Power Lesbians Raise the Stakes


Three years into producing POWER UP’s annual awards recognizing the “10 Most Powerful Gay Women in Hollywood,” Stacy Codikow noticed a problem. Codikow had founded the group, Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up, to promote the visibility of lesbians in the entertainment industry. Yet year after year, the awards went to the same people. “It was always Melissa, Ellen, k.d., the people on the tip of your tongue,” Codikow says. “So we changed it.”

The list became the “10 Most Amazing Gay Women in Showbiz,” and has since honored close to 100 writers, producers, show runners, and other influential women who work behind the scenes in Hollywood. (They’ve since created a separate list to honor gay men.) By removing the word “power” from the organization’s power list, Codikow found a way to expand what real power meant. “Rosie, Melissa—they have the ultimate power because of their presence,” she says. “But it’s just a whole different concept.”

Once you look beyond the stars and the usual suspects, it turns out that not only Hollywood but Wall Street and Capitol Hill are crawling with “power lesbians,” women who hold positions of influence but don’t command the spotlight—in fact, more often than not, they shun it. Unlike the so-called “Lavender Mafia,” a sort of gay male version of the Elders of Zion plotting a world takeover from their Fire Island decks and Bel Air pools (at least according to right-wingers), lesbians don’t collectively wield their power. Sure, those in business or politics or entertainment may know of one another, but connections are based on work, not sexual preference. “Like most powerful people I know, prominent lesbians tend to have a social network that is not exclusively lesbian,” explains Amy Lesser, publisher and editor-in-chief of GO Magazine.

If the number of lesbians in power remains relatively small compared to their male counterparts, lesbians are rapidly gaining in power. There’s Annise Parker, the mayor of Houston; Congresswoman (and possibly Senator) Tammy Baldwin; actress-director Jodie Foster; Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Barbara Lenk; and Ilene Chaiken, the producer of The L Word, who did for lesbians what Candace Bushnell did for the single girl. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is second in power only to Michael Bloomberg and may succeed him as mayor. But lesbians remain so discreet that Out magazine’s recent “Power 50” list of influential gays in the mainstream only managed to include 11 women.

“As people go up the corporate ladder, they’re seen as going into the closet,” Selisse Berry, the executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, says of women Fortune 500 executives. Lesbians may actually be attaining powerful positions at a more rapid clip than women in general because many aren’t saddled with children. But, unlike their straight female counterparts, many remain reluctant to use their power to bring more lesbians into the game for fear of drawing a target on themselves. “The fact is that women in general are always fighting the barriers of being at the second level,” says Liz Abzug, a lesbian urban-studies professor at Barnard and a former adviser on the Obama campaign.

“Not everybody wants to be labeled a ‘power lesbian,’ ” adds GO’s Lesser. “Even if they are out, a lot of them to this day downplay that aspect of their lives.”

Still, this may be slowly changing. As the numbers of lesbians in powerful positions climb, they are more open about it and more reluctant to pull the ladder up after them. Since the magazine’s founding in 2002, GO has profiled close to 1,000 women. As high-placed lesbians are more and more comfortable being out in the workplace, Lesser says, “the numbers of out women in power are growing exponentially.”

This change signifies lesbians emerging into a more focused identity than the gay movement in general. During the height of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, many lesbians came to prominence advocating on behalf of gay men. “When they started to find cocktail treatments and people were living longer, what happened to bring women and men together sort of dissipated,” Abzug recalls. “It became OK for everyone to get back into their political and power corners.”

This separation also points to a fundamental difference in the way gay men and lesbians socialize. “You know the old expression: One or two dates with a woman and you end up renting a U-Haul?” Abzug asks. “Gay men, on the other hand, are party animals. They’re tighter-knit.” That is, women pair up and stay home; gay men pair up nightly.

Lesbians, however, also often feel overshadowed by gay men’s greater numbers and visibility. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village launched a “Women’s Event” a decade ago because it was the only way to get lots of women to a fundraiser. “We found that if you want women in our community to come to an event, you have to specifically market it to them,” says Glennda Testone, the center’s executive director. “General events tend to be more male-heavy.”

Twilla Duncan, one of the founders of Lynx, the women’s arm of Out Professionals, New York’s largest gay networking group, also complains that women never show up at mixed events. “Frankly, it seems women don’t network as well as they should,” she says. “They’re more hesitant.”

POWER UP’s Codikow points to a controversial explanation for the difference. “At the risk of getting my ass kicked by every woman I know,” she notes, “men are smarter in business than we are. They understand that even if they hate the person sitting across from them—even if it’s their ex-boyfriend—they smile and move on. Women are like, ‘I can’t be in the same room as her because I slept with her.’ It’s too much bullshit.”

Not only that, but power players tend to socialize at least as much with straight men as each other. “One of the stories that lesbians in business tell all the time is that it’s sometimes easier for them to be mentored, because the people mentoring are typically straight men, and their wives feel much better about them mentoring a lesbian,” Out & Equal’s Berry says. “And then there’s that whole lesbians playing golf thing.”

Speaking of golf, one event that might come closest to bringing together a lesbian version of the gay male mafia is the Dinah, the annual festival that coincides with Dinah Shore’s LPGA tournament in Palm Springs. Attracting more than 5,000 attendees, many are bound to be VIPs, and—as at gay circuit parties—networking inevitably takes place at the expensive cabanas during the parties. Otherwise, according to the Dinah’s producer, Mariah Hanson, they just want to mingle with the thousands of good-looking ladies. “VIPs from several Fortune 500 companies come, but they’re under the radar screen,” she says. “Besides, everybody’s dressed up at the Dinah. It’s not like power lesbians glow.”