WSW: A Group That Made a Difference for Lesbians in Kalamazoo

Sep 25, 2017

From left to right, Michelle Johnson, River Artz-Iffland and Margaret DeRitter.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Lavender Morning is holding a reunion Sept. 30. At a time when few LGBT people were out, the group brought lesbians in Kalamazoo together for reasons of self-defense but also for support and community. Lavender Morning’s 20-year run – from 1979 to the turn of the 21st century – spanned a pivotal time for gay rights in the US.

We spoke with two members, co-counder River Artz-Iffland and Margaret DeRitter, as well as reunion co-organizer and historian Michelle Johnson about the group’s place in Kalamazoo’s history and the difference it made for its members.

While Kalamazoo had feminist organizations in the 1970s, “at that time most lesbians weren’t out enough to make a lesbian group,” Artz-Iffland says. “So, Lavender Morning was the first. Most of us were young. We didn’t feel like we had much to lose yet.”

The members also wanted to protect each other, at a time when Artz-Iffland says they could not count on the police. One precipitating moment happened when, Artz-Iffland says, two women were raped and beaten in their home in Kalamazoo because they were lesbians.

“It brought together 45 women who were very upset by what happened,” says Michelle Johnson, who adds that the group looked for a “variety of ways to try to address sexual assault in Kalamazoo,” drawing on their own political activism.

Eventually, members say, the push for LGBT rights and recognition in the U.S. yielded big results.

“I just remember one day just thinking to myself, wow, most everyone I know is out now and suddenly it’s become the minority position to be closeted,” says Margaret DeRitter.

“It was a huge change and I think that’s why we are where we are today, that we have marriage rights, because every individual making that decision to say, ‘this is who I am and I’m not going to hide it’ changed the society.”

OutFront Kalamazoo’s Lavender Morning Reunion will take place September 30 at People’s Church in Kalamazoo. Members will record oral histories, watch performances and hold a dance party.