Iconic lesbian club owner pens new memoir

“Audacity of a Kiss: Love, Art and Liberation,” by Leslie Cohen

October is LGBTQ History Month and with it comes a reminder that our LGBTQ elders are aging — and we are in danger of losing their stories. Leslie Cohen was determined that her lesbian history and that of her wife of 45 years not be lost.

In her new memoir, “Audacity of a Kiss: Love, Art and Liberation,” Cohen details what life was like growing up as a lesbian in the 1950s, what it meant to be gay pre-Stonewall and her path forward. 

While Cohen’s isn’t one of the household names of gay liberation, she is a literal figure of that liberation. That is, Cohen and her wife Beth Suskin on a bench in Christopher Street Park, memorialized forever outside the Stonewall Inn bar in Greenwich Village.

This is where the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement began, with the first punch thrown at police by lesbian drag entertainer Stormé DeLarverie in the days of rage now known as the Stonewall Rebellion, at the end of June 1969. 

Cohen and Suskin are the lesbian couple in the four-figure sculpture that also includes two gay men standing nearby, rendered by renowned American artist and sculptor George Segal. The dynamic, life-sized work, made in 1980, is titled Gay Liberation. It was commissioned in memory of the 1969 Stonewall riots and is the first piece of public art dedicated to LGBT rights. In March 2000, the Stonewall Inn was designated a National Historic Landmark.

That statue is part of Leslie Cohen’s legacy as a lesbian New Yorker in the early days of the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. Cohen’s reason for writing her memoir was, in part, to tell the love story of that lesbian couple on the bench, who met in 1965 and then embarked on a life-long journey together.

“Audacity of a Kiss” is very much a love story, but it is also a tale of a woman who was not by nature an activist as she found her way in the world of political and social change of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Cohen’s memoir is about how few choices there were for women like her when she was coming of age as a young lesbian in the ‘50s.

Another aspect of Cohen’s legacy is her co-founding of the Sahara club — what has been called “the best lesbian bar ever.” Sahara was the first lesbian bar to be women-owned and operated in an era when, as Stonewall epitomized, the police and the Mafia worked hand-in-glove to maintain control over patrons of gay and lesbian bars and clubs. As historians like Lillian Faderman, Jonathan Katz and Martin Duberman have detailed, these bars were routinely raided and patrons were often arrested and then blackmailed later.

Cohen writes that she was born in 1947 and grew up in the 1950s — the ‘Mad Men’ era when men worked and women stayed at home. It was a strictly gendered time and, Cohen explains, “It was taboo to be gay.”

When she went away to Buffalo to a teacher’s college in 1965, Cohen found herself on the cusp of social change. By 1967 college students everywhere were taking political stands. Women went to teaching colleges because other avenues were not encouraged. She says her own parents didn’t encourage her to step outside the limited roles for women in the 1950s and ’60s.

But even when she went off to college, she could already feel gender oppression threatening to subsume her and her desires. Art saved her. Cohen went to Italy to study for a year and came back with a plan to be an art history major, not a teacher. She got her master’s degree and landed at the prestigious Artforum magazine, founded a few years earlier in 1962.

This led to Cohen co-founding Sahara. She had met people with money and position and she believed she could create her own change. Cohen writes that she had a plan to open a nightclub. Sahara was the first club created and owned by women for women in 1976 in New York City.

In her memoir, Cohen writes, “Our club would be an oasis in the desert of conformity. It would be a place in the world where women could feel self-respected and safe.”

The book explores just how true that was. Photos of flyers from events held at Sahara are full of luminaries of the time, including feminist icon Gloria Steinem and entertainers like Nona Hendryx, comedians Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin and singer Pat Benatar. Jane Fonda and then-husband and anti-war activist Tom Hayden hosted a fundraiser for early lesbian politician Elaine Noble. Noble was the first openly lesbian or gay candidate elected to a state legislature. 

Cohen writes about the importance of memorializing Sahara so that it would not be lost to the annals of history. Cohen and her partners in the venture, Michelle Florea, Barbara Russo, and Linda Goldfarb, had indeed created a groundbreaking women’s club.

Cohen felt that the women of Sahara were being made “invisible” and “added to the pile of absentee women’s history.”

Given the work she, her partners in the venture, and the women who came to Sahara all participated in, Cohen says her motivation in her memoir was “to record for history’s sake what I and others thought was an important contribution to women and LGBTQ history. I realized that if I didn’t write the story, no one else would.” 

The importance of lesbian bars “in terms of community” is an issue Cohen explores in her memoir. “Lesbians need that space for just them. The need for it is really strong.” 

Cohen writes about the interconnection between the bars and lesbian desire — that women need a safe space in which to be openly desirous of other women (the way gay men are in gay male clubs). Cruising is an elemental part of the lesbian journey and lesbian clubs and bars were the place for that. 

Cohen has been involved with the Lesbian Bar Project, which was founded in 2020. The Lesbian Bar Project is a campaign created by Erica Rose and Elina Street to “celebrate, support, and preserve the remaining lesbian bars in the U.S.”

Throughout these many stories of Cohen’s life is the thread that runs through it all: Her love affair with and marriage to Beth Suskin. The two met in 1965, but did not become a couple until some years later. They’ve been together nearly 45 years, and when Cohen writes about Suskin, it is with deep affection and respect.

Audacity of a Kiss is a story of lesbian lives led out of the view of headlines and protests — the lives most lesbians of Cohen’s age and era led. It is a funny, poignant and compelling story of one lesbian’s journey and how she touched so many others. Replete with fabulous photos from Sahara and Cohen’s life. 

Audacity of a Kiss is available everywhere, but always patronize your local independent bookstores like Giovanni’s Room and Big Blue Marble when possible.

An hour-long, in-depth interview with Leslie Cohen about Sahara and lesbian bars is available here. Visit the Lesbian Bar Project here.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.