Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America

Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America

3.5 2
by Lindsy Van Gelder, Pamela Brandt

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What Tom Wolfe did for astronauts and Roger Angell did for baseball, journalists Lindsy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt do for lesbians in this landmark book.

Long misperceived as a separatist coven, a default option, or a sort of ladies' auxiliary to the gay men's movement, lesbian life has achieved a new visibility in the past few years. But for all the


What Tom Wolfe did for astronauts and Roger Angell did for baseball, journalists Lindsy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt do for lesbians in this landmark book.

Long misperceived as a separatist coven, a default option, or a sort of ladies' auxiliary to the gay men's movement, lesbian life has achieved a new visibility in the past few years. But for all the interest in who's out and who's not (yet), there's been surprisingly little understanding of the diversity and richness of lesbian experience.

This funny, lively, and perceptive book will change all that. Drawing on more than a hundred interviews with women around the country, and on their own keen wits and eyes, Van Gelder and Brandt have composed an unprecedented portrait of how gay women today — "born" and "made," lipsticked and flannel-shirted alike — think, feel, love, and live. Three major "tribal" events — the long-running Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, "Dinah" (the annual Dinah Shore Golf Tournament and party circuit, a mecca for upwardly mobile luppies), and a cross-country trek with the activist Lesbian Avengers en route to the 1994 Stonewall commemoration — provide points of entry into an exploration of lesbian identity, social dynamics, and politics that's as entertaining as it is revealing. The result is a kaleidoscopic portrait that will resonate with lesbians themselves and reveal to their "neighbors" a world of unsuspected vibrancy and depth.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a revealing cross-section of lesbian life in America, the authors, both journalists as well as life partners, report on their travels through various lesbian subcultures. They joined a cross-country Pride Ride of the Austin, Tex., Lesbian Avengers, a political direct-action group protesting anti-gay ordinances. They attended the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, often called the "Lesbian Woodstock," where thousands of naked or seminude women gather in the woods for a tribal experience. They witnessed a lesbian wedding ceremony at a Unitarian Universalist church in Indiana; met closeted and open lesbian golf pros at chic parties on a Palm Springs, Calif., tournament circuit; and tagged after Seattle city councilwoman Sherry Harris, the nation's first avowed black elected lesbian official. Through interviews with some 100 women, a candid picture emerges of lesbians coping with low self-esteem, gay-bashing, rejection by their families and sexual self-definition. Many interviewees feel their sexuality is genetic or inborn, while others say they have made a conscious decision to leave heterosexual lifestyles. Van Gelder is chief writer for Allure; Brandt, a New York Daily News columnist. (June)
Library Journal
More scary stuff from one of America's best-known suspense writers.
Whitney Scott
From the journalists and life partners who gave us the gay travel guide "Are You Two . . . Together?" (1991) comes a delightful and engrossing portrait of gay women in America. Van Gelder and Brandt focus on individuals and couples "who simultaneously illuminate many of the deeper truths about lesbian lives and disprove many shallow stereotypes." More than 100 interviews yielded views of some wildly different aspects of the lesbian political, cultural, and social scene, including the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival; the party circuit (and whipped-cream wrestling matches) at the LPGA Nabisco Dinah Shore Golf Tournament in Palm Springs; and the Austin, Texas, Lesbian Avengers' 1994 cross-country ride that commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In addition, Van Gelder and Brandt revisit the early days of women's music and the roots of women's festivals and drop in on the likes of a professional dominatrix in Seattle whose partner, a former corporate executive at Nintendo, now body pierces professionally. Nostalgic, funny, and thought provoking, this is hard-to-put-down stuff.
Kirkus Reviews
Journalists Van Gelder and Brandt (Are You Two . . . Together?, not reviewed) take a perceptive and thoroughly entertaining nationwide tour of '90s lesbian America.

Lesbians—long rendered invisible by sexism, homophobia, and gay male culture's (real and perceived) outrageousness—have in recent years suddenly been "discovered" by mainstream America. Celebrities like Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang have come out, while the media has declared lesbians "chic." Meanwhile, lesbian culture itself has changed; younger lesbians are experimenting with lipstick, sex toys, and sometimes even men. Here Van Gelder and Brandt, a monogamous couple for 18 years, approach lesbians of varied ages and lifestyles with open minds and sharp wits. We meet a dominatrix in her dungeon, two ex-nuns having a church wedding, hundreds of topless women at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, several vanfuls of Lesbian Avengers, and glitzily fashionable babes at the Dinah Shore Golf Classic. These and the many, many other women introduced are articulate and eager to talk about lesbian identity, their relationship to lesbian community, the new visibility, desire, sex, butch/femme, activism, softball, and parenting. Some of the most moving moments are intergenerational. For example, Giselle, a young go-go dancer, describes the pain of going on a talk show and being pitted against an old-time activist (presumably the producers were hoping for a catfight); she explained to the host, "Look, you would really love me to argue with my sister here. . . . She did the footwork for me. If it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't be able to sit here and be a lipstick lesbian."

As accessible as a glossy magazine article but also smart, funny, and sexually frank. The interviews have the relaxed intimacy of a chat with old friends; lesbians, bisexuals, and curious straights should find it at once illuminating and welcoming.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.45(w) x 9.49(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt

From the Foreward

By the time quintessential Girl Next Door Ellen DeGeneres crashed out of the closet in the spring of 1997, lesbians were—while not exactly the sweethearts of the Christian Right—at least a marginally acceptable group in American public life. This book tells the story of the social changes leading up to that moment, and some of the women who made them possible.

We hope we've told our story well. We don't, however, pretend to have written The Big Book of Everything That Ever Happened to All Gay Women. We couldn't possibly cover the variety of lesbian experience, any more than a single work could encompass all of heterosexuality.

Still, we were painfully aware as we did our research that lesbians, so invisible for so long, have a hunger for the particulars of their individual stories to be acknowledged. We encountered many special appeals from those who knew we had a rare shot at reaching a mass audience. Surely we would have a chapter on lesbians and academia? Lesbians who are married to men? Lesbians who have suffered homelessness/cancer/abuse? Lesbians in cyberspace? Et cetera, et cetera. We realized that there are countless books—and songs, and plays, and movies—waiting to be written about countless lesbian lives. But we had to draw some lines.

In the end, we looked inside the lines, at the core experiences that are common to most lesbians. Love. Relationships. Sexuality, vanilla to hot fudge. The grab bag of connecting points known as the lesbian "community." Our title reflects the reality that lesbians can be found in any town, any office, any family. Unfortunately, it's precisely the normality of the typical lesbiansnext door that's most threatening to some of those who hate us. "I couldn't help but think that she's fifty-four years old and had been dating that woman for twelve years—isn't that sick?" a man who killed an Oregon lesbian couple in 1995 indignantly explained to the San Francisco Examiner. "That's someone's grandma, for God's sake.... Lesbo grandmas, what a thing, huh?" Although lesbians are more visible than we used to be, we're no less vulnerable. A powerful movement exists to deny gay people the ordinary, unradical, traditional life choices that other Americans take for granted, like marriage. But there are a lot of us in the neighborhood now—and we're not moving.

Though we live next door to mainstream America, we have our own subculture: lesbian bars, clubs, parties, festivals, guest houses, tours, teams, political organizations, professional networks, computer bulletin boards, bookstores, publications, arts and crafts, celebrities, and gossip grapevines. Not every woman who has sex with another woman is necessarily plugged in to all of this, but for most of us lesbianism is still about more than sex. We have unique ways of relating to each other, as lovers and as friends.

The two of us have homed in on a few large-scale tribal events that serve as windows into lesbian political, cultural, and social life. The story of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festivals of 1993 and 1994 is also about our feminist roots, our maddening tendencies toward political correctness, our rather admirable ability as a group to resolve disputes, the process of coming to feel like part of the lesbian community, and the sexual fluidity that makes it possible for some women to choose a lesbian identity. The 1994 LPGA Nabisco Dinah Shore Golf Tournament party circuit in Palm Springs is an entree into the world of the lipstick lesbian, as well as a jumping-off point for talking about attraction, dating, sex, sex roles, body image, women's bars, and softball. The Austin, Texas, Lesbian Avengers' 1994 cross-country ride (leading up to the Gay Pride march commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York) is a perfect instance of modern ACT UP—style political activism. It's also a springboard for writing about the larger issues that concern us, from electing lesbian politicians to gaining the right to marry.

These three milieus represent wildly disparate slices of lesbian life, as different as Birkenstocks, high heels, and Doc Martens (which is not to say that any given woman might not have attended all of them). Gay Pride marches are always at some level a confrontation with society; the annual Michigan festival and Dinah are escapes from society—although women's music festivals were originally an escape from things like go-go dancers and whipped-cream wrestling that are now Dinah standards, and events like Dinah in turn are a reaction to the downward mobility and rigidity of Michigan. Most marches and political actions involve working with men; the festival bans them at the gates; Dinah relegates them to room service. Together this trio of events is a kind of lesbian Triple Crown for the nineties, raising ideas that we hope will resonate even for those lesbians who wouldn't be caught dead at any of them.

We've especially tried to focus on individuals and couples who simultaneously illuminate many of the deeper truths about lesbian lives and disprove many shallow stereotypes: that lesbianism is all about sex—or else not at all about sex; that lesbians are either all white middle-class professionals—or else all Dykes on Bikes; that lesbians have no families, hence no family values. (Although we admit we buy into some stereotypes ourselves. We're always surprised when we meet lesbians who don't live in multiple-cat households, for instance, or who have never lived up to the community joke about what a lesbian takes on a second date: a U-Haul.)

We drew heavily on the diversity of our community, interviewing well over a hundred women of all races and backgrounds, from the able-bodied to those in wheelchairs, from teenagers to women in their nineties, from separatists who live in the sticks and haven't seen a man (or a flush toilet) in ages, to urban lipstick "lesbians who sleep with men." Some interviewees were lesbian household words. Most were not. We found them through organizations, online services, newsletters, and friends of friends, and in some cases, by buttonholing interesting strangers. Our research took us all over the country, not only to obvious gay hot spots like New York and San Francisco, but also to heartland places like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and backwoods Kentucky. We spoke to carpenters, hospital workers, architects, musicians, stand-up comics, teachers, students, store owners, writers, doctors, farmers, a cartoonist, a sex-toy inventor, an electrician, a construction worker, an elected official, a minister who received us in her church, and a professional dominatrix who entertained us in her dungeon.

A caveat: Although we were looking for timeless insights, our interviews took place between 1993 and 1995. Life goes on, and individual lives have changed since then.

Finally, this is a book for readers of all genders and orientations. (We have, however, presumed a certain level of sophistication among our straight readers. People who really want to know which one of us is the boy will just have to keep scratching their heads.) Our inspiration throughout our writing lives has been the straight male journalist A. J. Liebling. In his columns for The New Yorker from 1935 until his death in 1963, Liebling wrote on a wide variety of topics—war, horse races, French wine, Louisiana politics, New York newspapering—but he was probably best known for his classic pieces on boxing. Way back when both of us were high school journalists who loathed sports in general and macho slugfests in particular, Liebling made us realize that there are ways of writing that can seduce even readers who could care less about any given subject into caring very much. Faced with tackling the topic of lesbian culture for a mass-market audience, the first thing we did was reread The Sweet Science, his witty and affectionate essays about the ringside subculture of fighters, trainers, sparring partners, gym owners, sportswriters, fans, and hangers-on. It knocked us out, all over again. We continue to try to learn from his example.

There have been many times in our lives when we've been exasperated with lesbian culture, God knows (or is that Goddess?). It can be insular, P.C., out to lunch, and as hatefully hurtful as your worst memories of sixth grade. This book reflects the reality that lesbians can sometimes be as wrongheaded as any other human. But we've also been strengthened by the very existence of the lesbian community. We're delighted to be able to share it with the rest of the world.

Copyright © 1996 by Lindy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt

Meet the Author

Lindsy Van Gelder is a chief writer for Allure, and Pamela Robin Brandt writes a weekly column for the New York Daily News. Veteran journalists, they are life partners as well as frequent writing partners whose previous work together includes numerous articles and a prizewinning gay and lesbian travel book, Are You Two . . . Together? They live in South Beach, Florida, with their cats.

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The Girls Next Door 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought the book was repetitive and dual.  The start of the book was quite interesting and funny, then it was the same style of jokes over and over.  
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is awesome. It is funny and eye-opening. This book has been great for me. It's hilarious.