Memories of the Revolution: A Home For Wayward Girls


From The Lady Dick by Holly Hughes, 1985. Left to right: Susan Young, Carmelita Tropicana, Sharon Jane Smith. Photo credit: Dona Ann McAdams.

WOW is a secret.

It’s easy to miss. You have to know what you’re looking for.

No sign announces you’re standing outside one of the longest continuously running lesbian art organizations. Let’s just say it’s the oldest, shall we?

It’s November 2010. I’m in the East Village, looking for WOW, and even I walk by the building at least once before I find it.

How I mourned that we were unmarked and unrecognized; how happy I was that no one came in the door who didn’t really want to be there.

No one to tell us what we were doing was bad, trivial, offensive, a waste. Here those words they got drowned out by the sounds of women trying to learn the lines written moments before, by double entendres volleying back and forth over the sound of power tools, by fights over who was and was not a member, a man, and who would take out the trash.

Now, I ring the buzzer.

For much of my time at WOW, you stood in the street and called up. We had our own mating call. 

Then you would wait, till someone struggled to open the reluctant window, to drop a key wrapped in a sock to the street four flights below.

There’s no foyer, no space to receive you.

You’re inside or you’re outside, there’s no liminal space.

We felt so lucky to have this space. After struggling to pay the rent on an East 11th Street storefront, Peggy Shaw had worn Cooper Square down; we had a cheaper space with a long-term lease. In the late nineties Guiliani had tried to rid Fourth Street of all the smaller art venues by decreeing that they had to buy their spaces. The price tag for WOW was 100K plus the time it took to raise that money. We had a serious shortage of trust fund members; we were still an anarchic group. I remember attending a fundraiser in 2000 that seemed packed, but we raised 1000 bucks. WOW was doomed, I thought, but then Senator Clinton had more years to the timetable, and somehow WOW hit her target.  

New York City is full of secrets, full of rabbit holes opening to parallel universes. Sweatshops. Too many people crowded into too little space.

But there’s the sweetness of secrets there, too. A rich history of clubs, speakeasies, abandoned piers enlivened by another species of abandonment.

As E. B. White acknowledged at the beginning of Here Is New York: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”

White’s loneliness is also WOW’s.

The freedom to live a lovely secret life, to populate a parallel universe as substantial as any other.

Everyone at WOW went there seeking the secret New York. Some of us came from the neighborhood or other parts of the city. Many of us came the other coast, or from flyover country, or Appalachian small towns in search of a place where a wild yodel would be welcome, in search of a heavy unmarked door that would let us in while keeping the rest of the world out.

I follow the laughter up the stairs. The elevator works now.

When we first moved here, there was an operator, a pleasant middle-aged man named Eddie.

You never knew when Eddie would be there and when he wouldn’t. Then one day he wasn’t, and then another, and eventually I was told that Eddie had died. I was shocked. He didn’t seem that old, and of course he probably wasn’t that old, but my middle-class childhood had shielded me from the knowledge of the toll taken by this kind of work.

I asked what he died of, and was told “He just died,” in an impatient tone that suggested I was too stupid to be alive, which was, of course, exactly true. I walked by Eddie wearing the protective bubble of a private college education and regular dental care.

A few years later, during the strike of a show, a couple of WOW members dragged the remnants of a set out of the theatre and called the elevator. When the doors opened, one woman stepped backward into empty darkness. She survived the fall down a full story, but she had multiple injuries: broken bones, organ damage, brain damage. Like most of us, she had no insurance. She sued the city and won, but not until many years had passed. First, she had to suffer through trials, which focused more on her queerness and her gender presentation than on the city’s negligence.

Inside, WOW looks like it always did. The floor looks like it needs to be painted, but I know that it was just painted and that’s just the way the floor is. The ceiling is really too low for theater, but you don’t notice that when you’re working on the show or sitting in the audience. You only notice that after you have worked at other places and noticed that there is only the bare modicum of what it takes to be a theatre here. For thirty years, it’s been enough.

There’s a dressing room, and off the dressing room, a curtain hides a toilet. No sink, just a toilet, with a tiny window on one side and a list on the opposite wall.

How proud we were that we had a tiny place to pee for the performers; it was a cool thing we had and PS122 didn’t.

PS122 was the bigger gig, the place to get reviewed, the part of the iceberg that was visible above water. But it had no place for the performers to pee.

And yet the entrance of PS122’s building—a building ambitious enough to have an entrance, a foyer, some antechamber—this space between the theatre and the street, reeked of pee.

Fuck them; who needs a gig at a place where you couldn’t have a private place to pee?

On this visit that list by the toilet asked two questions.

What is WOW for? What is WOW not for?

According to the list, it’s about community, it’s about social change via resistance, and it’s about hooking up.

WOW is not for racism or any other form of prejudice.

Nothing mentions success in the conventional sense. WOW is not about getting someone to come and offer you a gig on TV or even down the street at LaMama. 

Do the women and trans members have those desires, or is WOW for those who care about their own work regardless of what the rest of the world thinks?

Or is a desire for traditional success taboo? Or just less important than changing the world and having sex?

I join the collective’s meeting happening that night. I’m the only one there from the first ten years.

No one from what I think of as “my generation” is an active member. Several generations have come and gone, taking their WOWs with them. Sharon Jane Smith says, “They have my number, and they call me if they get in trouble.”

I remember Sharon Jane and her mandolin, her painstaking freestyle tile work in the tiny public bathroom, the smooth angle of her jaw as she played both Trotsky and his sister, Frida Kahlo’s lover in Pick-axe, her unswerving commitment to social justice, and her long fingers with their evidence of butch competence. I like to think of the various troubles she might be called on to fix.

After years of worrying about our mostly whiteness, WOW has evolved into a more diverse organization. Feel free to question that choice of verb. Evolved implies a force you can’t control, something beyond the level of individual effort, somehow absent of struggle. Feel free to insert another word to describe the change from a mostly, but not entirely, white group, to the group I see in the room this night.

Several women of color move with the confidence that this is their place. In the past, we invited women of color to do festivals, to use the space on specific nights. They were guests, with all that implied. At those infrequent moments when WOW had to act like it was a real organization in the world, we’d call on Alina Troyano and her sister Ela and designer Joni Wong to prove we were multicultural. We did so, I remember, with a sense of failure and shame. We didn’t care if people came to WOW and couldn’t deal with the campiness and sexiness; we didn’t care if they left because they weren’t willing to take out the trash. But we did mind our whiteness. I’m happy to see the change, but I wonder what brought it about. A larger cultural shift? Did the move toward a more structured organization or some other policy shift make women of color feel they could claim WOW, too?

And it’s no longer just women, a word that always begged quotes whenever we used it but still referred to biological women. Trans folk are welcome.

Mimi McGurl, a director and scholar, is facilitating the meeting. It falls to her to interrupt the flirtation, the gossip, the planning of the meetings that precede the meeting. While Mimi’s not a founder, she’s a sole representative of the demographic north of forty-five; she has the e-mails and phone numbers of myself, Peggy and Lois, Alina, and others. She’s the institutional memory in the room.

We go around what some might call a circle, The WOWettes offer their names.

I am uncomfortable here. This is not a place for spectators. You’re supposed to make yourself useful. I can’t imagine sitting on the floor the way I used to do, and even sitting on the mauve folding chair feels like an example of Abramovician performance of the endurance sort. When did I come to judge a chair based on the adequacy of its lumbar support?

The jokes I hear don’t make sense to me. They are all stories that grow out of sharing this space together, of many, many long nights, of bad coffee and too much beer. But being an outsider is the central WOW story.

There’s a stinging “no” at the dark center of everyone’s tale. It’s perhaps a deeper commonality than our queerness. There was no other place.

But we were also rarely at home here, either. Again and again in the scripts and interviews I hear the sentence, “But I had to leave this part of me at the door.” I hear how we were still outsiders even as we made this home; we had lost the ability to really be in a home, to be a part of a family. We were animals that lived on the edges of things, not wild, not domesticated; a feral world we made here.

So when it’s my turn to say my name, I am not surprised it doesn’t ring a bell. But Mimi’s embarrassed. She jumps in to say, “Holly started the place!” This wins me no love. It’s like I’ve shown up demanding the rent.

I’m the mother breaking up the party by flipping on the overhead light.

A young woman sizes me up: “Who are you?”

She’s right to be suspicious. One of WOW’s most abiding radical features is the absence of those gatekeepers.

You don’t have to know anyone to get your foot in this door.

And once inside this place, you are free to be fully young. To believe that you are the first one, the only one, to think this, to say this. You are the new Adam. You get to name all the animals.

I want to offer in this memoir a different sort of history. Something she can use.

It’s partial, fragments that unfold in “lesbian time,” a decade, more or less, but when it starts and when it ends is the wrong question to ask. It’s of an era, the golden age of the East Village art scene. The scripts offered within it are relics of a time between the moment feminism collapsed as a popular movement that could spin off songs on the radio like “We Are Family” and the emergence of queer theory as an academic discipline.

This is a box of brightly colored, jerry-rigged items for which no set of instructions is given. It is meant to be played with. Open it, use it, make this history work for you.