Buffalo Women's Oral History Project
The Buffalo Women’s Oral History Project, conducted by Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy, is an extensive oral history project that began in 1978 and extended through the next 13 years. Interview subjects were working-class lesbian women from Buffalo, New York who described their experiences during the period from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s.
These recordings of interviews with working-class lesbians are rich with wisdom, insight and emotion. Interviews discuss a wide range of topics including butch/femme roles, gendered sexuality, relationships, family dynamics, the bar scene, religion, realization of homosexuality, coming out, lesbian mothers, oppression, police brutality, race, gay rights movements, women in the military, youth, and identity. They offer dynamic first-person perspectives of the place and time before the emergence of the gay and lesbian liberation movements. From these stories surface the personal struggles and triumphs of the lesbian community during an intensely oppressive time.
The following interviews have been selected from the Buffalo Women's Oral History Project to highlight reflections pertaining to lesbian fashion, style, expression and identity.
These interviews were donated to the archives by Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy and were subsequently digitized by students from the Pratt Institute, Projects in Digital Archives class, LIS-665.
Interview with Mary T. (July 7, 1978)
Side A: Mary briefly describes her childhood and family dynamics. Mary and the interviewer then discuss the first time Mary recognized being different and her thoughts on desiring women at a young age, yet not knowing about lesbianism as a concept or about the lesbian community. Mary then recalls the first time she encountered the word "lesbian" when she joined the U.S. Air Force and describes her experiences with women while in the service. Mary talks about being a lesbian in the military, the investigation into her conduct, and her dishonorable discharge. After Mary got another job, she started going to a bar in Buffalo, N.Y., and she talks about the other lesbians she met there. Mary then discovered other bars and talks about the scene as well as the role-playing of butch and femme.
Side B: Mary continues the discussion on butch and femme role-playing. She elaborates on fights, holding down jobs, and being "out." She also explains the relationships lesbians had with gay men in Buffalo, N.Y., and the bar scene dynamics of mixed, gay, or lesbian bars. Mary and the interviewer discuss gay activism and the difficulties of being involved in activism at that time. Mary also describes outings where there was a risk of being visible as a group, such as going on picnics or renting cottages. She elaborates on her experience with social dynamics like cliques and having heterosexual friends within the lesbian and gay community. Mary then expands upon the nature of her relationships with women as well as with black lesbians - racial prejudice and relationships are discussed.
Mary describes the bar scene, parties, fashion, music, bar layouts, and fights at Bingo's and Carousel bars.
Interview with Linda (November 19, 1978)
Linda talks about her relationships and the idea there are no longer clearly defined lesbian roles (i.e. butch and femme) in relationships, as there were when she first came out in the 1960s. She describes her family life growing up and when she came out to her family.
Linda discusses work and how her coworkers knew that she is a lesbian, which did not bother them. She recalls beginning to wear men's clothes to work in the 1970s when women began to wear pants. Linda discusses her relationship, and how her life centers around her lover. She believes that the younger generation is less monogamous than hers. Linda also discusses butch and femme dynamics in relationships.
Interview with Debra (February 20, 1980)
Debra discusses her experiences as a lesbian. She talks about her first lesbian relationship when she was 12, how she was married for one day, how her mother knew something was different about her, and how her sister figured out she was a lesbian because she was only married for one day.
She talks about her relationships with women, how she never openly acknowledged that she was gay but if she was asked she wouldn’t deny it. They discuss monogamy, she was mostly faithful, but she also talks about jealous partners and how when one is accused of things, one might as well and go ahead and do it. She doesn’t believe that a lesbian relationship is any different than a straight relationship.
They discuss bars and areas in Buffalo that she would frequent: Moon Glow bar, Pearls bar, Ralph Martins, Ryan’s Hotel, Little Harlem. They also discuss dating rituals, fashion, and relationship/ courting roles.
Debra discusses her child, a son. He was the product of her one-day marriage. She kept him for about 8 months and then her brother and his wife took him and raised him. He would spend the summers with her until he was 12 and then he lived with her and spent the summers with her brother and his wife.
She believes lesbians make better mothers because they know more. She didn’t want her son to go into gay life because she felt it would be difficult for him, she doesn’t believe that gay men's relationships last. She believes you can teach someone not to be gay.
They talk about gay men's and lesbian's relationships and social interactions. She would call upon her gay male friends to be her date to events that she needed a date, also sometimes family events. They talk about marriages between a gay man and gay woman. Debra says that she knew quite a few couples who had done that to put up a front, but that those relationships always worked out well. Debra also talks about marriage between two women. She never wanted to get married but knew women who did.
They also discuss alcoholism and drugs among the gay community.
Debra further discusses fights in the lesbian community. Madeline asks if she knew any lesbians who played sports in the 1940s and 1950s. Debra believes lesbians played sports but cannot definitely say so.
Interview with Ann (October 23, 1980)
Ann describes what she looked for in a women. She discusses the clothing change amongst lesbian women, and explains some of her relationship experiences with women.
Interview with Andy (April 20, 1982)
Andy discusses how she came to construct her butch image. She recalls getting into fights with men and having to give up good jobs because she refused to give up her queer image and identity. She discusses her clash with a teacher when she was in school in the 1950s. She describes her relationship with a prostitute and other close relationships. On side B she talks about breaking into the butch scene and coming out. Andy talks about gay bars and places queer women were welcome or not. She discusses fashion and explains why they wore their t-shirts backward.
Interview with Bonnie (June 9, 1984)
Bonnie discusses the lesbian community in which she came out and lived during the 1960s. She describes the difference of experience for butch and femme lesbians in public during this time, the roles butches and femmes play within relationships, and the social expectations involved. Other topics include Bonnie's lesbian mother, alcoholism, lesbian bars, Bonnie becoming actively gay at Catholic school, her way of flirting, and monogamy and infidelity within the lesbian community.
Bonnie discusses rules of conduct within the lesbian community, including domestic violence, beginning and ending relationships, identifying as butch or femme, and domestic roles. Other topics include prostitution with women and men, bisexuality, definitions of lesbianism, types of relationships, and her rules of attraction.
Interview with Mary Ann (October 15, 1988)
Side A: Mary Ann discusses her experiences going out in public with her girlfriends, and the treatment they receive at restaurants, bars, and on the street. She mentions that their public treatment is very often instigated by the masculine way her partners are dressed; she herself has always been very femme. Mary Ann talks about her incarceration for robbery, and her time in a psychiatric hospital for depression and attempted suicide.
Side B: Mary Ann continues to discuss her time in jail. She took on a butch look, and began to receive small gifts under her cell door from femme girls in other divisions. She developed relationships with different girls that she worked with while in jail, and talks about lookouts, or "chickies," standing watch for girls who were with their partners in the showers or elsewhere. She then talks about her sex life with a long-term partner of 22 years, with whom she raised foster children. Later, she touches on her job as a dancer at Buffalo clubs, and a two-year period when she worked as a prostitute.