Felonious Erotic Episodes: Philadelphia In the Seventies

I had women lovers when I was a hippie, but in the context of male choreographed group sex. In the winter of ’66-’67, I was making $20 an hour as a topless dancer in San Francisco. I financially supported my menage a trois and I thought I was hot shit.

When I returned to Goddard College in Vermont, Tatiana and I became monogamous. Suddenly all these guys who I’d slept with – including a couple of professors – started pressuring me to get back to my role: groovy bisexual chick. Tatiana,perceived as too butch to be converted, was never subject to this kind of peer pressure. But I had demonstrated my heterosexuality and becoming unavailable was not socially acceptable. At the same time, Tatiana and I both garnered a certain amount of respect around campus, as “really smart chicks”. Not really smart students or really smart people. It was the first time my oppression as a woman became clear to me, how my “popularity” with men depended on not straying from their ideas of who I was, and how limited those ideas were. I thought maybe I should have gone to Bennington.

I managed to get kicked out of Goddard and Tatiana and I moved to her home in Philadelphia. I was trying to forge a gay identity but her friends didn’t accept me. The queens thought I was after their boyfriends. The lesbians called me a straight chick who messed around with dykes. I felt insulted but figured they knew.

If that weren’t discouraging enough, Tatiana had escalated from acid to speed to smack in the two months we’d been in Philly. I needed to do something else. It was summer 1967, I was 21, able-bodied and female. I could have gone to an ashram in India. I could have joined the American Indian Movement and walked the Red Road and maybe learned a few things my Potowatomee father withheld from me. I could have stayed with Students for a Democratic Society – I’d joined when I was a Freshman – and fought in the streets of Chicago in ’68 and maybe become part of Weather Underground. Instead I married a man 17 years older than I a week after I met him. The scariest thing about Tatiana was how hot the sex was, regardless of her drug of choice. I must be out of control to be so into her, no matter what. I knew right away Stan was very interested in telling me what to do – and backing it up with his fists and the gun in the bureau drawer.

I lived six years with a man whose first language was Yiddish. He gave me the immersion in Jewish culture my Jewish mother denied me. I spent a much of those six years reading and writing and many of those words flowing in and out of me were about women. I was in a feminist writing group and as the sixties became the seventies more and more of the members of that group came out. There was reading Sisterhood Is Powerful – and there was kissing Laurie. As soon as I read about Radicalesbians I knew that was it: lesbian feminism. I couldn’t make it as a pre-feminist lesbian; Tatiana’s friends made that perfectly queer. But here was another option. I wanted to live my life as a lesbian feminist. But getting unmarried wasn’t so easy.

My husband, told me he’d kill the cats if I tried to leave him. When I finally got away, his terrorism won him custody of all three cats. At least I had been smart enough not to have kids with him.

Out on my own I survived the best way I knew how. Poetry readings were my manna. Secret life could be revealed at a poetry reading. I remember when Audre Lorde read the line “And what does your mother think of you now?” I squirmed and laughed as our eyes met.

Once I finally did get rid of that husband, I was wild in the streets, wild in the sheets, living for the revolution:

I was a woman
who reveled in summer nighttime walking from my apartment to the bars, legs and armpits unshorn and showing, right there on the street. I could wear shorts and tank tops again, free as the small town child I had been, but now my freedom secured by mace in my hand, tai kwan do classes under my belt, and rage percolating like lava from my core, ready to erupt. My cut-off tee shirt spelled out “Killer Dyke” in silver glitter, which matched my necklace which read: “Bitch.” Overkill? The tee shirt was visible from way off. You had to get really close, right up to my throat, to read the delicate italics of the “Bitch”.

I was a woman:
not quite fearless, but unwilling to be stopped by fear. I almost hoped some man would threaten me, give me an excuse to mace him, smash his instep or his nose, make him never ever try to intimidate a woman again.

I was one with the heat of the city night, reveling in the joy of having survived my now ex-husband’s fists and my despair all the way to my mid-twenties, to taste the delicious tang of women’s dances, hot flirtations and mutual seductions. Ah, sweet licks of love, back before the plague years.

 

Barbara Ruth

About Barbara Ruth

Barbara Ruth passed as able-bodied until she fell off the map of the known world in 1983 for reasons in large part iatrogenic. She now lives with multiple chemical sensitivities syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia and seizure disorder. She is Neuroqueer, Ashkenazi Jewish and Potowatomee. She was born in Kansas and now lives in San Jose, CA and is a photographer, as well as poet and memoirist. Her work has been published in numerous lesbian, queer, disability, and literary journals and anthologies.
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