‘Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger’ by Kelly Cogswell
Author: Sarah Burghauser
March 3, 2014
From a dank upstairs room in New York’s LGBT Center to marches on the streets of Paris, Kelly Cogswell takes us deep between the pages of the Lesbian Herstory Archive and between the frames of the documentary, Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too, to bring us her insights and memories of the influential and fierce international grassroots outfit.
Cogswell was among the founding members of the New York City based lesbian action group, The Lesbian Avengers, which turned into one of the most important, vociferous movements on the queer liberation front. In her memoir, Cogswell details the assembly, growth, and eventual demise of the legendary dyke activist collective.
She describes this accomplished and diverse assembly of women ready to get down to business. At “the first Avengers meeting,” she admits, “I was really just there to be among girls, and to find out if I belonged. I wanted to. Anybody would.” The matter of belonging or not, reoccurs throughout the book both in personal and in larger political contexts. It is this anxiety around belonging that is evident not only Cogswell’s persistent questions about who or what is a citizen, but also in the disintegration of the Avengers.
The story begins with the group’s heyday when, as Cogswell writes, “…the Avengers were running like the well-oiled machine you hear so much about and almost never see… It was like magic…” The description of the iconic moment, when, at a demonstration in memory of two queers burned alive in their home in Oregon, a line of Avengers lit torches on their tongues and then extinguished the flames in their mouths, is nothing short of electrifying: “We raised our flames triumphantly into the air, leaned back, and swallowed them down. The crowd cheered, a little uncertainly, at watching a circus trick transformed into a sacrament.”
As the group continued to grow, spread their message, share their skills, and build community around actions, racial and cultural misunderstanding, in-fighting, and horizontal hostility brought the group to a slow crumble. The diverse membership began accusing one another of being racist, classist, exclusive, unforgiving, manipulative, and worse. The presumption of goodwill was non-existent. Through a series of coalitions and new branches, the Avengers struggled to maintain their cohesive identity as “a direct-action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility.”
As a way to contextualize these tensions, Cogswell relays an encounter on a Brooklyn subway soon after she shaved her head. “…A bunch of black men surrounded me on the train once, asking, ‘Happy about Bensonhurst, you racist skinhead?’ Until one guy finally said, ‘It’s just her ‘do, man, like that singer,’ and they moved off…” This incident highlights the ways that difference (in this case Cogswell’s shaved head) are read and misread and how identifiers shift meaning depending on the context. Later in her story, Cogswell encounters similar questions as she struggles to unravel what it means to be a citizen of the United States, or of anywhere else for that matter.
Eating Fire is a reminder, an homage, a call to rally, and a plea to this generation of queer women. Change, Cogswell seems to insist, is not only not a process any of us can afford to sit out, but that our participation as women, as queers, as immigrants, as people of color, is fundamental to our collective freedom.
This book swells with astute observations about what the Internet did to and for activism and the difficulty of creating movements that are at once diverse and community-specific. While the book leaves us with more questions than answers about how we should proceed toward liberation, it does gesture toward two possibilities.
First: eat fire. While the Lesbian Avengers actually did this as part of demonstrations, eating fire also provides a powerful metaphor not only for the total bravery of acting, but also the physical and spiritual demands of those actions.
Secondly: return home. Done without an ounce of sentimentality, Cogswell provides a shard of hope in her final recalling of a trip back to Kentucky where she meets a small group of young queer locals: “We stared at each other in mutual awe. They thought it was cool I was living in New York and had been a Lesbian Avenger and had made it as far as Paris. I was impressed that they were still at home. In Kentucky. Smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.” This homecoming leaves readers with the feeling that belonging and being seen are possible.
While this story is tenacious in some moments and vulnerable in others, it is always triumphant.
Inspiring and absolutely heroic. This story belongs to us all.
Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger
By Kelly Cogswell
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816691166, 256 pp.