Artist, Educator and Founder of Velvetpark: Dyke Culture in Bloom
December 10, 2017, 6:00pm (Grace’s Loft, Brooklyn, NY)
Gwen Shockey: What was the first queer or lesbian bar or primarily queer or lesbian-occupied space you ever went to and what did it feel like to be there?
Grace Moon: I was thinking about this when we first set up this interview and I was like, “Jesus I can’t even remember what the first lesbian bar I went to was!” But I did remember what it was and I never actually went to in! When I first moved to New York in 1994 I was not out. I fooled around with a woman once and was too afraid to tell anyone and when I moved to New York I moved into the West Village with my brother and a friend and we lived LITERALLY cattycorner from the Cubbyhole on Little West 4th Street. For the year that I lived there I never stepped foot in that bar. I had one out lesbian friend who would come around and say, “Hey! I’m going to go to the Cubbyhole!” But I wouldn’t go with her.
GS: How old were you then?
GM: I was twenty-six. I came out late. It was a different time! All you millennials are like, “Oh yeah! I came out when I was in high school! Oh yeah, I was twelve! I was bisexual and told my parents when I was thirteen!” That didn’t happen with my generation! I didn’t know how to read it and I didn’t really have a community. So, if you’re in the closet and you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re behind the times and you don’t have a community it makes things very hard. It took me a while. So, I lived cattycorner from Cubbyhole in 1994 and I never walked into that bar. I don’t know if that counts as my first lesbian bar.
GS: What was the first one you did put your foot into?
GM: I was in a relationship and lived with a woman in Brooklyn. We went with friends to one of the last iterations of the famous, Clit Club. Probably the waning days of the Clit Club. I believe it was down in the meatpacking district. I remember going in there and dancing and another woman totally hitting on me even though I was with my girlfriend. I was confused! I was like, “What’s going on here? Why is she dancing with me so closely?” I was kind of a dumb-dumb! (Laughing) I felt weird and awkward and so I kind of just moved away. I didn’t have the mojo that I found later. There’s such a thing as late-bloomers. I was definitely a late bloomer.
GS: I heard women’s sex drives don’t peak until late thirties anyway. (Laughing)
GM: Have you not peeked? How old are you anyway? You know, I was in a sexless relationship for years… You don’t even need to ask me questions! (Laughing) I’m just going to lay out my entire lesbian story!
GS: (Laughing) That makes my job easy!
GM: I was in this first lesbian relationship, fell in love, blah blah blah we moved in together, the whole thing and we were together for about five years. The last three years of it was lesbian bed-death. I’m afraid to admit it was that long, but I think it was. Maybe we had sex once one year and stopped the last two years. (Laughing). Just when I was coming to the “peak of my sexuality” I was in a lesbian bed-death. BUT when that relationship ended and I was thirty-five – holy shit. Thirty-five? Yeah. When I was thirty-five I went like gang-busters and at that point I had started Velvetpark which was a lesbian arts and culture magazine. I was going to bring you a copy but I forgot. Suddenly, not only was I in a community but I was in the WHOLE community and I met all these people really fast. These were all the creative lesbians that were doing stuff throughout the aughts, which basically meant the baby boom and the x generation. All the millennials were still sucking their thumbs at that point. When I was in my thirties millennials were in grade school. So, while millennials were trying to sneak to watch the L Word I ended up being the managing editor of the L Word’s social network online. I felt like we went through peak lesbianism because lesbianism died shortly thereafter. We are now in a time of very fractured queer identity AND IM NOT SAYING ONE IS BETTER THAN THE OTHER! I’m not saying that! I know everyone likes to take sides on these things when really it’s just an evolution.
GS: Part of the motivation behind these conversations is to learn how people found community as the city and the queer and lesbian community changed. When you first moved to New York did you seek out queer community as you were trying to figure it out?
GM: I didn’t! I was isolated! It was terrible! I didn’t figure it out until I got into a relationship! I feel like this is not an uncommon story for a lot of homosexuals – not queer people – homosexuals. If you are still somewhat tethered to a heteronormative experience because of family or the community that you’re in, you might be figuring out that you have a crush on somebody of the same sex and then they are having a crush on you and both of you are like, “Oh my god! Maybe I’m a lesbian!” That is how I ended up with my first girlfriend. She kind of experimented in college but saw herself as straight, we hung out and then it happened, our lesbianism erupted. If you’re repressed for so long, suddenly the dam will burst. Or you’ll go nuts and be someone like Mike Pence! You know what I mean? It’s one or the other. (Laughing) You gotta come out or you become so repressed you become a nut-job.
GM: So, I was very backwards. When I look back at the late ‘90s I’m like, “Jesus Christ! Why couldn’t I have come out earlier!” The lesbian community in the late ‘90s was a very dynamic! They were coming out of ACT UP activism, they were doing all of this radical stuff, there was the Riot Girl scene co-mingling with lesbian punk… It was a creative identity that I missed the boat on. So, by the time I kind of came around in the early 2000s with Velvetpark – not that we had a bunch of rights – but it felt like we had gained a step as a community in general. The LGBT community had gained a step. There was greater acceptance by parents and larger communities. If you were not accepting it meant you lived in some part of the country that was really backward or your parents were really backward.
GS: When you started Velvetpark it seems like you essentially created a community for yourself. Is that accurate?
GM: No, I feel like I kind of fell into it. At the time there was Curve magazine, Girlfriends magazine and On Our Backs. All those magazines were out of San Francisco. Curve was still running but at the time that I entered into the fray those magazines had been going for at least fifteen years. I think that the criticism at the time was that those two magazines felt very assimilationist and very celebrity driven (OOB was sex oriented). It was all about Ellen and Melissa Etheridge – it was very much about what was palatable. I mean it’s all relative I guess because Ellen probably wasn’t palatable for a while right? She lost her career after she came out. It was relative. But there was nothing coming out of New York, which really is a center of culture and intellectual stimulation.
GS: We like to think! (Laughing)
GM: So, coming out of New York it was more grass-roots and edgy, and we were able to jump steps. I was able to get our cover stories by literally going to events and walking up to people and just saying, “Hey will you be on the cover of Velvetpark?” This was how I met Margaret Cho who was our very first cover girl. I just went to an event and said, “Oh hi Margaret! I’m publishing this magazine! Will you be on the cover?” The second person we had on the cover was Toshi Reagon and then we had Eve Ensler who isn’t actually a lesbian but that was when the Vagina Monologues were still really hot, and Rachel Maddow before she was famous, and from there it just progressed to all of these people who were activists, feminists, lesbian allies or lesbian/queer identified women. We covered all of the musicians and artists. Things out of New York just had kind of an edgy vibe. Today it’s different. Now everyone’s too savvy and it’s impossible to be edgy.
I started Velvetpark at the same time that the L Word was in the beginning stages of production. The L Word is both lame and irritating and very important, influential and seminal. There was no other cultural thing that rallied all lesbians across all demographics at that time: women who were teenagers through women in their sixties. There was this moment where everyone felt so compelled. Any lesbian, any woman who sought women watched that show.
GS: That is still happening!
GM: Is it?
GS: Oh yeah!
GM: When my long-term relationship ended I ended up in the bed of a woman who will remain nameless who was one of the very first marketing people for the L Word. She approached Showtime and said, “Listen, you don’t know how to get to lesbians, you don’t know where to find them. I do. I’m going to set up a grass-roots marketing effort for you and connect with lesbians where they are because if you plan to just put up a billboard and put up some advertising in a couple of magazines you’re not going to reach all of the lesbians.”
This was before the internet was what it is today. She had them print out postcards and she got street teams to go outside of lesbian bars, WNBA games, Ani Defranco concerts and every women-centric, lesbian icon type thing and hand out the postcards. Anyway, I think she did move the needle on getting the hype up for the show. When the show first premiered they did it at bars so every lesbian who didn’t have cable could go to the bar and watch it on Sunday night! That became a thing! That coincided with the beginning of Velvetpark so I ended up going to bars a lot for the years the show ran.
GS: Were there any other spaces (that weren’t bars) where lesbians could get together to do stuff like that then?
GM: Some people really love their LGBT center and I know the one in New York is very active but during those early years I don’t ever remember going there. I went there to look for a therapist once and I went to a couple readings there much later on but I never really used it in that capacity. The lesbian bar always had that issue though of barely being able to stay open. Lesbians didn’t frequent them enough and people would say that lesbians didn’t want to spend money but I really think it’s more about the economics of being a single woman or two women together. Do couples go to lesbian bars? I feel like it’s mostly single women going with friends to bars… You’re limited in how much you spend. Do women consume less alcohol? I’m not sure.
GS: That’s been a question I’ve had. Especially for someone like you who has lived here for a really long time.
GM: It’s always been this way but it’s worse now because there are less bars. Somebody has to open one which is hard now. In the earlier years for the baby boomer generation (like second wave feminist lesbians) they needed to find a place where they could go and be safe and having a bar was one of those places. By the time the millennials rolled around you didn’t need those kinds of spaces to feel safe.
GS: Did you enjoy going to lesbian bars? What function do you think they serve now for people?
GM: (Sigh) You know, I try not to drink. I did enjoy going to them but I didn’t go a lot. The best lesbian bar experience I had was at the Cattyshack in Brooklyn. It was a great bar, great location and there was something about the setup in there that was really nice. There was a roof deck. That was the only place that I felt was neighborhood-y where I could swing in, meet somebody who I knew and who I actually wanted to talk to. Not just, “Oh shit. That person is at the bar again…”. Or it would just be a bunch of gay men at the bar and no lesbians. Cattyshack – you would go and there would be a bunch of people you wanted to see hanging out and dancing.
GS: Having alternative activities is important. Things to do that don’t center around drinking. I don’t know what your experience has been like but it seems that there is a lot of alcoholism in the community.
GM: Can I tell you something? There is a problem with alcoholism across the world. People drink too much period! Don’t you think? Do you think straight people are any more sober than queers? I’ve thought a little bit about this. I’m not really in the community now as I was before but I think when you look at a group of people you start to isolate their behaviors from the behaviors of the rest of the demographic of the world. I think straight people experience bed-death just like lesbians in relationships. Straight women friends of mine express to me just how hysterical and dramatic their ex-boyfriends are, you know what I mean? It’s not a woman thing, it’s not a lesbian thing.
GS: I think you’re absolutely right. Along those lines what are your feelings about maintaining social spaces that are for lesbians only versus more inclusive or mixed spaces?
GM: I think they’re important. Obviously when lesbians get together… or queer women or however people identify these days… are there even lesbians anymore?
GS: I don’t know! Now I typically refer to the community as lesbian/queer in writing but I call myself a lesbian.
GM: If you don’t know I definitely fucking don’t know! Let’s just say queer women. I feel it’s important to have a space. A bar… I don’t know! I don’t know why there can’t be other types of spaces that people can go to. I suppose bars do facilitate socializing in that way. Was that your question?
GS: I’m thinking about this shift from lesbian to queer and how language changes accessibility into a space along with the disappearance of lesbian bars and wondering whether these spaces are disappearing because they aren’t needed.
GM: Yeah. I believe in them. I’ll go back to my experience with Michfest. They had issues with not letting trans women in, which was a conflict that the founder never resolved for herself and it was unfortunate. That issue aside, when you went there as a woman I have to say unequivocally that there was an experience of relief. To be in a space without men around felt like a relief and part of it was a feeling of safety. Michfest was a private event and you had to pay to get in but it was this vast expanse of land with a bunch of strangers who you didn’t know and I had never felt so safe in my entire life. That feeling for that moment gave you the knowledge of your identity in a way that was not theoretical. A lot of feminism when you read it feels like a theoretical fight because you’re fighting against the patriarchal system. At Michfest (and I refer to Michfest because it’s the only all women’s festival I went to but I know there were others) there was something about the quantity of women together in one space that drove home this feeling in a way that allowed you to understand what woman-based power could be and it was incredible! It sounds trite as I’m saying it but I can’t convey that sense of strength and that feeling that I didn’t have to worry or always be looking over my shoulder because some guy is staring at me, following me, whistling at me, trying to get in the way of me, trying to pull some shit – and you realize that your everyday experience otherwise is filled with that shit and navigating a man’s privilege. It was a thundering revelation.
GS: That’s the feeling I got when I first walked into a lesbian bar. That feeling of not having to worry about any of the stuff you just mentioned. With all this progress that is happening around the #metoo movement, LGBTQ equality and more safety in the “straight” world, that could also mean the possible disappearance of spaces. Almost like it’s a double edge sword in a weird way where we’re moving toward progress but also losing things…
GM: …that were special.
GM: The other thing I have to say is that our communities weren’t very integrated. I feel like the lesbian community is still pretty racially divided. The one element of Michfest that always went under the radar was how actually racially inclusive it was! There were tons of performers who were women of color, a lot of women of color who went there, a lot of women of color who were part of the crews and stuff, and they felt a kind of inclusion in that space that they didn’t feel in other spaces run by white people. Michfest founders were white people but made it a point to really integrate that space. So, that got overlooked. I think with the end of the older generations running everything and with the break-up of queer spaces, we’ve seen these other civil rights issues come back to the fore. I feel like last year’s Women’s March had the inclusion of queer people, people of color, and immigrants. In a way that to me says, we’ve made some progress overall.
GS: Yeah! It’s powerful to see that switch, where events and marches and spaces are created not on the terms of non-cis white men. From what I can tell now, people a little bit younger than me are having more monthly parties here that aren’t lesbian or gay specifically, but very inclusive and super mindful that they are safe spaces for queer people and people of color.
GM: That feels healthy to me and if that’s where our energy has to go in terms of dealing with our differences and I think that is what’s important. I feel like the lesbian bar thing… maybe it comes back again. Maybe we come back around to a point where women-identified – I don’t know what the right word is: women-identified, sexually-woman-oriented women (laughing) – female-gendered people who are interested in other female-gendered people will feel the desire to find spaces. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the thing. You can’t really exclude anybody on that basis, I don’t know.
For a while on Velvetpark online I was doing a twenty-five queer women of the year thing.
GS: Oh cool! Is it still active?
GM: Not really because I had too many things going on! I had to renovate this place, my dog’s dying, there’s just too much happening. I have done it every year for the last nine years. I think I missed the tenth year which is terrible. I would put word out to everybody that I knew: people at Astraea [Lesbian Foundation for Justice], people who I knew who were activists, asking for nominations of people that they thought did something this year that was significant and the criteria was female-identified or non-gender binary queer women or lesbians in the arts, academics, or activism. It cut across a swath of really interesting people and we didn’t ever repeat anyone over the course of those years. It was actually easy because people do interesting things everywhere, all the time and their moment happens and became significant in that year! I would just put the word out and people would get back to me saying, “This person did this! This person just published that! This person just made this big splash at this conference!”
GS: I like that you included academia!
GM: Yeah! That’s where most of these discussions get hashed out. Right? In all areas: the arts, the humanities, and in whatever other area.
What’s the reason why you’re doing this again? Do you want to figure out if lesbian bars can come back?
GS: It’s more about shifts in community forming and figuring out how queer people and lesbians have found and made community over the decades. I came out right in between the beginning of dating apps and right as a lot of lesbian bars started closing. I missed Cattyshack, I missed Meow Mix – I moved to the city, searched for lesbian bars online and went to Cubbyhole and that was pretty much my first experience with a lot of queer women.
GM: Did you come out before that?
GS: Not really. I was in and out of the closet throughout high school and college and was about twenty-one when I moved to New York. Over the past decade as dating apps have become more and more popular I started noticing an increased sense of loneliness that people seemed to be experiencing. I was interested in how people were finding each other and if queer women have started forming alternative, in-person gathering places in lieu of the bars. I am also really interested in the differences and commonalities experienced between your generation, mine and then the one following mine. Also political activism relating to all of this – because it seems like the Gay Rights Movement was so tied to this fight for space and for visibility in public space.
GM: Yeah, people met up and connected with each other in bars during those movements. How have you met lesbians?
GS: In the beginning it was Cubbyhole and now more through the arts. I don’t like dating apps very much but I’ve met a lot of friends (and met some lovers) via Tinder and OK Cupid when that was still a thing.
GM: Somebody told me that they think that this younger generation who grew up with the internet is kind of sick of it. They’re disengaging actually. Whereas, millennials and your generation are part of the demographic who came into the app thing as being a way you communicate, like, this is now the way we are going to talk to each other – only digitally.
You know, what the fucking problem is? It is our frontal cortex. Our frontal cortex makes us have to identify shit and get caught up with the words, as opposed to just dealing with things as they happen.
How long have we been talking?
GS: (Laughing) 50 minutes!
GM: That’s a lot! I could go on forever but I need to walk the dogs and order dinner.
GS: Well thanks Grace! This was awesome!