by pattrice jones
This is the transcript of a 1999 interview with lesbian feminist author and activist Jill Johnston. An edited version of the interview ran in the webzine LesbiaNation accompanying this profile of Jill Johnston.
pj: I’ve heard more than one lesbian of a certain age say, “there wouldn’t be a lesbian nation if it weren’t for Lesbian Nation.”
JJ: I saw myself as spearheading something back then, but there was also a group of us. I mean, there was a consensus. It’s just that I happened to have a voice, I had already established a space in a newspaper which was a radical newspaper so therefore I just happened to have that vehicle. A lot what I wrote depended on the people I knew who kept informing me of things I might not have known about. So it wasn’t me alone. And, of course, it was entirely dependent on the consensus that was developing. Any regrets that I might have are purely professional in that I did go way out on a limb and then created problems for myself.
pj:In Lesbian Nation you say that you want to see gay and lesbian books and movies and plays, etcetera. Now we have all those things–
JJ: We do?
pj: To a degree. I guess that’s what I wanted to find out from you: what do you think about what we have right now?
JJ: I haven’t seen anything that interests me.
JJ: I have yet to see something that makes sense to me… but, I haven’t seen that much, perhaps. Perhaps I really haven’t seen enough. I think there’s an emphasis on sex and I think that’s counterproductive for lesbians and for the future of the lesbian feminist movement. It feeds into the stereotypes.
[2007 commentary by pattrice: This cracked me up in light of the sex-heavy content of Johnston's published chronicles of her young lesbian life.]
pj: Do you keep track of any of the magazines that are produced by younger lesbians these days, that sort of thing?
JJ: No. No I don’t.
pj: So, I can’t get your commentary on them.
JJ: Well, I am interested in…The marriage question primarily interests me. I do believe it’s very important for marriage to be legalized in the United States, very very important and that it’s … I just can’t believe the resistance. And I wonder how long it’s going to take. I was married in Denmark, with my Danish partner in 1993, that was a very big event for me. And we tried to, I tried to publicize it as much as possible. I did manage to get some publicity. And then we had a big party here.
pj: And there’s a text that you wrote about it…
JJ: There’s a text, yeah, I wrote it in the old style.
pj: It’s actually on the internet.
JJ: Is it? But I’ve also written about it in a regular style. I did quite a bit of work for the New York Times, for the Book Review and when I tried to get an account of the wedding into the magazine — even a short account — they wouldn’t do it.
pj: What do you say to the feminists who say that the institution is so essentially corrupt because of its history that, rather than reforming marriage to include gay men and lesbians, the opposite direction should be taken, that we should get the state out of marriage?
JJ: They’re crazy.
pj: Yeah? How come?
JJ: Well, first of all, I think they’re prejudiced against marriage because that again is a stereotype: lesbians and gay men don’t get married. That’s a kind of stereotype. I think they’re operating on that. But, secondly, as for the corruption of the institution… I don’t know, I don’t think it’s any more corrupt than it ever was. It was a corruption from the very start, which was probably 4000 BC. Around then, there was a corruption of women’s rights from the very start.
pj: Right, I think that’s what the point would be, why stick with it then?
JJ: Because it does help to really corrupt the system. When they ended the ban on black-white marriages in the 1960s, it helped corrupt the institution. That’s one way of looking at it anyway. I don’t think of it like that. I think of it like: we pay our taxes, we should have the same rights.
pj: Clearly, the right shares your feelings about how important marriage is, given how strongly they’re resisting reform.
JJ: I suppose you could look at it that way, sure. But I don’t think about that so much. I mean just that it seems to be the thing that the national task force or whatever should be concentrating on in the way that women concentrated on getting the vote. This is very important. This is an umbrella thing that could happen that would change a lot of things… there would be more respect, not to mention the civil rights that are involved.
[2007 aside by pattrice: And now we see that the marriage issue has, for the mainstream gay and lesbian rights movement, served the umbrella function that Johnston envisioned. So, again, she has proved to be ahead of the curve as she was in the 70s, albeit in an entirely different direction.]
pj: Looking at the lesbian nation such as it is today, what other big issues do you see?
JJ: Well, I see another issue. I’m assuming there will be another lesbian feminist episode and one can only hope that it’s stronger and more powerful and that some of the problems that infested the original movement might be understood and improved upon. Of course, ideally I would see it overtaking feminism. Why should we… I never understood why we should have a secondary or marginal position at all. I thought it was crazy. I thought we were the natural leaders.
pj: In many ways, what has happened is that there has been an assumption of leadership but it hasn’t been overtly lesbian. Frequently, especially at local levels, it is lesbians who are the leaders of feminist organizations.
JJ: Oh, yes, yes. But they’re closeted, basically closeted again.
pj: Or not making a big deal out of their lesbianism.
JJ: Yes. The necessity of coming out is a tremendous problem. and once again, sex comes to the forefront and that’s why marriage is so important. So that the playing field is leveled. I mean, lesbians are still freaks. If you say it. At least, that’s the way it appears to me…. Another thing that I hope that lesbians would deal with would be the mother-daughter issues that are endemic to the lesbian relationship.
pj: Can you say more about that?
JJ: Well…. well, that’s the psychological component. Just as straight people are always dealing with the father-daughter things in their relationships, in our time, it certainly seemed to me from all the stories that I heard from my friends or from the literature was that most lesbians were had grown up virtually as outcasts to their mothers because they were growing up differently. This created, of course, tremendous tension if not outright conflict between the mother and the growing lesbian daughter. That was never addressed in the movement. It was completely obscured. One hopes that all of that would also tumble out of the closet.
pj: Even with the relative glut of gay and lesbian studies books, that’s not an issue that I’ve seen addressed.
JJ: I’ve seen it in old literature anyway, where they will strongly speculate on the origins of lesbianism in this conflict.
pj: And maybe that’s why people don’t want to go there.
JJ: Yeah, Yeah, I understand that.
pj: But there is such a lot of literature within feminism on the mother-daughter relationship.
JJ: Well it’s generally understood that the straight woman imitates her mother’s role, right? But of course now we have lots of women in other roles, so now what? Now what have we got? But when we were growing up, we had mothers — I did have a different kind of mother, she was always independent — but that was not the general model.
pj: And it’s always fallen to mothers to inculcate femininity in their daughters.
JJ: Exactly, and if they have a daughter who’s not imitating them correctly, then they get upset and angry and whatever and then this creates a lot of conflict.
pj: And if they have a daughter who isn’t subordinating herself in the same way that mother has…
pj: …then, the mother gets angry when the daughter won’t do to herself what the mother has done to herself.
JJ: Exactly. So, if you transfer all of that into something called the lesbian feminist movement which we had from, say 1970 to 1975, then what you’ve got is a huge amount of betrayal. And that will make a movement implosive, very implosive, totally implosive. Because you can’t have a strong political movement with individual members in so much disarray… or so much emotional disarray or so much fear. And, what I saw was that it was hard for women to keep themselves together personally much less going out to fight for whatever it was we were fighting for. We were fighting for dominance with the straight feminists, I don’t really know.
pj: It seems like the same dynamic that you’ve described between a mother and a growing lesbian daughter could easily be recapitulated with straight women.
JJ: Right. Of course. And a lot of it was. A lot of straight women were brought out by lesbian women or straight women wanted to be brought out or whatever. But I do think that the main accomplishment of that time was the consensus that developed for an identity that had never existed before… that’s what I think the big accomplishment was. And that would of course be on the agenda for any future consensus. To draw in young women will who, by that means, achieve this identity.