Read more from our 2016 Gay Issue here.
In the inaugural 1972 issue of The Furies, a monthly newsletter published by the eponymous separatist, feminist-lesbian collective, founding member Ginny Berson wrote that lesbians “have been fucked over all our lives by a system which is based on the domination of men over women.”
The 12 founding Furies were anti-sexism, anti-patriarchy, and anti-capitalism. They aimed to build an action-based ideology and executed a “radically experimental” movement in self-determination, says Jeff Donahoe, a board member of the Rainbow History Project, a D.C. organization dedicated to preserving the city’s LGBTQ history.
In May, the National Park Service added to its National Register of Historic Places the 11th Street SE townhouse that for about two years served as the operational center for the Furies’ political work. It’s the country’s first lesbian landmark to receive that designation. D.C. also added the house to the city’s Inventory of Historic Sites this year.
“It sounds trite now, but for people who had grown up believing that something was wrong with us because we were lesbians, everything told us there was something wrong with us, believing our options were so profoundly proscribed because we were women—to throw that off and say ‘no’ to all of that… it’s like taking blinders off,” Berson tells Washington City Paper. “Once you see the whole world, it is in fact an enormously liberating experience. And it resulted in a huge bout of creative energy and creativity.”
Formed in the fall of 1971, the Furies cohabitated and worked in three townhouses away from the gay men’s liberation culture that blossomed in Dupont Circle in the early ’70s.
“It gave women a chance to express themselves in terms of living, [by deciding] who they chose to live with,” Donahoe says.
As the Furies gained notoriety, D.C. was undergoing a cultural revolution of its own; simultaneous to the gay and lesbian liberation movements were large-scale Black Panther and anti-war demonstrations (which occurred “every other minute,” Berson says), as well as the mainstream women’s liberation movement.
But as a separatist group, Berson says the Furies experienced (to some extent, a self-imposed) intellectual isolation.
“Everybody lumped us together and called us the gay movement, which was annoying in and of itself. It spoke to what part of the problem was, which was that lesbians are pretty invisible,” Berson says. “The Furies was a very distinct entity.”
The group eventually decided that it needed more allies. So they organized softball games (“you know, because if you’re a lesbian you have to play softball,” Berson says) and went to lesbian bars. While gay hotspots thrived in Dupont Circle, the Furies partied closer to home at JoAnna’s and Phase 1 on 8th Street SE. Both were located outside of what Donahoe calls the “gay-tto” of Dupont Circle, the “safe space” where gay men went out.
Berson says both JoAnna’s and Phase 1 were “kind of dumpy,” while the gay men’s bars had “better lighting, better dance floors.” The assumption, Berson says, was that “the men had more money and would spend more money. And they probably did have more money, because men made more money.”
The gender wage gap, a failure of capitalism, was a contributing factor to the Furies’ decision to share money. Women in the group who earned more contributed more to the group. The group’s financial structure also spoke to the cultural disparity between gay men and women in D.C, says Bonnie Morris, a board member of the Rainbow History Project.
“Women had a different sense of neighborhood,” she says. “They were paid less, they can’t afford expensive city condos.”
And while Berson says she’s not “attached to physical monuments” and wasn’t initially thrilled by NPS’ announcement, the more time that passes, the more she’s pleased by the 11th Street townhouse’s new landmark status.
“I think that lesbian history and lesbian contributions to society continue to be overlooked,” Berson says. “Now everything is LGBTQ. In LGBTQ, ‘L’ is frequently the forgotten letter… We need to know how we got to where we are today, and where we fumbled, and where we succeeded. We had an amazing vision. It’s important [to know that] lesbians own something—to have some physical space to say, ‘lesbians did important things here.’”