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In Memory: Poet, Essayist and Activist Judy Freespirit

In Memory: Poet, Essayist and Activist Judy Freespirit

Author: Susan Stinson

September 14, 2010

Judy Freespirit died September 10, 2010 in San Francisco. She was 74. Here’s is a tribute to Judy that I wrote a few years back. I write of her in present tense, and there’s no way I’m changing that. She gave so many gifts. She and Aldebaran, as part of an infamous group called The Fat Underground, were the authors of the 1973 Fat Liberation Manifesto, which was being posted all over the web on the day she died, was reprinted in Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Movement, edited by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon. It can be read here, and, if you scroll up, there’s also a great photo by Cathy Cade of Judy dancing with other members of Fat Chance in 1979.

Judy was also a poet and she helped found Fat Lip Reader’s Theater. Her personal papers are stored in The Mazer Lesbian Archives.

1983. Someone had a poster with a poem by Judy Freespirit on it. Some of the women knew her and they said her name with a kind of familiar reverence and heat. I was young, new to Boston, new to the east coast (or any coast), only a few years out. I had been fat all my life, but was only a few years in to talking with women who would say the word tenderly, defiantly and matter-of-factly, much like the way they said Judy’s name.

There was a group. I had seen a flyer and joined. This was the early eighties. I felt lucky to have found them. I was shy and observant, staying quiet, watching my step, trying to learn how to be a good person in the world, in this world. I was sweating through long nights, feeling my hair curl in the humidity, obsessively reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville and “Lifting Belly” by Gertrude Stein, determined to get at the art in me, to find the geniuses in the world that would let me answer them with hot, direct, ambitious language of my own.

So, there I was, fat and throbbing, lucky enough to have been invited to a fat dyke gathering at somebody’s apartment where there was a poster with a picture of a woman on it (I’m pretty sure that the picture was of Judy, but, remember, this was more than twenty years ago, and I only got the one glimpse) wearing, I think, a sleeveless t-shirt – no bra – and parachute pants, looking opulent, hip and wonderful. Also on the poster was a poem — it was called “Night Flight,” (later published in a chapbook, A Slim Book of Fat Poems by Judy Freespirit) – about fat women having sex, which ended, as I am remembering it over the decades, with the lines, “we fly, my love, we fly.”

Somebody said, “That Judy, she sure has a way with words.”

That’s how I met her, as poetry, as image, as somebody fat dykes talked about. Later, I heard more, heard other stories. I learned that she had been a member of the Fat Underground, a group both celebrated and notorious for the heady risk-taking of its position papers and the radical nerve of its actions (storming the stage at a diet lecture, anyone? after, rumor has it, the phone lines were cut and the doors to the lecture hall were locked?). They sent those fat liberation papers out to anyone who ordered them through ads in the radical feminist press, and so, from their west coast mimeograph machine – I’m guessing that’s how they handled reproduction – they reached Boston, were hidden under a bed in Northampton, made it to New Haven, and eventually to London, and who knows where all else. Judy was key to reaching across old tensions to gather members of the Fat Underground, who had scattered across the country, to give a panel at a fat women’s conference twenty years after their founding, which was a gift to new generations of fat activists.

Judy was always an artist and an activist, both, so I heard of Fat Chance, a fat dance troupe she performed with on trapezes. I heard that there was a film, maybe it was called something like Freespirit Unbound, in which she took off her clothes and talked about her body and her life. (Related acts of art and courage have been performed since, but had it been done before? By a fat woman? On film?) I saw a chapbook in which she wrote with a power and honesty that were new to my experience about childhood sexual abuse. I saw her name in many issues of the lesbian magazine Sinister Wisdom, both as a writer and as the reader for the Women’s Braille Press. I heard that she won a prize with a love poem, and then pretty much astonished the contest’s administrators with who she was when she showed up. She had a piece in Shadow On A Tightrope, which was the first book I read about fat liberation.

I heard that she had been invited to address a conference of dieticians and nutritionists, putting her fat body and her sharp mind under their scrutiny, open to their questioning, in order to create the possibility that other fat women might have an easier time of it when in need of health care. Later, in Massachusetts, I met a woman who had been introduced to fat liberation by her nutritionist. When twenty-five registered dieticians signed a letter against fat hatred I circulated in 2000, I felt Judy’s hand on theirs and on mine. She’s been the coordinator of the fat feminist caucus of NAAFA, which, among other things, gave me a small grant to help organize a response when I was under attack for publishing a fat positive article.

She was interviewed in the first issue of FaT GiRL zine, a radical exploration of fat art, life, sex and politics in the early nineties, and she was honored with a Size Queen award “for her gift of community activism” in the gorgeous first issue of Size Queen, published in the summer of 2005.

I didn’t witness most of these acts, although I benefited from many of them. I encountered only some of her writing, although those encounters were memorable. I’m not checking my facts, either. I’m saying that Judy’s influence and contributions have been broad, persistent and deep. When I was young, unknowing and ambitious, I found a way into the world she was already making, in community with many others, where fat poets could be poster grrrls, growling long before anyone thought to breed and multiply those r’s; where fat women left gravity behind to dangle in air to admiring applause; where gravity itself changed its nature to something more giddy and semipermeable; where the endless unfolding of the world’s erotic procession included fat women as lovers. That possibility in itself, was flight.

I’ve written four books that center on fat queer women. Right now I’m working on a novel about eighteenth century puritans, without a dyke in sight. I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell this story in a way that would make Judy love it, but I do know that her work and voice have helped make it possible for me to be the writer I’ve become.

I was sitting at a table once at a conference with Judy when someone tried to recruit her to help organize the next fat feminist conference in the San Francisco Bay area. Judy said no. When pressed, she said, “Lesbians eat their young.” She wasn’t talking for prosperity. Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Judy’s work knows how hard, long and lovingly she’s worked on behalf of lesbians. What she said sounded to me like Judy acknowledging the tedious, explosive difficulties of creating community for groups struggling with multiple oppressions. That she felt those pressures so strongly and still did the work year after year represents tremendous persistence and generosity. And, yes, she did end up co-organizing that conference. Word was that it was spectacular.

Judy has a quality of insight, of presence, a gift for making a comment in a meeting that cuts to the heart of the matter at hand., often in unexpected ways. Once at a conference, I joined a small group who had gathered to listen as Sondra Solovay told the story of her experiences in contributing to the defense of a woman accused of felony child neglect because her fat daughter had died. Sondra, who later wrote about this case in her book Tipping the Scales of Justice: Fighting Weight-based Discrimination, talked about the circumstances of the case with a beautiful, painstaking clarity backed by tremendous courage, emotion and respect for the individual lives involved. Looking into her eyes and listening to her talk about it was an experience of great intensity.

Judy was part of the group, quietly listening, too. When other women responded to some of the fat hatred Sondra described with strong language about what they would have done if anyone had said such things in their presence, Judy spoke up. She acknowledged that it was appropriate to vent strong emotions, but said that it was also important to remember that Sondra was the person actually going into these situations of great tension, when so much was at stake. Judy reminded us all that Sondra was doing important work under very difficult circumstances, and that she was doing a fine job.

This seems so simple now, but there were many layers to the gift that Judy made at that moment, a moment she may well not remember because it was one of many such over the course of her life as an activist. It illuminated, for me, for a second, a relationship between Judy and Sondra. I don’t know how long, how much or how often, but it looked to me as if the two of them had spoken of these things before, that Judy was offering her experience and hard-won knowledge and compassion in support of Sondra’s battle (and Sondra clearly wasn’t fighting alone; Marilyn Wann, for instance was very visible as a staunch ally, and I’m sure others were working hard as well.).

The moment I saw between Judy and Sondra was such a small, quick thing, but there was a beauty to it that brings me close to tears when I try to move the feeling into words. The tender, skillful support of a longtime fat activist for a brilliant younger one is not a thing that the culture values or recognizes, but the flash of it had as much radiance and depth as any diamond sold to mark a marriage. This particular relationship may well be longer and deeper, as I’m imagining, or it might have been just that one moment of grace at a small gathering within a small gathering, but, for me, it had a mighty light.

Susan Stinson photo

About: Susan Stinson

Susan Stinson’s novel Martha Moody, first published by Spinsters Ink, will be re-released in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition on December 1 2020 by Small Beer Press.

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