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On Rereading “Esther’s Story”

I turned to touch her, but she took my hand away from her breast. Be a good girl, she said.... The words, the language of my people, floated through my head — untouchable, stone butch....

Whenever I am applauded for having given over so much of my personal living space to house the Lesbian Herstory Archives in the first twenty years of its life, I answer quite truthfully that the archives has given me more than I ever gave it. In periods of illness, it provided endless small tasks that kept me stimulated and productive; the constant stream of materials kept me current in a complex cultural discussion; and I found long-lasting friends among the many women who came to my home on a search for information or for self. One of the results of this constant interplay between my private life and a river of news and personalities was that I became comfortable with shifting perspectives; in fact, it almost seemed a given that whenever I was sure I knew the only answer to something, someone or some text would force me to rethink or to pull back from a sweeping generalization to arrive at a very specific particular. I thought I would lose all these gifts when the archives, like a daughter come of age, moved from my home to its own. But I was wrong.

Chelsea and Rusty hugging each otherIn its four-year life in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, the archives has made new friends, two of whom are Chelsea Elisabeth Goodwin and her lover, Rusty Mae Moore, both transgendered women. I had spoken to Chelsea several times on the phone about transgender issues and she had sent me copies of several position papers she had written on the transgender struggle for civil rights recognition. I knew that Chelsea had been volunteering at the archives for some months, but I had not yet met her. Then one day, when I was giving a tour of the archives, I led my small group up to the second floor, where all the mail is processed. There, bending over the long table filled with newly arrived newsletters, was a very tall, very thin butch woman who turned to greet us. "Hi, I’m Chelsea," she said with a quiet turn of her head.

"Finally we meet," I said, both curious and moved, as I often am when I see a new volunteer giving up her time to do the often tedious work the archives demands. As far as I knew, Chelsea was the first transgendered woman to work with the archives, and I knew she must have felt some trepidation about how she would be welcomed. The archives collective is made up of approximately twenty women who see the world from very different perspectives. While I knew there had been an ongoing discussion about how to define the word woman, the collective had sorted itself out and Chelsea’s help was greatly appreciated. Before continuing my tour, I thanked her for the material she had sent me and promised we would talk later. We did meet several times more after this first encounter — at speaking events and at archives open houses. More and more, Chelsea revealed herself to be a courtly and caring lover of women. At one archives event, she made a stirring speech about how older fem women such as her lover, Rusty, had brought great beauty into her life. At the close of that evening, she took leave of me by kissing the back of my hand. But still I did not know Chelsea, other than by the complexity of her choices: to be a woman, to love another transgendered woman, to identify herself as butch. Our relationship deepened one hot summer day in the basement of the new archives. I joined Chelsea at the processing table, and together we waded through the never-ending stacks of periodicals. While we worked, we spoke about sex, about butch-fem relationships, and about the difficulties of organizing a marginalized group.Sylvia Rivera at demonstration following Matthew Shepard's murder Chelsea spoke as a committed activist who was struggling to keep the transgendered-transsexual movement dynamic and inclusive. She told me about her younger days as a street transsexual, when she was schooled in survival by Sylvia Rivera, the sweet, tough queen whose young face had been photographed in front of the Stonewall bar the night of our insurrection in 1969. Left behind by the mainstream respectable gay liberation movement, Sylvia now lived with Chelsea and Rusty in their collective trans home around the corner from the archives.

The light from the naked bulb under which we worked flashed over Chelsea’s face, a strong, chiseled face, with thin arching eyebrows and a prominent, bony nose. As she spoke of her days on the street, when she was always running from the police, and her constant search for a place to spend the night, all the years in between those gritty times and the present seemed to melt away. I listened not only to her words but to the turn of her head, the softness of her demeanor, the passion of her vision. Here I was in my late fifties, witnessing once again the power of memory to inform conviction, the conviction of one’s right to survive. Still haunted by the realities of street life, Chelsea had asked not to be left alone at the archives in case the police showed up, as they sometimes did when some door or window left open triggered our building alarm. Chelsea’s words poured into the steamy basement, demanding that room be made for another layer of lesbian history.

Before the heat drove us upstairs, I responded to Chelsea’s concerns about how best to serve a growing movement for liberation with memories of some of my own struggles with the early spokeswomen of the lesbian-feminist movement, my anger at their disdain for the bar community that had given me my first lessons in queer defiance, my fears about the exclusions deemed necessary when a political passion calls for a united front. Feeling like a veteran of a half-won war, I urged Chelsea to learn from our mistakes as well as from our victories. “You have a chance to do things differently,” I remember saying. Behind those words was my conviction that if we had done things differently, as lesbian-feminist women, as a gay liberation movement in the thirty years since Stonewall, Chelsea and her comrades would not have to be fighting for their most basic rights in the 1990s. But we had been so sure that we knew who was a “woman” and who was a “man,” what gender meant and what it did not, what embarrassed us and what made us feel, in our own peculiar way, at home. It is one of the complex ironies of liberation movements that often the passion of their certainties creates the need for future, more inclusive visions of emancipation.

Metropolitan Gender Network members leaving Transy House for a demonstration

My final words to Chelsea that afternoon were to urge her to call me if I could ever be of any help to her.

In August of that summer, 1997, Chelsea took me up on my vague offer. She reminded me of the group she and Rusty had organized, the Metropolitan Gender Network, and asked me to fill in for Leslie Feinberg, who was too ill to speak as scheduled on the following Sunday. My first response was to wonder what could I say to a transgendered group. What qualified me to appear before this forum? Chelsea listened to my fears and then patiently told me that my writings about butch-fem relationship had helped to open up the discussion of gender representation for many communities. What posed as political and cultural modesty on my part was really a lack of understanding of the transgendered, transfolk community and my fear of moving into their world. I was condescending both to my own work and to the members of the Metropolitan Gender Network. But years of work with the archives had taught me that when I was frightened of a new forum, that was exactly the time when history would speak to me, both to my head and to my heart.

I spent the next few days thinking about what my text could be. I decided to look over my work in my first book, A Restricted Country, to see if I could find a passage that would be a good starting point for discussion. Like a preacher preparing for her Sunday sermon, I searched for my chapter and verse. I found what I was looking for in “Esther’s Story,” a story I wrote in the 1980s to pay homage to a passing woman whom I had met in the Sea Colony, a 1960s working-class lesbian bar in Greenwich Village. Like other pieces in this 1987 book, “Esther’s Story” was written (and the events in it re-visioned) from both the perspective of my lesbian feminism and my need to push against lesbian-feminist boundaries of acceptable history. I was determined to keep alive the world of my bar community with its one-night stands and sexually diverse clientele. Esther was a woman in her forties who passed for a man. The story tells of my amazement at her tenderness and describes how her hands shook when she first held me and how my young woman’s body reached out to her for more:

Through my blouse, I could feel her hands like butterflies shaking with respect and need. Younger lovers had been harder, more toughened to the joy of touch, but my passing woman trembled with gentleness. I opened to her, wanting to wrap my fuller body around her leanness. She was pared down for battle, but in the privacy of our passion she was soft and careful. We kissed for a long time. I pressed my breasts hard into her, wanting her to know that even though I was young, I knew the strength of our need, that I was swollen with it.

But when I reread the story keeping in mind what I had and had not allowed myself to say about Esther’s sense of self and gender, I saw clearly (and indeed, I knew this at the time I wrote the story) that I was being simplistic in my description of Esther’s desires. I was trying to serve two histories at once. I knew that if I had written “Esther wanted to be a man,” the story would have been dismissed and so would Esther and all I wanted for her in the new world of the 1980s. This balancing act led me to cast Esther’s “maleness” in a more womanly way. It was as if I were attempting to slide under a descending iron gate and carry all that was important with me to safety before it crashed to the ground.

She told me how she had left Ponce, Puerto Rico, her grown sons, and her merchant sailor husband, to come to America to live like she wanted.... She enjoyed driving the taxi, and because her customers thought she was a man, they never bothered her. I looked at her, at the woman in a neat white shirt and gray pants, and wondered how her passengers could be so deceived. It was our womanness that rode with us in the car, that filled the night with tense possibilities.

Now I must ask myself who was the deceived one. This forced questioning of what we need to be real or true or right holds for me the deepest importance of liberation movements. If I know the dreams of only my own, then I will never understand where my impulse for freedom impinges on another history, where my interpretation of someone’s life is weakened by my own limits of language, imagination, or desire. Chelsea’s invitation to speak to her group had made me revisit my own text and realize that even when I thought I had been preserving a life, I was perhaps burying it. Esther’s story is not finished, and my own understanding of butch and fem, of the drama of gender, of what the mind wants to do with the body and what the body wants to tell the mind, of what societies will do to keep gender certainties in place and of how women will survive all that is both created for them and taken from them must be constantly challenged by new voices demanding attention.

For one moment the Lower East Side was transformed for me: unheard-of elegance, a touch of silk had entered my life. Esther’s final gift. We never shared another night together. Sometimes I would be walking to work and would hear the beeping of a horn. There would be Esther rounding the corner in her cab with her passenger who thought she was a man.

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Text of “On Rereading ‘Esther’s Story’” © 1998 Joan Nestle, from A Fragile Union: New and Selected Writings, published by Cleis Press. “Esther’s Story” was first published in Big Apple Dyke (B.A.D.) News in 1981 and is included in A Restricted Country; © 1981, 1987 Joan Nestle. Images are the property of their respective owners/creators.

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