this thick book has a “dateline” in 1974 or 1975, but the entire narrative reads like a novel.

The author describes herself as a “centrist” in the context of the New Left, gay-rights and lesbian-feminist politics of the 1970s. Despite her radical lifestyle, her self-description rings true.

Like many of her contemporaries, Jeanne Cordova left home in her late teens when she could no longer hide her sexual identity (lesbian and butch) from her conservative parents. As she explains, replacing her lost family with a chosen “family” of sister-dykes and compatible gay men was a practical and emotional necessity. She describes a fledgling “gay” community in the process of inventing itself, before the four flavours of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered became an acronym.

Cordova (as she was called) appears in this memoir as a remarkable mixture of naivete, clear-sightedness and community spirit. She was a coalition-builder who survived to tell the tale.

The story of the author’s affair with “Rachel,” a recently-divorced newbie in the urban lesbian community, is told in painful detail. From their first kiss (in public, surrounded by lesbian demonstrators), the author’s non-monogamous living arrangement and her full-time commitment to radical journalism clashes with “Rachel’s” need for security. And then “Rachel” adopts non-monogamy for herself, having learned that in her chosen community, it is regarded as a rational, liberated, feminist response to the personal “ownership” of women in heterosexual marriages.

Cordova is unflinching in her descriptions of her own jealous rage when “Rachel” appears at social events with another butch. The author describes herself and others this way even though butch and femme “sex roles,” like monogamous commitment, were widely assumed by lesbian-feminists of the time to be patriarchal and outdated. Like many another activist, the author finds that political theory and emotional reality are separate and often opposed.

The author’s frequent contact with outlaws in the most literal sense (self-defined revolutionaries running from the FBI) is shown forcing her to consider the uses of violence. She is invited to join “the revolution,” which takes different forms in the minds of different radicals. Could she use a gun to hasten the process of social change? For awhile, she can’t honestly answer that question. Her internal debates form part of a coming-of-age process.

The author’s sense of spiritual connection with “Rachel” is movingly described. In general, Cordova seems to have been unusually attuned to the natural world and to the “vibes” of other people, both as individuals and in groups. Her apparently inborn spirituality helps account for her early desire to become a nun as well as her resulting disillusionment with organized religion.

“Rachel’s” sense of connection with Cordova is convincingly expressed in dialogue. In an epilogue, the author thanks her for permission to tell their story in print. The conflicts and the cultural gap between them at the time are described with fairness and sensitivity.

The style and pacing of this memoir make it much more than a historical account of a particular time and place. It resembles a haunting song in which the personal and the collective are seamlessly combined.
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