Friday, March 31st, 2023

In Appreciation of Eleanor Cooper

David Thorstad, guest bloggerDecember 10, 2008.

During the mid-1970s, when I was President of Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL) frequently collaborated in joint speaking appearances before college and high school classes, and in fleeting gay and lesbian coalitions, mostly in support of a gay rights bill in the New York City Council.

But in 1977, in the wake of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children (from homosexuality) campaign, my collaboration with Eleanor went into high gear and continued for several years. It is a period I look back on with fond memories and thankfulness at the spirit of cooperation and common struggle that she so much helped to facilitate.

This was a time when many lesbians had left gay groups to form their own organizations. Some found it odd that lesbian separatists, as LFLers considered themselves to be, would so soon agree again to work together with gay men. Anita Bryant can be thanked for that, because many lesbians retained a suspicion, and in some cases a hostility, about joining with men in common causes, even where they retained their independence and separate identity. I often talked with Eleanor about this, and her approach was pragmatic — it was in both our interests to join in some common endeavors — even though tensions between male and female groups would occasionally surface.

This was the atmosphere in which I got to know Eleanor well. She, Father Leo Joseph of the Church of the Beloved Disciple, and I became the spokespeople for a new, broad coalition of dozens of gay and lesbian groups, political and religious, radical and liberal, leftist and Democrat, called the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights. For a couple of years, CLGR became the main vehicle for New York-area groups to come together in struggle. We organized protest marches, pickets, TV appearances, public forums, meetings with politicians to press our cause, and, in February 1979, played an important role in the conference in Philadelphia that called the first march on Washington in October that year.

Although Eleanor and I didn’t associate much outside of our joint political activities, those were so intense that we were in almost daily touch with each other. There was never any tension or unpleasant feelings between us. She was honest, openly voicing her opinions, warm, always ready to chuckle or, sometimes, to put her foot down at what seemed to her to be misguided or foolish attitudes. Thinking back on those years, it is striking how much fun they were, how much laughter and hilarity existed side by side with our serious efforts to mobilize gay visibility and militancy. A sense of humor was always close to the surface.

I can’t forget the mirth when, at one CLGR steering committee meeting, we discussed the widely believed rumor that a city councilman from Staten Island who had voted against a gay rights bill was gay. We tossed around ideas about how we could expose him. One of us proposed a leaflet showing City Hall with the Staten Island ferry sitting atop it, and the caption: “What is the State Island fairy doing on the City Council?” The laughter went on for several minutes. To this day I regret that we didn’t distribute such a leaflet (could we be sued? would it be legal? would it be counterproductive?). But the fun we had considering it made it worthwhile.

We also organized the first big protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during which one of our demands was “Separate Church and State!” I believe that was the first time that demand had been raised at a gay and lesbian demonstration. Flo Kennedy was one of the speakers. “It’s time to stop sucking and start biting!” she told the crowd in her inimitable style.

Another protest involving the New York State Coalition of Gay Organizations (NYSCGO) was held in 1976 at Madison Square Garden during the Democrat convention. I had proposed we stage a love-in as part of it, with naked couples having sex in the street. That was not taken seriously, as it would have resulted in too many arrests. Still, the leaflet to publicize the protest took at its fun slogan one from the Gay Liberation Front: “Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!”

Once some leftists, including the Workers World Party and the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (a group of straight white radicals who came out of the Weather Underground and who viewed their role as merely supporting the Black Panthers and anything third world peoples wanted, and whose style was to guilt-trip anyone else who thought their own issues were also important), proposed that CLGR organize child care at every meeting. I opposed it on the grounds that no one had yet demonstrated that they wouldn’t be able to come to meetings because they had kids to take care of. Eleanor too thought it was merely a disruptive proposal. But we all agreed to try it and see how it would work. As a joke, and to irritate those who brought the motion, I proposed that pederasts be in charge of organizing the child care (as had been done by a Trotskyist group in Belgium at their national conference). No one ever brought a child to a meeting.

In the late seventies, I had a boyfriend for a while who was in his early teens, and I shared this news with Eleanor. She never condemned it. Quite the contrary. She would occasionally ask, “How’s your friend?”

CLGR held a large conference at Columbia University to plan a march on the United Nations. Prairie Fire tried to disrupt the meeting by accusing us of racism for organizing a protest on the same weekend—though not even on the same day!—as one they claimed was planned by the American Indian Movement. Like most of us, Eleanor was furious at them. (To my knowledge, the AIM event never happened.)

I mention this because a new issue at this time was what was called “lesbian motherhood.” (Gay fathers didn’t have the same cachet or urgency, and perhaps there weren’t so many of them.) The issue surfaced at the Philadelphia conference in February 1979 that called the march on Washington when it was proposed that a demand to “support lesbian mothers” be added to the list of official demands. I spoke against the motion, arguing that motherhood was not always seen by gay men as a positive institution, but rather was often experienced as part of our oppression. The motion was defeated, and afterwards Eleanor told me that she too had opposed it. She found the issue an irritant: “Some of us have managed all these years not to get pregnant,” she said, dismissing the whole thing. At the time, I found that sensible, coming from a militant lesbian. How quaint such debates seem these days, when so many same-sexers can’t wait to get the marriage ball and chain and to have kids. In the 1970s, same-sexers were not yet in a rush to imitate heterosexuals the way they are today.

The only time I can recall when I felt she let me down was when a few men and women went to a bar after a meeting, and I mentioned that I considered circumcision to be mutilation and child abuse of baby boys. All the lesbians dismissed my concern as not to be taken seriously. Of course, hardly anyone was even talking about circumcision back then, so ignorance about the issue generally prevailed.

Ours was a collaboration of genuine affection and mutual respect. “You have integrity,” she told me once, by way of explaining how it was that we worked together so well. The same was true of her, and also of Betty Santoro, the other main activist from LFL working in coalition at the time.

In those days, every once in a while some innocent guy at a meeting would use the word “lady.” He would regret it when the lesbians present would hoot at him and give him an unforgettable consciousness raising on proper language. But Eleanor had an extermination business that she called “Lady Killers.” She guaranteed six months of no cockroaches after her thorough treatment. She didn’t use poisons, but boric acid, plus a “secret ingredient,” which I deduced was probably sugar. She charged about fifty dollars and her work was far more effective than the exterminator who squirted sticky and smelly goo once a month.

I lost touch with Eleanor years ago, but often thought of her, and always fondly. Like everyone who knew her, her passing is a huge loss.

See Eleanor’s obituary in the Gay City News


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