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Karla Jay was born February 22, 1947 in Brooklyn, New York. Her primary school mistook her vision problem as a sign of intellectual inability and placed her in remedial classes for four years. Although her eye disorder was eventually identified, she didn’t learn to read until the fourth grade. She quickly devoted herself to the joy of reading and learning. After high school, Karla won a scholarship to Barnard College where she studied French and Russian. She continued her education and received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from New York University in 1984. 
 
During her college years, Karla grew increasingly involved in the feminist and gay rights movements. In 1970m she became the first female chair of the Gay Liberation Front. She was also active in the Lavender Menace. In 1970, she helped stage an interruption of the Second Congress to Unite Women. Clad in Lavender Menace t-shirts, Karla and her collaborators demanded a platform to speak openly as lesbians and to encourage others to embrace lesbians as collaborators in the women’s movement. 
 
In 1972 Karla and Allen Young co-edited Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. Comprised of manifestos and personal accounts, the book documents the history and experience of the early leaders of the gay and lesbian liberation movement. Throughout the 1970s, Karla published additional co-edited volumes with Young about gay and lesbian culture and the fight for equal rights. 
 
In 2004, due to a condition called choroidal neovascularization, Karla lost her near vision, and with it the ability to read. Two years later, she wrote an essay about the experience, “When Darkness Falls: A Journey into Visual Disability,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education nominated as Best Essay of 2006. Since losing her vision, she has advocated to make literature—particularly of LGBTQ material—more widely available as audiobooks. 
 
Karla taught at Pace University in New York for nearly forty years, and is now Distinguished Professor Emerita of English, Women’s & Gender Studies, and Queer Studies. She lives in Manhattan with her wife Karen Kerner, a retired emergency room physician, and with the constant companionship of her service dog, Duchess. OUTWORDS interviewed Karla on an unseasonably cool, rainy New York day in August 2016, with Duchess faithfully monitoring the proceedings. 
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Karla, do me a favor. Start off by stating and spelling your first and last names.
Karla Jay: Karla, K-A-R-L-A, and my last name is Jay, J-A-Y.
Mason Funk: Great.
Kate Kunath: Can I actually ... Let me just [inaudible].
Mason Funk: Hold, please.
Kate Kunath: I'm sorry. Okay. Let's start over.
Mason Funk: [00:00:30] Can you start off by telling us about your family, when and where you were born, who was in your family, and what your family was like?
Kate Kunath: Do me a favor. You've got your body turned towards me.
Karla Jay: Okay. This way?
Kate Kunath: Yeah. That's great.
Karla Jay: Is that better?
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
Karla Jay: Okay, good.
Mason Funk: I would say even a little bit more.
Karla Jay: More? Okay. How's that?
Mason Funk: That will be great.
Karla Jay: Is that good?
Mason Funk: Are you still comfortable?
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Great. Feel free to shift. We could do a foot rest if you want do that. That's fine. Tell me about when and where you were born and your family.
Karla Jay: [00:01:00] I was born in Brooklyn in February, 1947 in one of the great blizzards of 1947, for which my family never forgave me. Because of that, a kind of struggle ensued. My father wanted to name me Gail after the blizzard, and my mother objected. Finally they named me after a Danish freighter
Karla Jay: [00:01:30] that had docked that week. My father worked on the docks, and he worked on the freighters, so he read the shipping news everyday to see which ships were coming in and which ships were going out. I say I was always grateful that something didn't come in like the Lusitania, because I woke up with a really okay name because of that. I was born in the middle of this blizzard,
Karla Jay: [00:02:00] and my father and my brother were stuck on the Long Island railroad for twelve hours between Long Beach and Brooklyn, which is a half hour ride. I came into the world with a little bit of drama. That was the start of a middle-class existence in Flatbush, Brooklyn. That was a neighborhood that was almost entirely Jewish, Italian, and Irish.
Karla Jay: [00:02:30] I don't think we had people we could identify as other groups. I don't think I knew any people who were Catholic. There was one African-American child in my school, in my elementary school. The neighborhoods in the North were quite segregated at that time. That's how we lived in Brooklyn. It was very middle class. The streets were quiet.
Karla Jay: [00:03:00] I grew up in apartment buildings, and we played in the streets. That was how children grew up. There was something called the parade grounds, which was left over from World War II. By the time I was born after World War II, it was a big dust bowl. They have since reconstructed it, but then it was just a big pile of dust with no grass on it.
Karla Jay: [00:03:30] Occasionally we would go over there and play as well. That was what we in Brooklyn played. We played things like stickball, and stoopball, and all of these games that kids play in the streets of New York. I very much was that kind of little kid of the streets, like other little kids.
Mason Funk: Your family, I read somewhere, were a conservative Jewish Family. Is that correct? Can you tell us about the role that religion played in your family?
Karla Jay: [00:04:00] My family wasn't ... They considered themselves liberal. My family politically probably considered themselves liberal. Like most Jewish families they were Democrats. They had voted for Franklin Roosevelt. I don't know whether they voted for Eisenhower. They did not have
Karla Jay: [00:04:30] any perspective on race relations. They really were very much living in the wake of two historical events that shaped them. The first one, of course, was the Depression. My parents were both very much affected by having survived the Depression and being economically worried in many ways for the rest of their lives
Karla Jay: [00:05:00] because so many people they knew had been wiped out by the Depression. The second event of course was World War II. Because we were Jewish, they were very concerned that we would be discriminated against as Jews, and they thought that we should assimilate. They were not religious, my parents, in any way.
Karla Jay: [00:05:30] My father's grandfather, I think it was his father's father, had been a grand rabbi in Kiev. He had been an ultra-orthodox Rabbi. When he killed a Cossack who dared to enter into his house, the family had fled Kiev and had come to the United States in the 1870s,
Karla Jay: [00:06:00] part of their trip in a rowboat because the boat sank on the way over here. My grandmother at the time was a very small child. As a result of that, growing up with my grandfather, who actually this grandfather was from England, so as a result of my grandmother's experience fleeing the Cossacks, and my grandfather coming from the East End of London
Karla Jay: [00:06:30] and having been an ultra-orthodox rabbi, my father really hated religion. It was actually my great-grandfather who I never knew, but his grandfather used to wake him up in the middle of the night to form a minion. He claimed to me that he didn't know Hebrew anymore, although I did hear him speak Hebrew at funerals.
Karla Jay: [00:07:00] They told me they hadn't given me a Hebrew name, which was very unusual for Jewish families. My brother had a Hebrew name, which he needed for his bar mitzvah. I discovered I had a Hebrew name at my mother's funeral. My mother's first cousin told me my Hebrew name when my mother was dead.
Karla Jay: [00:07:30] This was how against religion they were. They just really were not into religion except to, they liked the food. I said we were culinary Jews. We ate food for various holidays. You knew which holiday it was by what appeared on the table. Other than that we didn't have a particular sense of religion growing up.
Karla Jay: [00:08:00] I knew I was Jewish. I knew I was not a Christian. I was beaten up for being a Jew by other children. One of the things that was common in my neighborhood was that, I think it was Wednesday or Thursday afternoon in elementary school, Catholic children were taken out of the school at two in the afternoon and they were taken to catechism.
Karla Jay: [00:08:30] Often after that, they would be very anti-semitic because they were told during catechism in those days that the Jews had killed Christ. There was one boy in particular who, ironically, he lived in my building, and ironically his father was born Jewish. His father was a convert to Catholicism. He was the most anti-semitic kid in the neighborhood.
Karla Jay: [00:09:00] When he went to catechism, he would come home, and if I ran into him on one of those days, he would beat me up. He would say that I had killed Christ. I have to say that part of me was a little bit flattered that he thought I had killed someone. I thought, "Wow, he thinks I'm tough enough that I could kill this kid named Christ." I had no idea who he was talking about,
Karla Jay: [00:09:30] quite honestly. I knew no one named Jesus Christ. My parents did not talk about Christianity. We didn't have a Christmas tree. I had no idea who this kid was accusing me of having killed. On the other hand it was really awful. I had to run from this kid and a couple of the other kids. Eventually this kid did stop chasing me.
Karla Jay: [00:10:00] One day when we got older ... This continued for years. One day he had, when we got older, this continued for years and I got to be a very fast runner. I could usually outrun him. His name was Harry and in Brooklyn we called it Haarry. It's like, poor guy. One day he was chasing me and he had a big knife. He had this Bowie knife he'd gotten somewhere probably from his father who had also given him boxing lessons, unfortunately.
Karla Jay: [00:10:30] Harry was chasing me and he fell on his knife and it went into his leg. That was ...
Mason Funk: Sorry, one second. He fell on the knife?
He fell on his Bowie knife.
Mason Funk: Just reset that question.
Karla Jay: Okay.
Mason Funk: So this kid Harry ...
Karla Jay: Harry.
Mason Funk: ... who used to torment me and was chasing me with a knife.
Karla Jay: Harry used to beat me up and one day he chased me with a knife. The knife wasn't out. I think it was in his pocket, but he fell on it.
Karla Jay: [00:11:00] Then the knife went in his leg and he stupidly pulled it out which actually we knew you weren't supposed to pull a knife out of your leg. How we knew that in early age. I saw him go into the bicycle room with the knife. He went upstairs because now he had a big hole in his leg and he went upstairs to get this thing stitched up I guess. I went into the bicycle room and I stole his knife and I hid it. I just hid it.
Karla Jay: [00:11:30] I didn't want this knife, but I took it and I put it someplace else so at least he wouldn't have this knife to go after me with. The neighborhood was kind of tough and it wasn't tough. I think it was kind of common just growing up back then for kids to be beaten up. It was Brooklyn, it was the 50's, we had gangs, the Lords of Flatbush to put it into context,
Karla Jay: [00:12:00] and the Ladies of Flatbush. We had a lot of gangs and we didn't have a concept back then that bullying was wrong in some ways. It simply happened all the time and you either could defend yourself which I generally did. I always would run if I could. If I had to fight I would. I would defend myself.
Karla Jay: [00:12:30] The woman who raised me said that I never started a fight, but I finished quite a few. I tried to get away, but when I couldn't, I would get into it. My brother on the other hand, was often at the bottom of a pile of other kids. He was four years older than I was, but he often could not defend himself and you could find him under a big pile of boys.
Karla Jay: [00:13:00] If you saw a pile of boys up there, my brother, unfortunately, was on the bottom. That was the sad reality and after a while he didn't go out. That's what life was like for kids who were smaller and he wasn't effeminate, he was just smaller and not as strong as they were.
Mason Funk: You just mentioned a woman you call her the mother, the woman who raised me.
Karla Jay: Yes.
Mason Funk: Was that not your mother?
Karla Jay: [00:13:30] No. My mother was there. I was from about the age of two on, my mother became unable to take care of me. My mother was mentally ill and she became increasingly mentally ill. My father had to get a full time housekeeper to take care of me. It was kind of the best thing that happened to me as a child
Karla Jay: [00:14:00] and I think that I did better in life because Nene came into my life. Nene Brown was a very young, at that point, African American woman. She was a teenager when she came into our home. She was married. She lived with us most of the time and then she went home on her days off to be with her husband.
Karla Jay: [00:14:30] She had a great sense of humor. My mother just really couldn't function in many ways. When Nene came into the house, I was now maybe about three years old I think, I was at least three years old and my mother hadn't, for example, she hadn't bothered to teach me toilet training.
Karla Jay: [00:15:00] She hadn't taken me out of the crib. I was still sleeping in an infant's crib. She just couldn't be bothered training me with a lot of things that mothers did and so Nene just took these tasks on. It was really weird that she just ... When this is your life, you just accept it as being normal.
Karla Jay: [00:15:30] I can remember sleeping in the house against the bars of a crib at the age of four. Then, finally, my mother got me a bed. I had to learn to sleep in the bed because they were going to send me away to a summer camp and I didn't know how to sleep in a bed. By now, it was kind of late for a large child to sleep without bars.
Karla Jay: [00:16:00] Nene took pillows and she put them on both sides of my bed and every night I fell out of the bed. I'd roll out of the bed because I was used to rolling into the bars and leaning on the bars. Otherwise I just hopped in and out of the crib over the bars is what I remember doing. Nene taught me to sleep in the bed and she took me out to play. She tried to teach me to read.
Karla Jay: [00:16:30] The only thing Nene was interested in reading particularly, we read comic strips and we read baseball scores. She loved the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The first thing she taught me to read and write and I wasn't very good at those, was she'd take me to the games and we'd draw the boxes on the box scores. That was my early reading and writing lessons as a child.
Karla Jay: [00:17:00] It was fine and, as I said, the comics were great, she took me out to play and she had a great sense of humor. She was always laughing and finally when I went to camp, when I was 4 1/2 I was sent away for two months to sleep away camp, which was very young by today's standards. She had to make sure that I was toilet trained. I couldn't tie my shoes,
Karla Jay: [00:17:30] but I did go to sleep away camp at the age of 4 1/2. I said once to my mother, I said, "How could you send me away for two months when I was 4 years old?" My mother said, "You weren't 4, you were 4 1/2." I realized at a very young age, you just could not have a rational discussion with my mother. You just couldn't. I went away to camp and my father and my mother came up once,
Karla Jay: [00:18:00] but I heard many years later she caused such a ruckus that the owner of the camp actually met with me when I was a young adult. He said my mother had caused such a disturbance, as I said she was really mentally ill or she was either just bipolar, very depressed or schizophrenic. I don't know what was exactly wrong with her and later on she was institutionalized,
Karla Jay: [00:18:30] but in my childhood she was just locked in her room for most of my childhood and we didn't see her. She did come up to camp the first year I was there and the guy who ran the camp said, "You know, your mother came up and she caused such a disturbance that your mother started what was later known as visiting day." They didn't want parents just appearing willy nilly because of my mother.
Mason Funk: [00:19:00] Wow.
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: When you look back on that, on the surface that sounds like a pretty tragic story that could have resulted in a lot of painful memories. Do you experience it that way or in some other way when you think about your mom and her struggle with mental illness and eventually being institutionalized?
Karla Jay: When I was a child, I really wished for a different mother.
Karla Jay: [00:19:30] She was such an embarrassment to be with. You just never knew when she was going to ...
Mason Funk: Sorry, I'm going to interrupt, there's a siren.
Karla Jay: Yes, we have a fire department one block away.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Karla Jay: On some level you think these can't be my parents. I remember having a narrative when I was a child that I wasn't my parent's children, that they had found me in a basket in a Schrafft's . I don't know how I had ...
Karla Jay: [00:20:00] I think because I liked ice cream and Schrafft's was an ice cream parlor ... ... I think because I liked ice cream, and Schrafft's was an ice cream parlor. I decided that my birth mother had left me in a basket in an ice cream parlor. I don't know why, it was a fancy ice cream parlor on Flatbush Avenue and that was my little narrative. I found out later on my brother also believed that these just could not be his parents. We were just in denial.
Mason Funk: Sorry, now they're doing something where they're turning on and off.
Kate Kunath: [crosstalk]
Karla Jay: [00:20:30] That's the chief.
Mason Funk: Sitting back?
Kate Kunath: No, when you're actually leaning forward.
Mason Funk: Oh, really?
Karla Jay: That will happen after they go out, the chief goes out a little bit later.
Mason Funk: Oh, I see. Okay, I don't want-
Kate Kunath: [inaudible] further.
Mason Funk: Should I sit on my chin? Like this?
Kate Kunath: Now lean forward. lean forward.
Mason Funk: I am leaning forward.
Kate Kunath: Well there was one point where you're on your elbows and that was the best.
Mason Funk: Right here? How's this?
Kate Kunath: [00:21:00] Well, you were lower. Now it's not really working.
Mason Funk: Oh, really? How about this? Or this?
Kate Kunath: You were like this.
Mason Funk: Like this?
Kate Kunath: No, like this. Yeah, like this.
Mason Funk: Oh, like this, maybe?
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Oh, okay. I can definitely sit like this for long periods of time. The reason is I'm being reflected in one of the frames, pieces of artwork behind you, other wise it wouldn't be so specific.
Karla Jay: [00:21:30] I see. I was wondering why you, whether you could see in the shot.
Mason Funk: [crosstalk]
Karla Jay: Okay, I see. This is going to be one of these arty shots where you can see Mason, okay.
Mason Funk: We're trying to not see Mason is the goal. Okay, so here we go. Just pick up with the idea that both you and your brother ... Maybe you could start that idea again since we're not complete. From an early age, and include the part about Schrafft's.
Karla Jay: [00:22:00] I think, from an early age, both my brother and I just were in denial that these were our parents. We thought that we were adopted. We both thought we had to be adopted and these people simply just could not be our parents. We didn't have a fantasy like you see in a movie where our parents were princes or princesses. Our parents were just somebody else. We didn't know who, just anybody. Anybody else.
Karla Jay: [00:22:30] We didn't know who those people might be and my fantasy was I was found in a basket in an ice cream parlor and somehow brought home to this family. The other side of it is that as a child, you kind of just deal with things because you don't know any other reality. These are your parents, you've had them since you were born, they always were this way,
Karla Jay: [00:23:00] your brother always was who he was, and you just were living there in this dysfunctional setting and you didn't know any other setting. That's why I think I really came out okay because I wound up with Nene who was really wonderful and happy and smart. I lucked out. I try to look at it like that.
Karla Jay: [00:23:30] The other side of it is my mother wasn't born that way. She had hard luck and that happened to her. I don't think she was born like that. It's a combination, maybe, of bad genes and bad luck that things happened to her. Later on I developed a lot of sympathy for her when I got older.
Karla Jay: [00:24:00] When I was a kid I was terrible. It was really hard and I just tried to keep away from her as much as I could. She really didn't like me, my mother. On some level she loved me. On a lot of levels I wasn't the child she wanted. She wanted a little girl she could dress up in bows and ribbons who would be a little Barbie doll for her and I wasn't that girl. I was a tomboy.
Karla Jay: [00:24:30] I liked to wear pants, cowboy outfit. I wanted to play sports. I wanted to run around the streets, I didn't want to jump rope, I didn't want to play with girls, I wanted to play with boys. I was absolutely the little girl she never wanted to have and she was really disappointed
Karla Jay: [00:25:00] and she didn't know how to cope with that. She just thought I would outgrow it. I was just not the kid she had wanted to have. I was a big disappointment. My parents were older. People thought my father was my grandfather. They routinely would say to me, "Oh, how nice. You're with your grandpa," and I'd say, "No, that's my father."
Karla Jay: [00:25:30] My mother was 12 years younger, so 11, 12 years younger and she looked a lot younger. People didn't think that, particularly, but for that period, she was older for a mother. She was in her mid-30s when I was born and in those days, that was older. I didn't know until my 30s that she had been married once before. People did not talk of things back then.
Mason Funk: [00:26:00] Right, wow. That's fascinating. That's really, really fascinating family history.
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: So tell me, you were a tomboy, you knew how to look out for yourself. How did you make your way through childhood and adolescence to college. How did you navigate all that until you went away. I don't know if you went away, but until you went to college.
Karla Jay: I mean, really, the first kind of defining experience for me was going to summer camp
Karla Jay: [00:26:30] at the age of 4 and a half and I was put in something they called J-bunk, which was for kids who were too young to be with the regular kids. It was at that age I discovered, as many budding lesbians probably discovered, camp counselors who were obviously, in retrospect, lesbians. I didn't have a word for that back then.
Karla Jay: [00:27:00] I just knew that these women were different from my mother, they were different from my aunts, they were different from Nene, and I was like them. I had no words for it, for this difference, except that they were like me, and I just loved being around them and it was a great experience. I just loved going to summer camp. One of the things that was defining for me, as a child,
Karla Jay: [00:27:30] was when I was at camp, the other little girls cried a lot during the summer. To be separated at that age from their parents, I cried when I went home. Just like, aah, I don't want to go home. It was so weird for me to be around other children and not to understand their reactions to things. Then I went off to school at an early age because they didn't have laws about age restrictions.
Karla Jay: [00:28:00] Again, if you were toilet trained, you could go to kindergarten so off I went. By that age, kindergarten was okay. The major challenge in kindergarten was that I was left-handed and in those days they tried to make you right-handed. They weren't brutal about it, but they would take things out of your left hand and put them into your right hand, and I would just put it back in my left hand when they went away.
Karla Jay: [00:28:30] I was probably visually impaired when I was born, and I couldn't see very well and I didn't know it because this was the way I saw. When I saw leaves, they were on the ground. I just couldn't see and I functioned very well. I could hear very well. I did have a lot of accidents because I couldn't see. I walked into things,
Karla Jay: [00:29:00] I fell off things, I had a lot of ... My father called my Stitch at one point because I just had so many accidents. I split my head open, I fell on fences. I just simply couldn't see, and I didn't know I couldn't see. When I went to school, the big challenge for me in school was I couldn't see the blackboard,
Karla Jay: [00:29:30] but I didn't know that the other kids could see the blackboard. I thought the teacher was up there waving at the class. I didn't know what she was doing. I sat there and pretended I knew what was going on. At a very early age I was put into a special class for slow learners, and what we called retarded children back then, that was called, people just called it the dummy class.
Karla Jay: [00:30:00] I was put in that class through the 3rd grade ... Dummy class. I was put in that class through the third grade. What I did that they thought I was just stupid, I mean I really didn't know that I was making things worse, was they occasionally had an eye test, and I didn't want to fail it so I would listen to what the kid in front of me would say when the kid watched the eye chart, and I would just repeat it. They were sure I could see and I was just stupid.
Karla Jay: [00:30:30] I couldn't read. Every year my eyesight got worse, and my mother, I found these postcards that my mother had marked up that I had sent from summer camp, and every year my handwriting, I could write a little bit when I was five years old, but as I got to be seven or eight my handwriting and spelling and everything got worse and worse.
Karla Jay: [00:31:00] My mother instead of noting that there was something wrong here, she wrote in all my postcards, note spelling. I was just very upset. All the words are spelled wrong, the letters were like going the wrong way. I saw these postcards, it's really kind of sad that she did this.
Mason Funk: Hold your thought please...
Karla Jay: [00:31:30] People wait til people come to light things up around here.
Mason Funk: Right. [crosstalk].
Mason Funk: Hear you in 11M.
Karla Jay: Yeah. Let's get the fire department in gear. Not the usual doughnut run.
Mason Funk: Or the ice cream truck.
Karla Jay: Yeah. I don't think we have those around here. I haven't heard them anymore.
Mason Funk: That's a memory from my distant childhood.
Karla Jay: Yeah. We had those, Bungalow Bar we had.
Mason Funk: [00:32:00] Okay. Man, this is an incredible, I mean all these are incredible stories. You were in the dummy class. How did you make your way forward from there?
Karla Jay: I was in the dummy class. My mother called me dummy. She would write notes in which she'd say "Dummy take your lunch." Or something like that.
Karla Jay: [00:32:30] People thought I was stupid. By the third grade I was in a class with these kids in which the teacher thought we were so stupid that she assigned us numbers because she thought we were too stupid to remember each other's names. She thought that if we had numbers which we might know, we could recognize each other and we could identify with that number.
Karla Jay: [00:33:00] Some of the kids who had her for two years started to really forget their names. I started to forget my name. By the end of that year my mother and Nene Nene would yell out the window, she'd come out for me and I sometimes wouldn't even respond to my name. She'd yell my name Karla and when I wouldn't come she'd say "Thirty six get over here." Then I'd come.
Karla Jay: [00:33:30] If you were in school from nine to three and somebody's calling you thirty six, that's who you think you are. I'd see other kids in the street, for years afterwards I'd say "Hey twelve, is that you?" You know, it really sounds bizarre. It really was strange, it wasn't as horrible as you'd think. There were a lot of kids in this class for dummies,
Karla Jay: [00:34:00] there were a few kids in there who were developmentally disabled. There certainly were a few kids in there who maybe shouldn't have been in school. We weren't taught the things that other kids were taught. I wasn't taught how to read and write. I wasn't taught most of the subjects, I don't know what the other kids were taught because we simply weren't. The teacher mostly tried to control us.
Karla Jay: [00:34:30] She taught us how to be good citizens because this was the McCarthy era. Every day the teacher drew a big cross on the board and on one side of the cross she put good citizens, and on the other side she put bad citizens. I know what she was doing because every day she repeated the same lesson because we were stupid. She'd say "Good citizens do this, good citizens are clean, bad citizens are dirty."
Karla Jay: [00:35:00] She did the same thing every day. The principle of this elementary school came in every morning and said "Hello class. Good better best, never let it rest until you're good is better and you're better's best." He left. That was the principal of the school. Some of the kids I was in that class with were very entertaining.
Karla Jay: [00:35:30] They were maybe bad boys mostly who were put in there because they didn't behave. By the time I was in high school, they were in juvenile detention centers or prisons because of the way they had been treated in this elementary school. I remember one kid stole a car,
Karla Jay: [00:36:00] I saw him one day with a Cadillac driving through the neighborhood and the next day he was in jail. It was his one moment of glory driving a Cadillac through the neighborhood. They stole hubcaps off cars, unfortunately they were police cars in front of the police station. They weren't the brightest kids, they were a little, kind of hoodlums. They didn't pick on me these kids, not the kids in my class. They did get into a lot of trouble,
Karla Jay: [00:36:30] the teacher was mostly involved trying to control them, hitting them. She hit them, she put them under her desk. I mean that was my life in school through the third grade. Then they discovered that I had what was called pathological myopia and I got glasses, and I learned to see and I got out of that class in the fourth grade. I learned to read, I learned to write.
Karla Jay: [00:37:00] I got out of there, but it took me many years really to catch up to other children. I didn't miss much. This is the sad news about elementary school. The sad news is in retrospect I missed very little. I can't think of something I really missed in elementary school that I regret. These boys were very entertaining, they kept us amused all day long with their antics, running around the classroom, swinging from the chandeliers as it were.
Karla Jay: [00:37:30] I didn't feel I missed anything. Again it was something that was just the norm. It was the group I was stuck with.
Mason Funk: Great. Well let's jump forward.
Karla Jay: Okay.
Mason Funk: So we can kind of, they're just like your classroom buddies that entertain you, but I want to also make sure we have time for more events in the later part of your life.
Mason Funk: [00:38:00] Fast forward us a little bit through high school to going to college.
Karla Jay: Through a kind of stroke of bad luck I guess, my parents got into gear. There was a boy in my neighborhood who was stabbed in the back, and the middle school that was in my neighborhood was quite bad,
Karla Jay: [00:38:30] and we knew, as I said, at an early age not to take a knife out because if you pulled a knife out you could bleed to death. This boy walked into a room with four women playing canasta or bridge, or whatever they were playing, mahjong, with a knife in his back, and all four women fainted. Word spread about what had happened to him
Karla Jay: [00:39:00] and my parents actually got into gear and they got me into a better school out of the neighborhood for middle school and high school. I had really gotten my educational life together. I really started to come together as a student. By the time I was a senior I was a better student and I won a regent's scholarship, and I could only go wherever I could go on this money,
Karla Jay: [00:39:30] and within the city of New York because my parents said they couldn't afford to send me away to college, so I went to Barnard College. I thought I was going to commute because Barnard used to stick a pin in the map and if you lived within 75 miles of the pin, you had to commute. That was their rule. I commuted from Brooklyn to Barnard, but my mother who was getting crazier and crazier and who was hallucinating,
Karla Jay: [00:40:00] by that time had been institutionalized for having hallucinations. By that time, she threw me out of the house. I was then about 16 years old or 17. For something that made no sense. She just kind of went in my room and she absolutely destroyed my room. She took everything from my room
Karla Jay: [00:40:30] and threw it everywhere. She threw everything on the floor and then about a half hour later she told me I had done it and that I needed to clean it up and I should leave. She threw me out. I moved in with a friend's mother initially. Then I moved illegally into the dormitories at Barnard.
Karla Jay: [00:41:00] I ate illegally in the dorms. You could just pick up a plate and get food. Eventually I got an apartment near Barnard. I got a lot of work, part-time work, babysitting. I rented myself out for psychological studies, whatever kind of work I could get. I got myself through college without ... I never went back home after my mother threw me out. It was like the best thing that could have happened to me. I went to see the family doctor at one point.
Karla Jay: [00:41:30] He told me, "Don't look back." He said, "Don't ever go back there. You got out. No matter what they say, no matter what they do, don't go home." I believed him. I didn't. I never went back there. I never stayed there again.
Mason Funk: Wow. I read somewhere some reference to how during your college years, just tell us, where was your lesbianism
Mason Funk: [00:42:00] in these years say as you go through puberty into adolescence and then head off to college. What was going on for you sexually?
Karla Jay: When I was in high school, I went to an all-girls high school. There seemed to be a lot of lesbian activity, but it was not spoken of. There were two girls in my class, one was very tall and one was shorter and a little bit heavier.
Karla Jay: [00:42:30] I'm not going to use their names because they are still alive, and they would not call themselves lesbians which was kind of interesting. They were inseparable. We called them Laurel and Hardy. They just were totally inseparable. They were so inseparable that the principal of the high school called their mothers and said, "Do your daughters come home every night? Where are your daughters?" We didn't know really exactly what she was talking about but it was frightening.
Karla Jay: [00:43:00] The idea that the principal might call up your family and inquire into your comings and goings. I really was quite discreet in my life from an early age. I had met some girls in camp. I fooled around a little bit in high school, but I went to Barnard, a really terrible thing happened during my freshman week at Barnard.
Karla Jay: [00:43:30] When I was there for freshman orientation, I heard a story about Barnard that I thought years later was appochropha, but I ran into somebody who told me it was true. She knew the women who were involved. There were two women in the class ahead of me who were making out in their dorm room in Read Hall which faced Broadway
Karla Jay: [00:44:00] and there was a guy across the street at Columbia who was looking into their dorm room with binoculars. He saw them making out in the dorm room and they were expelled. I heard this story during my freshman week at Barnard. I was totally freaked out. The other story which we were told early on was that Mary McCarthy had written a novel
Karla Jay: [00:44:30] called the Group which was about Vassar. They told us if you are going to write a novel and it's like the Group, just leave us out of it. Copies of the Group circulating underlined through the dormitory. We were all put in a dormitory for orientation. The message was very clear. I did try to meet people when I was at Barnard. I hung out, I thought, in all the right sections of the library.
Karla Jay: [00:45:00] I hung out in HQsection which was sexuality. No luck. I never could figure things out. I had several professors whom I know in retrospect were lesbian. They were there. I had Kate Simpson for a week only. I had Sue Larson who was her partner back then. Kate Millet was at Barnard.
Karla Jay: [00:45:30] Never knew there was another lesbian. There were gym teachers I thought were lesbians. They were all very, very closeted. Years later I saw the fencing teacher at a party and I knew that she had been a lesbian all along. It was very scary. You lived these two separate lives. I was very closeted. I didn't go out without ...
Karla Jay: [00:46:00] In those days I had long hair. I wore it in a flip. I wore makeup. I never spoke of any attraction to other women. I met a young man from Yale at one of the early freshman mixers. We went out for five years. We saw each other
Karla Jay: [00:46:30] maybe one or twice a month. I think in retrospect he might have been gay too. We never spoke of such a thing, but in five years he never tried to sleep with me. I thought, "I've so lucky I've met such a gentleman. I'm so lucky he is such a gentleman." It wasn't that I think. In retrospect it was too good to be true.
Karla Jay: [00:47:00] He was killed in Vietnam, so I never could ask him whether that was it or not it or maybe he was a gentleman. I don't know. I did go to bars. I had this secret life of going down to the Village. The drinking age then was 18. You could go to bars like the Seed Colony and then Cookies came along. You could go into these bars
Karla Jay: [00:47:30] and you could socialize with other lesbians. I did meet someone I went out with who went to City College, but I didn't feel comfortable in the bars either. The bars in the 1960s the women were very into butch and fem. I didn't feel that I really fit into either of these categories. I looked more like a fem,
Karla Jay: [00:48:00] but I didn't really feel like a fem. I really just didn't feel like I belonged. I felt that some of the women in the bar were very denigrating of women who went to college. They were working class white women. The bars were completely segregated. They did not let women of color into the bars downtown.
Karla Jay: [00:48:30] There was this strange world. There was also a kind of danger to the bars. It was very clear that the back doors were padlocked. There were many dangers. I heard of people who had been arrested in police raids. I was afraid of being busted and my life being ruined. I had one friend who had been arrested in a car making out.
Karla Jay: [00:49:00] The police had taken her ID. The problem was even if they let you go which they generally did, they would notify your school, they would notify your place of employment, they would notify your family, they would notify anybody they could that you had been in a lesbian bar. Without benefit of a trial or even a formal arrest your life could be completely ruined.
Karla Jay: [00:49:30] You could lose everything, your children, your job, your family just because you had been in a bar. Then if the place caught on fire you were dead. That was the other thing because you couldn't get out of there because they were afraid you wouldn't pay the entry fee, and you could not get out the back which was illegally padlocked. It was also a very unpleasant environment. There are women who romanticized the bars from the 1960s,
Karla Jay: [00:50:00] but I didn't find them pleasant. ... 1960s, but I didn't find them pleasant. There were men who were let in by the mafia who owned places like Cookie's and the Sea Colony. They would stand around the edge of the dance floor and jerk off. We called them dyke daddies. It was really a very unpleasant experience. Cookie, who owned Cookie's, at least in name or she was the figurehead, she was a mafia [mau]
Karla Jay: [00:50:30] who had probably been a prostitute. She had blonde hair and a beehive that looked as if it had been sprayed into place in 1950 and left there forever. She had carmine nails and lipstick. She always had a cigarette between her fingers, and she would patrol up and down the bar
Karla Jay: [00:51:00] and she would make you order another drink. She would say to us, particularly after the GLF came along, she would say things like, she would say, she had a thick, what we called a Greenpoint accent. She would say, "Girls, this ain't no church. If you want to talk, go to church and talk in the pew." Then she'd order you another drink and you would pay for it gladly because she would take that cigarette
Karla Jay: [00:51:30] and hold it under your chin and order you the drink just to show you who was in charge. The other humiliating thing about the lesbian bars was that we were considered perverts and we were not allowed to go into the bathrooms in groups. Now Cookie's for instance, had 2 single-seater bathrooms and there was a long line going out of the bathroom.
Karla Jay: [00:52:00] One of the things you had to do was to decide to go to the bathroom before you really needed to go because there was a rather long line. You'd get in line and when you got outside of the bathroom there was a worker sitting there who would hand you 4 squares of toilet paper before you went in. How they decided on 4 squares, I don't know. It wasn't like elementary school where you held up 1 finger or 2,
Karla Jay: [00:52:30] but they made sure that you went in one by one, and you didn't take anybody else in there with you because you were a pervert and heavens knows what you would do in that bathroom if you were let in there with someone else. Actually, what some women did was they had alcohol in their purses and they would pour some into their drinks to kind of fill it up. That was the worst thing I think that women did in the bathroom.
Karla Jay: [00:53:00] It was very humiliating to be monitored outside the bathroom of a bar like Cookie's like that. It was very unpleasant in there, I thought, but it was our place. It was the only place we had. We didn't have coffee houses, we didn't groups, we didn't have any place that we could meet.
Mason Funk: Wow. It's unbelievably fascinating because, especially in the wake of Orlando for example.
Mason Funk: [00:53:30] There was a lot of conversation about gay bars being these safe spaces where people can ... I know what you're saying, they were safe to certain extent, but everything you're describing about the bars in this era for you is not really much of a haven. It's a place of last resort, I guess you might call them. Not exactly a romantic, free space where you could be yourself in an unfettered way, it doesn't sound like.
Karla Jay: [00:54:00] The bars were a place where I-
Mason Funk: Do me a favor. Just give me the era, like in the 60s.
Karla Jay: These bars I went to, I went to college in 1964, and I went to Cookie's from the time it opened. It closed in the 1970s. I went there on and off from the time it opened until maybe the early 70s. By 1970 there was a second bar.
Karla Jay: [00:54:30] Cookie's was on 14th Street and 6th Avenue. By 1970 there was a second bar called Johnny's on 19th Street near 7th Avenue. There usually was only 1 lesbian bar at a time in New York and they were run by the mafia. They were a safe space for us. They were the only place that we could call our own. I think if I had friends in the bars, I would've felt better, but I didn't. I didn't have friends there
Karla Jay: [00:55:00] and people would call me something like a college kid. I looked much younger than my age. I was carded until I was 30 years old at bars. People did think I was very young. People called me jailbait in the bar. I didn't know people and I probably had the kind of diction that immediately tipped people off that I was some kind of college kid
Karla Jay: [00:55:30] and I just wasn't a local worker hanging out in the bar. This wasn't a kind of great space for me. Somehow I did meet another young woman there who went to city and we went out for a bit. That was kind of a sanity check. I do know in retrospect that there were quite a few other lesbians in my class at Barnard, but I didn't know them then. I didn't know them when I was an undergraduate.
Karla Jay: [00:56:00] I think that all women's colleges were particularly homophobic because they were afraid that other places thought that they were hot beds of lesbianism, as it would have been called, and they were very hard on lesbians. They also had dress codes. You couldn't go to class in pants, and then later on you could. By my senior year you could finally go to class in pants,
Karla Jay: [00:56:30] but you couldn't wear jeans. They were very strict about these things and what they were trying to regulate, in part, was sexuality. That was really the code of what they were regulating. I never heard the word lesbian mentioned in a class, no one ever referred to anyone in history having been a lesbian. It was quite an isolating experience in college. The other thing that happened by my senior year,
Karla Jay: [00:57:00] the Homophile League at Columbia had formed. It was the first homophile league in the United States and people made jokes that this is why women at Barnard dated Eli's or men at Yale because the homophiles were over across the street at Columbia. They made jokes like that.
Karla Jay: [00:57:30] I did go to a meeting. I understand at some of the other meetings, there were women. The meeting I went to, I was the only woman there and so I didn't go back. I felt kind of creepy. I did meet some of the guys later on, and not all of them were creepy. A couple of them actually were creepy. There was one guy in particular name Warren Johansson whom I knew later in the Gay Liberation Front
Karla Jay: [00:58:00] who, for the entire time I knew him and I knew him well into the 1980s, he always seemed to be in the same suit that had whatever he had worn, whatever he had eaten was on his tie. That was Warren. He had a big, grubby beard but wore a suit and tie and he seemed to live in stacks at Columbia in the library. He was one of the people I remember there, and Stephen Donaldson
Karla Jay: [00:58:30] who had once been in prison and was extremely odd. He shaved 1 side of his body. I mean, he shaved his arm, his head, his eyebrow on that side. These weren't people, at that time, as a person who wasn't liberated in many ways, I wanted to hang out with. Later I really liked Donny, as he was called. I met him later on and I liked him a lot
Karla Jay: [00:59:00] when I knew his story, but not then. It was weird.
Mason Funk: You've sort of swung back over towards Kate's side. Can you rotate your body a little more towards me. Great.
Karla Jay: Okay, okay. Yeah, okay.
Mason Funk: By, of course, 1969, we all know Stonewall happened, blah, blah, blah, and then very soon thereafter this Gay Liberation front starts and you're very involved, I think, pretty much from the beginning.
Mason Funk: [00:59:30] Tell us, start us off with basically Stonewall in the 1969 and how that gave rise to the Gay Liberation Front.
Karla Jay: Well, I have to say that, and just to say very briefly, that I was at Columbia in 1968 during the student uprisings and that, for me, was the radicalizing event of my life. When we protested the war in Vietnam, it radicalized me in several ways. I become radicalized against the war in ...
Karla Jay: [01:00:00] I became radicalized against the war in Vietnam. I also became disenchanted with the men on the left, because they treated women badly. When the police stormed the campus and beat up students all over the campus, it really changed my life. I really lost my faith in the justice system of the United States,
Karla Jay: [01:00:30] and I felt that a revolution was coming. As a result of those experiences, I joined Redstockings, which was a radical feminist group. They developed consciousness raising, and they were a Marxist, feminist group. In Redstockings, they were homophobic. Although Redstockings' slogan was, "The Person That's Political,"
Karla Jay: [01:01:00] they did not feel that lesbianism was political, they felt it was personal. They were really homophobic in most of the women's group. In Redstockings I did people like Rita Mae Brown who was quite outspoken against the homophobia in Redstockings and elsewhere. She was thrown out of NOW because of her lesbianism. Betty Friedan
Karla Jay: [01:01:30] really didn't want lesbians in NOW, and she had a purge in which she threw lesbians out of NOW, Ivy Bottini, Rita Mae Brown, others, and she fired Rita who was editing the newsletter. Rita and I also wound up at NYU in graduate school together. She was studying film, and I was in comparative lit. I started in 1968,
Karla Jay: [01:02:00] and then on the tail of the women's movement, the war in Vietnam, and everything else the Stonewall Uprising happened in the Village. At first, I wasn't sure that anything would happen from Stonewall, because there had been other revolts in bars in Buffalo in the 1930s and 40s, in Los Angeles earlier on at the Cafeteria,
Karla Jay: [01:02:30] so there had been Mattachine. I thought the summer would come, and people would go on, but a few weeks later there was a call for Gay Liberation Front to me, and I was in. I said, "This is it." I had had it with the women in Redstockings. I quickly got involved in the Gay Liberation Front.
Karla Jay: [01:03:00] At first we met at the Alternate University which was a place on 14th Street and 6th Avenue upstairs. It was a radical place for alternate classes. Eventually we grew, and we met in the basement of a church on 27th Street. We had very chaotic meetings. The Gay Liberation Front was rather what the name sounds like. It was an umbrella organization, I think that Martha Shelley
Karla Jay: [01:03:30] gave the name to the organization. It was a big group. It's the problem then maybe the issue we have today. The issue we had then, it may exist even today in that although we are oppressed in the same way, as lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, queer people, whoever you are, we may be oppressed
Karla Jay: [01:04:00] by straight people who are bigots who will forever see us as the same, we really are very different. We're very different individuals. We come from different social classes. We're different races. We have different sexual perspectives. We want different things from a movement and suddenly we're all thrown in there together. We were just tossed together into this movement,
Karla Jay: [01:04:30] and it was really chaos. We had different ideals of what we should do. Some people thought we should pick up rifles and be violent. Some people thought we should align with other movements like the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba. That we should go there and pick sugar cane. We should align with the Black Panthers, have them come and speak to us, and we should be part of the Black Panther movement.
Karla Jay: [01:05:00] Some people felt that we should have a cultural revolution, that we should have dances. We should start our own coffee houses, and we should start a cultural movement that no one could destroy. We wound up really doing both of these things. The movements were really chaotic. Often people would be trying to shout each other down. People came there from all walks of life. There were people with no movement experience who came in from the bars.
Karla Jay: [01:05:30] There were people who came in from the New Left. People like myself and the women's movement, they were all lefties. There were guys there who really hated women. There were street transvestites there as they called themselves, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. There were very young people like Susan Silverman and Mark Segal.
Karla Jay: [01:06:00] There were older people who had just been around a long time in various movements. It was chaos, but we did get things done. We had demonstrations. We had dances. We took the streets, but the most important thing that probably came out of the Gay Liberation Front was our determination not to let the Stonewall Uprisings be forgotten, because ... Yes.
Mason Funk: [01:06:30] Go ahead, because, because ...
Karla Jay: Because the Stonewall Uprisings were just another bar uprising. If we hadn't had the commemoration which we call the march, now the parade, it would have been just another bar bust among others. There were bar busts after that as well as before that. It would have been just another unfortunate raid with riots in the street, but because of the commemoration that became a big,
Karla Jay: [01:07:00] national celebration, the Stonewall became the germinal event that has led to what we call ... You know it became the before and after. Now we think of our times as the post-Stonewall times not because of the event, but because we commemorate that event. That's really an important distinction I think.
Mason Funk: Fantastic. Oh, my gosh. That's so good. I'm just sitting back, because ...
Mason Funk: [01:07:30] Can I change positions at all, because when I sit forward this way, my neck eventually starts to feel like this.
Karla Jay: Have to get him a pillow, right?
Mason Funk: I have my head kind of perkedup, but I'll just look down and then look up again. This is all and your comments about the GLF, [inaudible] it was so interesting. It was so well with [inaudible 01:07:49]. He describes these meetings. People shouting at each other, very dramatic.
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Now I want to ask you a couple of questions.
Mason Funk: [01:08:00] These moments, these different threads, they're probably out of order a little bit, but I have from my notes ... Of course, I think you were also involved with Lavender Menace which came out of the women's movement.
Karla Jay: Yes, and it came out of GLF as well.
Mason Funk: It did, and okay, there was something else called RAT.
Karla Jay: Yeah, I was involved in RAT.
Mason Funk: Okay, so can you briefly talk us through these other movements. There was a Lavender Menace zap, but I mean mainly just help us understand how these different movements related to each other, the GLF, and the women's movement that they sprung out of.
Karla Jay: [01:08:30] Okay, let me start with the Lavender Menace, and talk about the Lavender Menace. As I've been talking about, many of the men in the GLF were quite friendly to women, but there were men there who really didn't like women. There was a stereotype that men are gay men, because they don't like women.
Karla Jay: [01:09:00] Most of the gay men I've met like women, but there were a few who really didn't care for women, but we were a vast minority. We felt overrun by the gay men in the Gay Liberation Front. I can't even begin to imagine in retrospect how it would have felt to be transgendered in GLF or to be a person of color. There were a few African-Americans and Latinos in GLF. I
Karla Jay: [01:09:30] can't imagine how that felt to be so isolated, because to be a woman in there where maybe at the most in some meetings we were 20%, we really felt out-shouted and out-gunned. In February of 1970, I became the chair of the Gay Liberation Front. Not through my great organizing abilities or charisma or anything else, my name was picked out of a hat. That's how we did it, and I became the chair for- ... picked out of a hat,
Karla Jay: [01:10:00] and that's how we did it and I became the chair for a month. I didn't know how I was going to control this crazy organization. I went home and I got my softball bat and I brought it to the meetings. I banged it against the poles. We were in a basement and there were support beams. It was the only way I could bring the meeting to order because we didn't have anything gentle like a gavel.
Karla Jay: [01:10:30] I'd bang the pole, and people have said that I'd swung it at people or whatever. I am a pacifist, I belong to the peace movement. I've never hit anybody with that bat, and it is in the New York public library now in mint condition kind of as proof that I just tapped it on that pole. That's what those meetings were like, but in February we organized a dance. That was the first thing that led in a way to our identification as lesbians.
Karla Jay: [01:11:00] We decided to have our own dance. There was a dance every month that was supposed to bring people into the gay liberation front. We had a dance at the Alternate View, but the dance was 95% men. If you were a woman, and you were likely to be shorter, and there were a few of you, you couldn't find the other women in the room. We were very upset about this. The men said, "Okay, you can have the back room,"
Karla Jay: [01:11:30] which was also called the make-out room. "You can have that room for yourself." We did that and that didn't work either. Then we decided we wanted our own dance. When I became the chair, we organized our own dance at the Alternate You. What's important about the story for people who take bars and dances as something we've always had, is that the only way we knew to organize this was to go to a place like Cookies,
Karla Jay: [01:12:00] the bar on 14th street, and leaflet. Well, Cookie was not into democracy, and she threw the women who went in there ... I was not brave enough to go into Cookies and leaflet. I know Pat Maxwell went in there and Donna Goodshell. She threw them out into the street and took her cigarettes out of her mouth, this was Cookie, and she said, "If you girls keep doing this, there ain't going to be no gay liberation," because that's how Cookie spoke.
Karla Jay: [01:12:30] The night of the dance there was almost no one at Cookies. We sent a spy out to see who was there. Then we began to worry. I had a job of being the contact with Flo Kennedy who was a black lesbian lawyer, and she was going to help us if we were arrested, because one of the things that you could be arrested for was selling liquor without a license.
Karla Jay: [01:13:00] Often they would make such a charge against you. The way you got around it was to ask for a donation for an alcohol or drink. I had Flo's number in what today you would think of as your iPhone. In those days I had her number inked on my hand, and I hoped it was not going to sweat off because I had dimes in my pocket,
Karla Jay: [01:13:30] I think it was a dime, and Flo's number inked, I think on both of my palms for an emergency. Well, sure enough, about 3 o'clock in the morning, the mafia came to the door at the Gay Liberation Front women's dance. They were so large. These men filled up the door. They had guns in their belts, and trench coats, and we knew they weren't the police because police did not put guns in their belts.
Karla Jay: [01:14:00] They began to beat up the women and to say we were selling liquor without a license. I ran out the back door of the dance, ran to a phone booth, which unfortunately was in front of Cookies bar, and I called Flo Kennedy. She called the press and the police. She said if they really are the police, it won't matter if more police come, because if they're not the police they're going to leave.
Karla Jay: [01:14:30] The press came, the police came. By that time they'd come. some women were beaten up, but we did survive. That was the price we paid to have a dance. The women really solidified around that event. Then we decided to take on the women's movement. There was going to be a conference in the beginning of May of 1970
Karla Jay: [01:15:00] called the second congress to unite women, that was organized by Betty Friedan and other women at a public school in the village. There was nothing about lesbians, working class women, or people of color on that program, and we have had enough. We got together with lesbians from the women's movement. We were calling ourselves various things,
Karla Jay: [01:15:30] GLF women, and various things. We got together in various apartments, in the apartment of Barbara Love, and Sidney Abbott, and Rita Mae Brown. We wrote a document called The Woman-Identified Woman, which has become a classic, classic document, and begins that a lesbian is the rage of all women.
Karla Jay: [01:16:00] It was truly a collective document. We all wrote part of it. If anybody gets credit for pulling it together, it was a woman called March Hoffman. She's later called herself Artmemis March. She really pulled this document together. We put this document together and we mimeographed it. There were no Xerox machines. You have to type things out and put them on this machine. They went round and round,
Karla Jay: [01:16:30] and after you did that you were purple from the ink on the machine. The mimeograph and didle machines, they were the backbone of the left. We mimeographed this document called The Woman-Identified Woman, DONNA [inaudible], silk-screened t-shirts that said Lavender Menace. We all got these t-shirts that said Lavender Menace. We thought of calling ourselves also the Lavender Herring
Karla Jay: [01:17:00] because Susan Brownmiller had called us Lavender Heroine. To back up for just a second. Betty Friedan had called us the Lavender Menace. She said if lesbians were let into the women's movement, we were menace, a Lavender Menace that would destroy the women's movement. We used her phrase for the t-shirt. Susan Brownmiller in an article in the
Karla Jay: [01:17:30] New York Times magazine in 1970 called us Lavender Herring. She said we weren't anything as big as a menace, we were just a herring, and we were really insulted by that as well. Herring didn't look so great on a t-shirt.
Mason Funk: Hold that thought. You printed up this seminal document, The Woman-Identified Woman.
Karla Jay: [01:18:00] Yeah, we printed up the Woman-Identified Woman. We ran off the t-shirts, in those days with dye in the bathtub. These were the tools of the revolution. We made posters on the ... I forget what we call it, the Oak Tag or something like that. We made the plan. People went to the school and cased it out. We had these very well thought out actions which we called zaps.
Karla Jay: [01:18:30] They were very popular. They had been made popular by the hippies and the women's movement, Atlantic City crowning the sheep Miss America, and all of these actions that preceded us. We knew how to do these actions. We had all done them, so we knew how to do this. We had our costumes, we had our posters. I was a plant in the audience. I got there early.
Karla Jay: [01:19:00] I had my Lavender Menace t-shirt on under a red blouse and I had it buttoned up. I sat in the audience. The Congress to Unite Women started, and Michela Griffo, who had cased the place out, went behind the stage, and she pulled the plug on all of the light switches. The whole place went dark and the mics went out.
Karla Jay: [01:19:30] When she put the lights back on a few minutes later, the audience was completely surrounded by lesbians. It was so funny. There were lesbians with signs like, "Take a lesbian to lunch," "We are your worst nightmare," "We are your best Fantasy," and so on. The lesbians stood there, and then we had a ...
Karla Jay: [01:20:00] Rita Mae Brown said, "Who wants to join us?" A plant in the audience said, "I want to join you, sisters." Rita Mae Brown pulled her T-shirt and she started to pull it off over her head. Women in the audience were just gasping in horror, but she had another Lavender Menace T-shirt on underneath. I was in the audience, you know, superwoman. I said, "I'm tired of being in the closet in this movement." I took my blouse and I ripped my blouse off and I had a Lavender Menace T-shirt on underneath.
Karla Jay: [01:20:30] We got up on the stage and we were in the audience. We said, "Look, this is not going to go on as usual." The Congress did change. We put lesbian issues, issues of social class and race, onto the agenda of the women's movement for the first time. They did not come off after that. It was really a significant victory in the women's movement.
Karla Jay: [01:21:00] It was really quite successful. Out of that we first called ourselves the Lavender Menace. We formed consciousness raising groups which came out of Redstockings, who had formed this idea of sharing personal experience. It wasn't a therapy group. I think it's important to explain today to people what these things were. We would go around the room and share our experience of growing up,
Karla Jay: [01:21:30] how we had come out, what our relationships were like, but it wasn't for the purpose of healing, it was for the purpose of understanding what the common core of our experience had been so that we could create political change. Until we knew who we were, how could we change the world around us? Each one of us had grown up in isolation in a heterosexual home.
Karla Jay: [01:22:00] There was almost no one among us who had grown up among gay and lesbian people. We didn't know anyone. We didn't know other people who had grown up like us. Occasionally people knew another queer child. Most of us grew up in fear, isolation, shame and we didn't know anyone like us. Consciousness raising helped us share our experiences to understand
Karla Jay: [01:22:30] what these things were like. We developed those and we developed a group with speakers who sometimes came. We didn't know what to call ourselves and finally we changed our name to Radical Lesbians. At one point we had many names. We called ourselves Radical Radishes, we said we were red on the outside and white inside. Eventually the group was called Radical Lesbians. They came out of the Lavender Menace. It was probably the first radical lesbian group that evolved.
Karla Jay: [01:23:00] The other group I was involved in was Rat Magazine. There were many alternative newspapers that were around. The most famous one that people know of, of course, is The Village Voice which sort of exists in many forms today. There were these freebie newspapers that were around at newsstands throughout the village in particular.
Karla Jay: [01:23:30] A leftist one was called Rat Magazine. It was run by men on the left. At some point, women on the collective had had it with the men on that newspaper. In particular, Robin Morgan, who was a member of Witch, Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. Jane Albert,
Karla Jay: [01:24:00] who later went to prison with the Weather Underground and Martha Schilling. They went in there and they literally threw the men out of the offices and took over the magazine which was on East 14th Street. I joined the collective and it was my first experience as a writer. Robin Morgan encouraged me to write and I started to cover lesbian events.
Karla Jay: [01:24:30] I covered the lesbian dance. I covered the Congress to Unite Women. I covered the take over of the lesbian ... The Ladies Home Journal takeover. The newspaper was a really interesting experience. The newspaper was run as a collective. We did all of the tours together. We ran the newspaper. We put it out, I forget whether it came out every other week or monthly.
Karla Jay: [01:25:00] We put it out as often as we could. It was a wonderful experience to be in this collective in which women were writing and working together. I do have to say that when the Weather Underground blew up a townhouse on East 19th Street and they all went underground, that kind of led to the end of this collective because we all were under suspicion.
Karla Jay: [01:25:30] We all had the government kind of after us because Jane was a member of the collective. It really threw things into great disarray.
Mason Funk: Wow. I want to go back briefly. You mentioned that the guy you dated at Yale for five years who was killed in Vietnam.
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: That blew me away. It was just a side note. I guess you're the first person we talked to
Mason Funk: [01:26:00] that has referenced losing a friend in the war. I'm not quite sure what the question would be per say, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity. I just think this is an opportunity to talk about what it was like to be seeing droves of young men go off to war and a good number of them not come back. What do you remember about that?
Karla Jay: [01:26:30] Well, when I was Barnard, I was not political. My father didn't give a lot of advice. You know, I'm laughing about my father, if I could just throw this in. When my brother went to school, my father kind of walked him off and gave him supposedly a sex talk. I later asked my brother what he had said and he said, "If you have to do something, use something." That was the extent of my father's sex lecture.
Karla Jay: [01:27:00] So his advice to me, going to college, because he couldn't talk about sex, was "Never sign anything." He didn't want me to be political. It was hard to go to college in the 1960s and not be aware of the war in Vietnam. Until the Columbia uprisings, I didn't have a very strong opinion about it. We were against the draft because the people we know who were at Columbia,
Karla Jay: [01:27:30] who were our friends, who were our relatives, who were brothers, who were male cousins, there was a draft system and they were going to go to war. We all were very cognizant of that. You were exempt as long as you were in college. There were other exemptions. Donald Trump got out of the war because he had a heel spur. People knew how to milk the system and get out of the war, if you were rich. Most people went.
Karla Jay: [01:28:00] People I knew started to oppose the war. By the time I was a senior in college and I became against the war, the guy I was dating at Yale, he was much more conservative than I was. He was from rural Louisiana. He was from a conservative family.
Karla Jay: [01:28:30] He decided that his best bet for the war was to join and if he joined the Navy, he would be safe. He would be away from where people were dying in the jungles of Vietnam. If he was on a ship, he would be safe. I don't know really what happened to him because we wrote. He went off to the war and we wrote to each other,
Karla Jay: [01:29:00] then just one day the letter ... What happened generally, the letter came back and it said "undeliverable." That's how you knew someone was dead. I didn't know his family. He hadn't ever told his family we were dating in five years, because I was Jewish and he was Christian. He had never met a Jew until he met me.
Karla Jay: [01:29:30] He didn't want to tell his family that he was dating a Jew. There was no one I could ask whether or not there was a mailing mistake. It didn't appear that there was a mailing mistake. It had one of those official stamps on it. There was no internet in which you could search. You just had to assume that someone was dead, and that was it. That was kind of what the war was like. In the college crowd,
Karla Jay: [01:30:00] I have to say that not too many people among the ... I have to say that not too many people among the people I know actually went, and I didn't know other people who didn't come back. The war became very much a class thing, where people who didn't go to college went, and the people I knew in the left, if they got called, they went to Canada. They moved abroad. They became conscientious objectors.
Karla Jay: [01:30:30] They served alternative service. I knew very few people who actually served in the army. I had one first cousin who was in the army, but because his father was in World War II he was not sent to Vietnam. He was an only son, and they protected people by not sending them.
Mason Funk: [01:31:00] Great, thank you for covering that for us. One other question I have, kind of going to this period is, needless to say there was a strong current of lesbian separatism. I read something that you wrote, or maybe one of the groups you were associated with, that had a distinctly different stance. That regarded separatism as escapism. I wonder if you could talk about the separatism movement and whether you were ever inclined to be part of it, and if not, why not?
Karla Jay: [01:31:30] There was a separatist movement that evolved out of the lesbian feminist liberation movement, radical Lesbians, and other organizations. Women who were lesbians felt, and not unjustly, that we were discriminated against in the women's movement, and we were discriminated against in the broader gay male movement, and
Karla Jay: [01:32:00] they felt that lesbians should take care of other lesbians, and not have anything else to do with the patriarchy. I was not part of the lesbian separatist movement for many reasons. For one thing, early on in the gay liberation front I had met Allen Young, and by late 1970 we were involved in putting together a collection
Karla Jay: [01:32:30] of articles and documents which became, Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. It was published in 1972 and it was the first collection of ... it was the first anthology written by and for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people. It was really the first collection of its kind.
Karla Jay: [01:33:00] I knew in part that because of this collection that was in the works, that I would not be welcome in a separatist movement. That was part of it, but I also felt that we really didn't know how many lesbians and gay men there were in the world. Kinsey had estimated that we were one in ten. No one really knew. I felt that we were too small a movement to survive just as lesbians.
Karla Jay: [01:33:30] I also felt a strong kinship with the civil rights movement. I was a pacifist my whole life. I felt a kinship with the peace movement. I felt we had a very strong stake in getting out of Vietnam. I felt aligned with other civil rights movements, whether or not I had time to partake in them.
Karla Jay: [01:34:00] I didn't feel that separatism was the answer. Like many in the gay liberation front I felt that revolution might be coming, and we looked to the revolution in Cuba. Where many gay men in particular, were put in what they kindly called, re-education camps, but were kind of concentration camps. We felt that the best way for us to avoid such a fate, was to have a voice in the outcome of what was coming in terms of a gay future.
Karla Jay: [01:34:30] That we had to be part of a revolutionary future so that we were not now going to be put in a camp somewhere. As had happened during World War II, and this had happened in Cuba. We just really had to be part of a broader coalition to shape that. I really respected separatists. I certainly was called names by them,
Karla Jay: [01:35:00] but I really respected what they did. I did have separatist friends like Julia Penelope, and Alex Dobkin. I had great friends among the separatist and still have great respect for them, but it just wasn't something I personally could be part of.
Mason Funk: Great. I'm just curious from the point of view of the lesbian separatist. When you give the reasons that you just gave for
Mason Funk: [01:35:30] why you were not personally involved. They certainly would have had a come back. They certainly would have had a response. Can you characterize for us what their responses would have been?
Karla Jay: I think they would have seen me as a collaborator. [crosstalk] I think that lesbian separatists saw me as a collaborator with gay men, and that I was somehow benefiting from my collaboration with gay men
Karla Jay: [01:36:00] and the women's movement, but the way I saw it is. If you turn on electricity you are getting something from the patriarchy. You're getting your electricity from somewhere. There is nobody who lives entirely off the grid without some connection to a patriarchal enterprise. You have a car, maybe you go to a rural commune,
Karla Jay: [01:36:30] but if you do that then you have to go to a gas station, and when you fill up your gas tank you have a terrible connection to the patriarchy. Many of the lesbian separatists did have money, and that money came from the patriarchy. They could say that they were using it for the good of the system, but that money was still patriarchal money. It seems to me that there was no truly clean way to live, and we all did what we did.
Mason Funk: [01:37:00] Great. Another thought thread from this period was that, this whole thing you mentioned, you alluded to already. The idea of lesbianism as a political identity as compared to say a personal identity. I wonder if you could break that down for us, to the people who were never a part of that conversation?
Karla Jay: One of the conversations that arose in the gay liberation front.
Karla Jay: [01:37:30] Was a debate as to whether gay and lesbian identity was a political identity, or a born identity. It's kind of ironic because later in academia this would break down to a battle between social constructionism and essentialism, but in those days we looked at it very differently. Some lesbians believed that to be a lesbian was a political choice,
Karla Jay: [01:38:00] and other lesbians and gay men believed that they were born that way. I was among those who believed that my identity was a political choice. I believe this in part, because I had had several boyfriends, and I believed that I really could have chosen to hide. I could have chosen to have a heterosexual life. I wouldn't have been happy, but I could have had a life as a heterosexual with maybe some closet affairs,
Karla Jay: [01:38:30] but I chose not to do that. I do believe that other people believed that they were born the way that they were born. I think that the majority of Americans come down on this essentialist side of believing that, as Lady GaGa might put it, "I was born this way." I think most people believe that. Most people think that they have no choice. I do have to say
Karla Jay: [01:39:00] that where I have a problem with this kind of essentialist take, is that many people think that if we say well we're born this way because it's a gene, or it's a hormone, or it's whatever it is that turns out to have made us to have been born queer. People will accept us. I don't believe that that is true. I think that people who do not like us for difference,
Karla Jay: [01:39:30] are not going to like us no matter what element it is that caused us to be born that way. The argument that they will raise is that there is plenty of evidence that people who are alcoholics for instance, have a genetic tendency towards alcoholism, or could it be a social tendency, because their families drank, and yet they don't drink.
Karla Jay: [01:40:00] If you can control yourself around drinking, you other folks, you ... If you can control yourself around drinking, you other folks, you can control your behavior around homosexuality. I am all for going with a very bold stance. "Look, we're here, we're queer. Just get out of my way." That's how I look at life. Too bad. I'm not going to make an origin story. I'm not going to explain how I got here. You explain how you woke up and you discovered that you were heterosexual. Until you can explain that,
Karla Jay: [01:40:30] and find your origins, I don't have to explain who I am, whether I was born this way, whether I became this way because I wanted a different mother. There's no explanation for who we are.
Mason Funk: I've had very similar thoughts that that genetic so-called argument is just a false ... What's more, I just feel like I'd really rather, just as you're saying, be able to just say to people,
Mason Funk: [01:41:00] "Look, actually maybe I wasn't born this way. I choose to be this way. Get used to it on those grounds." I don't want to be protected by some genetic explanation because, like you say, there's just all kinds of ways that could run aground. My thought. What are your thoughts Kate?
Kate Kunath: I think that feeling like you don't have a choice is maybe the result of having made a lot of choices and those choices being reinforced by
Kate Kunath: [01:41:30] feelings or your environment or something. At some point it feels inextricable. I think, yeah, I think when I was in high school I could have kept that one boyfriend and he never broke up with me when he went to college. Maybe I would have gotten knocked up and then maybe I would have forgotten about everything. Who knows? I think if you allow yourself to follow your instincts then you become that thing. Maybe it's everything.
Karla Jay: [01:42:00] Yeah. We don't know.
Kate Kunath: We don't know.
Mason Funk: Okay. One more general theoretical thought. Among other people, male homosexuality was seen as misogynistic for some people in this era, maybe up to today.
Karla Jay: Oh, yeah.
Mason Funk: I wondered if you could maybe put that in context of this period of foment and so much change happening in the late '60s
Mason Funk: [01:42:30] and early '70s. Then there was a threat of people who just wanted to reject male homosexuals out of hand because they were seen as essentially almost like the definition maybe of misogynists.
Karla Jay: I think that some people felt that gay ...
Mason Funk: [inaudible].
Karla Jay: I think maybe in the late 1960s or early 1970s, some people felt that gay men were misogynistic.
Karla Jay: [01:43:00] I think that lesbians didn't buy into that argument. At least, I didn't. One of the common things that I encountered quite often was the charge that I was a lesbian because I hated men. Particularly when I went early on to speak, there was always someone in the audience in the early 1970s who would say, "You're a lesbian because you hate men. Right?"
Karla Jay: [01:43:30] It was usually a guy who would say that. I would say, "Well, I've slept with men. Have you?" That would usually just shut them up. I'd say, "I've slept with men. I've slept with women. Then I made a choice. Until you've made that choice, don't judge." I think that the feminist perspective on misogyny in the late 1960s and early 1970s was never aimed at gay men.
Karla Jay: [01:44:00] We tried not to lose sight of which men in society had power. The men who had power were mostly men who had power over individual women. Those were employers, husbands, fathers. These were people who literally, historically, especially husbands and fathers, they owned women.
Karla Jay: [01:44:30] I think that anybody who might be watching this today doesn't realize that until 1973, a woman couldn't get a credit card or open a business without the signature of her husband or her father. You just weren't even a full human being. If a man climbed into my window and raped me and stole my television, I could accuse him of theft
Karla Jay: [01:45:00] but I couldn't accuse him of rape without a witness. A woman was an unreliable sexual being who had no say in a court of law. The only thing about the television was that it was an equal piece of property over which I could make a claim. A man could come to court with me and maybe say, "A man raped my daughter and you ruined my property." That would be my claim in rape.
Karla Jay: [01:45:30] We had very little standing as human beings. In terms of men, I think that the philosophy was not anti gay men, bit anti patriarchy. I think that the feminists, at least the feminists I knew, and the lesbians I knew, understood very strongly that the problem we had was with a patriarchal system, not with individuals. We knew that some individuals, particularly white men,
Karla Jay: [01:46:00] profited more from the system than others. There was a real stress in the early gay movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s for people to be androgynous. For men not to look like men. I do remember that some men, for example my friend Alan Young, he was criticized because he had a beard and he liked to wear work boots. He was considered to look too masculine. That was considered to be looking too patriarchal.
Karla Jay: [01:46:30] You were considered to look androgynous. I had a roommate named Alan Sample. He had long blond hair and a goatee. He kind of looked like Greta Garbo with a beard. When he shaved his goatee off and he looked more like a woman, everyone applauded because he looked more like a woman. That was the look. When I cut my hair, that was my move towards androgyny. Was I trying to look more androgynous? No. I had split ends and my hair really had to go.
Karla Jay: [01:47:00] It was really down to my shoulders. The hair was breaking all the time. I really had to do something about it, but I was seen as kind of complying with gynandry or androgyny. That was the move against patriarchal men. A lot of the men ... If you look at photos from Gay Liberation Front, you will see that a lot of the men, Jim Furyk, I think Mark Segal, from back then. A lot of the men. Steven Dansky. They had rather longer hair. That was the look.
Mason Funk: [01:47:30] Great. Tell us about the takeover of the Ladies' Home Journal offices.
Karla Jay: That was a wonderful move of ...
Mason Funk: Start by saying what it was.
Karla Jay: Okay. The move against the Ladies' Home Journal was the most successful zap or action that the Women's Liberation Movement took. That was orchestrated primarily by Susan Brownmiller
Karla Jay: [01:48:00] who was a writer and wrote a really amazing book called Against Our Will, which is still in print in many, many, languages, which is a book about rape. We, in the women's movement, were very depressed by the state of women's magazines. They had many, many, articles that told women about marriage.
Karla Jay: [01:48:30] There were columns like, Should This Marriage Be Saved? The answer was always yes. There would be things in these magazines like forty-minute recipes for jello. The premise of women's magazines after World War II was that the war was over. Women should go back into the home. Women should not work. Women should have families,
Karla Jay: [01:49:00] stay married, and satisfy their husbands. The magazines had no other perspective on this. We were very, very, discouraged. They never mentioned women's liberation. They never mentioned abortion. They never mentioned that you could have a satisfying career as a single woman. That you should be single, this was considered a kind of aberration.
Karla Jay: [01:49:30] We got together mostly at Susan's house. We had the floor plans of the Ladies' Home Journal. We decided on the Ladies' Home Journal as a target because of the women's magazines. It had a man in charge. His name was John Mack Carter. We thought that he would make a good target as the man in charge. On the day of the takeover, a hundred of us dressed up in our best office wear.
Karla Jay: [01:50:00] Of us dressed up in their best office wear, so this was skirts, dresses, so that we could get into those offices because there were dress codes in offices. You couldn't go to many businesses those days in pants. This was in March of 1970, and you just ... I couldn't go to work in pants back then, so you had to have skirts or dresses. We went to the doors. We rode up.
Karla Jay: [01:50:30] He had been tipped off, but 100 of us spread through the offices of the Ladies Home Journal, and we presented John Mack Carter with a list of demands that he resisted with every bone in his body. We wanted day care for women. We wanted, for the children. We wanted an issue of our own. We wanted columns.
Karla Jay: [01:51:00] We wanted them to get rid of the column Should This Marriage Be Saved? We wanted many things for women, equal pay for equal work. We had many radical demands for the time. The hours went by, and the news back then in 1970 was live. As the hour for 5:00 approached, things were getting pretty antsy, and John Mack Carter really wasn't budging. A number of us were crowded into his office around ...
Karla Jay: [01:51:30] He had a desk which was larger than my dining room table. Had this huge empty desk. I don't know what men did in those days, but they never seemed to have any papers on their desk. At a certain point in the demands, the news cameras started to roll. John Mack Carter stood up, and he started to tell the news cameras that he wasn't going to meet the demands of these crazy feminists, and Shulamith Firestone
Karla Jay: [01:52:00] who was a radical feminist who wrote The Dialectic of Sex, and who was really a little bit unhinged all along, she decided I think. I don't really know what her intent was, that she was just going to push him out the window. She jumped up on the desk, and with outstretched arms, she ran across this huge desk and went to push John Mack Carter out the plate glass window.
Karla Jay: [01:52:30] He was standing with his back to a plate glass window, and we were up there in the skyscraper. I was standing next to him at the desk. I had been studying Judo, and I grabbed one of Shully's outstretched arms, and I was thinking oh my God. Shully is going to push John Mack Carter out the window, and she will spend the rest of her life in jail. I was actually worried about Shully,
Karla Jay: [01:53:00] that she was going to make this terrible mistake because she could be a little crazy, and she was going to go to jail forever, or she would go to the electric chair. I grabbed one of her arms, and I flipped her over my shoulder. The crowd was so dense that she landed on her back into a crowd of women. It was like landing into a mosh pit. She wasn't hurt at all. She was humiliated, however, and she never spoke to me again I have to say.
Karla Jay: [01:53:30] She thought I was saving him. I didn't care at all about John Mack Carter. I have to say that John Mack Carter cared because he saw her coming, and I think he was just too shocked to act. After that, things changed, and he met with a smaller group of us. He gave us an issue of 10 pages. He paid us $10,000 which we put into a revolving bail fund
Karla Jay: [01:54:00] for women who had been jailed for non violent crimes like shoplifting. They would be in jail and taken away from their children. He gave me a heart with the motto of the Ladies Home Journal engraved on it. It said never underestimate the power of a woman. I thought that was kind of cool. That was really a kind of amazing event.
Karla Jay: [01:54:30] I have to say that I was certain that we were all going to be arrested. I was prepared to be arrested then and other times. I was always shocked that I didn't spend the night in jail. That was a great shock.
Mason Funk: Oh my gosh. What a fantastic story.
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: There must be photographs.
Karla Jay: There's footage of it. I have to say that there is footage taken by Marlene Sanders who passed away a year ago.
Karla Jay: [01:55:00] She was the mother of Jeffrey Toobin. We were very shocked because he was involved in a nasty divorce case in which he was keeping money from his children, so we were very shocked because Marlene Sanders was quite a feminist ABC. I know for a fact that ABC has been charging $5,000 to use their footage.
Mason Funk: Not surprising.
Karla Jay: Yeah, they've been making quite a lot.
Mason Funk: [01:55:30] Yeah. I'm going to ask Kate if she has questions, but when you respond to her questions, if you could continue to look directly.
Karla Jay: Yeah yeah, yes, okay.
Mason Funk: Kate am I okay sitting back like this or is it. Am I scutched up?
Kate Kunath: Yeah that's good.
Karla Jay: Okay, good, get my head out of the reflection. Okay.
Kate Kunath: Gosh, I don't have one ready right now.
Mason Funk: You don't? Okay.
Kate Kunath: Maybe you could do your.
Mason Funk: My final 4?
Kate Kunath: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Karla Jay: I just want to add one thing to the thing about these zaps that we did in the late 1060's and early 1970's. I want to say that we ...
Karla Jay: [01:56:00] They sound like fun, and we did have a lot of fun. We took a lot of risks. We certainly risked being arrested, and some people were arrested. There were people who were arrested in the women's movement going into the Playboy Club. I remember that. You risked being persecuted at some future time. My phones were tapped, but we also had a lot of fun doing it.
Karla Jay: [01:56:30] Gandhi said something to the effect that there is no change without any action, and if you don't take action then there'll be no change. That's the conundrum of life that if you want something to happen, you have to do something.
Mason Funk: [01:57:00] That reminds me of a note that I had made. I read a piece you wrote. I think it was for the New York Times for a section called In These Times. It was kind of an open letter to the question. The premise was how have we sort of older activists failed the younger generation because you weren't seeing them getting involved in activism. Do you know the column I'm talking about?
Karla Jay: [01:57:30] That was a long time ago. I do remember they had some gay pride thing, yeah.
Mason Funk: Yeah, I think it was in 2009. Yeah.
Mason Funk: It was a while ago.
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: I wonder what your thoughts are now that you are retired and older, but you taught for many years. You maintained a connection to the younger generations as they were coming up. You know I think since time immemorial the younger generation has been accused of being apathetic. I wonder if you see a difference in the younger generation say today versus say 20 years ago and 40 years ago.
Karla Jay: [01:58:00] I think that when we talk about the younger generation today, I think that we don't want to have a kind of stereotype about them. I have had a couple of students recently in the last batch of students who have become quite the activists where students have
Karla Jay: [01:58:30] gone onto head groups here or in other countries. They're very active in LGBTQ groups in their organization that they work for. They're quite out there. I run into one of my favorite former students in the streets. I still go to demonstrations. She comes over to me. She's there at all the demonstrations. Some of the students, I think, are really quite active and quite political.
Karla Jay: [01:59:00] I think that other students today think that the revolution is over. I think that one of the things that changed the way people think is the passage or the acceptance of LG marriage, because once we could get married, what was interesting was many organizations folded almost overnight.
Karla Jay: [01:59:30] I mean there's real evidence of this. The New York state pride agenda for example, folded within months of the overfeld ruling in the supreme court. Now that's really quite awful because we really don't have supreme court rights to civil rights and to protections. Recently,
Karla Jay: [02:00:00] I believe a lesbian in Indiana lost her job be- I believe a lesbian in Indiana lost her job because it was ruled that lesbians do not have civil right protection to have a job as an open lesbian. The right to marry is not the same thing as civil rights and one of the things that I think is different between my generation and young people today is that if heaven forbid I had been in the Pulse Nightclub,
Karla Jay: [02:00:30] I would have expected that to happen. I always expected people to come in and shoot us at meetings, at demonstrations. People threw things at us at the first Pride Marches. People threw things at us at the first march in Albany. When we went to Albany to protest for civil rights people were throwing things at us in the crowd. I was shot at three times.
Karla Jay: [02:01:00] I think the people in the Pulse, I can't speak for them, I think they were surprised. I think they were probably shocked. I would not have been shocked. Me, if I were in a bar in 1970, and someone came in the door and shot, the only thing I would've wondered is it the Mafia? Is it the police? Is it a homophobe? I don't know, please I hope I live.
Karla Jay: [02:01:30] I think that people today, the younger people maybe a little nave and maybe I think we're feeding into kind of dangerous assumptions. We don't know why this man exactly shot in a gay nightclub, and shot lesbians and gay men, but I think it's rather nave to think
Karla Jay: [02:02:00] that homophobia wasn't part of it. We don't know. I think that we are trying to be careful, you know, not to attack Muslims over the Pulse Nightclub and I certainly don't want to attack the Islamic community at all, but I think that we're nave to think that in the world at large that Christians don't hate us, Orthodox Jews don't hate us,
Karla Jay: [02:02:30] and Islamic extremists don't hate us. When you think about the world, I think often now about Voltaire. I thought I'd never think about Voltaire. I took a course in Voltaire at graduate school. If you read Voltaire he said that religion is at the heart of all war. I think back when I think about my father rejecting religion when I was a child I feel is the best thing he ever did for us as a family.
Karla Jay: [02:03:00] I really do. I have great respect for people who have faith. I wish I had faith. I wish I could believe in something. I don't believe in a religion. I believe like an existentialist that the greatest challenge is to do good without god. The greatest challenge is to leave a legacy for other people that other people will live a better life than you do
Karla Jay: [02:03:30] and you're not going to be rewarded in some fabulous afterlife, whatever you imagine that to be. You still, you have to do that. You have to do that, to do nothing is the worst thing anyone could do. That's the greatest evil that you can do. That's what people did I the face of the Nazi's. They did nothing, that is the legacy I see of myself as a Jew. I think today people maybe are complacent.
Karla Jay: [02:04:00] I don't see that as gay youth, or queer youth, I see that as maybe many young people. I see great hope, I think that young trans people are active. I think that many lesbian and gay young men are active, and I think that they are perhaps having a new social commitment against guns and against violence in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub. I hope that will go somewhere.
Mason Funk: [02:04:30] Great. Wow, okay. Has any of this prompted thoughts on your part.
Kate Kunath: Well, do you have any, I mean the Pulse Nightclub is something that feels both old and new because it's the potential for terrorism intersecting with that, but aside from that do you feel like there
Kate Kunath: [02:05:00] is other possible backsliding? Do you think that like there could be another time where gays could be rounded up and put in camps in America? Does that seem like a realistic thing for generations now to be aware of?
Karla Jay: In terms of the current political situation I think we are in a very dangerous political moment.
Karla Jay: [02:05:30] As I'm talking in the midst of a presidential race with a Supreme Court that's hanging in the balance. I believe very strongly that all of the rights that we think we have now can be taken away. I think they can be taken away tomorrow. The right to marry I think that we could see camps in the future.
Karla Jay: [02:06:00] They would be different, they might be for Muslims and not for Japanese Americans. I think that lesbians and gay men might go underground and live in fear. Might move to Canada. I think that the Christian right in this country advocates stoning us to death. I think that the right forces in this country got their way,
Karla Jay: [02:06:30] that things can always go backwards. I think that the tiger is always at the gates and that you always have to stand guard at the gates to keep the tiger out from eating you alive. There is always some challenge out there that you have to fight against and we have so many challenges I think that all of us have to keep on going. That we have to do something,
Karla Jay: [02:07:00] that for many people they don't feel personally that there's something they can do, but people can always give a little bit of money, people can give an hour of their time. People can always do something. I look forward to retirement in order to have time to help other people other than students. I really did like working with young people and raising the next generation of activists. I worked particularly with students
Karla Jay: [02:07:30] who went into what we called community service. I taught students how to do that. I think that everybody can do that. My busiest students found an hour to three hours a week for some kind of activism and I think that all of us can do that. It's amazing how much that can add up.
Mason Funk: Great.
Kate Kunath: [02:08:00] What about the presidential election we saw with Obama was, you know,nobody was really too sure what that would do to the climate of racism in America. We don't really know what Hillary's campaign or election would do to the public opinion of women, or misogyny or anything of that kind of stuff, but what are your messages to young feminists, or to young women that don't even know what feminism is?
Karla Jay: [02:08:30] I think that in the current political system and the current political race, I think that if a woman becomes president, I certainly hope that Hillary Clinton will, that it will be a great inspiration to other women to become the head all kinds of things
Karla Jay: [02:09:00] from corporations to their own businesses, to their own projects, and non-profits. I think that she will be important as a big figurehead. I don't know whether she will be a great ground-breaker. She's certainly a flawed figure. It's not that people are supporting her because we think that she is the greatest person ever to come along,
Karla Jay: [02:09:30] but she is certainly the best person we have right now. Whose like maybe a lot of people I dated, maybe the woman wasnt Ms. Right, but she was certainly Ms. Right Now so we went out. That's what Hillary Clinton, she's Ms. Right Now and I think that that is a very empowering message in the long term though for other women and girls.
Karla Jay: [02:10:00] I hope that she will help people I hope that she will help people. On the other hand, we have to admit that for poor women, particularly poor women of color who are the poorest segment of her society, those women are probably no better off because an African-American man was in the White House, and then maybe no better if she is in the White House. That's the unfortunate reality of the patriarchal system we live in,
Karla Jay: [02:10:30] that the people at the bottom are becoming further at bottom, while the people at the top are becoming richer. Even if Hilary Clinton is elected with the Republican Congress, there are very few things that she's actually going to be able to change.
Mason Funk: Do you have another one? I have one.
Kate Kunath: Go ahead.
Mason Funk: [02:11:00] You've been battling now, say 45 years.
Karla Jay: Yes.
Mason Funk: Do you feel any sense of disappointment in the sense that so many, really the structure that you set out to try and alter the patriarchal system, for better for worse doesn't seem to have altered all that much, well, for worse. In other words, what you would regard as
Mason Funk: [02:11:30] the fruits of your activism and if you feel disappointed that things haven't changed in a while?
Karla Jay: In terms of looking back on history, I think that things have changed far more, in many ways than I expected. I never expected lesbian and gay marriage for example, to happen in my lifetime.
Karla Jay: [02:12:00] I had hoped personally for more radical vision of our society. I had hoped that instead of women, for example, getting a bigger piece of the pie that we would have a new pie, but that hasn't happened. I was hoping that instead of lesbian and gay marriage, that we as outsiders to this system
Karla Jay: [02:12:30] would have created new ways to look at relationships. Even though I have been married, legally married for 12 years now, I am a person who am philosophically opposed to marriage because I think that there's a way in which we need to embrace all individuals no matter what kind of relationship they're in.
Karla Jay: [02:13:00] People need to be equally cherished whether they are single, whether they're living with two other people or three other people, or whether your partner lives with her best girlfriend. I might consider unusual relationship, somebody with a partner who's married to someone of the opposite gender.
Karla Jay: [02:13:30] I was hoping that we would be less conventional, and by being less conventional, we might create broader kinds of changes in which people would be ...
Mason Funk: I'm sorry, start over. By being less conventional.
Karla Jay: I was hoping that by being less conventional, we could create more of a world in
Karla Jay: [02:14:00] which people would be freer all over to grow up and be what they want to be. I still think the people would feel constrained by gender and also by relationships. I see a lot of young people getting married. I don't know, maybe it's good. I don't know if the institution of marriage was meant to last for 50 years, if people were meant to be married for 50 years or 70 years.
Karla Jay: [02:14:30] If I had married in my 20s I would have been divorced three, four times by now. It would have been a very expensive proposition. I'm really glad that wasn't around for me, I really wouldve been bad at it. I wanted the more radical view of the world, I'm happy with what's happened, you always want something different.
Karla Jay: [02:15:00] I don't have regrets about what I did, I think we could have been kinder people to the people around us in the movement, but otherwise I think that we did amazing things, we've created an amazing culture. There are all these things that are out there culturally, with these shows, and books, and classes. There's a kind of culture now that just simply cannot be erased no matter what laws, however Draconian may be put into place in the future.
Kate Kunath: [02:15:30] How do you think the gay community could continue to impact that radical idea you're talking about of anything alternative to heteronormative marriage behavior and ways of looking at relationships? If it's not within these institutional changes,
Kate Kunath: [02:16:00] how do you push that forward or move that ball down the court?
Karla Jay: I think that we need to think about things in fresh ways.
Mason Funk: Every time you say, "we", who?
Karla Jay: I think that lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, all queer people we need to think about society in a fresh way.
Karla Jay: [02:16:30] For example, one of the things that is happening to us as LGBT elders is that a lot of us are thinking about what are we going to do as elders. For people of my generation, very few of us had children, and those of us who had children had children within the context of a heterosexual marriage. Some of the people I know who had children don't always have the most congenial relationships.
Karla Jay: [02:17:00] When we think about aging, we don't think about either aging in place or we think about aging just an example in the most traditional sort of way. I would like us to think about things in a fresh way, I don't want to live in any kind of senior community in which Im going to be in a new kind of ghetto with other seniors. I think we should think about intergenerational living
Karla Jay: [02:17:30] where it's not just seniors in some high rise ghetto where we're talking to other seniors. I've seen this happen in New York when SAGE, the Senior ction in the Gay Environment where they moved out of the gay center in the village, and suddenly all of the seniors are in some ghetto in Chelsea. We don't want to be in some ghetto, we want to be with people of all kinds of ages and all walks of life.
Karla Jay: [02:18:00] I don't want to be with people who are just like myself, and that has to do not just with race but also with age. I think that one of the things that we need to do that's fresh is not think of our relationships, but we need to form alternative families. They're revolutionary, they are not these kind of biological families. The more that we think about marriage and children,
Karla Jay: [02:18:30] the more that we are going to start to replicate the traditionally heterosexual model of having babies and families. They are very time-consuming. The people who I know who have children, then go off and disappear into that unit where they only talk to other people who are similar units. I also understand how hard life is for young people.
Karla Jay: [02:19:00] I understand how hard it is to be a young person today with college debt, with working a job that is far more than 60 hours, with trying to have a relationship in the family. The other side of it is that we need to break out of that and here are lots of people around you who are kind of your natural grandparents. You could have dozens of grandparents out there to take care of your kids.
Karla Jay: [02:19:30] You could have a fuller life, if you're a younger person, by interacting with older people in your life, by not seeing people as those people over 30 out there. I remember when I once thought that people over 30 were like really old, and I think that we have a very segregated society in many different strata: by age, by social class, by economic ...
Karla Jay: [02:20:00] By age, by social class, by economics, and we have to think of ways that we, as queers, can come together on various projects and various functions, that we can have fuller lives that will enrich all of us, not just one segment of us.
Mason Funk: Hold on one second, please. Playing.
Karla Jay: [02:20:30] We have a lot of helicopters around here all of a sudden.
Mason Funk: Yeah, that was a quick one.
Karla Jay: Yeah.
Mason Funk: There we go. It was a helicopter I think. Just back up a little bit.
Karla Jay: We, as queer people, have to think of ways that we can enrich each other's lives, not you know ... People shouldn't think that they have to maybe just take care of us old folks, but that might be part of it, but that we feed each other,
Karla Jay: [02:21:00] that we can take care of those ... That we who are older, and some of us are better off, can help those people who are going to college, that we can help those people who are trying to set up a home. It might be financially. It might also be emotionally in which there are ways in which the people who are in mid-life or older life say, "Yeah. I've been through that." They can offer advice. They can offer time.
Karla Jay: [02:21:30] I think that the segregation of age, social class, race, that our own stratification within our community is still quite difficult. It's still a challenge we had. One of the interesting things is that the Gay Liberation Front, for all its flaws, was one of the most diverse organizations that I've ever been in, where we had people who were queer,
Karla Jay: [02:22:00] who were transgender, who were people of color, who were old, who were young, every social class. I just cannot think of any organization that I go into today where that is true, and that's really a very sad fact of life today, that we're very, very segregated. It's not always racial, but it's segregated in some form or other.
Mason Funk: Wow.
Kate Kunath: [02:22:30] You also were talking about how difficult it was because of that, and how much conflict arose out of that diversity, and different demands out of the movement. In hindsight, if the Gay Liberation Front were to come back tomorrow, what would be your wisdom about how to keep things organized and, I don't know, keep that group together?
Karla Jay: [02:23:00] I think when people look back at early organizations like the Gay Liberation Front, they think that we failed because these organizations fell apart, but of course, we never set up these organizations to exist in perpetuity, like the HRC. There's an organization with a bureaucratic structure that intends to keep itself there. We never thought like that.
Karla Jay: [02:23:30] We had a very thin timeline. However, it was a very fraught organization with a lot of struggles, and maybe that was very difficult, and many of those struggles, particularly in terms of how we should proceed, whether we should have Robert's Rules of Order, or just work around in a kind of more revolutionary structure. I think that those questions of organization
Karla Jay: [02:24:00] were quite fraught with tension. However, I think our commitment to working things through with particularly people who were in the organization who were white and middle class, the commitment of people to work things through with people who were people of color, or who were trans people, our commitment to try to understand others
Karla Jay: [02:24:30] and work with them, that really got us through a lot of things. I became friends in organization. I had never met a trans person in my life. Where at Barnard would I have ever met a trans person? I soon became friends with Marsha Johnson. Before I knew it, I was going to clubs with her. If you give people a chance, it becomes a different situation.
Karla Jay: [02:25:00] That's one of the interesting things. I think it was Barbara Deming, a lesbian feminist pacifist who said, "When you see people as enemies, they have no choice in life but to be your enemy, but when you see people as your friends, then they are your friends." I see this today. I see many lesbians who think, "Oh, you know it's trans people. They're getting all the attention, and we're the invisible group over here."
Karla Jay: [02:25:30] Other people think, "Oh, no. It's the gay men. They've got all the power and the money. Look how much money they've got. There's this guy, he spoke at the Republican convention and he owns Paypal. Look how much money these guys have. They still have these big houses in the Hamptons."
Karla Jay: [02:26:00] I think the more that we see each other as sources of conflict, and not as potential allies, the more we're going to be in conflict. I think we do need to hold each other accountable. I am a curmudgeon, and I do tell people, "I think you need to do this," but I say, "I like what you're doing, but this, you know, you need to do more of this. You need to bring in more of these people. You need to be cognizant that you're leaving these groups out of your narrative." I've never written people off, and I think
Karla Jay: [02:26:30] that's the only key to why I've survived for so many years, because I think if you spent your life in the movement fighting with the other people in the movement, you burned out pretty quickly. Those people left, and the people who didn't fight with other people, people like Mark Segal, and Alan Young, and Susan Silverman, people who built alliances with other groups of people,
Karla Jay: [02:27:00] those people are still going. Part of that is not to get bogged down in other people's personalities, and to try not to get involved in these personal and devastating fights. Of course I've been devastated when other people said, "Oh, I'm never going to speak to you again because you said this, you think that, or you're friends with this person," but I tried not to make those kinds of decisions for myself.
Karla Jay: [02:27:30] I think that we need to align ourselves with other people and even other movements, because if we don't have a planet, we might as well all just plan to have a lovely life on the moon in the future, because this planet's going down the tubes faster than any of us ever thought it would. That's probably the saddest message of all. We did not talk about climate warming in the Gay Liberation Front.
Karla Jay: [02:28:00] I think if we talked about ecology, it was are you using that pot [roach]? I'll eat it for you. That was recycling in 1969, but the planet really seriously is in much worse shape much faster than it was.
Mason Funk: Great. Okay. I guess time for the final four.
Karla Jay: Okay. You have your final four ...
Mason Funk: I have my final four.
Karla Jay: [02:28:30] Isn't that a basketball term?
Mason Funk: It is. It used to be the final three, and then we added one, and yes it's from the basket ...
Karla Jay: Okay. Okay.
Mason Funk: It's reflective of the basketball tournament. Number one, to a young person, or a middle-aged person, or an old person who is just about to come out in some way, shape, or form, and these are intended to be sort of short more or less succinct answers, what would be your wisdom or guidance to that person, and please include my question in your answer.
Karla Jay: [02:29:00] If I were going to give advice to anybody, I'd say there are several kinds of advice I would give to people of any age who want to come out. I'd say if you're thinking of coming out, even vaguely, then that means you should come out, because we're still at stage one. If people don't come out,
Karla Jay: [02:29:30] then other people have no idea how many of us there really are, and they don't even realize that they are discriminating against their friends, neighbors, coworkers, relatives, and sometimes their very own children. Everybody really needs to come out, and that's really the very first stage. Maybe people can think about something they might regret at the very end of their life.
Karla Jay: [02:30:00] If you think, "Wow, you know, am I going to regret this?" If you even think you might regret not coming out, then come out. I think that people were always afraid to come out because something might happen. Of all the people I know who came out, very few things happened to them. Very few things really happened that were bad to people. One friend was thrown out of his dorm room by his roommate.
Karla Jay: [02:30:30] There were a few things that were bad. I think it's worth the price, however. The bigger price is to your dignity in not coming out, so I think everyone should come out. No matter what your age is, never too late.
Mason Funk: Great. What is your hope for the future?
Karla Jay: My hope for the future is that there will be a world without discrimination,
Karla Jay: [02:31:00] a world in which we can take care of the Earth, and a world in which we in the LGBT movement can think about the larger world and we can think about taking care of those who have the least among us, that we can take care of queer people who have nothing, who are economically devastated in this country,
Karla Jay: [02:31:30] that we can think about people in other countries that are just beginning their struggle for civil rights, that we can have time to turn our attention to anything that's another crisis, that we can get rid of guns, we can take care of the environment, that we will have the leisure to take care of each other.
Karla Jay: [02:32:00] Whether that's people in our community, or people in the world, that's my hope, that we can all take better care of each other on this planet.
Mason Funk: Great. Why is it important to you to tell your story?
Karla Jay: I think it's important to tell our story ...
Mason Funk: Well, I'm talking about you personally.
Karla Jay: It's important for me to tell my story to the world because
Karla Jay: [02:32:30] most of the people I knew in the LGBT movement are dead. Most of them. I'd say 70%. They did not get a chance to tell their story. I knew several people who were murdered. One guy was working in a gay thrift shop and had his head blown off by a shotgun in the early 1970s. Another woman,
Karla Jay: [02:33:00] her head was blown off in her apartment here in New York. Then people were killed by HIV. I lost half of the gay male friends I had. Then the lesbians started to be devastated mostly by cancer. Most lesbians smoked. That was a right of going to a bar. I think most of us smoked in self-defense. Most of the people I knew are dead. They didn't get a chance to tell their story.
Karla Jay: [02:33:30] They thought they might tell their story when they were retired. There was no video to tell their story into. They didn't think of recording their story. They were ashamed to tell their stories. It became very important to me to tell my story, to save things, to donate things so that other people's stories would be saved, and to encourage other people to tell their stories as well,
Karla Jay: [02:34:00] because the other people, all they had left was, "Gee, I hope somebody will tell this for me," and now it's often ... It's too late. I think that all of us have to think about that, particularly now, because for most of my life people wrote letters. Lives were recorded very intimately in letters, and today
Karla Jay: [02:34:30] I don't know what's happening to emails, and whether people are intimate in emails. I am not intimate in emails. It's a different form of communication, and I think that the kind of intimate day-to-day lives that we wrote in eight-page letters, I think this daily life is being lost. I think that I'm so happy that I've gotten to record my life in some way.
Mason Funk: [02:35:00] Related to that question, and maybe overlapping a little bit, what is the importance to you of a project like OUTWORDS?
Karla Jay: I think it's so important for a project like OUTWORDS to take place because we, as LGBTQ or however people define themselves, questioning people, people who have no sexual identity but think about it, our lives throughout history have been erased,
Karla Jay: [02:35:30] repressed, just not there. One of the things that we have to say to posterity is, "We're here. We've always been here, and we're going to be here." Projects like this that put ourselves out there in a way that cannot be erased will tell people in the future that we are here,
Karla Jay: [02:36:00] and this is our greatest protection against the tyranny of future laws, because it doesn't matter whether laws change. Doesn't matter what regimes are in place. There'll always be someone who'll have this on some piece of equipment in the house, and our lives, because of projects like this, will always exist, and they will never be able to take this from us again.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kate Kunath
Date: August 10, 2016
Location: Home of Karla Jay, New York, NY