Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Souls Day

On this Feast of All Souls, Dia de los Muertos, we pause our rushing about to remember those who have "passed on," those who have died. In the presence of absence, we affirm that somehow the meaning and the love that once lived still carries meaning and love into an unknown future. This flow of lives is what it is to be human.

Today I want to remember my friend BettyJohanna of Seattle who died last February at age 67.

I met Betty in 1976 at a Pacific Life Community retreat for non-violent activists who were preparing an incursion onto the Trident nuclear submarines base then under construction near Bangor. My then-partner and I got to play the role of military police pushing back our friends while they practiced climbing fences. I remember Betty standing to one side, chain smoking, not about to risk looking silly and uncoordinated while climbing, but quick to point out that if the invaders could bring up more ladders, they'd accomplish their task more efficiently. She was the most beautiful, assertive, and defiantly OUT lesbian I'd ever met.

We never lived in the same city, but we never entirely lost touch thereafter.

Hard as it is to fathom now, in 1978 to be gay was to feel under constant assault from our fellow citizens. Conservatives were trying to force us back into closets through the ballot box. In California, this took the form of the statewide Briggs initiative to eject gay teachers and even teaching of gay humanity from the schools. In Seattle, the right offered Initiative 13 to overturn the city's civil rights ordinance. Betty had won a housing discrimination judgment under that law; she had no truck with cautious messaging to straight people about everyone's "right to privacy." Along with Jane Meyerding she poured blood in the headquarters of 13's sponsors and served a short jail term for that offense. More politically circumspect leaders of the gay establishment were horrified -- but Initiative 13 failed despite those incautious radical dykes. In California, our tussling coalitions defeated Briggs too.

By the 1980s, it sometimes seemed as if radical lesbians put more energy into fighting each other than into overcoming sexism and homophobia. BettyJohanna, Jane Meyerding, my partner Rebecca Gordon and I founded Lesbian Contradiction: a journal of irreverent feminism to provide a venue in which women were encouraged to talk about their differences without declaring each other the enemy. I can't pretend we resolved much, but LesCon persevered for 12 years, 4 newsprint issues a year, as debates raged and flash points shifted. Betty was not an easy editor to work with. She was often not on top of the work flow, yet opinionated always. But her spark, her loyalty to women, to lesbians and to the possibility of a more just and peaceful world, remained central to the project. I still occasionally run across someone who remembers this odd little publication fondly.

Sometime in those years, I can't remember when, I had the privilege of helping Betty complete a college degree involving independent study. Always seeking to connect with her immigrant ancestry, she chose to research and recount how Norwegians had resisted Nazi occupation from 1940-45. I had enough training in academic history (and a suitable degree) to be able to read, critique, approve and, happily learn from, the paper she wrote. It was a satisfying project for both of us.

Later in life, her search to recover her roots led her to seek the meaning of it all through the Lutheran Church of her parents, not a simple encounter. But then, with Betty, nothing was ever simple. That woman always had a million questions and opinions.

Betty was unhealthy for a long time before lung cancer (yes, all those cigarettes) finally got her. But she was a stubborn one. She was lucky to have her accomplished partner Ronni Gilboa beside her through it all. In 2004 Rebecca and I got to stand up at their wedding in San Francisco -- they were part of the small cohort who got married during a short window when the city was issuing licenses on the mayor's say-so. The California Supreme Court later invalidated those gay marriages on the ground that the city didn't have that authority to buck state law-- but nothing was going to invalidate Betty and Ronni's union. After all, like most queers of our generation, they'd never expected to get validation except from their own inner strength and from their own community.

I miss Betty; she was one of a kind.


Markley Morris said...

I miss Betty too. Thanks for writing about her, Jan.

Ronni Gilboa said...

Thank you. Ronni

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