Talk, Love, Listen – Joan Nestle, in Her Own Words

Joan Nestle speaking at table with flowers

Who can’t see the parallel to the 1950s and 60s, when you would be scarcely tolerated if you were a desexed homosexual and the reality in 2015 that getting legally married leads to losing your job? It’s okay to be gay as long as you are invisible – true then. True now. Which is why reading Joan Nestle is as important today as it has ever been.

It was my honor to represent the Golden Crown Literary Society Board of Directors to introduce and present the 2015 Trailblazer Award for Joan Nestle, the author of A Restricted Country and many other works, and one of the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. A woman who, for most of her life, wore a black slip at public appearances.

It was a challenge to distill a life like Joan Nestle’s into fifteen minutes. My first PowerPoint was more than double that. Also a near out-of-body experience – accepting the award for Joan was Dorothy Allison, who emphasized Joan’s long history of insisting that honoring difference means for all of us.

One of my preparations was rereading A Restricted Country. A rich history of activism and a distinctive lesbian life, it’s also a lingering call to action that is very much relevant to today’s firebomb-via-Twitter world where there is no dialogue, only outrage and blame.

Here is a collection of quotes by Joan Nestle, gathered from her writing, what’s available on the Web in interviews, and her blog. All typos, errors and emphasis are my dubious contributions. At the end you’ll find her bibliography and links to read more, YouTube talks to watch and history to learn. I hope you do.

Bookmark this and the resources. Be energized, don’t lose hope. There is always farther to go, but herstory lets us treasure how far we have come and what cannot be taken from us.

It took me a long time to realize that while I was fighting for all these other causes, that it wasn’t okay for me to get my allotted amount of toilet paper… That image, of this allotted amount of toilet paper is at the center of my life’s work — paying homage to that community of women who stood on the bathroom line, the mix of desire, politics, oppression, and resistance. It was a wonderful education in complexities because on that line, even though we were controlled, no one was a victim.

May you never endure it, may I never forget it.

(On the bar culture where the only places that would let lesbians be out still treated them like deviants and criminals.)

I had not known I was a national disgrace. Along with the shame of that day, however, I learned something else: authority often said things that were not true about people it did not know, that enemies were made of those who were different, and that I would struggle never to accept dictated hatreds.

(On being shamed as a 9-year-old by a teacher because she was a latchkey child and further being told to avoid all knowledge of Paul Robeson.)

My mother taught me the absurdity of power when it is used on the powerless. She taught me that when you are judged as unacceptable, something important is happening.

(On her mother’s unconventional influence.)

Our philosophy was, if small groups of women from different backgrounds came together and shared a different subject every week, we would find that through all our differences, we had commonalities due to social oppression. The personal was political.

(On consciousness raising, the power of talking with people different from you, especially those with whom you think you have no common ground.)

Butch-femme relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic and social statements, not phony heterosexual replicas. They were filled with deeply lesbian language of stance, dress, gesture, love, courage, and autonomy.

Butch-fem women made Lesbians visible in a terrifying clear way in a historical period when there was no Movement protection for them. Their appearance spoke of erotic independence, and they often provoked rage and censure both from their own community and straight society. Now it is time to stop judging and to begin asking questions, to begin listening.

(On the power of visibility and femme-butch roles.)

Through talking, we had developed an understanding of misogyny and the violence against women, but there was no place to talk about the complexities of desire.

I must find another way to fight violence against women without doing violence to my Lesbian self.

More than ever, I believe in a feminism that does not run from the full complexity of women’s lives…

Self-censorship is as damaging as social censorship.

Seems I always had to deny a community or betray someone for any new freedom.

The freedom to be sexually expressive, the freedom to be different, is a freedom for all of us.

It is the place where a woman’s voice says, “Touch me here because it feels good,” and “Yes, I will take you now,” to whomever she chooses. Such a simple thing, and yet all the oppressions in the world conspire against it.

(On the censorship of sexuality, the Lesbian Sex Wars of the 1980s, and freedom of expression of sexuality..)

By allowing ourselves to be portrayed as the good deviant… we lose more than we will ever gain. We lose the complexity of our own lives, and we lose the lifelong lesson: you do not betray your comrades when the scapegoating begins.

We are offered respectability if we tone down our lesbian selves. We must now work out a way by which we can honor both the old and the new. We must look for connections rather than judgments… Remember that our battle is to be accepted in the fullness of our difference and not because we promise to be like everybody else.

(On the seeming security of repressed sexual expression.)

I think that gender is now up for grabs the way it never was. We can’t be limited anymore to two genders. Lesbian masculinity is alive in a hundred different ways.

(On gender fluidity.)

As a woman, as a lesbian, as a Jew, I know that much of what I call history others will not. But answering that challenge of exclusion is the work of a lifetime.

The colonized never knows her history. At best she’s allowed to remember a few names that are passed down…

The archives is a place where women who liked to get fucked can have their history preserved next to women who don’t liked to get fucked — which is perfectly fine — next to lesbian feminists, next to sex workers, next to s/m women, next to lesbian separatists. I gave my total life to my total home for twenty-five years and no one was judged because of their desire.

(On the power of knowing your own history.)

I see aging as a wonderful time to question everything, including gender. It’s important as we age to let go of “old scripts,” they’re not security.

(On the liberty of aging.)

I have experienced three sublimely beautiful things in my life, and each has been judged unacceptable by large parts of this society: the taste and touch of women lovers, the wondrous feeling of being part of a people working to free themselves, and for almost thirty years, the trust and attention of students many others did not want to teach.
Made of fragile human dreams, but also of fierce desire, they have bound my life with joy.

(On talking, loving and listening.)


Learn More about Joan Nestle

Cover of A Restricted County by Joan NestleWriter

Cover of The Persistent Desire ed by Joan NestleEditor, with introductions and contributions

  • GENDERqUEER: Voices from Beyond the Binary (2002)—co-edited with Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins
  • Best Lesbian Erotica 2000 (1999)—co-edited with Tristan Taormino
  • The Vintage Book of International Lesbian Fiction (1999)—co-edited with Naomi Holoch
  • Women on Women 3: An Anthology of Lesbian Short Fiction (1996)—co-edited with Naomi Holoch
  • Sister and Brother: Lesbians and Gay Men Write about Their Lives Together (1994)—co-edited with John Preston
  • Women on Women 2: An Anthology of Lesbian Short Fiction (1993)—co-edited with Naomi Holoch
  • The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (1992)
  • Women on Women 1: An Anthology of Lesbian Short Fiction (1990)—co-edited with Naomi Holoch

Awards Related to Writing

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