Sunday, May 7, 2023
Collage of Writings from A Sturdy Yes of a People, for American and Australian book launch, 2022 -2023 1. From Stonewall to Soweto, the people are resisting, and that chant and this struggle have brought us into new lands. History is not a dead thing or a sure thing. It lives with our choices and our dreams. It is the story of our glories and our sadnesses. It is at different times a lover, an enemy, a teacher, a prophet. It is always a collective memory as complicated and as contradictory as the people who lived it, but it is always a people’s story. Let our tale be marked by our knowledge of what had to be done, and let it shine with the passion of our attempt. (1988) 2. Of it all, it was your loneliness I could bear least: you who wanted touch so much became so diminished in your passions. I always saw you coming home from work so tired, so burdened. I wanted desperately to be able to call in from the other room your young husband full of strength and safety. Then, as I grew older, I wanted you to accept the love of women. Finally I wanted you to accept my love, but you did things your own way, like a tenacious farmer, chopping earth away from stone. 3. People are moving all around this globe in unprecedented numbers—following jobs, fleeing catastrophes, finding new air to breathe. There is a great intermingling of ideas, religions, languages, desires. Some are comfortable with this multitude of choices; others are rushing to shore up the boundaries of the known world by reasserting a politics of exclusion and deprivation. When all else fails, they reach for guns. 4. You were lying against the pillows, your hennaed hair spreading across them, your lipstick making the blue of your eyes even sharper. I get caught on those eyes; I think I see in them the seas I will never see—the endless blue on the map surrounding the continent of Australia, a blue I fear because it is as vast and unknown as death itself. You turned toward me when I entered, your body urging me to hurry. “I want you,” you said as I bent over you, taking you in my arms. I was deeply moved by your direct request and by my knowledge that I could meet your need. I kissed hard and then light, kissed your neck and shoulders and throat. I wetted your nipples, my mouth pulling on them through the sheen of your nightgown. I buried my head in your hair, pushing your face to one side with my cheek. I just wanted to touch you, to taste you, to make up for years of fear, of deprivation. Your breasts swelled to my mouth and I pulled them free of the gown, rounding them in my hands, resting my head against their swell. Here was an ocean I could survive. I slowly caressed the wetness out from between your drawn-up legs, opening you up, making love to every fold and crevice of your sex, knowing just what I was doing, and letting you know that I held your need in my hand. I was making love as much to your belief in me as to your body. 5 “’I’m Mabel Hampton, I was born on May the second 1902 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and I left there when I was eight years old. ‘Miss Hampton when did you come out?’ What do you mean? I was never in! I had a couple of white girlfriends down in the Village. We got along fine. At that time I was acting in the Cherry Lane Theatre. I didn’t have to go to the bars because I would go to women’s houses. Like Jackie [Mom’s] Mabley would have a big party and all the girls from the show would go. She has all the women there.’ Ms Hampton never relented in her struggle to live a fully integrated life, a life marked by the integrity of her self-authorship. ‘If I give you my word,’ she always said, ‘I’ll be there’ and she was. Ms Hampton’s address at the 1984 New York City Gay Pride Rally. ‘I, Mabel Hampton have been a lesbian all my life, for eighty-two years and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my Black people.’ 6 This is the history I wanted; a conversation of possibilities, of lineages, of contradictions. In the evening, another communal sharing of food; many of the young people who had been present in Tel Aviv had made their way to Gila’s house for this last shared dinner. Feeling a little tired, I sat in the backyard, taking in the scents of the warm night air, the night sounds of Jerusalem. One by one, the students and their friend came to sit around me. They wanted stories of the body, wanted tales of how we survived the bigotries of 1950s, how we found each other and tried to imagine another world. We leaned into each other and again I saw the beauty of the unarmed human body, their hopes for another kind of future held in their bare arms. ‘Come back to us,’ one of the young women said, ‘when the occupation is over.’ But I do not think I will be able to make this journey again, and so this book, brought into being by the generosity of so many, is the way I honor all those in Palestine and Israel who bare themselves in the face of history and ask for an end to dispossessions, walls and exiles. 7 They called you freak and me whore and maybe they always will, but we fight them best when we keep on doing what they say we should not want or need for the joy we find in doing it. I fucked because I lied it, and Joan, the ugly ones, the ones who beat me or fucked me too hard, they didn’t run me out of town, and neither can the women who don’t walk my streets of loneliness or need. Don’t scream penis at me, but help to change the world so no woman feels shame or because she likes to fuck. 8 Things are not really the same. I am at the end of my life, not the beginning. I am not afraid of disclosure and only rarely ashamed. The end of the century is not the same as the middle of it. I know now that the eyes of the watchers are cold stones even when the sun of their convictions is riding high in the political sky. I know now that surveillance is the weapon of the insecure, the frightened, the pinched. I still fear, however, the human act of policing thought and speech, of hands holding pens to take down our words, never allowing themselves to enter into the messy world of debate. I still fear those who enter rooms cloaked in silent power and, while we speak, plan their retaliations. Surveillance is not seeing; it is the quiet planning of prisons. 9 Dedicated to my trans women, my women, friends The light from the naked bulb under which we worked flashed over Chelsea’s face, a strong chiselled, with thin arching eyebrows and a prominent bony nose. As she spoke of her days on the street, when she was always running from the police, and her constant search for a place to spend the night, all the years in between those gritty times and the present seemed to melt away. I listened not only to her words but to the turn of her head, the softness of her demeanour, the passion of her vision. Here I was in my late fifties, witnessing once again the power of memory t inform conviction, the conviction of one’s right to survive. Still haunted by the realities of street life, Chelsea had asked not to be left alone at the Archives in case the police showed up, as they sometimes did when some door or window was left open triggered our building alarm. Chelsea’s words poured into the steamy basement, demanding that room be made for another layer of history. 10 This is now my battle: to win back from the specifics of medical treatment—from the outrage of an invaded body where hands I did not know touched parts of myself that I will never see—my own body, so marked by the hands and lips of lovers, now so lonely in its fear. Touch my scar, knead my belly, don’t be afraid of my cancer. Enter me the old way, not through the skin cut open, but because I am calling to you through the movement of my hips, the breath that pleads for your hand to touch the want of me. Heal me because you do not fear me, touch me because you do not fear the future. Cancer and sex. One I have and one I must have. 11 Hope Wearing my voluminous flannel nightgown, I knelt before the small wood-burning stove, trying to see why the fire was so fragile. I felt hug and awkward in that position, aware of my rump and falling breasts, but the cold night air demanded that the fire be encouraged to burn at a brisker pace. My younger lover, small and tight in her body, sat on the couch watching me. I did not like what I thought she saw. I did not like the bigness of my ass, the weight of my body on my knees, and the just as I worked very hard to accept my lac of appeal, she said in a low firm voice, “You look so fuckable that way.” 12 Ten days had passed, ten nights of late-night telephone calls to her Havana hotel, just to hear her voice. Sometimes she would take the telephone out to the balcony—so I could hear the ocean, she would say. I pictured her, standing in her nightgown, the dark, warm night lifting the gown’s edges, her breasts outlined by the wind. Ringlets of hair weighed down with the wetness of the night. The sounds of that ocean never did reach me, but I knew what I was supposed to hear, and I could see, in the darkness of my room, the white heads rolling onto the beach, the curving sea wall that enclosed the people suffering in their beautiful city, suffering from the vindictiveness of my own government. She told me, as I yearned for her, that at dusk young lovers drape themselves over the sea wall, their bodies hard with want. In all the cities of the world torn by war or hatred, crumbling from bullets or embargoes, citizens search for the alley or rooftop that will harbour their love. I want the governments to know this, to know that this century is marked by people’s struggle to survive the deadliness of officials, young men and women, the lovers, proclaiming their hope in the grips of flesh. Havana, all torn by history and hope, was home to my lover, and I was jealous of its hold on her. My own history was crumbling and I, too, wanted my love to hold back the emptiness of disaster. But countries are larger than hearts, and so the days passed, and I did my days. 13 When we march in the streets, hundreds of thousands strong, we carry with us the lonelier courage of those who risked all because they said to someone of their own sex, “touch me here.” This small voice is still enough to rule us out of heaven, but whatever power comes to us in 1984 and beyond, we must not forget that for us passion is our politics. (1984) Think of what they fear from us—love and desire, rebellion and difference, play, tenderness, touch, freer children who do not call each other faggot, girls who strive for their own glory, men who do not have to hate softness. All their words and reasons for exclusions, all the tumult of their No, will fall into the shadows of history. You—my queer comrades—have given me a world where my words could live, where my love was kissed by the sun, where my anger turned to visions of possibilities. These are hard times, but necessary ones, these are the times when we BE, a sturdy Yes of a people. [Typed up on a dark night in April 2023 with Di away in New York city and I on the verge of another journey.] Thank you Julie for all.
It has been three years since I have written on this blog and yet, it is still here and I can see some of you whom I will never know make your way to older postings. Thank you. I am now using the blog to make avialalbe some of my orphan writings that have never been published or have been in books now no longer available. If this helps a young scholar or student or anyone, I am very pleased. Desire So Big It Had To Be Brave: Ann Bannon’s Lesbian Novels Joan Nestle, Jan. 1983 (With gratitude to the Lesbian Herstory Archives and Saskia Scheffer for so quickly finding this unpublished essay. Typed on a typewriter, the mss had the following handwritten across the top: “Ann Bannon. Odd Girl Out, I Am a Woman, woman in the Shadows, Journey to A Woman and Beebo Brinker. All available from Naiad Press Inc., at 3.95$ each.”) Ann Bannon has come home, and I have waited twenty years to greet her. The author of the most read Lesbian paperbacks of the fifties and early sixties has resurfaced thanks to the efforts of Barbara Grier who had the ability to ferret out pieces of our herstory like a Lesbian retriever. When I first heard the news, I felt immediately vindicated for those times I had taken a leap of faith when I had answered, “No, Ann Bannon was not a man” after discussing the Lesbian paperback section of the Lesbian Herstory Archives slide show. I had already met Ann Aldrich (aka Vin Packer), March Hastings (aka Randy Salem) and knew they were part of our community. A staunch and wonderful woman, Valerie Taylor had already visited the Archives bringing with her the censored copy of Whisper Their Love that South Africa had declared too upsetting for their racist shores. I had seen photographs of Paula Christian speaking at one of the Lesbian writers’ conferences in Chicago, and Claire Morgan’s jacket photographs clearly announced her as a woman [retyping this in 2023, of course, we now know much more about Patricia Highsmith]; the only unknown still remaining in the pantheon of Lesbian paperback authors was Ann Bannon. When I was a fem in the fifties looking for Lesbian novels to read, I never questioned who wrote them if they gave me what I wanted: a world I could recognize and sex that I could respond to. Ann Bannon’s books did both. I had read The Well of Loneliness when I was sixteen and loved it as an upper class adventure story. I was fascinated by its European ambiance, its world of villas and mansions with their horse barns, its Paris salons and Welsh ambulance ladies but Stephen and her world were vacation from the realities of life. As a working class daughter of the Bronx who had been making love to Roz J. since I was ten years old, I knew I never stood a chance with Stephen but Beebo—well, maybe. Bannon’s books were of lives I could touch and of places where I walked and in the late fifties, I needed both these books—the emotional grandeur of The Well and the Village bar scenes of the Bannon world. In our archival presentations we have often referred to these early works as ‘survival literature,’ meaning that in their times they gave some of us something we could get anywhere else. Finding, buying and keeping the paperbacks was a political act. Called trash by the literary world and pornography by the commercial world, these books were hidden away on the pulp racks of the more sleezy drugstores. To pick the books out, carry them to the counter and face the other shoppers and the cashier was often tantamount to a coming our declaration. But all across the country, Lesbians were doing it; our need was greater than our shame. The books became parts of the personal caches of Lesbians, lent out only to special friends or to a young woman entering Lesbian life. The appeal of these novels is a complicated cultural issue; they were filled with hidden messages for me, not about depression or self-hatred which I filtered out because I knew it was the societal line and because my desire was greater then my despair, but about women straying off the beaten paths, about a visible sexuality, about a romantic energy, about a bravado that supported me in those young Lesbian years of the fifties. Now Ann Bannon’s five book series is available in an inexpensive Lesbian produced edition that will allow the Lesbian reader of the eighties to recreate an historical journey. The novels revolve around the adventures of three major Lesbian characters, Laura, Beth and Beebo Brinker, the Village butch who earned her living delivering pizzas and running an elevator so she would not have to wear a skirt. The fourth main character is Jack Mann, a friendly protective gay man who offers shelter to all three women at different times throughout the series. The first four books are about the education of Laura and Beth who move from sexual naivete to full Lesbian lust. Scattered throughout the novels are straight women who want a Lesbian experience, confused straight women who just want to be good friends and bisexual women who seem to be able to cause problems in both worlds. These shifting surfaces of women relationships does reflect the unpredictable world of female bonding in the fifties. But I am not getting to the essence of the books, how they start in a college dorm in Illinois, move through Chicago and end up in Greenwich Village, down the stairs of a fictious Lesbian bar called the Cellar, how they capture the sexual tensions of the times without ever using clinically specific words. In I am A Woman, particularly, Bannon creates a relentless world of desire, confusion and risk that is almost physically exhausting to read. The novels help to recreate a social history of pre1970 Lesbian life. In Odd Girl Out (1957) the only word used to refer to deviance ( the term of the time) is ‘homosexual.’ In the next novel, I Am a Woman (1959) Laura learns the terms, ‘gay,’ ‘ butch’ and ‘cruising’, and gets into a fight about the word ‘queer’ with Jack who is baiting her. Little by little, she learns about parts of her culture; she is told , “wear those pants, desert boots or car coat and men’s shirts and you are in business.” Bannon in one of the novels describes in a brief sentence the police clean up campaigns that went on regularly in the Village, “sweeping old dykes off the streets so young housewives would not be offended.” Most of all, Laura learns that there are women places called bars where women flirt with each other, pick each other up and make love. In whatever towns or cities these books were read, they were spreading the information that meant a new hope for trapped and isolated women. Beebo Brinker, the last book written in the series (1962) but out of sequence in the narrative development of the other novels, introduces us to a character we have already met in the earlier books as a passionate, sometimes jaded, sometimes, confused, butch. In this novel we see Beebo as a baby butch who hits the Village after being kicked out of a school in a middle American farm state for being too different. The cover of the original paper back shows a young, tired woman clutching a worn suitcase and leaning against a streetlamp that lights up the street’s name: “Gay Street.” Beebo soon masters her new city and goes on to become a Village regular. We will see her age, grow bitter, do some destructive things (for which Ann apologized in a recent Gay Community News interview) and eventually become a home for both Beth and Laura. There are sad moments, ugly moments in these books; they do not follow the eighties Lesbian feminist script. They were written in a different time by a housewife who hung out in the Village still not sure which one of these characters she was. Not revised memories, the novels are raw data, period pieces that are now finding themselves awake in another time, just as, in a way, the author is. The fifties were not a time that rewarded either difference or desire, The most prevailing literary metaphor for Lesbian life then was walking in the shadows. These novels ironically were blinking lights in that time of judgment; it is a delight to see Ann Bannon’s face in the light of day. Notes: for more information, see Maida Tilchen’s interview, “Ann Bannon: the Mystery Solved” in GCN (January 8, 1983, 8+ and an older article by Andrea Lowenstein, “Sad Stories: A Reflection on the Fiction of Ann Bannon” in GCN (May 24, 1980). Also Naiad press has reprinted some of Valerie Taylor’s early novels.