HomeLifestyleThe woman who built New York’s ‘herstory’ archive recalls love and hate
The woman who built New York’s ‘herstory’ archive recalls love and hate
Archives are no static, dusty relic. Along with their archivists they constantly evolve, spinning new stories from the lives, loves and losses they commemorate, layering greater understanding of persecuted communities that were, for so long, aggressively unseen.
That was the politically charged origin of New York’s ever-growing Lesbian Herstory Archive (LHA). The world’s largest repository of its kind, it was founded in 1974 by four women from different backgrounds, including Joan Nestle and former partner Deborah Edel. Calling on the lesbian community to contribute all manner of personal records, they fought back against entrenched homophobia.
American Joan Nestle the co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Lesbian Herstory ArchivesCredit:Luis Enrique Ascui
It was initially housed in the rent-controlled Upper West Side Manhattan apartment of multiple Lambda Award-winning author and academic Nestle, 79. The self-described femme, working-class, queer Jewish woman from the Bronx was determined to be seen. “That’s what the archives has always given me. It’s a place of both healing and activism, an inspiration for artists.”
Her life’s most enduring work, the LHA is celebrated in Megan Rossman’s 2019 documentary The Archivettes, showing at the 30th Melbourne Queer Film Festival, which traces the incredible achievements of these indomitable women, who also found time to kick-start the Gay Academic Union while facing homophobic abuse. Nestle will introduce the film at MQFF. She says Rossman is a lot like the new wave of diverse young women who help run the archive alongside its veterans: “The archive’s filled with thousands of stories. And for archives to live, it will always need its poets, playwrights and filmmakers, its singers and its seers. We’re lucky to have Megan.”
The LHA moved to a Brooklyn brownstone in 1992 through community fundraising, and may soon have to upsize again. It holds published novels and poetry, hand-written love letters and personal photos, cut-and-paste protest placards and news clippings; even a military uniform from the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era. Personal ephemera from ordinary citizens is treated with the same loving respect as tomes by seminal writers Audre Lorde and Radclyffe Hall.
We sit down to tea and biscuits in Nestle’s study. She moved to Australia to be with “strapping, flame-haired,” Australian Di Otto, whom she met in New York in 1996 after surviving two bouts of cancer and subsequent depression, but it’s clear the archives are still in her blood. Their beautiful West Brunswick home overflows with queer art and books, including a striking black and white photograph of Nestle captured by renowned late HIV/AIDS activist and photographer Robert Giard.
Activism is intrinsic to Nestle’s archiving, she says. She embraced intersectional protest in her twenties, during the late ’50s, early ’60s, marching from Selma to Montgomery in solidarity with the Civil Rights movement. She was anti-war, anti-McCarthyism and pro-Women’s Lib. Following butch-femme couples in the street, she uncovered Manhattan’s clandestine lesbian bars, where bouncers forced women to dance a ruler’s width apart. “I was so desirous of lesbian touch, and I really want to emphasise that sexuality is a crucial, history-shaping force,” Nestle says. “We know more about gay men’s sexuality, but it was just as powerful for us.”
These vibrant speakeasies, within a decade, would kick-start a queer revolution with the Stonewall riots of 1969. “The bars to me were theatre. They were erotic. They were political. They were hard. Sometimes self-hatred would spill over into violence. But that complexity demanded a courage of me. Still to this day, if I may say so, I’m grateful for my years as a pariah. It makes you appreciate your comrades.”
This comradeship birthed the LHA, while Nestle was teaching at City University. Recalling a passage from French-Tunisian author Albert Memmi’s non-fiction work The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), she says it had a profound effect on the archiver she would become. Gripping my arm firmly but affectionately, she recites, “The colonised are condemned to lose their memory.”
Thanks to the LHA, there will be no memory loss. “I wanted to say thank you … my giving, which became a lifetime’s work, was to commemorate a group of working-class queer women who had so little, but did so much.”
The Archivettes screens at the Jam Factory on March 20 during the Melbourne Queer Film Festival (March 12-23).