Lillian Faberman is a mother and grandmother, but those aren’t the only titles that make her proud too: the La Jolla resident is known, depending on who you talk to, as the ‘mother of lesbian history’ or ‘l ancestor of homosexuals and lesbian studies.
Over the past four decades, Faberman’s books have revealed the hidden history of same-sex romance and uncovered how American lesbians pioneered social movements that transformed our society. She has also written landmark books on gay rights, pioneering politician Harvey Milk and more. Three of his works have been named Outstanding Books by The New York Times, a remarkable achievement for any author.
Faberman, who will be 81 on Saturday at the end of San Diego Pride Week, is not done. She recently organized a local LGBTQ + history exhibit at the San Diego History Center, and she is now finishing her work on an upcoming book. In an interview, she spoke about her awakening as a teenager from Southern California, the influential roles of lesbians in America’s past, and San Diego’s surprising history as a vanguard of activism. LGBT.
You write in your memories your work as a pin-up model and burlesque dancer as a young woman. You also describe discovering the big gay world as a teenager in Los Angeles in the 1950s. What was it like?
What I knew was that I had a crush on women. I didn’t know it was a thing, and it never happened that being gay could be an identity. But that didn’t stop me.
I went to the library, found books on psychology, and looked for homosexuals. I have read terrible things. But then a gay friend said, “I want to take you to places I’ve discovered where people hang out and are called gay.” I had never heard the word “gay” before. So he took me to a few bars for men, then he told me there were also girls bars like this one.
Then we went to the open door [an L.A. lesbian bar], and it was like an epiphany: I realized that it could be a way of life, not just a neurosis like those books said. It was a way of life.
What made you write about lesbian history?
I was an English teacher and I was very interested in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. There were poems that seemed to me to be love poems written not to the “Master” that most biographers spoke of, but to another woman. They really seemed to me to be what I would have called lesbian poems. I wanted to know more and found unredacted letters that were clearly passionate love letters.
It really got me started in my search for what biographers cut out because they thought they were saving their subjects’ reputations. I worked from the 19th to the 17th century, then until the 20th century. My book “Surpass the love of men” [about the history of romance between women] was released in 1981, followed by “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America” in 1991.
How was the life of lesbians different from that of homosexuals?
It was easier for lesbians to hide in various areas because people didn’t want to think about the fact that two women could have sex without a man’s help. There was even a term – “Boston marriage” – for two women who lived together. They were generally educated, middle class, and had professions to support themselves. I don’t think most of the people who have used the term have dwelled on the sexual possibilities.
You have discovered that lesbians are at the forefront of major social movements such as women’s suffrage, social work and higher education for women. What did you learn about them?
I have found wonderful letters from Susan B. Anthony who called Emily Gross [the Chicago wife of a rich businessman] “my love.” I also found that the heads of major suffrage organizations, such as Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, had long-term domestic relationships with other women.
I also found a telegram that Jane Addams [the social work pioneer] had sent. She wired ahead to make sure that on her travels, she and [companion] Mary Rozet Smith would have a double bed. It is interesting that she did not hesitate to do so.
How did lesbians find themselves in these roles?
It is only logical that women who were not going to marry and who were not going to be supported by men should have invested themselves in the professions, in higher education and in the right to vote.
Women’s colleges, for example, were often run by women we would call lesbians because they had been so invested in improving the situation of women. They knew that without higher education they would not be able to access those jobs that were previously closed to women.
Let’s talk about San Diego. World War II helped bring gays and lesbians here, and many stayed. As I wrote a few years ago, a bestselling book revealed that “the fairy fleet has landed and taken control of the most important naval base in the land”.
The authors were disgusting, but what I love about “USA Confidential” is that it was a guide long before the Internet era. He alerted gays and lesbians that if they went to San Diego or New York or San Francisco or wherever, they would find a community. It was wonderful.
What makes our LGBT story here unique?
One way we stand out is how the gay movement has really caught on fire here in so many amazing ways. We weren’t as early as in New York or Los Angeles, but we were very, very early compared to the rest of the country.
For example, the first chapter of the Gay Liberation Front was founded in New York shortly after Stonewall in 1969. The second was founded in Los Angeles a few months later. Then, in early 1970, a chapter was founded primarily by students from the state of San Diego, which also offered one of the first gay studies courses. At the same time, we had one of the first “gay-ins”Around the country, and the first San Diego Pride March was held early in 1974. About 400 people marched in 1975.
And in 1974, an illegal police crackdown on a Mission Valley department store washroom united the gay community in protest.
The police were horrible. But in the 1980s, Bob Burgreen, then Deputy Chief, said the San Diego Police Department would not discriminate against gay and lesbian officers. Then he became chief of police and led the San Diego police contingent in the pride march.
It is very sad that the police and sheriff’s deputies have been unwelcome to parade in the pride parades. We have worked so hard to make things better with law enforcement. I know there are still lousy law enforcement officers who are always corrupt, who hate LGBTQ people and annoy trans people, but not those who want to be on our pride parades. It is such a denial of the progress we have made.
But that said, I know that each new generation has to do it for themselves. The younger generation doesn’t see through the same lens because they haven’t experienced what I’ve been through.
What are you working on now?
A book entitled “Woman: The American History of an Idea”, which will be released in March 2022. It deals with the evolution of the idea of woman.
What’s next for you and your wife, Phyllis Irwin?
We were lucky. Nothing slowed down. In October, Phyllis, who is 92, and I will be together for 50 years. [They met as professors at Fresno State College, now Cal State Fresno.] She keeps me going. She is a pianist and she always gives public performances. She also writes a lesbian mystery and a mystery we wrote together under a pseudonym is reissued next April under our own names.
Have you thought about retiring?
No, why would I do it? I just find myself intensely interested in the world. I think I have always been very interested in discovering new ideas. But now it seems to be even more passionate because I know it doesn’t last forever.