COVER STORY : Out in the Open : West Hollywood Lesbians, With Help of City Officials, Are Being Seen--and Heard


A parade of more than 500 women strode down Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood recently, chanting and carrying signs that left no doubt about their message.

“What do we want?” yelled one woman.

“Dyke power!,” screamed some of the crowd.

“When do we want it?”


While motorists blocked by the marchers gaped at them, gay men stood on the sidelines, encouraging the women. Some of the men joined the marchers and took up the chant themselves.

As the parade wound down at Santa Monica and San Vicente, lesbians gathered around a stage that had been set up for Gay Pride Weekend activities.


“This is lesbian guerrilla warfare,” said Jeanne Cordova, who published the newspaper Lesbian Tide from 1971 to 1980 and now publishes the Community Yellow Pages, a gay and lesbian directory for Southern California.

“We’re no longer going to be invisible to straight America, and we’re no longer going to be invisible to gay men,” Cordova told the screaming crowd.

Lesbians are outnumbered by the gay men who live and socialize in West Hollywood, which has earned the nickname “Boys Town” in the homosexual community. But lesbians are pushing to have a greater presence in the city. With support from the city’s elected officials, lesbians have organized an annual Lesbian Visibility Week since 1990 and, starting this year, sponsor lesbian events--from a prom to erotic readings--year-round.

“Part of the reason we started [Lesbian Visibility Week] was because there was a lot of attention for the gay male community, but not as much for lesbians,” said Mayor John Heilman. “It’s unlikely that we’ll ever have as many lesbians as we have gay men. But we do want lesbians to feel safe here. We try to sponsor different programs that meet the needs of the groups who live in West Hollywood.”

Lesbian Visibility Week is not uniformly lauded. Some heterosexuals--Gloria Goldsmith, the chairwoman of West Hollywood’s Fine Arts Board, for one--say they do not entirely understand lesbians’ desire to be more visible. Such efforts Balkanize society, Goldsmith said.

And the visibility week is criticized by some African American, Latina and Asian American lesbians, who complain that the events do not reflect their cultures.


But the concept is supported by the gay community and by many straight residents as well. Lester Hirsch, chairman of the West Hollywood Senior Advisory Council, said that as long as lesbian events do not disturb the neighbors with loud music, he has no problem with them.

“We’re not against their visibility or their organizing and promoting their week,” Hirsch said. “I think they should consider making the Gay Pride parade the Gay and Lesbian parade.” West Hollywood does not keep official statistics on sexual orientation, but a 1994 community study in the city of 36,000 people showed that 4% of the 2,000 respondents were lesbian.

That compares to the 32% of respondents who identified themselves as gay men, 62% as heterosexual and 3% as bisexual.

Like their male counterparts in the homosexual community, lesbians consider West Hollywood safer than many other neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Although pockets of lesbians live and socialize in other places--Silver Lake and Long Beach, for example--West Hollywood is well-known as a gathering place for homosexuals. It is a place where lesbians can hold hands and kiss without fear.

But gay men dominate the scene in West Hollywood. Lesbians say the overwhelming presence of men discourages them from taking a strong role in the community and from becoming a more cohesive group.

West Hollywood’s recent Gay Pride parade illustrated the vastness of the city’s gay male scene--with most of the floats oriented toward gay men and the crowd predominantly male.


Gay men generally seem to sympathize with lesbians’ effort to increase their visibility, some of them referring to lesbians as “sisters” and likening their plight to that of gay men.

During lesbian week, events are organized by a steering committee that includes representatives from the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Council, an appointed body selected by the City Council.

West Hollywood continues to finance the week’s activities, but the city now contracts with the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center to manage the events.

The week is not just social. The events give lesbians a chance to make business contacts and celebrate their accomplishments, organizers say. And when the week is over, lesbians can contribute to the economic prosperity of other lesbians in West Hollywood by supporting their businesses and organizations.

The week brings attention to the lesbian community as a whole.

“It comes down to the fact that those who are visible get the dollars . . . more funding comes in for men’s events,” said Christine DuBois, 30, who helps organize Lesbian Visibility Week. “But visibility is also for the lesbians who are still trying to come out--reaching out to them so that if they see more [female] couples walking around holding hands, they’ll know it’s OK.”

This year, Lesbian Visibility Week, which runs from July 16 to 23, kicks off with a picnic in West Hollywood Park. Events include a panel discussion of lesbians in film and television, a screening of films with lesbian themes, music performances and forums on safe sex and same-sex marriage.


The Gay and and Lesbian Community Services Center has already sponsored three events in the last few months, including lesbian bingo and erotic readings--both sellouts.

Last month’s Lesbian Prom was a chance for lesbians to relive their high school events, but this time with their lesbian lovers. The dress was tacky formal--tuxedo jackets over jeans, cocktail dresses with hiking boots--and the highlight of the evening was the crowning of the prom Queen and Queen.

Though the events are well-attended, some African American lesbians complain that Lesbian Visibility Week does not offer events that interest them.

“I wouldn’t say that Lesbian Visibility Week is geared toward white women, but I definitely think it is not geared toward black women,” said Denise Torrey, who lives in Glendale and attended the Lesbian Prom. “They don’t play music we like at these kinds of events. We basically socialize differently.”

Sandra Tignor, co-chairwoman of the United Lesbians of African Heritage (ULOAH), said the organizers of Lesbian Visibility Week are making an effort to reach out to black lesbians. But she would like to see showings of African American sculpture, painting and photography incorporated into the events.

“And I’d like to hear more black women speak about their issues with being lesbian,” Tignor said. “I never see any of that kind of thing unless it’s sponsored by ULOAH.”


Being a visible lesbian is a double challenge for African Americans, explained Ta’ Shia Asanti, a rap artist who goes by the name Diamond and who has a 14-year-old daughter.

“There is a real fear of homosexuality” in the black community, Asanti said. “You can’t be a dyke in South-Central. It could cost you your life.” The feelings were shared by an active member of Lesbianas Unidas, a group for Latina lesbians.

“We have a telephone number and an address for correspondence [for Lesbianas Unidas], and I never saw anything coming in from Lesbian Visibility Week asking us to participate,” said member Rosalie Barco.

The minority groups sponsor their own visibility events, including an annual retreat in Malibu for African American lesbians. Still, Tignor said, West Hollywood event organizers should try harder to reach out to minority lesbians.

“I think it’s important for people in West Hollywood to make [Lesbian Visibility Week] more inclusive because we all have to learn to live together,” Tignor said.

Organizers of events contend they are trying. They point out that women of different ethnicities are part of the steering committee that works with the Community Services Center to plan the events.


And African American, Asian American and Latina lesbians are invited to take prominent roles in lesbian visibility events, such as speaking on panels during public discussions of lesbian issues.

But organizers admit that getting African American women, in particular, involved in West Hollywood’s lesbian community is a continuing struggle.

For example, the City Council has been looking for African American women to fill spots on the city’s Gay and Lesbian Advisory Council--appointments reserved for people who live in West Hollywood. So far, no one has volunteered.

“We haven’t bridged the gap totally, but an effort definitely is being made,” said advisory council member Heather Hinkel.

In promoting lesbian visibility, the event organizers face other obstacles. Many lesbians are purposely invisible, choosing to hide their sexual orientation.

Their fear of “coming out” is largely financial, lesbians say.

“They don’t want to lose their jobs,” said Sandy Sachs, co-owner of Girl Bar and Love Lounge, two of West Hollywood’s lesbian nightclubs.


Lesbians in general tend to be more private and lead quieter lifestyles than gay men, especially when they are involved in relationships, they say.

West Hollywood has only a few lesbian gathering places. Although they are bursting with customers, some lesbians say there is not enough business to support others.

A lack of clientele, for example, forced Little Frida’s, a lesbian-owned coffeehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard that had been operating for four years, to close at the end of May.

“I think there are very good intentions involved with this lesbian visibility thing, but . . . I think that it’s just too big of a socioeconomic problem to tackle,” said Rita Boyadjian, who owned Little Frida’s and now publishes the monthly lesbian magazine Female FYI.

The effort undertaken in West Hollywood is one city’s response to a nationwide struggle as some lesbians vie for a more visible place in society--in the media, on the covers of magazines and in the political spotlight.

In the past 20 years, that visibility has grown tremendously, according to lesbians who have been involved in the movement.


“In the ‘70s, we were trying to get the word lesbian said and printed,” said Cordova, who publishes the Community Yellow Pages. “Now images are being printed of two women together. We’re asking for things like $2-million donations to build hospices.”

Such strides have been helped by celebrities such as singers k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge and tennis star Martina Navratilova.

“It’s kind of an ‘in’ thing right now. Being lesbian is not something one has to hide,” said Marita Giovanni, director and producer of the movie “Bar Girls,” who recently spoke at a lesbian business forum in West Hollywood. “So people are more interested in lesbians and the lesbian lifestyle.”

Visibility is further helped by the political spotlight that shines on Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and state Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), both lesbians and strong supporters of the lesbian community.

“I get calls from every lesbian who wants to run for city council, school board and other offices,” Kuehl said. “I wouldn’t say there is an avalanche, but there is a good, healthy crop. We’re an emerging minority.”

More political exposure is what is needed to push lesbians to the forefront of the public’s attention, some lesbians argue. They say Lesbian Visibility Week sets an example for the lesbian movement as a whole.


“We’ve got to fight societal prejudices that force lesbians to isolate,” said Julie Anderson, project director for Lesbian Visibility Week. “We’ve got to push the envelope. If we don’t, it’s as if lesbians don’t exist.”