Feminist, dyke pioneer dies in a year of great losses for community
The LGBT and AIDS communities suffered the loss of many luminaries and leaders in 2005, including Betty Santoro, 67, of Lesbian Feminist Liberation; bisexual activist Brenda Howard, 58; Jean O’Leary, 57, an early director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF); Jack Nichols, 67, a writer and gay activist since the early 1960s; AIDS activist and journalist Leroy Whitfield, 36; French Holocaust survivor Pierre Seel, 82; Jamaican AIDS leader Steve Harvey, killed by anti-gay thugs; Washington, D.C.’s Wanda Alston, murdered by her neighbor; and feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, 58.
We also lost out artists such as composer Rev. Al Carmines, 69; architect Philip Johnson, 98; cabaret singer Bobby Short, 80; and filmmaker Ismael Merchant, 68, as well as those who struggled with being out like Luther Vandross, 54, and actor John Spencer, 58, of “The West Wing.”
Phyllis Saperstein, another lesbian pioneer, died at 72 back in January, but we only became aware of her passing recently. Her significant contributions are recounted in a very personal reflection by Joan Nixon, famous as Bella Abzug’s driver for decades and a lesbian leader in her own right. The two met in New York in 1976 on the board of NGLTF’s Women’s Caucus:
Phyllis was different from the other women in the Women’s Caucus. We were both lesbian feminists, but Phyllis was a dyke from the pre-reformist days. She had endured hostility from some family members for wearing slacks and button-down shirts, a short haircut, and hanging out at gay and lesbian bars.
Phyllis enjoyed the role of “bartender” at parties she threw for her friends, many of whom were gay men who were allies from the careful days before Stonewall. I had come out in lesbian feminist circles, admiring separatist friends in Chicago. They didn’t want anything to do with men, the patriarchists. But I didn’t make it as a separatist because I couldn’t denounce my father and two brothers.
Phyllis was nine years older than me, born April 9, 1932, growing up on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and working in her father’s business making women’s hats with artificial flowers. When they went out of style, the business crashed and, after her mother died, Phyllis took her father into her small apartment on West 10th Street.
I remember Phyllis as very competitive and having a temper, especially when someone cut her off while driving. She had epic battles with her landlords—fights that I believe contributed to undermining her health. But she survived four heart attacks and a stroke before succumbing to cancer. In her last days, she was cared for by her older sister Libby despite her own back and hip problems.
Phyllis Saperstein had an inclusive appreciation of the gay and lesbian community and was a heroic pioneer. Maybe everyone who was openly gay in those days was heroic.
Phyllis moved into her Greenwich Village apartment in 1962. She met lesbians and gays at nearby lesbian and gay bars. She counseled transsexuals in the 1960s, many of whom had emerged in the 1950s after Christine Jorgensen’s surgery in Denmark received such sensationalistic publicity. Her biography appeared in 1967.
Reed Erickson, an early female-to-male transsexual, set up the Erickson Educational Foundation and supported Dr. Harry Benjamin’s research and the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, started in 1965 and doing the first gender reassignment surgery in the U.S.
The foundation had offices in the Village near Phyllis and she was part of a staff of two with the director, Zelda Suplee, whom she met at a nudist colony in New Jersey. Transsexuals who Phyllis counseled still called to wish her well during her final illness.
After her death, I went through Phyllis’s photographs. There she was, happy, sun-tanned, and healthy with friends at birthday parties, in Hawaii, at gay pride events, and always with many girlfriends.
Phyllis volunteered at the Lesbian Herstory Archives when it was at the apartment of Joan Nestle and Deb Edel on West 92nd Street near WomanBooks. Together, we campaigned for feminist candidates—Bella Abzug for the U.S. Senate in 1976, mayor in 1977, and Congress in 1978; Ginny Apuzzo for State Assembly in 1977; Miriam Friedlander and Ruth Messinger for City Council and Carol Bellamy for City Council President in 1977. We joined the demonstration against Billy Friedkin’s “Cruising” movie in 1979.
We went to the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 14, 1979, also working on the Equal Rights Amendment while in D.C.
Andy Humm remembers seeing Phyllis down by the piers in the Village in the early days of the AIDS crisis in 1981. She asked Andy, “Do you know why no dyke gets it? Because no dyke takes it up the ass!”
Phyllis and I went to the second March on Washington in 1987. Gays tried to get President Ronald Reagan to pay attention to AIDS and people with AIDS led the march. The AIDS quilt was displayed.
When I was diagnosed with manic depression in 1977 and spent time hospitalized in St. Vincent’s, Phyllis was a faithful and protective visitor, keeping me in touch and bringing me treats.
Phyllis had a lot of girlfriends—Chris Secor, Nancy from Key West, Chicky from East Islip, and many more. She had lots of old gay friends like Marty Ryder.
It was in Florida on a family trip celebrating ancestors that Phyllis died on January 15, 2005 at 4 a.m. She was 72. Phyllis’s siege of pain and betrayal by her own body was over. She didn’t believe in an afterlife and didn’t plan for a grave site or a memorial service. She left her body to NYU Medical School. Two years from now, the school will return the body to the family,
Phyllis told me she wanted me to bury her ashes under my big rocks at my house in Southold. Since she didn’t put that in her will, it may not happen. But I can bury her blue cap or her iron fireplace poker instead and never forget my wonderful girlfriend and pal.