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JEB photographed lesbians when it was hard to find authentic representations of their lives. Canadian photographer Kerry Manders deconstructs some iconic images from Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians

Looking, talking, bathing, marching, playing, protesting, celebrating: JEB photographed it all. Lovers, legends, friends, strangers: JEB documented them all. Radically inclusive at a time when there were fewer colours in our flag and letters in our acronym, photographer and filmmaker JEB (Joan E. Biren) has dedicated her life to documenting lesbian lives. Crowdsourcing support (and funds) from her beloved communities, JEB self-published Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (1979) – in which she pairs images with interviews, prose and poetry excerpts – at a time when no traditional publisher had the guts to show “the love that dare not speak its name” (or to include the word lesbians in a title). Anthology Editions reissued Eye to Eye this year, making it more readily available to new generations of readers.

It’s challenging to describe just how significant the book was and is to our communities. I first encountered Eye to Eye on a classmate’s bookshelf in the 1990s, when I was an undergrad. On the verge of my own coming out, the images were a revelation – and an inspiration. In what became an oft-repeated ritual of circulation with original copies of Eye to Eye, that friend lent me hers and I let someone borrow it in turn. We got as many eyes on it as we could and the books started to fall apart. So many of the original copies I’ve seen have loose pages held together by elastic bands, coffee stains and fingerprints. This wear and tear is proof of our connections, our caring. From hand to hand and eye to eye, JEB’s work witnesses, as author and activist Audre Lorde described it, “the contours of our faces, the visual shapes of our loving”

Rusty, Washington, D.C., 1979

JEB (Joan E. Biren)

Pool-playing Rusty Slesinger bends over, eyes focused intently on the proverbial prize. It’s a moment of solitary concentration in a place built for conversation and company. I imagine Rusty with a certain swagger, expertly wielding her pool cue, tuning out the surrounding noise – chatter, music and booze. She’s more interested in the clink of breaking balls and thump of corner-pocket drops. Often located at the back of the bar or in an adjacent room, the pool table offers another way to bust a move. It’s a game of strategy and skill, but also a complex choreography of triangulated desire between and among player, competitor and spectator. You need to keep your eye on the ball, as they say, but it inevitably drifts to hands and chests and buttocks.

Rusty explains that pool helps her to “relax and calm down” in a world where she has “to play games all day long. I sell office supplies. And I can’t be Rusty in that store. I have to be Mary Ellen.” She touches on self-splitting and code-switching as crucial survival tactics, and the profound sanctuary our bars can offer. This image elicits my longing for the lesbian bar – almost, but not quite, a relic of our past. The Lesbian Bar Project (a campaign to preserve the last of America’s lesbian bars) argues that, in losing our bars, “we lose power, validity, communal safety and access to intergenerational dialogue.” In 1980 (just one year after JEB made this portrait), there were 200 lesbian bars in the United States. Only 21 remain.

Barbara and Beverly, Roxbury, Mass., 1978

JEB (Joan E. Biren)

Legendary author-activist-educator Barbara Smith, known to many as “the mother of Black feminism,” practitioner of intersectional feminism before it was named as such, smiles at her fraternal twin sister, Beverly Smith (also a lesbian activist). Beverly glances upward – perhaps in thoughtful consideration of a query from JEB. Barbara’s hand rests on (and, intriguingly, her fingers actually fall into) her typewriter, while Beverly’s pen is at the ready, notepad in lap. I think of this as a behind-the-scenes image, showing us the space where the books get written, the calls get made, the protests get planned, as evidenced by piles of paperwork from floor to desk, shelves of books, rotary phone, boxed letters. It’s the casual, joyful mise-en-scène of organizational toil.

In 1978, Barbara tells JEB that “we are just beginning to comprehend what it means to be Black and female and lesbian in America.” In addition to plain old patriarchy, Barbara cites racism in the women’s movement and homophobia in the Black community as “the forces most likely to choke Black feminist struggle.” Barbara and Beverly are still fighting those forces on multiple fronts.

I love the two postcards taped between the windowpanes: above, that’s Ida B. Wells, journalist, educator, civil rights activist and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); below is Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, activist and suffragette. Future generations of writers and activists would, in turn, pin up pictures of Barbara and Beverly as inspiration and celebration. The gesture is both homage and humble reminder of the legacies we inherit, inhabit and impart.

Cat and Mary, Deadwood, S.D., 1977

JEB (Joan E. Biren)

On a cross-country road trip, JEB and Mary Farmer (long-time proprietor of Lammas Women’s Books and More in Washington, D.C., and a formidable activist) stopped in Deadwood to visit the grave and honour the memory of Calamity Jane. While making this portrait together, a cat wandered into the frame. Surrounded by lush greenery, it determinedly climbs the stairs toward JEB while Mary looks up, bemused. JEB paired the image with an excerpt from the final issue (in 1978) of DYKE, A Quarterly, asserting that the 14th-century bubonic plague might not have wiped out 25 million people if there remained feline protection from disease-carrying rodents. But “men, associating cats with witches and the devil, killed almost the entire cat population of Europe.”

Beyond the old cat-lady cliché is the lesbian cat-lover stereotype – one that our culture has embraced with gusto. Cats, notoriously independent, fiercely loyal to their chosen ones, have long been associated with so-called deviant forms of femininity and sexuality – not only with us, the “lavender menace,” but also with witchcraft and spinsterhood. Lesbians adopted cat symbolism not despite, but because of, these connections, proudly reclaiming the putatively pejorative associations. As I (stereo)type this, one of my cat companions is walking across my keyboard.

Comb lesbian archives and you’ll find cat imagery on everything from ’zines to memes. JEB plays with these self-referential associations in this dual portrait of a crucial figure in lesbian history and a potent symbol of our history. JEB names “cat” first, perfectly content to let it take centre stage.

Maria and Tracy, New York Lesbian and Gay Pride March, June 24, 1979

JEB (Joan E. Biren)

Political movements require the confluence of minds and bodies, theory and practice, solitary work and collective action. I think of the words Barbara and Beverly type on their sheets in collusion with the chants and songs Maria and Tracy sing in the streets. Here, Maria and Tracy celebrate Gay Pride on the 10-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York – that watershed moment in the lesbian and gay rights movement and the birth of Pride as we know it.

Sporting identical baseball caps emblazoned with GAY ’79, announcing their presence and refusing erasure, Maria and Tracy wear their hearts and history on their sleeves: AS PROUD OF OUR GAYNESS AS WE ARE OF OUR BLACKNESS. At Pride, signs of our past, present and potential future(s) function as sartorial accoutrement – a record of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Maria and Tracy wear buttons circulating in advance of upcoming autumn events in Washington: the very first 3rd World Lesbian/Gay Conference, hosted by the NCGB (National Coalition for Black Gays, who would later add “Lesbians” to their name to avoid subsuming us into the “gay” monolith) and the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Pre-internet, these pins functioned as both invite and calendar hold: Join us. Be there.

Looking at Maria and Tracy in their historical context, I think of my own. For the second year in a row, the COVID-19 pandemic had us necessarily locked down and physically distanced here in Toronto. There was none of the usual kissing and hugging – no dancing in the streets to Sister Sledge (“We are family/I got all my sisters with me”). We’re still proud, of course, but we wear it differently this year. It requires a different brand of celebratory merch (of the fundraising rather than the corporate rainbow-washing variety): think Queerantine. Think I Stayed Homo. JEB’s eye invites us to wonder how our current moment will be documented and remembered.

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