“The lesbian community, as far as I was concerned, ran the town.”
That’s a quote from Judy Goldstein’s oral history interview with the Eugene Lesbian History Project. The project uses first-person testimonies from Goldstein and more than 80 other volunteers to document the city’s lesbian community from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s. It’s also on display in a new exhibit at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Goldstein and project director Judith Raiskin join us to talk about the history of Eugene’s lesbian community and why it’s important to document these stories now.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller.
“The lesbian community as far as I was concerned, ran the town.”
That’s a quote from Judy Goldstein. She is one of more than 80 people who were interviewed for the Eugene Lesbian History Project. It aims to document the city’s lesbian community from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, a time when Eugene came to be known as a lesbian mecca. The interviews are part of an exhibit that’s up right now at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. They also make up an online archive and will be used for a documentary. We’re going to hear more about the project right now from Judy Goldstein and project director, Judith Raiskin, who is an associate professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Oregon. Welcome to Think Out Loud to both of you.
Judith Raiskin: Thanks so much for having us.
Miller: To Judith Raiskin, first. How did this project get started?
Raiskin: I moved to Eugene in 1995. I had been here earlier, off and on and if you were in Eugene in the 70s, 80s, 90s, it was evident that there was something unique going on in Eugene and that there was a very, very strong lesbian community. I was friends with the curator of manuscripts, Linda Long, in the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon. And she had long been saying that this was a history and a community that needed to be preserved and documented for researchers and for people to know about this unique history. And after a number of years I said, ‘yeah, okay, I’ll interview people.’
I turned to Judy Goldstein who knew a lot of people and had a lot of contact numbers. We put the word out and almost 200 people came to us to want to be interviewed. So we spent the summers of 2018 and 2019 doing long interviews, filmed with 83 people who came and talked about their lives in 1.5 to 2 hour interviews. And we transcribed those interviews and made those transcriptions searchable. And so anybody in the world with a phone or a computer can now go watch interviews and read transcripts and do their own research projects and think about what was accomplished in those times and how it relates to what we’re dealing with now.
Miller: Judy Goldstein, I read that quote from your about two hour long interview. ‘The lesbian community as far as I was concerned, ran the town’. What did you mean by that?
Judy Goldstein: Well, let me first say Eugene was a smaller town at that time. But there was such a vibrant community of lesbians and women and their children here that there were lesbian doctors and lawyers and book stores and restaurants and car mechanics and construction workers. So our needs could be met by engaging with our friends, our sisters, and it was very empowering.
Miller: What brought you to Eugene in the early 1970s?
Goldstein: Well, actually I came as part of, what I call, the ‘great hippie migration.’ I had been living in New York where I was raised and traveled around the country the year before I landed up settling here. And some people I met on Vancouver Island really encouraged me and my partner at the time to check out Eugene for a place to live. It was filled with creative people. Saturday markets started the year before we got here. I believe there were natural food stores and co-ops and there was an active community working on peace and civil rights issues. So it was very appealing to us.
Miller: Were you already out at that time?
Goldstein: No, I was not.
Miller: Did coming out in Eugene in the 70s feel different to you than if you had stayed on the east coast?
Goldstein: I think so. There was already a community here of friends of mine who were out that I admired and I was easily welcomed as I was coming out. I had lots of good friends in New York, I think, that would have done the same. But it was very organic of course, here.
Miller: One of the themes that seems to have come up over and over again in the oral histories is one of the words I saw in a lot of places, a feeling of ‘freedom’ there. I’d love to hear both of your thoughts on this but Judy Goldstein, first. How did you experience freedom, if you did, if that’s a word that you would use too?
Goldstein: I definitely would use that word. There was something like the spores that were in the air and there were the spores of change and we reveled in them. We both created or birthed these spores and we breathed them in. So I felt that I could find a colleague, a comrade, if I had an idea about an issue to address or something to be celebrated that I’d be able to accomplish something with others to produce whatever creative and important work I thought needed to be done.
Miller: Judith Raiskin, what were some of the themes that came up over and over in the interviews that you did?
Raiskin: That’s a great question. So if people want to look at lots of the themes that came up they can go to: outliersoutlaws.uoregon.edu. And there’s lots of these composite videos that talk about all the different themes. And one of them is this issue about wanting, at this time, to know how fully we could live. How could people live fully if we got out from under the yoke of patriarchy and misogyny and homophobia. How free could people be if they were not minimized and threatened? What could people do if they had opportunities?
A lot of jobs were restricted against women. And so the lesbians who came started construction companies and car repair companies and tree planting cooperatives and garbage recycling. Also remember at the time that it was much cheaper to live. So people could work part time, they could learn new skills that were denied them and then they could expand creatively. So a lot of people were involved in theater companies and dance companies and poetry workshops and photography workshops. And there was a very rich cultural scene happening and that was because they were exploring new ways of representing women and representing lesbians.
And remember, also, this was a time of the women’s movement. At the time, many women couldn’t get credit cards, couldn’t buy real property without being co-signed with a husband or father or something like that. It’s kind of hard to imagine. My students are shocked when narrators come in and talk about this, that this sort of utopian vision of how to work in new ways was trying to live differently.
So the jobs they had - a lot of them - were experimenting with equal pay scales and women’s center training, on-site childcare, sweat equity. All kinds of cooperatives started like economic relationship, alternative economics. They had an energy bank where women bartered services and expertise and really created a way of living that aligned with their feminist social and political visions. So we hear that a lot and all the interviews that there was a place of expansion and friendship and conflict. If you’re going to have businesses that are based on consensus decision making, there’s going to be conflict. It’s hard, it’s brutal, it’s grueling. But the center was really there to try to live in a different way that was more freeing.
Miller: You mentioned earlier that the young people today sometimes are flabbergasted by the restrictions that they have learned about through this project. I’m curious broadly what you’ve heard from younger members of Eugene’s lesbian or queer communities? And I guess something particularly about college folks, since you are a professor at University of Oregon, what have you heard from them about this project?
Raiskin: For me, this is the heart of the project, this intergenerational conversation. So I have this incredible privilege of talking to 18 to 22 year olds primarily and then this group of narrators who are in their 70s and 80s and I get to talk to them both. And I’ve had these incredible opportunities to bring them together and the conversations that happen between the young people and the old people are so much smarter and so much more nuanced than anything that’s happening online because the young people have stereotypes about what lesbians were up to. And the older queer people have feelings of being erased, sort of and their perspective not really understood. And so these conversations are wonderful. The students say to me things like, ‘well how can we find lesbian community? How can we go to lesbian land?’ And I say ‘lesbian land!’ You don’t even really believe in lesbians. I mean you don’t even really believe in women.
Miller: There’s so much here, dissertations worth of history that you are encapsulating here. But what do you mean by that last line, if you might say to a 19 year old, ‘you don’t even believe in lesbians, you don’t even believe in women.’ What’s behind that?
Raiskin: That needs to be unpacked a little bit. So contemporary LGBTQ identities are very fluid compared to the language that we had in the 60s, 70s and 80s. So many of my students identify as non-binary or trans or queer in different ways. And lesbian is a word that is sort of old fashioned. And more and more young women that I know, young people that I know, non-binary people, are claiming lesbian as part of their identity, but the fluidity and the categories that exist now just did not exist then.
And so the way we talk about gender and sexuality is historically constructed. So to have people who are two generations apart from each other and able to share what being queer meant then, what it means now for people of different ages is a phenomenal experience for me. And I think it’s really fun and enlightening for everybody involved with it. And I love going to the exhibit at the museum and eavesdropping on the young people who are making their way through this fantastic exhibit.
Miller: What have you heard?
Raiskin: Well, they’re very taken with the idea of a physical community. So, these are young people who have spent part of their developmental time during COVID. They’ve been in their bedrooms at home.
Miller: And were extremely online before COVID as well?
Raiskin: Exactly. And so their communities come through TikTok or they come through online blogs. And so they are very envious of the physical community that the lesbians who came to Eugene made. We don’t know how many lesbians were here because we interviewed 200 people on our list, 40 years later. So I say hundreds but I think probably thousands. And they look at the lesbian spaces that were created and they’re envious of the physical connection. And I encourage them to make their own communities and to get out and start projects together. And they’re doing it. They’re creative. They’re extremely creative people.
But it’s very interesting to hear how they identify with the issues of coming out and relationships with families and dealing with homophobia and particularly the anti-trans and anti-LGBT legislation that’s happening now. They look to that past for some sort of guidance because the community in Eugene worked very hard against the anti-gay measures of the 1980s and 90s and were finally successful with Measure 9, 30 years ago. So I think there’s a lot of legacy from this history that’s useful to us today.
Miller: Judy Goldstein, when you think back to that time for yourself in the 70s and 80s, are there images that most stand out to you?
Goldstein: Yes, there are images of women driving semi trucks filled with natural foods down to San Francisco, up to Seattle, that they then have been shipped from Seattle to Alaska, from San Francisco to Hawaii. Images of loading those trucks, 50 pound bags of grain, organic whole grain items. And there’s images of women martial artists working with children also and learning self-defense. Me, personally, learning how to sweat was a gift of the times.
Miller: Learning how to sweat?
Miller: What do you mean by that?
Goldstein: I mean that I grew up in the 50s and 60s and I had my ballet classes and my gym classes and some swimming activities. But I was not to sweat. Maybe I was to ‘glisten,’ as they say.
Miller: But it wasn’t a body where the effort could show?
Goldstein: Correct, that would be not feminine. That would be not feminine. And to push through that and to learn to sweat with my friends and learn to spar with other women, that’s an image. Going to a garage and seeing women doing, to me, amazing work on automobiles, cars and automotive work and mechanics work. Women building homes and remodeling homes.
And there were a lot of other beautiful images of women trying to get pregnant at the time and then their babies being born into our community, of women who came to the community with their children and embracing those children, male and female. So those are some of the images from the time.
Miller: We have just about a minute left. But to go back to the issues we were talking about with Judith Raskin. What do you hope that younger generations will take away from this project?
Goldstein: I think that we are all in this together. Different issues for different times, that we can remind one another that we aren’t each other’s enemies, that we have more that we can build together without judging one another.
Miller: Judy Goldstein and Judith Raiskin thanks very much for joining us.
Raiskin: Thanks for having us.
Goldstein: My pleasure. You’re welcome, thank you.
Miller: Judy Goldstein is one of the oral history narrators who took part in the Eugene Lesbian History Project. Judith Raiskin is the director of the project, an associate professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Oregon.
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