Ripe magazine cover of April 2001 featuring Joan

Joan Nestle, Sixty and Sexy

Interview by Angeline Acain and Susan Eisenberg
Photograph by Kathryn Kirk

Last November, we had the opportunity to interview Joan Nestle, writer, activist, educator, and co-founder of New York City’s twenty-five-year-old Lesbian Herstory Archives. Susan Eisenberg, who identifies as a fem, is a great fan of Nestle. “Butch-Fem Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950s,” an article written by Nestle, initiated a reevaluation of the butch-fem tradition, and along with her erotic writings, put her in the frontlines during the lesbian sex war. Nestle was also the recent recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment). In the following, Nestle shares her Joan Nestle thoughts and experiences, past and present.


My mother Regina was on her way to becoming a middle class Jewish wife, when my father Jonas, a furrier, died very suddenly when he was thirty-nine years old. My mother only had a seventh grade education but she was always writing and wrote on the back of long, yellow book keeper ledger sheets. When my mother died in 1978, she had taken her writings with her to the hospital, which were then passed on to me. She liked to drink so some of it was impossible to read, but she wrote about being gang raped when she was just fourteen years old. My mother was a very sexual person and she writes about fourteen-year-old Regina who just wanted it. She let herself be picked up on Coney Island beach by a young man who then made a date with her. He brings her back to his apartment where there were three other men waiting and they take turns. She writes about how she goes home where her father beat her, she has an abortion, leaves school, and goes to work.

When she met my father she was passing as a respectable woman and she had told me she had “faked blood.” He never knew that she’d been raped. When my father died my mother ended up in “no woman’s land.” Words for the kind of woman she was included “whore.” During the black market years, my mother worked as a book keeper in the garment industry and lived a very sexual life, I had many “uncles.” She started to gamble and was always getting arrested for embezzlement. She was on parole, she wasn’t put in jail because she had me, a child, to care for. From time to time my mother’s life would go haywire and she would work as a hooker on 42nd Street. I’d live with her off and on, and when she couldn’t hold it together, I’d go to my aunt and uncle’s.

I’ve written about my mother and have used her writing. My background was very different from the middle-class community that my aunt and uncle brought me into. My mother was getting subpoenaed all the time and I knew when my mother was giving blow jobs. I never knew how to brush my teeth but I knew what a blow job was – I had a different kind of childhood.

Pam Pam’s

Where did you come out? (Nestle asks Eisenberg, who explains her coming-out story.) I’m a social constructionist, I wasn’t born queer. I was born with the ability to have sex and then society constructed me. In 1952, I was ten and living with my aunt and uncle in Bayside, Queens, because my mother had lost her job. My first lesbian experience was when I was twelve with a girl named Roz, the daughter of a kosher butcher. I was the new girl at school – I had big, frizzy hair and looked rather funny. Because we had to go on the bus, the teacher asked, “Who will take Joan home?” Roz volunteered and we became fast friends. Roz and I would have sleep-togethers, I wouldn’t say we made love but I spent a lot of time between her legs (Eisenberg laughs). Roz was a large girl and a very sexual person, in this fifties home in Queens, we use to play harem (more laughter from Eisenberg). I recognized myself as being different when I was in junior high school as I was waiting for my date to go to a dance. Roz, who also had a date, came and sat down next to me. She was wearing a dress and I remember looking down at her and seeing the swell of her breasts, and this is a fem speaking. Fems are very complicated women with very complicated sexualities. At thirteen years old, I recognized at that moment that I was desiring a woman.

My next experience was when I was working in a five-and-dime store, I fell in love with a woman who was beautiful, athletic, and lean – the prototype for the kind of woman I would find attractive later on. We use to wrestle with each other by these wooden counters and take breaks together in the parking lot of this shopping center in Bayside, Queens. We sat on this bench and looked down at 500 cars. Once, I was lying with my head on her lap, in ecstasy. She looked down at me and said, “You know Joan, I don’t think you’re ever going to marry.” I don’t remember what my response was, I was just so happy to be in her lap. She was also popular with boys and started hanging out in Greenwich Village. It would be painful because I would be with her until some guy picked her up. One day we were walking arm-in-arm along Sixth Avenue near Pam Pam’s, a hang-out place for young butches and fems, when she said to me as a joke, “Better not do this or people will think we’re lesbi-friends.” I immediately pushed her into a plate glass window which didn’t break but I was frightened – she had named my desire. A few weeks later, I walked her home from work and she turned to me and said with a sneer, “You know Joan, my boyfriend says I’m the kind of girl lesbians like.” I was fifteen, terrified, and never saw her again.

One late night, about the time I was a sophomore at Queens College, I was walking the streets of the Village on Sixth Avenue and there was Pam Pam’s. It was a cheap coffee and donut place, a poor place, a dreary place with these blaring lights, but it was this hang-out for young butches and fems. Pam Pam’s had this full-length mirror right on the door of the entrance, all the young butches would comb back their hair and style themselves in that mirror. One night I was sitting in Pam Pam’s, not looking femmy in the traditional way, I probably looked more dykey because I was never a thin woman and always had short curly hair. Anyway, I was having a coke and the only other person in Pam Pam’s was this older woman who looked tired. This woman looked up at me and said, “How are things at the Colony?” I didn’t know what she was talking about but I knew she was recognizing me as another lesbian. Doors swung open and the experience was frightening and exciting yet sad, because this woman looked beat and Pam Pam’s was sort of a sad place. But we got into a conversation and I found out about the Sea Colony, a bar which became the site of my public erotic life.

The Bathroom Line

I’ve always accepted that my private sexual life would be a public act because the state was always observing us. Bars were policed by the vice squad and all states had a vice squad. They were plain clothes police who persecuted and controlled prostitution, as well as homosexuals – sexual crimes. We were sexual criminals at that time and police wagons would pull up to the bars. There were all these rules like having to wear three pieces of women’s clothing. Fems wore men’s clothing too, not the same way a butch would, maybe we’d wear slacks.

The Sea Colony was basically two rooms, in the front room was the bar and tables for tourist, the back room was where the illegal activity took place which was called dancing. A red light flashed to alert us when police were coming so we could sit down at our tables and not touch each other. Another image I keep alive is the bathroom line, before Stonewall there was the bathroom line. These bars were run by organized crime who made lots of money off of us so the bars had to negotiate legitimacy with the police. They created a rule – we’d only be allowed into the bathroom one woman at a time. Because they thought we were so sexually depraved, if two of us went in we’d probably make love, and that could bring the vice squad.

Every night, a short, handsome, butch woman with toilet paper wrapped around her hand, had a job to allot us toilet paper. The bathroom line went from the back room through a narrow hallway to the front room to the toilet which was behind the bar. This butch woman would stand at the front of the line and we each got two wraps of toilet paper. When I stood on that bathroom line, I could’ve been drunk and when you drink you have to pee a lot. I was dressed as a fem, not a high fem but I had on tight sweaters and wore lipstick. Feminism actually made me more fem. Everyone at the Sea Colony knew who I was and what I wanted.

It was the sixties, I was in my early twenties, and I was active in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and I’m a freak on the weekends. I had the knowledge that people could liberate themselves, even freaks. I’d stand on that bathroom line and look around me. The women who went to the Sea Colony were not rich women, many were sex workers, and “passing women.” Society would call us scum of the earth, but I loved those women. My mother taught me that when you are judged as unacceptable, something important is happening. 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. I could see the courage of everyone around me including myself as a young girl, taking on all this stuff just because I wanted someone to make love to me. 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. Everyone was laughing and flirting and a big joke was to beg the butch woman to allow lovers to go in together.

Around 1969 it all exploded. I left the bar for gay liberation – nobody was going to give me my allotted amount of toilet paper because I didn’t need permission to urinate or shit anymore. When I got involved with the Gay Activist Alliance and went to the old Firehouse, I saw very few people from the bar there. A lot of those involved in gay liberation looked down on bar people because they were working class, the bar community was all the “bad stuff.” The bar community was butch and fem and part of the rhetoric of gay liberation was the destruction of roles. I was so excited to become a part of the early Lesbian Liberation Committee that formed the Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL), which is the oldest running lesbian feminist organization in the world. Through feminism I began to understand my oppression as a woman, but sexual desire was tricky if it didn’t fit into the paradigm of the new model. Seems I always had to deny a community or betray someone for any new freedom. I was a lesbian woman who liked to get fucked – you couldn’t say that in the ’60s and ’70s.

Sea Colony and the Colonized

All this together was a wonderful stew of my life. I was teaching English for SEEK (Search for Elevated and Enlightened Knowledge), an educational opportunity program at Queens College since 1966, and in 1972 I started reading about colonization for my students. There’s one book I always mention called The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jew who saw both sides. He does a portrait of the colonized, about the loss of language and – I was reading this as a lesbian – the incredible things about the tongue. He says you carry your history on your tongue. He says the colonized – I’m changing the pronoun – never knows her history. At best she’s allowed to remember a few names that are passed down. He mentioned names from African history, but I think of Gertrude Stein and Sappho. At the end of his book there was this sentence that informed my whole work from that time on, “The colonized are condemned to lose their memory.” Funny, I was going to the Sea Colony which was colonized, the toilet paper was part of the nets and webs of colonization and the lack of autonomy, as well as subversion.

I then formed the Gay Academic Union (GAU), for gay and lesbian people on college campuses. In 1973, a group of lesbians from GAU, who were tired of men, got together and formed a consciousness-raising (CR) group. In the early ’70s there were lesbian CR groups and I was in CR group number five. CR group number one grew out of LFL and included famous people like Kate Millett. In the left tradition, people organized into cells of about ten people in case the police arrested us. CR groups were self-contained units, we were subversive. 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 commonalties due to social oppression. The personal was political. In these CR groups you could not talk about penetration or dildos, anything I had done in my bar days. CR groups were great for middle-class women but if you had a life that didn’t fit in, like if you had violence in your life, you just could not talk about it. But they were incredibly helpful and I think now they would be even more helpful if we’d be more honest about class, race, and sex.

In 1974, from a CR group came a smaller group of women who said let’s do the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Some of us in this smaller group were from the old days, pre 1969, and we realized that books about lesbians were disappearing. Now books about lesbians are housed in the Archives by the thousands. In A Fragile Union is my essay, “The Will To Remember” which chronicles all this. Through the Archives, I found a way to bring together all the exiled communities and myself. 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. (Nestle becomes emotional and tears a little.) Can you pass me a napkin? I make myself cry (Nestle laughs.)

Lesbian Central

My apartment was the original home of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Around this table, which will go to the archives after my death, came so many lesbian culture productions. Someone sitting around this table would say, “I have an idea for a book of poetry,” or “I have an idea for a record,” and during a time when these things were not in great abundance.

Every room in this home was a lesbian community room. I wish I could recreate for younger women what it was like to use your home as a lesbian community center. A gathering called “At Home with the Archives” filled this apartment with over one hundred women. I have fond memories of Audre Lorde standing in the hallway because it was so crowded she couldn’t even get in. These images float through my mind. So when the idea of a web site came up, my webmaster said let’s design the site like your home. I write so much about the body and erotic language of the body. All my work comes from home, a very private place made public, so this apartment was that too. I basically lived in my bedroom and the rest was just public lesbian property.

I truly miss everybody and think in some ways these are rather culturally bare times for grass-roots, non-corporate beginnings as well as for beginning writers. It’s strange, some people have lots of money and access and then there’s whole generations and communities that are just holding on. I did an event just two weeks ago for Donna Allegra who has a new book out. I decided to use my apartment as a place to give parties for writers or for lesbian women with any cultural work to celebrate. It was like the old days, there were over one hundred people here. There were people of all ages, straight and gay, but mostly lesbian and Donna’s family was here. Donna is a Jamaican born lesbian and her very proper father was here surrounded by lower east side dykes of all ages. I speak of (apartment) 13A as a woman, and she is most happy when she is stretched to her fullest – a little like me. All her walls were touched, she was filled, and Donna sold every one of her books.

A Fragile Union

Have you’ve read my latest book A Fragile Union? I don’t know if anyone has read A Fragile Union because my publisher still has many copies! It won an award but I’d rather it have readers. Although written from the perspective of a sixty-year-old woman, younger women can enjoy it as well. A Fragile Union came out in 1998 and the book had an incredible launch in San Francisco. My publisher, Cleis Press and a whole bunch of women took over an old burlesque theater. My lover flew in from Australia on a fourteen-hour flight, for three days, just to help me launch my book. I’ll never forget the rainy night that we were walking towards the theater. Nobody had told me and there in the distance on the marquee of this old burlesque theater was, “San Francisco Celebrates Joan Nestle.”" And on the stage they had recreated this table and projected a slide of the old archives. Author, Dorothy Allison, who I’d known from years ago, and my old friend, Jewel Gomez did a reading. Then I flew to Australia where A Fragile Union was launched again in Melbourne. But it really hasn’t gotten the publicity I wish it would here.

It was a very intense book born out of two life struggles that were perhaps the hardest in my life – one being cancer. I was very raw in trying to accept the fact that I’m living with this illness in a way which is not as a warrior women. In the book I try to work out a bridge between my life and the life of cancer, a cell that wants to live, and how it affected me sexually. I have colon cancer, which involves parts of the body that are difficult to talk about. In A Fragile Union  I wrote about one of the first readings I did at a bookstore after the cancer operation. Someone asked me to read a story I wrote in A Restricted Country about ass fucking. I started to read the story and couldn’t continue because I have colon rectal cancer and the realization just took my words away.

The other struggle I write about in A Fragile Union  is the break-up of my ten-year relationship with “ex-husband,” Lee. I was a fifty-eight year old woman with cancer, with a lover who had left me for a younger, prettier woman. It’s a cliché. I was feeling pretty sick from my chemotherapy and I felt like I didn’t know how to go on with my life. In addition, after teaching for thirty years at Queens College I had to leave in 1995 because of my illness. I was diagnosed in 1996, but by that time the cancer had already eaten through my colon. I was sick for a whole year and nobody knew what was wrong. I had a colonoscopy by a managed care doctor who did it too quickly and missed the tumor. So that year when I was going to doctors and saying I have such pain, they were saying, “But you can’t be in pain because we did a colonoscopy and there’s nothing wrong with you.” Of course then I started bleeding and had to go to Emergency, and the doctor who missed the tumor came weeping to my hospital bed. Now, it’s four years later and I hope to stay cancer-free for another year (Nestle knocks on her wood table.)

Life with Di

I was living here with Lee who was in love with someone else, when I met Dianne “Di” Otto at the end of my chemotherapy. I was about depressed as I had ever been in my life when my friend, Sue O’Sullivan, a wonderful sex radical from London came to town. She called me up and said, “Joan can I see you and can I bring a friend?” I’ve been with very butchy women most of my life, and in walks Sue, a petite blond, and behind her is a strapping woman with henna hair. Di was like no one I’d ever known. She told me later that at our first meeting, she looked at me and saw a woman who was ready to die, and she decided, “Nope.” It was an amazing act of generosity because I was a stranger, she had only known me from my work.

Di teaches international human rights law at the University of Melbourne and is an activist. She was here attending Columbia University and living in a rented room two blocks away. In A Fragile Union I write about my “Cancer Travels” and how Di got me to travel again, which is also symbolic for taking risks again. Within three weeks of meeting, we were planning a trip to England. I’m not a world traveler, I’m “geographically shy” but Di travels because of her work and Australians travel a lot because they feel so contained. Di was on her way to Cuba to attend an international health conference but the real reason was to bring medicine into the country due to our embargo of Cuba. While she was in Cuba we spoke everyday and she convinced me to go to England. Then the next thing she asked me was if I was going to go back to Australia with her. We’ve been together two and a half years, I haven’t seen her for five months but she’s coming here in December.

Through Di, I discovered the Pacific horizon, a whole other world. We were in Melbourne during the East Timor liberation struggles. I was in the streets demonstrating for the rights of a country I didn’t even know existed. She’s just brought me so much all wrapped up in this incredible love and caring that keeps this relationship going – you know, we are so far apart. I’m going back to Australia for four months with Di after she comes here, I sort of live in Melbourne and New York. The distance is hard but so is our age difference. I’m retired now and live on my pension and I write and work with some of my former students and Di is in the midst of the full rush of her life. Di is forty eight and has never been to bed with a fem woman, it was wonderful for the two of us to school each other, to sexually share and find common territory. I define her as a “fem top,” she’s such a powerful woman and she calls me her “fifties fem.” We play with everything, she has no embarrassment. Also, I’m Jewish and Di is German Australian. There was a group of Lutheran Germans that settled in Australia in 1845 to escape religious persecution. So we have differences but she’s a mix of a wonderful feminism, a wonderful sexuality, and a wonderful sense of internationalism. I have a lot of delayed desire (Nestle laughs) and live more in memory, of the last time I saw Di five months ago. For a writer in a way this is good. We write letters and talk on the phone – those cheap numbers really work!

Acain asks Eisenberg, who’s been quiet, if she would like to ask Nestle any questions. Although Eisenberg says she does have a lot of questions, she declines for now. Don’t be shy (Nestle says to Eisenberg). I already asked Susan how she came to idolize me (Nestle laughs).

Forever Fem

Nestle asks Eisenberg to continue her coming out story. Acain adds that Eisenberg went to the bar Bonnie and Clyde’s. I also went to Bonnie and Clyde’s. We used to have our CR group, then go to Bonnie Clyde’s and do everything that we decided we shouldn’t do.

I wouldn’t say one is born fem, but one does have a fem hunger, a fem appetite and needs. It’s amazing how fems find the women to fulfill them. In the sixties, when I was a sophomore at Queens College, I already had one lesbian affair and I was not happy, because I wanted a butch woman. I remember walking on campus and saying, “I’m looking for a butch woman!” (Eisenberg laughs). Well, I found a butch woman on campus but unfortunately she was very disturbed (more laughter from Eisenberg). I remember lying under her and thinking, “Okay, Joan, this is what you want for the rest of your life.” The irony of this is that now I’m sixty and with a woman who is one of the most powerful women I’ve ever been with, but she does not appear as butch. But desires stay alive in our breasts as we age.

After the party I had here for Donna’s book, there was a small group of women who stayed late. One of them was a butch woman that I’d known over the years whom I’d felt drawn to. I was very tired and just wanted a butch embrace. This was not an issue of getting involved with each other but I put on some nice slow music and asked this butch woman to dance with me. I felt shy at sixty, she was in her forties, tall and big. It was an amazing moment to be so clear about what I wanted, to be able to ask for it. This woman held me and it felt natural, my thumb moved to her belt and my hand fell in place on her hip. My body just relaxed into her and I said, “Isn’t it funny, my hands know where to go,” and she said, “Of course they do.” At one point she wiped the sweat off my brow, it was such tenderness. Later I spoke with Di on the phone and told her I had this incredible moment and she said, “that’s wonderful.”

Sex War

As we get older, if we’ve been open to desire in our life, it’s never a matter of those desires not being good enough, it’s about keeping them all alive together. It’s been amazing over the years to live conscious with desire and to see how it takes on all these social battles, like you can’t do this or you should be ashamed, or we don’t use dildos. Women have said to me, “You have penis in your head.” Some people have called me a pornographer and sometimes I’ve called myself that when it felt right to do so – which will be controversial until the day I die. I’ve been called a lot of things but in all these years I’ve never confused violence with desire. I’m supportive of s/m women, I don’t consider that violence. My mother had walked the streets of Times Square, I’ve known sex workers, and in my own life I had explored taking money for sex with women. If a woman was screamed at because she liked to be penetrated, there was something really wrong with our politics. We had developed an understanding of misogyny and the violence against women, but there was no place to talk about the complexities of desire.

Why I’m saying this is because of the anti-pornography movement. In the seventies, pornography was considered violence against women. Andrea Dworkin was and still is a very powerful voice. A mix of lesbian separatism and cultural feminism believed that women are by nature better than men because we are more gentle and spiritual. There was so much violence and hatred of women in the world that many woman wanted this feminized territory because it was safe. In 1982, was the Barnard College Sex Conference. Every few years Barnard College would have a conference and one year, pioneer thinker Carole Vance, with a group of straight and gay women, put together a conference on the theme of women and sexuality. Vance included Dorothy Allison, myself, and a wide range of people to speak, and to offer discussions on s/m and prostitution. Dworkin and Women Against Pornography, an organization that included many lesbian feminists, heard about this conference. So the night before the conference, Barnard College was bombarded by calls from women against pornography saying that the work of sex perverts would be promoted and that the program was obscene. The college gave in and pulled every program out of the conference packet, we were censored, and the lesbian community accepted it. When we got there the next morning, there was a line of Women Against Pornography lesbian feminists picketing against women who were going to speak about sex. I was going to be one of them. A cultural war blew open within our own community.

Sex and Gender

Battles about control of sex are bound to be lost. Youth will always want to know what is roaring in their bodies. There is a deep war between fundamentalists of all kinds and experimentation and sexual openness. Sexual capitalism or the commodification of sex, you know on television, that’s not the same as a culture open to sexual differences. There are sex panics, panics of children and sex, panics of sex and computers, all these forces. I did a book on international lesbian fiction, which was influenced by my relationship with Di, and I discovered that the battle for sexual freedom that is being fought around this world is incredible. There’s a great proliferation of sexual voices.

Also, you have to be careful you’re not building new prisons when you think you’re really opening up new doors. Lesbians rushing to have babies is wonderful but in some ways I think families are a conservatizing force in this country. Lesbians who have babies are censoring the internet and television. I don’t think children have to be that protected. There’s too much violence, but we live in a violent society. The fact that some people have so much money that they don’t know what to do with it while others don’t have any money – that’s violence.

Another thing is this whole popularity of transitioning from woman to male, from butch to man, is raising problems with fem women. Fem women are afraid to talk about not wanting to become a straight woman – a wife to a man. As the woman transitions and takes testosterone, her way of being in the world is changing, she’s saying I’m not a lesbian anymore, I’m a man now.

Many butches are now transgender, it’s almost cultish. I worry that it’s a general love affair with Leslie Feinberg. Trans men always thank me for giving them the permission to change gender but I really didn’t have that in mind when I wrote The Persistent Desire. Because I’m fem, people expect me to fall in love with a transgendered man, an F-to-M. But I myself have issues, I don’t want more testosterone in the world and I don’t care whose body it is. In the seventies, there use to be the Matriarchs who were fierce lesbian separatists. Half of them were married but that’s okay because they used just words, even though they made life miserable for a lot of people. But once you start changing your body, you are not using just words anymore, and you are changing for the rest of your life. More thinking has to go on.

On the west coast it’s happening more. When I was on my book tour of A Fragile Union, I was in Oakland and there were many transgendered women and women in the process. They are now a powerful and compelling community. I was signing books and this butch woman was waiting for me. There is a piece in my new book, “My Fem Quest,” about my relationship with Di, and this woman had her book open to that. I’m such a privately public person that people will talk to me in mid conversation as if we’ve been talking for years. I’ll be asked something like, “How’s Regina?” (loud laughter from Eisenberg). Anyway, this butch woman had the book open and said, “I feel like I wasn’t enough for you,” because now I’m with Di, a woman who doesn’t appear butch. Then she said, “Look around, I feel like I’m not good enough anymore,” and she pointed to the transgendered men. There’s a feeling of failure for butch women because we – I’ll say I – haven’t had the courage to speak up. I have very dear friends who’ve transgendered and I don’t want to appear retrograde. When imagine gender, which I play with all the time, leaves the realm of the imagination... I just hope these young women know what they are doing.

Eisenberg mentions that she’s seen a photograph of Pat Califia who has transgendered to a man. She’s famous for always going the furthest (loud laughter from all). In some ways, you go so far that you start back at normal. That photograph of Patrick and her transgendered male lover included their baby which made them look like another version of the nuclear family. You take testosterone to become a man, you’re living with a woman so you turn out as a heterosexual couple.

Eisenberg says, “If butch women don’t have a place, then it becomes male and female. If a butch identified woman can’t feel like ’this is who I am and have a place in the world,’ then what are the choices? To be a woman or to be a man.” That was the point of my work, to make places. 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. Can we accept that gender is constructive? Maybe maleness will be changed when you take a woman who’s been a lesbian feminist for twenty years who then becomes a man. But can lesbian feminist go up against testosterone which is one of the most powerful hormones in the human body?

Contrary to everyone’s expectation that I would have a love affair with Leslie Feinberg (laughter from Eisenberg and Acain), I am much more emotionally connected to the very brave older women who had lived their lives “that way,” before there ever was the transgender movement. I’ve never pretended to speak for butch sexuality in my work, although I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

Bad Girl Bard

I’m old-fashioned in my sexual practices and in my sexual writing. The images and writing in On Our Backs helps me with my work a lot and I always use feminism to go one step further in being a bad girl.

Nobody in my family wrote books so my books are pretty special to me. When I was teaching and my book A Restricted Country came out, I could never show it to my boss, a wonderful woman who I’d worked with all those years. But she was a religious African American woman from the south and I was afraid. I knew she would be upset. My work has often been an issue of shame for me. This past November, I was honored with a SAGE Lifetime Achievement Award. Also honored was Queen Esther Marrow, a gospel singer who was performing at the awards with the Harlem Gospel Choir. There was a problem because they wanted to present my work but how could they dramatize the erotic? But it went fine, they used actors to present my work – I’m just always amazed when the sky doesn’t fall down when religion and sexuality are involved.

I’m working on another book, although I wish more people knew about A Fragile Union – you don’t even have to buy it, go to a library. But I think I have one more book in me. With Australia in mind, I’m thinking of calling it Furthest Rim. It will be a collection of personal writings, short stories, and erotic writings as two of my books have been. One of the problems with my work is that it doesn’t fit into any category, but I now know there’s something called “creative nonfiction,” however all writing is fiction in the sense that the choice of words is a creative imaginative act. A Restricted Country  included poetry, political essays, erotic stories, and history, which added up the story of my life. I see A Restricted Country and A Fragile Union as autobiographies. All my writing has been based on experience, sometimes I feel I have a failure of imagination. I’ve always wanted to write historical novels. On my web site, I’m trying a new form of writing for the 21st century. In the section called The Garden, I do daily writing.

“I’ve always been moved by the immediacy of your work,” says Eisenberg. I’m always forming the form and finding the way to capture the immediacy of the lived moment. We’ve had so many years of uptight WASPish writing. A Fragile Union represents a time when I’m trying to hold things together as they’re shifting under my hands, recognizing that nothing stays the same, yet not letting go of belief in social justices. It’s a time when my body is incredibly fragile for me, fragile in the sense of my own mortality and also incredibly precious when it makes it’s desires known. The sense of accumulated experiences is wonderful, and it comes with humility. I’ve been making a pattern with every step I take, with every body I’ve touched, and now I’m beginning to see that pattern behind me.

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. I have more to learn, to see what it’s like to be a fem with cancer, to have an Australian lover who calls me from all over the world and tells me to come and I just want to stay home (laughter from Eisenberg). There are all these things, hopes for change in the world, and my friendship with Lepa, a wonderful antifascist woman from Belgrade. So I’m going out in the world in a broader way, but there’s a part of me that’s also pulling in, that just wants to pull the covers around me.

For a complete list of Nestle’s books and writings visit her web site, where you can read as well as discuss her daily web site writings. Visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives located in Brooklyn, New York, by calling (718) 768-3953.

Ripe January-February-March-April 2001 Issue, Vol. 2, No. 5
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