Yesterday I received this letter from Tanya Visceglia, an old SEEK student of mine.
When I was twenty-one, the only thing I knew for sure was that while “being myself” was a nice
idea, it was clearly not one that was meant for me. Gay and lesbian members of my Italian
Catholic family were hushed up when visitors came, pitied when we were alone, and
scapegoated in the heat of an argument. My Brooklyn neighborhood had been immortalized by
its appearance in “Saturday Night Fever” as the epicenter of hotheaded, blue-collar despair.
Bay Ridge’s only lesbian bar had an unmarked entrance and blacked-out windows to avoid
unwanted attention from passers-by. Even that failed to deter the occasional pack of drunken
cugines from wandering in and pulling down their pants to “show us what we were missing”.
When that happened, most of us didn’t fight back. We hung our heads and waited for them to
leave. Most of us weren’t out – either to our families or at work, and we couldn’t risk any
trouble or possible exposure, particularly those of us who worked as police officers or as
teachers in Catholic schools. Back then, an out cop was often a dead cop, and a lesbian
schoolteacher was fired with no explanation. Gay pride hadn’t even occurred to me then – I
would have happily settled for the absence of gay shame.
Having recently returned from Madison, Wisconsin, I had seen the promised land, where
Queer Theory reigned supreme, and spiky-haired undergraduates quoted Judith Butler in one
breath and harmonized Indigo Girls in the next. Yet the same women who reverently quoted
passages such as “what is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is livable only
for some, and similarly, to refrain from proscribing for all lives what is unlivable for some” bluntly
dismissed my desire for masculine women as “imitation of patriarchal norms”, and my lipstick
and high heels as “too straight”. My fantasies of a strong butch lover with rough hands that could
rebuild an engine were confined to Saturday nights, which usually found me pinned up against
the wall of the bad girls’ bar on the outskirts of town.
My return to New York marked the year of the “lipstick lesbian”: girls who loved dressing
up and hooking up with other girls who loved dressing up. New York Magazine’s article on ‘90s
“lesbian chic” celebrated the death of “the old lesbian stereotype... she is humorless, wears badly
fitted mannish suits, cannot sustain relationships and is hopelessly unhappy” and heralded the
arrival of “the new, improved lesbian -- a party girl of much sex, lingerie and sophistication.”
While femme style had made a comeback, butch-femme relationships were still left out in the
cold. “So retro”, the DKNY pantsuits at Julie’s lounge bar would sniff, between sips of their
Cosmopolitans. “If I wanted a man, I’d be with a real one.”
One day, browsing in Judith’s Room, which has since gone the way of most independent
booksellers, I happened upon a book of essays called “A Restricted Country” by Joan Nestle, a
self-described 1950s femme from the Bronx. “In “Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in
the 1950s”, she wrote: “Although I have been a lesbian for over twenty years and embrace
feminism as a worldview, I can spot a butch thirty feet away and still feel the thrill of her power.”
And “Butch-femme relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic statements, not
phony heterosexual replicas. They were filled with deeply lesbian language of stance, dress,
gesture, love, courage, and autonomy.” Reading those words for the first time, I cried right there
in the aisle. Finally, I had been given permission to be myself.
In 1992, when I heard that Joan would be teaching the first course in Gay and Lesbian
Literature ever to be offered at Queens College, I was so overcome with enthusiasm that I had
read every book on the syllabus before the first class. In that course, we were all hungry: for
images of ourselves, for testaments to our own experience, and for a place in which our own
issues occupied the center of discourse without “throwing our sexuality in people’s faces” or
“making an issue” where none need exist.
Our syllabus didn’t revolve around any particular theoretical perspective, period or
theme. We needed it all and cast our nets wide: “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall, Walt
Whitman’s “Calamus” poems, “Maurice” by E.M. Forster, James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”
Kate Millet’s “Sita”, and Audre Lorde’s “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name”. We read Leslie
Feinberg’s “Letter to a Fifties Femme” and excerpts from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”,
which was then running on Broadway. Twenty-five years later, I’m collecting snapshots of that
course from memory, and offering them to you, Joan, with thanks and with love.
I already knew many of the students who showed up on that first day from the campus
Gay and Lesbian Alliance. We were buzzing before Joan arrived, looking around for new faces. I
walked in with Frank, a leather daddy who was preparing to enter the police academy. As I sat
down next to my friend Helen, the razor-sharp but fragile daughter of a Tanzanian diplomat, I
greeted Shirley, who taught me how to salsa dance, and whose visual impairment never once
slowed her down. Across from me sat Rhonda, a fireplug of a woman best known for strident
proclamation of her love for butches. Dee, a Latina MTF with a wicked sense of humor, arrived
breathless from her race across campus between classes on rollerblades. Others I knew only by
name or face: Anna, Harold, Diane, Todd, and a slight, blonde woman who never spoke during
class discussions, but occasionally shared her poetry in a soft, trembling voice.
Joan’s kind blue eyes and genuine interest in every one of us slowly drew us out and made
room for us to unfold the whole world of our experience -- from humor to desire to despair. In
one class, while discussing “The Well of Loneliness”, I asked Joan why she had included it in the
syllabus. She replied with the story of a woman who had survived a concentration camp by
remembering the Polish translation of the story she had read, which sustained her hope to live
long enough to kiss a woman. In another class, Frank acted out a traffic stop scene from John
Preston’s “Mr. Benson”, squaring off in his academy uniform and mirrored police sunglasses. His
performance met with wolf whistles of approval from students and Joan’s dry response: “Frank,
now I see why you want to be a police officer.” In the last class of the semester, we read our own
poetry aloud. Our quiet classmate shared a poem that was written to a woman with severe burns,
who ran her local newsstand. “Seeing her every day/with strips of skin like loose bandages/I
wanted to ask how she could be so brave/ wearing her scars on the outside/when I have so much
fear/wearing my scars on the inside.” When I shared my poem about a friend who had recently
died of AIDS, I felt cocooned in shared grief, knowing that over the past ten years, every other
student in that room had also been crossing friends’ numbers out of their phone books.
Outside of class, we made a banner for our road trip to the 1993 LGBT National March on
Washington. On the day of the march, the escalator at Dupont Circle was so packed with queers
that it ground to a halt, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of us. A huge cheer rose from the
crowd, followed by a chant of “We are everywhere!”, and the waving of small rainbow flags at
strangers from side to side of the Metro station. Looking around me, I drank in the first day I felt
that the whole world was queer. We were a proud, open and unstoppable force.
To celebrate the end of the semester, Joan invited us to her apartment for a potluck,
where we saw our history displayed on every wall, bookshelf and end table -- the huge collection
of letters, papers, and periodicals in the Lesbian Herstory Archives had not yet moved to its Park
Slope brownstone home. Balancing plates on our laps, we clustered around Joan, asking her to
read from her own work. First, she read: “Stone butch, drag butch, baby butch/leaned me back
against the bathroom door/tuned for the intrusion, you sucked my breast/Alert and wanting, we
made love in a public place/because territory was limited.” This was followed by the essay I had
first read in Judith’s Room: “The erotic essence of the butch-femme relationship was the external
difference of women’s textures and the bond of knowledgeable caring. I loved my lover for how
she stood as well as what she did. ... these gestures were a style of self-presentation that made erotic competence into a political statement." Hearing those words read aloud, surrounded by my queer classmates and the lovingly catalogued proof of our collective existence and persistence, I knew I had come home.
Joan's gift to us--the gift of shared history and purpose, remains with me and sustains me to this day. It walked by my side when I came out and stayed out in a rabidly Christian work environment. It deflected the pain of my mother's hissed whisper: "Why do you have to go around telling people you're married? It's none of their business." It gives me the strength to speak up for my partner in the thousandth performance of the tired old play "Excuse me, sir, this is the ladies' room." They may not know who I am, but now I do. And that is enough.