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an interview with helen zia

"People look at the homophobes in the women's movement and say

the whole movement is anti-lesbian. I don't think that is the case.

The women's movement is not this monolithic thing, but there is a

lot of uneveness as far as consciousness goes
." — (1992)

By Sidney Brinkley

Helen ZiaFor the past three years Helen Zia, a second generation Chinese American, has been the Executive Editor of Ms. magazine where she played a key role in the reorientation of Ms. as the leading feminst publication in the country.

An award-winning journalist, she has been recognized for her investigative reporting and magazine editing. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Detroit Free Press, among other publications.

Zia, now 40, said she first became aware of her lesbian identity when she was 18 and stumbled across the book "Our Bodies, Our Selves" written by the Boston Women's Health Group Collective.

"I never thought of myself as straight but for a long time I just didn't know what I was," she said. "I grew up in a very traditional Chinese family and my mother doesn't even know the word 'lesbian.' The first time I had ever seen the word was when I read that book in 1970 or 1971. Lesbians were totally invisible to me though I knew I had attractions to women. But as soon as I read the chapter on lesbianism, I knew."

But though she knew she was a lesbian it would take almost twenty years before she could bring herself to acknowledge that fact publicly. "The closet was a place I was very familiar with," she said. It was her desire to leave that closet that would change her life.

At the time she worked for a large publishing company where she was editor-in-chief for a couple of trade magazines serving the conventions and travel industries. It was there that she met her first lover.

However, because the working environment was "openly sexist, openly racist and openly homophobic," what should have been a happy period in her life was just the opposite.

"We were terrified that we would lose our jobs," she said as she delivered the Keynote address at the Workplace Issues Conference. "We lived together but we had to go to work separately. We would leave separately from the office and in the three years that we worked together there, we never took a vacation together."

Zia said she and her partner wouldn't even come out to other employees they knew to be lesbians or gay males because, "we were so terrified we didn't trust anyone."
When the stress of managing a relationship in the closet became unbearable Zia began looking for a new position, a position where she could "be out and liberated and incorporate all the aspects my life."

That position turned out to be Executive Editor at Ms. "When I went there it was a time of new openess for me," she said.

But she surprised many in the audience when she spoke of the incidents of homophobia she had experienced at the magazine. However, fearing that she may have given the wrong impression about the magazine's working environment, she sought to put her earlier remarks in proper perspective.

"I don't think of Ms. as a homophobic environment and it wouldn't be right to say that it is," she said as we sat on a patio at Stanford University, site of the conference.

"In the three years I've been there, those were the only examples I could think of and when those issues come up we work through them. But the reason I gave those examples was to show that Ms. is not perfect and even where women want to struggle not everyone is enlightened on every aspect of equality for us."

However, Zia says, in general, though feminists pay "lip service" to lesbian issues, lesbians are still not accepted by many women in the feminist movement.

"There has been and still is a part of the feminist community that is heterosexist and homophobic," she said. "The latest example of that was when (National Organization of Women president) Patricia Ireland disclosed she had a female lover. She got a lot of flak from women within NOW and from other women who consider themselves to be feminists."

But Zia feels that is not representative of the movement as a whole.

"People look at the homophobes in the women's movement and say the whole movement is anti-lesbian. I don't think that is the case. The women's movement is not this monolithic thing but there is a lot of uneveness as far as consciousness goes. While a feminist can really be aware of sexism that does not mean she's going to anti-heterosexist."

Her response to a question about Camile Paglia, though not a feminist, but a woman who has done a considerable amount of lesbian bashing in her book "Sexual Personae," was brief and blunt.

"I think Camile Paglia is a media creation of the white male heterosexist backlash," she said. "She says all the stuff they want to hear. She is a fool and thats all the time I want to spend talking about her."

There are a number of women in the feminist movement that Zia says she admirers, but she reserves the most praise for Gloria Steinem, one of the founders of Ms. magazine.

"I feel tremendous respect for Gloria Steinem and I like her personally. She's a very warm, inclusive and thoughtful leader, and has consistently maintained that without being jaded. What happens to a lot of activists is they go crazy on one level because they are under so much pressure and attack by society. In spite of that, she has been able to maintain her consistent outlook.

I know I'm going to sound like Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm here but I admire all people who are puting themselves out there on the front lines. I admire a lot of the leaders because I know what pressures they face but there are the 'little people' who are forgotten but are fighting the real battles everyday in their communities and that's where change is really going to take place."

In addition to speaking out on gay issues, Helen Zia is a leader in the Asian anti-violence movement. She is one of the founders of the American Citizens for Justice, the first organization in the U.S. to counter anti-Asian violence. Her work on a landmark Asian American civil rights case is documented in the Academy Award nominated film, "Who Killed Vincent Chin?"

"There has been a tremendous rise in violence against Asain Americans and a lot of it comes from this 'model minority' stereotype. It adds to the tremendous resentment against Asians. Within the Asian community we talk about the model minority myth and a lot of people say 'what's wrong with that? Isn't that like having a good stereotype?' I think all stereotypes are harmful but this one has been a very divisive and killing stereotype."

Zia is currently working on her final issues of Ms. She will be leaving the magazine at the end of the month to move to San Francisco. The reason: Love. "I wanted to pursue a long term, committed relationship and my lover lives in San Francisco," she said. But the other reason is professional. After three years of editing Ms. she says she wants to do more actual writing.

"As an editor you end up doing a lot of stuff other than writing," she said. "I feel a little torn about it but I want to do more focused writing. I will continue to be listed on the Ms. masthead as contributing editor and will do articles from time to time. "

While Zia says her new position will be a "corporate type job" she is taking her politics with her and has already spoken with her new employers about her activism.

"I asked them how are they going to feel about seeing my name in a newspaper talking about lesbian issues, or talking about racist violence, and they said it would be no problem. Now, how's that going to work out? Well, we will see. But, If I feel it is not a place where I can be a whole person then I'm not going to stay because I'm not going to stop what I'm doing. This is me. This is who I am."