KARLA JAY, (nee Karla Jayne Berlin) was born on this date in Brooklyn, New York, is a distinguished professor emerita at Pace University, where she taught English and directed the women’s and gender studies program between 1974 and 2009. A pioneer in the field of lesbian and gay studies, she is widely published.
While she shared many of the goals of the radical left-wing of the late 1960s, Jay was at odds with the male-supremacist behavior of many of the movement’s leaders. In 1969, she became a member of Redstockings. Jay, who had been aware of being a lesbian since high school, came out to her consciousness-raising group in Redstockings. At around the same time she began using the name Karla Jay to reflect her feminist principles.
When activists founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, Jay, out lesbian, became an early member and an active participant. She balanced attendance at GLF meetings with graduate school at New York University, where she majored in comparative literature. She was one of the few women actively involved in the early gay rights movement on both coasts.
Jay, along with Lee Mason and other LGBT+ artists and activists helped create the Gay-In III festival in Griffith Park, Los Angeles in September 1970. This festival was intended to be, in the words of Karla Jay herself, one of “these queer ‘love fests’… and [they] included kissing booths, face painting, marijuana, vodka-spiked oranges, guerilla theatre, fake marriages, voter registration and advice regarding arrests.” In reality, the festival was poorly attended but continued the precedent of such festivals, such as the ubiquitous gay pride parades. Jay reflects on the intentions behind the gay-in as an essential part of more serious aspects of the gay rights movement: “If we dared to hold hands and party in public, we knew unimaginable rights might follow. And they did.”
Jay was a member of Lavender Menace, a group that formed to protest the exclusion of lesbians from mainstream Women’s Liberation. She was involved in the planning and execution of the “Lavender Menace Zap” at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in May 1970. This zap is considered a turning-point in the history of second-wave feminism.
Also in 1970, the “Wall Street Ogle-In” took place. Led by Jay, women marched on Wall Street with signs addressing street harassment. As a role reversal, the women catcalled the men they passed in hopes of raising awareness of the unpleasant nature of the street harassment women experience daily.
Working with Allen Young Jay edited Out of the Closets (1972), a pioneering anthology that gave voice to the Radicalesbians, Martha Shelley, and writers such as Rita Mae Brown. It was during the 1970s that Jay first heard about the writers Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien, lesbian members of the American expatriate community in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Their lives and works became the subject of Jay’s doctoral dissertation, published by Indiana University Press as The Amazon and the Page (1988).
Jay contributed the essay “Confessions of a Worrywart: Ruminations on a Lesbian Feminist Overview” to the anthology Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium (2003), edited by Robin Morgan.
At the presentation of Pace University’s 10th Annual Dyson Distinguished Achievement Awards in April 2006, Jay was honored with the Distinguished Faculty Award. She received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle in 2006.
Jay is featured in the feminist history film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.
Her papers are held in the Archives & Manuscripts Division of the New York Public Library.