Lesbian-Queer Organizations: A History in Openings & Closings

This is the second in a series of posts on data visualizations I have created based on the complete records of all available lesbian-queer organizations at the Lesbian Herstory Archives. One of the key takeaways from my focus groups with lesbians and queer women who came out between 1983 and 2008 was the persistence experience of loss and mourning of key lesbian-queer places, namely neighborhoods and bars, as well as bookstores and other community spaces. At the same time, many women, especially those who had come out in the 1980s and 1990s generations, lived with an expectation that one just created the organization or space they required, often through activism or socializing. When we turn to the actual numbers of lesbian and queer organizations in terms of their totals and their patterns of opening and closing, there is more to these shifts.

The generational social and political shifts explain a great deal about the growth of these organizations and this helps to frame my reading of this visualization. The numbers of lesbian-queer organizations rises significantly in the 1980s and early 1990s, as we can see in the graph above, both in terms of the total and those founded. Many of these groups were inspired by the continued to response to issues facing women and the successes of the feminist movement, as well as the burgeoning and powerful response to the AIDS crisis and the inspiration for change instilled by many movements for action. Yet there are outcomes for organizing in the 1980s and 1990s that this graph also records. This period of activism led to a long-term neoliberal pattern of growth for the non-profit industrial complex as the method of social welfare support in the US. Given that there were very few lgbtq welfare support services before this period, particularly those as the state or national scale, those that have grown have done so primarily outside of government agencies. The 2000s shows a plateauing of the number of these groups that matches the ways these groups have become the fixed and official brokers of what remains of the US welfare state as it relates to lgbtq concerns.

I also provide a more detailed look at the number of openings and closings below because I find the parallels in these data profound. They are nearly identical! How the hey did that happen? Based on my interviews with women who came out during this period, my sense is that there was a limit to the labor power and time available to commit to these issues.

Chronologically, there are some profound points to take in as well. I only collected information if groups were already existing before 1983 so that we see a large number (58) have been formed before 1983. Then, within one year (1983_, there are only a total of 86 groups! The gae is on. The peak in the years from 1989 to 1994 relates to the intense tactics of ACT UP, Queer Nation, and Lesbian Avengers who fought back from a perilous state of  extinction of half of the gay male population and a large number of lesbians whose plight went unnoticed by mainstream media, along with increasingly federal, state, and local laws limiting or extinguishing lgbtq rights. Further the successful outcomes of these groups among many others and exciting connections these groups forged prompted a surge in participation. Lastly the trailing off of groups forming and closing speaks as much to the number of groups that formed with mostly a web presence (that is often not collected by the LHA), as much as it speaks to the sedimentation of many earlier organizations into non-profit industrial complex during the 1990s. As they shared in our conversations, many of the women in my research no longer felt comfortable forming new groups because the expectations involved for what was deemed a successful and equally high profile group were too high.

Next I’ll dig into the way physical geographies and a focus on women’s concerns seem to play against one another in the history of lesbian-queer organizing in NYC.

As always, I’m keen to hear other readings and ideas on these data–feel free to post below and jump in the conversation!