Twenty years ago, on March 13, 1997, Frank Rich penned an op-ed, “Lesbian Lookout,” in support of the NEA, which was under threat. The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), which I produced and acted in, and Yvonne Rainer’s MURDER and murder, were that year’s perennial NEA whipping boys.

When it comes to a fixation on lesbian sex, even Howard Stern is a poor second to Pete Hoekstra, a Representative from Michigan. Mr. Hoekstra seems to have a curious obsession with sampling alleged lesbian porn financed by the National Endowment for the Arts. In a January letter to the N.E.A.’s chairman, Jane Alexander, he describes how he executed his solemn duty to watch a movie called The Watermelon Woman after ‘reading a review . . . which stated that [it] had “the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid.”‘ (What paper is the Congressman reading?)

Martha Page (me) and Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson) in a photo from the Fae Richards Archive, Zoe Leonard

The Watermelon Woman has recently enjoyed a twentieth year remaster of our deteriorating print, and a twentieth anniversary re-release, commencing at last year’s Berlinale, moving on to MoMA, enjoying a week’s theatrical run at NY’s Metrograph, and now available for purchase. Supported by $31,500 in 1995 by the NEA, the last year the Endowment supported individual filmmakers, it has gone on to be a valued enough piece of American filmmaking that our remaster was supported by film culture stalwarts like the UCLA Film & TV Archive, Outfest, and the Toronto International Film Festival. It has remained valued for many things, including its art-world famous “Fae Richards Archive” of 82 images by Zoe Leonard re-enacting the life and contemporaries of our fake star, otherwise known as “the Watermelon Woman”; for its contributions to the sub-genre fake documentaries, of which I am also a scholar; for its place in history as the first African American lesbian feature film; and for its intelligent, disarming, honest depictions of the relations between owning and controlling imaging technologies and history, memory, and truth (also the focus of all of the #100hardtruths I pen).

Installation at Black/Feminist/Lesbian/Queer/Trans* Cultural Production, curated by Melonie Green, Melorra Green and Dorothy Santos

It is true that some recent re-reviews have noted the political artfulness of the depiction of lesbian sex in the film, but everyone knows that salacious sex is not really the film’s primary preoccupation (Dunye’s more heady interests in identity, self-reflexivity, film history, experimental form, and the political power of archives have contributed to its ongoing attention by scholars, as was demonstrated in the recent academic conference that was part of its anniversary). We understood the #hardtruth that bigots used its lesbian sex scene as a smoke screen for their much more prurient commitments to censorship, racism, sexism, and homophobia.

There are many haunting truths to be told about our experiences twenty years ago associated to past efforts to defund the NEA. As is true for many real statements about fake things, I hope our place within a previous generation’s successful defense may be useful for those working today to hold off this administration’s sorry attempts. Some of what actually happened now plays as phony as the claims trotted out against us, but as many of the facts of our place within the history of the annals of the NEA reflect tactics, and players, that stay true to this day: speak truth to power; fight for the right for the least-seen to speak truth to power.

  • For the most part, white men were our strongest champions as the Congress used our little picture for bigger aims. Frank Rich wrote on our behalf, and Alex Baldwin spoke for us on the steps of Capitol Hill. Having made a film about black women and lesbians’ lack of access to capital, media, and power, it still came as a shock that Cheryl never got to speak on her own behalf.

”We’re in the ‘no bullwhips, please’ phase of Federal funding for the arts,” Mr. Baldwin said after his two-day excursion here. ”I would love all art to be funded, for the Federal Government to spend $1 billion on the arts, and for the N.E.A. to be restored to what it was. ‘But the political facts of life are that funding anything that this Congress considers obscene will enable Dick Armey and the Republican leadership to dynamite the entire N.E.A.” (“Lobbyists Fight Cuts on Arts Day in Capital,” 1997)

  • But in the end, a congressional bill to defund the NEA by $31,500—staged as political theater to shame our film, and other attempts of American self-expression—was voted down on the floor of congress due to the simple and true words of one of our strongest champions, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, from Texas. “Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, took up Dunye’s cause in the Congressional debate, informing House members that ‘I’ve seen the film, and I think Cheryl Dunye is doing a wonderful job. Can we just say we have a difference of opinion?'” (“Can ‘Community Standards’ Apply to ‘Watermelon Woman,‘” 1997).

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On Friday and Saturday I was lucky enough to attend two feminist cultural events in LA: one centered on a double revisit to the feminist art scenes of the 70s and early 2000s (“Revisiting the revisiting of feminism,” part of a fifteen day celebration of the fifteen years of X-tra in LA,) the other an organizing meeting for feminists in the UC system working in and around technology (UCFemTechNet, a local initiative or iteration of the larger FemTechNet project of which I am an organizer: you can join our listserv here.)

The lucky part is that I live in a complex and populated enough urban environment that multiple and diverse events can occur in a short time around the banner of “feminism and.” And of late, lucky we’ve been. In the past five years LA has been host to a large number of feminist-flavored art and technology events including, of course, the mega-shows In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States,  WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, and Doin’ It in Public Feminism and Art at the Women’s Building (on which I was lucky enough to work), and much more feminist art gingerly scattered across the larger PST effort.  And smaller local acts pepper our city every day including, to mention only a tiny few that quickly come to mind, Womynhouse, Breaking in Two: A provocative Vision of Motherhood, Andrea Bower‘s or Cathy Opie‘s current work showing at their respective galleries, etc. etc.)

While occurring within only a few miles of each other, and sharing a notable cast of linked local characters, histories, institutions, and shared concerns, this weekend’s two events could not have been any more different from each other, in ways that are telling about the complexity of contemporary feminist organizing given that feminists now populate a variety of fields, are schooled in disparate and even competing traditions, have any number of current goals to link our work and struggle, and use many manners of feminist pasts to muster our strength and bearing. Of course, perhaps problematically, so much of what we do as feminists has always been to look back: to that time just before our reach, when things seemed to be really happening. Much of my own work has looked longingly at the 70s from the position of daughter. And feminists yet a generation or more younger again take up their version of the revision knowingly and lovingly: say the women who stage the Feminist Tea Party, or the oeuvre of Emily Roysdon, or recent work of Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst.

But the strangely timeless, or dare I say dated, conversation at the X-tra event, while also looking back as we are so wont to do, seemed to be entirely unconnected to our lively feminist-present (and the scores of women artists in the room who had come, I think, to make sense of their current practices in light of feminism’s constant changes and rethought histories), eerily circling back to the ever-more, herself-dated and so-easily maligned straw-man Vanessa Beecroft, and odder still, a particular and early image of  a naked and self-righteous Lynda Benglis that our panelists kept using to re-establish that, to be clear, they themselves were “anti-essentialist.”

But that fight—who was and was not an “essentialist”—was fought and won, decades ago, leaving its binary to be revisited, deconstructed, and repurposed by any number of contemporary feminists delighting in body-based practices and asking different political questions:

Rheim Alkadhi, Hairs

Rheim Alkahdi, Housekeeping

“Yes, the old system of transcendental essentialism is still our enemy, we do not want to return to a politics of essential purity in which only certain subjects are dominant and all others are consigned to alterity; but at the same time, the new system of transient anti-essentialism is our enemy too, for we also reject the new customized micropolitics of identity management, in which each human soul is captured and reproduced as an autonomous individuals bearing affects and identities.” Alexander Galloway, “Does the Whatever Speak?” in Race After the Internet

And that’s not even to begin to mention the amazing work by contemporary feminist art historians also revisiting past work with today’s questions and needs, as my once-teacher Yvonne Rainer reminded us at the event about my once-student Julia Bryan-Wilson’s recent queer revisit of Rainer’s Trio A. Why weren’t we sharing our current feminist work, and weirder still, why weren’t the panelists able to hold on to feminism, which kept skittering off the stage as if something somehow currently unknowable?

Now, Mary Kelly, ever articulate, dead-on, and inspiring, was the first to remind us how the complete capitalization of the art market has changed the conversation for contemporary artists, as well as our lifestyle and community (we spent quite some time bemoaning missing couches where people used to smoke and chat outside MOCA). And that efficiently gets me to my other event, and my invitation, too. For, of course, we all know that things can and sometimes do work outside markets on the Internet, and there people sometimes meet, and chat, and share their work. I am certainly not one to celebrate the digital (my work mostly does the opposite), but at least in the feminist conversations this weekend that organized about and sometimes in that space there seemed more than ample room for both connection and possibility, to things past, present and future.

At UCFemTechNet, another diverse group of women and men, from a range of disciplines, ranks, campuses, races, and sexualities, used their time together productively: to plan for the building of networking tools and platforms, places to share work, and even a possible retreat in a yert. Interested, too, in salvaging and archiving feminists and feminist theory past, this meeting was at the same time dynamic and interactive, perhaps because of its quite practical goals and processes, and because our hopes were not just to reflect upon communities lost, but ways to be a community here and now.

The next event is a feminist, anti-racist wiki-storm, where we will come together for three hours to learn how to and then correct, augment, and build out Wikipedia to hold the people, work, and theories that matter to our shared record. There, in person and also online, we will work together to archive our feminist past and current work, across fields, including, if offered up and taken on for editing, the transforming practices of decades of LA feminist artists. As times change, the words and practices that motivate community and activism must also transform, even as we pay homage to and remember what got us here. Feminist technology and art are interwoven media used for political gain: if this remains your commitment, we’d love for you to join us!