October 9, 2016: In 1965, Washington University graduate student Ethel Sawyer completed work on an essay titled “A Study of a Public Lesbian Community.”
Based on fieldwork that she conducted in St. Louis, Sawyer’s essay is the earliest known sociological study of a Black lesbian community anywhere in the United States.
Sawyer was born in Mississippi and graduated from Tougaloo College, where she became involved in civil rights activism. In 1961, she and other members of the "Tougaloo Nine" were jailed after holding a "read-in” at a segregated public library in Jackson, Mississippi. Sawyer came to St. Louis to pursue graduate study in the cutting-edge sociology department at Washington University.
Although heterosexually identified herself, Sawyer chose to focus on homosexuality. At this time this was still a taboo topic for social science research.
After meeting her initial contact outside of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, Sawyer befriended a group of African-American lesbians who lived in North St. Louis. Sawyer spent time with them at a bar they frequented and she interviewed them about their lives, identities, and relationships.
Sawyer’s serious and sympathetic study broke new ground in sociology, and today it serves as an invaluable window on the Black lesbian experience in 1960s St. Louis.
Image source: elsiechenier.com