Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I Thought I Was Saying Good-bye, but...

Sometimes my body fails me and I think it is time to fall quiet, and then people take to the streets, travel thousands of miles, to remind the world that a year ago, a terrible thing happened to an already imprisoned people, the people of Gaza, a year of days has turned and still there is no let up to their suffering, their deprivations--America looks on and moves not, Egypt looks on and moves not, Israel cuts into the freedoms of its own people more and more to insure the punishment, the humiliation, the exhaustion of the Palestinians both in its borders and beyond. But around the world, women and men who cannot live with the never ending roll call of injustices, are moving--now on the streets of Cairo, 1400 people are pushing against the wall, struggling to break the siege, to enter the walled in towns of Gaza. Like freedom marchers before them, they have met phalanxes of police, of refusals, of entries denied and like the Freedom Marchers before them, they gain strength from each other and build the alliances that are needed for the duration of the struggle.
From Dorothy, "Critical Situation in Cairo with Gaza Freedom Marchers," December 28, 2009, 5:07 PM:
We are writing to call your to your attention a critical situation that has developed in Cairo, Egypt over the past week. Since just before Christmas over 1300 citizens from 42 different countries have travelled to Cairo as a transit point enroute to Gaza where they would join over 50,000 Palestinians on Dec. 31 in a Gaza Freedom March to protest the continuing siege on Gaza...after months of preparation and consultations with the Egyptian Government, Egypt abruptly announced that these peace marchers would be denied entry into Gaza, could not display any posters or banners, and could not organize or participate in any peaceful symbolic commemorations of all the civilian deaths in Gaza a year ago and the continuing suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza today..."
From 59 year-old Starhawk's e-mail out of Cairo, Dec 29, 2009:
"But finally I escaped and went off to the French Embassy, with Elizabeth, the young anthropologist I met on the plane, and Max, a cheerful young man with a giant Palestinian flag which he has managed to unveil on the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, other key monuments. They were talking about Jewish organizing and friend who had burned out and Elizabeth said, "You just have to understand that your whole life is going to be about resistance......[I think of Lepa's words a decade ago, her fist banging on the archives' table in my old apartment, "who said we would win in our lifetime, fighting fascism, we must do what we can in our own time, the struggle will continue."] ...We went back to the center of town, to the steps of the Journalists' Syndicate where our hunger strikers were holding a vigil. Twenty-two people are on a hunger strike...the steps of the Journalists' Syndicate are like a stage and it was filled with people, the hunger strikers in the center, flags and banners all around them."
From Cheryl in Cairo, December 29, 2009, 4:03 PM:
"I am having much trouble with my blackberry and anything to connect me to the outside world, nonetheless, my spirits are good. Indeed they are blocking us from entering Gaza. Yesterday we were at the World Trade Center/UN building [in Cairo] and the police surrounded us for hours--I stood eye to eye with young soldiers--most of them so very young (some no older then 16 or 17)--we taught each other how to say peace in our respective languages, we laughed, one guy even cried a little when I told him he ein halwah/beautiful eyes--but don't get me wrong--I am not naive about how dangerous this could get at any moment. It is just that, once again, I ma reminded that when given the opportunity to see each other's humanity, really look at each other and try to see each other, walls can come down.
The same walls that seem so impenetrable to get from Cairo to Gaza on this march.
When I think of the 1400 people who have come to participate in this effort from all over the world, I truly feel in my heart that one day this blockade will be lifted.
We will find a way to get the aid and the school supplies including the 12 laptops purchased by our group. I am also bringing something precious from my friend, Noura. The day before we left, she gave me her beautiful floor-length engagement dress, saying 'Some young girl will want this for herself--to celebrate her own engagement." So I have brought the dress to Cairo and am determined that it will get to Gaza...because it signifies that that young woman is creating a future for herself, that she expects to have a future. One of the most devastating affects of violence and the long lasting aftershocks of trauma is the loss of a sense of future.I stay on course to give that young woman a dress and to say to her and to you that I believe in a better future for Palestine.
Many of us are joining Hedy Epstein, an 85 year-old survivor of the holocaust, in a hunger strike--hard for me to pass by the shwarma, balawa and figs I see on the streets, but I am hungrier for this blockade of our march to get the attention of the world and I am hungrier yet for peace and justice. [Hudson Valley Residents on the Gaza Freedom March,]
Dresses, school supplies, bandages--an elderly Jewish woman sitting on a Cairo street, refusing to eat in the name of histories of injustices, young and old people brought to these streets like in other times we were brought to the streets of Selma or Sharpesville or Washington, D.C., trying to break through the killing walls of national agendas with only civilian bodies, an unarmed people, demanding that the rest of us who live our lives as if the Wall, and all that goes on in its shadow, was not our concern. I have not read one word of what is happening in Cairo in an Australian newspaper or seen one moment of coverage on the news stations. In my daily NY Times summaries, I have not see one mention of the freedom march. But in this other world, where words can soar over national boundaries and agreed on silences, words and images are pouring out. Do what you can to honor the best of the human spirit. For images, go to

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One Year Ends

Yes, Khulud, you are right. It is the resistors who make new roads possible, who push back the confinements, who broach the walls. It is the resistors on both sides of entrenched nationalisms, of territory and of gender, who make possible the breath of joy between the stones. No matter what the governments do, you and all the others who take on the edicts and the closings and the rulings and the documents of erasure, will change the face of human history.

I want to take this time, the end of one reckoning of the change of years, to thank every one who read my words, who wrote to me, who challenged me, who questioned me, who gave me heart. I have one more thought to share--and I have been 70 years slow on this one. Last week, I saw, had to see, the frenzied fear of a pig waiting for its death. The animal tried to chew through the metal bar of his last cage to escape his slaughter. I looked into his living eye, and never will I forget it. I think of walls that block out the human faces of those called our enemy, I think of the drone planes that now kill at will, machines trained to erase human lives, I think of all the animals that had a life and whose flesh I ate to feed my human life, not so special as to demand so many eyes to go blank. Anonymous deaths from which we benefit. And I think of the people who work in abattoirs, who hear the final screams of living beings all the hours of the day, who need their jobs, who grow used to their jobs, it is just a job. How did we come to this? Yesterday, Di was pulling out of a parking spot, and I looked into the yellow eye of large dog in the back seat of the car next to us. His eye followed mine, his head turning, as our car slowly pulled out and I saw in that yellow look nothing I knew for sure except life, a watching of the moment, silent and steady, each of us tied to our form of deciphering, a quiet agreement to honor the differing rights of observation, the differing workings of the heart and head.

To all my friends, old and new, to all my lovers, old and new, to all who showed me what I needed to see and to all who waited with me while I failed and tried again, who sat by my bed or listened late into the night to the same old fears, to all who helped build with me the archives of the forgotten and the judged, I touch with a life time's gratitude.

I have been thinking this so-called holiday season of the children of Gaza. How do they look upon the world who seems so to have forgotten what makes a child take joy in life, even a child of Gaza. The children of Gaza stumbling over the stones of homes that offer no shelter, not from nations casting lead or from history. They look out at us, framed by loss, by roads that go no where, they stand in their own ruins, too young to have known freedom of movement, to have run down roads that lead to larger freedoms in their own land. Like other children who posed too difficult a question to their times, they seem to fade from view even as they look at us. The children of Gaza.

Monday, December 14, 2009


It is
6:30 in the evening here, an early summer day, and the heat is pulling out all the moisture we harbor within. I sit at the bus stop, we have no subways here, but trams and buses and trains that run on the surface with people waiting at gaited fences to continue crossing the street, like one sees often on the news back in America,the awful sight of a car crushed on the railroad tracks, the wooden railing not doing its job of holding back the drunken driver or the daring teenager racing against the metal monster. Tomorrow, we are told on all the news outlets, will be one of the danger days, in the low hundreds, and country towns all over Victoria and New South Wales are on the alert for bush fires. Those of us in the city will hunker down in our houses, flats, take refuge in the movies; here the heat is like nowhere else because Australia sits right under the void in the ozone layer, and your skin knows it. Last year, Daniel, Joel, Di, Cello and I spent the day behind shuttered windows, drinking smoothies and playing cards. Every once in a while we would step out onto the deck to test the severity of the day and quickly we withdrew, it was like walking into fire. While we hid, hundreds in country towns around Melbourne where dying, caught trying to save their homes, or in their cars or in the middle of a field. The last time we stepped out on the deck, we smelled the burning dust, the fire- strength carried on the winds. For a moment I thought of another time of destruction and mortality carried on the wind, that day in September when on my upper West Side window ledge, there was a chalky tragic dust. I live in a new geography, and I have come to know and share the fearful look upward at a pitiless sky, so blue you would think it is an ocean but in it lie all the deserts of the world.

Our Love, 2007, New Jersey, photo by Morgan Gwenwald

I came across this shining image when I was going through my 2007 correspondence, but that is another story. La Professeressa and myself have aged in the past three years, the glow of good health is not as strong as it was here, but what sang out to me about this image of two women was the joy of being in each other's arms--and I thought about the gay marriage struggle, and why I do not want the State to have control over the context of this joy, the legitimizing of this joy, over making sure our human rights are sharable yes, that these smiles do not need the blessing of a god or a law I rejoice in. Here we hold in our mutual grasp the possibilities of intimate bodies, beyond the judgement of the small minded or the frightened, the devotedly convinced or the whims of pragmatic politicians, beyond the kindnesses of well meaning others who grow larger in their own eyes by letting us in to the magic circle of law blessed unions. I have many dear friends who want to marry, have married in the few states that permit it, who will fight with all their breath for the time when gay people can walk down any aisle they want and end up at the alter of blessings of their love. I will stand beside them as the voices of hate pour over their dreams, I will fight homophobia in all its forms, but somewhere under the wounds of deprivation that it engenders--so many clamor for what is denied, let us fight in the military, let us be priests and rabbis, let us be married--I embrace this un-Stated joy; we are frailer women now, but once we stood in the sunlight, attending the gay marriage of two women friends in a Temple in a small town in New Jersey--dressed for fun in our red lipstick, power to power. Let me be a 70 year old for a moment--or perhaps I am always an "alta cocker," and say to younger gay people--do not let not being allowed to do something the State needs you to do, like serving in the military, seduce you into not thinking about what kind of State you want to a part of, after gratitude, think about what it means that the State can give and with hold the legitimizing of love, about what it means to serve religious institutions that often restrict the definitions of who is fully human. What I mean to say is, in honor of the young people sitting handcuffed in the streets of Copenhagen or marching in the streets of Tehran, let us find new ways of creating a more joyous human world.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In the Loop Bar, Melbourne, Australia on the 40th Anniversary of Stonewall, USA

(I am posting a speech I gave here in June as part of a Stonewall celebration night here in Melbourne.) Joan Nestle, June, 2009
As many of you know, I started my public queer life in the butch-fem bars of New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950s; in the intervening years, I have traveled through many cultural and political terrains, one of the culminating moments being riding up Fifth Avenue with Jonathan Katz and our lovers as grand marshals of New York City’s Gay Pride March on a hot day in July in 1999. Oh but how the wheel turns, and now on a cool winter July afternoon La Professora and I and our friend Pattie, a long time member of the lesbian community here, make our way out of Pellegrini’s, -- a Melbourne icon of a place where good coffee and quick dishes of home cooked pasta make their way over the counter to be eaten standing in most instances-- cross Bourke Street—we are “at the Parliament end of town,” my letter of invite reads, to join a growing crowd of gay people outside the Loop Bar for an afternoon of talks about the lesbian and gay rights movement in Australia and the USA. Once again, I cross the threshold of a dark bar—rows of worn couches, a small stage, a bar running alongside one wall—the room continues into more sitting space behind the stage. On a different continent, almost a life time later, I find myself at home. New friends, and old, like Pattie whom I have known for over ten years now, the young queer people of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (VGLRL) who have organized this event—I have had to learn a new atlas of Australian acronyms-- and around forty other people have made their way down the cobblestoned laneway into this den of history—where under the careful directions of Sally Goldner, whom I have also known for a few years now, a wonderful standup comic and long time transgendered activist, Graham Willett, one of the anchors of the Australian Gay and lesbian archives, Jean Taylor, long time lesbian feminist activist with tales to tell and myself will talk of Stonewall echoing through the years. Then in a fitting finale, we give the stage over to the younger generation: Hayley Conway and Stephen Jones, VGLRL coordinators, and Alyena Mohummadally, President of the Australian Gay Multicultural Council. This, I believe, is the rhythm of history forming history—we tell our stories, the happenings and our understanding of them, bring up the voices, span the decades and then, fully expecting displacements of certainties, take our seats, often in the honorable front rows, and lift our gaze to the speakers on and of the new stage of things—listening always to the voices of the present struggle who imagine the future we will never see, but who have seen our past. Let us hope our lives and our reflections about them can be of some help.

What I will do, through the use of my notes and news flashes that I carried with me on that afternoon in addition to Lee Hudson’s and Steve Hogan’s wonderful reference work, "Completely Queer: the Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia" (1998) that I carefully put on the stage in front of me, as if this history was a friendly weight, is reconstruct my talk in that most grassroots of places, a gay bar.

The Voice of Sally Goldner: First I want to respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on today.

Thank you, Sally, and to the organizers of this event for inviting me with my American voice to be part of your celebration. By doing this, you have allowed me in a metaphorical way, to step off into the line of march, New York’s Gay Pride March, that just happened in the early hours of your morning in my city so far away. First, hot off the press, sent out by my dear friend Jonathan Katz, the newly released Stonewall Riot Police Reports, June 28, 1969 in which for the first time we learn the name of the much rumored butch lesbian woman who was among the first arrested on that summer night. [Here I am waving above my head the printout of the arrest record from OutHistory.] Her name is Marilyn Fowler, Marilyn Fowler, now is put back into our history. Then I want to put in the air the names of comrades, of pioneers in the American movement—Harry Hayes, Del Martin, Barbara Gitttings—who sadly have died and one other group of people, the students of SNCC (the Students’ Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who in their civil rights marches through violent southern towns, sit ins at soda fountain counters and long days of voter registration in the back country of the American South, made the history I am speaking of today possible.

How grateful I feel to stand here with you today—you have given me a chance to revisit the existential energies of the most politically and culturally important decades of my life—the American 50s, 60s, and 70s. These were the decades of a people’s self creation, where the private became more and more, for African-Americans, for women, for queer people, actions in the street [here I paused and spoke of the images from Iran, indeed the images that seem to be propagating at such an alarming rate—columns of national militaries, like a devastating crop of malevolence, advancing on unarmed citizens the streets.] where national agendas of hatred and discrimination were challenged by people with the smallest amount of social power.

Now I know I was supposed to talk about the gay 70s in America but one of the other stories I would like to tell is what came before, to challenge in my own way, the idea that 1969, the Stonewall Rebellion, was the starting point of our emancipatory journey. Another point I want to make is that our journey, our queer journey—my own personal one and our larger international movements are deeply embedded in the histories of nations, of technologies, conflicts and social justice movements. Desire, shame, anger and ultimately rebellion—sometimes all at once—make this three decade period history so compelling, so rich. Throughout this talk I will be blending the personal with the political, a phrase born in the women’s movement in the 1970s, to give this history a body, a body alive with want. I am juggling so many worlds here—the civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay rights movement—and they must be kept in the air together because they all created each other and sometimes, challenged the visions and strategies of each other.

Twenty years before the decade we are looking at today, queer peoples were reeling with oppressive legal, political and psychological restrictions, yes, but in the true dialectical way, many were creating ways to resist, to form communities of desire and protest, like so many marginalized people do when the world is closing down around them. I was 10 when I entered this most restrictive American time; Joseph McCarthy, the anti-communist campaigner and the subsequent House Un-American Activities Committee, were nourishing a culture of fear and intolerance of difference throughout the land—the killing air as I have called it. Growing up in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx in the 1940s, I heard the whispers and saw the shunning. On December 15, 1950, McCarthy expanded his public list of subversives to include sexual deviants. That morning Americans, queer and straight, found on the front page of their New York Times the report of the Senate Investigative Committee entitled, “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government,” followed by “Federal Vigilance on Perverts Asked: Senate Group Says They Must be Kept Out of Government because of Security Risk.” The first paragraph developed the theme: “The lack of emotional stability which is found in most sex perverts and the weakness of their moral fiber, make them susceptible to the blandishments of foreign espionage agents.” (Katz, 99)

Thus a decade of what has been called the witch hunting years began—with all the ironies history keeps in wait—think of Roy Cohn and FBI Chief J.Edgar Hoover, both of whom have been outed in the subsequent decades, leading the persecution of other homosexuals. Hoover announces in 1951 that his agency has identified and driven out over 400 sexual deviants in government service. Queers like other ideological enemies were a fifth column in their nation; note the language of security, deviance, threat, subversion, that chillingly connects to our world today, However, I, like so many others, was learning other histories as well. My working class Jewish mother, a bookkeeper in New York’s garment industry all her life, told me of the heroism of Paul Robeson, the African American internationalist exiled from America, taught me of the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire and the creation of the textile unions early in the 20th century, while her own working life taught me the power of bosses, and in these years, my body was on its own journey of subversion and by the end of this decade, the 1950s, I would be a weekend regular in the working class butch-fem bars of Greenwich Village, taking on, along with my bar comrades, Vice Squad raids and police harassment. Constantly bombarded with messages of why we should hate ourselves, our collective resistance was already well under way.

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, gay people were organizing in groups to form the Homophile Movement for Equal Rights, men like Harry Hay (1912--) who, along with others, brought the Mattachine Society into being in 1950 and Del Martin, who sadly died last year, along with her partner Phyllis Lyon was creating the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian civil rights group, coded names yes, but listen to their voices as they create the possibilities of Stonewall, of a counter discourse in their conventions, publications, social gatherings--under FBI surveillance the whole time, we later discovered.
May 15, 1955: Resolution of the Mattachine Society: Be it resolved that the Mattachine Society does hereby appeal to parents, ministers, doctors and all those who come in contact with and have a lasting impression on the youth of this nation, to become aware of the sexual problems of all youths, to understand it and deal with it intelligently and with charity so this nation may have a coming generation of adults able to accept themselves and their place in the community and be prepared to deal with our problems as a nation with responsibility, strength and intelligence for the benefit for all mankind. (Ridinger, 44)

We were subverting the national discussion of that thing called the sexual deviant—our desires, our angers at social injustices, our belief in our own human dignity grew as the American 50s became more restrictive.

In the same year, 1955, Rosa Parks coming home from a long day’s work, refuses to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus.

The Voice of Del Martin, October 1956, speaking as the founder of DOB at a national meeting of Homophile Groups, which she describes as mostly for men with some involved hard working women: “The Daughters of Bilitis is a women’s organization resolved to add the feminine voice nd viewpoint to a mutual problem. While women may not have so much difficulty with law enforcement, their problems are none the less real—family, sometimes children, employment, social acceptance—the groundwork has been well laid in the five and a half years—Homosexuality is not the dirty word it used to be. It has only been in this 20th century through the courageous crusade of the Suffragettes and the influx of women into business that women have become independent entities, an individual with the right to vote and the right to a job and economic security. But it took women with foresight and determination to attain this heritage which is now ours. AND WHAT WILL BE THE LOT OF THE FUTURE LESBIAN? FEAR? SCORN? THIS NEED NOT BE IF LETHARGY IS SUPPLANTED BY AN ENERGIZED CONSTRUCTIVE PROGRAM, IF COWARDICE GIVES WAY TO THE SOLIDARITY OF A COOPERATIVE FRONT—If the let Georgia-do-it- attitude is replaced by the realization of individual responsibility in thwarting the evils of ignorance, superstition, prejudice and bigotry.” (Ridinger, 52)
And this is the struggle to which Del devoted her entire life.

By the end of the 50s, I had found my way to the public lesbian bar community, to the sex workers, passing women, my fem-butch comrades who schooled me in the my erotic and cultural rites of passage. As you may know if you have read my other writings, I carry their touch and their lives with me always.

I entered the next decade, 1960s—and I know the prefix American goes before all I am saying here this afternoon—leading two lives, social activist and teacher by day—and sexual deviant by night, a young fem dancing late into the evening to the velvet songs of Johnny Matthias and the wails of Teresa Brewer, drinking her 7 and 7s in the back room of the Sea Colony, prepared for police intrusions and wanting intrusions of another kind, hating the strictures of State surveillance which marked our lives particularly in these public private moments. Remember at this time the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was still defining homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”

In the 1980s, during the Reagan years, I wrote, “Today the 1960s is a favorite target of those who take delight in the failure of dreams. For those who dabbled in social change or who stayed aloof from the passions of the times, the sixties has become a playground for nostalgia, a pot-filled room of counterculture adolescents playing with anger. But it is a sad cynicism that jeers at the defeat of courage and commitment and a selfish one too. [And simply wrong, I added on this afternoon, forty years later.] There is one group of Americans that cannot play with the 1960s, cannot give these years to mockery and disdain. In Alabama and Mississippi and Arkansas, in Watts and Harlem and Philadelphia, in luncheonettes and in movie theaters, on beaches, on school steps, and on buses, black Americans took their history into their own work-worn hands, carried it on their tired feet, until it became a different thing.” And now I add for gay people as well, who start the decade as sexual deviants and end it as gay liberationists. This decade, the 1960s was the most important ten years of my life—the sexual energies of it, the grassroots thrust of its social energies, the opportunity it gave me to seize history and mark it with collective actions. A decade of great struggles and great sadnesses: in 1963 Dr Martin Luther King delivers his “I Have a Dream Speech” in front of thousands in Washington, D.C., JFK is assassinated and Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique.”

From A Restricted Country (1987): I wore a double mask in those early sixty’s years, in those estaurants [here I explained how we conducted the sit ins in Baltimore’s segregated restaurants, with our black comrades picketing outside, while we, the white members of CORE infiltrated the restaurant.] My first deception was to the enemy; the pose of a nice white person who could be let in and would sit down and eat in quiet tones, pretending to ignore the battle for human dignity that was happening outside the windows.[Once again I was part of a fifth column.] The second was to my friends, my comrades, black and white, the pose of straightness, the invisibility of my queerness. They did not know that when the police entered, with their sneers and itchy fingers, I was meeting an old antagonist. Perhaps their uniforms were a different color, but in the lesbian bars of my other world I had met these forces of the state. I never told my comrades that I was different because a secret seemed a little thing in such a time of history.
The time for secrets, however, was coming to an end. Feminist and gay manifestoes were in the air.

The Voice of William Beardempl, 1966, in DOB’s publication, The Ladder: “You the respectable members of society have created these distortions in the lives of individuals, and then you disparage the results of what you have done. You turn with evil indifference on those you have maimed and sadistically hurt—and hurt again—and take advantage of the helpless fellow human being because they happen to be homosexuals? What are you going to do now? We will not accept compromise or tolerate injustice any longer. The way ahead for us has been plainly determined by the history of our country—We hear the drums of equality from the American Revolution. We hear the cannons of unity from our great civil war. Our banners shall read the same as for all men—Equality, Unity, Peace, Freedom. In our day to day existence, we still hear the catcalls of fruit, fairy, queer, faggot—all the reactions of subjective inequality still practiced by our neighbors and that continue to dwell in men’s civilized hearts. We demand our rights. If the police to not protect homosexuals as they have not done so in the past, then I can see in the near future a separate police force paid for and operated by the homophile community. Unless restrictive laws are changed, unless the courts uphold the rights of homosexuals, we shall have no alternative but to go to the Supreme Court and overturn those laws that all men are treated equally except for homosexuals. We ask no special favor. We want the ordinary rights like every other citizen of the United States—jobs, homes, friends, social lives, safety and security. Here is our challenge to San Francisco: Face Reality—Face Homosexuality! (Ridinger, 124)

I want to be linear in this telling but I can’t, too much was all going on at the same time, but let us know stop at that late warm night in June, 1969 in the Village right across from the 7th Avenue Subway stop, when a group of young gay people, some queens, some young cross dressers, one butch woman whose name we now know—Marilyn Fowler—and old bar regulars, touched by all I have mentioned—the growing strength of people’s movements demanding dignity and their own class evictions from the “good” life, decided this intrusion by the State was one too many. [I interrupt the telling here to say that this is only version of the story, that we are learning nuances all the time and that stories of mythic origins are ironically shifting things.] The police entered the Stonewall Inn, a rather dank place, thinking it would be a raid like all the others, hustling cringing queers onto the streets to await the police cars, to please the Mayor’s clean- up- the- city call, perhaps to punish an uncooperative Mafia connection. The story goes, “While the police waited for patrol cars to cart away the arrested suspects and the seized alcohol, the bar’s patrons began to resist. They refused to follow police orders. Men refused to show their IDs and men dressed as women refused to accompany female officers to the bathroom to have their gender confirmed. Those who weren’t arrested exited through the front door, but they didn’t get go far. Within a short time, the crowd swelled to an estimated 2,000. As police put the arrested into the wagons, the crowd threw what they had—pennies, beer bottles, trash cans—at the police and shouted ‘Gay Power!’” 13 people were arrested, four police officers were injured. The rebellion continued for six nights—on one of them I stood in the middle of the cordoned off road, the wet streets shining in the night, interrupted in my journey to the bar by the milling crowds. It is estimated that there 1,000 gay rights organizations formed within a year after Stonewall, and by 1972, over 3000. (Carter)

Gay liberation was one part of the journey I had to take, but as a woman, I am also forever grateful to the Women’s Liberation Movement—and to the world of lesbian feminism—even though I struggled with its rigidity from time to time—these collective voices of new imaginings and fierce actions allowed me, forced me, to confront the history of the normalized concept of "woman" and how this system of power relations fit into all the others--class,race, colonization and the other manipulated markers of human complexity. What heady days there were, not because my new comrades were better than my bar days community, but because together these discourses, these struggles for full human expression and for sexual freedom gave me the insights I needed to have a life, a life, now of almost 70 years, that has brought me to these shores where my history cpeaks to yours.

Something had happened from the mid 1960s on—women, straight and gay, educated by their work in the new left and the civil rights struggles but disappointed in their demeaning treatment by the men in the movements, broke away from what they called the “sexism” of their male comrades and through grassroots organizing and consciousness raising groups (I was in three, a Marxist feminist reading group, a lesbian feminist group and a Gay Academic Union’s women’s group out of which in 1974 would come the Lesbian Herstory Archives) put the slogan the personal is political into action. The development of feminist theory and actions transformed the 1970s—women’s shelters, Take Back the Night Marches, Anti-Violence Against Women Campaigns, reproductive rights marches, the equal pay for equal work campaign with the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) finally being passed in 1970, the birth of a feminist theater project starting with It’s Alright to Be A Woman Theater Group—simple, profound stories from the lives of women we recognized; then as the decade progressed, feminists like Betty Friedan grew frightened of the growing lesbian “menace” as she called it in the national women’s movement, which in turn inspired activist lesbians to stand up at a national women's conference and proudly reveal their self-identifying t-shirts announcing they were this terror, the Lavender Menace. (Note again how the use of the word "menace" is a holdover from the McCarthy 50s, and how subversive the fifthe column idea can be.) The next few years revealed the cracks within our own discourse: issues of separatism within the lesbian feminist communities, the conflicting visions of radical feminists and cultural feminists, of sex radical lesbian feminists and anti-pornography lesbian feminists—all these conversations going on as we created alternate women’s cultural, political and social communities.

All social change movements have their documents of principle, their manifestos and position papers, their chants and anthems and so did American lesbian feminism. In 1970, a group calling themselves the Radical Lesbians printed, at a community press, a small four page declaration that reverberated throughout the decade—“The Woman Identified Woman,” whose first lines were, “What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” I want to put this document, this ideological championing of the lesbian as the answer to centuries old domination and control of women next to that physical explosion in the streets of the Village six months earlier—both announced that another national social conversation about our queer and women’s bodies was about to begin. In my own bar fem way, I also knew I had a different kind of struggle within the movement ahead of me—desire had been my exploding force, portraying its richness my political and cultural motivation—my work, and the work of many other women, for many years was to enrich the anger with an honoring of pleasure, to keep queering my woman’s body without betraying it. I wonder at these words, still so alive with meaning for me when I am almost 70.

In December 1969, I joined the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) and entered the formal world of gay liberation in the old firehouse on Wooster Street with its treacherous metal twisting spiral staircase—ok for firemen but not for high heels of any gender. In April of the new year, the first all women’s public dance was held and standing here in the darkness of your bar, I can still hear the throbbing music, the shirts torn of sweating women’s bodies and breasts bouncing free as hundreds of lesbian feminists celebrated their new freedoms. Soon after, tired of what we felt was gay male trivializing of lesbian concerns, we formed the Lesbian Liberation Committee that organized Sunday afternoon cultural and political events for lesbians—this group would later by the next year turn itself into Lesbian Feminist Liberation, one of the longest lasting lesbian social and political groups in America. In May of 1970 the Second Congress to Unite Women is held in NYC and at the opening gathering a group of women stand up wearing their Lavender Menace t-shirts and protest the growing homophobia of the National Organization of Women.

In May of 1970, four students are shot to death by police on the Kent State Campus protesting the war. That image of the young man lying dead on his stomach on the campus walk, his face not seen, his rigid legs turned inward, a young woman kneeling by his side, her hands up to her face in disbelief, has stayed with me all these years. No place was safe from the anger of the State, a State that was turning on its own young.

In 1970, American soldiers are accused of murdering entire town of Vietnamese civilians.

The1970s in my country was a decade of firsts for us; we get a taste of power and a growing sense of ourselves as a national community; the decade will end with tragedy and our largest gay pride demonstration ever. In 1974, we are taken off the list of mental illnesses. Elaine Noble becomes the gay politician elected to office. I begin my participation in the yearly pride marches, lesbians, gays, march together out of the Village up Sixth Avenue to the strawberry fields of Central Park, until in the mid 1980s, business interests in the Village turned up in the opposite direction so the hundreds of thousands potential customers would spend their money downtown. In 1973, I helped form the Gay Academic Union to represent gay teachers, students and workers in the colleges and universities of New York City; our first conference is broken up by a bomb threat. Then in 1974, out of a GAU women’s consciousness raising group that included Julia Penelope Stanley and Deborah Edel, the Lesbian Herstory Archives is born—to honor the histories I have been talking about today and so many more. LHA is still going strong in its own home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The collection would live and grow for two decades in my upper West Side apartment, right down the street from Womenbooks, the first women’s bookstore in New York.

History is not a tale of continuous progression or disappointment; it is about engagements, broken promises, refusals and breakthroughs, power shifts and access to technologies and offered moments of change if we take them up. The 1970s were no different. One of the most vivid memories I have is the hundreds of us that stood in all weathers throughout the decade in front of the New York City Council Chambers meeting hall as the elected officials voted on the city’s gay rights bill—from 1972 on for fourteen years we stood, protested, testified, and each year this city of my birth and so many years of my life turned its back on us until 1986, when we were finally recognized as full citizens of New York. The decade that opens with the gay power shout and lesbian creative rage also features Anita Bryant and her antigay Save the Children national campaign in 1977 and towards the end of this year of great national coming out, in 1978 on November 27, Harvey Milk, a favorite gay son of San Francisco and his friend Mayor Mascone are shot to death by a Dan White whose lawyers argue the Twinky defense, sugar made him do it, for a lighter sentence. I know many of you have seen the recent film documenting these events—our history becoming national history.

Finally in the closing months of 1979, the archives collective, holding high its banner proclaiming “In the Memory of the Voices We have Lost,” joins over a hundred thousand people from every state and ten foreign countries to march on Washington, D.C. demanding respect be paid to lesbian and gay rights and in this last year of the decade I was told to bring to you today, the National Gay Task Force adds Lesbian to its title. From the small meetings of friends of Harry Hay and the women who walked up the long flight of stairs to the San Francisco offices of the Daughters of Bilitis, from the bar people who had risked their lives on dark streets to touch and love, from the women’s collectives and the endless meetings about how to change what gender dictates in this world and so much more—it now comes to you, you the younger ones, this long twisting skein of our queer human dreaming.

Thank you for listening to this American voice telling an American story.

Carter, David. "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution." New York: St Martins
Griffin, 2004.
Hogan, Steve and Hudson, Lee. "Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia." New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.
Katz, Jonathan. "Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A." New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1976.
Nestle, Joan. "A Restricted Country." San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1987,2003.
Ridinger, Robert B., ed. "Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and the Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights (1892-2000)." New York: the Haworth Press, 2004.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Words for Palestine

Words for Palestine, December 6, 2009, Melbourne, Australia

Students for Palestine asked me to speak at a rally held in front of the Park Hyatt Hotel here in Melbourne where the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was hosting Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, Slivan Shalom. They were discussing, the paper said, Israel's request for help from Australia to help it rehabilitate the Jordan River. This was Shalom's second official dinner--the first in Sydney where the Prime Minister of Australia also welcomed the Israeli government official in glowing terms and never once mentioned the crises that is facing the Palestinians under the present Israeli regime. I was asked to speak as a representative of Women in Black and thus Hellen, Marg, Sue, Geraldine--my Women in Black comrades stood with our banners behind me as I spoke. We clearly were the oldest in presence. Without their support, I could not have accomplished what I had to do. I quote the words of two poets in the talk--I wanted something different, more complex then a typical rally speech--the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the American writer, always prophetic in terms of what racial failures would bring to States, James Baldwin. Thank you, Daniel, for the image.

Words for Palestine

Salam Alekhim/ Shalom

I want to thank Students for Palestine for inviting the Melbourne Women in Black group to be part of this demonstration against the uncritical welcoming of Silvan Shalom to this country. I speak with two voices today—as a member of Women in Black, and as a 70 year old American Jewish woman who lost one third of her family in the Belzec Concentration camp. Two voices but one heart—the brutalizing of populations by the use of overwhelming military force, by governmental policies of ethnic cleansing and forced expulsion from family homes, by the unquestioned belief in the right of one people to live a full life while another is condemned to hopelessness , to endless humiliations, to erased pasts, to an impossible present and a murdered future—I cannot, will not, not turn my head or heart away from the connections between my Jewish history and Palestinian history of the last 60 years.

In Haifa, after the first Intifada, in 1987, 5 Israeli women stood in silent vigil dressed in black to protest the Israelis occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. the next week Palestinian women joined the protest and a few months later, 5000 marched through the streets of Tel Aviv asking for peace. Now Women in Black stand in over 30 countries demanding an end to the brutalization of civilian populations and the planet, an end to what seems like a time of endless wars. Here in Melbourne Women in Black have been organizing for an end to the occupation since 1988 (Here I referred to Alix Nissen, a founding member of Women in Black both here and in Haifa and Marg Jacobs who has been involved with Melbourne Women in Black since 1988).

From our flyer: "We stand in recognition of peace activists all over the world, to embrace our common humanity, as a bridge to mutual respect, to remind our selves that seemingly small actions can lead both to change and hope. We make the following promises for the new year—we promise to expose the lies that demonize those who discuss nonviolent ways to end the Israeli occupation. We promise to uphold the judgements of the UN’s Goldstone Report and Breaking the Silence. We promise to stand in solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian activists who face jail for their anti occupation work— with the Shminstim, a group of Israeli teenagers declaring their refusal to serve the occupation,with Mohammad Othman, a Palestinian human rights activist,with Kobi Snitz, with Ezra Nawi ,"

with the women who monitor the checkpoints hoping to reduce the daily abuses of Palestinians simply trying to get to work, with the citizens of Bi’lin who take on the Israeli Defense Force every night, with the members of New Profile, an Israeli anti- militarism group, with the Palestinian and Israeli academics who think and teach critically about the occupation and as a result appear on a hate list of those who must be purged from the academy in the so-called democratic state of Israel,with Gideon Levy of the Haaretz newspaper, with Dr Saida Atrash, the Director of the Mehwa Center, the women’s shelter on the West Bank where every day she and others try to comfort Palestinian women who have lost their homes, and with it any sense of security for their families.

We hear the voices of power easily enough, but the voices of alternate visions, of the questioners of certainties, these we must amplify and honor, these are our deepest hope—As Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his homage to Edward Said: "Then you are prone to the affliction of longing? My dream leads my steps. And my vision seats my dream on my knees like a cat. My dream is the realistic imaginary and the son of will: We are able to alter the inevitability of the abyss!"

The voice of conscientious objector Or Ben-David, a 19 year old Israeli young woman from Jerusalem: "To refuse means to say no! No to the military rule in the West Bank, no to the use of violence as a means of defence, no to patriarchy, no to violence against innocent people, no to war and no to a society that claims to be democratic but forces youth to carry weapons, to kill or be killed. I refuse because I want to make a difference. I want all those Palestinian youths who have lost hope to see that there are Israelis who care and who make a different choice. I want all my friends who became soldiers or who are about to become soldiers to see that things do not have to be the way they are, and that doing these immoral things is not something to be taken for granted, that another way is possible." The author of these words is now serving 20 days in an Israeli military prison.

Know that our numbers, the numbers of dissenters, are growing , that cracks are running down that monstrous barbed- wire topped gray wall that tonight’s honored guest calls a fence, know that more and more of us are not afraid of what they call us—traitors, self- hating Jews, antisemitic Jews, renegade Jews. What we are afraid of is what comes on the horizon when a people’s daily dignity is so insulted, when others so absolutely and brutally control the possibilities of one’s life—James Baldwin, an African- American writer who knew in his bones of daily dehumanization, warned of the the "Fire Next Time." What hope will there be for reconciliation if the settlers keep dancing on the hearts of the dispossessed, if leaders like Rudd and Obama and so many others sit down to feast with representative bullies of the Israeli state, pretending that Palestinian agony does not exist. We have seen in the past the results of this calculated refusal to challenge national cruelties. Read the Palestinian poet, read Darwish—"Do I ask permission, from strangers who sleep/in my own bed, to visit myself for five minutes? Do I bow respectfully to those who reside in my childhood dream?"

Mr Silvan Shalom is the minister for regional development and control of the flow of water--one of the regions he is in charge of is the upper Galilee, the one- time site of al-Birwah, a village razed to the ground in 1948, its people forced to flee and among them the poet I now always carry in my heart, Mahmoud Darwish, and his family—his birth place made invisible except in the words of his poems and on old maps, his very presence made absence, a poet in exile for much of his life, but against the roaring ugliness of Israel's dedication to the eradication of a people, I put the poet’s yearning lovely humanity, “The poem is what lies between a between. It is able to illuminate the night with the breasts of a young woman/it is able to illuminate, with an apple, two bodies/it is able to restore/ with the cry of a gardenia, a homeland!" The poet brings us back to the occupied body, the place of devastation, into the night of war he brings the perfume of longing, our rights of desire.

Long after the world forgets the name of the vice Prime Minister of Israel, it will remember the words of Mahmoud Darwish, the poet, for he honors the wonders of life.


It had been a long day and I had been up all night writing the talk, I was emotionally exhausted from the whole event, my anger, my sadness, my speaking as a Jew and so Marg kindly led me to her car. It was only after I had arrived home, that I received the call from Daniel saying that shortly after I had left, the demonstators had attempted to enter the hotel and were beaten and sprayed with capiscum. A young woman friend of his whom I had met was punched in the face by a member of the police. This morning, our daily newspaper, "The Age," carried a picture of the confrontation and the following caption: "Capiscum Spray used to Quell Anti-Israeli Protestors." I want no more violence. Civil disobediance, yes, in the hundreds of thousands, yes, but no more aggressions provoking more aggressions. Enough of this--we will struggle against the Israeli state as we did against the apartheid South African state but in our own way, with an imagined difference. Blood against blood makes reconciliation impossible. Only the fire's devastation comes this way. We "must alter the inevitablity of the abyss." But I am 70.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Oh Such a Week We Had...

Oh such a hard week we have had, but this afternoon La Professoressa went into that familiar mode--preparing for one of her international trips--rushes to the bank, to her office for needed papers, to La Mananas for two weeks worth of fruit for me, and most importantly of all, off to Richard, her beloved chiropractor who knows all the wayward bones in her back and can charm them back into place. Back home, I iron her just -decided- on- must- have shirts as she packs for her transition from Australian summer to English winter. Cello and I sit on the edge of the bed watching the process, an experienced packer is this woman, so quick, so wisely considered, one medium sized suitcase, one carry on bag with wheels into which go her computer, papers, books. In a few minutes all is ready. She gives me that dreaded nod and I call the taxi, always sad at her going--as the Italians say, partire e morire--taking leave is a little death.
The taxi pulls up, I stand at the gate, with Cello at my feet, his tail hanging low, we hug, kiss good-bye, whisper, "thank you for all you have given me" and so the hard week comes to an end with La Professoressa doing what she loves so dearly, doing what brought us together in the first place, flying off into the night, back towards Europe, her head packed with ideas on women and human rights, her itinerary one of visits with old friends, and classes to be taught, conferences to be attended, London and Paris her destinations. Nothing annoys her now, not the long wait in Bahrain or Singapore, not the dashes to her connections--buses, trains from airports to hotels and back again--not the prospect of sleeping upright for 20 some hours, her back already dreaming of Richard's restorative touch. Ten years ago this delight in leaving her home behind brought her to me in New York, with Cuba's sun still strong on her face, on her arms.
And how we travelled together--to London, to Dorset and the English coast, to Athens and Mykonos, Santorini and Crete, to Paris and Copenhagen, to Palestine/Israel and always to New York. But now Cello and I stand at our front gate and wave good-bye to the Red Head as she pulls away from our weatherboard house on Fitzgibbon Avenue; she is already talking with the Lebanese driver who has posted moments from his lost geographies on his dashboard, and then she turns for a last wave. The taxi disappears down Dawson Street. Cello looks up at me, his dark eyes even darker. Just you and me now, he seems to say. We make a promise to care for each other as best we can in the long weeks ahead until our exuberant traveller returns.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lesbian Herstory Archives Art Benefit!

You don't have to be in New York to help support the Lesbian Herstory Archives and get a wonderful work of art by a New York lesbian artist:

Join Us at the first ever Lesbian Herstory Archives Art Benefit!

Raffle of original artworks by more that 80 artists

Raffle tickets are $100 and can be purchased at

or by calling the archives--718-768-3953 to use a check, money order, Visa, Mastercard

Every raffle ticket holder goes home with an original art work and ensures the survival

of the Lesbian Herstory Archives

For a listing of the partcipating artists, to find out more go to the website!

Date of raffle: December 19, 2009

Alexander Gray Associates--526 West 26th Street, Suite 1019

If you buy a raffle, as I did, from a long way away, an archives volunteer will pick out a painting for you and mail it to you--and what good and bad in a good way taste the archives women have.

Joan's Delight

Thank you, Lepa and Stephanie and all who have commented on my words. Thank you so much.
Daniel is a young man who has been my friend and comrade ever since I arrived in this city. I first met him when he was finishing up his Doctorate thesis and I was on my first Honorary Fellowship tour in the English Department of the University of Melbourne. Oh the ways of the world, that I should come all this way to find my Daniel, a working class lad from Mount Gambia in South Australia who burns with ideas and projects, who is a dedicated volunteer at the Australian Gay and Lesbian Archives and who knows how to schmooze on the phone, not a flourishing art here. Young gay man and old lesbian, how we laugh together.