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Joan Nestle Shares Evening with SAGE

“It is a gift for me to be here, to speak to you, to be in your presence, to hear your voices,” said Joan Nestle, addressing an audience of over 100 women (as well as a few men), who gathered at the Center on May 16th to share an evening of conversation.

Nestle — feminist, writer, teacher, Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) co-founder, and SAGE Lifetime Achievement Award recipient — was reveling in her second visit to New York since moving to Australia over five years ago. Surrounded by the familiar faces of friends from her past decades in the city (Nestle is a native New Yorker), she read from her work and invited others to do the same, sharing their thoughts about aging, sex, politics, and anything else that came to mind.

“We’re going to have quite a night,” Nestle said at the evening’s start, “because we're all going to make it together — your voices, my voice, even voices of people who aren’t here, but are here.” Attendees shared erotic writing, remembrances of decades past, tributes to mothers and other important women, poems about aging, and even humorous monologues. In honor of those “who aren’t here, but are here,” Nestle asked the audience to call out the names of people who had passed, evoking their spirit and acknowledging their presence.

In a special tribute to Mabel Hampton — an African-American lesbian who was one of the catalysts for the creation of the Lesbian Herstory Archives — Nestle asked her LHA co-founder Deborah Edel and friend Nívea Castro to read a 1979 interview that Joan had conducted with Mabel for the archives. Transcribed from tapes and printed in the lesbian publication Sinister Wisdom, the interview gave those present the chance to hear Mabel’s thoughts, in her own words, about living as a lesbian.

Nestle began the evening’s conversation with a reading that expressed her own thoughts on “aging in a time of war.” She described aging as “an experience of vast shifting terrains that can be both a source of great sorrow and also wonder.”

Haunted by the current U.S. role in the world, Nestle spoke eloquently about what it means to grow old at this point in time — when rising fears of terrorism and growing hatred of others combine to shrink our hopes and drain the meaning from our progressive visions. Growing old today, she implied, means witnessing the killing of young people, watching dangerous alliances develop out of fear and hate, and enduring the notion that old people and their needs are a burden to the young.

“When you’re my age, you use everything you need to make sense of a cruel world yet one still full of possibilities,” Nestle intoned, ultimately committing herself to challenging orthodoxies, honoring complexities, and fighting to keep alternative visions alive.

Nestle ended the evening with a reading of her story, “Taking Rita Hayworth in My Mouth,” a remembrance of images of her mother evoked through a sexual encounter with a lover. “Don’t be afraid of any script that is said to be taboo,” she said, “and never stop fantasizing.”

Throughout the evening, attendees thanked Nestle for her work, for the opportunity to share their own writing and thoughts, and for the chance to gather together. Nestle reciprocated, and called for a continuation of this kind of dialogue.

“This conversation we’re having, this reveling in each other’s riches of being and spirit and experience doesn’t have to end tonight,” she said. “Why can't there be groups of aging women talking to one another, meeting on the street corner with a couple of signs? There are all kinds of things we can do that only require our belief in each other.”

from SAGE Matters: The Newspaper on GLBT Aging, Summer 2005, pp. 1 and 5. SAGE Matters is published quarterly by SAGE, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, 305 Seventh Avenue, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10001, tel. (212) 741-2247. Visit SAGE (formerly known as Senior Action in a Gay Environment) online at

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