Nestle's father died before she was born, and she was raised by her widowed mother Regina Nestle, a bookkeeper in New York City's garment district, whom she credits with inspiring her "belief in a woman's undeniable right to enjoy sex". She attended Martin Van Buren High School in Queens and received her B.A. from Queens College in 1963. During the mid-1960s she became involved in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, travelling to the Southern United States to join the Selma to Montgomery march and to participate in voter registration drives. She earned a Master's degree in English from New York University in 1968 and worked toward a doctorate for two years before returning to Queens College to teach.
Nestle had been part of the working-class, butch and femme bar culture of New York City since the late 1950s. In an interview with Ripe Magazine, she recalled that the center of her social life as a young lesbian was a bar called the Sea Colony, which, typically for the time, was run by organized crime and that, in an attempt to avoid raids by the vice squad, allowed only one woman into the bathroom at a time:
The bathroom line went from the back room through a narrow hallway to the front room to the toilet which was behind the bar. This butch woman would stand at the front of the line and we each got two wraps of toilet paper.... It took me a long time to realize that while I was fighting for all these other causes, that it wasn't okay for me to get my allotted amount of toilet paper.After the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay liberation became a focus of her activism. She joined the Lesbian Liberation Committee in 1971 and helped found the Gay Academic Union (GAU) in 1972. The following year, she and other members of the GAU began to gather and preserve documents and artifacts related to lesbian history. This project became the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which opened in 1974 in the pantry of the apartment she shared with her then-partner Deborah Edel and moved to a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 1992. Today its holdings include more than 20,000 books, 12,000 photographs, and 1,600 periodical titles.
Nestle began writing fiction in 1978, when a prolonged illness prevented her from teaching for a year. Her erotica focusing on butch and femme relationships made her a controversial figure during the feminist sex wars of the 1980s; members of Women Against Pornography called for censorship of her stories. In her political writings, Nestle, a self-identified femme, argued that contemporary feminism, in rejecting butch and femme identities, was asking her to repress an important part of herself. She said she "wanted people, especially lesbians, to see that the butch-femme relationship isn't just some negative heterosexual aping". Her writings on the subject were highly influential; Lillian Faderman describes her as the "midwife" to a revised view of butch and femme, and her 1992 anthology The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader became the standard work in its field.
She retired from Queens College in 1995 due to an illness that was eventually identified as colorectal cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. She now lives in Australia with her partner, law professor Dianne Otto, and teaches at the University of Melbourne.
Her life was the subject of a 2002 documentary by Joyce Warshow entitled Hand on the Pulse.
Nestle is a longtime patron of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
Joan Nestle, 1987, by Robert Giard (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1081995)
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digital
The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader by Joan Nestle
Paperback: 502 pages
Publisher: Alyson Books; 1st edition (May 1992)
Amazon: The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader
This anthology of stories, poems, and nonfiction accounts pays homage to a host of femme and butch lesbian relationships that have flourished over four decades. The narrators recount their experiences, describing how they met, how they took care of one another, and how they tried--or defiantly tried not--to fit in. The selections themselves bubble with passion and pain. Some dive beneath the surface to explore the varied meanings of gender roles, but most describe highly ritualistic manners of dress, hairstyle, and gesture that at times left the protagonist open to ridicule. In collecting these pieces into one volume, Nestle ( A Restricted Country , Firebrand Bks., 1987) has made sure that the integrity and diversity of femme-butch relationships will not be lost. She has included narratives from women of many backgrounds and ethnic groups and from outside the United States. Highly recommended for academic and large public libraries.
A Restricted Country by Joan Nestle
Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press; 2nd edition (May 2003)
Amazon: A Restricted Country
A proud working-class woman, an “out” lesbian long before the Rainbow revolution, Joan Nestle has stood at the forefront of American freedom struggles from the McCarthy era to the present day. Featuring photographs and a new introduction by the author, this classic collection which intimately accounts the lesbian, feminist and civil rights movements through personal essays is available again for the first time in years.
A Fragile Union: New and Selected Writings by Joan Nestle
Paperback: 230 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press; 1st edition (October 19, 1998)
Amazon: A Fragile Union: New and Selected Writings
A FRAGILE UNION is Joan Nestle's collection of intimate essays and narratives about lesbian sexuality, butch-femme relationships, sex writing, the importance of preserving gay and lesbian history, the love that is possible between lesbians and gay men, and the "often-shaky camaraderie among lesbians that as community continues to flex its diversity."
Readers of A REDISTRICTED COUNTRY and other Nestle writings are familiar with the Nestles themes of unity and difference. In A Fragile Union, Nestle delves still deeper. Living with cancer, Nestle now explores other "fragile unions": the fragility of her sexual desire in the face of her illness, the fragility of memory in the face of enormous loss, and always in the face of fear, her hope, her love for her people - women, lesbians and gays, working class, Jews, and all who struggle against injustice.
More Particular Voices at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Particular Voices
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