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October 16, 2015

Remembering Lesbian Filmmaker Honey Lee Cottrell

“I declare That later on, Even in an age unlike our own, Someone will remember who we are.” —Sappho You may not know her name. You may not know the impact she had on feminist pornography. You may not know who she was. But now you will. Honey Lee Cottrell, a pioneer in lesbian photography/erotica/porno, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 69 on September 21 in Santa Cruz, California. Cottrell was part of a fearless team of daring feminists who decided to change the image of women loving women in the world of lesbian erotica. The images she created through her photography showed strong women, butch women, feminine women, women who proudly proclaimed their lesbianism with no shame. She was the official photographer for the groundbreaking publication On Our Backs, published from 1984 to 1994, as well as co-author of I Am My Lover, a 1978 feminist book celebrating masturbation that she created with Joani Blank (the founder of the sex positive store Good Vibrations) and Tee Corinne, an accomplished lesbian artist who self-published The Cunt Coloring Book, which remains in print today. Cottrell acquired a filmmaking and photography degree from San Francisco State University in 1981 and quickly began to create films celebrating real lesbians having real lesbian sex, and that included butch women with femmes to reflect the true dynamic of many lesbian relationships. She was also an accomplished cinematographer, script writer, editor and film and photography historian. Susie Bright, the iconic sexual historian and a pioneering friend of Honey Lee Cottrell, shared the following: “In 1979, Honey Lee directed, produced and edited Sweet Dreams for the National Sex Forum, with star Pat Califia. It was about the nature of sexual fantasy and how one articulate person, Pat, describes how she masturbated and fantasized to orgasm. Includes kink and outlier fantasy material and reenacted fantasies with other actors.” (Pat herself became an outspoken lesbian writer, observer and activist who later transitioned into the man we now know as Patrick Califia.) Honey Lee acted with Tee Corinne in We are Ourselves, directed by Ann Hershey, which was very much in the tradition of ’70s hippie-style lesbian feminism—down to the tie-dyed curtains!—with an emphasis on oral sex and community joie de vivre. With Debi Sundahl, Nan Kinney and Susie Bright, Cottrell created On Our Backs, the first “magazine for the adventurous lesbian.” When the magazine started in 1984, Honey Lee proposed a “Bulldagger of the Month” centerfold for the first issue. She explained that the idea was “to stand this Playboy centerfold idea on its head from, I would say, a feminist perspective … what would I do if I was a centerfold and how can I reflect back to them our values?” Her idea was not to be “the regular kind of centerfold, but something that will make a difference, shake people up, show the other side of the mirror”—and of course she became the magazine’s first “Bulldagger of the Month.” Cottrell was a contributing photographer to On Our Backs for seven years. Honey Lee, with the rest of the pioneering lesbian founders of On Our Backs, ventured out into the pornography world to become a cinematographer from 1985 to the early ’90s for Fatale Video, which is regarded as the first lesbian-created erotic movie company. The beginnings of Fatale Video, which today is still producing lesbian-centric films, were gritty, tough, raw and real, with many of the features filmed by Honey Lee. Appealing to a spectrum of viewers—from women starting to acknowledge their attraction to women to men who wanted to see “real lesbians” having sex—Fatale Video and Honey Lee did not hesitate to gloss over the real sex these women were having in front of the camera. Susie Bright continued, “She was the cinematographer for the G-spot orgasm story in CLIPS, made by Fatale Video in the early 1990s. This was the first movie that anyone had ever made to display a woman’s ejaculation. Honey Lee did an incredible shoot with Fanny [Deborah Sundahl] to capture the whole thing and she edited it, too.” Susie’s memories of Honey Lee ventured into her adult cinema experience as well. “Honey Lee worked as cashier/front office manager for the Market Street Cinema for a couple years, which was an old-school porn theater during the mid-’80s, photographing the women and men who worked there and developing the How to Read A Dirty Movie presentation with me, a cinematographer’s view of adult film. She documented Kamikaze Hearts being shot there by Juliet Bayshore, which featured the unparalleled Sharon Mitchell in the starring role.” As a trained cinematographer, Honey Lee would take often take Susie to view 35mm porn films and break them down auteur style. She could spot every influence and behind-the-scenes moment and immediately knew who in the industry had been trained in the Signal Corps as opposed to film school, industry films, etc. Susie gives a lot of credit to Honey Lee in creating her Penthouse “Erotic Screen” column, as it was like going to grad school in movie history. She was the first one who spotted Orson Welles techniques in Gary Graver’s adult work and pointed it out.  Honey Lee’s experience often continued in front of the camera, too. She gave the “extra mustard” in Bound, the Wachowski brothers’ first mainstream crime thriller with heavy lesbian overtones. Honey Lee played the bulldagger extra in the bar scene and was the one the Wachowskis singled out when they asked her to “do more of that: give it the extra mustard!” Susie shared one of the scene’s biggest secrets: “We always laughed about that, because I told the Wachowskis that they wouldn’t be able to find bulldaggers in L.A. casting halls. I had to bring the real deal from S.F.” Ah yes. Honey Lee was definitely the real deal from San Francisco, leaving an indelible mark on the history of genuine, real, honest, lesbian-made porn. Go out and watch some short-nailed, short-haired hardcore butch/femme action and raise a glass in the memory of such a talented pioneer in the world of adult cinema.  Honey Lee Cottrell’s papers will be cared for by the Cornell University Library Human Sexuality Collection, which will also address any questions about Cottrell’s life and work. Click here to see a guide to the first part of her archives, and find her artist statement here. And on YouTube.com, there is a video shot in 2015 of Cottrell talking about the magazine and its beginnings. Kimberlayne Poubelle is a former contributor for On Our Backs.

 
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