For Joan Nestle: Writer, Mentor & Friend
– Essay by Tanya Visceglia & Painting by Erin Asmussen –
When I was twenty-one, the last person in the world I wanted to be was myself. 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. When neighbors asked about my love life, they heard: “Tanya’s too busy at work to look for a husband. Do you know anyone who might like her?” My cousin, whose partner of twenty-five years had loved her fiercely, caring for her every day as cancer wasted her frame down to dry twigs, was called “Poor Fran”. “She never really had a family. But at least she had that friend to keep her company”. And any disagreement involving my uncle, the only member of my father’s family to travel outside of the U.S. or pursue an advanced degree, would invariably devolve into: “Pussy-ass Ronnie, what the hell does he know?”
The Brooklyn neighborhood I grew up in had been fixed in the popular imagination by its appearance in “Saturday Night Fever” as the epicenter of hotheaded, blue-collar despair. In the 1980s, Bay Ridge’s only lesbian bar had an unmarked entrance and blacked-out windows to avoid unwanted attention from passers-by. Even that didn’t stop the occasional pack of drunken cugines from wandering in and pulling down their pants to “show us what we were missing”. Often, one of them would try to bait me into a conversation: “Hey. Just tell me this. I just wanna understand. Why yiz do what yiz do?” Looking at the floor, I would pretend I hadn’t heard. Then he’d turn to his friends: “Look at this. I’m tryna be friendly here. Not for nothin’, but she could at least answer me.” Repeated louder and slower: “Why — yiz — do — what — yiz –do?” After he gave up, he’d be sure to get in a parting shot on his way out the door: “This one thinks she’s hot shit. See if she’d be so high-and-mighty with my dick down her throat.”
Whenever that happened, we all just hung our heads and waited for the guys to leave. Most of us weren’t out – either to our families or at work, so we couldn’t risk any trouble or possible exposure, particularly those of us who worked as teachers at Catholic schools or police officers. Back then, a lesbian schoolteacher was fired with no explanation. And the police officers among us shuddered as they passed around the story of an openly gay cop who had died waiting for backup because “He’s a fairy. Let him fly out of there.” Gay pride hadn’t even occurred to me then – I would have happily settled for the absence of gay shame.
But I had seen the promised land — that somewhere, gay pride was possible for others – in my two-year stay at the liberal, utopian theme park that was The University of Wisconsin. In Madison, Queer Theory reigned supreme; spiky-haired undergraduates swooned over 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 with “I thought you were straight”.
This flavor of discrimination was new to me: self-presentation had never been an issue at the bars in my old neighborhood. Everyone just assumed that my femme appearance was a way of signaling my attraction for masculine women. And back then, that attraction was the only thing I knew for sure to be real. It blared a clear, urgent message that cut through the muddy clamor of advice from women’s magazine quizzes and well-meaning friends, pulling every cell in my body towards the hard-eyed woman leaning against the wall, flexing tanned biceps in a wifebeater, hotboxing a cigarette. No matter what the cost.
As for those university women, I was either puzzled or put off by everything about them: their contrived goddess imagery and rituals, their cookie-cutter androgyny, the eye-watering cloud of patchouli they left in their wake. Don’t get me wrong: those women were good people – they ran a non-profit organic food co-op, they organized a late-night volunteer taxi service for women’s safety, and they marched against the war in Iraq. They just weren’t my people. But I was young, and I needed a community, so I swallowed my objections and faked an interest in drumming circles and discussions of how menstruating directly into a hole in the ground deepens our connection with Mother Earth. My fantasies of a 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 debut of the “lipstick lesbian”: girls who loved dressing up and hooking up with other girls who loved dressing up. In 1992, New York Magazine’s article on “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.” This spawned a flurry of articles in the mainstream press, which portrayed lesbian life in the ‘90s as a non-stop, giggling whirl of pillow fights and martinis in high heels and full makeup. Not surprisingly, that scenario left no room at the table for butches (other than k.d. lang, who appeared on a 1993 cover of Vanity Fair sitting in a barber’s chair, getting a shave from Cindy Crawford). And many lesbians were willing to throw their more masculine, socially embarrassing sisters under the bus, seduced by the sudden, unexpected shower of good PR.
This point was brought home for me one night at Julie’s lounge bar, known for its oversized cocktail glasses and “professional” crowd of DKNY pantsuits, where I was chatting with a friend who had majored in Women’s Studies at Smith College. As I turned my head to follow the swagger of a hot butch in a French-cuffed shirt and tie, she sniped “If I wanted a man, I’d be with a real one.” loudly enough for that person to hear as they passed us. Again, I hung my head and said nothing. This time, I was in no danger. What had prevented me from speaking up? Her seven-sisters pedigree? The ring of well-bred certainty in Rebecca’s voice seemed to place her firmly at the center of the lesbian community, while my dirty mind was still skulking around its unevolved margins.
One day, browsing in Judith’s Room, which has since gone the way of most independent booksellers, I picked up a book of essays called “A Restricted Country” by a writer named Joan Nestle, described on the book jacket as a “1950s femme from the Bronx”. In one essay, “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. Why had I never heard this before? Finally, I could see myself, and for the first time, had permission to be myself. I cradled that book all the way home, and the same copy I bought that day has accompanied me on my journey across three continents and thirty years.
In 1993, when I heard that Joan would be teaching the first course in Gay and Lesbian Literature ever to be offered at Queens College, I had read every book on the syllabus before the first class. Similar courses today usually have a more specific focus, with titles such as “AIDS, Politics, and Culture” or “Sexual Politics: Sluts, Spinsters, and Drag Queens: Sexual Norms and Deviations”. Back then, we needed it all and cast our nets wide, reading everything from Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” poems to James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”, to Audre Lorde’s “Zami” to Leslie Feinberg’s “Letter to a Fifties Femme”. LGBT students were just hungry: for images of ourselves, for testaments to our own experience, and for a place in which we could occupy the center of discourse with our own issues without being accused of “throwing our sexuality in people’s faces” or “making an issue” where none need exist.
Joan’s kind blue eyes and genuine interest in every one of us slowly drew us out and made room to unfold the whole world of our experience — from humor to desire to despair. In one class, my friend Frank acted out a traffic stop scene from the iconic “Mr. Benson” series of gay erotica, squaring off in his police academy uniform and mirrored sunglasses. His performance met with wolf whistles of approval from students and Joan’s dry response: “Now I see why you want to be a police officer so much.” In another class, we read our own poetry aloud. A soft-spoken student who rarely participated in class discussions shared a poem that she had written to a woman with severe burns, a stranger she would see every day on her way to work. “With strips of skin like loose bandages/I want to ask how you can be so brave/ wearing your scars on the outside/when I live with so much fear/wearing my scars on the inside.” Reading my own poem about a friend who had recently died of AIDS, my tears were both fed and soothed by classmates’ slow nods of recognition and thick, respectful silence. I knew, without needing to ask, that over the past ten years, every other student in that room had also been crossing friends’ numbers out of their phone books — one by one.
Later in the semester, outside of class, we made a banner together in preparation for our road trip to the 1993 LGBT National March on Washington. On the day of the march, when we arrived at the D.C. metro, the escalator in the Dupont Circle station was so packed that it ground to a halt, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of queers from all over the country, standing up to be counted. This raised a huge cheer from the crowd, followed by a chant of “We are everywhere!” and waving of small rainbow flags at strangers from side to side of the station. For the first time, I felt borne up by the groundswell of a movement larger than myself. On that day, the whole world was queer. We were a proud, open and unstoppable force.
At 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 to us 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 in Joan’s own voice, 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 continues to sustain me in a world that has changed radically in some ways, but in others not at all. 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.” It walked by my side when I came out and stayed out in a work environment so rabidly Christian that faculty meetings (at a public university) would open with a prayer. It deflects the pain of my mother’s hissed whisper: “Why do you have to go around telling people you’re married? It’s none of anybody’s business.” They may not know who I am, but now I do. And that is enough.
Tanya Visceglia is a recovering academic and freelance editor/translator living in Taipei. After graduating with a PhD in Linguistics from the City University of New York, she taught Linguistics at the university level for ten years in Taiwan. Her research has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Chang Ching Guo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange. Tanya’s non-academic writing blends sociolinguistic observations with lived and shared experience. She has recently completed Shelter In Another Place, a collection of essays on the language/life interface in Taiwan. She has work forthcoming in Expat Press, and her essay “Not For Nothin‘” was featured in our 2020 issue.
Erin Asmussen has spent her entire life making art. She sculpts and paints everyday and is always looking for a new place to grow her creative gifts. She received a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Design Technology from the Art Institute of Colorado. After graduation, the next several years were spent making Mannequins, carving giant play lands, and building theater sets. In her personal work there are images filled with surreal creatures, landscapes, and objects from the imagination. Erin has a natural gift of bringing the unseen to the seen. Follow her on Instagram @erinasmussen