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  • Nic F. Anderson

Obituary: Leslie Cohen, NYC Lesbian Icon, Author, Artist and Activist, Dies

Lesbian icon, author and NYC LGBTQ+ fixture, Leslie Cohen, has died.

Cohen’s death comes in the wake of her newest book The Audacity of a Kiss: Love, Art and Liberation is about her experience being in the art scene, living through the Gay Rights Movement and her partnership with Sahara, one of the first woman-owned lesbian bars in New York City.

She grew up in Queens, New York City. In an interview with Buffalo State College, she said she wanted to get far away from her “parents’ vitriolic relationship” and to seek out freedom. On “Freshman Move in Day” in 1965, Cohen and Beth met but didn’t become a couple until many years later.

After graduating from Buffalo State College, she “decided to immerse herself in artistic chaos amid the societal chaos” and registered at Queens College in New York City for the master’s program in art history.

Cohen graduated and started working her dream job at Artforum magazine, later becoming the curator of the New York Culture Center where she met Salvador Dali, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and others.

Around 1976, Cohen was grieving the heartbreak from her first romantic relationship with a woman. “I was free—liberated in a way that I had never experienced before… I no longer felt shame about being a lesbian. Accepting my sexuality helped unleash me from society’s constraints of gender and role playing and both defined me and emboldened me” she said in the Buffalo State College interview.

Her freedom was her salvation. She began to patron gay bars, which at the time were illegal and being operated by the mafia.

In a 2021 interview with Bay Area Reporter on her latest book, she said: “My partners, Michelle, Linda and Barbara and I had created a groundbreaking women's club and our accomplishments and the club's significance were being disregarded, never mentioned in the 30 plus years since in any writings on the history of feminism, gay rights or nightclubs, straight, gay or otherwise, of that freewheeling era. We were just becoming more invisible women added to the pile of absentee women's history. I did not take well to being ignored, not in light of my feminist understanding of the historical treatment of women or lack thereof. My motivation, pure and simple, was to record for history's sake what I and others thought was an important contribution to women and LGBTQ+ history. I realized that if I didn't write the story no one else would.”

Sahara welcomed established and up-and-coming entertainers, politicians and everyday people. Some of these people include Patti Smith and Pat Benatar, to name a few.

Beth and Cohen reunited in 1976. Cohen received a phone call from a friend, Dottie Coyne, who informed her that she just hired Beth and she was no longer married. The two hit it off, once again, and the rest was history.

Sculptor George Segal celebrated Cohen and her wife, Beth, through statues as part of his Gay Liberation sculture series in Christopher Park, which rests across Stonewall Inn.

One of Cohen’s friends, Charlotte Robinson, wrote her obituary on the Outtake Blog. “We have lost a true lesbian pioneer in the passing of Leslie Cohen.”

"It’s important to stay visible and it’s important to be out there. Write your books, tell your stories, make sure that we are part of history and people can refer to it, especially young people. It is so important for young people to see that there are many gays and lesbians who fought for their rights and have found joy and happiness," Leslie Cohen wrote on her online portfolio.

For the last 30 years, Cohen called Florida home.

Read: The Meaning Of: Leslie Cohen, ’69, Beth Suskin, and the Monument to a Movement by Brian Kantz

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