A few weeks ago I interviewed Joan Nestle, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. As we discussed her long legacy of writing and activism, and her extraordinary action in co-founding LHA in her New York City apartment nearly 50 years ago, the issue of history, how we define it and who gets to define it was a thread that ran throughout our conversation.
That question of who gets to define history–our history–is a crucial one for all LGBTQ people, but especially for lesbians and queer women who are often erased and discounted or have their stories revised with their lesbianism removed.
As a college student at Temple University, when I was first writing for PGN, I was searching for history — lesbian history. But in the nascent days of Women’s Studies, lesbians were still largely hidden. It became part of my work as a journalist and a trained historian to try and uncover that history and record other histories as I could.
That lesbian history remains largely hidden, particularly the history of ordinary lesbians and queer women who were not famous or wealthy, is still prevalent. Working class and poor lesbians without the means or time or possibly even inclination to record and report on their lives as they lived them didn’t exist in the extant literature on lesbian lives at the time Nestle co-founded LHA.
For the most part, this remains true today. The records we have of lesbians and queer women who aren’t celebrities, artists or writers are still largely out of reach. As a consequence, a large swath of our collective history as lesbians is missing, which means an integral segment of women’s history is missing.
In recent conversations with Merryn Johns, my longtime editor at Curve magazine where I wrote for 30 years until it ceased publication, we talked about how to collect these lesbian and queer stories. Johns now works with The Curve Foundation and as the editor-in-chief of Queer Forty. We have discussed legacy time and again: how do we secure a place for these lesbian and queer women in our collective history and how do we record the individual histories of lesbians like Nestle, now in her 80s, for posterity.
For several years I have been working on a book on the subject of lesbian erasure and the excision of lesbian stories from both women’s history and the larger historical canon. The genesis of that book began in work I was doing for Curve along with discussions I was having with much younger lesbian and trans masculine editors about how lesbian and queer stories were continually excised from news media and from our own community’s lexicon.
How does our history, our herstory, mesh with our political reality? When we look at LGBTQ history, what is it we celebrate (if at all)? Are we represented or erased? How is it different for Black, brown, Indigenous, Asian, disabled, poor or gender nonconforming queer womxn?
Maddy Gold, my wife of 23 years, died suddenly a few months ago while in the midst of treatment for a rare, aggressive cancer. Maddy was a design professor at Drexel University and a well-respected painter whose work had been exhibited throughout Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. As I have written about her in the weeks since her death, I have worked to define her legacy as a teacher and artist.
Yet in the course of doing that, I have become painfully aware of how little record there is of our relationship, even though we first met and dated in high school and lived together as a couple for nearly a quarter century. How is it possible that I, a journalist and historian, and she, an artist, were so careless with this record of our most precious legacy — our life-long love affair — an affair I wrote about soon after her death.
There are only a handful of photos of us together; we were both averse to being photographed, always the ones taking photos of others. There are some beautiful cards Maddy made for me over the years, as well as paintings. But we didn’t create an historical record of our relationship in pictures and writing. There are no photographs of us together in high school and college at all.
One friend, herself an editor writing a book on legacy, said that the story there is that we believed so firmly in the constancy of our relationship, that it was so deeply rooted in love and history, that we didn’t need to take photos of ourselves and each other.
That is likely true. But also true is that now I am bereft of that tangible memory, just as we are collectively bereft of stories of lesbians and queer women most like ourselves. The women who are not famous. The women who are lesbians and queer in our lives and in our society who are creating an alternate history to that of celebrity lesbians, an alternate history that is just as valuable and just as integral to our collective knowing of who lesbians and queer women are in this society.
And so as this Women’s History Month draws to a close, as I continue to talk with Merryn and interview our lesbian elders as well as middle-aged lesbians beginning to think about their legacies, I would urge us all to take the history of our own lives seriously. To understand that how we live and with whom is an important historical statement. Not just our own personal legacies, but our collective legacy that so often excises the stories of women who are gender nonconforming, who are women of color, who are queer just like us.
Much of the reclamation of our stories, of conjuring our past as lesbians and queer women, is one of refutation: writing about ourselves rather than being written about, seeing through our own lens rather than the lens of the oppressor. Our lesbian and queer history is a palimpsest, a draft of our lives as we wish to live them and have them recorded.
Angela Davis, one of our most compelling living lesbian historical figures, said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Writer and theorist bell hooks described herself as “queer-pas-gay,” hooks inserted the French word for not (“pas”) and said that she chose that term because being queer is “not who you’re having sex with, but about being at odds with everything around it.”
This is how it is for us as lesbians and queer women: we are at odds with everything around us and we are engaged continually in the revolutionary act of living our queer lesbian female lives at a time when the very notion of being gay or a trans woman or having any female identity is anathema.
And so you must record your history. Take pictures, keep journals, tell your oral history to historians, become historians. Legacy matters — it is the record of who we are and were, of how we lived and what we touched and who will remember us when we are gone.
Build your legacy. It’s the Women’s History we have yet to chronicle and it’s a compendia of stories we are desperate to have.