Opinion | Corey Johnson for New York City Comptroller

By Peter Rosenstein - June 2, 2021 4:28 pm

Alix Dobkin, the openly lesbian folk singer and queer activist, died at age 80 on May 19 from a brain aneurysm and stroke at her home in Woodstock, N.Y.

Her music and activism were life-changing for lesbians.

I thought of Dobkin recently. One Sunday morning, I heard NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro interview 22-year-old queer musician Marie Ulven, known as the girl in red. Her debut album “If I Could Make It Go Quiet” is just out.

Ulven was open with Garcia-Navarro (and NPR’s millions of listeners) about her sexuality and mental health. In “Period,” “Serotonin” and other songs, she sings honestly about her romantic break-ups and mental health struggles.

Awesome, I thought, women ask each other “do you listen to the girl in red?” to find out if they’re queer!

Sexism, homophobia and transphobia still exist in music. Some musicians are closeted because they resist labels or don’t feel it’s safe to come out.

Yet, Ulven is one of a number of out queer woman musicians from Hayley Kiyoko to Kehlani to Melissa Etheridge to Brandy Clark to Tegan and Sara.

I marveled as I listened to Ulven. When I was beginning to come out in the 1970s, you’d as likely have heard an openly queer musician on a radio show with a big audience as you’d have seen Richard Nixon smoking weed at Woodstock.

Back then, if you were a lesbian you didn’t feel heard or seen in songs. Not even in the fabulous, but hetero, music of the era from the Beatles to Smokey Robinson to Joni Mitchell.

You had to create the soundtrack-of-your-life by queering up, as best you could, the lyrics of songs you loved to include the women you loved.

Dobkin, known as the “Head lesbian” by her aficionados, was born in New York City. As she recalled in “My Red Blood,” her 2009 memoir, she grew up in a left wing and Jewish family.

Her parents were communists and took Dobkin with them as they organized on behalf of unions. As the Washington Post reported, Dobkin was named after an uncle who was killed by a right-wing firing squad in the Spanish Civil War.

She was proud of her parents, but “my wish was to be like everyone else in a Dick and Jane sort of way,” Dobkin wrote in “My Red Blood.”

Dobkin received a bachelor’s degree from Temple University in 1962. There, she studied painting. At college she began performing folk songs. Soon she was performing in clubs in Greenwich Village. Dobkin married Sam Hood, a co-owner of the Gaslight, a club in the Village. The couple had a daughter, Adrian. The marriage ended in divorce.

Dobkin is survived by her former partner and friend Liza Cowan, Adrian Hood, a brother, a sister and three grandchildren.

It’s hard to overstate how historic Dobkin’s work was.

In 1973, with Kay Gardner, and other women musicians, Dobkin recorded the album “Lavender Jane Loves Women.” This is believed to be the first album recorded by and produced by and for lesbians. Its songs were about lesbians.

Back in the day, it was wonderful to hear Dobkin, an out lesbian, cover “I Only Want to Be with You” on Lavender Jane.

“Alix was one of the first to celebrate us in music,” lesbian historian Lilian Faderman told the Washington Post.

Even now, when corporations sponsor Pride parades, it can be hard to say the word lesbian. Like when your family on Christmas Eve doesn’t want you to say the L-word.

Yet, decades ago, Dobkin told interviewers her job was “to say ‘lesbian’ as often as possible.”
“Living with Lesbians” was among the albums that Dobkin recorded.

Dobkin’s views on transgender people were controversial. She didn’t want transgender people to be in women-only spaces.

Dobkin was a co-director of the group Old Lesbians Organizing for Change.

Though recorded decades ago, many of Dobkin’s songs still ring true now.

In the pandemic, the lyrics “The woman in your life/Will do what she must do/…The woman in your life/…is you,” resonate with queer and hetero women.

Thank you for your music and your life, Alix, R.I.P.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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