Celebrating Pride with “Reclaiming Queer” by Erin J. Rand!

For The University of Alabama Press’s Pride Month Celebration, we invited our authors to share their LGBTQIA+ experiences and scholarship. Today, Erin J. Rand, author of Reclaiming Queer, will discuss her book, share an excerpt, and cover developments since its 2014 publication.

Reclaiming Queer traces the history of queer activism in the 1980s and 1990s to understand its connection to the emergence of queer theory in the academy during the same period. Chapter 3, “Visibility with a Vengeance,” examines the embodied and resistant activist practices of the Lesbian Avengers; known for eating fire at their demonstrations and for their cartoon lit-bomb logo, the Lesbian Avengers took on serious political issues with playful, outrageous, and humorous tactics designed to create a spectacle and increase the visibility of lesbian causes. As this excerpt from Chapter 3 highlights, however, the Lesbian Avengers’ visibility in the 1990s was partially contained within the cultural phenomenon of “lesbian chic,” in which mediated images of lesbianism became fashionable and marketable. The media celebration of a stylish, white, post-feminist, heteronormative version of lesbianism ultimately depoliticized some of the Lesbian Avengers’ radical activist potential.

Book cover for "Reclaiming Queer" by Erin J. Rand. An unzipped black leather coat.

Reclaiming Queer makes a persuasive case for the importance of queer theory as a form of queer activism with a relationship to it. Rand’s style is lucid and accessible, and I recommend this text to scholars of rhetoric, queer theorists and activists, feminist scholars, and to undergraduates in classes exploring queer theory, history, and community.”
QED Book Review

The paradox of visibility that the Lesbian Avengers faced in the 1990s has even more serious material significance today for trans people—and BIPOC transfeminine people, in particular—who have achieved growing visibility in media and popular culture while simultaneously facing unprecedented physical, institutional, and legal violence. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans people are four times more likely to be the victims of violence than cis people. Of the trans people murdered each year, trans people of color in general and Black trans women, in particular, are dramatically overrepresented. Although Time magazine featured Black trans actress Laverne Cox on the cover and declared 2014 the “transgender tipping point,” anti-trans legislation proposed at the state and federal levels has increased every year since 2018; the number of proposed bills has skyrocketed since 2022. In other words, the expanding public discourse about trans people has been met with corresponding increases in racialized surveillance and intensifying efforts to restrict trans rights, to erase trans lives, and to make trans existence even more precarious. The consequences of media visibility for LGBTQIA+ people, in other words, whether in the context of lesbian activism in the 1990s or at the intersections of trans and BIPOC identities today, are fraught and ambivalent, heightening the prominence of some while rendering others more marginalized and susceptible to harm.

About the Author

Erin J. Rand is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Communication and Rhetorical Studies and affiliate faculty in LGBTQ Studies and Women and Gender Studies at Syracuse University. She specializes in queer rhetorical studies with particular emphasis on intersectional modes of agency, dissent, and social protest. Some of her most recent publications, addressing topics such as trans youths’ rights to gender-segregated bathrooms, sex education that centers Black girls, child pornography legislation, and the digital proliferation of queer fashion, have appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking.

Her new book (forthcoming 2025), Minor Troubles: Racial Figurations of Youth Sexuality and Childhood’s Queerness, examines how rhetorical figurations of childhood are racialized in public debates over queer and gender nonconforming young people. Erin spends her free time sewing and designing, working out, baking, and camping and hiking. She lives in Syracuse, NY with her wife, Courtney, and their two geriatric pets.

Excerpt: “Flaming Hot Lesbian Chic and the Problem of Visibility”

Beginning in 1993, the year that Lindsy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt facetiously label “the United Nations Year of the Dyke,” lesbians were represented in the media with unprecedented frequency and a stunning, though ultimately superficial, fascination. Though the inauguration of lesbian chic may be traced back to 20/20’s October 23, 1992, segment on Northampton, Massachusetts, a community with a reputation as a lesbian haven, its pivotal moment was the 1992 release of the film Basic Instinct. What made this film so memorable was not merely Sharon Stone’s starring lesbian-bisexual role, Van Gelder and Brandt contend, but “the beaver shot heard ’round the world”: Stone’s studied uncrossing and recrossing of her legs in a brief white dress, during which she deliberately reveals to her male police interrogators that she is not wearing panties.21 Stone’s character, in one infamously seductive move, set the stage for what was to become an important element of lesbian chic: lesbians are not the man-haters of popular lore, but rather they are the seductive and sexually voracious staples of heterosexual pornography, whose erotic interest in other women is eclipsed only by their desire for and availability to men.

In the wake of Basic Instinct came a flood of lesbian media content whose magnitude and momentum was nothing short of remarkable. So recently and severely underrepresented, lesbians—at least those who were feminine, traditionally attractive, and passably white and middle class—were now ubiquitous: on the covers of Newsweek, New York magazine, and Vanity Fair (with its notorious erotic photo spread of a scantily clad Cindy Crawford pretending to shave a dapper k. d. lang); in Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times Magazine; on Seinfeld and Roseanne; and in New Yorker and Doonesbury cartoons.22 Meanwhile, there was bisexual Sandra Bernhard’s alleged relationship with Madonna (about which Madonna, in fact, cultivated rumors), k. d. lang’s official coming-out in the Advocate, the lesbian author Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina on the best-seller lists, and the comedienne Lea DeLaria’s appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, where she enthused, “It’s great to be here because it’s the 1990s, and it’s hip to be queer and I’m a big dyke.”23

The Vanity Fair cover and accompanying story about k. d. lang’s surprising rise to fame perfectly capture the spirit of lesbian chic: they visually exemplify the sexualization of lesbianism and also highlight the imaginary, fabricated nature of the version of lesbianism they represent. The Vanity Fair photos employ the easily recognizable markers of pornography (from Cindy Crawford’s lingerie and high-heeled boots to her teased hair, arched back, and seductively open lips), and the photo shoot is even referred to as lang’s “playful fantasy” in the text of the article.24 Furthermore, lang’s androgyny— the signifier of lesbianism in the photos and a constant preoccupation of the article—is always described as an idiosyncratic fashion choice rather than as an identity and never contextualized within the history of butch gender presentation in lesbian culture. Her avowed lesbian desire and appearance are accessorized by Crawford’s glamour, beauty, exaggerated femininity, and evident heterosexuality (People magazine labeled Crawford and husband Richard Gere “the sexiest couple alive” before they divorced amid gossip of each partner’s queer proclivities and infidelities). Thus paired, the intimate tableau of lang and Crawford is staged as a racy and slightly scandalous performance for an appreciative audience; the appeal of lesbian chic is therefore revealed to reside not in lesbianism itself but in lesbianism’s capacity to be reworked as heterosexual fantasy.

Obviously, the fact that lesbians were suddenly sexy and desirable on movie and television screens and on the glossy pages of magazines does not suggest that there was a substantial shift in the popular or political discourses about lesbianism. Indeed, lesbian chic operated more to disavow the real-life experiences of lesbians than to address them, and it is precisely through this disavowal that lesbian chic was able to emerge at this particular conjuncture in American culture. As the number of AIDS deaths climbed exponentially each year, as the homophobic and discriminatory practices of the government and medical institutions engaged in HIV/AIDS research and treatment became more apparent, and as violence against those perceived to be queer rose to a frightening level, lesbian chic provided a perceived solution to these tensions in U.S. policy and national identity. Opinion polls at the time show that while a majority of Americans recognized that AIDS had “set off a wave of antigay sentiment in the general public,” a majority also reported having little or no sympathy for those who contracted HIV/AIDS through “homosexual activity.”25 Despite being devoted both constitutionally and ideologically to the equality of all citizens, America’s initial reaction to the AIDS crisis— demonstrating not only fear and hatred but also a willingness to view particular segments of the citizenry as disposable or even as a threat—exposed a serious and troubling conflict in the nation’s sense of itself.

Adding to the national anxieties regarding AIDS and homosexuality were the forms of newly militant queer activism that resulted from both the AIDS crisis and increased levels of homophobia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As activist groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation began to fight back loudly, publicly, and often angrily, some Americans found themselves being directly confronted with their own prejudices and hypocrisies and being

k. d. lang and Cindy Crawford on the August 1993 cover of Vanity Fair. Photo by Herb Ritts.
k. d. lang and Cindy Crawford on the August 1993 cover of Vanity Fair. Photo by Herb Ritts.

forced to face uncomfortable truths about the limits of the nation’s tolerance and compassion. Lesbians, however, were still (mistakenly) assumed to be in- vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, and their involvement in the AIDS movement as “angels of mercy” and “Florence Nightingales” cast them as feminine nurturers rather than political activists.26 Thus, the lesbian chic phenomenon offering a “safe” version of white-washed homosexuality divorced from politics, AIDS, and militant activism, presented a way to ease national anxieties and create peace—no matter how superficially—in these conflicts in the nation’s imagined ideals. The presence of white lesbians in the media, as long as they met the heteronormative demands of conventional femininity and attractiveness, allowed citizens to feel accepting and tolerant without requiring any significant shift in their prejudices against and fears of AIDS and male homosexuality. In fact, the important effects of lesbian chic may have little to do with the image of lesbianism it presented to America’s heartland and more to do with its ability to provide mainstream America with a figurative mirror in which to find a reflection of liberal-minded tolerance.

Lesbian chic also coincides with concurrent changes in representations and public perceptions of feminism. What Susan Faludi identified in 1991 as a “backlash” against feminism can be seen in journalists’ penchant for denouncing feminism’s past and predicting its impending death. For instance, writing for the Washington Post in 1992, Sally Quinn explains that the feminist movement ran into problems when it tried to regulate how women lived their private lives; while most women favored equal wages and other forms of political and economic equality, many women were not willing or able to “discard” the men in their lives. If feminism has any sort of future, Quinn contends, it will require a new set of leaders who will acknowledge “the deepest, most fundamental needs of their constituency,” such as the fact that mod- ern women “believe they’re better understood by the Helen Gurley Browns of the world than by the Germaine Greers.”27 In other words, in contrast to the “feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice” brand of militant female separatism with which feminism had previously been associated, feminists were now claiming their rights to be mothers and wives, to have male lovers, and to be feminine. Indeed, this renegotiation of feminism’s commitments and its public persona became crystal clear by 1998 when Time magazine featured Ally McBeal on its cover as the new face of feminism, juxtaposed with Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem. As feminism swings from Steinem to McBeal and from political activism to media representation, it makes way for a version of lesbianism that is similarly steeped in popular culture, disseminated to the mainstream, awash with gendered and sexualized stereotypes, and virtually devoid of radical political content.

The Lesbian Avengers’ own tactics, which combined the legislative focus of “liberal feminism” with the grassroots direct action associated with “radical feminism,” also reflect the shifting feminist ideologies of the third wave.28 Van Gelder and Brandt specifically invoke the Avengers as a contributing factor in lesbianism’s new image, suggesting, “if it seems flaming-hot chic to be a lipstick lesbian these days, that is in no small part due to the Lesbian Avengers, whose lipstick, necessarily, is SPF 36, and whose logo is a ticking bomb.” Even Lesbian Avenger member Ann Northrop boasts of the Avengers’ role in changing the way lesbianism is viewed, because they “put a new, younger, more active image of Lesbians out there. . . . Instead of Lesbian being the dull, Granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing image . . . suddenly it seems very hot and chic and happening and energetic [to be Lesbian], and I think that is because of the Avengers.”29 As such, the Avengers are often taken up in the media as an example of contemporary feminism and the trendiness of 1990s lesbianism, emphasizing their stylishness and casting their politics as a kind of female spunk or feistiness that might still be considered cute and potentially sexy.

For instance, Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle both featured articles on lesbianism in 1993, with the Lesbian Avengers positioned as representatives of a “new” form of activism and lesbianism. Cosmopolitan’s article considers the Avengers alongside other groups, such as the Riot Grrrl movement and the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), that represent the “new generation” of women’s activism. The tactics of these groups, author Louise Bernikow suggests, are born from contemporary popular culture: “Impatient with ideology, they are devoted to bold action—applying to politics the very nineties Nike slogan: ‘Just do it.’ Raised on MTV, CNN, and Madonna, they are smart, sexy, and media-wise.”30

Mademoiselle’s article on lesbianism emphasizes fashion over activism, stating that young lesbians are “fresh,” “proud,” “comfortable with their sexuality,” and “defining a new style.” Focusing particularly on a generational difference between today’s young lesbians, or “baby dykes,” and their old- school lesbian predecessors, the article assumes an abrupt shift between an older, closeted generation and the new publicly gay girls. As Harris writes, “so different is the baby dyke from the previous generation of lesbians that every aspect of her experience—from dating to politics—is different. Her issues are her own, not her older sisters’.” This dissociation from earlier lesbians—and their accompanying stereotypes of frumpy clothes, bad haircuts, comfortable shoes, and gender separatism—seems crucial to the new depiction of lesbians as edgy, sexy, stylish, and chic. Activism, including membership in groups such as the Lesbian Avengers, is discussed as “an integral part of being gay” for this new generation, as well as “a great way to meet other young lesbians.”31 Importantly, the focus on slick and sexy media representations not only highlights young, white, educated bodies but also downplays activists’ concerns with the more complicated issues of institutionalized sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia.

In perhaps the most blatant coupling of sexual titillation and fashion trend, New York magazine’s 1993 “Lesbian Chic” article offers a glimpse of “the faces of a new generation of women—women who have transformed the lesbian image,” and spends several paragraphs detailing the attire of anonymous women in Henrietta Hudson, a New York City lesbian bar.32 The movement through “a luscious array of lesbians,” with lingering attention to clothing and bodies, gives the impression of highly sexual cruising: “In the other alcove is a sexy young tawny-skinned woman in her early twenties. She has thick, dark, curly hair flowing into her eyes and down her back; she wears a skintight top over tight jeans. She is talking to her pretty blonde lover, also in tight jeans, with a black leather jacket.”33 That the article’s author is a woman adds to the sense that this is not only a description but also a performance— for a straight audience—of the fad of lesbianism. As Ciasullo puts it in her critique of the article, the language of this tour “evokes the discourse of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue more than anything else.”34 That is, overtly sexual descriptions of lesbian appearances offer real-life “girl-on-girl action” for a primarily straight readership. The voyeuristic journey climaxes with “a gorgeous brunette with a movie-star face, a soft page-boy cut, and a white Boycott Colorado T-shirt.”35 Though the article does not explain as much, the Boycott Colorado T-shirt refers to the Lesbian Avengers’ campaign against Colorado’s homophobic Proposition 2; thus, the Lesbian Avengers, represented sartorially but not politically, become an implicit centerpiece of this heterosexual celebration and consumption of lesbian chic. This fantasy of lesbianism flirts with the power and subversiveness of the Avengers, but neatly conceals the anger, violence, and injustice that motivate their activism, and any potentially radical activist messages are neutralized as merely a matter of fashion.

The Lesbian Avengers and other lesbian activists were painfully aware that lesbian chic was, at best, a double-edged sword that brought them temporarily into the spotlight while diluting their political intentions and, at worst, a means for Americans to retrench homophobic and heteronormative attitudes while escaping all responsibility for doing so. The lesbian comedienne Kate Clinton, for instance, who enjoyed an increase in popularity with lesbian chic, commented: “Right now I feel like a novelty act . . . and I hope that that’s not the case. I hope that we will all begin to be seen as more than the story of the moment. I hope we aren’t all just having our own fifteen minutes of fame.” In a more vehement reaction to lesbianism’s sudden popularity, an activist art collective called Fierce Pussy created a visual response: a simple line drawing of a woman’s backside is surrounded by the scrawled words, “Lesbian chic my ass.” Beneath the drawing is printed “Fuck 15 minutes of fame. We demand our civil rights. Now.” Similarly, in a broadsheet handed out at the International Dyke March in 1994, the Lesbian Avengers discuss the in- creasing right-wing attacks on gay and lesbian civil rights, stating that “there is no minding your own business. The majority of American voters think our lives are immoral and wrong,” and then, in large, bold capital letters, “FUCK LESBIAN CHIC.”36

It surely would be naïve to expect that media celebrity necessarily results in transformations in attitudes or material conditions; as E. Tristan Booth re- minds, “visibility is a risky prospect, particularly with respect to groups that are easily exploited for commercial purposes.”37 But in light of the Lesbian Avengers’ and other activist groups’ earnest pursuit (and achievement) of in- creased visibility, it would be equally imprudent to dismiss out of hand a significant relationship between visibility and political power and an important role for visibility-based modes of organizing. Charles Morris and John Sloop point out that “the politics of visibility are always a matter of great concern as marginalized and disciplined subjectivities gain representation through mass mediated texts and, as a result, larger access to a culture’s dominant exchange of symbols.” This is not to suggest that queer visibility is necessarily politically progressive but that critics must engage in the struggle to rethink and reshape the limited images available, and they need to do so in a manner that is not restricted by the simple dichotomies of “visibility/invisibility, marked/ unmarked or affirmative/regressive.” When deployed intentionally as a tactic of activism, Brouwer notes that visibility politics may lead to “greater social acceptance, reduced cultural stereotypes, greater access to resources, or pass- age of policies that benefit the group,” but there is also always a risk of cooptation, enforced hypervisibility, and heightened surveillance.38

Indeed, as visibility politics became an increasingly common tactic for activist groups of all kinds in the 1990s, criticisms of the presumed political effects of visibility proliferated apace.39 Ann Cvetkovich states, “the tension between representational visibility and political visibility or power has been persistent and unpredictable in the 1990s and, even once they are distinguished from one another, questions remain about how they might be productively linked.” Indeed, Cvetkovich wonders whether the visibility gained by lesbians could actually be thought to benefit lesbian politics at all or whether it was simply another marketing trend: “Had the project of lesbian visibility become a victim of its own success, relegated to the status of consumer trend that merited its very own fifteen minutes of fame?”40 Cvetkovich is echoed by Ciasullo, who contends that the normalization of the lesbian body in the 1990s occurred by aligning lesbianism with hegemonic femininity through representations of the femme body and by rendering the butch, or masculine lesbian body, invisible. Furthermore, Ciasullo argues, this heterosexualization of lesbianism takes place, in part, through raced and classed exclusions: “on mainstream cultural landscapes, the femme body is nearly always a white, upper-middle class body.” She concludes that the resulting representations of lesbianism are palatable to heterosexual audiences, but that they do little to actually represent lesbianism. “What we are left with,” she contends, “is a landscape of lesbianism that is at once incredibly full and al- together empty.”41

These critiques of the representations of lesbianism point to the ways in which the lesbian chic phenomenon made the Avengers intelligible and consumable for mainstream heterosexual audiences, but there is no small sense in which the Avengers nevertheless exceed the discourse that domesticates them. In other words, the ability of the Avengers to circulate as a potentially sexy and stylish object of heterosexual desire depends upon a crucial rhetorical displacement of that which exceeds—and therefore threatens—the naturalized sense-making structures of this economy. Of course, since it is not the Avengers themselves but always a representation of them through the media that is available to mainstream audiences, a certain excessiveness is automatically produced through the process of representation. As Peggy Phelan contends, representation “always conveys more than it intends; and it is never totalizing. The ‘excess’ meaning conveyed by representation creates a supplement that makes multiple and resistant readings possible.”42

In addition to the surplus meaning introduced through representation, the Avengers’ own discourse exhibits a kind of excessive lesbianism that overflows the heteronormative categories of sexuality and abides neither the principle visibility with a vengeance of moderation nor the politically correct. Both in their actual physical embodiment and throughout their textual materials, the Avengers proclaim a lesbian sexuality with a vengeance. This excessive lesbian sexuality is most clearly evident, as the next two sections will show, in the ways the Avengers exhibit unabashedly their sexual objectification and proclaim their embodied desire. The Avengers make legible the unmarked heterosexual desire that produces the public, and they sexualize the scene of political representation by unsettling the fiction of an abstractable gendered body. As such, the Avengers queer the relations among representation, visibility, economics, and politics, but they do so with a humorous bent that renders them intelligible within the discourses of lesbian chic and a heteronormative economy of desire.


  1. Lindsy Van Gelder and Pamela Robin Brandt, The Girls Next Door: Into the Heart of Lesbian America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 31, 17.
  2. Ibid., 31–32.
  3. Jeanie Russell Kasindorf, “Lesbian Chic: The Bold, Brave New World of Gay Women,” New York Magazine, 10 May 1993, 30; Eloise Salholz, “The Power and the Pride,” Newsweek, 21 June 1993, 58.
  4. Leslie Bennetts, “k. d. lang Cuts It Close,” Vanity Fair, August 1993, 146.
  5. Alan S. Yang, “The Polls—Trends: Attitudes Toward Homosexuality,” Public Opinion Quarterly 61 (1997): 507.
  6. Cindy Patton, Last Served? Gendering the HIV Pandemic (Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis, 1994), 66.
  7. Sally Quinn, “Who Killed Feminism? Hypocritical Movement Leaders Be- trayed Their Own Cause,” Washington Post, 19 January 1992, Outlook: C1.
  8. Nancy Whittier, “From the Second to the Third Wave: Continuity and Change in Grassroots Feminism,” in The U.S. Women’s Movement in Global Perspective, ed. Lee Ann Banaszak (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 62.
  9. Van Gelder and Brandt, The Girls Next Door, 213; Freiberg, “Angry Lesbians with a Sense of Humor,” 24.
  10. Louise Bernikow, “The New Activists: Fearless, Funny, Fighting Mad,” Cosmo- politan, March 1993, 162.
  11. Elise Harris, “Women in Love,” Mademoiselle, March 1993, 180, 182.
  12. Kasindorf, “Lesbian Chic,” 33.
  13. Ciasullo, “Making Her (In)visible,” 593; Kasindorf, “Lesbian Chic,” 33.
  14. Ciasullo, “Making Her (In)visible,” 593.
  15. Kasindorf, “Lesbian Chic,” 33.
  16. Ibid., 37; Fierce Pussy, rpt. in Cvetkovich, “Fierce Pussies and Lesbian Avengers”; LACROP, Out against the Right.
  17. E. Tristan Booth, “Queering Queer Eye: The Stability of Gay Identity Confronts the Liminality of Trans Embodiment,” Western Journal of Communication 75, no. 2 (2011): 191.
  18. Charles E. Morris III and John M. Sloop, “‘What Lips These Lips Have Kissed’: Refiguring the Politics of Queer Public Kissing,” Communication and Critical/ Cultural Studies 3, no. 1 (2006): 9; Brouwer, “The Precarious Visibility Politics of Self-Stigmatization,” 119.
  19. For further explorations of the relationship between visibility and politics, please see: Mindy Fenske, “Movement and Resistance: (Tattooed) Bodies and Performance, “ Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4 (2007): 51–73; Thomas P. Oates, “The Erotic Gaze in the NFL Draft,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4 (2007): 74–90; Deanna Shoemaker, “Pink Tornados and Volcanic Desire: Lois Weaver’s Resistant ‘Femme(nini)tease’ in ‘Faith and Dancing: Mapping Femininity and Other Natural Disasters,’” Text and Performance Quarterly 27 (2007): 317– 33; Helene Shugart, “Managing Masculinities: The Metrosexual Moment,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 5 (2008): 280–300; Helene Shugart, “On Misfits and Margins: Narrative, Resistance, and the Poster Child Politics of Rosie O’Donnell,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 2 (2005): 52–76; Jamie Skerski, “From Prime-Time to Daytime: The Domestication of Ellen DeGeneres,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4 (2007): 363–81.
  20. Cvetkovich, “Fierce Pussies and Lesbian Avengers,” 285, 300.
  21. Ciasullo, “Making Her (In)visible,” 578, 605.
  22. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge,1993), 2.
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