Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jill Johnston

Jill Johnston died yesterday at 81. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice; a respected, even revered, dance critic and cultural commentator; and one of our first great radical lesbian voices during the early flowering of the modern lesbian and gay movement in the Stonewall era.

Now, I'm not saying I agreed with, at least not for more than a minute or two, the substance of what she wrote in her quasi-separatist classic Lesbian Nation--hell, even she didn't, in later years fondly referring to it as "a period piece"--but it was an exhilarating object to hold in your hand back in the early 70s.

Actually, for me, holding, then reading, this book was a process of stages all tied up with coming out of the closet. Fear preceded exhilaration. I remember sneakily, furtively, pulling it from the shelf in the public library and sitting at a back-corner table with it, holding it so that the cover wouldn't show, terrified that someone would see the title in that big bold blue font and tell my mother that I was reading this crazy scary outrageous lesbian book and that this must mean I was a lesbian. This was in 1973, the year it was published, so I was 19, and I must have been home from college for a weekend or something, because my memory is clear that it was my hometown library, which my mother frequented, and that I was very concerned that her friends the librarians not see the book I was holding. With all that cowering and covering, I didn't really read it, just sort of cradled it. (Another note here on the book as object: who will ever have such Kindle memories?) Although it would be some years before I actually sat down and read it, I burst out of the closet within a few months after my furtive interlude in the library shadows with Lesbian Nation, and I do believe that something about the existence of that book with that title helped give me the strength and courage to do so.

I've always had a soft spot for Johnston because of this, her book's part in my own little coming-out struggle. And for this, as well: the famous night in 1971 when she, as one of several feminists taking on author Norman Mailer in a sort of debate, spoke her words and then acted them out, simulating lesbian sex on stage with another woman, as the celebrated misogynist huffed and chuffed and growled, "Act like a lady."

She was not a comrade of mine in the struggle for socialism. Though she was anti-authoritarian and radical in many ways, and conscious of the political dimension of the arts, she was not a Marxist. No doubt there was much in her many writings with which I would part company. But she never did act like a lady. She helped me and who knows how many others leave all that lady crap behind. For this I'm grateful, and I'm sorry to hear of her death.