Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Talking about Sex in Kosovo, December, 2012

As I said, much has been pressing at me, words and actions that come to me from so many friends all over the world, friends who break through restrictions and borders, creating new regions for thought and feeling. Lepa  Mladjenovic sent me word of what had happened at the launch of Kosovo 2.0 and before La Professoressa and I leave for a human rights workshop in Sydney where the winds are howling and the sea is  pounding the shores, I wanted to make sure I told you of this courage of thought, action and community.
Letter from the editor, Besa Luci:

"We've been set on doing a sex issue since we launched Kosovo 2.0. We've always been determined to make visible what is taken for granted, whether it is image, corruption or religion (our previous issues). Therefore, it felt appropriate to take sex apart.

Never before has the media in Kosovo genuinely and openly initiated a public discussion on sex and sexuality. During our process, messages of anticipation and direct queries about the contents of this magazine have driven us to take on the topic courageously.

In this issue, we base our understanding of sex on the idea that it is a political apparatus through which bodies are regulated, controlled and disciplined. Sex in our society is talked about by not talking about it. In fact, sex remains among the most misconstrued and inadmissible topics subject to conflicting understandings of what constitutes sexual freedom; how we define backwardness or emancipation as they relate to sex; what it means to be attracted to the same sex; or how one understands one's own body.

Meanwhile, hesitation, fear and resistance to talking about sex are apparent in the rest of the Western Balkans, as well. And they meet at a common impasse. In the past 20 years, our societies have undergone political and social transformations from socialist to nationalist to democratic rhetoric. This has not only affected how we understand and express our national identities, but it has strengthened patriarchy and heterosexual normativity.

If we only look at the mainstream discourse around gender equality, we'll repeatedly hear terms such as "emancipation," "political representation," "awareness raising" and "discrimination," and these are mostly used to explain strides in making women equal to men. While gender discrimination is, in fact, mainly directed towards women, rarely are notions of manhood and masculinity critiqued or challenged--particularly in how constructions of manhood perpetuate images of men as heads of households, heads of state, breadwinners, thinkers and more. The mainstream gender equality discourse, thereby, rarely challenges the gendered division of labor and roles, which also translate to sexual relations.

So, ultimately, the battle among and within the sexes boils down to the basic request that in the act of sex, men act (penetrate) and women receive (passive recipient). As such determinants frame "normal" heterosexual relationships, they are therefore used to excuse homophobia. The space to challenge such norms seems small.

We discovered that throughout our region, many struggle with multilayered constraints that appear in various forms of pressure and repression. Our stories acknowledge them, and give a thorough account of how lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender and intersex people negotiate their lives with regard to their own identities, genders, family, communities, as well as how they deal with a lack of social support and widespread displays of homophobia.

Our message and position are clear. We see this magazine as a call to everyone to come out and break free with their sexuality. It's an appeal to bring to an end social and legal barriers that prevent people from openly expressing their sexuality, living their sexual freedoms, and equally participating and shaping the public sphere.

The struggle is undoubtedly harsh, and the stories you'll hear aren't always pleasant. Discriminatory behaviour and language and incidents of violence prove that. As recently as a few years ago, mainstream media allowed for LGBT hate speech to be published and even validated for acts of hatred. LGBT people and their supporters have been failing to organize Pride parades, cross regionally, because of security concerns, as participants' personal safety is not guaranteed. State institutions continue to disregard legislative and educational reforms that would make for equal and fair participation, and representation, for all sexes. Essentially,  those whom we see as protectors of our well-being--be it police, doctors, schools, teachers or families--fail us.

Clearly no genuine discussion on human rights has begun if we continue to treat sex as an issue of what is "right or wrong," "natural" or "unnatural," or socially acceptable. The change that should happen is political, and sexual orientation and sexual freedom, as an individual's right over her or his body, emotions and self, need to be recognized.

So with this magazine, we aim to break the culture of silence, shame and violence. In doing so, we join those who already have taken the lead to fight for everyone's personal freedom."

Kosovo 2.0 is a Supreme Network site that will serve as an interactive generator of stories, commentaries and documentations from Kosovo and the world.

December 15, 2013
From Lepa Mladjenovic writing of her reading with Igballe Rogova and herself of their lesbian anti-war letters to each other, in Prishtinta, Kosova

Dear Lesbian Friends,

Igballe and I came an hour before the event that was supposed to be a promotion of the so-named Sex issue of the youth magazine Kosovo 2.0 here in Prishtina. The organisers reported to police yesterday that Mujahedins have threatened the staff and 4 policemen (only 4!) were there.

About 20 minutes before the beginning of the event, there were about 10-12 of us there, and all of a sudden a group of 15 men ran into the hall with tear gas and started to break the tables, chairs  as well as the statues...the young girls were screaming, it was total chaos. It all finished in a couple of minutes. I send some photos so you can see the damage. It was supposed to send us a message of threat and to scare us all. Especially as there were young people organizing the event, lots of young men and women.

Igballe Rogova in these situations is standing where she is and she watched everything from the nearest place possible--brave as she is. The attack was well organized as police let the attackers into the building, and the attackers did not touch any of the people, just smashed things.

Half an hour later, we started the evening and since Igballe and me were the most experienced and we were calm saying we were ready to read our letters as we planned, the women who were organizers and facilitators of the evening then said OK. They were most perplexed as of what to do in this new situation. They were young and nothing similar they had had in their lives. So the feminist facilitator from Prishtina came out and said that "the private is political," and announced our letters in the most beautiful way. Everything calmed down and in total silence the two feminist lesbians--friends, me and Iballe--one from Serbia, one Albanian from Kosova, we read our letters. I read first a short version that was published in this magazine and then in total silence of about a hundred people, Iballe read her letter, while I cried at the end and we embraced.

There was huge applause. Then there was a discussion about the attack and in the discussion the first one to speak was a lesbian from Kosova who was so angry because of the attack she took this opportunity come out publicly and we made a great applause for her. Bravo! That meant that Igballe Rogova is not alone. After more wonderful comments, the evening was over, a great success, and we left to go to an Italian restaurant run by a lesbian from Italy. Igballe got some nasty text messages on her mobile that she will report to the police tomorrow but she also received many messages of support, from Haya, Rachel, Lieve, Ariane, Aida, Nela and others.

I am now in the home of Igballe and her partner, they left to sleep. Another history of lesbians has started tonight in the Balkans, in solidarity and feminist passion. Thank you for being who you are so that I can write to you--and feel we are not alone here.

While I read these words, I kept thinking of when Di and I were speaking with lesbian, feminist and queer activists from the region meeting in Belgrade, of the historical butch-fem images I had brought into the late night darkened room, of the excitement of speaking about bodies and desires, of my own life of writing and speaking about sex in the public air and I realized as I do over and over, how gracious life has been to me and how I yearn for a world where no rage lies in wait for public words of desire and love.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Lesbians and Exile: a Call for Words

There is much pressing at me now that I have found my words again--sometimes along with the rest of me they go on a walk about, freed from linear forms to shape shift and touch the thinking of other times, Heine, Elizabeth Bishop, Tolstoy, Judah Waten. Much has happened in the communities I have carried to you here; I am thinking in particular of our comrades from Pristhina who tried to launch  Youth Magazine, Kosovo 2.0 Sex Issue and the thugs who had to smash such an opening of doors. I will write about this and bring you our friend's voices soon--I want them to know, and I am thinking of Lepa and all we met in Belgrade--that I have not forgotten what happened. But now I need to deliver this call to all of you who might be interested, yourselves or friends. Yasmin Tambiah, a lesbian writer friend and I are co-editing an upcoming issue of Sinister Wisdom on the subject of Lesbians in exile. Here is our call for words:

Joan Nestle and Yasmin Tambiah are calling for writing exploring the many faces of exile and displacement as seen from a lesbian perspective: the loss of national selves, the loss of known boundaries, the burdens of of war, the impact of dislocation, of geographical shifts, and the insights resulting from such changes. We are looking for writing that discusses the more recognized journeys of exile--the loss of national and cultural sites of being--as well as exchanges of know territories for unknown or less familiar ones, such as the movement from a rural world to  an urban one or in the other direction. What does it mean to lose a community that has given you life, but one from which you flee? What do you take with you, what do you leave behind and what becomes transformed through such movement? We also see questions of exile rising in experiences of gender and the body. Perhaps one might say that to be a lesbian, to be queer, is to live in a permanent state of exile, but is this still true? What kind of exiles are experienced in bodies that face daily challenges of mobility and other kinds of functioning? Fiction, memoirs, creative non-fictions, short essays, taped thoughts and conversations, letters, e-mail ponderings-all welcome. We need your words by June 1, 2013. Please send questions and offerings to or to and please reproduce this call if you can and tell friends.

Our biographies:
Yasmin Tambiah grew up is Sri Lanka and lived there before and during the war years. She has spent long periods of her adult life in the USA and Australia, with stints in India, Trinidad and Europe. She is a researcher and writer.

Joan Nestle, born in the Bronx, lived most of her life in New York City teaching students from all over the world; her own provinciality ended, she hopes, when she met her Australian lover, Dianne Otto, and moved to Melbourne, Australia in 2001. At 72, she is most grateful when she is forced to see with new eyes that which she thought she knew. Co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and author, editor of 9 books exploring the lesbian body and imagination.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Saskia's Gift--Riis Park, 1961

The Gay Beach, Riis Park, c. 1961, the lesbian friendship circle of Joan and Carol, sitting with back to camera and halter tops

This morning, one before La Professoressa arrives home, I found these most wonderful images retrieved from all my photos that I gave to LHA early in my history with it. The woman who made this gift possible and so many more is Saskia Scheffer, our photography care taker who has been working at the archives for many years now and who herself is a most wonderful photographer. These are rare images of the public gay beach, Riis Park, in Brooklyn, in the early 1960s and the woman seated with her back to the camera in the bottom image, her halter topped edged in white, is my first loved woman lover, Carol Betty Lipman. Dear Carol, you were always in my heart when I started working with others to create LHA, you who died just a few years later from ovarian cancer because a big shot male doctor dismissed your pain as "women's problems."  Here I see the whole of you in that slanted body, your broad shoulders, the two piece swim suit that I can feel between my fingers as I write. Here is what I wrote of this working class beach so many years ago, always striving to keep life in your memory.

Lesbian Memories 1: Riis Park, 1960

From A Restricted Country, Firebrand Press, 1987; Cleis Press, 2003

   I may never change my name to nouns of sea or land or air, but I have loved this earth in all the ways she let me get close to her. Even the earth beneath the city streets sang to my legs as I strode around this city, watching the sun glint off windows, looking up at the West Side sky immense as it reached from the river to the hills of Central Park. Not a Kansas sky paralleled by a flat earth, but a sky forcing its blue between the water towers and the ornate peaks that try to catch it.

  And then my deepest joy, when the hot weekends came, sometimes as early as May but surely by June. I would leave East Ninth street early on Saturday morning, wearing my bathing suit under my shorts, and head for the BMT, the start of a two-hour subway and bus trip that would take me to Riis Park--my Riviera, my Fire Island, my gay beach--where I could spread my blanket and watch strong butches challenge each other by weightlifting filled garbage cans, where I could see tattoos bulge with womanly effort and hear the shouts of the softball game come floating over the fence.

  The subway wound its way through lower Manhattan, out to Brooklyn, and finally reached its last stop, Flatbush Avenue. I always had a book to read but would periodically cruise the car, becoming adept at picking out the gay passengers, the ones with longing faces turned towards the sun waiting for them at the end of the line. Sometimes I would find my Lesbian couple, older women, wide-hipped, shoulders touching, sitting with their cooler filled with beer and cold chicken.

   The last stop was a one-way, long station, but I could already smell the sea air. We crushed through the turnstiles, up onto Flatbush Avenue, which stretched like a royal highway to the temple of the sea. We would wait on line for the bus to pull in, a very gay line, and then as we moved down Flatbush, teenagers loud with their own lust poured into the bus. There were hostile encounters, the usual stares at the freaks, whispered taunts of faggot, lezzie, is that a man or a woman, but we did not care. We were heading to the sun, to our piece of the beach where we could kiss and hug and enjoy looking at each other.

   The bus rolled down Flatbush , past low-two story family houses, neighborhoods with their beauty parlors and pizza joints. There were the only times that I, born in the Bronx, loved Brooklyn. I knew that at the end of that residential hegemony was the ocean that I loved to dive into, that I watched turn purple in the late afternoon sun, that made me feel clean and young and strong, ready for a night of loving, my skin living with salt, clean enough for my lover's tongue, my body reaching to give to my lover's hands the fullness I had been given by the sea.

   I would sit on the edge of my blanket, watching every touch, every flirtatious move around me, noting every curve of flesh, every erection, every nipple hard with irritation or desire. I drank in the spectacle of Lesbian and gay men's sensuality, always looking for the tall dark butch who would walk over and stand above me, her shadow breaking the sun, asking my name.

   And the times, I came with my lover, Carol, the wonder of kissing on the hot blanket in the sunlight, the joy of laying my head in her lap as we sat and watched the waves grow small in the dusk. The wonderful joy of my lover's body stretched over me, rolling into the sand, our wrestling, our laughter, chases leading into the cooling water. I would wrap my legs around her, and she would bounce me on the sea, or I would duck below the surface and suck her nipples, pulling them into the ocean.

   Whenever I turned away from the ocean to face the low cement wall that ran along the back of our beach, I was forced to remember that we were always watched: by teenagers on bikes, pointing and laughing, and by more serious starers who used telescopes to focus in on us. But we were undaunted. Even the cops deciding to clean up the beach by arresting men whose suits were judged too minimal, hauling them over the sand into the police wagon, did not destroy our sun.

   Only once do I remember the potential power of our people becoming a visible thing, like a mighty arm threatening revenge if respect was not paid. A young man was brought ashore by the exhausted lifeguards and his lover fell to his knees, keening his loss. A terrible quiet fell on our beach, and like the moon drawing the tides, we formed an ever widening circle around the lovers, opening a path only wide enough for the police carrying the stretcher, our silence threatening our anger if this grief was not respected. The police, sinking into the sand under the weight of their uniforms, looked around and stopped joking. Silently they placed the dead youth on the stretcher and started the long walk away from the ocean. His lover, supported by friends, followed behind, and then like a thick human rope, we all marched after them, our near-naked bodies shining with palm oil and sweat, men and women walking in a bursting silence behind the body, escorting it to the ambulance, past the staring interlopers. The freaks had turned into a people to whom respect must be paid. 

     Later in my life I learned the glories of Fire Island, the luxury of Cherry Grove. But this tired beach, filled with the children of the boroughs, was my first free place where I could face the ocean that claimed me as its daughter and kiss in blazing sunlight the salt-tinged lips of the woman I loved.

I write these words so far away from this time and place, but as I watch the words come, I feel the touch of bodies in each one, my realization that I was a freak before I was anything else, and that this time and community lived in every identity that came after. Thank you again, Saskia, for all you give in these darkening   images.

My Farm

How can I explain that I have always wanted to have a farm near me, this girl from the Bronx who used to play wild stallion in the vacant lots of Gun Hill Road sixty years ago.

While La Professoressa walked the august streets of academic Oxford, I hung out in the square near the bus terminal, where on Sunday Market day, a middle aged man sold mostly lead soldiers but I found his quiet collection of well worn, slightly damaged farm animals, some with the word "England" stamped on their cow or horse bellies. I carried them home and discovered my love of Balsa wood and so I offer you my farm with curtains made by La Professoressa and the lovely Australian hills painted by her sister, Gayle.
How I love to make sure all are fed and ranging freely. Just another byway of my wandering heart in this my 72nd year.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Bounties of all kinds, even when my body falters, the bounty of the Australian place, its sun and sea, its sweeping coasts and optimistic cities, shaping the blue sky day by day. The wonder of my life with La Professoressa, now away in Austin, Texas, meeting with students and colleagues, bringing to them her days with the People's Tribunal on War Crimes from her work in Cambodia, the sweet presence of our Cello who stands over me when I fall in the middle of the night, his breathing a beacon, so small but so sturdy in his offerings.

Here in West Brunswick I have found all my Tuscanies,

Vincenzo helping with the peach harvest, il mio amico, showing me how to wrap the peach- filled tree in its own veil and then knowing I was all alone came over to help me uncover it while, Anna, his wife sends her message over the backyard worn wood fence, "Joanna, you alright?" I too am wrapped in the care of my Fitzgibbon Avenue neighbors,

From histories in Calabria, Hong Kong, Chile, Vietnam, Sicily, and Macedonia come the home grown gifts, sun reimagined in a hundred ways,

Yes, I  had to leave one world behind to find another, but that is what makes this bounty of caring so rich; it had to happen quickly. I have found Pinchus and his family, Virginia offering zucchini fritters

and Felix, her 14 year old son, sharing his love of cooking with me and always, Ruby, who comes over

to discuss her writing, her thinking, with me one afternoon a week and I am honored. For that short while, all my life as a teacher lives again as I learn and learn from Ruby.

Let me end this moment with the land again, this island of ancient peoples and geographies, where stones as old as the universe stud embankments on ancestral lands and where new migrants dream their possibilities of harvest:

From the most grand sweep of sky to the tabletop