Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde are much on my mind. Here is part of a public conversation and then a more private one I had with Adrienne Rich in the beginning of the 21st century.
Wars and Thinking
By Joan Nestle, 2003
Published in the Journal of Women's History, vol.15, no.3, Autumn 2003, A Retrospective on Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence"
“What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”
Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” 1970
“The realm of human sex, gender and procreation has been subjected to, and changed by, relentless social activity for millennia. Sex as we know it—gender, identity, sexual desire and fantasy, concepts of childhood—is itself a social product.”
Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on a Political Economy of Sex,” 1975
“Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic,” 1978
“Thus the lesbian has to be something else—not a woman, a not man, a product of society, not a product of nature—for there is no nature in society.”
Monique Wittig, “One is Not Born a Woman,” 1980
“I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range—through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously explored genital sexual experience with another woman.”
Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” 1980
“What is the relationship between sexuality and gender? What is our stake in maintaining a still relatively rigid gender dichotomy in sexual temperament and behavior? What is the relationship between sexual fantasy and sexual acts? What is our rational control over fantasy and do we think there should be a sexual ethics that extends to fantasy? In other words, how set are our individual scripts for sexual arousal?”
Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson, Introduction to Powers of Desire: the Politics of Sexuality, 1983.
“Heterosexuality, I now think, is invented in discourse as that which is outside of discourse. It’s manufactured in a particular discourse as that which is universal. It’s constructed in a historically specific discourse as that which is outside of time. It was constructed quite recently as that which is old: heterosexuality is an invented tradition.”
Jonathan Ned Katz, "The Invention of Heterosexuality," 1995
"From the beginning of wars in this region from '91 on I felt that I have to invent Ten Thousand ways to let my lesbian self breathe. At some moments during the last 8 years, it was not easy for me to put into words how do I feel when making love with a woman and in the back there is a radio with the news of war. Killed or expelled or other fascist acts. In my room, I would not be able to stand up and switch off the news, because I thought respect to the killed I will show by not switching off the radio…reading Adrienne Rich, “Litany for Survival,” by Audre Lorde and essays of Joan Nestle kept the light of my soul in wartime alive.”
Lepa Mladjenovic, in a private correspondence, Belgrade, 1999
American bombs are falling on Baghdad; seven Iraqi women and children are killed by young frightened American soldiers; Rumsfield grins his death-mask smile, “I wish I was the author of this war plan, it is going so well.” I sit in my new home in Melbourne, Australia driven here by breast cancer, landlord greed and my love for a Melbourne woman. Several months ago when the Journal of Women’s History extended to me the invitation to join this project of rereading, rethinking, I was hesitant to say yes—I have never been a student in or taught a women’s studies class. I have been retired from formal teaching—I am now an Honorary Fellow in the English Department at the university here, mentoring a small group of post-graduate students—for nine years. Thus, I have no empirical data to anchor my judgments about how important Rich’s essay has been over the ensuing years. This seems to be how I enter public discourse, with my working class shadow of self-doubt hovering over me, but now at sixty-two, having endured two cancers and their treatments and the loss of a lifelong home, I am impatient with this old ghost, and so I send it packing.
My first undertaking was, I believed, to educate myself more, to put this 1980 essay into a deeper context. This decision was made before the coalition invasion. And this reading, this work, has helped preserve my sanity; thinking in a time of war is an affirmation of the generosities of human life. For the past two weeks, I have been re-reading—Katz, Rubin, Wittig, Snitow, Thompson, Stansell—with the BBC coverage of the war always on, muted, but throwing its images into the room. I lift my eyes from The Invention of Heterosexuality and see a flash of light in a night sky. I turn a page of the introduction to Powers of Desire and see a tank spitting out green fire. I struggle to follow lines of thinking in Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” (1975) exalting in her elegant thinking, her fearless adaptations of Marx, Engel, Freud and Lacan, to pursue roots of why women are the disvalued sex/gender. I look up and see lines of gunfire, ending in flares of destruction. Thinking, the creation of meaning, the internal pact we make with words that they will be moments of human sincerity, the reconstitution of near-historical texts attesting to intellectual lineages—all of this stands in the face of the Orwellian speech of generals, press secretaries and government leaders obsessed with ensuring their class positions. I have just read a sentence in Melbourne’s most progressive newspaper, The Age, that I must add here, not as a parenthetical remark or as a distanced footnote: “The Marine uses a chilling term picked up from the US military in Afghanistan, to describe what might have happened to a dozen or more people thought to have died in this missile attack—they have become ‘pink mist.’” (The Age, 8 April 2003.)
I walk in demonstrations, hear that old 1960s shuffle of thousands of feet moving on asphalt, and think of the calls to action I have read in preparing this essay—Jonathan Ned Katz calling on us to dismantle the oppositional categories of homosexual and heterosexual by turning the historical eye on preconceived essentialisms, calling for a future pleasure system that will not be based on the denigration of the other—understand, they say and then dismantle, build anew. Thinking in a time of war—dismantle brutal systems of power, amidst the gleeful reporting of the technological perfection of killing machines.
I have never struggled to write a formal piece on the eve of war—my tooth aches—I write this thinking this is true and then when I turn to my essay, “Some Understandings,” written to celebrate the launching of Powers of Desire in 1983, I find the sentence, “to even raise the issue of women’s sexual freedom in the time of our government’s invasion of Grenada may seem a bourgeois activity to some---Our government is now mobilizing this country for further assaults on governments it deems deviant.”
I reapproach Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” not as an objective reader, not even after twenty years. This document was a major force in the fierce debates about women’s sexual pleasures and dangers that raged during the 1970s and 1980s. The Sex Wars we call them. In print and in person, at conferences and book launches, in classrooms and women’s centers, at sex parties and Take Back the Night marches, we argued our positions. I was on the side of the lesbian “pornographers,” writing erotic stories for Bad Attitude and On My Back, claiming a place in lesbian and women’s history for the butch-fem communities on my lesbian youth. I believed that sexual fantasy, sexual autonomy, sexual pleasure must be as deeply championed as our commitment to ending violence against women. Some of my colleagues in this dissent from the women-against-pornography arguments were Amber Hollibaugh, Pat Califia, Jewelle Gomez, Carole Vance, Liz Kennedy, John Preston, Madelaine Davis, Ann Snitow, Paula Webster, Dorothy Allison, Gayle Rubin. I list these names because they were/are my comrades—just as Rich turned to Catherine McKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Jan Raymond and Katheleen Berry among many others for intellectual support in her essay.
In the face of a real war, it must seem worse than ludicrous for me to use the phrase “sex wars” with any conviction that their duration was an important time. But these were formative years for me, years of warring judgments, years that pushed my work, brought me into contact with writers and activists such as Adrienne and her partner Michelle Cliff, years that launched the Lesbian Herstory Archives (1973), years that taught me the complexity of women’s history. When I first read “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” I hated it. I was infuriated by its intellectual alliances, by what I perceived as its anti-sex stance, by its transhistorism, by its sweeping generalizations about women’s and lesbians’ lives. The sentence, “every woman is a potential lesbian” I read as rhetorical posturing that obfuscated the material realities of all women’s lives. Deep in the passions of the times, I thought Rich was putting her tremendous influence in the service of the wrong camp. My heart broke as I read the uninflected litanies of the signs of male domination—made so familiar to me by the anti-pornography pamphlets and slide shows I had read and seen; paragraphs that equated rape and high heels and feminine dress codes in fashion as a means of confining women physically; warnings about false consciousness; assertions that heterosexual intercourse or sexual penetration was a form of legalized rape. I did not want to return to my mother’s breast, and I knew her assumptions that lesbians did not do the "bad" things gay men did, like anonymous sex, was simply wrong. I read the essay as a stern, severe voice from a land in which I did not want to live.
Having been part of a public butch-fem lesbian world since 1957, having been schooled in the ways the state policed desire in the Greenwich Village bars of this time, having brought myself up in the fierce way the children of sometimes desperate single mothers do—work at thirteen and leaving my mother’s care so I could still attend school—I found the word “compulsory” a red flag in the face of my own determination. I distrusted Rich’s positioning in society—I read her as a formerly heterosexual woman with some influence in the world, a renowned poet who was gracing my freak- rooted history with her presence. Ironically, her call for a lesbian continuum, her wish to expand the theoretical and political world of straight feminist discourse, was to me another exile for the specific lesbian life and communities I had known. I was very suspicious of respectability, and of feminist respectability even more so. My answer to the anti-pornography movement and Rich’s essay was to write “My Mother Liked to Fuck.” A once-married woman, the mother of three sons, writes the major document calling for lesbian inclusion and a never married childless, old-time lesbian fem writes a call for the respect of heterosexual women’s desire—both documents coming from our deepest feminist convictions.
In reading Rich’s essay twenty years later and after reading Rubin’s essay, where the phrases, “obligatory,” and “compulsive heterosexuality” are first used, I can separate out my own need for agency from [Rich's much needed] analysis of class oppression, of sex/ gender systems of power.
Besides the fact that I was deeply involved in the discourses raging about sexuality and the best way to provide for women’s safety, I also shared a New York lesbian-feminist community with Adrienne; she is not just the unknowable author of this [pivotal] essay. In the early 70s, I had a chance to meet Adrienne in different historical circumstances, and to this day I wish I had not been so self-protective. I had been invited to join a Marxist-feminist study group by my mentor in feminist matters, Paula Webster, that met every two weeks in Marta’s upper West Side apartment. We would begin talking about our assigned chapters from Capital, but before long, in good consciousness-raising fashion, we left the text and fell into our lives. I was nervous about entering this world of accomplished feminist thinkers, but I soon realized I had a ready-made place in the group because I was the only lesbian. I often became the recipient of questions like, “Joan, is loneliness the same thing for lesbians?” (An interesting question, really.) In the beginning I did not mind this easily won ground of acceptance and respect, but as the months went by, I realized that it was a cheap way of holding my own in the group.
One night as were breaking up, Marta asked me to stay for a cup of coffee and meet a friend of hers, Adrienne who was a poet and also taught in the SEEK Program (in 1966, I had started teaching in this first of the open enrollment programs of the City University of New York). Feeling like an exhausted imposter, I just wanted to get back to that safe space I called my world. I asked, “Is she a lesbian?” and Marta said she didn’t think so. I can still hear my diminished voice saying, “Oh, I think I will skip it—I am tired of being the only lesbian.” Perhaps if Adrienne and I had met back in those earlier days, before I became the pornographer and she the author of “Compulsive Heterosexuality,” we might have become different kinds of friends, friends who argued their way through their historical times.
Rich and I were to meet many times over the lesbian-feminist 1980s—at parties, at readings, at Womanbooks (the large and wonderful women’s bookstore that took up its home on the corner of 92nd street, the same street as the home of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which a group of us had founded in 1973 as a way to end the invisibility of lesbian lives past and present). I remember an earlier time when the bookstore was still in its smaller quarters across Broadway and Adrienne was the featured author. Hundreds of women looped around the block, unable to get in. On Broadway, people were stopping each other and asking what is happening—Adrienne Rich is giving a reading.
She was one of the first researchers to use the archives, when it was still a small collection in the pantry behind the kitchen. There she did some work on Of Women Born, eventually making a gift of her hand-written notes to the archives. I just gave what must by my one thousandth sharing of the archives slide show, and there was the image of Adrienne that always travels with me: she is working at the small lesbian-made desk—we only wanted furniture made by lesbians in the archives then—her dark head lowered, her whole body concentrating on her work.
It was to Adrienne that I turned when, after twenty-eight years of being a lecturer in the SEEK Program, I dared to ask the formal English Department for a promotion. I needed letters of recommendation to accompany the copies of my books and other published materials—all with “lesbian” somewhere in the title. She graciously responded with a letter that made me glow with pride. When my second volume of memoirs was to be published in 1992, my editors at Cleis turned to Adrienne for a jacket blurb and once again, her words were more than kind. On the walls of the archives hangs a print of one of the original French woodcuts of Gertrude and Alice, presented to the collection by Adrienne and Michelle during one of their visits to our Manhattan home.
One morning later in the 1980s, I received a call from Adrienne. She had been asked to speak at a Times Square Rally for a “Take- Back- the- Night” march through the 42nd Street sex district. A group of us opposed to the targeting of women sex workers had authored a flyer opposing this tactic. In an honest quandary, Adrienne asked me to explain my stance. Her search for a clearly thought-out position during this divided time deeply impressed me. The image of Adrienne that will always stay with me, however, is the summer afternoon the three of us met to talk about this growing schism in the movement. She invited Deborah Edel, my partner at the time and co-founder of the archives, and me to her Montague, Massachusetts home. Since we were coming from New Hampshire, we first stopped in Peterborough to lay a rose on the grave of Willa Cather—who lay in the shadow of the same mountain range that sheltered Adrienne’s home. We sat in the backyard and tried to talk. Adrienne had recently been to Nicaragua and she told us her arthritis had been so bad she had to be carried on and off the lurching buses that took the group around the country. In my memory, I felt awkward and inarticulate. My final view of Adrienne was of her standing in her shorts on the front porch, waving good-bye. I had never seen her body before, and bodies for me are the starting places of all our stories. A small woman, with scarred legs and twisted bones, a poet in the shadow of mountains, a tireless traveler for human rights. I need to chronicle these encounters that shifted between generosity and alienation because I am writing about the living time in which this text was produced. “Compulsory Heterosexuality” will never be just words on a page, but a breathing emanation from a rugged struggle. We were all living our ideas in passionate ways, creating homes for new histories whether in our poems, bookstores or living rooms.
What we did in our bedrooms, however, and the significance of those acts, was where the break came. In the early 1980s, particularly after the Barnard Sex conference, Rich and I were often pitted against each other. We moved in different circles, both in terms of friendships and in our heads.
The social and political background of 1980 and now are eerily similar. In the beginning years of this 21st century, the American right wing, with a deadly disdain for dissidence and the disenfranchised, is firmly positioned to wipe away most of the progress accomplished in the last decade on issues of sexuality, reproductive rights and gender nonconformity. Concerns about protecting the family, the demand on (Anglo-European) women to have more babies (a particular campaign here in Australia), the attempt to pull women out of the workforce makes Bush’s government a direct descendant of Reagan’s America; now this son of the right with far too many fathers has pulled half the world into the abyss of war.
Computer images of helicopters rotating from side to side, missiles hanging from their bellies, inhuman looking humans vaguely seen in simulated cockpits. Bush in blue suit, white shirt, blue tie, a small American flag pinned to his lapel reads his lines; events in Iraq have reached their final destination—we have done nothing to deserve this—we will not drift—we have the sovereign authority—we will rise to our responsibility.
At sixty-two, with my own body scarred by two cancer operations, with a new generation of students, some queer, some not, but all of them refusing unquestioned categories like “mother,” or “man” or “woman,” I return to “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” I still find it claustrophobic and relentless, a work too sure of all its assumptions, too eager in its marshaling of unquestioned supporting voices, too narrow in its understanding of women’s sexual possibilities and too essentializing of almost everything. (Of course, this description can be applied to my own work as well.) In short, a work of its time. I do, however, have a better understanding now of the discourses required to start the dismantling of the sex/gender systems of power that rob us all of life. Rich, a post-1970s lesbian feminist, refused to accept her exclusion from feminist academic thinking lying down and in her refusal, has given generations of women students a vision of nonheterosexual possibilities. My check of the internet showed that her essay is a staple of almost every women’s studies program. A week before I was told about this project, a lesbian-feminist friend of mine who teaches sociology sent me an essay for publication that she had written about the representation of Italian women in three American films. Dawn, a once married woman with a grown lesbian daughter, was going to use this article as a coming out vehicle. In the first paragraph of her essay, she employs Rich’s concept of the lesbian continuum as the conceptual framework that gives her permission to gaze upon these seemingly heterosexual cultural constructions with a lesbian eye. Thus, Rich’s essay gave room both for an intellectual approach that did not exist before “Compulsory Heterosexuality” and a personal announcement of the author’s own sexuality.
For myself, I am excited by the layering of thought, by discourses pushing against each other, by the cracks in certitude—even in a time of war. This time, as I read Rich, I carried Foucault and Butler with me, I understood that we were all trapped in a reversed discourse, but the questioning, the assertion of inclusion had to start somewhere. I realized how much of my own life’s work has been, in Jonathan Ked Katz’s words, “compensatory affirmative action.” (178) I see Rich’s essay as a moment in a different continuum, one of public thinking about sex/gender constructions and resulting inequalities, with De Beauvoir, Radicalesbians, Wittig, Rubin, Katz, Foucault and Butler all preparing the ground for the next generation of ideas that will challenge what we think we know and give us new tools to dismantle the systems of power that constrict our humanity. Thinking in a time of war is the preparation to end all war.
“There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than ‘politicians’ think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it because the world has ideas (and mostly because it produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think.”
Michel Foucault, “Les Reportages d’idees,” 1978
Before I end, I want to say one more thing. Over the years, I have read savage reviews of Rich’s poetry, reviews attacking her for being too polemical. Adrienne Rich has put her whole literary reputation in danger because she has ideas about injustices of all kinds and these ideas inform her creative world. For the risks she has taken in this country of so-called free speech, where the disdain of the establishment can crush a writer’s spirit, I will always honor her.
I want to thank the English and Creative Writing Departments of the University of Melbourne for giving me a home for the next 18 months. I want to particularly acknowledge Daniel Marshall, Renee Barnes, Cathy Gomes, Angela Keem and Katie Hogan, post-graduate students all, for their gifts of ideas and their warm welcome.
In memory of Lynda Myoun Hart (1953-2000), who with brilliance and grace took the conversation even further.
2012: Sent to Shawn and the LHA women for the day and night celebratory event on November 17, 2012Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich: Two Pioneering Friends of LHA
By Joan Nestle, 2012, Melbourne
Note to Shawn: Remember I am writing as a 72 year old living far from the events I record here. I am sure Deb will bring some things into better focus, and I know you wanted a short piece, but all the early years of LHA were embedded in the political and cultural undertakings of the 70s and 80s where queer, gay, lesbian-feminist and identity politics marked our friendships and work. The archives was only one of the firsts of that time. Please add these memories to my collection there.
First I want to thank Shawn and all who have worked so hard to make this so important LHA event possible and for giving me the chance to provide some context.
Years: 1974-1984. Deb and I had committed ourselves to spending the first ten years of LHA to spreading the word, to building confidence in the possibility of such a project, to enlisting the involvement of all we met, to welcoming every one we could through 13A’s doors, and to covering every lesbian cultural event we could while still working full time. I from the butch-fem bars of the late 50s, Deb from the lesbian feminist world of the early 70s were both active in the newly forming communities around us. How these two collections came into LHA is a story of comradeship, archival servicing and the generosity of these two women. First connections: Adrienne, Audre and I were all teachers in the SEEK Program, (1966--),a radical alternative educational program, born of the street rebellions of the mid 60s and created by the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus of the New York State Assembly under the powerful leadership of Shirley Chisholm, that was housed on the different campuses of CUNY. Both Adrienne and Audre lived close by on the upper West Side in the large cheap rent stabilized apartments that were available in those years. Often I would run into Adrienne hauling her groceries up Broadway. Both writers were frequent readers and visitors to Womenbooks, that grand lesbian and feminist gathering place that was on the corner of 92nd street, and LHA was just down the street.
Later another connection: demonstrations in Washington, on the streets of New York, whether against America’s interventions in Nicauraca or for reproductive rights and often Adrienne would stand with us and our little LHA sign. We were all involved with the Feminist Writers Guild, the child of Sonny Wainwright, who was our first friend to die of breast cancer amidst communal support. (See “Stage V: A Journal Through Illness,” 1984 with Audre's words on the back cover.) Still another site of connection was the monthly meetings at GWA, the Gay Women’s Alternative in the old Universalist Church on CPW and 79th street where both writers often read and socialized with friends and there we were, taping what we could. With Audre, there was the additional connection of our shared experience in the lesbian bar communities of the late 50s and early 60s.
And always Deb and I were speaking of LHA’s decolonizing mission. Adrienne and her lover, Michelle Cliff, came to dinner in the early 70s, and brought with them their first donations to the collection, the signed woodcut print of Alice and Gertrude, that hung on the dining room wall for all of the 92nd street years. Adrienne asked if she could work on “Of Woman Born,” in the archives while we were both at work, and so there she sat, at the lesbian built wooden desk, turning out index card by index card of notes, welcoming me home in the late afternoon. (image) When the Modern Language Association held its historic meeting in New York, (check date) the one where Monique Wittig made that famous speech, “I am not a woman,” the archives staffed a table with copies of our holdings of the lesbian writers present there, including Audre and Adrienne. In the evening all the members of the first ever MLA’s lesbian caucus came for to LHA to see the collection and party. Later in the 1980s, Deb and I visited Adrienne in her summer home in Montague just after her return from Nicauraga, continuing our ongoing political conversations. I think the most important thing I can say here is that Adrienne and Audre understood from the beginning what we were envisioning, all of us with our different but connected histories, joined at this time. Others would say, it can’t be done, you can’t have an archives in an apartment, you don’t have the money or the time or the knowledge, you are not professional enough, but we were part of a movement that created what was needed, with all the resources we had that could be shared. We had communities we valued too much to let willed cultural amnesia determine what was history. Almost before anyone else, these two women, so sort after, donated parts of their work to the collection around you tonight. They had come to know LHA’s dedication to its undertaking of inclusive history. Throughout the years, Adrienne always made sure her publishers sent a copy of her new books to LHA.
The last correspondence I had with Adrienne came as the result of another kind of archival project, a 2003 issue of the Journal of Women’s History dedicated to a retrospective of Rich’s 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
April 9, 2003
From the editor for the journal:
At Joan’s request I am forwarding you her contribution to the retrospective on “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” She felt some apprehension about not being engaged in the formal scholarship surrounding your article, but I believe she has provided exactly the sort of piece we expected from her. She asked me to forward it to you because it is a bit intimate and wants you to see it first. She also wants to make sure she has the “facts” straight—Willa Cather’s grave, and the like. If you have any questions or thoughts you’d like me to pass along to her, please let me know. I am so happy to be working on this retrospective.
All my best,
Stephanie Gilmore, Managing Editor
April 11, 2003:
I’m about to leave for a three weeks’ trip to Chicago and points east, will not be on e-mail, so I’m glad your letter with Joan’s essay reached me today. Please let Joan know that her integrity and honest and passion for history and language have been an inspiration to me for years and this essay is no exception. There are two points of fact which need correcting: I have three sons, not one; and its Emily Dickinson’s grave that is in Amherst, near Montague; Willa Cather is buried in Peterborough, New Hampshire, not too far away. Please tell Joan also that I taught her essays, including “My Mother Liked to Fuck” (and also “This Huge Light of Yours”) to my women’s studies classes at San Jose State and Stanford in the mid-eighties.
As you know, I have been refusing permission to reprint “Compulsory Heterosexuality” in anthologies and college readers in recent years because I felt it so flawed and out of date. I have often pointed to Joan’s work as the kind of complex, experientially-based lesbian thinking that should be taught in courses on women everywhere.
And yes, “thinking in a time of war is affirmative of the generosities of human life.”
I have two questions. I was shocked to hear, by chance recently, of Monique Wittig’s death. I wonder if you—or Joan know when she died and where.
With my thanks to you and Joan—
How Audrey’s collection came to the archives also grew out of personal and communal shared moments. One of the earliest memories I have of Audrey is when we attended the first ever conference on Lesbians and Illness in the early 1980s. Audrey was the keynote speaker and it was as a result of talks with her, that a group of us began the Lesbian Illness Support Group which met for several years. When Sonny was dying, surrounded by the women’s community including LHA, Audre took respite in LHA. (I don’t have my papers on this for the exact date, but we should have records of this in both the conference file and in the illness subject file; I think there was a poster that we have of the conference that could be used.) I have two special memories of Audre, however. We had come to know that Audre loved fresh water fishing, and one summer afternoon, as Deb and I headed off to New Hampshire, we arranged to meet Audre and Francis on their way to their favorite mid West fishing grounds at a truck stop off the upstate throughway so we could give her my no- longer- used tackle box, and there, somewhere off the highway in New Jersey, she and I spoke about the butch-fem days, not always agreeing but having fun.
In the early 1980s Audre knew that I was working on a slide show documenting lesbian life pre 1960s, and agreed to tape an excerpt from her essay, “Tar Beach,” for the presentation. Sometime later found Deb and I sitting with Audre in her St Paul’s Avenue Staten Island home, around the family wooden dining table, covered in books and photographs, talking about the archives, the old days and present struggles. After reading the passage she had chosen, she asked if I would want to use any of her photographs from the 60s and before in the show; this is the collection now found in the archives including her confirmation picture and the original cover photograph for Zami, with Audre in Bermuda shorts, holding her then lover’s hand, back to the camera, looking in a shop window. She asked if the archives would be interested in a box of book reviews she had upstairs under her bed. We climbed up and Audre gave us a tour of her study alive with her passions. Before we left, she made sure LHA had copies of her early poetry collections. It was a day of utter generosity which ended with her son Jonathan, his shirt tails hanging out, climbing up the steep steps as we made our way down, our hearts fill.
I can see Audre still, standing between the hallway and the dining room at an at-home, her arms draped around a friend. Powerful, unrelenting, and supportive in every way she could be to young writers and to LHA. And I remember in 1992 the celebratory taking leave at Riverside Cathedral, the church filled with pounding drums, her friends from all the world filling the cathedral to honor the poet warrior, Audre Lorde. I am sure you will feel the spirit of both these women welcoming you, calling to you, during these hours at LHA.
I know this is more then you want, Shawn, but once the memories pour out, I need to get them down. I sit here in 4 Fitzgibbon surrounded by the books of my two friends as well as Sonny’s cancer journal—so many more stories to tell. Also I know I refer to Deb and I mostly but as we did the things I write about other women were pouring their energies into the archives as happens on these floors.
Please feel free to use any part of this remembering or none—and I will send a copy of Deb so she can correct or add. What an important time this will be.
Here is a list of things I remember at LHA that could be of use if you have not already found them:
1. The images referred to—Adrienne working in the first little archives room, Audre’s attendance at our at homes, the image of Adrienne, me and Marge Barton at a 1980s Washington demo with the LHA sign, taken by Deb I am sure and of course the Audre Lorde special photograph collection
2. Audre’s reading from “Tar Beach,” that I refer to—should be in audio cassette’s collection plus the tapings of both their readings that we did over the years—if usable
3. The material from the Lesbian and Illness conference—held I think at Brooklyn or John Jay College—we have a poster from it, I think and Sonny’s book with Audre’s words
4. The program of the church service for Audre which has a piece in it from LHA—should be in subject files
I am sure you have found many wonderful things.
One final note, Both Audre and Adrienne were particularly important to me—because of the generosity of their support of me as a writer even though from time to time our views differed. I do not mean in any way to compare my work to theirs in talent or importance, but we were comrades of and in our times. These are the stories the archives keep alive.
An Afterthought: Silences Not Broken
I have long thought that while both these writers spoke about the need to "break silences," they were themselves constrained by the demands of identity politics. They were almost forced to be purer role models for the communities that claimed them then the complexity of their own lives testified to. I do not think this is a good thing for artists of any kind, nor for the communities that hunger for their words. The silence surrounding Rich's marriage, the suicide of her husband, her relationship with her three sons, the impact of her lesbian identity on her past and her past's impact on her political identities are our losses, I think, but in the hey day of lesbian-feminist cultural supremacy, the 1980s, there really was no space to discuss such contradictions and perhaps no desire on the part of the writers. I think of Frances, Lorde's white lover of many years, that in the later years of Audre's life, seems to have fallen off the map. Struggling for her life, Lorde changed her life,but always in some kind of communal spotlight so much went unspoken. When we demand lives that reflect prevailing cultural certitudes, so much is sheered off. Perhaps some day, we will know more of their complex sadnesses and exiles, of the histories of their chosen joys, of the reasons for their loss of words. In her last collection of poetry, Lorde began the discussion of her need to be free of demanded personas. We as adoring communities must allow for questions, for unexpected desires, for broken scripts, for the full force of complicated lives; it is in the seeming impurities of experience that so much wonder lives.