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Nestle, Joan (b. 1940)  
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Through her writing, teaching, editing, and activism, Joan Nestle has devoted her life to promoting awareness of glbtq culture and advancing glbtq equality. She is the co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, one of the largest collections of lesbiana in the world. Her literary achievements have earned her numerous awards.

Early Life and Education

A posthumous child, Joan Nestle was born in New York City on May 12, 1940. Her mother, Regina Nestle, did not have an easy life as she battled alcoholism and debt. Nestle's essay about her, "Run, Regina, Run," in A Fragile Union: New and Selected Writings (1998) does not shrink from presenting her difficulties, but it also points out the positive aspects of her life--her wit, her appreciation of sensuality, and her love for her daughter.

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After graduating from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, New York, Nestle continued her education at Queens College in Flushing, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1963. She went on to do graduate work at New York University, receiving her M.A. in 1968 and then completing two years of doctoral studies.

Nestle returned to Queens College to teach English and creative writing. There she participated in the open-enrollment SEEK program for minority and immigrant students. It was a typical choice for Nestle, who has always been a champion of those who suffer discrimination or who have been marginalized by society.

Femme Lesbian Identity

Nestle found herself in a marginalized position when she "entered the culturally policed queer community in the 1950s" by frequenting Greenwich Village lesbian bars. Because of the oppressive laws in force at the time, the patrons of these bars were subjected to police raids and other forms of harassment. Nestle's experiences helped set her on a lifelong quest for justice, dignity, and equality for glbtq people.

In the lesbian bar scene Nestle also began exploring her identity as a femme woman. She declares in her essay "The Femme Question" in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader (1992) that "every time I speak at a lesbian-feminist gathering, I introduce myself as a femme who came out in the 1950s. I do this because it is the truth and it allows me to pay historical homage to my lesbian time and place."

Nestle rejects the notion that femmes are in any way weak or victims. In the same essay she states, "Butch-femme relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic and social statements, not phony heterosexual replicas. They were filled with deeply lesbian language of stance, dress, gesture, love, courage, and autonomy. In the 1950s particularly, butch-femme couples were the front-line warriors against sexual bigotry."

Roots of Activism

Nestle has spent her life on the front lines in the fight against bigotry of all kinds. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, traveling to the American South to take part in marches and voter registration drives.

Nestle's Jewish heritage has also contributed to her understanding of marginalization. It informs her reading of history and deepens her commitment to safeguarding the freedom of all people to enjoy their lives without interference from governments. She is wary of the idea of biological determinism, which she calls "a very dangerous argument . . . [that] has been used to rob people of their humanity."

Nestle's work has focused primarily on glbtq rights and culture. In the wake of the Stonewall rebellion of 1969, she joined the Gay Alliance Union and lobbied for the rights of gay and lesbian teachers, students, and workers.

Lesbian Herstory Archives

In 1973 a group of women from the organization formed a lesbian consciousness-raising group, one of whose projects was the collection of publications and other materials pertaining to lesbian history. The resources would become the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA), one of the richest collections of lesbiana in the world.

In the first LHA newsletter in 1975 Nestle and her LHA co-founder, Deborah Edel, put out a call to lesbians across the nation to donate documents and memorabilia. Contributions continue to come in to the archives, which contain an impressive array of publications, letters, recordings, and photographs documenting the lives of American lesbians. In addition, there are numerous other items including clothing, buttons with slogans, and other possessions that lesbians sent in as emblems of their culture.

The collection was initially housed in the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment that Nestle and Edel shared. In 1976 they opened it to the community so that interested people could view the collection and do research.

The archives eventually outgrew the apartment. After a three-year fundraising effort the LHA was relocated to a three-story brownstone in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, where scholars continue to mine its wealth of resources.

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Joan Nestle speaking at "Midsumma, A Gay and Lesbian Community Celebration" in Melbourne, Australia in 2006. Photograph by the Moreland Council of West Brunswick, Victoria, Australia.
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