About thirteen years ago, the photographer and scholar Leah DeVun and her partner, who is transgender, lived in Texas. “Much like now, there was a lot of anti-LGBT rhetoric in the air,” she tells me. They were looking for safe, protected places to stay while traveling when a friend recommended womyn’s lands—historic and revolutionary communities built by lesbians in the 1970s and ’80s.
That suggestion would take DeVun on a journey that has spanned more than a decade thus far, taking her to non-traditional living spaces where creative movements were born and continue to thrive. For example, Rootworks in Oregon, one of these womyn’s lands (sometimes “wimmin’s lands”), played a pivotal role in the history of photography, hosting workshops that encouraged participants to try new techniques and think beyond the confines of the male gaze.
Lesbian Land, DeVun’s ongoing series, brings together documentary photographs from the womyn’s lands of today and staged performances inspired by images made on womyn’s lands in the 1970s and ’80s. When exhibiting the work in the past, the artist has also shown some of the original lesbian zines made during this time.
Soon after first learning about womyn’s lands back in 2010, DeVun ordered photocopied directory of these lands, originally written by a woman by the name of Shewolf. She still remembers the moment it arrived in the mail.
“It was full of hand-made drawings, beautiful names like Wiseheart and Night Sky, and a giant list of addresses and phone numbers,” she tells me. “I started writing and calling people, and a whole world of queer space and community opened up to me.”
We asked her to tell us more about these revolutionary womyn, who dared to create a new world for themselves decades ago—and what we can learn from them today.
Can you share a bit about the history of womyn’s lands?
“Womyn’s lands (also called wimmin’s lands) are women’s intentional communities (we could also call them communes) that were created as part of the back-to-the-land movement that started in the 1960s. Although it’s not always so well remembered, it was a big movement: there were supposedly over 2,000 communes in the U.S. in the 1970s!
“The communes were mostly focused on experimental, anti-capitalist living, but they weren’t necessarily so great at handling gender issues, and so some women split off from mixed-sex communes to create their own all-women ones. Each woman’s land was unique, but they usually rejected capitalism and focused on gender and sexual liberation, trying to put feminist theories and gay rights into action.
“The lands were centers of creativity, and they made visual art and music, published their own books and journals, and ran workshops and festivals. They were also a safe place for women to stay on the road while traveling. That’s how I came to meet up with land dykes who were gracious enough to share their spaces with me and let me photograph them and ask a million questions.”
How long did you spend at the womyn’s lands?
“Not very long but even a short stay made a big impression. I was blown away by how self-reliant the women on the lands were. Some of them built their houses themselves from scratch, and building a house is something that you can’t just do by yourself. It takes a whole group of people working together to raise the wall of a house, so you have to create and rely on a community for the most basic elements of survival, like just having a house to live in.”
Can you tell us about some of the womyn you met and their stories? What inspired you most about them?
“When I told the land dykes that I was a teacher and working at a university and showing my art because I wanted to be out in the world and create societal change, I was surprised because they kind of laughed at me. They were like, ‘You can’t change society—it’s rotten to the core.’
“Ayla, Gwen, and Gail, some of the women I met who are in the photos, said I was a ‘reformer,’ someone who wanted to work within the system as it exists. ‘We’re revolutionaries,” they said. You can’t reform this. You have to scrap it and just start all over again.
“I’ve thought of this conversation so many times over the years. It’s the reason that many land dykes withdrew from society. It seems at first like their goal was small—-to live in their own protected places—but it was actually an enormous mental and physical undertaking, to try to make a whole new world from scratch.
“It’s like raising up the walls of the houses—it takes a commitment to work together to build something. They didn’t always succeed, but this kind of world-building as a way of life is something I’d like us all to think about.”
Have you remained in touch?
“Yes, I spoke to Ayla and Gwen not long ago, and they shared with me that, sadly, Gail passed away during the pandemic. I was just recently reading an essay that she wrote called Working Together, where she said that because of our competitive, capitalist programming, one of the hardest things for women to do when they go to work or live on the land is to let go of the idea that independence is superior to interdependence. Gail lived in interdependence with other women on the land for something like 40 years.
“Their land is in a pretty conservative area overall. I had once asked Gail if anyone ever threatened them for being lesbians in such an isolated place. She said, more or less, that when they first moved there, some people tried to run them off the land, but she went to the end of the driveway with her gun, and then no one ever bothered them again.”
You got your hands on some lesbian zines from womyn’s lands, which you’ve exhibited with your photos in the past. How did you find them?
“I ordered some of my magazines directly from Jean Mountaingrove before she passed away. Jean and her partner Ruth were the founders of a land in southern Oregon called Rootworks, and they published some of my favorite magazines, WomanSpirit and The Blatant Image, which were the sources of a lot of the inspiration for my reenacted photographs. WomanSpirit and The Blatant Image used to be hard to find, but now a lot of these magazines are available on the internet.
“One of my favorite stories of the womyn’s lands relates to Rootworks. Rootworks is where a group of lesbian photographers, including the Mountaingroves, Carol Newhouse and Tee Corrine and some others, hosted the ‘Ovulars,’ which were week-long photography workshops that started in 1979. They were a feminist version of the ‘seminar’—they wanted to get rid of the masculine root of the word seminar that comes from ‘semen’ so they named the workshops Ovulars!
“The women who went to the Ovulars were called ‘ovulators’ and they learned how to work cameras, how to experiment with different chemical processes, how to take photographs outside of a male gaze, and they ended up publishing a groundbreaking (though short-lived) feminist photography journal, The Blatant Image, which ran from 1981-3.
“The Blatant Image had a lot of how-to info in it and it also published photos by Barbara Hammer, Honey Lee Cottrell, JEB (Joan E. Biren), and Carrie Mae Weems, who were to go on to have such important careers. The photos captured a lot of underrepresented women’s experiences and topics, like intimate partner violence, disability, caring for children or sick family members, women’s sexuality. This is an important chapter in the history of photography that many of us have never learned about.”
What did you learn from your time at womyn’s lands? What did you take with you?
“I think people tend to think of the Back to the Land Movement as the past: it was a time that came and went, it was an attempt to create a new society, but it failed, and people moved on. But I want to think of it not as a past that’s finished but as a continuing radical vision of life, at least ideally, that we could exist outside of nuclear households, capitalism, and even private property.
“That’s part of why I did the restaging of some of the vintage images in the magazines, to help us to really engage with this history in an embodied, experiential way, hopefully giving us a sense of how we carry our histories with us, and what potential there is in those histories.
“Given the shifts that are happening now, with the climate crisis, and the huge increase in the cost of living, especially in cities, I know a lot of people have been revisiting this period with questions about how to create co-living houses, land trusts, intentional communities, and other ways of thinking about using property in a more equitable and less commodified manner. We could use more utopian thinking because the way we’re living in the world right now isn’t working.”
This work was exhibited at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in the spring. What did it mean to have it shown there?
“My show, which was curated by Ophelia Appleton and organized by Robert Kesten, also felt special because it opened the first night with a public conversation about lesbian lands, and a bunch of wonderful Florida land dykes showed up, and they shared their memories of living on the lands.
“We have a lot to learn from our queer elders and, with the closure of so many gay bars around the country, which used to be intergenerational gathering spots for LGBTQ people, we have less and less chance to get to talk to our elders and hear their stories.
“Among the topics that stick out from that night, some of the women told us about how they dealt with communal living. Obviously, just like any group of people, they had their disagreements, but they managed them through a system they called ‘fair fighting’ so they had to get to a consensus instead of making decisions by majority rule.
“So everyone was ultimately included instead of being outvoted, which was a revelation to me and reminds me that we have a lot to gain politically from building on what our activist elders have learned.
“We also talked about the way that lesbian communities have evolved—and need to continue to evolve—to become more inclusive of gender diversity, including transgender people, and I think real change is happening there. The founders of a land in Oregon called WomanShare have handed their property over to a new generation of Indigenous two-spirit folks, and other lands have also become trans inclusive.”
Are these lands protected in any way? How can they be protected?
“As the lesbians on the land get older, and if new people don’t take up the project, there’s a real danger that the lands will die out. I think that’s why some of the land dykes, who have been very private up until recently, have been willing to reach out to younger people, to share their knowledge, and to try to build broader communities. I should say that there are also queer lands and radical faerie lands in the spirit of this tradition that are also out there.”
Is there a question you wish I’d asked that I didn’t?
“One more thing: Visibility is crucial for any community, but lesbians have experienced a lot of historical erasure. We just don’t get to see enough images of lesbians or learn about lesbian history.
“The photographers on the lands, like the ones in The Blatant Image and other publications, tried to work against that by making their own images of lesbian life, and I’m trying to do that with my work too.
“And, by the way, when we do see any LGBTQ people in the media, they’re usually young people. But what do we look like when we get older? I think we need images of old LGBTQ people too so we can see life across the whole spectrum of our lives and picture our own survival on into the future.”
All images © Leah DeVun