On Oct. 26, students and faculty met in the Vulcan Theater to welcome Jewelle Gomez, who shared her story about finding community as a lesbian in 1970’s New York City. She shared a memory of a desperate subway ride to West Village in the hopes of finding a Hispanic lesbian group, Salsa Soul Sisters. She wandered the streets hopelessly before deciding to return home, dejected. Gomez had decided on that fateful day that she would never search for community again.
The search for comradely is not one unique to the LGBTQA community. Gomez agrees that technology has left most of the young adult population lacking the same worthwhile friendships that she had been seeking at that time in her life. She remembers her teenage years fondly, having firsthand experience in the Black Power movement, social reform, and anti-war movements during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War Era.
She recalls, “It was in the air to be political. Your day to day was dependent on knowing what was going on outside your door.”
Television screens flashed images of police officers releasing their dogs on Southern protestors and soldiers’ bodies brought home from Vietnam in coffins. Gomez was involved in her Black Student Union, which participated in an intercollegiate movement to end apartheid. When Nelson Mandela was freed, Gomez was able to acknowledge her small but mighty role in a worldwide effort.
While the nation discussed equality for African Americans, little discussion circulated about sexuality. Gomez worked with several gay men in New York’s theater district, but was unable to find a society of lesbian women.
“Because I had grown up politically,” Gomez explained, “I needed to be connected to a larger world. And I had no idea how to get to that other world.”
Films of the day, like The Killing of Sister George and The Fox, gave only negative images of lesbian women, who, as Gomez recalled, often suffered a painful death by the end of the movie. Homosexuality was even shunned by social reform groups, such as the Black Panther Party, until a statement was made in 1970 to unite women, African Americans, and homosexuals within the movement.
“There were few times those kinds of statements about unity were made,” said Gomez.
New York City is always bustling, and Gomez found solace in her political activism while she patiently waited to find her people. She frequented women’s book stores so often that she was commonly mistaken as an employee. She started working for Conditions Magazine, a lesbian magazine in the 1970’s, and she worked with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) at the height of the AIDS crisis. “By making a circle around [her] interests,” Gomez was able to find people who shared her passion for change and equality. Although she was nervous about meeting Dorothy Allen, Southern, white author of Bat out of Carolina, Gomez remembers immediately feeling at ease in her home, having found another strong woman passionate about LQBTQA equality.
“We’re both the best of friends today, but we both acknowledge where it could’ve gone terribly wrong,” she said.
She recollects a feeling of success, having been a part of several small communities through her political activism in NYC.
“If you want community,” she said, “You have to work to create it, work to find it, and work to sustain it.”
With the support of her family, Gomez never denied her sexuality, regardless society’s intolerance. Her life story provides hope for those who feel unique and alone, especially in the LGBTQA community.
She said, “It’s the burden of the students to figure out how to be present for your own lives,” a message applicable to all people, regardless of age, regardless of ethnicity, and regardless of sexuality.