Wednesday, October 28, 2015

On Our Backs’ Honey Lee Cottrell succumbs to cancer

by Chuck Colbert

Honey Lee Cottrell, a visionary photographer and filmmaker who pioneered lesbian erotica in the 1980s through her contributions to the women's sex magazine On Our Backs, died on Monday, September 21. She was 69. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Cottrell revolutionized the female nude, validated women’s right to pleasure, and opened possibilities for women to see themselves and their desires in new ways through her engagement in a variety of feminist, artistic, and sex education projects.

Cottrell studied at the National Sex Forum and was a member of San Francisco Sex Information in the 1970s. She co-authored “I Am My Lover,” a 1978 feminist book celebrating masturbation that she created with Joani Blank and Tee Corinne. She was an early member of the Gay & Lesbian History Project in San Francisco.

Cottrell was one of the “core four,” along with Debi Sundahl, Nan Kinney, and Susie Bright, who gave On Our Backs its style and success. When the magazine started in 1984, she 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.” Cottrell was a contributing photographer to the magazine for seven years.

She photographed her lovers and friends and documented queer and kink cultures for decades with her first camera, a 35 mm Nikkormat. She was exacting and precise in the photographs and collages she created, as well as in her dark room work. She studied with Ruth Bernhard, who invited Cottrell to be her printer. In addition to “I Am My Lover” and On Our Backs, her still photography has appeared in publications including The Blatant Image, Coming to Power, Sinister Wisdom, and Nothing But the Girl.

Honey Lee Cottrell (Photo courtesy of Kim Corsaro)
Born in Astoria, Ore., in 1946, the oldest of two children, she grew up in Michigan. After completing a year at Michigan State University in 1964-65, Cottrell worked at the Technicolor photo processing lab.

As she later discovered, a number of lesbians were working there, having discovered it was a fairly safe place for butch women to work. Cottrell was invited to visit one of these women, Harriet DeVito, who had moved to New York City, and then ended up driving across country with her to California in 1966. Along the way, she discovered what her feelings for women meant to her, and DeVito became her first lover.

Once Cottrell arrived in San Francisco, she made it her home and became deeply involved in the creative lesbian community of artists, photographers, and filmmakers in the Bay Area, as well as the progressive sex education activists. She opened her apartment on Bessie Street to friends and artists, helping find jobs and shelter for people in need.

To support her artistic work, Cottrell worked in two unions. As a member of the Marine Cooks and Stewards, she was able to fulfill her dream of travelling to the South Pacific where her father Duane Cottrell had served in WWII. She worked as a banquet waiter in the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union in the 1980s and ‘90s, retiring in 2012. A proud union member, she walked many a picket line protesting the mistreatment of workers, especially recent immigrant populations working as room cleaners at San Francisco hotels.

Cottrell loved the outdoors and studied herbal medicine, native plants, and botany. With this perspective, and perhaps with her photographer’s training to notice interesting small moments of daily life, she went through her illness and death with a combination of butch swagger and serenity, a confidence that everything would be all right. She continued to direct photo shoots and art installations.

In addition to her daughter Aretha Bright, her mother Patricia Cottrell, and her brother Michael Cottrell, she is survived by her life companions Melinda Gebbe, Amber Hollibaugh, and Susie Bright.

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