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LIPSTICK LIBERATION : For a New Breed of Lesbians, Birkenstocks, Holly Near and Political Angst Are Out. Madonna, Stiletto Heels and Erotica Are In.

March 15, 1992|LINDSY VAN GELDER | Lindsy Van Gelder often writes about lipstick as a senior writer at Allure, and about lesbian-feminism as a contributing editor to Ms. She is also co-author of "ARE YOU TWO . . . TOGETHER? A Gay and Lesbian Travel Guide to Europe," published by Random House.

I REMEMBER MY OWN EPIPHANOUS REALIZATION THAT I WOULD PROBABLY NEVER BE A SOLID citizen of Lesbian Nation. It was in the early '80s, in a heavily guarded wooded compound in rural Pennsylvania, at a women's music festival. Perhaps it was even a wimmin's or womyn's or womb-moon's festival--all these alternatives to wo-MAN were taken seriously at the time. Such women-only retreats, all over the country, were then the World Series of lesbian-feminist culture, and there was typically much about them that was fair-minded and progressive, from the encouragement of multiculturalism to free child care and special signers for the hearing-impaired. In theory, they were safe havens where we could relax among our own, entertained by lesbian musicians. In reality, the hills were increasingly alive with political correctness.

My first clue at this particular festival was the dress code: studded black leather and other accouterments with even a whiff of S&M imagery were explicitly forbidden. (The couturiers of choice appeared to be Messrs Birkenstock and L. L. Bean.) Then there were the biographies of organizers and performers in the official program, each more a victim wanna-be than the last, and capped by someone who, in the absence of a more compelling oppression, felt the need to list her propensity for yeast infections. But my moment of truth came when a grim sentry from the festival's security forces accosted my lover and me and reproachfully thrust a crumpled-up beer can into our hands. Some eight hours earlier, according to this human bloodhound, we had apparently committed the cardinal sin of tossing it in an alcohol-free trash basket.

My honey and I jumped in the car and fled with relief back to the hetero world, where plenty of people would just as soon spit on us as let us live next door--but where we could at least be regarded as Baaad, rather than Incorrect.

Nowadays, we've got lots of company beyond the gates. In fact, the newest directional trend for gay women might be described as "out of the woods, and in your face." Lesbian life has changed radically over the past decade, beginning with the fact that the "wimmin" of the '90s are as likely as not to call themselves "girls." Lesbians who came out in the '60s and '70s and those who came out in the Reagan-Bush years often regard each other across a generational divide that Robin Gans, 36, co-proprietor of the floating Hollywood nightclub, the Girl Bar, wickedly terms "the wrinkle gap." But it's a state of mind as much as a matter of age, with women in their 30s on both sides of the barricades. At its crudest, it's a case of girls just wanting to have fun--the more outrageous, the better.

The new breed, sometimes known as "lipstick lesbians," are usually feminists by most definitions of the word, although many of them wouldn't accept the title. But they're rebelling as much against the restraints imposed by the more rigid dos and don'ts of feminist ideology as those dictated by the larger society--the endless processing, consciousness-raising, life-seen-through-a-political-prism that dominated lesbian/feminist culture for decades.

But if politics are considered boring, bedfellows--or in this case, bed gals--are not.

And therein lies the heart of the matter. "The most important development happening in the lesbian community is the exploration of our sexuality," says Bryn Austin, the 25-year-old managing editor of the Advocate, the Los Angeles-based national gay and lesbian news magazine.

IN THE '70s, ALTHOUGH LESBIANS WERE CERTAINLY HAVING SEX, THE EMPHASIS was often on a spiritual-oriented female solidarity; you virtually had to sit around a campfire for nights on end singing Holly Near songs before you could score. Today, in an era in which many gay men and straights increasingly regard lust as a land mine, lesbians, including monogamous couples, are indulging in it with gusto.

A decade after the battle by a generation of straight and gay feminists against pornography, the best-selling lesbian publication in the country is the 8-year-old San Francisco hard-core magazine On Our Backs. The nation's most famous lesbian dance bar is New York's relatively new Clit Club, notorious for its scantily clad go-go dancers and erotic videos; its success has been cloned by hot spots such as Hollywood's Klub Banshee (which not long ago featured a retro hair and fashion show as its evening's entertainment) and San Francisco's G-Spot. Not even the serious politicos are exempt: At a workshop to discuss the implications of this sexual explosion at the Creating Change national conference in Washington last fall, panelists were dared to take off their tops--and did.

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