Queer history recovered: ‘The Lexington Six: Lesbian and Gay Resistance in 1970s America’ by Josephine Donovan

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By Alixandria Thomason, author of Reading (the) Rainbow:

The Lexington Six is the story of six queer people in the 1970s standing up for each other and for LGBTQIA+ community. But more than that it is a cultural examination of the time–a time when homosexuality was criminalized, and when queer peoples’ lives were regularly disrupted and even destroyed by law enforcement and the FBI. The story takes place shortly after the Red Scare and the subsequent Lavender Scare. The author, Josephine Donovan, uses a combination of first hand accounts, transcripts of judicial hearings, hundreds of pages of FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act, and her own time in Lexington to tell this little known story of solidarity and resistance. 

The story begins with the tale of two women who, along with three men, robbed a bank in Massachusetts to support the antiwar movement. The three men were captured, but not before one shot and killed a police officer. The women escaped and made a run for Kentucky, taking on new identities as they were now fugitives on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. In 1974 they joined a lesbian feminist collective, a group of women in Lexington that functioned more as a family than just a collective. The two women eventually moved on from Kentucky, but the real story is about the people who stayed and protected each other from the FBI and the dragnet it initiated against the queer community.

The Lexington Six was made up of five lesbians and one gay man: Gail Cohee, Debbie Hands, Carey Junkin, Jill Raymond, Nancy Scott, and Marla Seymour. Though none of the six knew anything about the fugitives (they had only briefly known them under their aliases) they were still followed and questioned and harassed for months. The FBI believed that the lesbian collectives had an underground network that were harboring antiwar activists. Refusing to divulge information to the FBI, the six were then subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury. When they refused, they were arrested for contempt. The FBI outed them to their families, which according to the majority was worse than being put in prison. Carey Junkin’s extended family said they would “shoot him on sight” when they were told. They were members of the KKK. The attorney for the six believed that the judge was influenced by the way the families completely abandoned them, showing that not even their own families supported their actions.

Though trial by ordeal had long been banned, the use of painful situations to determine innocence played a role in the group’s hearings. Lovers were separated from lovers, solitary confinement was enacted, and instead of being sent to federal prisons they were sent to different places in Kentucky. The author believes this was because the Kentucky prisons would be harsher for the six. This story attracted national attention and would play a huge role in the gay liberation movement. 

The Lexington Six does a wonderful job of setting the scene both socially and politically. In order to fully understand the background though it is helpful to look into the Red Scare and Lavender Scare (1950s) to see the lengths the government was willing to go to in order to get rid of “sexual deviants” who were truly believed to be a national security threat. My favorite line from the book was when Eisenhower (then a general) asked his secretary to create a list of all known lesbians in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and she responded, “I’d be happy to do this… but you have to know that the first name on the list would be mine.” 

Though I lived in Lexington for years, I had never heard this story before picking up this book. The two fugitives worked at Alfalfas, a restaurant that I had visited while living there. Their revolution took place on the same streets we walked and in the classrooms at the University of Kentucky. This is a part of history we are not taught in schools even though the national implications were massive. I was talking to a friend of mine about the book because she had moved to Lexington in 1974, the same year the story takes place. It was so neat to talk through the story with someone who had been there for it. She said she didn’t know any of the six, but that a radical antiwar roommate of hers helped burn down the ROTC building on campus one night during a protest. I later read about the incident in The Lexington Six and marveled at the line “The perpetrator of the ROTC arson was never found.” There are still people holding their secrets safe today.

My only criticism is not of the book, but of the feminist ideology of the time. Though I agree with much of it, there are bits that read to me as TERF-y. (For those who don’t know, TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.) I may be reading too much into it, but some of the verbiage doesn’t feel inclusive of our trans sisters, the same people fighting the same wars at Stonewall just a few years before. 

That critique aside, I would highly suggest anyone from Kentucky read this book. There is so much queer history in these pages–history that has been swept under the rug for decades. We are still fighting these battles today, in the form of anti-trans and anti-gay legislation. But despite the ongoing hardships, we continue to show up and fight for one another the same way the six did. There is a strong bond that unites the LGBTQIA+ community, past and present, an impulse to fight oppression in whatever form it takes. We will keep fighting and we will not back down. 

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