While the 1970s rode on the steam of the social revolution that had been set in motion by the flower children of the '60s, the momentum appeared to have been lost in the '80s, as mainstream American returned to more conservative times. Although the effects of the sexual revolution of the previous decade could not be totally eradicated and the sexual ethos of the 1980s was light-years away from times such as the McCarthy era, the New Right became vociferous in its desire to turn back the clock.
The New Right was partly responsible for the landslide 1984 defeat of the Democrats, whose presidential delegates had included activist lesbians and gay men. Ronald Reagan, who understood far better than the Democrats that moods were shifting, played to the New Right with promises such as his intention to squelch hopes for gay rights by resisting "all efforts to obtain government endorsement of homosexuality."
The years that followed the election seemed to confirm the shift towards sexual conservatism. For example, in the mid-'80s, a commission was formed, headed by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, that reexamined the 1970 Supreme Court deliberations on pornography. The commission concluded, totally counter to the earlier findings, that pornography did indeed lead to violence. The conservatism of the Supreme Court also made itself felt in those years when it issued a decision upholding the constitutionality of laws agains homosexual sodomy.
The liberalism that opened the way for the radicalism of movements such as lesbian-feminism had slowed to a shuffle. Had the questers after the Lesbian Nation, a woman-based culture, not exhausted themselves by fanaticism, the new conservative mood would have checked the extremism of their visions anyway. That is not to say that lesbians were silenced in the 1980s, but rather that the community became increasingly moderate in its demeanor.
The change was a great shock to more radical lesbians who had not yet awakened from their dream of a lesbian-feminist utopia. They panicked at what seemed like mass defection and the breakup of their movement.
But while it may have appeared that nothing much was left, by the mid-'80s, of the lesbian-feminist movement as it existed in the '70s, in fact it had reconstituted itself. Women who identified themselves as lesbians were exploring new ways to build personal and social lives and community.
Many young lesbians who now entered the lesbian subcultures not only took for granted their feminist rights, but also made light of the high seriousness associated with being a politically correct lesbian-feminist. The young women demanded freedom to be as they pleased. They described themselves in terms, such as "girls," that would have infuriated lesbian-feminists in the '70s. Some of them reintroduced makeup and sexy clothes into the most visible part of the lesbian community. They were far less distinguishable from heterosexual women that their 1970s counterparts had been.
The new young lesbians created images such as that of the "glamour dyke" or "lipstick lesbian," and their frequently glamorous self-presentation may have been responsible for the beginning of a new "lesbian chic" that seems to be making bisexuality as provocative in some sophisticated circles as it had been in the 1920s.
Through those images, lesbianism could once again be associated with a kind of super-sexy rebelliousness and allure. As in the 1920s, female entertainers by the end of the '80s began to tantalize their audiences with hints of bisexuality. Madonna and Sandra Bernhard, for example, let it be known on network television that they were "an item" at the Cubby Hole, a New York lesbian bar. They even incorporated lesbian material into their shows. Sandra Bernhard reinterpreted the song "Me and Mrs. Jones" to be a story of a surreptitious lesbian affair and ended with the outrageously gleeful exclamation, "The women are doin' it for themselves!"
Lily Tomlin and her longtime companion and writer Jane Wagner made lesbians the heroes of half Tomlin's skits in her virtuoso one-woman performances. Rock singer Melissa Etheridge skyrocketed to fame with her totally androgynous performance style and dress. Country-western singer K.D. Lang proudly declared of her own bisexual appeal, "Yeah, sure, the boys can be attracted to me, the girls can be attracted to me, your mother . . . your uncle, sure. It doesn't really matter to me."
Of course, small enclaves of older lesbian lifestyles continued to exist as new ones were formed. But the most visible lesbian community changed its character so that in the '80s it was made up in good part of women who were far less separated from the mainstream in their appearance and outlook than had been the butches and femmes of the 1950s and '60s and the lesbian-feminists of the 1970s.