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BOOK REVIEW: Sex, history & lesbian outlaws

"When We Were Outlaws" is a riveting, fast-paced piece of literature that takes place in the early to mid 1970's.

This true story weaves in and out of a lighting-fast, radical time.

It goes from Angela Davis, to Patty Hearst, radical lesbians, the Weather Underground and a Nazi Party hell bent on blowing up any progressive group within its site.

As lesbian historian Joan Nestle says, Jeanne Cordova:

" ... was thick in the middle of things, as a journalist, as an activist, as a lover. It's all here: The first lesbian conferences, the first women's music festivals, first gay centers, first lesbian newspapers, first gay labor disputes, lesbians in the SLA and FBI witch hunts, Susan Saxe and Margie Adams, sex before and after endless meetings … it's like reading a stormy and passionate family diary that also speaks of a national time.”

As I started to read Outlaws, I became absolutely mesmerized by the book.

I knew that Jeanne Cordova was a writer. I had been friends with Jeanne in the early 1970's and knew that she was one of the best investigative reporters who ever worked for L.A.’s alternative newspaper, the radical Free Press.

I also knew that she was the founder and publisher of The Lesbian Tide, which soon became the largest national newsmagazine of the lesbian feminist decade, and I’d seen with my own presence that she was a key organizer of the first National Lesbian Conference held at UCLA in 1973.

So I knew the book would be good. I was wrong. "When We Were Outlaws" is not a good book. It is a great book.

Cordova has a literary gift that mixes a journalist’s bold style with a smart, sociological overview, and her author’s lesbian butch perspective carries a rare voice. She was a journalist, an activist, and a lover; who, like others in her generation, believed that non-monogamy (polyamory) could work.

Cordova has the courage to open up her private life, its strengths and weaknesses, the internal pains and mistakes that took her to dark places, and her great writing ability takes us along, every step of the way.

"When We Were Outlaws" also tells the story of the first national gay strike, when lesbians — joined by effeminate gay men — took to the young Los Angeles Gay Community Service Center after the Center's male Board fired 16 employees, without warning, simply because the employees supported the concept that lesbians as well as gay men should be on the Board of Directors.

This famous struggle brought Jeanne into conflict with the most powerful gay man in Los Angeles, Morris Kight. Kight was the leader of that city’s gay movement, founder of The Center, and Jeanne's mentor, whom she considered her "political godfather."

What makes the memoir so compelling is that it is also a love story, a beautiful and sometimes tragic tale about Jeanne's coming to terms with the first great love of her life, Rachel; alongside her concomitant dedication to a fledgling concept, a lesbian and gay civil rights movement in which she was becoming a leader.

This sweeping memoir depicts a young activist torn between her personal life and political goals. One of the unusual things about her writing is the vivid way she brings scenes alive with dialogue. They are like overhearing conversations with friends, lovers and famous co-activists.

This book, a novelized non-fiction, is a major literary accomplishment. It should cross over into the mainstream because it is takes place at the nexus of the New Left, Women's Liberation, Gay Liberation and the Lesbian Feminist movements — a seldom written-about time period -- and an intersection that embroiled hundreds of thousands of Americans.

And of course everyone wants to read a great love story.

Cordova has written two previous books ("Kicking The Habit" and "Sexism; It’s a Nasty Affair") and her essays have appeared in numerous award-winning LBGTQ anthologies, such as Lesbian Nuns, Breaking the Silence, and Persistent Desire, A Femme-Butch Reader.

"When We Were Outlaws" can be ordered at your local bookstore, Barnes and Noble, Wall Mart, and Amazon.com. You can also follow the book's Facebook page, HERE.

Robin Tyler and her wife Diane Olson are two of the original plaintiffs in the California Supreme Court lawsuit Tyler v. County of Los Angeles. This end result of this lawsuit allowed same-sex marriage to be legal in California from June until November of 2008, until the passing of Proposition 8 took that right away. Tyler has been an activist for same-sex marriage and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered rights for four decades. She can be reached at robintyler@robintyler.com.