2 min

Cherishing the pasties of a lesbian stripper

Famous femme Joan Nestle reflects on the history of sexual liberation

Joan Nestle might just be the best known femme in North America: She’s more than made her mark as writer and archivist. And to me, Nestle represents a very particular aspect of my own understanding of the complexities of, for lack of a better phrase, lesbian identity.

When I first read her essay “Butch-Fem Relationships: Sexual Courage In The Fifties” in the early 1980s, it spoke to me in a much more immediate way than other writing about sexual politics.

Here was someone making history sexy, someone who was willing to inject a more comprehensive emotional range into her work. It’s a terrible cliche, but the essay seemed a precise and meaningful enactment of the slogan “the personal is political.” It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but I think it changed my life.

To her new collection, A Fragile Union: New And Selected Writings, Nestle brings the perspective and conviction that is associated with nearly 40 years of activism. Whether it’s the bar culture of the ’50s, the civil rights movement in the ’60s, or the early, heady days of gay liberation in the ’70s, she depicts the ways in which her involvement influenced her thinking and shaped her identity.

It’s fascinating to read about the founding of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the struggles over what to preserve. As Nestle puts it, “because of my own experience with the criminalizing 1950s, I felt it was essential that the archives not become a hand-picked collection of respectable lesbian role models. This emphasis on inclusiveness made the archives a focus of controversy. Yes, we wanted the papers of Samois, the national public lesbian SM group. Yes, we wanted the diary of a lesbian prostitute.Yes, we would cherish the pasties of a lesbian stripper.”

One of the most interesting things about A Fragile Union is its reflective quality, it’s very much a looking back and an attempt to identify and reiterate what has come before. In some ways it’s every writer’s dream (or perhaps nightmare) to review and retool work that’s already been sent out into the world. Nestle stands behind her earlier writing, but does take the opportunity to incorporate new layers of thinking or to explore avenues of thought that were perhaps not available at an earlier time.

Nestle has always been a highly rhetorical writer – all those years as an activist count for something – her prose is deliberately constructed to provoke either a political, or often a sexual, response. Most of the newer work in this collection is imbued not with the nostalgia you might expect, but with a kind of urgency that comes to someone who sees herself as being at the end of her life. She has been struggling with cancer for the past few years and she writes with the poignancy of one who feels that her time might be limited.

A Fragile Union is best read as a vivid history of sexual liberation in North America. It’s a bracing reminder of the distance the movement has travelled and how substantively different our lives are now. And, of course, Nestle is the first to point out how much further we must go.

As she puts it: “I had come a long way from the vice squad-haunted bars of the 1950s where our sexual practice, not our talk, was the target of the state’s surveillance. In those days, we did not even conceive of public debates about ‘deviant’ desire…. [T]he sense of ideological surveillance moved from direct encounters to internalized voices to looking over one’s shoulders to see who would be hunting down one’s words.”

A Fragile Union.

By Joan Nestle.

Cleis Press.

206 pages. $23.25.