Joan Nestle by Meghan Walley
Illustration by Elena Durey
Meghan Walley works as the project archivist for the Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony in Vancouver, BC. She earned a master’s in archaeology, collecting oral testimony from LGBTQ2+ Inuit to incorporate gender and sexual diversity into narratives of the past. Meghan enthusiastically furthers her queer agenda through side projects including presentations, workshops, and zines that encourage the inclusion of queers in history, archaeology, and archives.
We have all heard that second-wave feminist slogan “the personal is political,” and I have always felt that it hits especially close to home for queers, who have had to fight for the rights to the most deeply personal aspects of ourselves: our genders, our lovers, our bodies, our lives. These are things that many people take for granted, but whose weight have never evaded—or been allowed to evade—the consciousness of the LGBTQIA2+ community. Beyond this, for some of us (both privileged in our comfortable out-ness, and sometimes exhausted by our decision to offer up our own identities as fodder for debate) the personal is not only political, but also professional. This has certainly been the case for Joan Nestle. As an out lesbian writer, archivist, activist, and teacher whose work spanned from the 1960s through to the present, Nestle has never shied away from allowing her identity to inform her work; in many ways she has paved the way for professional queers like myself. In bringing her own identity into her work, Nestle opened up spaces for queer experiences to be heard, understood, and remembered.
Nestle was an iconoclast. Beginning in the 1970s, she wrote erotica, which not only had Women Against Pornography calling for the censorship of her stories, but drew criticism from some factions of the lesbian community. In her writing, she focused on butch-femme relationships, with the intention of showing that “the butch and femme relationship isn't just some negative heterosexual aping.” As a self-identified femme, she saw rejections of butch and femme identities in lesbian culture as an attack on her ability to express herself fully, eventually publishing the edited volume The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader in 1992. Part fiction, part poetry, part oral history, the reader provides an intersectional and multifaceted glimpse into the world of butch-femme relationships, which are complexly intertwined with narratives of gender, sexuality, and aesthetic, but have nothing to do with heterosexuality.
To me, Nestle’s most notable accomplishment was co-founding the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklynn, New York, in 1975. As an archivist of lesbian oral histories, I have spent a lot of time listening through the LHA’s digital collections, largely comprised of interviews and oral testimony recordings. Among my favourites are the interviews Nestle conducted herself. In an undated interview with Mabel Hampton, a black lesbian who acted as a guiding light of sorts for Nestle (she has expressed a distaste for the term role model), she mentions an LHA slideshow she was working on at the time, since outreach is usually a big part of running a queer archive. Hampton sounds concerned “Joan, this costs a lot of money. Why can’t you get something out of it…you are working very hard.” An effervescent young Nestle hardly skips beat “It’s more a question of getting information out.” Through the establishment of the Archives, Joan and her co-founder Deborah Edel, did just that: they created a space for lesbians and queer women to record and connect with our histories, getting information out to those who needed it.
But Nestle was different from many of the white lesbians of the era. In a time when many white gays were turning their backs to those who faced greater marginalization, Nestle’s vision for a lesbian archive was inclusive. In a recent interview on the Lesbian Testimony Podcast Nestle talks about one of the events that inspired her to create the LHA. In 1960, Hampton invited Nestle and her then-partner, Carol, with her and her wife Lillian to a ball in Harlem, where Nestle was exposed for the first time to a community of thousands of queer people of colour, a vibrant scene of unabashed blackness, gayness, and gender nonconformity. Through this experience, Nestle was presented with what she refers to as a “counter-narrative to the American story,” proof that the white cisheteronormative values that were plastered all over American society could not kill the complex and multivocal undercurrents they sought to erase. This was part of the lesbian story. This is not to frame Nestle as a saviour of black narratives, but rather to acknowledge that a diverse community influenced the work that she did, and was largely responsible for her vision of a lesbian archive that invited queer women to tell their own stories.
As an archivist of lesbian oral testimony, it is sometimes difficult to envision what lies ahead for me; I am ever in awe of people like Nestle who had the defiant courage to bring her sexuality to the forefront of her work, and the energy to keep this up over the course of almost six decades. In a way, writing this piece has allowed me to meditate on my positionality as a professional queer and member of a diverse community, and establish direction and motivation for the work I do. Because what we can learn from Nestle is that we cannot forget our guiding lights, the people who made room for us and allowed us to imagine ourselves into the lives we wanted to live. Nestle has always fought for visibility, and striven to preserve the voices and stories of lesbians, both through brazen honesty about her own identity in her work, and through care for voices that were distinct from her own. To me, that is the driving force behind professional queerness: to love ourselves and our contemporaries, to pay respect and gratitude to those who came before us, and to give future generations of queer women grounding through the stories we leave behind.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.