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The Dining Room

When my old New York City home was also the home of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the dining room was dominated by a large square wooden table that I’d had with me for over 30 years. Around that table, hundreds and hundreds of lesbians planned their books, tapes, protests, love affairs. On this site, the dining room will be a place to discuss all kinds of nourishing wonders like books and music and food. And please check out my fridge for up-coming events offline.

Journal, January 29, 2006 — Record of my night in the Brunswick Library for Midsumma, A Gay and Lesbian Community Celebration

Speaking and reading at Brunswick Library, 25 January 2006

                    From: Midsumma Melbourne 2006 Program


An Open Discussion with Joan Nestle
“Writing Differences: How and why class, race, religion, sex, age, the body’s ability and gender live on the page.”

Come discuss these ideas with Joan Nestle, a 65 year old white, Jewish, working class fem lesbian from the Bronx who now lives in Brunswick. Joan is an author, historian and co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City.

Venue: Brunswick Library, Corner Sydney Road and Dawson Street (enter via Dawson Street), Brunswick
Date: Wed 25 Jan
Time: 8:00pm
Price: Free
Contact: 9389 8601
Email & Web:,

          A warm night—Di and I hurried to the library, lugging the canvas sacks filled with my materials for the night—this plentitude of texts always reminds me of my teaching days when I entered the class with a satchel overflowing with possibilities—always too much for the two-hour session. A worn-looking green two-story building that had once been the Brunswick town hall, and now was a well-stocked and even better-used library by all the communities of this part of town: Turkish, Lebanese, Italian, Sudanese, Vietnamese, and students of all kinds. Each municipality has an elected council that runs it: ours is the Moreland Council and it is a traditionally left-wing electorate. One can still speak of such things here. Over its big wooden door, one of the churches on Sydney Road has a huge banner proclaiming “Make Poverty History,” and another announces the presence of a refugee resource center. This is my neighborhood now and why it meant so much to me when a young lesbian librarian approached me four months ago about doing a reading at the library for Midsumma.
          The streets were dark and still sweating from the heat of the day, but the lights of the library spread out on the footpath. People emerged from the darkness and lined up outside the door. We joined them. Finally, we were met at the door by Jay and Victor from Bent TV who wanted to do an interview with me before the event started. As they miked me up, I just stared at the flow of people, the seats filling up, and could not believe it. Where did all these people come from, over 100 it turned out, waiting on line to get into the library, spilling into the further reaches of the stacks, everywhere books and people. How could this woman ask for more.
          I saw and kissed friends, women who had traveled across town to be here and then many I did not know, my friends Daniel and Joel and Peter and a scattering of other men. Half the Jewish Lesbian Group were there, and students like Kate I had come to know at the University of Melbourne. My dear neighbor Donna was there, one of the many straight people who had decided to attend. From the front of the room, where several people put their hands on me to mike me up, and which I loved, playing with their touches, I could see it all—we were in the library, not some room to the side, but the main reading room, so the books were also listening, and we sat encircled by their promises, their endurances. People sitting on folding chairs filling up the space and then flowing into any open channels between the shelves. The woman from the Council did the traditional greeting: “Before we start we want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather.” I am always struck by these words—by their recalled horrors, their smallness in the face of the suffering of the Aboriginal people, historically and now, and by their persistent demand that we not forget. Before coming here, I never heard in gatherings in New York such public recognition that we were interlopers, the descendants of the conquering classes.

I spread out my texts on the table before me: a sheet of paper with a quote from Sappho, my old green gilt Longriver Press copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the Oxford University Press small hardcover Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 2nd edition (1930)—these books part of the 50 or so old friends I had to choose to take with me when I gave up my apartment—that is another story, how out of a library built up over 40 years, you walk the shelves and seize upon those you cannot give away or leave behind, those that give life like food, whose loss would make life too hard, too lonely, too bereft of beauty or courage or intelligence to endure—the paperback edition of Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2004), Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship by Shane Phelan and finally my own books, A Restricted Country and A Fragile Union. This is what I do now—after studying queer theory with my young friends—I make materially visible the genealogy of my thinking.
          Before I proceed to my notes for the evening, I must make sure you know about the new anti-terror legislation recently passed here that include anti-sedition laws. Talking against the government and its policies can make you a criminal. I wanted to create in the room with people who did not know each other the chance for all of us to be seditious in many ways. What follows is rough, I know, and without my interaction with the audience it will be hard to feel the night, but perhaps these working notes and texts will be helpful to others—we must find ways to reclaim a progressive public discourse that has nothing to do with entrance fees or fancy venues.

Reading at Brunswick Library, 25 January 2006

Notes for our discussion of difference:

  1. Thank the traditional owners of the land and commit to a better future
  2. Thank Sarah for making this evening possible by inviting me—the role of libraries, the home of seditious thoughts, comforting thoughts, new thoughts, dreams and facts—how happy I am to be part of Midsumma
  3. Dedicate this evening to Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author who was threatened with a three-year jail sentence under a law which outlaws insulting all the major offices of state as well as the military and the parliament. Similar in some ways to the sedition laws recently passed here. In his novel Snow (2004), he quotes the 19th-century English poet Robert Browning:

    Text 1:

    Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
    The honest thief, the tender murderer,
    The superstitious atheist.

    (Bishop Blougram’s Apology)
    [Make the joke that, last time I looked, neither Pamuk or Browning were lesbians, but these are the texts this 65-year-old fem lesbian seeks out]

  4. Text 2:

    Some say that the fairest thing
    upon the dark earth is a host of horseman
    and some say a host of soldiers
    and others again a fleet of ships
    but for me it is my beloved.

    - Sappho (refusing to glorify war, a different theme)

  5. Text 3:
    What think you I take my pen in hand to record?
    The battle-ship, perfect-model’d, majestic, that I saw passing the
    Offing to-day under full sail?
    The splendors of the past day? Or the splendor of the night that
    Envelops me?
    Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city spread
    Around me?–no;
    But merely of two simple men I saw to-day on the pier
    In the midst of the crowd, parting the parting of
    Dear friends,
    The one to remain hung on the other’s neck and passionately
    Kiss’d him,
    While the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his

    Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book V, Calamus

  6. Text 4:
    I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy
    But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
    (What indeed do I have in common with them?
    Or what with the destruction of them?)
    Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city
    Of these states inland and seaboard,
    And in the fields and woods, and above every keel
    Little or large that dents the water,
    Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
    The institution of the dear love of comrades.

    Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book V, Calamus

  7. Text 5:
    Pied Beauty
    Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1918

    Glory be to God for dappled things—
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in a stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and
    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.

    On JoyFm, the 24-hour queer radio station in Melbourne, I was asked what gave me the courage to be different—a courage we all have and use every day. This question resulted in my decision to read from “The Killing Air” (A Restricted Country, 1987), to start the readings from my own work on the questions of difference.

  8. Text 6: 1949

              Mrs. Worthy stood in front of her desk, a signal to us all that she was going to say something very important. She put her hands behind her and leaned her upper body into us. “Now children, you remember how I have been telling you about the ‘isms’ that are America’s danger.” We all nodded. How could we forget the weekly reading Mrs. Worthy made us endure from a book she obviously thought was a bible for the times. Her favorite sermons were on the danger of communism, the ‘ism’ that made her blue-white hair even bluer and her grow deep with sternness. “This is National Negro Week, and you all have to write an essay on a famous American Negro. But children,” she leaned even closer, “there is one man you must not write about. He is a disgrace to this country.” I twisted in my seat. “His name is Paul Robeson, and he is a communist.” The anger and contempt in her voice were too big for this fourth grade class.
              Mrs. Worthy was our social studies teacher, and she had already taught me more than she would ever know. Earlier in the year, she had been lecturing us, once again, on the evils that plagued this country. Only this time her subject was ‘key children.’ The trouble with this country, she confided to us, was those key children, those wild children left free to roam the streets by uncaring mothers. These dirty and disrespectful children were lowering the standards of our country. I tried to sink into my seat because I was one of those latchkey children, and as she spoke the metal key around my neck began to burn my flesh. Slowly, slowly, I inched my hand up to my sweater. I had already known I was different. I had no father; my mother worked. But I had not known I was a national disgrace. Along with the shame of that day, however, I learned something else: that 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 never accept dictated hatreds.
              When Mrs. Worthy said Paul Robeson was an enemy, I immediately knew I had to find out who he was and write about him. After school, I anxiously waited for my mother to come home from work so I could ask her about this man. A great man, she said, who believed in peace. I spent the next days finding out all I could about him and wrote an essay called, “Paul Robeson: A Great American.”
              Although Mrs. Worthy never spoke to me about it, I had won two gifts for myself: a lifelong appreciation for Paul Robeson’s spirit and the knowledge that ideas lives passionately in this world. If I had accepted the voice of orthodoxy in this early skirmish with McCarthy America, I would never have found the courage to claim my lesbian life twelve years later.

  9. Text 7: from “The Bathroom Line” (A Restricted Country)
    (dedicated to lesbians of the 1950s)

    ....But the most searing reminder of our colonized world was the bathroom line. Now I know it stands for all the pain and glory of my time, and I carry that line and the women who endured it deep within me. Because we were labeled deviants, our bathroom habits had to be watched. Only one woman at a time was allowed into the toilet because we could not be trusted. Thus the toilet line was born, a twisting horizon of lesbian women waiting for permission to urinate, to shit.
              The line flowed past the far wall, past the bar, the front room tables, and reached into the back room. Guarding the entrance to the toilet was a short, square, handsome butch woman, the same one every night, whose job it was to twist around her hand our allotted amount of toilet paper. She was one of us, an obscenity, doing the man’s tricks so we could breathe. The line awaited all of us every night, and we developed a line act. We joked, we cruised, we commented on the length of time one of us took, we made special pleas to allow hot-and-heavy lovers in together, knowing full well that our lady would not permit it. I stood, a femme, loving the women on either side of me, loving my comrades for their style, the power of their stance, the hair hitting the collar, the thrown-out hip, the hand encircling the beer can. Our eyes played the line, subtle touches, gentle shyness woven under the blaring jokes, the music, the surveillance. We lived on that line, restricted and judged we took deep breaths and played.
              But buried deep in our endurance was our fury. That line was practice and theory seared into one. We wove our freedoms, our culture, around their obstacles of hatred, but we also paid our price. Every time I took the fistful of toilet paper, I swore eventual liberation. It would be, however, liberation with a memory.

  10. Text 8: from “This Huge Light of Yours” (A Restricted Country)

    ....I wore a double mask in these early sixties years, in those white restaurants. My first deception was to the enemy: the pose of a nice white person who could be let in and would sit down and eat in quiet tones, ignoring the battle for human dignity that was happening outside the windows. The second was to my friends: the pose of straightness, the invisibility of my queerness. They did not know that when the police entered with their sneers and itchy fingers, I was meeting an old antagonist. Perhaps their uniforms were a different color, but in the lesbian bars of my other world I had met these forces of the state. I never told my comrades that I was different, because a secret seemed a little thing in such a time of history....
              Some nights after we left church [Brown’s Chapel] but had too much nervous energy to go to bed, we gathered in a large one-room grocery store and restaurant that served as a social center for the Black community. We filled the room, a tired crowd of dusty and rumpled workers, downing beers and cokes while we listened to anyone who felt the need to speak out about the day’s events. Here in this room was one version of the living flesh of the sixties. We were a mass of differences.
              Even our voices spoke in accents of different geographies—the sharp New England twang, the harsher, fuller vowels of the Bronx and Brooklyn, the soft drawls of the South and West—but here we put aside the places we had come from and listened to the place we were in. Here we heard stories about daily life in Selma [Alabama] if you were black and involved in the civil rights struggle.
              In quiet voices we were told about friends who disappeared off the streets and were never seen again, about the bodies found floating in back-country rivers, about the beatings. We sat with our arms around each other, laid our heads on shoulders, just rested and felt safe for the few hours we were there. In the face of this history, and in that large worn room, we shared a tenderness perhaps only warriors without weapons know.

  11. My words leading into the discussion:

              When I thought of this evening, pushed by world events—the sedition acts here, the tyranny of the Bush administration, its secrets, its lies, its refusal to question its right to war, its willed inaction in New Orleans that doomed so many poor Americans to a suffering that still continues, the plight of refugees all over the world, the Cronulla race riots, the struggle for gay marriage and indeed why that struggle occupies us the way it does, the word “difference” kept demanding attention. And our need, as a public, to explore together, how this belief, concept, emotional attachment, reality lives in us and is used by the State. Is a sense of difference an illusion, a choice, a passion, a home? Difference is a discussion we have ourselves, with our bodies, with each other, with history and with the State. So much of why I wrote in the beginning came from my perceived differences—all those nouns I listed to get you here—all those nouns that in reality have a constantly shifting meaning so really tell you little about who I am at this moment. My words of difference—deceased (because my father died before I was born, I had to learn to spell this word to fill out school forms), deviant, freak, queer, whore, fem, Jew, commie, cancer.
              In fact much of what is happening around difference in the public sector reminds me of the 1950s—the surveillance, the sense of internal enemies, of people not to be trusted, the concept of a deviant national citizen, the war between good and evil, even the use of terms like “pedophile” and “pornographer.” Here I said because I was always an archivist I carried newspaper clippings with me for events like this and showed the group an Age article beginning with the following words: “A US filmmaker, angered by the awards success of films such as the gay drama Brokeback Mountain has launched a cinema prize to honour American ‘moral values.’” And then I also mentioned the New York Times article “JT LeRoy Hoax Angers LGBT Fans, Writers,” the revelation that the ‘transgendered author’ of a popular biography was really written by a 40-year-old, middle-class white woman from Brooklyn, NY and her mother, husband and other family members who all helped to build an industry around this imaginary person. Perhaps in some ways we impersonate our selves and all our perceptions of our differences. I also mentioned the Australian Broadcasting Company’s documentary on race, showing how race in America is a constructed, manipulated idea. Then I suggested some possible conversations—difference and patriotism, secrets and difference, difference and war, difference and sexual longings, difference and power, difference and change, difference and autonomy, difference and shame, difference and exile, difference and creativity, difference and boundaries, centers and margins, difference and respectability, difference and passing, difference and aging, difference and change, difference and assimilation, difference and violence, difference and collectivity, difference and hope or to put it another way, difference and coalitions.


  12. Text 9:

    In preparing for conversations such as this, I always read a new book and the one for this discussion was Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship (2001) by Shane Phelan. Using the work of Zygmunt Bauman (Modernity and Ambivalence) who, in writing about European Jews, developed the concept of national strangers. Phelan says the stranger is “neither us nor clearly them, not a friend and not an enemy, but a figure of ambivalence who troubles the border between us and them. The enemy is the clear opposite of the citizen, but the stranger is more fraught with anxiety.” Like the queer citizen, the stranger is one who is present and yet absent at the same time, visible and invisible at the same time—“nominally included in liberal regimes but whose sexuality makes her continually prey to renewed exclusions, scapegoating and violence.”
              My own position: Let me remain a productive stranger in this time of resurrected exclusive respectabilities, in this time of unquestioned national fronts, in this time of killing national certainties, in this time of unchallenged infallibilities, in this time of fear and surveillance of strangers. I will be a stranger in your midst who will dream and work with you for a different kind of economics, for a different use of collective power, for a joyful sexuality not tied to family or marriage or the State or god, for the recognition that bodies carry multiple meanings of gender and abilities, working together for a more inclusive, complex portrait of human dignity.

My part was now over and the discussion began. That I cannot recreate but against all warnings that here in this more reserved country a public conversation would prove difficult, women spoke. One woman, Eva, spoke as a heterosexual Jewish woman in her mid seventies, telling of the progressive struggles here in Australia in the ’fifties and ’sixties, saying it was easier then, “we had the hope we could change things.” Forty minutes later I read “Hope” as my last contribution to the evening:

          Wearing my voluminous flannel nightgown, I knelt before the small wood-burning stove, trying to see why the fire was so fragile. I felt huge and awkward in that position, aware of my rump and falling breasts, but the cold night air demanded that the fire be encouraged to burn at a brisker pace. My younger lover, small and tight in her body, sat on the couch watching me. I did not like what I thought she saw. I did not like the bigness of my ass, the weight of my body on my knees, and then just as I worked very hard to accept my lack of appeal, she said in a low, firm voice, “You look so fuckable that way.”
          I froze caught in that moment of self-hatred by the clarity of her desire. I stopped all movement, awed once again by the possibilities of life. I knew she was walking toward me. I felt her stand behind me, felt her hands shape my nightgown to my curves. I heard her breath come quicker, and still I did not move. She grew impatient and reached under the gown, piling up its length on her arm like a fisherman pulling in his nets, and then against all my fear, she entered me. The fire blazed up, and so did my hope, as I finally left the burden behind me and rode her hand with all the grace love had ever given me.

I cannot tell you how moved I was by this evening, by all those who came to share this time with me, a newcomer to Brunswick, to Melbourne, to the Pacific rim. We left to the sounds of people talking to each other. Kate, the young socialist scholar and activist had linked up with Eva to do an oral history, others were still sitting talking even as the library workers were folding up the chairs. I had said early in the evening to the audience: “You will never know how much life you have given me”—and all that happened that night lives inside of me.

Brunswick Library, view from back of the room, 25 January 2006


30 January 2006
Dear Joan,
Thanks for a wonderful night last Wednesday. I have had a lot of positive feedback from people.
I was amazed by how many people arrived and how many people participated—things were just warming up—but alas, a lack of time got the better of us.
Your opening talk was warm, funny and inspiring. It was just fantastic. I'm not sure how you would feel if we put on a “Part 2” in the future—tell me what you think. The feeling I got from the night is that the people wanted more.
Thank you once again. I thank you for your time, energy and creativity.
Kind Regards,


Texts © 2006 Joan Nestle, by the quoted writers or their estates, and in common domain. Photos thanks to Sarah and © 2006 Moreland City Council.

View previous (2000-2001) Dining Room discussions.

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