- Goldenrod Distribution and the Queer Failure of Women’s Music
In an opinion piece penned for the online publication Slate in September 2014 entitled “Gay Culture Is Dying. Good Riddance!,” Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart asks hopefully, Is gay culture dead?1 She argues for an assimilationist approach in which LBGTQ-identified people “integrate fully into the [heterosexual] communities that give birth to us.”2 She writes, “Those who suggest that we, as gays, will always need places of refuge show a failure of imagination at how bright our future can be. They assume that there must always be some stigma, some feeling of difference, or separateness, or loneliness, remaining after the work of the LBGTQ movement is accomplished.”3
In a historical moment in which same-sex marriage continues to gain footholds at both national and state levels and LBGTQ characters are becoming a regular aspect of American film and television, it is easy to understand Urquhart’s optimistic view.4 In a rejoinder, however, June Thomas resists Urquhart’s assimilationist impulse, arguing instead that [End Page 218] while identities are “subject to social and economic evolution,” aspects of queer culture and the sense of community that they sustain are still valuable.5 As evidence of this evolution, Thomas refers to another series of articles also published at Slate in 2011 on the decline of the gay bar, a place once regarded as the political and social center of gay life that is dying away in favor of queer-friendly straight bars and location-based hook-up apps.6 At the heart of Thomas’s position is the idea that regardless of the legal and social changes that have made life safer and easier for many LBGTQ Americans, they will always have a desire to create and enjoy spaces that center their own experiences.
As Thomas points out, however, the values, cultures, and even identities of LBGTQ people have indeed evolved. One aspect of LBGTQ culture, and of lesbian culture more specifically, that demonstrates the nuances and stakes of this shift is the decline of women’s music and the ideology of lesbian separatism that stimulated it. Women’s music developed as an outgrowth of the politics of what is now often referred to as “second-wave feminism” and the concomitant interest in developing and sustaining women’s, and especially lesbian, culture.7 One of the origins of women’s music can be traced to the first record made and performed by an openly lesbian artist, Maxine Feldman’s “Angry Atthis.”8 Feldman’s explicitly lesbian lyrics paved the way for other performers, such as Alix Dobkin, who, with the support of other lesbian musicians and community members, recorded the first full-length LP to feature lesbian content, Lavender Jane Loves Women, in 1973.9 In the mid-1970s women began to form record labels dedicated to producing and distributing music that not only was by lesbian artists but also spoke to the political and social experiences of women, and the women’s music movement became a fully fledged phenomenon.
At the heart of the women’s music movement was a network of companies that included Goldenrod Music Distribution, founded in Lansing, Michigan, in 1975. In December 2010 founder and owner Terry Grant announced that after thirty-five years of working to “improve the lives of women and lesbians,” the company, which was the last remaining distribution company focusing on women’s music, would be holding its final annual public open house event and that she would be retiring from the business altogether.10 Although long-time employee Susan Frazier took over the company after Grant stepped down, Goldenrod’s operations have been reduced to a small online presence and occasional merchandise booth appearance at festivals and Sweet Honey in the Rock shows; they no longer widely distribute women’s music.
Goldenrod thus underwent the same crisis of relevance as many other queer spaces and institutions, such as the aforementioned gay bar. The rise and fall of Goldenrod and of women’s music more generally marks not the rise and fall of lesbian culture but rather, as Thomas suggests, an [End Page 219] evolution of that culture. It...