Email Interview with Robin Birdfeather
Photo by Danny Schweers, 1975, in The Rag; Courtesy of New Journalism Project.
Email Interview with Robin Birdfeather: November 3, 2021
Robin Birdfeather: Hi Sarah,
It’s always good to see interest taken in the roots of Austin’s women’s herstory. We were a very active community, and I spent a great deal of energy and resources logging as much as I could with my cameras, about 50k worth of negatives.
For the last 26 years I’ve lived in northern CA, and have maintained ties with old Austin friends and relatives, lately Susan Post of BookWomen (I hope you’ve been there) and Alice Embree whose “Voice Lessons” was just published by the Briscoe Center – that’s interested in my photo collection, ’69-’80. Both of these Austin Veterans might have more to offer about the Press.
Looking forward to the continuing story…
Sarah Pike: If you wouldn’t mind though, I’d love to hear your answers to some of my questions.
1. What was the LGBT+ scene like in Austin in the 60s-70s? How do you feel the LGBT+ movement has changed over time (nationally, not just in Austin)?
2. How did the women’s movement intersect with the LGBT+ movement? Or did it not? If it did intersect, were there people from either movement who disagreed with their intersection? (ie. feminist homophobes, sexist gay men)
3. How do you feel Cyclar impacted Austin women?
Three great questions which to answer them might be a book length response…
To give you some background about how and how much I can answer these questions: I’m not a Texan, I’m a Yankee from the N.E. – Manhattan to rural PA, as I was reminded a few times after arriving in Austin, ’71 and on the right occasions. Anthropologically speaking that gives me a unique perspective enough to say that I’m profoundly thankful to have sort of stumbled into knowing some of the most downhome feminists, strong women I’ve ever met. I arrived into a kind of TX Renaissance period, Austin then being the central escape hatch for outback Texans with modern ideas such as women’s equality-hmmmpf! My 1/2 bro Pliny Fisk had already moved here unbeknownst to me <cmpbs.org> now living east on Rte.19…
Yet I’m also not the best one to ask about the lesbian scene because I was and am the mother of 2 daughters who were 6 and 11 when we got there. I came out two years earlier in the college town (Antioch, mother campus) of Yellow Springs OH as a 34 yr. old returning student (Cultural Anthro). This means not being able to bar-hop, etc as a single mother on a poverty income. My late emergence/experience was profoundly mixed with motherhood. Then people for I guess obvious cultural ‘reasons’ could not encompass the term Lesbian Mother. What a crock. So we LMs were overwhelmingly on the defensive in every way from every quarter – including our own relatively uninformed sisters on more than one occasion until a small few of them saw that bringing up children in a Lesbian setting was good for everyone and pitched in.
A beautiful gay man very well remembered in Austin, Wendell Jones – a lawyer now living in Southern CA in LA, was very much involved with the raising of my friend Tina’s daughter.
Yes, it’s one of those ‘how the hell did I ever get through those times?’ questions.
As with so many of us then it took me a few years of unlayering to discover that I was born this way – I could quote chapter and verse. So I did get around some, with my older daughter standing in, mostly various activities along with my camera after I was further trained in photography at the ACC, graduating in ’74. Legalized my name in ’79 so my daughters could use it if they chose.
Huge questions you ask! After years of dedicated involvement artistically and politically I’m not at all involved except for connecting with you now. Here’s one for the record books: it’s 1972, my partner at the time and I were traveling around the country in my red Ford van I had outfitted as a home, sink and running water as well using my carpentry skills I had learned early growing up in the country and had just finished teaching in my class as an Antioch grad: ‘Carpentry for Women’.
We had visited and explored lesbians and collectives and their families. Virtually everywhere lesbian mothers were either facing losing their children to the state or to husbands or ex-husbands. The one exception was Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon – well known on the W.coast for starting and continuing many lesbian efforts; their daughter was grown when we met them.
Somewhere in Iowa perhaps, driving to the E.coast, talking over the problem of a jealous patriarchal mindset as it affected lesbian mothers and realizing that our collective four children were not under threat of being scooped up, we decided to take our story to Ms Mag that had started up a couple of years before, the only national publication for women that might actually have a broad reach.
Long story short – and what a story! – Ms Mag published a three page article with (some) of my words, a couple of my photos + my partner’s song. Del and Phyllis’ story also in that issue under a big BLACK heading- ‘Lesbian Mothers’. I found out from that experience that straight women, feminists or not, didn’t seem to have a clue about our reality, as if we’d just appeared from a spaceship…Ms.Mag. October 1973, same year as Roe v. Wade.
BTW we were with Sarah Weddington, the TX lawyer who argued Roe v.Wade at the Supreme Court, the night the decision came through; in the original Women’s (club/center?) just west of Lamar Blvd. around 12th? – up high on the hill. Jan.1973.
I haven’t really tackled even your first question!
Getting this off to you before I get caught up in another story – that I’m tapping out on my android
More to come I’m sure. Goodnight…
SP: Thank you for the response! What a different time to be alive. I’m glad LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights have gotten better (for the most part) in the past couple decades.
I can absolutely deliver the 2nd copy of Cyclar to my teacher. I’m sure she’ll be ecstatic to have a piece of Austin history for class use! Looking forward to reading more!