We had a tiny garden that got a few rays of sun. We turned a roving green briar into a wandering rose. I held my first porno pajama parties there, which later became my big screen road shows: How to Read a Dirty Movie and All Girl Action. The thumb-size cactus we planted outside on the sidewalk grew into a behemoth.
We raised kids here— Honey Lee captured so many of our children's best moments.
Some things I can't get out of my mind. Fanny Fatale demonstrated "how to female ejaculate" on our kitchen linoleum one afternoon, and I said we should never clean that spot again. I think our apartment should be made into a feminist historical monument.
I moved to Bessie Street with my girlfriend, Honey Lee Cottrell, when I was 23 years old— and she was 37. It's a tiny basement apartment on the steep north face of Bernal Hill. The bathtub is in the kitchen, which looks out over all of downtown and the Mission district. The kitchen windows are the one place where the light pours in.
Our first landlord was unsure if I could qualify as a tenant, because at 5'10", I had to duck to get into some of the corners of the low-ceilinged apartment. I assured her I could— at $400 a month, the price was just right for the two of us. In the early 1980s, Bernal was still a poor and working class, multi-racial neighborhood, adjacent to "Needle Park," which nowadays is filled with bouncy houses and miniature-dog birthday parties.
I moved out of Bessie Street when I was 30— we broke up after seven years— but I never "left." I moved a few blocks away, and when Aretha was born, she went back and forth between our two homes. That never ended, no matter how many miles I moved away. The last two years, my daugther lived at Bessie Street with Honey, graduating from college.
Early this winter, the Bessie Street building was sold to a new owner, and after 30 years the changing of the guard is here.
Honey Lee is 66 now, Aretha 21, me, 53.
I went through my collection of On Our Backs magazines yesterday to scan some of the published highlights from the Bessie Street Revolution, which you'll see below.
Note: These pictures are from a radical, fine-art, lesbian feminist erotic magazine. The links lead to, in some cases, more revealing photos on my Flickr site.
Summer, 1984: The original, unheard-of "Lesbian Burlesque Show" at Cesar’s Latin Palace on Mission and Precita, to raise money for the first issue of On Our Backs. The most memorable party I ever attended and the very definition of sisters doing it for themselves.
Spring, 1985: Cassie and Raven’s cover for On Our Backs. The two most seductive dyke strippers in the world decided to start a "Lesbian Escort Service," and Honey shot their "advertising" in front of the garage.
More Cassie and Raven here.
Summer, 1985: Honey Lee took two of our models/readers (all OOB models were readers or contributors or all three) down to the nearby 3rd Street railyards to shoot one of our most arresting pictorials: "Desperately Seeking Rachel and Elexis." I've had women from back East tell me they moved to San Francisco because of this spread.
Elexis was our first out trannie model, we met her at The Black Rose cabaret in the Tenderloin where she performed.
(More Rachel and Elexis here.)
Fall, 1985: The "Born in the USA" Scorpio Products advertising shoot. In the early 80s, I got a handwritten and illustrated letter from a Granadian inventor in Flatbush, who told me he had a spinal cord injury and had created an item out of silicon that he thought might change the world. He was right.
Honey Lee and I asked him if we could make advertisements to do his inventions justice. He gave us artistic carte blanche and $200 per ad.
No one— and I mean no one— had ever advertised dildos, period, or sex toys to women. We did a seaside mermaid shoot in Bolinas, we did a Mapplethrorpe-inspired "Perfect Moment" shoot with calla lillies. But this one, my favorite, was an homage to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" album cover. Those are my jeans and my grandmother's handkerchief.
(More Scopio ads here.)
Winter, 1986: Centerfold comix shoot, "The Naughty Gourmet" with Sue Trayling. Every single one of those kitchen tools has been in use since. The breadbox has an Austrialian Communist Party sticker on it. That stove has seen some of the best cooking you can imagine.
The rest of the photo comic is here; it's wonderful.
The "Frances" Pictorial— this was the strange young woman who showed up at On Our Backs and demanded she be patted all over in talcum powder and photographed. She was very pretty, but months later she contacted that magazine and said she had decided to compete in straight beauty pageants and didn't want anyone to know she was gay.
Spring, 1987: Herotica comes out, my first book, and the first-ever anthology of women's contemporary erotic fiction. It went through three editions and a long series career with other editors, but this was the first cover, which I designed.
This is the first of six pages; you can see the whole series here.
Fall, 1987: On Our Backs took HIV and AIDS seriously when it was a total joke in the rest of the women's press. They wouldn't allow it to be mentioned. Honey Lee and I went downstairs in the garden to demonstrate what you could do to have fun with latex gloves and dental dams; it became the "Let’s Go Safe Sex Shopping" pictorial.
More Safe Sex Shopping here.
Summer 1988: Cecilia Doughterty one of the avant-garde video scene's progenitors, made two of her videos with me, Grapefruit and Kathy. I played "John Lennon" in Grapefruit. The erotic footage we shot in Kathy was later a major inspiration for the sex scene I wrote for Bound.
Our famous kitchen bathtub never looked sweeter. This is me and Honey, (smoking her Shermans, of course), shot by Mariette Pathy Allen.
Angry Women, 1991: Christian Mann, one of my erotic cinema gurus, and I, under the house, figuring it all out.
January, 1989: Honey Lee had a business the likes of which I'd never seen before: "Erotic Portraiture." It wasn't "boudoir" photography, (I don't think that appellation had been invented yet). Honey's mission was whatever the subject's imagination desired— and the very few people who phoned her up for an appointment were one-of-a-kind.
July, 1989: "When Girls Look at Boys." On Our Backs was the first to report on women's interest in gay porn. We created a scandal over having "real men" in our pages for the first time— they were such good sports! It would be another ten years before this notion of women's interest in gay hardcore hit the mainstream.
First page of the story is here.
This pictorial answered an argument that had been put to us by antiporn feminists since Day One of our publication. The Dworkinites declared early on that On Our Backs eroticized S/M, violence, phallicism, and penetration— which they conflated as one and the same.
Honey Lee said, "What if I do a pictorial for them that has absolutely none of those things, but is profoundly erotic?" Would they be able to enjoy it?
We shot all day in the garden with nothing but Nina, Bobby, fruit, and vegetables (not penetrated or phallic but sometimes eaten or licked). Above is one of the watermelon shots.
We never heard from our critics, one way or another. Our sincerity was quite amazing especially compared to their complete double-lives. As time went on, we found that our most severe critics were the ones who were privately obsessed with cock, S/M, bondage, etc.
Nevertheless, this was an original and amazing shoot.
(More Nina and Bobby here.)
When I told my colleagues at our Xmas party I was expecting, one of my favorite contributors asked, "Did you inseminate, or did you party?" ;-)
We shot Aretha's first photo, the baby announcement, above the tub in her car seat, balanced on a plywood tabletop.
When I got pregnant, it was 1989, and the only lesbians I knew who had children were older women who'd had their kids in long-ago marriages. I was a constant source of questionning, as if I had conceived by a miracle.
Of course, after 1990, the "gay-by boom" exploded, and this doesn't seem remotely shocking now. But at the time, I felt like I was the "Dr. Spock" of single-bi-lez-questionning-motherhood.
Isn't she beautiful? She was born that way...
Fall, 1990: Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World Comes Out, a collection of all the columns I wrote for On Our Backs. Aretha and I went on a book tour and she was such a big hit. I wish she could remember that infant adventure, because she got soooooo much love, from Dallas to Montreal, San Diego to Miami.
May, 1991: Close to Bessie Street was a dilapadated grand movie theater, called "The York,"on 24th Street, which had seen better days. Nan Kinney, Honey, and I went over early one morning while they were cleaning up and asked the dyke ticket-taker if we could shoot there... and if she'd like to play the "voyeur" for a story we were illustrating.
All photos by (c) Honey Lee Cottrell, unless otherwise credited.