Road to Stonewall: Jill Johnston

Road to Stonewall: Jill Johnston

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In the years before Stonewall, jill johnston — always lowercase — was a phenomenon. A lean, long-haired, jeans-clad 40-something butch lesbian who exuded a raw sexuality everywhere she went, johnston wrote about her lesbian feminist exploits on the pages of the renowned New York weekly, the Village Voice. Her lower case, stream-of-consciousness, anti-patriarchal sedition schooled budding teen lesbians and married ladies yearning to be lesbians, closeted corporate lesbians and in-your-face Daughters of Bilitis.

In the 1960s, johnston’s voice began a movement and a tectonic shift within heteronormative feminism. At a time when no one was reclaiming queer or talking gender fluidity, jill johnston was a trailblazer, claiming, “All women can be lesbians.” She gave permission for women to run into the arms of the lesbian movement for which she was a visible — ribald and overtly sexual — spokeswoman.

Coming out in 2019, the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, is now commonplace — a married gay man is running for president and a dozen members of Congress are openly gay or bisexual.

But when jill johnston came out in her Village Voice column, it was incendiary. Every week she flooded her column with words and images no one had seen in print before, except in books that had been banned.

Johnston began writing for the Village Voice in 1959 as a dance critic, but her work evolved and she melded her reporting and criticism with personal interpolations. She became both critic and performance artist. Her columns, written in all lower case letters and with only sporadic punctuation, had the look, feel and sound of something urgent — something ready to erupt.

She wrote of that time, “As the combustible sixties progressed, writing itself, such as collage-like assemblages of ‘found’ sentences, increasingly devoured the space allotted to me for the review of works by artists and choreographers. The Voice was collusive in this subversion, ultimately altering my status to that of columnist. Now I was a chronicler of my own life, by sixties standards perhaps not too egregiously adventurous and experimental, but in a newspaper in full public view, in the most fractured Dada style of work I had admired as a critic — a rather wild spectacle in those woolly times.”

She said her “subjects expanded to include the feminist politics and activism of the late sixties/early seventies,” but that her “contempt for authority often seemed unserviceable for serious political rhetoric.”

Johnston was on the verge of coming out on the pages of the newspaper. Something for which there was no template. Something which demanded a new rubric — and yet there

was none. So she created it.

“Awakened to my life in the mid-sixties, I was seized by a new ambition — more powerful in its way than my first. Not, as it may seem, to write about my life, i.e., in any diarist or memoirist sense, but rather to address my story. The life I had awakened to was my story, my origins, which in my case were fairly unusual, now seemingly impossible to ignore.”

In the days and years immediately following Stonewall, people who could not name any other lesbian in America could name johnston. If Gloria Steinem was the face of mainstream feminism, johnston was the face of in-your-face Stonewall Rebellion-style lesbianism. She was a lesbian separatist with a mainstream newspaper platform promoting subversion.

Her columns were bulletins from the front lines of the battle against heteronormativity and patriarchy. Weekly she fomented something that should have been perceived as dangerous. That she wrote in a mainstream newspaper, “until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution,” during the politically incendiary 1960s and ’70s is stunning.

In 1973, johnston published “Lesbian Nation,” a collection of essays culled in part from her Village Voice column. It was just four years after Stonewall, and the book’s title quickly became part of a popular lexicon of hip metaphor and gay subtext. Its essays included “Lois Lane was a Lesbian,” “There Wasn’t a Dyke in the Land” and “Amazons and Archdykes.”

In the early days of gay liberation, women were reclaiming dyke the way people have reclaimed queer now. The book has largely been forgotten, but at the time it was written, “Lesbian Nation” was essential queer reading.

In the early 1970s, feminism was splintering into straight and lesbian. In “Lesbian Nation,” johnston elucidates her vision of what that means, explaining why women needed to make a complete break from men and the male-dominated capitalist system.

Mainstream feminists were already purging lesbians from the ranks of NOW (National Organization for Women) and other feminist groups because straight feminists didn’t want feminism associated with “man hating” and lesbianism.

Johnston wrote that female heterosexuality was a form of collaboration with patriarchy, which meant straight feminists were in bed with the oppressor – something other lesbian writers were also saying, but none on the pages of a weekly newspaper in New York City.

Johnston was an activist. She made out with women in public at literary forums as a sort of performance art, showing that queer women didn’t have to hide. The days of hiding were over, johnston explained. She had presaged groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation by more than a decade.

Johnston’s often-outrageous statements made those in the feminist hierarchy, like Betty Friedan (Friedan called Johnston “the biggest enemy of the movement”) acutely uncomfortable. Johnston’s outrageousness was never more keenly on display than during the now-notorious literary panel she disrupted at New York’s Town Hall in 1971 — two years after Stonewall.

“Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” was later detailed in a documentary, “Town Bloody Hall,” directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. A group of staid feminist lions — the critic Diana Trilling, NY NOW president Jacqueline Ceballos, feminist writer Germaine Greer and Johnston — took on Norman Mailer and his recently released anti-feminist treatise, “The Prisoner of Sex,” in which Mailer addressed the role of feminism on male-female relationships. Like the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that would happen in 1973, Mailer was utterly outmatched. The event had been widely publicized and many New York heavyweights were in attendance, like Susan Sontag and johnston’s nemesis, Betty Friedan.

Johnston had already angered hetero feminists by jumping into a pool, topless, at a NOW fundraising event. She used the town hall event to bring her guerilla feminism to a larger audience. On stage johnston said, “All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet.” Then she and two women simulated lesbian sex on the floor of the stage, prompting Mailer to plead, “Come on, Jill, be a lady!”

Johnston’s activism was groundbreaking. She later wrote about the event, and Mailer’s own biographer noted that the Town Hall evening was “one of the most singular intellectual events of the time and a landmark in the emergence of feminism.”

To our post-Stonewall era audience, johnston’s writing may seem normative, but 50 years ago it was revolutionary. Johnston proclaimed every week that heterosexuality was unnecessary. She wrote: “Many feminists are now stranded between their personal needs and their political persuasions. The lesbian is the woman who unites the personal and political in the struggle to free ourselves from the oppressive institution [of marriage] …. By this definition lesbians are in the vanguard of the resistance.”

Some lesbians referred to themselves as “gay” to differentiate themselves from the women who followed johnston, while straight feminists distanced themselves from her and her anti-male rhetoric. 

She published more books after “Lesbian Nation” and was a book critic for The New York Times and an art critic for Art in America. She, who had been so bawdy and written about her sexual exploits, married her partner of 30 years, Ingrid Nyeboe.

Jill johnston was a pivotal, provocative feminist figure in women’s and lesbian liberation. She spoke openly and passionately about her lesbian sexuality at a time when no one had done so — when in fact, lesbians were presented as prudish women in sexless Boston marriages. She recounted days of lovemaking with more than one woman, and in writing about these experiences for a mainstream newspaper, she proclaimed that lesbians were having sex without men and it was spectacular.

Jill johnston would be 90 had she lived to see Stonewall 50. Her iconoclastic spirit will be there in Greenwich Village — top off, kissing two women and proclaiming, “All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it.” 

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