When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Córdova

10th Apr 2013

When We Were Outlaws by Jeanne Cordova
I've got a confession to make. Before I received my review copy of When We Were Outlaws, I knew next to nothing about journalist, author and activist Jeanne Córdova. But apparently I've been missing out.

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.