First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes

The First National Lesbians of Color Conference formed as a means to confront the conflicts among issues of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and class in white-dominated lesbian and lesbian feminist organizations. The discussions led to the founding of several organizations for lesbians of color around the United States and more awareness within the lesbian rights movement in general about racism.

Summary of Event

Lesbians of color always have been active in social justice movements, including the movements for lesbian and women’s rights. Their lives at the intersection of oppressions—racism, sexism, classism, Classism;and lesbians of color[lesbians of color] and homophobia—has made it difficult, however, to choose sexuality and gender over race and ethnicity. Some lesbians of color have opted to form their own groups separate from white lesbian groups and cogender groups for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) people of color. The First National Lesbians of Color Conference held in Malibu, California, in September of 1983 came as a result of activism that began in the early 1970’s. [kw]First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes (Sept., 1983)
[kw]National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes, First (Sept., 1983)
[kw]Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes, First National (Sept., 1983)
[kw]Color Conference Convenes, First National Lesbians of (Sept., 1983)
[kw]Conference Convenes, First National Lesbians of Color (Sept., 1983)
Sexuality;and racism[racism]
Racism;and sexuality[sexuality]
Feminism;and lesbians of color[lesbians of color]
[c]Race and ethnicity;Sept., 1983: First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes[1570]
[c]Feminism;Sept., 1983: First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes[1570]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Sept., 1983: First National Lesbians of Color Conference Convenes[1570]

One of the earliest known groups for lesbians of color was Salsa Soul Sisters Salsa Soul Sisters of New York City (formed November, 1974). More than thirty years later, the group is known as African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change (AALUSC). Latin American Lesbians (formed June, 1974) was a short-lived group that met in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles. In 1975 the cogender group Gay American Indians Gay American Indians was cofounded by Barbara Cameron and others in San Francisco. In the mid-1970’s a social group called Debreta’s Debreta’s, Los Angeles[Debretas] was active in Los Angeles. Debreta’s organizers Deborah Johnson and her partner Bobreta Franklin were activists who also had ties to white LGBT power brokers. Debreta’s became an entry point for African American lesbians who wanted to participate in an activist environment. In the 1980’s, Asian Pacific Islander lesbians began forming groups such as Asian Lesbians of the East Coast and Asian/Pacific Lesbians—Los Angeles.

In 1973, at the historic West Coast Lesbian Conference, West Coast Lesbian Conference
Lesbian Conference, West Coast held in Los Angeles, lesbians of color from San Francisco (primarily African American) presented one of the earliest workshops on racism in the lesbian rights movement. Present at the workshop was Del Martin, Martin, Del who had cofounded with her long-time partner Phyllis Lyon, Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian group in the United States (1955). Martin acknowledged that in her travels around the United States she had found not one lesbian group that had managed to successfully deal with the racism.

While many white lesbians focused on sexism as the root oppression, lesbians of color faced a more complex obstacle: the racism of white lesbians; the sexism and racism of white gay men; and the sexism and homophobia of their own communities of color. Classism was often intertwined with racism because stereotypes often equate people of color with poverty.

In 1978, the National Lesbian Feminist Organization National Lesbian Feminist Organization
Lesbian Feminist Organization, National (NLFO) founding conference was held in Santa Monica, also in California. Few lesbians of color had been invited as delegates and major conflicts soon broke out over the lack of delegate diversity. The problem was solved by recruiting those women of color who were present as visitors or staff to be voting delegates. The conference passed a resolution stipulating that in the NLFO, women of color were to hold half of the officer positions and half of the votes on decision-making committees. The NLFO did not last long but its policy of racial and ethnic parity had some effect nationally within lesbian groups and organizations and in the planning of conferences.

Shortly after the NLFO conference, lesbians of color, some of whom had attended the conference, formed Lesbians of Color Lesbians of Color, Los Angeles (LOC) Los Angeles. A similar group formed in San Francisco. LOC Los Angeles, made up of African Americans and Latinas mostly but also of Asians and Native Americans, met on Sundays at the Alcoholism Center for Women. The group offered workshops on racism and sponsored social events and consciousness-raising discussions. LOC members also worked in alliance with heterosexual groups and white lesbian groups on issues such as farmworker rights, apartheid in South Africa, and homophobia.

LOC Los Angeles actively participated in a major historical LGBT event—the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October of 1979. Earlier that year, LGBT grassroots activists began planning a march even as mainstream LGBT groups warned that the time was not right for such an event. The grassroots activists met in Houston and voted to have lesbians of color lead the march. LGBT activists of color also began to plan the first National Third World Gay and Lesbian Conference, scheduled for Harambee House (at Howard University) before the march.

At the people of color conference, arguments arose when Native Americans and Asian Pacific Islander attendees, all of whom were fewer in number, correctly argued that their issues were being ignored. Heated debates ensued but in the end, the people of color contingent marched together. The LOC Los Angeles banner can be seen on the 1979 March on Washington’s official black-and-white poster. People of color who spoke at the march and later rally included Audre Lorde and Juanita Ramos (Díaz-Cotto).

In the early 1980’s, Latinas formed a support group that would gather after the general LOC meetings. In May of 1982, LOC members attended the Califia Women of Color Califia Women of Color gathering
Women of Color gathering, Califia gathering. Califia was a white women’s group known for its weeklong campouts and its intense workshops against racism and classism. It was following the Califia gathering of 1982 that LOC women decided to organize the First National Lesbians of Color Conference; a camp in Malibu had been selected as the conference site. Conference participants included more than two hundred women of color. The introduction to the conference program read, in part, “This first National Conference of Lesbians of Color is dedicated to all of our sisters who are struggling for justice, dignity and the freedom to live full, productive lives of choice.”

The themes of the conference workshops spanned a wide spectrum of issues, including identity, spirituality, politics, and culture. The list of workshop presenters included many women of color who were also political activists: Gloria Anzaldúa, Paula Gunn Allen, Beth Brant, Andrea Canaan, Joy Harjo, Nancy Reiko Sato, Naomi Littlebear, Kwambe OmDahda, Aleida Rodríguez, Luisah Teish, Nellie Wong, Merle Woo, and Mitsuye Yamada.

The group had argued about whether or not the conference should be a political or a cultural event. National Radical Women, a socialist group, wanted the former and criticized the planners for not emphasizing that agenda. However, many of the women did not agree with this critique. They were activists who did not want to align with what was perceived as a socialist agenda, but they did want to spend time with other women of color in a safe environment, away from racism, sexism, and homophobia. There also were intense discussions about whether or not straight women of color should be at the conference and also concerning complex issues of skin color.

At the closing gathering, Kwambe OmDahda and Rha Medeen read a statement to bring the conference participants together: “When you go home you owe it to yourself and to all the sisters at this conference to create an atmosphere that deals with the issues that rose over this past weekend.…Take responsibility to create or join groups dedicated to issues unique to us as people of color, as womyn and as lesbians.” LOC continued to meet for several more years after the conference before disbanding.


In general, white-dominated lesbian groups were not proactive about addressing racism in the lesbian rights movement, even after the empowering National Lesbians of Color Conference in Malibu in 1983. One exception, however, was a group of lesbian activists called White Women Against Racism White Women Against Racism (WWAR). Racism, White Women Against The Los Angeles group met during the 1980’s, offered antiracism workshops for white women, and wrote a column for the Lesbian News, a periodical still in circulation. WWAR faced derisive comments from lesbians who did not believe racism was a problem within the lesbian community. Sexuality;and racism[racism]
Racism;and sexuality[sexuality]
Feminism;and lesbians of color[lesbians of color]

Further Reading

  • Alaniz, Yolanda, and Nellie Wong, eds. Voices of Color. Seattle, Wash.: Red Letter Press, 1999.
  • Lorde, Audre. “I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities.” Freedom Organizing Pamphlet Series 3. Latham, N.Y.: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1985.
  • Retter, Yolanda. “Lesbian (Feminist) Los Angeles, 1970-1990: An Exploratory Ethnohistory.” 1995.
  • Russell, Valerie. “Racism and Sexism, a Collective Struggle: A Minority Woman’s Point of View.” (n.d.) racesex/.
  • “Short Takes: Los Angeles, California.” The Advocate, September 15, 1983, 62.
  • Thompson, Becky. “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism.” Feminist Studies 28, no. 2 (2002).

November 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South

1975: Gay American Indians Is Founded

1975-1983: Gay Latino Alliance Is Formed

April, 1977: Combahee River Collective Issues “A Black Feminist Statement”

November 18-21, 1977: National Women’s Conference Convenes

October 12-15, 1979: First National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference Convenes

October 12-15, 1979: Lesbian and Gay Asian Collective Is Founded

1981: This Bridge Called My Back Is Published

October, 1981: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press Is Founded

1982: Lorde’s Autobiography Zami Is Published

1987: Anzaldúa Publishes Borderlands/La Frontera

1987: Compañeras: Latina Lesbians Is Published

1990: United Lesbians of African Heritage Is Founded