By Jeanne Cordova
Dateline: October 3, 1970
Walking toward the dim light, my keys jangled nervously from my belt, the only sound in the still twilight. I had no idea that my life was about to change. For a solid anxious hour, I’d driven up and down Western Ave. a major boulevard in East Hollywood, looking for the right address. By the time I’d decided that a Church and an empty parking lot were at the right address, I was late, alone, and enveloped in darkness. Pulling into the lot, a flood light seemed to shine from a small walkway that peered from the church’s basement. Shit! I whispered to myself, why are queer people always in society’s basement? I walked, scolding myself. Shouldn’t call myself queer, that was the straight world calling us niggers. I’d just learned people like me were calling ourselves “gay” now. Although I looked up that word’s espistomology at the library and read the word “gay” had come down thru the centuries from seventeenth century France where they called men who played women’s parts on stage (women weren’t allowed on stage in theatres at all) were referred to as “gai.” So gay, gai, whatever didn’t fit me that well, but it beat “homosexual” which was the word I read in Kraft Ebbing’s and other books on the homo shelf. That’s what they had in the library, a single shelf, maybe twenty books. Maybe that’s all we deserved, I wondered. Maybe there were only a couple of thousand of us in the whole world.
A couple of month’s prior, my older sister France had flown down from Stanford to do a summer intern job at the L.A. Times. Cutting an afternoon’s worth of class out of my senior year at UCLA, I visited her cramped downtown one bedroom apartment. That’s where I first saw IT-- the magazine that was about to send me down a new career path. As she went to make us coffee, I’d sat down on a chair and dropped my eyes to her coffee table. Only the masthead stuck out from a formidable jagged stack of books and papers. The title, THE LADDER, held my brain in shock. Yes, I’d heard the title “The Ladder,” heard about such a magazine. Where? When? From my lover Judy on the Tullies softball team. Judy and the girls had talked about it, said there was an organization for gay women somewhere in the world, and it published a paper called The Ladder. It wasn’t in the library. But here it was! My hand reached out and snapped it from the pile.
“France,” I called out, “Going to use your bathroom.”
Sitting on the toilet, pants up, head down, I studied the little white pamphlet. You couldn’t call it a real magazine, it only had thirty-two tiny pages. Fuck where was the address, a phone number, anything to connect with? No phone, anywhere, but wait,
“The Los Angeles Chapters of the Daughters of Bilitis meet every Tuesday night at 610 S. Western.”
Weird name for an organization I thought, even for gay women. Hurriedly, I flused the toilet and scurried back to the living room, reburying the little magazine, tucking in it to the coffee table heap from exactly where I’d pulled it out.
Leaving my sister’s a month ago, I’d continued to fixate on The Ladder and the address I’d memorizied. Sounded like Daughters of the American Revolution. I pictured a table full of little old eighty year old ladies gathered in someone’s living room to talk about the disease of homosexuality—the disease I had known I’d had for three years.
Still, I had to check it out. I was desperate.
Leaving the convent three years ago, I hadn’t know a single other homosexual woman. The several noives and postulants I’d slept with behind the walls had woken up with me the next morning insisting that we’d had “a spiritual encounter.” My body told me that such nonsense was true, but certainly not the whole holy universal true. I might have been eighteen but I was sure those had also been sexual encounters.
Gradually my faith in God and the Wholy Roman Catholic hierarchy of old, white, men—gratefully—left me. And I was free to leave the convent and enter the real world.
Leaving the convent, my teenage self wandered the great desert of Los Angeles for three years, not unlike Jesus before he found his calling. Only I, instead of sandals, had a 1953 tangerine Chevy that cost me a month’s pay, seventy-five dollars, and was looking for a gay girl on every street corner. Anyone to talk to!
Finally one night in my sophomore year at Cal State it occurred to me that many of the girls I’d played varsity softball with in high school had looked like they could be gay girls. I’d open the phone book and looked under “Parks & Recreation.” Much to my surprise the city of L.A. sponsored women’s softball teams.
My sleuthing was successful. I found a city team, joined it, and learned that there were “bars” for gay girls, so many bars that each sponsored a softball team. Quickly I graduated from city teams to the bar league who’s teams were much better at softball—and other games. The last two years, before I visited France and discovered the secret magazine, I’d joined the bar team sponsored by a Pico Rivera latina bar on Whittier Blvd. called The Tullies. Another strange name in the underground of homosexuality! But I no longer cared. One by one the gay girls on the team singled me out and asked me to join them at these bars. I quickly learned that I had two commodities that made me special. One, I was a pitcher, the most difficult position in softball. And two, I was, as my teammates called it, “cute.” So, after years of lonliness, I made it into the in-crowd!
I spent the whole of my nineteenth and twentieth year living a trifurcated life.
Mornings would find me, now riding a Honda motorcycle from a Studio City apartment driving over the Santa Monica mountains through Coldwater Canyon, racing to UCLA classes. Afternoons and early evenings, my bike would re-locate me to an East L.A. non-profit called the Community Youth Services being a Program Director for pre-gang boys where I earned a living and tried to keep my young dudes out of jail.
But the nights, ah the nights of being a teen-ager on the loose in the big city—yeah, the nights and softball would find me bar-hopping!
And they found me, all week and every weekend, at the Tullies, on the ball field, or at another of the many girl clubs celebrating that night’s victory or defeat of their team, against ours, The Angels, we called ourselves—the Angels from Pico.
After a year, I was a known regular at every gay girls club in greater Southern California. I memorized the intricate L.A. freeway system by navigating the bars. Gas at 43 cents a gallon was tough on my meager budget, and each college unit was forty dollars. By never sleeping I managed to pull off living three separate lives.
But to my teammates in Pico, I still remained “the college kid.” This set me apart. At UCLA I’d managed to find only one singles lesbian. Merle, a basically straight girl looking for an experience. Even though she was also sleeping with the Modern Literature professor, I was her experience. Still, I yearned for something more. No one at work knew I was gay, coming out in East L.A. would have ended my career as a Social Worker. And I had Judy, my main squeeze at Tullies. Yet, fundamentally, I had no one to talk to about being a gay woman in the world.
By senior year I was bored and desperate. Was beer, ball, and balling girls all there was to gay life? That’s all the girls on the team ever talked about—our games, the bar, who was sleeping with who?
In the convent I’d begun to meet a different kind of woman. Young intellectuals whose minds were dealing with the new liberation theology and a woman’s place in society. Through them I’d begun to learn that there was a great social revolution going on in the world. Yet, now out of the convent, where could I re-find this revolution? I figured it must exist outside the convent because the Immaculate Heart Novitiate was constantly hosting lay women and men from around the country who brought this sort of thinking to us. Where was it and how could I join it?
That’s why in 1970, I was standing at the top of the bank stairs, looking down at the open door of the basement. It certainly didn’t look like the doorway to a revolution, but I had to start somewhere.
“Go for it,” I told myself as I carefully sauntered down the stairs trying to look cool, composed and casual.
The room was set up like a meeting with all chairs facing a head table at which sat several women who were speaking to the group. Thank god, I thought, as I slid into the nearest rear chair, here were a group of gay girls that were talking about something more stimulating than a softball game.
A woman named Carole Sheppard, sporting a short bob of black curls, sat at the front table with a gavel in her hand.