Crucible of Lesbian Art in the 1980s
Warhol had The Factory; we had 25 Bessie Street.
September 27, 2011:
This Friday, I am losing my long-standing home in San Francisco: 25A Bessie Street. We have been evicted. This is a story about what San Francisco has lost, and why the legacy is… something else.
The best and most outrageous of On Our Backs pictures were conceived and often shot at Bessie Street. This is where Honey Lee Cottrell, my lover, lesbian photographer/filmmaker/legend— and OOB's staff photographer— became a legend.
We had a tiny garden that got a few rays of sun. We turned a roving green briar into a wandering rose. I held my first porno pajama parties there, which later became my big screen road shows: How to Read a Dirty Movie and All Girl Action. The thumb-size cactus we planted outside on the sidewalk grew into a behemoth.
We raised kids here— Honey Lee captured so many of our children's best moments.
Some things I can't get out of my mind. Fanny Fatale demonstrated "how to female ejaculate" on our kitchen linoleum one afternoon, and I said we should never clean that spot again. I think our apartment should be made into a feminist historical monument.
I moved to Bessie Street with my girlfriend, Honey Lee Cottrell, when I was 23 years old— and she was 37. It's a tiny basement apartment on the steep north face of Bernal Hill. The bathtub is in the kitchen, which looks out over all of downtown and the Mission district. The kitchen windows are the one place where the light pours in.
Our first landlord was unsure if I could qualify as a tenant, because at 5'10", I had to duck to get into some of the corners of the low-ceilinged apartment. I assured her I could— at $400 a month, the price was just right for the two of us. In the early 1980s, Bernal was still a poor and working class, multi-racial neighborhood, adjacent to "Needle Park," which nowadays is filled with bouncy houses and miniature-dog birthday parties.
I moved out of Bessie Street when I was 30— we broke up after seven years— but I never "left." I moved a few blocks away, and when Aretha was born, she went back and forth between our two homes. That never ended, no matter how many miles I moved away. The last two years, my daugther lived at Bessie Street with Honey, graduating from college.
Early this winter, the Bessie Street building was sold to a new owner, and after 30 years the changing of the guard is here.
Honey Lee is 66 now, Aretha 21, me, 53.
I went through my collection of On Our Backs magazines yesterday to scan some of the published highlights from the Bessie Street Revolution, which you'll see below.
Note: These pictures are from a radical, fine-art, lesbian feminist erotic magazine. The links lead to, in some cases, more revealing photos on my Flickr site.
Summer, 1984: The original, unheard-of "Lesbian Burlesque Show" at Cesar’s Latin Palace on Mission and Precita, to raise money for the first issue of On Our Backs. The most memorable party I ever attended and the very definition of sisters doing it for themselves.
Spring, 1985: Cassie and Raven’s cover for On Our Backs. The two most seductive dyke strippers in the world decided to start a "Lesbian Escort Service," and Honey shot their "advertising" in front of the garage.
More Cassie and Raven here.
Summer, 1985: Honey Lee took two of our models/readers (all OOB models were readers or contributors or all three) down to the nearby 3rd Street railyards to shoot one of our most arresting pictorials: "Desperately Seeking Rachel and Elexis." I've had women from back East tell me they moved to San Francisco because of this spread.
Elexis was our first out trannie model, we met her at The Black Rose cabaret in the Tenderloin where she performed.
(More Rachel and Elexis here.)
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