Dyke March NYC: Kelly Cogswell and Gabrielle Korn Discuss The Annual Event's History And Importance

Voice To Voice: Discussing The History, Importance And Radical Possibility Of The Dyke March

Since launching our Voice to Voice conversation series in January, we've tackled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature, Black History Month, bullying and more.

In honor of Pride Month, today's conversation between writers and activists Kelly Cogswell and Gabrielle Korn centers around the Dyke March, an annual gathering of thousands of lesbians which takes place in cities around the world "in celebration of LBTQ women and to protest against ongoing discrimination, harassment, and anti-LBTQ violence in schools, on the job, in our families, and on the streets." The NYC Dyke March, which is one of the largest Dyke Marches, takes place this Saturday, June 23.

Kelly Cogswell is an independent journalist and columnist for New York's Gay City News whose work has been recognized by the New York Press Association. She was co-founder and editor of The Gully online magazine, one of the first online LGBT publications and the only to offer "queer views on everything." A founding member of the Lesbian Avengers, she was co-organizer of the first Dyke March in Washington, D.C. in 1993 that mobilized 20,000 lesbians to march to the White House. Afterwards, the Avengers turned into a national and international movement, with more than 60 chapters worldwide. In 2009, she created the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project.

Gabrielle Korn is a freelance writer, activist, and organizer. She received her B.A. in queer and feminist theory from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study in May of 2011. She is the former editorial assistant at On The Issues magazine. Currently, she’s a member of the New York City Dyke March committee and a coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

A few days before the 20th Dyke March in New York City, Gabrielle and Kelly chatted about their first dyke marches, the perils of learning to eat fire and why lesbian visibility will never go out of style.

Gabrielle Korn: What was your first Dyke March experience like -- the very first one in D.C.?

Kelly Cogswell: Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Once it started, anyway. I was one of the main organizers from the Lesbian Avengers and I'd spent the whole time in the van coming down from New York freaking out about all the things that could go wrong and how it would be all my fault. What if only fifty people came? What if there was just a hundred? Had we ordered too many flyers? Not enough? But when all these dyke started pouring into Dupont Circle. My god. It was incredible. I'd never seen so many lesbians in my life. We figured out there was something close to twenty thousand. That's like, a whole dyke city on the move. A small country.

One thing that was amazing was that we hadn’t put the call out for a "women’s march" and people responded anyway. Up until then, most lesbian marches didn't use the "L" word, and they certainly didn’t use the word "dyke," which was considered offensive -- partly because straight people used it as an insult and also because it seemed a little too butch, a little too working class. It meant you weren't kissing ass and trying to assimilate. And to have 20,000 lesbians responding to a call for a "dyke march," bringing their own signs, their own messages, cheering when the Lesbian Avengers ate fire in front of the White House. That was just incredible.

Gabrielle Korn: Did you eat fire?

Kelly Cogswell: Yeah, I was a fire-eater. Learning was really scary. The march was '93. We started eating fire in '92. The Avengers had only been in action a couple of months and we were having a demo to protest against a firebombing in Oregon that killed an African American dyke and this white gay man. And Jennifer Monson came up with the idea of fire-eating. Transforming the image of those people getting burned alive by a bunch of neo-Nazi wannabes. I actually only went to the session teaching fire-eating because a friend of mine was going and I wanted to hang out. And there were going to be some cute girls there. But once you’re there and everyone else is learning how to eat fire, you have to learn, too. Otherwise it’s embarrassing.

Gabrielle Korn: Well, otherwise you’re just That Person not eating fire.

Kelly Cogswell: I’m a coward actually.

Gabrielle Korn: It sounds like an evolutionarily beneficial fear to have.

Kelly Cogswell: Yeah, it’s like, fire, right in front of your face. And you’re sticking it in your mouth. That’s not normal. But on the other hand it looks really cool and afterwards I thought maybe my cool quotient went up a little.

Gabrielle Korn: So you felt tough.

Kelly Cogswell: For like five minutes. So that part of the Dyke March was really powerful for the Avengers that participated. And also for the people that watched in front of the White House. Of course it wasn't just the fire-eating, but the march itself. I think most lesbians don’t realize how powerful it is to be in the street with a bunch of dykes until you’ve done it. Maybe you feel like you already accept yourself. You don't even really need role models. We have imaginations, after all. Most humans can project themselves onto other humans. But then when you actually see all these other dykes, when you are actually out on the street with a gazillion of them, that's when you realize how incredibly liberating it is and how you suddenly feel like you exist. But you don’t know you’re missing that thing until you have it.

Gabrielle Korn: That’s exactly how I felt at my first Dyke March.

Kelly Cogswell: What was that like? When did you go, why did you go?

Gabrielle Korn: I was 19 --

Kelly Cogswell: How old you are now?

Gabrielle Korn: I’m 23. How old are you?

Kelly Cogswell: 46.

Gabrielle Korn: So, my first Dyke March. I was in college and I was having a hard time finding lesbians who I wanted to hang out with. It felt like almost every dyke I met just wanted to watch the "L Word" and get drunk and all the community was happening in bars and I couldn’t even get into bars all the time. Meanwhile, I was getting really excited about lesbian history and feminism and dying for friends to talk about it with. So that led me to start interning at the Lesbian Herstory Archives and I became close with Maxine Wolfe.

And I was talking to her about this one day and she suggested I join the Dyke March committee. At that point I hadn’t even been to a Dyke March and I figured I should probably go to one before trying to help organize it. Luckily it was June, so the Dyke March was happening in a couple of weeks. I went and it was just the most amazing thing. I had a few close friends who were lesbians but I didn’t have the visual image of a ton of lesbians in one place and now here I was seeing thousands and thousands of dykes together. And I remember, I was wearing a pink dress and this really cute butch girl came up to me and gave me a flier about femme appreciation. And I felt like I was being seen for the first time in a way that mattered. The next year I joined the committee.

Kelly Cogswell: When you say it was the first time you were seen in a way that mattered, do you mean just as a femme or something larger?

Gabrielle Korn: As something larger -- because I didn't actually identify as a femme. But that didn’t matter because I was being seen as someone who belonged exactly where I was. As part of something bigger than my own experience, in a sea of people with similar experiences. I could look at the dykes around me and know that not only were they dykes, but they were dykes with something to say, to protest, to celebrate. And they could look back at me and know the same thing.

Kelly Cogswell: I think being seen, being visible, still matters more than people think. And not just in the political area, where having a presence is pretty much a prerequisite for gaining any kind of power. It's something more fundamental.

I think it's one of the reasons the first Dyke March got such a great response and why people went home from D.C. and launched their own Avenger chapters and held their own Dyke Marches. It was because dykes had been doing work for everybody else for practically two decades. Dealing with women's issues and reproductive rights. Supporting their gay male friends fighting AIDS. Our allies didn't really see us. And we could barely see ourselves. Even now, it's not enough to have Ellen Degeneres or Wanda Sykes. Especially when lesbians that are represented on TV or in the movies all seem very straight, very femme. They never look like me.

Gabrielle Korn: And when you do have women represented who are androgynous or who are on the masculine spectrum, it seems like they aren’t lesbians. Like, Starbuck on "Battlestar Galactica" was totally butch and straight. And now "Game of Thrones" has a straight butch, too. Now I’ve revealed what a dork I am. I would just like to see a dyke who is a dyke.

Kelly Cogswell: Maybe a dyke character who is a UPS driver? Like this Latina I see all the time doing the rounds in my neighborhood.

Gabrielle Korn: Exactly.

Kelly Cogswell: Imagine what it was like to go to D.C. for a national gay march and have some cute girl hand you a flyer inviting you to a Dyke March. Finally, something for you. Just you. They also liked that the main organizers were the Lesbian Avengers. That name alone evokes so much. Lesbians were sick of the stereotypes. That lesbians are humorless, ugly, rigid. Furiously judgmental. Prudes. The Lesbian Avengers were angry but they were also whimsical and serious and silly. And a little bit sexy, too. And I think people were ready for that.

And the anarchy of the Dyke Marches still reflects that. There might be a theme or something but people still express themselves however they want. Wear a wedding dress. Go topless. There's no Grand Marshall getting honored. No official march order. You don't pay to attend. You just turn up. You can bring your own signs. If immigration equality's your thing, you can bring your own banner. Hell, you can bring your own band. If you want to march in front, you just get your ass up there and do it. Anybody that wants to can take a turn carrying the banner. It's for everybody. All ages, all races. Everybody. The last time I went I was surprised at how diverse it was.

Gabrielle Korn: Well, not exactly everyone right? It’s people who identify as dykes and/or women.

Kelly Cogswell: Well, yes. It is the Dyke March, so if you identify as a lesbian or a dyke then you should come and express whatever is on your agenda. We should probably add here that most Dyke Marches prefer to have male allies support from the sidelines, so all the attention actually is on the dykes. Okay, let’s talk about the street. Why do you think it's important to get dykes in the street?

Gabrielle Korn: It’s important for dykes to claim space and to take up as much space and be as loud and as visible as possible. I think you have to be as public about what you’re fighting for as you can be.

Kelly Cogswell: Didn’t you hear that the street isn’t relevant anymore, now that we have this whole virtual world?

Gabrielle Korn: One thing about online activism is that if you’re not looking for it, you might not ever find it and you can really easily avoid it. Whereas if you have 20,000 dykes on Fifth Avenue and you are a homophobe in a car trying to get across town, you have no choice but to sit there and watch the march go by.

Kelly Cogswell: Would you say it’s effective, all of the online petitions and stuff? Do you think LGBT people really feel like they are accomplishing something when they click to add their signature to a petition to save some gay person off in a developing country?

Gabrielle Korn: Maybe to a certain extent. Because progress is being made, even if it’s in the most mainstream way possible. Marriage equality, people finally talking about bullying, anti-discrimination laws are getting passed. I think people do feel some sort of ownership about that. But I think it’s a pretty isolating experiencing to be at your computer reading an article and then just silently signing a petition about it.

Kelly Cogswell: Also, it doesn't do much to change the minds of people that are physically repulsed by us -- that hate us in the flesh.

Gabrielle Korn: Absolutely. And those people are everywhere. I used to live on the Lower East Side and it was terrible in terms of people harassing me. Any time I was out with my girlfriend, there would be men shouting stuff at us. And it seems like when gay people think of the Lower East Side they think Where else could be better for lesbians?

Kelly Cogswell: Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons people still welcome the Dyke March. It's an opportunity to be safely out on the street and claiming the street. That's really true of the whole Pride weekend when you see so many couples out. I think even people that hate the commercialism of the regular Pride parade, still get a kick out of just walking around and seeing gay people that are out and together and look really happy because they own the city for one or two days.

Gabrielle Korn: It feels like an alternate universe… where everyone is gay.

Kelly Cogswell: For at least a moment, you’re part of the majority. And in the Dyke March, you’re not just the majority, you’re at least 90% depending on who drags their male friends. I mean talk about the 99%! It feels good to own the street!

The NYC Dyke March begins at Bryant Park, corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue at 5pm on Saturday, June 23. For more information, click here.

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