By David Rosen
New York Journal of Books
“‘Some girls fancy sailors, others fancy soldiers. But you, my dear, are a fag hag!’”
If you want to take a short trip to France and revisit the radical uprising of the 1960s, read Lola Miesseroff’s Fag Hag.
This is s a provocatively revealing memoir by a refreshingly original woman who came of age as France—and much of Western Europe and the U.S.—went through the tumultuous 1960s. Bouncing back and forth from Marseilles, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, it feels like taking a “magical mystery tour” with someone at the center of a great countercultural storm.
“I have dredged my memory,” Lola Miesseroff writes, “in the hope that revisiting the past might help illuminate our present; if it doesn’t, I shall have failed. I want to contribute in some small measure to the struggles of today by exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the struggles of the past, and to contest fragmented identity politics in favor of all-for-one-and-one-for-all. Which is my way of continuing to challenge the power structure.”
The 1960s were a time of profound social upheaval amid capitalism’s revival after a quarter-century of Depression and World War. The reordering of global power was accompanied by the restructuring of social mores, personal values, and sexual practices. Miesseroff recaptures the spirit of that era, which has now become little more than a cultural cliché.
During the 1960s traditional Left politics, mostly associated with issues of class and power, was supplemented by a whole host of radical notions involving race, patriarchy, gender, imperialism and an emerging ecological crisis as well as personal identity and sexual practice. It was an era in which the values of old-school socialists and communists, whether Leninist, Trotskyist, or Maoist, were challenged and often, rejected by a popular anarchist and far-left insurgency.
France faced a profound social crisis that came to a head in May 1968 as an unprecedented wave of protests and strikes swept the country. This radical uprising fostered an anti-authoritarian and erotic élan. Miesseroff was one of the many radicals who fully embraced the 1968 slogan, “the more you make the revolution, the more you make love.” And she added: “And vice versa.”
With the post-WWII recovery creating a new social terrain on which to engage in social struggle, the young envisioned a non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal, and polymorphous society. Many, including Lola, were deeply influenced by the radical theory and practices of the anarcho-communist Situationist International, as evoked in particular by Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life.
Lola was born in Marseilles in 1947 to immigrant parents, her mother a Russian-Jewish social worker, her father an Armenian-Russian with a sandpaper-making workshop in sheds abandoned by the American military. The family ran and lived in a nudist colony, a place where the men were allowed to be feminine, the women masculine.
Lola was an unconventional young girl who, as her memoir reflects, lived an unconventional life. Reflecting on her childhood, she writes: “I never suffered from identity problems. There were two genocides in my background, one Jewish, the other Armenian, and my education was Russophone, naturist and libertarian, not least with respect to love and sex. In other words, we were marginal in every possible way.”
In her youth she hung out with gay and bisexual peers, both male and female, and was lovingly dubbed “a fag hag.” And indeed, as she recalls, “It was true enough that whenever I became friends with a boy there was a good chance he would be homosexual; I seemed to be a magnet to men-loving men.”
Miesseroff “took to wearing big hats, long fishnet gloves and, when it was cold, a fur muff.” This offbeat look included a lot of makeup, darkened eyes and a “chalk-white complexion.” She drank, smoked hash, and took speed.
She was never alone, whether at a nightclub, a gay bar, hanging out with street hookers (including many transsexuals) or living with comrades in cheap communal apartments. Together, she recounts, “we provoked scandal almost anywhere and at every opportunity. We smooched with anyone, male or female, whom we fancied and jeered at anyone offended by it.” “All sorts of relationships sprang up in a fluid way and we began, quite spontaneously, to engage in group sex.”
Once, when Lola and her mates were prohibited from attending a performance of the Living Theatre, the legendary New York troupe founded by Judith Malina and Julian Beck, “the actors came out and joined us, and it all ended with a raggedy demonstration in the streets of Avignon.”
Miesseroff has always embraced the most radical tendencies of the women’s movement and the oppositional communist left. She describes her sexual-political identity as “outer left”—at once anti-capitalist and committed to all forms of sexual liberation. Her sexual ethos is simple: “I am one of those people, women and men, who would like to have no permanent or definite sex, to choose to be whomever they want whenever they want.”
“Over my lifetime I have made love with hundreds of men but with barely more than ten or so women,” she notes. “In general I don’t sleep with friends. In love I have always sought the unknown, the uncharted—affairs where you never know if they will last five hours, five days, five weeks, or five years. No wonder most of my female lovers have been bisexual.”
The 1960s, in France as in the States, came to a bitter end in the mid-1970s. Along with many of her cohorts, Lola had to get a regular job and “settle down.” But like a lot of those caught up in the great historical swirl of the 1960s, Miesseroff never truly gave up. Aside from this memoir, she has written an outstanding oral history, as yet untranslated into English, of veterans of 1968 from all over France. “These days my friends and I have inevitably grown older,” she says, “but we can still cook up collective actions, throw big parties, and take to the streets.”
David Rosen’s most recent book is Sex, Sin & Subversion: The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal. His writing critically explores American History, public policy, media technology and sexuality. His articles and book reviews have appeared in such diverse venues as Salon, Black Star News, Brooklyn Rails, Huffington Post, CounterPunch, Sexuality and Culture, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.