In celebration of Pride Month, the Special Collections Blog is highlighting a few of Washington University Libraries’ collections that are related to LGBTQ issues and activism. The following is a guest post by Wash U undergraduate Jackie Feldman, who researched a Washington University lesbian student group for an independent study course.
Finding the ‘L’ in ‘LGBTQ’
I first encountered “D.Y.K.E.S.” in the Washington University Archives on a class visit for Professor Andrea Friedman’s course “Documenting the Queer Past in St. Louis,” and I was immediately fascinated. D.Y.K.E.S. stands for “Do You Keep Echoing Sappho?” and was a student group for lesbians and others who cared about lesbian issues. It was founded in 1985 at WU and ran through at least 1987. Their statement of purpose asserts,
“We challenge societal myths about lesbians through political activities and educational programming we wish to create an environment of tolerance and understanding for lesbian lifestyles on the Washington University campus” (“Constitution,” found in D.Y.K.E.S. journal).
The journal’s discussions of lesbian separatism are fascinating. And as lesbian separatism no longer remains a prevalent political philosophy, many campuses, including Washington University, no longer have student groups organized around lesbian issues. Today, the “L” in “LGBTQ” no longer seems to exist as a distinct category—and it seems like no one is sure why, although themes of assimilation into mainstream society, a prioritization of other identity-based issues, and a consolidation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans issues into a monolith of queer issues are some common attributions.
This inspired me to investigate the significance of a lesbian-focused group on campus in 1985, the ways in which the dissolution of separatism and of lesbian-centered activism are related, and the ways lesbian separatism as a politic interacted with D.Y.K.E.S.’s activism and purpose.
WU Women’s Resource Center
The evidence of their group that exists in the Washington University Archives is a journal kept by the leaders of the group, in which they wrote back and forth to one another in order to plan programming, discuss ideas, and take notes from meetings. D.Y.K.E.S. ran out of the Women’s Resource Center (WRC), and this journal was much in the style of the student volunteers who ran the WRC who also communicated through a journal writing back and forth to one another. A list of other potential names for D.Y.K.E.S. shows their sense of humor, including, “The 10% Club” and “Kinsey Was Right” (D.Y.K.E.S journal). D.Y.K.E.S. was a space of education, activism, and social support.
Reading the D.Y.K.E.S. Journal
At the time that I first read this journal, I was a student leader of an LGBTQ+ student group that, though open to all, was nearly entirely made up of queer women. I found a lot of the content shockingly resonant—as if it could have been written by myself and my peers. But, had this journal been written in 2017-18, one passage that would have stood out as shockingly anachronistic would have been a multi-page detailed account of several students’ visit to the Whypperwillow wimmin’s land community in the Ozarks. (Although one student’s negative RSVP sounds current: “FUCK. I’m so excited to play frisbee, but I’m so upset about not going to ♀♀community. Take pix so I can pretend I was there… Maybe take a pix of me & then take pix with my pix & then I can see pictures of myself there… hmmm.”(D.Y.K.E.S. journal)).
In 1985 at Washington University, however, there was a need for a meaningful lesbian-centered student group. Having a specific focus around lesbian issues created a center for their activism and education work. An example of a flyer titled “Myths About Lesbians” was in the journal, and provided factual information to counter common myths surrounding lesbians, often humorously, as seen in the example:
“Myth: Lesbianism is ‘catching’ (like a disease).
Fact: While it’s generally true that good ideas do ‘catch on,’ identifying oneself as a lesbian requires a lot of self-knowledge, honesty, and questioning. Many lesbians never act on their feelings for other women, choosing instead to live as heterosexuals.” (Myths About Lesbians, found in D.Y.K.E.S. journal)
Having a lesbian focus also allowed them to organize with other St. Louis lesbian groups, such as Women Rising in Resistance, which was so commonly known to be a lesbian group that in the journal writers refer to it as “Lesbians Rising in Resistance.” When creating a list of books which they wanted the Women’s Resource Center to buy, nearly all the books were about lesbians or lesbian issues. All of these examples are ways that focusing around lesbians strengthened their activism and allowed them to have a sharp focus. Organizing along gender or queerness, though such organization may have strengths in its own right, would have diluted the focus and strength of their lesbian activism.
Tensions and Assimilation
In reading their notes from meetings and to one another, many of the tensions surrounding assimilation of lesbians, either into the category of queer or into heteronormative society, are visible. One writer discusses her fears about an assimilated lesbian identity—a topic she was able to discuss and engage with due to a lesbian-centered space. These fears were certainly valid, as assimilation is a large factor in what many people today recognize as the dissolution of a distinct lesbian movement. This writer discusses what it would look like to have an accepted lesbian identity, wondering:
“Isn’t this part of what we want, after all? To be accepted in the mainstream so that we are not persecuted + oppressed because of our life values. Or are we pleased with ourselves for being cool, hip, rad, and so aren’t willing to be mainstream ever? Is it a part of our beings to be “different”? Perhaps I’m being harsh, I realize that we want more changes made than just letting ourselves fit into mainstream. But if mainstream adopts enough of our values, won’t it eventually change to something better?” (D.Y.K.E.S. journal)
It’s important to note the timing of this writing in the mid-1980s. As women and lesbians made some gains, the need for a more radical politics seemed to be lessened. But that left this writer, and possibly many others, wondering where their brand of lesbianism fit. This writer notes the beginning of an assimilation that will continue, perhaps one of the causes leading to the eventual end of D.Y.K.E.S. as a group.
Washington University Special Collections. “D.Y.K.E.S. Do you keep echoing Sappho?” Journal. Washington University Women’s Resource Center. Series 01: Scrapbooks, Journals, and miscellaneous. Box 02. WUA00114.