Monday, February 14, 2011

Oh Those Lesbian Lives--Brighton and Revolting Bodies, February 10-13, 2011

Just back from our four days in Brighton and what a gathering it was, this 18th year since its inception Lesbian Lives conference. However tired I was, however worried I was about my place in the new lesbian world, saying yes to this invitation from old Irish lesbian activist friends to dare the gods once again and transverse hemphispheres--always with La Professoressa by my side--proved a most wonderful venture. Now whenever doubt hits, we will look at each other as we do, and just say, "Remember Brighton."

With another history of liberation rolling all around us, in a Square in Cairo, within our Brighton moment, I found once again, the richness of lesbian imaginings, transnational, trans gender, trans borders. New lesbian histories and the old, never old in the lived courage of hard lives and robust spirits, but lined lesbian bodies suited and frocked, well worn with their ssocial struggles for more equitable times--in all the systems that take our lives, economic, gender, racial.

Before I launch into details, which may take several postings, I want to embrace the women, the butches, the fems, the boyz, the gentlemen, the no gender labelled people, whose bodies I held in my arms, whose spirits gave renewed life to mine. As a gray morning light falls into our lounge room here, I see once again, and even more feel the warmth of Marie, her beautiful fem body held close to me, letting her know she will always be my kin, one of the many "daughters" if I may so, that I found in this old town by the sea; The Irish activist circle, Marie, Izzy and Liz and their friends, my new friends and Janet--originally from Wales--and her friend, all of us sitting outside in the pale sun, warming each other with the tales of our lives written in our eyes, in the cut of Izzy's well worn suit,  in the lilt of voices created by Irish struggles, Janet always positioning her wheel chair to bring her body into the stories we were telling. They warmed me, held my body in their love and gave me for those moments, my sense of what kind of family my queer life has made possible. With the red head by my side, I could have sat at that little aluminium round table for the next twenty years, but for activists, the next moment carries movement. I carry with me now the presence of Campbell, tall and dapper and oh so kind who brushed her/his lips to mine, who carries multiple histories, multiple complexities, some created, some of the bone, in her elegance; I carry with me Camel's laughter as she offered her technical support, and I lifted my breasts to her--and always the four Catherines/Katherines and Olu and Ermi who held the workings of our days together in their hands and hearts, to old friends like Sue whom I have known since 1988, and new like Ulrika and Eva from Poland, speaking early in the morning about hard and necessary ideas, her lovely hands running through her hair as she rushed to give us her thinking, so needed. And the young woman sitting in front of me in that session who lives in my heart now--all her histories--Switzerland and Morocco and familial--fierce in her independence from all labels--I must stop now, the day light is pouring in and La Professoressa is walking through the room, waiting for her time on the computer, but to you all, know that you touched me, that my body was yours for those days, and you held it with life giving love.

On a cold, rainy Thursday we rolled our small suitcases down the cobblestone streets to St Pancras International Station, boarding the 12:55 to Brighton. Packed deep in my suitcase was a tiny memory stick with a revamped version of the Butch-Fem slide show I traveled far and wide with in the 1980s and 90s and a stack of supporting materials--my new text, the words of Jul Bruno, Sandy Kern, and other moments from "Persistent Desire." I did not read from these excerpts but carried them with me like old friends. So much I want to say about what it meant to once again fill a large auditorium with larger then life faces and bodies, of Carol, my first love who died in 1966, Mabel Hampton and Lillian Foster--an earlier draft--here I became too tired to continue but I will)


  1. Oh thank you so much Joan for your eloquence and generosity, my head is full of the images, words and moments we all created and shared.
    I am so tired now but so energised! trying to remind myself what Is probably needed now is a good sleep but holding to the warmth of the memories, your voice still sounding in my head and the power of the images you showed us still playing in my mind Janet xx

  2. Thank you Joan for your wonderful talk. For including the voices of women often excluded fron herstories. Thank you for taking time to write all this post through the exhaustion from travel and giving your all to us coming up to you and engaging in conversation all weekend. U did it all with such love and care. You also made big people cry!

    Thanks for the tender fem shout out about my lips! w00t! ♥

  3. Dear Joan

    I read about your talk via Campbell & found your blog & loved it & wished you could zip across the Tasman to New Zealand, & now I read this beautiful post and wish that even more. What would bring you here, I wonder? Thank you for all that you've written.


  4. Thank you Joan, for your tender and militant words, which are still reverberating in me, and which will stay with me. It mattered so very much when you began your talk with a tribute to the revolution and liberation in Egpyt - you bridged the miles. When you shared images of your bodies, and of those you love/d and desire/d, and were angry for, I understood all over again how to best *be* in this world. It was a sharing of love that I will never forget. Warmly, Shamira

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  6. dear joan, i fell asleep last night thinking of you and dreamt of a beautiful sunrise. this morning i woke with a smile thinking of your wonderful cleavage! hope to meet you one day....... loving your blog : ) warmest of wishes xmx

  7. a song for you


  8. Hello again Joan,

    I have to find a way to say this because it’s been floating round in my head since the weekend and only now started to become clearer!

    First of all I feel like I’m taking a risk and am frightened of offending you or others so please tell me if I do.

    I was trying to make sense of the depth of emotion and closeness I felt being around you and hearing your words at the weekend. It started off with the word ‘Elders’ coming to mind of which there is no history in my white European culture, so then I was thinking what does it mean to me? What was it I felt, and was so comforted by in your presence? Respect from and for you, shared core values and history, the feeling you helped it be possible around the small aluminium table for us to hear each others voices with respect and care and the feeling we are valued, connected and worth something.
    Feeling valued by you and the knowledge that you had that courage yourself in the violence and oppressive times not far enough in the past for ease and still present for many all over the world, to speak out, to record our lives and our history with your body and the way you love, gave me that courage to speak, in the climate of warmth and respect you helped us to generate in those too short moments.

    You spoke of queer family, and I realise in my own life, estrangement and difference leaves me feeling unanchored with no family structure to give guidance and support as I journey through illness and middle age in my life. When you spoke of love and being held I realise this is a challenge for me and I’m sure many other queer people to find and be supported and comforted by in their lives.

    I have worried that it’s just my own tragic and dysfunctional family structure that makes this so and to some extent that’s true but it is more than that, the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the images you showed moved me to tears, it was a connection with what has gone before, visibility of that which is missing in the heteronormative view of history and culture. So I need something like ‘Elders’, people who are outside of the challenges of my own individual biological family and show me the truth and strength of my own queer history. I read your books, Dorothy Allison, Sarah Shulman, the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Marilyn Hacker, Audre Lorde and many others, I was comforted challenged and held by those things too. I wonder if today in a time when publishing has changed and access to information is more fragmented and diffuse; a sense of our own history is harder to see clearly. Older lesbians are less visible anyway if they are unable to participate in community or lesbian scene locations, I’m not so old but disability and chronic illness has put me on fast forward into that circumstance!

    Kissing your fingers as you held out your hand to me was at once a cheeky butch chancing it with a gorgeous fem, but as much as that an expression of connection and utter respect for your capacity to share so much of yourself, write the truth of your own life and in some way, know and see me through the lens of the here and now and all of our queer history, I get it!

    There is so much more to explore, to wonder about and be challenged by, thank you with the rest of the conference, for waking that part of me up so beautifully in sunny Brighton!

  9. Hello Joan - and Di too. It was wonderful to meet both of you and so many exciting others too at Lesbian Lives. Life is a bit tough at the moment, but I have come back energised and renewed.

    It is a wet and windy day here in the wildest corner of rural Ireland. I just got in from feeding my donkeys and luring them into the shelter of their shed - they are independent souls and sometimes prefer to stand gloomily in the rain. I decided to check out your blog, as I do from time to time. I was hoping there might be something there about our lovely weekend in Brighton.

    Childishly excited to see my name mentioned (remembered!)in your blog. Even my "well-worn" suit merits a mention! Well worn indeed, it is my favourite suit and my most reliable armour at times when I need a little extra confidence - I was speaking at LL that morning. So well worn in fact that I felt I could not wheel it out yet again, so I spent the day before my departure searching the men's outfitters of Dublin clutching my equally well-worn credit card.

    Consequently, I am in a position to report that current styles in menswear are truly horrible - short jackets with double vents, suitable only for skinny boys. (This was news to me, remote as I usually am from the world of fashion.)

    I consoled myself by pairing my tired old friend with a particularly splendid new shirt and hoped I would get away with it. Hopefully it was worn well, as well as well-worn. But nothing can deceive the eye for detail of the seasoned femme...

    O well. Time to retire the favourite suit. Never mind. I had already decided to frame it, now that its right shoulder had been so lovingly stroked by my all-time idol, the beautiful Joan Nestle.

    I wanted to email you, to thank you personally for all that you have given me over the years since I first discovered you, but I have trawled in vain for an email address, so this more public note will have to suffice. Most of all, I want to thank you for what was confirmed for me at Brighton - after all the tainted water that has flowed under the bridge, you are without bitterness or cynicism. You are brimming with enthusiasm, optimism and good old-fashioned love. And now I am too!

    Thank you Joan. I too could have sat at that little table forever. I hope we meet again.


  10. Just wandered back to say to Janet - are you still reading this Janet? I think you are - how good it was to hear that your soul too found the food it needed on that sunny afternoon. Hope to meet you in Hebden sometime soon.

  11. Yep Izzy, still reading, still fed by the weekend and Joan's attention to things that matter! And
    yes Hebden catchup would be great, let me know if you're over this way!

  12. Joan's talk at Brighton is now available as a podcast on

    Worth watching for those of you who weren't there - maybe for those who were as well!