When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Córdova

10th Apr 2013

When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Cordova

Taking place in L.A. during the politically turbulent 1970s, When We Were Outlaws chronicles a rollercoaster of a year for Córdova. Much less comprehensive and more fictionalised than a traditional memoir, it’s a bold and brave coming-of-age story, set in a hectic, complicated world.

At the time, Córdova was in her mid-twenties, working as an investigate reporter for the The Los Angeles Free Press, interviewing the likes of Emily Harris and neo-Nazi Joe Tommasi and meeting with various other underground radicals, fugitives and political pioneers, as well as running her own trailblazing publication, The Lesbian Tide.

At the same time as all that, she was involved in assorted other personal and political balancing acts, from navigating non-monogamous romantic entanglements to a conflict at the LA Gay Community Services Center, where Córdova was employed and sat on the Board of Directors until being abruptly dismissed alongside numerous others, being viewed as ‘dissidents’ by those in charge.

While Córdova remains resilient in the face of discrimination and adversity on every side, at times her frustration and exhaustion is tangible, and considering the context, perhaps that’s no surprise; When We Were Outlaws takes place at a time of factions and fledgling alliances among communities already marginalised and oppressed by the establishment.

A compelling, energetic and inspiring read about what it means to grow up deleted and dangerous in American culture.The book’s vivid and busy backdrop and colourful cast are portrayed with warmth, but not always with depth, and as a result it sometimes feels narrow in scope, as though we’re only skimming the surface of the pivotal timeframe in which it’s set.

But for the most part this only emphasises further the tough decisions Córdova has to make; she’s torn between her personal life and her dedication to her cause, and this division of time, energy and conviction between competing and often incompatible commitments is a juggling act many will recognise.

At times uncomfortably honest and upfront, Córdova doesn’t romanticise, and according to reviews from those who were there at the time, it’s not a revisionist depiction either. Wise beyond her years but also idealistic, she doesn’t shy away from recounting her victories or mistakes, making her journey all the more realistic and engaging.

Championed by queer icons such as Joan Nestle, editor of landmark LGBTQI text A Persistent Desire, Córdova tells her story with skill, making When We Were Outlaws a compelling, energetic and inspiring read about ‘what it means to grow up deleted and dangerous in American culture.’

Published late last year by Spinsters Ink (one of the oldest lesbian feminist publishers in the world), it’s available in paperback from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookseller, or there’s also a Kindle edition.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Lesbians, feminists, activists and anyone who’s ever struggled with keeping their personal and political lives in balance. But also anyone with a soft spot for fascinating and sincerely-told coming-of-age stories stories centring around love, revolution and identity.

Other recommended reading: Butch and femme identities are a recurrent theme in When We Were Outlaws, so Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme (an anthology featuring a broad range of contributors including Jeanne Córdova) is our recommended read for anyone wanting to explore those ideas further.

If you can find a copy, Sexism: It’s a Nasty Affair is the 1976 collection of Córdova’s columns published in The Free Press. For more on the LGBTQI movement in Los Angeles, there’s Gay L.A: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians by Lillian Faderman, who wrote the foreword to When We Were Outlaws.

Jane Bradley