Joan Nestle revisited

KNOXVILLE – Her voice is strangely familiar despite the New York accent peppered with a few adopted Australian sounds resonating here and there. She is none other than Joan Nestle, founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, author/editor of “Restricted Country,” “A Fragile Union,” “The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader” and many others.

Her visit to her home of thirty years in New York’s Upper West Side from her new abode with her beloved Di in Melbourne, Australia, gave us an opportunity to reflect on the issues Joan explored as she approached her 65th birthday.

Best known as the founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, Nestle’s fame as an author stems from her numerous works chronicling her experiences as a fem lesbian in 50s butch-fem culture in New York. Her writings take the reader deep into the “restricted country” of the bar culture that provided community to the working-class lesbians of that era.

Turning 65 on May 12, Nestle reflected on her vantage point as both an elder community leader and as a partner to an Australian citizen.

“I want to leave markings everywhere,” Nestle said, referring to her desire to leave a legacy for the young people of today. Her most recent work, “GENDERqUEER: Voices from Beyond the Binary," co-edited by Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins, Executive Director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC,) is her latest attempt to do just that.

“I want to grow old and still keep questioning acceptable norms,” Nestle declared. “I want to keep pushing the boundaries and borders of my sexual self as a working-class creation. I want to question all orthodoxy.”

Joan noted the importance of intergenerational dialogue between the queer old and the queer young.

“My heart goes out to young people trying to make sense of what is happening in the world today,” Nestle said. “Their struggle trying to avoid being cannon fodder, trying to avoid being driven mad by consumerism, trying to be understood.”

She spoke of her experiences as a legal resident of Australia after moving there to live full-time with Di after years of traveling back and forth. Her descriptions of her newly adopted country include their active left wing, robust trade unions and her new sense of seeing the United States through the eyes of others.

“After my second cancer, we felt a real need to live together, a sense of time urgency,” she noted. “I am exploring a world where home is shifting. Being a lesbian goes with me everywhere. Now I live in a home with new constellations, new perfumes in the air. I am rediscovering my self in a new environment.”

She noted that obtaining her status as a legal resident was difficult, but not because of her lesbian status. Australian immigration policy acknowledges same-sex partners and allows for immigration on that basis. Her difficulties arose due to her health history. Her cancer created obstacles related to the Australian Health Plan, which were overcome only with the assistance of expert legal counsel.

Joan is now a permanent resident in Melbourne where she lives with her partner, Di Otto, who teaches criminal, human rights and international law at the University of Melbourne. They met in 1998 when Di was in New York studying law at Columbia University.

Visit Joan online at

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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