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Ode to Jill Johnston

Ode to Jill Johnston

When I arrived in New York City in 1971 after graduating from college in Boston I knew only two things for sure:  I wanted to be a writer and I was a lesbian.  I was at a complete loss as to what to do about either of my identities.  I was shy so dropping in at a bar—and there were still women’s bars then—seemed beyond my social skill level.  I didn’t know any writers yet and was pretty sure the Algonquin Round Table wasn’t still the place where they hung out.

Then I read Jill Johnston in the Village Voice.  Like most of her cultural criticism,  it was a long rambling piece, maybe about dance that was splayed out over full pages.  Her picture peeked out between the text and intrigued me with her Prince Valiant hair and mischievous eyes.  And the enormous space her words took up.  I’d never seen a woman writer given that much space anywhere.

This was before I meant any lesbian feminist writers personally; those helped me grow up into myself like: Audre Lorde (who coined the term ‘biomythography’ by the way but more about that next time) or Judy Grahn or Cheryl Clarke or Chrystos.  I was a wanna-be babe in the bush…I mean woods.  Jill Johnston was my surrogate lesbian.

She wrote these long, involved sentences that wrapped around ideas about dance, politics, the cosmos.  I don’t think I understood half of what she was saying but I couldn’t stop reading.  When I saw her book, Lesbian Nation, I bought it and kept it by my bed as if it might draw her to me…or at least someone as compelling looking as she was.  She wrote the first thing I ever saw about lesbian separatism, a concept so shocking at the time it took me years to digest it and separate it from the disdain heaped upon it by both mainstream and progressive culture.

Every week I looked for her eagerly as we had a date even though I knew nothing about dance or cultural criticism (yet). I combed over her words like they were the text which would open up my life.  And they were.  She usually said something about being a lesbian in the deluge of commentary.  The first time I bumped into it I read and re-read. Seeing the word ‘lesbian’ in print in general media was impossible to imagine…kind of like now!   It confirmed I was not totally alone in NYC.  If she could be a lesbian and be published and say the word ‘lesbian’ in print there was hope for my aspiration to be a lesbian and a writer.

Then I read her collection of essays, LESBIAN NATION (which I still have in a treasured place on my shelves).  I didn’t always agree with her proclamations, however, she was the original beacon which showed me that being radical was its own reward.  And being radical in a public place could inspire unseen and countless others from small towns who feel alone to do the same.

Jill Johnston was everything I wanted to be when I grew up: provocative, demanding, inquisitive, bold…feminist.  Finally, in the ‘90s Jill and I made it together between the covers…book covers that is.  “Cookin’ With Honey—What Literary Lesbians Eat,” edited by Amy Scholder.  At the book launch I actually got to look directly into those eyes that had so intrigued me and saw what I knew would be there, even now that she’s gone—a fierce and funny flame that will keep us going for a long time even though she’s gone.  (Sorry for the alliteration, Jill!)

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com

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