Amber Hollibaugh on Queer Feminist Writing

Laura Green ’18
Staff Writer

Amber Hollibaugh came to Smith on Nov. 19 to give a lecture about her experience as a queer feminist writer, activist, filmmaker and public speaker. Hollibaugh’s other identities include a “lesbian sex radical, ex-hooker, incest survivor, gypsy child, poor-white-trash [and] high femme dyke,” according to Duke University Press’s description of her book, “My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home.” Hollibaugh has dedicated her life to political activism, bringing attention to the intersectionality of gay rights, economic justice and racial equality.

Through her involvement in the political activism of the left, Hollibaugh found the feminist and LGBTQ movements. Having grown up poverty-stricken in Bakersfield, Calif., she realized that her speech didn’t sound like that of the other activists. “I didn’t talk right,” she said. In order to be taken seriously, she had to “learn the language” of the movement. “I slept with a lot of men to get to their bookshelves! And I don’t regret any of that,” she told the audience.

Hollibaugh started her career as a public speaker when she formed a group to fight against the Briggs Initiative, a failed 1978 proposition to ban gay people and gay allies from working in California public schools. She and others in the group went to speak in small towns across California as openly gay people. They were on their own, knowing that the authorities would not protect them. These were the kinds of places “where they beat up gay people when they were bored on the weekends,” she said.

During her talk, Hollibaugh also spoke of the importance of writing, particularly when telling one’s own story. The activist said she believes that her own narrative has been a crucial part of the success of her writing, but cautioned people to consider what they reveal. “Not because you shouldn’t do it,” she explained, but because “you have to be prepared for it.”

Hollibaugh was put in the position of having to defend herself as both a former sex worker and as a feminist. “As a feminist, the only way I would have cover in feminism is to say I was a victim, and I never felt like a victim,” she said. “I did what I had to do, and I did it well.”

As the founding director of the Lesbian AIDS Project and the director and co-producer of “Heart of the Matter,” a documentary about women living with HIV and AIDS, Hollibaugh has been very active in the fight against AIDS. Female sexuality is something she feels should be more open in society. “We have to talk about why sex matters … We have to learn our bodies, our desires.”

On the subject of the title for her book “My Dangerous Desires,” she said she has felt her whole life that her desires were dangerous, especially after she was kicked out of her family for being gay. “My erotic desires were dangerous because I insisted they mattered,” she said.

As an activist, Hollibaugh said she wants to bring attention to the stories that are not being told. Writing gave her a voice because people with her upbringing were not visible in the movements of which she was a part. She encouraged people to recognize “the power of your own narrative” and to “never stop saying the things that matter to you.” In this way, her writing and speeches remind us to recognize the complexity of our identities and to bring inclusivity to our activism.

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