by pattrice jones
This profile originally appeared in 1999 as a featured article in the short-lived webzine LesbiaNation.
To say that Jill Johnston is a writer who was one of the earliest and most influential lesbian feminists is a little like saying RuPaul is a singer who had a hit record and big hair…true enough, as far as it goes, but by no means the whole story. Johnston’s 1973 Lesbian Nation inspired a generation of lesbian activists (not to mention the name of a certain website), but the book is both more and less than the political treatise one might expect. Similarly, Johnston herself is a paradoxical figure who contradicts all stereotypes about lesbian feminism.
Johnston was a popular columnist for New York’s Village Voice when she gained notoriety by becoming the first mass media journalist to come out as a lesbian in print. She immediately became a center of controversy not only in the “straight” world but also among feminists and early gay and lesbian activists, such as the members of Manhattan’s Gay Liberation Front.
Many factors fueled the fires. As Johnston notes in Lesbian Nation, her “east west flower child beat hip psychedelic paradise now love peace do your own thing approach to the revolution” was not yet backed by a sound political understanding. At the same time, she stepped right into ongoing struggles between homosexual and heterosexual feminists over the role of lesbians in the feminist movement. To top it off, Johnston’s own flamboyant personality sparked her to make bold statements and dramatic gestures, some of which (such as jumping into a swimming pool and floating around topless during an expensive feminist fundraiser) were neither understood nor appreciated by her feminist comrades.
All of this is recorded in Lesbian Nation, which, along with Trudy Darty and Sandee Potter’s Woman Identified Women and Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love’s Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, soon became one of the founding documents of lesbian feminism. Nation was quickly followed by Gullibles Travels in 1974, in which Johnston’s rebellious adventure continues. Her books do not contain the well-reasoned essays one might expect of a founding feminist, however. Part Gertrude Stein, part e.e. cummings, with a dash of Jack Kerouac thrown for good measure, Johnston uses a poetic stream of consciousness to recount her evolving opinions and the contexts in which they arose.
Beyond their value as documents of lesbian feminism, Johnston’s early works also serve as delightful records of a bygone era: the late ’60s and early ’70s. In them, Johnston and her cohorts confront themselves and others with difficult feminist issues, but also indulge in madcap adventures and all manner of Yippie-style political activism. And sex. Lots of sex.
Those who think that lesbian feminists of the ’70s were prudish or anti-sex will be very surprised by the number–and variety–of sexual encounters Johnston details. For example, in the space of just a few pages into the “Slouching Towards Consciousness” section in Lesbian Nation, Johnston experiences a remarkable orgasm with one woman, sleeps with, but is disappointed by, another, has a threesome with a heterosexual couple (just because she wants to sleep with the woman) and “half seduces” feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson. If, as they said at the time, feminism is the theory, and lesbianism is the practice, Johnston got a lot of practice.
“Slouching Towards Consciousness” itself is a remarkable document. Half diary, half commentary, the essay records Johnston’s unsteady steps toward feminist consciousness and lesbian activism. And she doesn’t flinch from exposing her own shortcomings, sharing actual diary entries from 1969 and 1970 as well as her thoughts at the time, even though they sometimes paint her to have been occasionally racist, often misogynist and almost always extremely arrogant in her ignorance. But it is precisely by personal example that she demonstrates that growth and change are truly possible.
Change is a running theme in Johnston’s early work, and it must be said that the author herself has evolved since the early days of the lesbian movement. The avowed enemy of monogamy married her partner, Ingrid Nyeboe, in a Danish legal ceremony in 1993, and is now an avid advocate of gay and lesbian marriage.
Johnston’s 45-year professional writing career has also been variegated. She had established a following for her dance criticism and weekly column in the Village Voice prior to coming out but found her career hampered by the controversies that attended the publication of Lesbian Nation in 1973. Johnston remained a staff writer for the Voice until 1981, and in her subsequent freelance career, she has written regularly for the New York Times Book Review and Art in America. Her books include two autobiographical volumes, Mother Bound and Paper Daughter, as well as a recent critical biography of artist Jasper Johns. She is currently at work on a new autobiographical volume, which will deal with an issue she has never before addressed in print: her relationship with her father. And many of Johnston’s early writings were recently republished by Serpents Tail in Admission Accomplished: The Lesbian Nation Years, 1970-75. Her dance and other critical writings for the Voice are collected in Marmalade Me, which was recently reissued by Wesleyan University Press.
Johnson remains a mercurial and often frustrating figure. As well she should. In all of her confounding complexity, Johnson is part of the true history of the Lesbian Nation and continues to remind us at every turn of the confounding complexity of our own lesbian lives.
it is all a change.
writing is changing.
the writing is changing.
changing is such good writing.
– Jill Johnston, Gullibles Travels