In Remembrance: Jeanne Córdova
Author: Victoria Brownworth
January 15, 2016
Jeanne Córdova said “It’s the job of the young to push the societal envelope.”
Córdova started doing that early and never stopped. She died just before dawn on Sunday, January 10, at her home in Los Angeles after a long, courageous and inspiring battle with cancer, her longtime partner Lynn Ballen by her side, as well as several of her closest friends.
One of those friends, Jenny Pizer, said Córdova “was home with loved ones, and her close friend Dina Evans was on the phone with her.” Evans is a spiritual teacher and therapist and Pizer said she “helped Jeanne during the dying process.”
We throw around the terms “icon,” “pioneer” and “hero” a little too readily. But Córdova was all of these and one only had to be coming up lesbian in the years immediately post-Stonewall to know just how important her footprint was for our community and for lesbians in particular.
The Lambda Award-winning author of When We Were Outlaws; A Memoir of Love and Revolution was 67 at her death and had spent 50 years serving various communities with devotion, fealty and grit.
Many of us in the LGBT community have resumes that are part career, part activism, in various ratios. Córdova’s career was activism–there was no aspect of her life, be it social work, business or journalism that wasn’t defined by what she could do for other lesbians, other Chicanas, other people shoved to straight-white-male society’s margins.
Born in Germany to a Mexican father and Irish American mother, she was the second of 12 children in a Catholic household. At 17 Córdova entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary convent after high school, intent on becoming a nun.
I first met Córdova while researching the first-ever newspaper series on lesbian nuns. The article helped spawn the 1985 book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, edited by former nuns Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan.
Córdova was still only a 30-something young butch when I first met her, but she had already broken so much ground in Los Angeles. She had left the convent knowing she was a lesbian. The same kind of dedication to others that had led her to the convent led her to social work.
She graduated cum laude with her BS in Social Welfare from UCLA, then interned in the African-American and Latino communities of Watts and East Los Angeles to earn her MSW at UCLA in 1972. Córdova became many other things, but she was always a social worker first and foremost–her desire to help other women, other marginalized people was the foundation upon which her life was built. Those social work skills led her, inexorably, to community activism and lesbian activism.
Before she had even finished her master’s degree at UCLA, she was president of the LA chapter of Daughters of Bilitis (DOB).
Of this time, Córdova wrote in a letter to the lesbian community a few months before her death, “From the age of 18 to 21, I painfully looked everywhere for Lesbian Nation. On October 3, 1970, a day I celebrate as my political birthday, I found Her in a small DOB (Daughters of Bilitis) meeting. That’s when my life’s work became clear.”
Discovering Lesbian Nation (Jill Johnston’s book of that title had just been released that year) was Córdova’s new calling. As she wrote, “Shortly thereafter I became a core organizer for two national lesbian conferences, one of which re-directed my path to create The Lesbian Tide newsmagazine, a national paper of record, as the historians say, for the lesbian feminist generation. And on it went for multiple decades of marches and later online organizing–this time intersectionally, to include all of me and my Latina identity.”
Córdova’s own words are brief, succinct, just the facts. That was the journalist in her: crisp, concise. She merely started The Lesbian Tide.
But for those of us who were of the decade younger than Córdova, The Lesbian Tide was the lifeline that DOB’s groundbreaking magazine The Ladder had been for the generation before Córdova. I was in high school when I first saw The Lesbian Tide and there it was–lesbian–right in the title. No disclaimer, no arcane encoded imagery. Lesbian. There. Bold as brass, as the nuns used to say to us at school.
It’s impossible to understate how important The Lesbian Tide was in the decade it was published or to how many young dykes like me it was a touchstone–or a lifeline. Had Córdova done nothing else before or after in her life, founding that publication and keeping it going for a decade would have been iconic enough to keep her forever in the history/herstory books.
The Lesbian Tide began like The Ladder had–as the newsletter/magazine for DOB. Originally called simply the LA DOB Newsletter–vague and hidden–Córdova’s influence changed that. Like another young radical lesbian a decade before her, Barbara Gittings, Córdova was eager to change things up. The time was right and she was ready. As the LA gay archive ONE and the LA branch of NOW detailed, “The newsletter was run by young members of the DOB and their radical political stance created a rift between the editors and older, less radical members of the DOB. In December 1972, the newspaper formally split from the DOB and, with a change in title to The Lesbian Tide, it became an independent publication with Jeanne Córdova (a former DOB member) as editor.”
This was more than 40 years ago and a mere three post-Stonewall. Córdova was only 24.
Córdova wanted more. A lot more. She wanted to reach lesbians as far and wide as she could. She wanted them all in the embrace of Lesbian Nation. With that in mind, she moved to expand distribution of The Lesbian Tide from LA to other cities, especially Chicago, Miami, Houston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. When Córdova achieved that, The Lesbian Tide became the first national lesbian newspaper, marketed as “the newspaper of record for the lesbian feminist decade.”
An extraordinary achievement.
Córdova’s intent was to make The Lesbian Tide as available as its gay male counterpart, The Advocate. But money was always an problem for the newspaper and a decade after it had been born at DOB as a no-name newsletter, it ceased publication.
Writing about The Lesbian Tide on the 40th anniversary of its publication for The Advocate, Diane Anderson-Minshall said that Córdova and the newspaper’s other writers “helped usher in the era of advocacy journalism…It wasn’t propaganda, but it wasn’t quiet, just-the-facts-ma’am reporting either.”
While working on The Lesbian Tide, Córdova also founded and opened the first lesbian community center in LA in 1971. She organized four lesbian conferences, including the first West Coast Lesbian Conference in LA in 1973 when Córdova was 25.
She wasn’t finished–she was just starting.
Over the next four decades Córdova organized the 1977 International Women’s Year Conference in Houston, Texas, the 1978 National Lesbian Feminist Organization Conference, a national gay and lesbian caucus at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, in which she served as a convention delegate, the No on California Proposition 64 (LaRouche) campaign in 1986 and she founded or served on the board of several organizations, including the Stonewall Democratic Club, Connexxus Women’s Business Alliance, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Press Association, Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, ONE Institute and International Gay & Lesbian Archives.
In addition to her work on The Lesbian Tide, as a journalist, Córdova was also Human Rights Editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Free Press and contributed to numerous periodicals and anthologies.
She published her first book, Sexism: It’s a Nasty Affair in 1976. In 1981, she founded the Community Yellow Pages, which became the largest and most comprehensive LGBT directory in the U.S.
In 1990, she published her second book, a memoir, Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story. In 1992 she founded and published Square Peg Magazine, a magazine devoted to LGBT culture and literature. In 2008, she founded LEX, The Lesbian Exploratorium, a non-profit organization devoted to lesbian culture and history.
ONE Archives at the USC Libraries said at her passing, “In 2008 Jeanne donated her manuscripts, papers, letters, and publication to ONE. In addition to the donation of her papers, she funded the processing of her collection; she funded an archivist position between grants; she championed the creation of our permanent display of lesbian publications, Lesbian Legacy Wall, that hangs near the entrance of the ONE Archives; and through her [and her spouse, Lynn Ballen’s] Lesbian Exploratorium Project (LEX), she created the exhibition GenderPlay in Lesbian Culture at the ONE Gallery in 2009. ONE is truly grateful for Córdova’s decades of engagement and generosity with the community she helped create.”
Córdova’s and my paths crossed many times over the years, even though we were on opposite coasts. We were on each other’s radar from that first conversation about lesbian nuns in the 1980s to a few months before her death when I emailed her to thank her for her work and to wish her well on her final journey and to tell her I was praying for her to have a peaceful, pain-free, fear-free death. I was grateful for that last exchange, but deeply sorry it was to be the last. I had interviewed her many times and I had been inspired by her.
In 2010 I had done an article about her for Curve magazine “Top Ten Reasons We Love Jeanne Córdova.” Earlier that year I had included her in a series I had done for the magazine on lesbians and poverty, where she had talked at length about her experiences in the LA barrio and how lesbian poverty had been under-reported and under-acknowledged.
I recall the “Ten Reasons” interview so clearly, because Córdova and I talked for a couple of hours–part reminiscence, part shared interests, part schmoozing. We had discussed butchness for a long time–we would later both be featured in the book Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme.
One of the issues Córdova was passionate about was butchness. She felt strongly that butch lesbians were being excised slowly from the lesbian/LGBT landscape and she felt real personal pain over it. She considered herself “cross-gendered”–embracing both the masculine and feminine in herself and she did so fearlessly and outspokenly. She co-founded and chaired the Butch Voices LA Conference in 2010, and co-founded Butch Nation in 2011 and even more than I love her for The Lesbian Tide, I love her for her stalwart devotion to butch lesbians.
Córdova had asked me to blurb her memoir, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution and my one regret in knowing her was that I was battling a cancer recurrence myself at the time and was too ill to do so and she in turn was too ill with her final illness to blurb my upcoming book on lesbian erasure. It was a sad testament to the lesbian cancer epidemic I have been writing about for two decades that it has touched so many of us and taken so many of our brightest and best, like Córdova.
In her letter to the lesbian community, Córdova underscored both the cancer epidemic for lesbians (she herself had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2008, which returned in 2013, having metasticized to her lungs and cerebellum) and what she always called her “radical lesbian feminist politics.”
Many of us have gotten cancer and died. I write publicly to the women who have defined my life because I want to share this last journey, as I have shared so much of my activist life with you. You gave me a life’s cause. It is wonderful to have had a life’s cause: freedom and dignity for lesbians. I believe that’s what lesbian feminism is really about, sharing. We built a movement by telling each other our lives and thoughts about the way life should be. We cut against the grain and re-thought almost everything. With just enough left undone for our daughters to re-invent themselves. Death should be a part of life. Not hidden, not a secret, something we never said out loud.
Córdova’s memoir is a book every lesbian should read. Had I been able to blurb it I would have said it takes us on a pivotal lesbian journey that each of us must take. Córdova illumines what it was to be young and lesbian at a time when there were no models except the ones we created ourselves. The blazing of the trail she set fire to out on the West Coast singes each page of that memoir. It’s no surprise it won so many awards, including the Lammy.
Karen Ocamb, longtime news editor at Frontiers magazine in LA had reported on Córdova many times. Ocamb has been covering West Coast LGBT politics for decades and is one of the most important reportorial voices we have. Ocamb wrote her final piece about Córdova just hours after she died. Ocamb never puts herself in the story, but she told me, “Jeanne practiced ‘intersectionality’ before we knew what that was. Her strong voice will be missed.” (There are some wonderful photos in Ocamb’s brief obituary, which can be seen here.)
Córdova was always a Chicana as much as she was a lesbian, as much as she was a courtly butch, as much as she was an activist. That intersectionality Ocamb spoke of defined the last decades of her life. Another close friend of Córdova’s, long-time activist Ivy Bottini, posted on Facebook about her passing:
Jeanne Cordova died this morning at 4:30 am. Our community has lost a guard at the gate of hatred and I have lost my Best Butch Bud of over 40 years. There will never be another Lesbian Activist like Jeanne. She was one of a kind. A true innovator. And a hell of a business woman. But right now I am grieving her lost presence, her laughter, her grit, and the love we both had for each other. Here’s to you, Jeanne, you will always live in my heart.
In that courageous letter she wrote prior to her death, Córdova wrote:
I want to say THANK YOU to all of you who have loved another woman-identified-woman, who have loved me, or have loved Lesbian Nation. I wish I could still write about this kind of love more eloquently. Lesbians do have a special love for one another. I have felt it many times when women are with each other. I am happy and content to have participated in it for most of my very full and happy life. Least you be too sad, know that I have this kind of love not only with my family of choice, but with a straight arrow spouse with whom I have journeyed these last 26 years.
Córdova is survived by that spouse, Lynn Ballen, whom she married in 1992 and who was, according to Córdova and all who knew her, a true soulmate in work and play and love. Córdova is also survived by a multitude of friends who loved and admired and were inspired by her. And she is survived by lesbians like myself, who even before I ever met or spoke to her or knew who she was, had been touched by The Lesbian Tide, had been touched by Córdova’s deep desire to bring lesbians together, to make us feel part of a larger community that would stand with us, support us, embrace us and make us feel less alone.
Even as she was dying, Córdova wanted to publicly thank us, lesbians. We owe her such a debt over these many years, thank you hardly seems enough.
Jeanne Córdova bequeathed $2 million to New York’s Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.