Wednesday, May 23, 2007

CIVILesbianIZATION: The Real American Idols


By Julie R. Enszer

While America is watching and voting on the next American Idol, I’m thinking about lesbians. Specifically, I’m thinking about Lesbian American Idols. The cult of American Idol is built on discovering new talent among young people, transforming it into commercial talent, and ultimately into pop stardom. Some of these new, up-and-coming singers may even become icons, a few may even become divas.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that the real American Idols are under the age of thirty, and I don’t think that the real American Idols are singers. I think that the real American Idols are people who have pursued their passions for many years and whose passions have enhanced all of our lives. In the lesbian community, we have our own share of real American Idols. This is about what and whom I idolize.

Idolize means to hold someone in blind devotion or adoration. My Lesbian American Idols are in three areas: literature, activism, and history. I don’t want to exclude singers. After all, there are lesbian singers that are Lesbian American Idols – and now many of them have become idols to the rest of America, not just to the lesbian community. Melissa, k.d., they go by first name only. Yes, these are Lesbian American Idols. There are also Lesbian American Idols among the women who build womyn’s music. I think of Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, and Ferron. I idolize them.

Lesbian American Idols aren’t just music-makers, however. Lesbian American Idols build our culture, not only in music, but also in literature, activism, and history. Lesbian American Idols have committed themselves to building lesbian culture and lesbian identity over a lifetime. Here are four of my Lesbian American Idols: Barbara Grier, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, and Lillian Faderman.

Barbara Grier loves books. She’s always loved books. First, as a young adult she collected books by and about lesbians. Then, through The Ladder, the publication of the Daughters of Bilitis, she wrote about books by and about lesbians. Then, she published lesbian books through Naiad Press. Recently, Barbara Grier has retired – and, with her partner Donna McBride, made the largest contribution of lesbian books ever to the Hormel Center of the San Francisco Public Library. Grier’s life and lifelong commitment to literature is something to idolize. I idolize Barbara Grier.

Like Grier and McBride, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have built a life and a legacy together. They organized the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 as a way to build a social life as lesbians. In 1972, they published the book Lesbian/Woman. A year later they followed it up with Lesbian Life and Liberation. The lives have been filled with activism to benefit lesbians everywhere. Most recently, Martin and Lyon were among the couples married in San Francisco in February 2004. Their marriage came after over fifty years of their intimate partnership and life together. The activism of Martin and Lyon is something to idolize. I idolize Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

Lillian Faderman knows how to tell a story and how to bring together the stories of our past into a lesbian herstory. Her first contribution to lesbian herstory was the book Surpassing the Love of Men which looked at the romantic love between women in since the Renaissance. She followed it with Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers as well as an autobiography about her life as a lesbian. Most recently she’s collaborated on another history of gay and lesbian life called Gay LA. As a result of Faderman’s work, we know more about our history. I idolize Lillian Faderman.

These are just three of my Lesbian American Idols. Yes, I’ll be watching American Idol and yes, I’ll be voting for the next American Idol, but I’m aware that these pop stars may or may not last. My Lesbian American Idols are all tried and true. Their stardom has lasted, but, more importantly, their impact on all of us is everlasting.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at

This is column #2 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.


Nicki Hastie said...

Hi Julie,

You see, this is where the American and the UK versions differ. There never has been a "UK Idol". It has been called "Pop Idol" or "The X Factor", making it very clear that it's about finding a new star of pop music, or a new celebrity with singing ability.

This makes me believe there can be many other idols, and in fact, perhaps those possibilities of other idols are already being acknowledged outside of America. I doubt this is the case in reality, but I thought you would appreciate the comment.


Julie R. Enszer said...

Hey, Nicki,

I think that there is a difference between the Americans and the Brits in terms of understanding the significance of moment in history. We like to expand them exponentially even if it is unrealistic. I think that the Brits are more precise in their naming of things.

That said, and I write this as I'm watching the finale of American Idol, one of the things that I do like about it is the way that it has emerged as a program that unites Americans, to some degree, and resists the increasing "niche" marketing of America. More and more music is becoming something that is not trying to speak to American in general but rather to niche markets. American Idol works against that and I really appreciate that.


KATE EVANS said...

Great column. There are so many to add to the list, and I hesitate to do so because I know I'll leave so many out, but let me add Audre Lorde, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Alison Bechdel, Rosie O'Donnell, Billie Jean King, Martina Navritolova, Senator Sheila Kuehl, Mary Oliver, Ellen Bass, Rita Mae Brown, Marilyn Hacker, Dorothy Allison, Louise Fitzhugh (my favorite author of kids' books), Gertrude Stein ... oh, if I go into history I'll go on for days!

Julie R. Enszer said...

Hi, Kate,

What great additions! Yes, they are all idols! And let me take a moment to direct everyone to Lambda Literary where there is a raffle for a triptych of Alison Bechdel's new book, Fun Home. It looks most excellent. Lambda is over at