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The Living Room

When the Lesbian Herstory Archives was in my home, the living room was the site where cultural workers and political activists would speak to large groups of women once a month. I would like to try a similar sharing of ideas and dreams here, so in the coming months, visiting artists will greet you in my living room.

For now, I'll open with a piece of my own that has been found meaningful by women struggling for the rights to live and love...

Our Gift of Touch

Introduction for this piece in A Fragile Union (1998)

When I was asked to speak about women’s history to women confined in the women’s prison in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, I wanted to bring the lesbians in the prison a gift, so I wrote this piece as a broadside that could be handed out. I wanted to honor lesbian sex in prison, to honor the women who wanted each other, not because there were no men available but because they were lesbians. Unfortunately, once the group leader who had invited me into the prison announced to the gathered women and their teachers that I was going to speak about lesbian history, the head teacher decided that I was an inappropriate speaker for the two hundred women and marched them out. Ten women managed to stay, and it was they who distributed the broadside to the women in prison who wanted it.

July 1, 2000
New Introduction for At-Home Visitors

Since this piece was written in 1990, it has been translated into Hebrew by Haya Sholom and Daphne Amit for the Israeli lesbigay magazine Bega’ava (Pride) and into Yiddish by Hinde Burstin (for the Spring 2000 issue of Bridges). This was gratifying enough, but then a few months ago I received an e-mail from Lepa Mladjenovic, an antifascist lesbian feminist and member of Women in Black from Belgrade, Serbia, who said that she had been handing out copies of it (both in English and translated into Serbian) to other feminist activists in the area. She wrote,

In one of the short articles on anti-war, I mentioned at the end that reading Adrienne Rich, “Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde and the essays of Joan Nestle kept the light of my soul alive in wartime alive. And you know that, in those times, “Our Gift of Touch” we read and read in our lesbian group and translated and read again and photocopied and printed in our feminist notebooks that has 1000 copies and goes to women’s groups in all the states of the Former Yugoslavia free.
I know how self-serving repeating such words here appears, but I do so in all humility at the wonder of the courage of women like Lepa who struggle to replace national brutalities with the hope of civil, caring communities, at the wonder of how words can travel to where they are needed, and finally, to say whenever I think writing about women’s desires is a cheap thing, a trivial thing, I will think of Lepa’s need to touch in the midst of war.

My life has taught me that touch is never to be taken for granted, that a woman reaching for my breasts or parting my legs is never a common thing, that her fingers finding me or her tongue taking me are not mysterious acts to be hidden away but that all of it, the embraces, the holdings-on, the moans, the words of want, are acts of sunlight. I still watch with amazement your head between my legs, seeing the length of you, all the years of you, reaching for my pleasure. How in such a world as this, where guns and governments crush tenderness every day, can you find your way to that small, hidden woman’s place? But you do, intent and knowing; you make the huge need come.

How can I ever grow accustomed to the beauty of your cheek against my breast, or the protective strength with which you turn me over? How can I ever think it ordinary, your desire to caress the lighter places, to take the time to calm me and then to help me want what I cannot see? Or how you reach for me after I have pleasured you, pulling me up along your body, your fingers gently cleaning my lips, which glisten with your taste. Or how you make a pillow of your shoulder, to comfort me after the coming.

Never will I take for granted in this world your generosity of exploration, how you have listened to my body and found what you could do, and the way you surprise me with it when I come to bed and reach for you and feel the leather straps around your waist. You never announce, you simply smile and do.

Never will I take for granted the miracle of your desire to comfort me, the trips you have taken to reach me, late at night, appearing at my door in your jeans and T-shirt, coming like the morning. Or when you stand beside me, bare-breasted, clothed only in your leather jacket and white socks, your small belly pushing forward, your eyes glinting at the depth of my response. How all stands still at that moment, and all the loss of time and all the fears of night fall at your feet. Or the times you have held me against your heart, telling me it was alright to cry for everything.

The only shame I ever feel now, after so many years of women’s touch, is never saying thank you enough.

My life has taught me that touch is never to be taken for granted, that a woman reaching for my breast or parting my legs is never a common thing.

© 1990, 1998, 2000 Joan Nestle

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