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Lesbian feminist Jill Johnston dead at 81
by Micki Leventhal
2010-09-29

This article shared 2812 times since Wed Sep 29, 2010
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Jill Johnston—writer, cultural and arts critic and legendary lesbian-feminist activist—died Sept. 18 at the age of 81 following a stroke nine days earlier.

"She left us peacefully and with dignity; let's honor her immense legacy of love, kindness and amazing intelligence by celebrating her life. ... May her liberated spirit guide us on our paths," wrote Ingrid Nyeboe, her spouse of 30 years, on www.jilljohnston.com, where some of Johnston's writings and a bibliography of her work can be found.

Through her visibility as one of the first publicly out lesbians, and her access to the "bully pulpit" through her columns in the Village Voice, Johnston gave eloquent—and often theatrical and outrageous—expression to the growing frustration among lesbians working in the mainstream feminist movement.

"The fear of the label 'lesbian' among women who sought to establish a powerful and effective force for changing the status of all women was ironic testimony to the power of that label to isolate and to silence those to whom it applied," wrote Heather Eisenstein in her 1983 women's studies primer, Contemporary Feminist Thought.

"I was 24 years old when Lesbian Nation appeared. I'd known I was gay from the age of five and had identified as a feminist since the late 1960s—but Jill Johnston's words and example gave me permission to say the word 'lesbian' out loud for the first time, and to keep on claiming my lesbian-feminist self," said Beth Kelly, chair of the Mayor's Advisory Council of LGBT Affairs and professor of women's and gender studies at DePaul University.

"I was not alone. In those days, she was one of a small handful of publicly professed lesbian-feminists that we could look to as a model—always a provocateur, invariably interesting and challenging," continued Kelly. "At a time when the women's liberation movement did not necessarily welcome or support lesbian sisters, Johnston adamantly insisted that feminism and lesbianism were intimately bound together in theory and practice. She was in the vanguard—well ahead of her time."

In fact, Johnston is credited with launching the lesbian separatist movement and in Was Lesbian Separatism Inevitable?, a 2006 interview with The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide [ archived at www.glreview.com ] , Johnston looked back on the evolution of that politic: "Once I understood the feminist doctrines, a lesbian separatist position seemed the commonsensical position....Women wanted to remove their support from men, the 'enemy' in a movement for reform, power, and self-determination. A revolutionary prototype existed in their midst. But the prejudice against women within the ranks of women, much less loving women at the intimate level was so great...that feminists could only act against their own best interest and trash the women who modeled their beliefs."

It wasn't only straight women who had issues with Johnston. Her attention-getting style garnered "extreme animosity from lesbian feminist militants" who condemned celebrity and accused Johnston of "being male-identified, because she boasted of her sexual exploits in print," wrote Martha Gever in Entertaining Lesbians: Celebrity, Sexuality, and Self Invention ( 2003 ) .

Johnston's bad-girl public antics, which might seem tame in the media and celebrity driven world of today, did help broadcast the cause, create a movement—and a brand. Lillian Faderman, in Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America ( 1991 ) , titled a 30-page chapter Lesbian Nation: Creating a Women-Identified-Women Community in the 1970s, without ever explicitly crediting Johnston with the creation of the phrase.

"While [ Johnston's ] ideas on separatism may seem a bit dated today, they raised our consciousness and gave us courage in a world where misogyny and homophobia existed at much higher levels than in 2010 ( not that they've disappeared! ) ," said Kelly. "Her passing marks a profound generational shift; she will be missed."

In her 1998 retrospective Admission Accomplished: The Lesbian Nation Years 1970-1975, Johnston wrote, " [ I am ] surprised at how much I still agree with myself ideologically. The centrality of the lesbian position to feminist revolution—wildly unrealistic, or downright mad, as it still seems to most women everywhere—continues to ring true and right."

However, some time later, according to the Los Angeles Times obituary, Johnston viewed "Lesbian Nation as an antique ... Not long ago in the New Yorker, she [ stated ] : 'I'm an R.L.F.W.—a recovering lesbian from the feminist wars'."

Johnston also left a huge critical legacy in the world of visual and performing art—perhaps most notably in contemporary dance. "She helped a wide readership to accept and, through her eyes, to see into radical works by choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Lucinda Childs—works that said readers might otherwise be prone to dismiss as 'not dance,'" wrote Deborah Jowitt on her Village Voice blog.

"Every queer, every thespian/performance artist/modern dance aficionado, owes a huge debt to Jill," said Holly Hughes, lesbian performance artist and associate professor at the University of Michigan. "She changed art criticism. She barged into the boys' club that was art in America and stole the spotlight with her mixture of prose, provocation, criticism, memoir—she was doing post modern before the rest of us finished with modern. She was creative non fiction before it was a fashionable conceit. She wanted to be known as a writer, not merely a lesbian writer but she didn't live to see the day when lesbians can represent the universal, the way a few white gay men are allowed to do. Making out with another woman onstage at [ the 1971 ] Town Hall [ and ] freaking out Norman Mailer, was a brilliant piece of performance, I don't know that anyone has topped it for political resonance. She was great, she's still great, her work is still very much alive for me."

Johnston is survived by Nyeboe; her son Richard Lanham and daughter Winifred Lanham ( by a previous marriage ) ; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


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