JOAN NESTLE

PRESERVING HERSTORY
A TALK WITH JOAN NESTLE
By Owen Keehnen


From Chicago Outlines March 1993


Joan Nestle is a self-identified femme lesbian. Her ongoing interest in butch-femme identities pervades her work from her award winning first collection, A Restricted Country, to her new anthology The Persistent Desire: A Butch-Femme Reader. Seeing a need to end sexual silence, Nestle compiled the massive work. It covers 150 years of butch-femme herstory and is told in the varied voices of the butch-femme contributors.

Preserving lesbian herstory is a huge part of Nestle's life. She was co-founder, with Deborah Edel, of The Lesbian Herstory Archives that has done much to chronicle and preserve lesbian lives. It is a multi-format collection of books, periodicals, unpublished papers, films, photos, oral herstories, and miscellaneous items. Ms. Nestle was also co-editor of the Lambda Award Winning Women on Women as well as a noted speaker, poet, and essayist.

What has been your experience that made you see a need for a book like The Persistent Desire?

First, my own experience as a femme woman and the sort of journey I have been on with that identity. It has been a journey of silencing and sometimes shame. When I first started writing about butch-femme relationships I did it because I felt there was a huge silence in the contemporary lesbian and feminist movement, ideology, and sense of history. It all grew out of my own personal experience with a generation of women who literally gave me my lesbian life in the butch-femme working class bars of The Village from 1958-69. Theirs s was a generation of courage I wanted to honor and a deep lesbian folklore and humanity. Also I wanted to leave history with the largest collection of butch-femme voices I could. I wanted to present it and deflect myself from being the apologizer or explanationist for this way of loving and being.

What do you think contributed to the butch-femme personas going underground, why is it coming back, and how is coming back differently?

Butch-femme never went away. In working class bars all over the country there were butch women and femme women. In the Latina and the Black communities there were butch-femme bars and still are. But lesbian feminism, with all its wonders, sort of set up a prescribed way women as lesbians could get their social freedoms. It seemed that the only way this new concept of how we were woman and lesbians could make its way in the world was by disowning what they saw as oppressive heterosexual imitating. I think what has loosened it up was women like myself who took on the establishment in terms of feminist thinking…but as devout feminists. I really think that’s important because I am not about to give up my claim to feminism. I think what we’ve seen recently is an opening up of the sexual discussion with people like Dorothy Allison, Amber Hollibaugh, myself, Jewelle Gomez, Cheryl Clarke, Cherrie Moraga; a whole group of women who basically felt there were too many silences about sex.

Why do you think there has been until recently, a need to sanitize or purify views of lesbian social and sexual behavior?

Because we're women. In our society any discussion of sexual play is much more freighted with wounds than I think there are for men. So those who see themselves as sexual radicals have to find language that respects women's pain and universal abuse and also demands a right to celebrate our own passion.

How do you respond to critics who say butch-femme is a representation of heterosexual modes of behavior?

I've tried to do that with all my writing. At this point I really don't feel the need to respond. I'm 52 years old and I don't have to apologize or explain how I am as a sexual person. To me it's no different than being asked to explain why I am a Jew or a queer.

How has your viewpoint on the issue evolved from A Restricted Country to The Persistent Desire?

When I wrote A Restricted Country I wasn't as honest as I could have been. I was too anxious to disprove all the prevailing stereotypes of butch-femme. In The Persistent Desire I feel that there are some lesbians who would define themselves more in a masculine sense and I’m not apologizing for them anymore. I think the real issue is that as lesbians we have never had a discussion of gender within our own lesbian identity. What male and female mean to lesbians is still something we’re exploring, and these butch-femme voices are the pioneers in that exploration.

What did you learn about the butch-femme relationship by editing such a varied anthology?

I learned each identity needs its own special kind of nurturing. I learned the danger of making monolithic statements about either butch or femme women and I also learned that the idea of sexuality is very different…from the sluttiness that many femmes delight in to the sexual protectionism some butches express. The more I write about and discuss these things the more I realize needs to be written.

Does the butch-femme controversy have anything to do with the fact that The Persistent Desire is published by Alyson Publications rather than an exclusively women's press?

No. Sasha Alyson wrote me a letter listing six projects and asking me if I'd like to be involved in any of them and one of them was a butch-femme reader. I felt a call to history.

The Persistent Desire is not your first anthology. You won the Lambda Book Award for editing Women on Women. What's the key to being a good editor?

For me the key to being a good editor is being a good reader. Trust your own reactions to the stories and don’t have pretentious goals like what should be high art. Also, have as wide a variety of voices as possible.

You are also a co-founder of The Lesbian Herstory Archives. Tell me about its beginnings.

It started out of a consciousness-raising group from an organization called The Gay Alliance Union in 1972. A group of us - gay men and women - met to form the first lobbying group for gay teachers, students, and workers. Out of that group the group of lesbians formed a consciousness-raising group. In 1973 we started collecting and making things available. It was in my apartment from its beginnings until last year. Now we've raised enough money to put a down payment on a brownstone in Brooklyn. That's where it is now.

Congratulations. That's great. You must have a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

What we did in terms of raising that money was a miracle. We're a grass roots organization, we didn’t have thousands of people sending us thousands of dollars -- we had thousands of lesbians across the country giving us dollars and dimes. It was a testimony to how we served out community. We had over a thousand visitors a year coming through my apartment.

Do you have a favorite acquisition?

There's a story for each one. There's a hardhat and hobnail boots worn by a woman who worked in the Bethlehem Steel Mills. We have a slide show we take around the country and talk about the archives. When I was in Los Angeles doing a slide show and showed the image of these boots a beautiful older woman came up to me and said, "Joan, I'm a lesbian stripper and I would like you to put my pasties next to those hobnail boots." I have a story for everything in the collection.

How would a woman go about getting something included in the collection?

Check on our address and just send it.

Was there any specific moment when you decided to become a writer?

In 1978 I became ill and no one knew what the illness was. It was totally debilitating. I couldn't work for a year. A group of friends got together and decided to form a lesbian writing group at my house to keep me socializing. That's when I started writing. It was really an expression of rage about what was happening to my body. The first story I wrote was 'Mara's Room' which appeared in A Restricted Country. It was a sex story. I used the memory of erotic moments as a way to reclaim my body that was my enemy during the throes of illness.

What are you working on now?

We are doing the galleys on Women on Women 2. I just gave a lecture on the life of Mabel Hampton that I’d like to make into a small book. Also, John Preston and I have a book in the works called Brothers and Sisters, an anthology of gay men and lesbians celebrating each other.

Who are your personal heroes or heroines?

One thing I don’t hold to is a concept of role models, but I'd say Mabel Hampton. She is a woman who taught me with her life. I'd also say Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes. In our own community I admire Chicagoan Rennie Hanover for her endless vigor in fighting for social justice.

Thanks Joan, and all the best to you in the future.