Monday, May 29, 2017

My first public talk here in Melbourne, 1999

Now I see how it will be, As I sort papers, my history really, I will post here what calls out to me--not because of its rightness but because of  memory's fragility.

From: Joan Nestle
Date: Tue, 19 Oct 1999
Subject: Hatespeech
To: Crusader [owner with Rolland, his partner, of Hares and Hyenas, the queer and progressive bookstore here in Melbourne. Crusader and Rowland have remained friends and supporters since my first days here.]

Dear Crusader,
I am going to type in my speech--I tried to send it to you through a cut and paste attachment but I have not mastered that technique without Di [Otto, my partner now of almost 20 years] it seems. This may take two e-mails. Thanks for wanting it.

Background: What follows is the text of comments I made on the topic of Hatespeak for a panel at the 1999 Melbourne Writers' Festival. David Crystal chaired the discussion and Kim Scott and Ghassan Hage were co-speakers. We each had ten minutes to approach this very complex topic.

      First I want to thank the Melbourne's Writers' Festival for being so generous to me and my work; I am a visitor here and not a famous writer. You have brought me new friends and a renewed sense of wonder at the kindnesses between strangers that language--the speaking of it and the hearing of it--can engender. With all this tenderness in my heart, it is sadly but somehow fitting that this, my third and last time to speak with you, is about what we have come to call "hatespeech."

     I want to share with you why I think I was asked to speak on this topic. I am not an academic who has studied the twists and turns of language, and I am not a philosopher who delves into the meanings of linguistic utterances. I am a Jew born in the Bronx of New York city in 1940, a lesbian who came out in the late 1950s and has been active in my queer community for over thirty years, and perhaps most pertinent for this discussion, a writer of erotica that often has earned me the label of pornographer. thus I am both the recipient of hatespeech and some would say the creator of it.

    I come to you this afternoon with fragments of information, and with quandaries about this topic of hate and how to control it in our societies. I speak as an American, a citizen from a country whose wealth was built on slave labor, whose very land was stolen from indigenous people, the land where the KKK was born, where Japanese Americans were forced into relocation camps during the Second World War, where some of the most powerful men of business and politics have been and are virulent anti Semites, the birthplace of Joseph McCarthy, a politician who made unorthodox thinking so shameful, that thousands of people lost their jobs, their social safety and some, their lives.

      A piece of information: Just as I was preparing for this discussion, I checked my e-mail to see what my friends back in New York had been up to. I discovered an urgently forwarded message informing me that action must be taken. In a Times magazine internet voting poll for person of the century, Hitler was running 3 in popularity. White supremacist advocates, whose hatreds include all people of color, Jews, Catholics and homosexuals were flooding cyber space with their voices.

   My quandaries about how to approach the civic challenge of hate speech come from the contradictions I find when I use my queer perspective. Anti-discrimination laws, yes; challenging the laws that uphold heterosexual social dominance, yes, and of course, anti-violence legislation, yes--but as Judith Butler has pointed out--the assumption that speech is the same as action leads to some unfortunate positions. For instance, the national policy of keeping gays under control in the military is based on this same belief--that conduct and speech are one so to declare one's homosexuality
becomes the same as performing a homosexual act, resulting in the loss of freedom, not the protection of one.

      My history as a queer--and I use that word consciously not as a signifier of queer theory, but as an act of reclamation, as an act of anti-hate speech, because that is the word that haters used in the 1950s and that is now the word that stands in the fullness of our own culture--has shown me that one of the best ways to fight hate and its speech is to refuse the victim category on which it is so dependent. From the 1950s on, gay people in America organized culturally and politically to limit the effect homophobic words and actions could have on their lives. A homophile civil rights movement was born, small journals were published, with articles debunking the onslaught of religious, legal and medical hate speech and then in 1969, a ragtail group of drag queens, bull dykes and their admirers turned the discourse of hate on its head. From the Stonewall Rebellion on, gay people have poured their energies into lessening the impact of hate speech in their lives and on their psyches, while at the same time pushing  at the state to include us in the Bill of Rights.

     A quandary--the most powerful example of the magical loss of distance between speech and action are the words of the same forces of the state that we want to empower to protect us form hate speech. "You are sentenced to die," and death does enter the room. "We declare war on you," and whole cities fall. In the hands of the conservatives or reactionary forces, protective legislation becomes a weapon against those labeled obscene or socially suspect.

As a Jew, I face another quandary--I know my history, I know that like racism, anti Semitism is one of the most powerful forces of hatred in the world, and yet I do not agree with the laws that want  to control the hate sites of the internet. I have read the words of hate on my own computer screen--words that say the only problem with Hitler is that he did not finish the job, that say Jews control the world, that Jews are Christ killers, that the Holocaust is a figment of the Jewish imagination. I have read the words that in an  eerie way sum up my life--with a few adjustments--"Kill the mongrel Jew commie pornographer sodomites." Just as  I have read "if we are all lucky, all homosexuals will be dead in ten years."

   I do not believe that this kind of hatred, this transforming hatred that becomes an altered consciousness, can or should be hidden away or that it can be legislated out of existence. I want to know that these words live still, that there there are Americans who say they are willing to kill Jews to protect the Christian white way. I need to face this reality, to know how much more work has to be done, to know how we as progressive forces must organize in the face of consuming hatred. We must take action, and we must make connections--between other genocides and turned backs--I am thinking of Rwanda--but if a man wants to say the death of six million Jews did not happen, what purpose is served by making him a criminal, by passing laws that make it illegal to speak or lie about history? If the deaths mean nothing to him, how do we strengthen our own freedoms by enabling the state to police our statements--in this case, a statement that seems insane, but in the next instance, one that we hold dear. I am afraid the issue is too complex for such a response.

    Some final comments.  I do not want the state to have the power to silence what it considers painful speech. I do want the state to be challenged for its support of systems of power, systems of exclusions that engender the need to hate. I more fear the hate speech of the powerful, our religious and military leaders, because it is not seen as such, because it is delivered as if it is rational policy, right and moral thinking, patriotism.

    I will do battle with the anti Semites, with the queer haters, with the women haters, by engaging in cultural work and political struggle that will, I hope, make their voices meager things. I will join with others in the creation of narratives of liberation, narratives fed by all the cultural and political voices of the world in which the desire to live with understanding of difference speaks louder than the need to hate.

    Sometimes the words we think we cannot say are more powerful than the ones we do--like the word, sorry.

(Crusader, I typed fast so there may be some editing that needs to be done--like I spelled quandary wrong in part 1.)

Now it is a late cold May night here in Melbourne in 2017. So many years later, now in the Trump time where poses of hate and ridicule are America's face of government. 

Two Letters, 1964 and 1976

I am in the process of sorting papers for the two archives in my life, LHA and ALGA. All goes piano, piano, slowly, slowly,  each year a growing column of talks given, of lives touching mine, of Australian moments which will live in Brooklyn while NYC streets will find themselves in Melbourne. Two letters stopped the sorting process, stopped the illusion that memory can be assured. The first from the first woman I loved, Carol Betty Lipman, We met in our last year at Queens College while I was living on Sixth Street on the Lower East Side --1960, perhaps, and Carol was still living at home with her family in Jamaica Estates in Queens---two separate worlds. I cannot tell the whole story here, I would never stop writing; just to say we became lovers even though she had to disobey her therapist at the  time who warned her, "if you allow yourself to kiss a woman, you will be lost." Such warnings, such refusals to obey were part of queer life then. We did kiss, on the chewed up sofa in my one room flat, a kiss, a wanting I will never forget. Can words forget? There is no marble strong enough to hold on to that moment, only bodies that have already left. Carol and I lived together for a few years, and then she fell in love with another woman and I moved out of our shared two room apartment on the upper West Side, back to the lower East Side. A New York story, a lesbian story, deep enough for a lifetime. Written on a single sheet of lined pad paper in blue ink.

Dear Joan-
    Every day, I think to myself- how is Joan-what is she thinking? I wonder if I can ever really be happy, Joan. there are always so many problems. I would have called you tonight but every night I say to myself-she will ask why do you call. And whatever I answer means nothing to her anyway. If I say, I was worried about you--you would say you don't have to worry about me Carol. and if I said I was thinking of you, you would remain silent. And whatever else I might say would certainly upset you-so you see, I do not call you. I try not to be selfish although I would like to hear your  voice and I miss you.
    I wish our lives could meet sometimes but when they do, it is then that we are most apart. I think we are together in our separateness. It is quite sad to think that but I know it is true. I feel so much a part of you at times Joan.
    Please stay well Joan.. In spite of what you may think, I still love you in my own way and I think you know that.

Carol died of ovarian cancer in 1966.

The second letter, also in hand, the bookkeeping sloping script of my mother, Regina.

 Joan Dear=
      We received your card. It is quite difficult to communicate at this time. Somehow, when I permit myself to remember beautiful happenings I live the Christmas 2 years ago--I think it was then, when Mabel [Hampton], Lillian [Foster], I, you and Valerie had that fantastic day--so real, so beautiful, one can't live on past feasts, and it is impossible to reconstruct the past to the present.If I sound maudlin or depressed, that could be the gift I give myself to be truly emotional for all the beauty that one has experienced. Possibly in the future, I will recall the beauty that exists now--I don't know--I shall hope I can salvage and create my own myths. Do I sound despondent--Not so, just feeling all emotionalities and longing for the sight and feel of you. I love you so much. I am enclosing a check for $20. have a feast or a drink on me--Also am enclosing a $10 bill. Send it to Mabel and Lillian for their wine or whatever. I salute all of you, your beauty and your love.
                            Regards to Debbie, Valerie, all.

                                                        Regina Nestle, 1958 (?) NYC

My Jewish working class mother, under deep strain trying to protect her grandchildren, Lisa and Robin, from the violence of their father, writes from California, cherishing her time back in 13A in an apartment filled with lesbians of all ages and the becoming collections of LHA.

I carried these frail papers with me, from NY to Melbourne, almost 20 years ago,  my documents of being, and now I prepare to send them back to where it all happened, to LHA , but really to you, to ask you to cherish your markings of love, and to give heart comfort room, as Hopkins said, for complicated lives lived outside the more rewarded, more known, territories.

                                                                Lillian Foster, 1938

                                                           Mabel Hampton, 1980, at 13A