ABOVE: Ivy Bottini, photo by Yvette Sotelo.
WEST HOLLYWOOD | Kick ass. If Ivy Bottini was pissed off at an injustice, you heard about it. The whole room heard about it. And by the end of her righteous rant, whether at a Stonewall Democratic Club meeting or before the West Hollywood City Council, even nonchalant shruggers applauded her passion.
Time finally did what Bottini’s critics could not: her voice was silenced on Thursday, Feb. 25 at her daughter Lisa’s home in Florida. Ivy Bottini was 94.
Unlike other lesbian feminists of her generation, Bottini did not strike withering fear in the pants of men in power. Perhaps it was because she exuded a subliminal sense of caring and flashes of humor during even the fiercest of diatribes. She hated the old tropes that lesbians hated men and had no sense of humor — traits that made her accessible to those in need from 1950s and 1960s housewives newly aware of the traditional shackles of sexism to the desperate dying gay men deemed untouchable by government, society and often even family in the early days of AIDS.
Bottini’s power emanated from her authenticity. Discrimination burned Bottini to the core. She felt the pain. But she didn’t just jawbone about it; she translated the searing anger and pain from her own awakening into activism to alleviate the pain of others, becoming a freedom crusader for women, for LGBTQ people — for anyone suffering from oppression and internalized oppression sickness.
“Thousands of deaths and no one cares! No one cares – except us,” an emotional Bottini told Andy Sacher of the Lavender Effect about the early days of AIDS. “That was inhuman what was really happening to gay men. It was inhuman how they were demonized.”
Throughout her life, each heightened moment fraught with systemic classism, sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia exploded into a personal epiphany, emerging in her artist’s conscious as empathy for others, especially in recent years, over the profound and ubiquitous discrimination experienced by transgender youth.
In a 2017 interview, Los Angles Blade publisher Troy Masters asked Bottini: “If your life were a book, what would the title be?”
“Give ‘em Hell,” Bottini replied. In fact, the book about her life, as told to Judith V. Branzburg, Ph.D., has a more expansive title: “The Liberation of Ivy Bottini: A Memoir of Love and Activism.” It opens with a March 17, 2016 gathering at the West Hollywood Public Library where Bottini was being honored by Hollywood NOW and California NOW under the theme “The Unsinkable Feminist Spirit of Ivy Bottini” during a week of being honored for her life’s work. “I guess that since I was eighty-nine years old, people figured if they were inclined to honor me at all, they had better do it before I croaked,” she wrote.
Bottini’s history with the National Organization for Women was itself historic, helping found and led the first chapter of NOW in New York in 1968. The following year, she designed the national NOW logo at the request of then-NOW President Aileen Hernandez.
“We were challenging things that women had lived with for years, centuries, and never questioned. And here we were questioning some of the most basic beliefs about women,” Bottini said in a 2015 interview broadcast by MSNBC. “One of the things I thought about when I joined NOW was ‘maybe I’ll meet a real lesbian’ because I had no clue who was a lesbian. I thought I was the only one. And I thought the Women’s Movement can’t be for just straight women. It’s got to include lesbians. They’re women! Women are women — it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is.”
It was a long hard road to that revelation. Bottini was born on August 15,1926 to Long Island cab driver and former boxer Archie Gaffney and his “unhappy” housewife, Ivy. An only child, Bottini was an athletic tomboy with a penchant for art. Life was good until her father died in a car crash in 1944. Bottini was 18 and suddenly money was short. In an extremely lucky stroke for young women at the time, she got a full scholarship to the Pratt Institute of Art and Design to study advertising, graphic design and illustration.
After graduation, she worked in New York City art and advertising agencies, and following the inevitable plan for all women of the era, in 1952, she married the young man across the street, Eddie Bottini, had two daughters, Laura and Lisa, and silently struggled with her attraction to women.
“After falling in love with all my gym teachers—that was a clue—and with all other teachers in grammar school and then junior high and high [school], I really was struggling growing up with how I felt about girls and women,” Bottini told the Los Angeles Blade in 2019. “I was still falling in love with women quietly, silently.”
In 1955, Bottini got a job as an art director and illustrator at the Long Island newspaper Newsday. Eleven years later, in 1966, Newsday reporter Dolores Alexander told Bottini about her an interview with Betty Friedan, whose book “The Feminine Mystique” “was all the rage.” Dolores took Bottini to a women’s meeting in New York City “and soon I was helping to found the first chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW)” with Dolores. Bottini also joined national NOW where she served on the board for three years.
Meanwhile, Bottini finally mustered up enough courage to call an old closeted lesbian school friend to take her to a gay bar. Eventually, she asked a woman to dance. “That changed my life that evening. I just felt when I walked in there by myself, I felt like I had walked into my home, where I was supposed to be. So, over the next handful of years, I struggled,” she told the LA Blade.
By September 1968, “I just had had it,” living a secret double life. Ivy Bottini had a breakdown — that led to a breakthrough. “I was on the Long Island Railroad in a snowstorm coming back from a New York NOW meeting and when we got to Garden City, I just got off the train,” Bottini said. It was cold. Struggling, she found a payphone, called her psychiatrist, and through tears, explained her circumstances. “I can’t go home anymore. And he said, ‘sorry,’ and hung up. And so I yelled out—it was late at night—I yelled out ‘fuck you!’ I was so angry at him.” She called a friend in Levittown who took her in. She told her husband she couldn’t come home as long as he was there.
Eventually he left but they didn’t actually divorce until 1972. Bottini secured a condo on the Upper Westside. Her daughter Laura moved in with her while Lisa moved in with her dad. “My life became totally different in one fell swoop.” Bottini came out inadvertently in 1968. She was answering a question at a NOW/NY press conference when, without realizing it, she referred to herself as a lesbian. “I accepted that I was a lesbian and as I accepted this, my life changed considerably.”
That awareness led to action and intense interest from other NOW chapters in her consciousness raising groups. In 1969, Bottini put together a panel called “Is Lesbianism a Feminist Issue?” The place was packed. “Oh my god. I think I’ve hit sort of a nerve,” she said later.
Bottini organized the infamous Aug. 10, 1970 NOW/NY three-hour takeover of the Statue of Liberty, unfurling a banner “Women of the World Unite!” from the base. She also organized the Aug. 26, 1970 Women’s Strike for Peace and Equality commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.
That spectacular women’s march down Fifth Avenue drew an estimated 50,000 people. But it also signaled ugly trouble ahead. When Bottini handed out lavender armbands to show solidarity with the oppression of lesbians, feminist leaders such as Gloria Steinem accepted them but Betty Friedan, the “mother” of the feminist movement, threw the armband on the ground and twisted it with her heel.
“My point was, ‘How can you have a women’s movement and leave a huge amount of women out?’” Bottini later told the Los Angeles Times. “But Friedan just never got that. She doesn’t understand that lesbianism is the bottom line of the women’s movement. If you can’t get past the fear of being thought of as a lesbian, whether you are or not, then you never are really free….Sexual politics is civil rights.”
Friedan called Bottini a “lavender menace” and plotted a “purge” of lesbians, maneuvering to get Bottini voted out of NOW leadership. The LA Times notes that in a subsequent 1973 Friedan essay in New York Times Magazine “smacked of downright paranoia; Friedan even claimed a woman was sent to seduce her and then blackmail her into silence while unnamed lesbians took over NOW.” Bottini left NOW and left New York for Los Angeles in 1971.
She shifted her focus to the growing Gay Liberation movement and turned her pain into insightful comedy and acting, studying at the famous Lee Strasberg Institute in Hollywood (before moving to West Hollywood in 1978). That yielded a lesbian feminist one-woman show called “The Many Faces of Woman” which she took on tour around the country for several years – two decades before Eve Ensler’s groundbreaking play The Vagina Monologues in 1994.
“It showed the craziness that women face and society puts on them,” Bottini says in the MSNBC video. “I talked about things that many women are not supposed to talk about like menstruation and birth control and contraception, and the gynecologist visit and lesbian dates. I was breaking ground that no other comedian in this country was doing. I swear to you it’s true: nobody was doing what I was doing. And it was consciousness raising.”
While the 1970s generally associated with disco and sexual freedom, the era was also a hothouse for politics with civil rights turning into liberation movements, including Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation after the Stonewall Rebellion. And Bottini was in the thick of it.
In 1976, America’s Bicentennial, she was hired as the Women’s Program Director at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, which led to her long association with Center co-founder Morris Kight. In 1975, Kight co-founded the Stonewall Democratic Club, with Bottini joining shortly thereafter. Politicos were eying a significant change in the cultural landscape as evangelical Christian conservatives started speaking out against gay rights.
Then, in 1977, came the 10.0 earthquake. A new religious group called the Moral Majority, led by a publicity seeking Rev. Jerry Falwell and orange juice shill Anita Bryant, used their “Save the Children” crusade to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. The Christian Right, which had come to the fore through efforts to Stop the ERA [the Equal Rights Amendment] and overturn Roe v Wade which gave reproductive rights to women, was reborn as a loud and crass anti-LGBTQ grassroots political movement.
MECLA (Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles) was founded in 1977 as the nation’s first gay political action committee to press legislators on gay and lesbian rights, just as the “Save the Children” crusade was exported to California. Bottini and Kight organized the Coalition for Human Rights to fight the ugly anti-gay ballot initiative, championed by State Senator John Briggs whose anti-gay attempts had failed in the legislature. Proposition 6 proposed banning gays, lesbians and their supporters from employment in public schools.
The No on Proposition 6 campaign was formed, chaired by MECLA co-chair Diane Abbitt in the South and San Francisco Supervisor candidate Harvey Milk in the North. They hired the consulting firm of David Mixner and Peter Scott as campaign managers — and the managers hired Bottini to serve as the Southern California Deputy Director. Jeanne Córdova a second-wave feminist who also came out in 1968, was media director. Prop 6/Briggs Initiative was overwhelmingly defeated in November 1978, with help from Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had been convinced to oppose the measure.
After the Briggs Initiative victory, newly re-elected Gov. Jerry Brown made a number of historic gay appointments: Stephen Lachs to the LA Superior Court in 1979; Rand Schrader to the LA Municipal Court in 1980; and in 1981, Mary Morgan to the San Francisco Municipal Court and Ivy Bottini, 55, to the California Commission on Aging, the first “out” lesbian or gay person to be appointed to a California board or commission.
Bottini met successful real estate broker and 12 Step fixture Gail Wilson during the fight against the Briggs Initiative. Wilson and her gay partner held a conference during which they told the audience not to come out, just do your jobs. “I thought I was going to go through the roof because that’s exactly why we were being attacked — because they never thought we’d fight back,” Bottini told the LA Blade. “So, I was at odds with Gail. I got up and spoke and I didn’t mince any words. And I thought, ‘well, she’s gonna hate me for the rest of her life.’”
Instead, Wilson changed Bottini’s life. “She was a wonderful, magnanimous human being. And she said to me a month or so later, ‘what are you gonna do [with your life]’? I said, ‘well I don’t know. I guess I’ll go back to the Center.’ She said, ‘No, no, don’t do that. Go get your real estate license and come work with me in my real estate office. I said, ‘okay.’ I mean, you show me a door that’s open and I’m gonna walk through it, ya know?” Bottini became one of Wilson’s top sales brokers.
Meanwhile, the Moral Majority spawned other rightwing conservatives, who elected Reagan president in 1980. As a reward, Reagan gave the anti-gay haters administration posts and when a mysterious disease started killing gay men, they did nothing.
In 1982, Ken Schnorr, an old friend from Long Island, collapsed and died a week later. His mother called Bottini, freaked out about all the black and blue marks on his body, thinking the hospital hurt him.
“After Ken died, something said to me there is more to this than we see,” Bottini said. “So, for some reason, I just picked up the phone and called the CDC. I had never done that before. ‘Look, this just happened to my friend. Do you have any answers? The hesitancy at the other end of the line, the hemming and the hawing before they would say anything — I just knew it was bad.”
The CDC official explained the bruises as Kaposi sarcoma, usually found in elderly Jewish men. “And that was the explanation,” she said. “I got off and thought, ‘no, this doesn’t make sense because Ken was one of three first guys diagnosed with Kaposi in town, in West Hollywood, in L.A., and that started me on working to find out what the hell was going on. It was just horrible.”
Shortly after Schnorr’s death, Rep. Henry Waxman, aided by his gay deputy Tim Westmoreland, held the first congressional hearing on what was then called GRID — Gay Related Immune Deficiency – at the Gay Community Services Center on Highland Ave. “We all met in the lobby and under the stairs on the first floor,” Bottini said. “Waxman’s basic message was spread the word: nobody really knows how it’s passed.”
After a couple weeks with no action, Bottini decided to hold a town hall. She called Dr. Joel Weisman, Schnorr’s doctor, to help inform the community. “Nobody really had a clue. But I felt very early on that it was bodily fluids. That’s the only thing that made sense to me. Because if it was airborne women would be getting it, everybody would be getting it and that wasn’t happening,” Bottini said.
Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park was jam-packed. “It was all guys — and Dottie Wine (Bottini’s girlfriend) and I. And Joel talked about transmission and he believed it was bodily fluids, too. And I thought, ‘I’m not crazy.’”
The next year, in 1983, Bottini founded AIDS Network LA, the first AIDS organization in Los Angeles. It served as a clearing house for collecting and disseminating information. In 1984, Bottini helped co-found AIDS Project Los Angeles, now APLA Health.
Though the love remained, a three-year feud blew up between Bottini and Kight, who did not believe HIV/AIDS disease was transmitted by bodily fluids. Kight changed his mind just in time to reconcile and fight the 1986 Lyndon LaRouche Prop 64 AIDS quarantine initiative that would “put gay men behind chain linked fences.” Bottini was Southern co-chair for the statewide No on Prop 64 campaign; Córdova helmed media relations. The initiative went down to a stunning defeat and Bottini spent much of the rest of the 80s organizing marches, “die-ins” and protests to get funding and services for those impacted by the AIDS epidemic.
The work continued into the 1990s, interspersed with painting and Bottini receiving the Drama-Logue Award for “Best Performance” in her play, “Against the Rising Sea.” She also joined the City of West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board in 1999, serving as board co-chair for ten years. Her work there included bringing attention to domestic violence abuse in the LGBTQ community, helping focus attention on the crystal meth crisis, and supporting the annual Dyke March.
Bottini also conceived and spearheaded the first effort to provide affordable housing for gay and lesbian seniors, culminating in the founding of the nonprofit Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing in 2005. “I’d laid the groundwork by organizing the community and provided the leadership that resulted in obtaining a grant from the State to move forward with the housing project,” known as Triangle Square in Hollywood, Bottini said. And she kept at it, telling a rally in 2018 to “get off your asses” and vote!
Bottini grieved her beloved West Hollywood before health issues forced her to move to Florida. “What I think I am going to miss most is the camaraderie in the city and the access to the city council and that a very palpable vision could be fed into the city council and the city council would start to take it on and then come back to the community to make sure there’d be discussion,” Bottini said. “That doesn’t happen anymore but that’s what I will miss. I will miss walking down the street and knowing most everybody that I pass. Now I know hardly know one person.”
Asked how she’d like to be remembered, Bottini told the LA Blade: “I’d like to be remembered as someone who had a really good sense of humor and could find something funny or strange or out of the ordinary in just about everything I worked on. The early city was creatives. We’re not creative anymore — we’re not. We’re not creating anything.”
Bottini also appreciated being appreciated. At a packed book signing, “people came up to me and say things like ‘I’ve been watching what you do for 30 years.’ Or ‘you don’t remember me but 20 years ago…’ There were a lot of memories that came to me. I’m not saying I remembered everything they were talking about – the politics, the conscious raising, the comedy — but they did.” And always there were gay men who approached her and said, “we never met but you saved my life with that town hall.”
“I had no clue how I touched the people in the city. I can be kind of hard-nosed sometimes when I speak. Sometimes I’d come home and go, ‘oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’ But none of that hit me” after the book signing.
“It was like this huge family reunion,” Bottini said. “They were remembering how I had change their life. And that was the reason that I was doing things. I was trying to save their lives. I saw the danger that we were about to get hit with while we were walking through [life]. And it was happening and we didn’t even know it — people’s lives were just being torn apart with deaths and children being taken away from lesbian mothers and…It was too much. I saw a tapestry of hurt and that’s what I was fighting. It all adds up to being able to live a life of safety and not live a life of fear.”