Friday, June 14, 2024

The herstoric journey of Joan Nestle

A vital new collection of iconic essays by writer, activist, and community herstorian Joan Nestle, reminds us of her landmark contribution to lesbian culture.

Icon. Likely the most overused term in our current lexicon, yet there is no better word to describe Joan Nestle. The writer, activist, teacher, memoirist, Lambda award-winner, historian and co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, who turns 83 in May, is indeed an icon. And, as a lesbian, a life-long sexual and activist outlaw. Queer Forty sat down with Nestle for an in-depth interview with her from her home in Melbourne, Australia where she’s lived for the past 20 years. We talked to Nestle about her new book, A Sturdy Yes of a People: Selected Writings, her continuing activism and what she called the critical importance for lesbians and queer women of “maintaining passion and love in an era of fear.”

Having a new book out in the current political climate as an “83 year old femme lesbian” at a time when the GOP and other conservatives are banning books by LGBTQ people is a subversive act. Nestle gives plaudits to Julie Enszer, editor and publisher of Sinister Wisdom, which published Nestle’s new book in their Sapphic  Classics series. Nestle said, “Julie was so gracious. As were her interns. Julie actually selected the pieces for the book. She asked me to send her old pieces that I dug up. She actually created this book.”

The title, Nestle explains, is the last line of a 1993 essay titled, “A Letter to My Community: A Sturdy Yes of a People.” That title, Nestle says, “It comes from my working-class roots. I always say, I’m a low femme, I’m a peasant femme. I stand on sturdy legs. All those things—I wanted that sturdy sense of persistence in this collection.”

Queer Forty noted that Nestle’s essay was written 30 years ago, but that the same issues were in play today, again or still, almost as if no time had passed, no change had been created. She responded, “I am looking at what is happening now in America and I think what is happening is actually worse.”

Animated and passionate on this topic, Nestle explains in a rush of politically and culturally shattering statements, “I think it’s happening with another intensity. When you have presidential candidates, when you have major political parties, who are culturally cleansing—culturally cleansing, that’s my term for it—your imagination, lesbian imagination, lesbian writing, anti-racist writing and what’s acceptable—the closest I think of is the McCarthy era—that’s on a level that stuns me, too. That even a minority of Americans—and I am hoping it’s a minority–should turn to this rightward swing is stunning.”

A pivotal role in Nestle’s life has been that of lesbian historian. Co-founding LHA a half century ago, nurturing it in her New York apartment for years into a project that has grown and expanded to become this incredible compendia of lesbian memorabilia, artifacts, books and history, that role–she’s still on the board of LHA—is critical.  And now, in that role Nestle said she’s reaching out to “all the known lesbian archives in the United States, to lesbian and queer museums” on a list she was given to “fight back against the fascists” who are banning books.

Nestle said, “I’m drafting a letter to form a defense committee, so we can have a public presence in this conversation. Because we are the cherishers of this culture, we are the holders of these books. Thousands of books at the Lesbian Herstory Archives that they would burn if they could.” 

It is within this social conflagration of anti-LGBTQ book banning that Nestle’s new book has been published. A time when hundreds of libraries and school bookshelves are being purged, even of books as benign as a picture book for children about a gay penguin couple adopting a baby penguin, “And Tango Makes Three.” Nestle said, “And I feel particularly privileged to have another book in the world. I never thought I would qualify to be a ‘lesbian classic,’ as there were times my books were not welcomed in feminist bookstores.”

Bookstores where she would read her work at book signings wearing a black slip as a provocative statement about lesbian desire and lesbian sexual agency.  

This is part of Nestle’s history—her lesbian outlaw status. That status has informed much of her writing and activism. Born in the Bronx in 1940 and raised there and in Queens by her mother, at 17, Nestle began to hang out in Greenwich Village at lesbian bars, coming out as a “proud  femme” in 1950s New York City queer culture. Her profoundly moving essay, “Esther’s Story” is included in her new book. That essay is one of the best pieces of writing ever about coming out in the 1950s bar culture, in Nestle’s case, at the Sea Colony in New York. 

Nestle attended Queens College in 1958 and taught writing there for three decades, from 1967 to 1997. But it was while she was a student that Nestle’s activism flowered–protesting the House UnAmerican Committee hearings, better known now as the McCarthy hearings. She also became involved in the Black Civil Rights movement and then the anti-war movement. As a teacher at Queens College, Nestle taught  students from historically under-served communities as well as new immigrants. In 1974, she co-founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives to salvage history she believed was disappearing every day. 

The books that solidified Nestle as an essential voice in the lesbian feminist literary canon are her essay collections, A Restricted Country and A Fragile Union. In these books, and in the new 400pp collection, Nestle’s voice is singular. Readers of A Sturdy Yes of a People will re-discover or discover for the first time the many layers of Nestle’s work and how fearlessly she approaches her subjects—even when that subject is herself.

Nestle writes vividly about 1950s and 1960s lesbian life pre-Stonewall—a period of time most of us never knew, or know only from lesbian pulp fiction of that era by Ann Bannon, Patricia Highsmith and Vin Packer (Barbara Grier). Nestle writes openly and provocatively about lesbian sexual desire, about the butch-femme culture in which she came of age and the political activism that grew out of that for her. She writes about the controversies surrounding white feminist racism, about being Jewish, about her mother’s sexuality. In short, Nestle tears at the very fabric of long established social mores and comes to conclusions that embrace a lesbian feminist queer acculturation and dynamic far different from the culture of compulsory heterosexuality in which all lesbians are raised.

Nestle also writes directly and personally about something we only discuss abstractly: the long history of lesbian dissent and its companion, lesbian displacement. In Nestle’s deft, vivid and at times raw writing, these are no longer theoretical constructs—these are facts of the lives of lesbian and queer women and they add up to a history of oppression and dispossession.  As she writes in one essay, “What I have learned over the years, both in my thinking and in my actual living place, is that once I left the white American center, things I thought were worse than ever are actually long continuing histories of dispossession.”

Throughout her work, Nestle is never far from what she terms “the tenderness of desire.” That framing alone is singular and iconoclastic, situating lesbian and queer relationships within the construct of caring for an protecting each other. That phrasing also keeps one thinking of the roles we play as lesbians in a society that devalues all women, but women who have no heterosexual privilege, no adjacency to men most of all. As Audre Lorde said repeatedly, “The true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness, whether or not she ever sleeps with women.” 

Julie Enszer says of A Sturdy Yes of a People, “The volume of Joan Nestle’s work is impressive, and while reading and re-reading these essays, we were continually struck by the power of Joan Nestle’s writing and thinking and also by how important her words are in our contemporary moment.” 

As Enszer details the process of publishing Nestle’s book, it is a collective lesbian feminist effort. She says, “A young woman in college transcribed the essays from previous publications. A young publishing professional and writer based in New York did a thorough copyedit of the book. Yeva Johnson, a wonderful poet and reader now living in San Francisco, worked with me to curate and edit the collection. Carolyn D’Cruz, a scholar and writer in Australia, wrote the foreword. Many women worked with great love and appreciation on the text for this book. Many other women made contributions and bought advance copies so that Sinister Wisdom could bring it into the world.”

Enszer says, “While ‘A Sturdy Yes of a People’ is not a comprehensive gathering of her work, it is substantial. We struggled with what to not include because so much of Joan Nestle’s work is relevant today.”

In addition, Enszer says, “Joan selected the title, ‘A Sturdy Yes of a People,’ and it delighted me. Taken from an essay, the title expresses the spirit of Joan’s theorizing in her writing. Joan affirms the primacy of community and our shared humanity—she calls us to say yes to people, to embrace inclusive communities of care and compassion while also looking with clear eyes at the threats and challenges that queer communities in all of their instantiations face.”

And Nestle has remained unceasing in her efforts for those queer communities, particularly lesbian communities and all the many issues facing lesbians, queer and trans women. Nestle, who looks a decade or more younger than she is, spoke briefly about her health, and about the health of lesbians in general. “After three cancers, I feel happy to be here. You have to keep going until you find new ways of doing things, you have to keep going. Lesbians are still dying of cancer. Breast cancer is our AIDS,” Nestle said. “We need more writing about this, we really do.”

There are many things Nestle feels are deserving of more attention. While aging has slowed the activism of many, not so Nestle—if anything, age has intensified her activism, made it more urgent, infused it with an even stronger sense of purpose and drive.

As a Jewish woman, she’s dedicated to speaking out about the plight of Palestinians. As a cisgender woman, she’s concerned for the safety and well-being of trans women and men. Queer Forty raised the issue of calls for the “eradication of transgenderism” that were voiced at the recent CPAC (Conservative Poliltical Action Conference) conference. Nestle, invoking the Holocaust, said, “Calling for the eradication of other people—as a Jewish woman, I feel so strongly about this. You start with the books and move on to the people. You start with the performances [drag] and move on to the people.”

She continued, “I have to add here that I also am an anti-Occupation Jew. There was a pogrom committed in Gaza and the minister said, ‘We should erase the village,’ I thought, how can a Jew of any kind say that about any other group of people?”

Nestle returned to the issue of dispossession and displacement, “The sad part of what I’ve learned and part of what we’re talking about is this—our legacy of our history is very much the history of the unwanted. It has to be re-engaged over and over. Power shifts, hatred shifts. That some people have the power to call for the eradication of other people—I’m stunned.” 

These issues have deep meaning for Nestle—as a Jewish woman, as a femme lesbian, as a long-time sexual and activist outlaw fighting systemic racism, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, lesbophobia. She leaned in, her voice raised in the passion she’s known for and said, “I have to say this: This is not the time for the divisions within our community. Divide and conquer is such an old, old technology of fascists. So let me speak for the many, many lesbian feminists who support trans women, who see the danger in this. Now it’s time to make our voices heard.”

In Nestle’s writing about her own history, there is a reverence for the women who guided her into lesbianism as a young woman in her late teens and early 20s. As she wrote about the older bar butches whose tutelage and that “tenderness of desire” that were so central to Nestle embracing her own desire for other women, is also embedded a story of dissent and resistance that has propelled her forward throughout her life in her work, in her activism, in her personal life. 

Nestle shows us how those women had survived years of the brutal policing of lesbians in the bars and in their own lives living in the world as lesbians. These are essays as much for now as they were for the time when Nestle first wrote them. She continues to call lesbians and queer women to activist arms to fight the fascism that would erase these women she has loved all her life.

She says, declaratively, succinctly, deceptively simply, “Like always, they oppress, we resist.”

A Sturdy Yes of a People: Selected Writings is available from Sinister Wisdom, as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local independent or queer bookstore.

Lesbian Herstory Archives is now welcoming visitors for casual browsing by appointment and a detailed history is on the website.

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Victoria A. Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Society of Professional Journalists Award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.

Victoria A. Brownworth has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Victoria A. Brownworth

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