Weho resident Ivy Bottini may be best known as an LGBT activist, but she’s also an accomplished artist. And Friday night, her two great passions will come together as participants in the annual Dyke March wear T-shirts with designs made by Bottini.
The T-shirts read “I AM” against a rainbow-colored background. For Bottini, it will be a pinnacle to witness hundreds of women marching along Santa Monica Boulevard wearing her creations.
“I can’t wait to see,” said the 84-year-old Bottini. “This is going to be very exciting for me. Years ago, I used to do political-statement T-shirts, but I’ve never done a T-shirt as overt as this.”
Bottini created the “I AM” painting in December when she was feeling down. “I painted it as a way to fight back,” she said. “It’s ‘I am’ as in ‘I exist.’ ” She then offered the art for the official Dyke March T-shirt.
“It has such a strong gay pride message, we were glad to use it,” said Daphne Dennis, the City Hall staff liaison to the Lesbian Visibility Committee, which sponsors the Dyke March. “Ivy is a fabulous artist. The fact she’s also been a ferocious advocate for women’s rights and lesbians' rights just made using her art even more appropriate."
In the 40 years since Bottini moved to Los Angeles, she has organized hundreds of gay rights marches and protests, as well as a few “die-ins.” The Craftsman house she owned in Silver Lake served as headquarters for many an organizing/brainstorming session.
Bottini was one of the grass-roots leaders who helped defeat the Briggs Initiative, the 1978 ballot measure that would have banned lesbians and gays from working in public schools in California. Her organizing also helped defeat Lyndon LaRouche’s 1986 ballot initiative that some said would have quarantined people with AIDS.
She founded AIDS Network LA, a clearinghouse for early disease information, and later helped co-found AIDS Project LA. She also started the Los Angeles Lesbian/Gay Police Advisory Board. And in 1993, she helped launch Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing, which built Triangle Square, the affordable housing complex for elder gays and lesbians in Hollywood.
Longtime friend Sue Sexton, who rented a room in Bottini’s Silver Lake house for several years, found herself becoming a LGBT activist thanks to Bottini’s influences.
“Ivy has been such an inspiration, a role model, a mentor to so many women in the community,” said Sexton, who now serves on the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board with Bottini. “She’s paved the way for so many of us from her early days in the women’s movement.”
Born a fighter
Growing up a tomboy in Malverne on Long Island, NY, Bottini’s father taught her how to box, telling her, “You’re a girl and you’re going to have to defend yourself.” Little did she know how much fighting she would be doing in her life.
Even though she was attracted to women, she got married and had two children, Laura and Lisa. “Raising a family is what women were expected to do in those days,” she said. However, she skipped the housewife part of society’s edict for women. She had a full-time job as an art director for Newsday, where she worked from 1955-1971.
In 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and became its first New York chapter president. “It was the first organization that cared about women,” she said. “It focused on women and their issues—not kids, not guys, but women.”
When New York NOW held a news conference in 1968, Bottini inadvertently came out on TV while answering a question. “I said, ‘As a lesbian, I think . . .,’ ” she recounts. “I didn’t even realize I’d said it at first. But the rest of the room did.”
Once publicly out, she pushed to include lesbian rights in the women’s movement, an idea that was not well received. She soon found herself voted out of office, part of a larger effort to expunge lesbians from NOW. “They wanted to keep lesbianism out of feminism,” said Bottini, who also designed the logo that NOW still uses today. “And there were a lot of closeted lesbians in NOW.”
Story on film
Glenne McElhinney included Bottini’s NOW story in her acclaimed film, On These Shoulders We Stand, which will screen at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center’s Renberg Theatre on June 30. The documentary tells the story of a dozen area gays and lesbians and the battles they had to fight from the 1940s to the '70s.
The filmmaker was in awe of Bottini when she first met her. “She is legendary,” McElhinney said. “When I started out as an activist, everyone knew who Ivy was and what she was doing.”
McElhinney recalls having dinner at with Bottini a few years ago. When they arrived, several people applauded Bottini. Then, while Bottini was in the restroom, a man came over and told her about the forums Bottini held for gay men in 1982 when no one knew what was causing AIDS or how it was spread. Bottini told the men in the audience whatever they were doing sexually, they needed to stop because it was killing them.
“He said to me, ‘Ivy Bottini saved my life,’ ” McElhinney said. “A few weeks later, we were again at dinner and once again, while she was in the restroom, another man came up and told me almost the exact same story, saying, ‘Ivy Bottini saved my life. All my friends are dead and I’m still alive, because I listened to what she was saying.’ ”
Grass-roots activism sustained the gay rights movement in the '70s, '80s and '90s, and that's what's desperately missing from today’s LGBT movement, Bottini says.
“We used to take to the streets. Now we take out our checkbooks,” she said, frustrated. “We have become a movement of check writers. The large gay organizations have done a lot, but they’ve killed the grass roots.”
On the night that Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, was passed, she recalls watching the protest marches on TV with great joy, saying to herself, “They’re still out there. Now if we can only find a way to keep them active.”
Still doing art
These days, Bottini's slowed down some, due in large part to macular degeneration. She still has peripheral vision, but she has little center vision. Yet, even with failing eyesight, she still manages to paint daily.
“I don’t know how I do it. I can picture in my mind what I want to paint. I know where the lines should be and what the shapes should be,” said Bottini, who studied graphic design and illustration at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. “I don’t watch my hands while I paint, I look at the canvas and somehow it gets done.”
Dottie Wine, her girlfriend since 1975, admires her determination. “The fact she paints amazing work with her visual challenges just never ceases to astound me,” said Wine, who serves as the executive director of Torrance’s LGBT South Bay Center. “She is such a great role model for ‘keeping on keeping on’ despite whatever challenges life delivers.”
Although oil paints were her favorites, in recent years Bottini has switched to acrylics. “I’m going to be 85 in August," Bottini said. "I’ve still got a lot of paintings in me, and acrylics dry faster.”
To view more of Bottini’s art, all of which is available for purchase, visit her website.