Joy and Nakedness at San Francisco’s Dyke March: Phyllis Christopher’s Best Photography | Photography

IIn San Francisco, the day before the annual Pride Parade is set aside for the Dyke March, a citywide celebration of lesbian life. It was like our Christmas – the biggest night of the year – and half of us were so hungover that we weren’t going to make it to Pride the next day.

I remember getting a call from an editor of On Our Backs, a lesbian magazine run by women that advertised itself as providing “entertainment for adventurous lesbians.” It was a foundation of the lesbian community – one of the few ways to communicate with each other, celebrate sex and educate each other about it at a time when AIDS had so devastated queer communities. The editor wanted me to shoot a kiss, but the tone of her voice sounded almost guilty—like she couldn’t bring herself to ask me to work on the biggest night of the year. But for me it was the most fun I could imagine.

Lesbians from all over the country, many of whom I knew, had gathered in the park, mingling and chatting with anyone – gay, straight, regardless of gender. But when the Dyke March started the crowd thinned and the Dykes on Bikes took the lead with the rest of us forming a column behind.

I have always found something beautiful in this moment: people step aside to give lesbians their place, to celebrate and applaud them. Many women walked bare-chested as a sign of freedom. It was a time for lesbians to assert themselves in the public sphere, a time of safety and joy.

The rules for the Dyke March were pretty much “anything goes as long as it’s fun”. The women celebrated being half-naked, feeling safe and supported by everyone. There were no protesters because there were simply too many gay people in San Francisco. It was a moment of wild abandon, walking the streets, climbing bus stops, over cars, hanging from windows.

This photo was taken on 18th Street in the Castro, one of the centers of queer life in San Francisco. Anyone with an apartment on the march route would take full advantage of its windows. Every year, the inhabitants of the houses leaned out of the windows, often with signs, shouting for the crowd and the crowd shouting back.

More than 20 years later, this image still sticks to my guts: I feel its power. It sums up a kind of joy that, at the time, was absolutely necessary. It was a way of celebrating sex in the face of death caused by AIDS and in opposition to right-wing voices who accused us of being responsible for the epidemic. We couldn’t get married, and job security was still unequal in the United States for gay people. We always felt like outlaws.

In the 1980s, there was a lot of discussion among feminists about the importance of sex. Some took a strident line – that photographing sex was offensive, even violent. While we owe everything to the lesbian feminists of that time – they led the way in many ways – our generation wanted something different. We were pro perverts, pro sex and pro pornography. Sex meant a lot to us; we weren’t just going to give up. It was a kind of political hedonism.

There have been few times in history when women ruled the camera, press and publishing ecosystem. But the world we created in San Francisco felt like a beautiful laboratory. It wasn’t separatist in any way – we didn’t isolate ourselves from men and non-lesbians – but we worked for each other. I think it shows in these pictures.

Publishing my work from that time in book form was one of my dreams. I photographed this period so intensively: it told such a story of this community, and I didn’t want it to get lost. Photographs can be destroyed, ruined or lost, and the relative scarcity of lesbian publications means that often this work is absent from our collective archives. I’m so glad it survived.

I have immense respect for women who let me photograph them. It was a real political statement. But there was a sense that it was also essential to let other queer women know they weren’t alone. There is always this stereotype of the angry lesbian. Often we were right. But sometimes we were too busy having a good time.

Phillis Christopher. Photography: Kate Sweeney

Phyllis Christopher’s Resume

Not: Buffalo, New York, 1963
Qualified: State University of New York at Buffalo.
affecting: Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Honey Lee Cottrell, Jessica Tanzer, Chloe Atkins, Leon Mostovoy, Mark Chester and Jill Posener.
high point: Getting my book, Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003 published this year.
Low point: Moving from working in the darkroom to the digital world. I missed the magic and chemistry of the red light reveal.
Trick: “Follow your happiness – your heart always knows the answer.”

An exhibition of Phyllis Christopher’s work is being held at the Baltic, Gateshead, until March 20. Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003 is available now (£24).

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