Yolanda Retter, an activist, archivist and scholar who devoted the last four decades to raising the visibility of lesbians and minorities and preserving their history, died Aug. 18 at her home in Van Nuys after a brief illness. She was 59.
Widely respected in the Los Angeles lesbian community despite her abrasive style and radical stances, Retter called herself a “gadfly on the body politic” who took on many roles in her drive to achieve social justice for overlooked groups, particularly lesbians of color.
She was a pivotal advocate for lesbians during the early years of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, the country’s first social service agency to exclusively serve gays. She helped organize lesbian history repositories at USC, UCLA and in West Hollywood. For the last four years, she was the librarian and archivist for the UCLA Chicano Studies Resource Center, where she was instrumental in expanding holdings related to Latinas as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Calling herself a “herstorian,” she created the Lesbian History Project website, which was once rated by Lycos as one of its most popular sites. It is off-line, but friends of Retter expect to relaunch it within a few weeks.
Retter also co-wrote or co-edited three books, including “Queers in Space” (1997), a collection of essays and other writings that addressed how gays have shaped their environment; and “Gay and Lesbian Rights in the United States: A Documentary History” (2003).
“She knew that not to be seen was to not exist. She wanted women of color to be seen and she wanted lesbians to be seen. She thought visibility was the way to get our rights,” said Jeanne Cordova, a veteran lesbian activist who knew Retter for 37 years.
Born in New Haven, Conn., in 1947, Retter spent most of her childhood in El Salvador, where her father, Henry, a Yale-trained architect, worked for a State Department program. Most of his clients were members of El Salvador’s ruling class.
Retter was named after her Peruvian mother, Yolanda Vargas, an adventurous woman who learned to fly an airplane in the 1940s. Her mother came from an artistic family that included Alberto Vargas, Retter’s uncle, whose sensual paintings of pinup girls became World War II-era icons, and Max Vargas, Retter’s grandfather, a renowned photographer in Peru.
In high school in Connecticut, Retter knew she was attracted to other women and struggled to keep her identity in the closet. She moved to California to attend Pitzer College in Claremont in 1966, when it was still a women’s college.
She came out as a lesbian in 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots in New York City that gave rise to the gay liberation movement.
She spent the next decade helping to organize the nascent lesbian liberation movement through her involvement in such groups as Latin American Lesbians of Los Angeles and Connexxus Women’s Center/Centro de Mujeres. The latter group brought an important archive -- the June L. Mazer Lesbian Collections -- from Oakland to Los Angeles, and Retter helped guide it as a volunteer.
Retter also led efforts to build a collection on lesbian history for the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at USC. In 1978 she co-founded, with Cordova and others, a specialized business directory called the Los Angeles Women’s Yellow Pages
After graduating from Pitzer with a degree in sociology, Retter worked briefly as a prison guard at the California Institution for Women in Corona and managed a halfway house for displaced women in Los Angeles.
She also learned cabinet-making and became a licensed airplane mechanic before returning to school in the 1980s to earn master’s degrees in library science and social work from UCLA. At the University of New Mexico, she received a doctorate in American studies with a dissertation on lesbian activism in Los Angeles from 1970 to 1990.
She considered herself a lesbian separatist, believing that gay women could empower themselves without men. She was one of three separatists invited to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s television show in 1988.
According to an autobiographical account published in the recent book “Time It Was: American Stories From the Sixties,” Retter responded to hostile questioning on the show by saying “Oprah, if six black activists came on the show they would probably not be asked ‘Why do you hate white people?’ So why is it that the question we always get is, ‘Why do you hate men?’ ”
Retter did not hate men; she was confrontational, but in a gender-blind manner that earned her the nickname “Yolanda the Terrible.” She was often called on to oversee security at events such as the Sunset Junction Street Fair in Silver Lake and the Los Angeles Dyke March.
In 1978 she directed a program at what was then the Gay Community Services Center to address the needs of lesbians. She played a major role in the successful effort to change the name of the agency to the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in the early 1980s, but later left in a disagreement over the service she headed and her belief that it should remain separate from the men’s programs.
“She was always afraid that assimilation, whether into mainstream culture dominated by Anglos or by men, would obliterate minority voices. That was her message. That was what she railed against,” said Torie Osborn, a former executive director of the center who is now a senior advisor to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Retter is survived by her partner of 13 years, Leslie Golden Stampler; her father, Henry, and stepmother, Dottie, of Florida; Stampler’s two children, Belinda and Martin; and six brothers and sisters.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 29 at Metropolitan Community Church, 8714 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Memorial donations may be sent to the Yolanda Retter Foundation, c/o Law Office of Karen L. Mateer, 618 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena, CA 91106.