By Joan Nestle
One afternoon in March of this year, Sivan Barak, Larry Stillman, Max Kaiser and Mark Jarvinen struggled through my front gate at 4 Fitzgibbon in West Brunswick, their arms straining with overflowing boxes of AJDS ‘stuff.’ Some of you may remember I volunteered to be the starting point of a formal AJDS archival collection at the last general meeting. Let me tell you a little about my connection to archives. In 1973, I joined with five other women to create the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the first archives dedicated to preserving the markings of lesbian lives so we were no longer the pathological objects of other national stories. This grassroots endeavour lived and grew in my large rent-controlled, Upper West Side apartment in New York City, from 1973 to 1992, when, after an international fund raising campaign, it moved into its own four storey brown stone in Park slope, Brooklyn, where it is still thriving today.
I must take you one step deeper into my history so you will have a better understanding of why I have a passion for this kind of undertaking. I came out as an 18 year old lesbian in 1958 in an America still shaped by Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti- deviant campaigns. The bars I attended were regularly raided by the police, street bashings were common; to the courts we were illegal, to the medical profession we were sick, to the religious communities were not fit for God’s mercy. But I was young and often in love, and in the subcultures around me in Greenwich Village’s working class gay bars, I found thriving, brave communities of gay women and men, many of them Jewish, whose lives countered the prevailing national narratives of who we were.
As I watched with wonder how a despised group of people created so much joy, I knew that someday I would make sure that these, my people, would have a place where their lives would be transformed from a nation’s dirty joke into a complex community that lived in history. Together with Deborah Edel, my partner at the time, I trained as a grass roots archivist, touring places like the Library of Congress to learn correct procedures, but on a tiny budget. Influenced by my ongoing involvement in American liberation movements and my teaching in the first open enrolment program of the City University of New York, my understanding of the importance of archival collections for marginalized communities deepened. In 1967 I read The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jewish writer who knew both sides of exile, and who gave me one of the tropes of my public work: “The colonized are condemned to lose their memory.”
You have been patient if you are still reading this, thinking Sivan and the others have been standing at the front gate for a long time now. I just wanted you to demonstrate the manner in which my archival skills stem from my passionate belief that a people marked by what appears to some to be a problematic difference, a people further marked by dissent from a prevailing narrative, are the very ones who most come alive in the archives. They leave records touched by complexity, courage, struggle and commitment to change, the tracks of pioneer imaginings. Ever since my first contact with AJDS in 2001, I knew that I was in the midst of a group of people marked by conviction and tenacity, a group of people who knew what it was to be marked as deviant by a larger community that did not want to hear a dissenting view. My subsequent contact with AJDS only convinced me more deeply of the importance of the organization and its long history of social justice advocacy.
I welcomed the overflowing old food shipment boxes into our home and promised Larry, Sivan Max and Mark that I would work as quickly as I could to inventory the contents, get archival boxes and file folders and transform the thousands of pieces of paper into an ordered collection. Thus for the last months I have touched so much of AJDS – minutes of monthly meetings, newspaper clippings of the endless flow of letters, conference planning notes, newsletters, hand written letters, lists of organizational activities through the years, good-byes to good friends and hellos to new ones, internal discussion papers, supporting materials covering refugee concerns, racism, the Palestine/Israel conflict. I understood the towering presence of Norman Rothfield, his endless production of nuanced and yet passionate public thought, and in one of those precious archival moments, I found another side of Mr. Rothfield, a two page typed story of his first experience with the concept of “vulgar” behaviour.
Now the AJDS collection is housed in eleven archival boxes with hundreds of file folders marked by year and general category. Some of the rarer documents have been sleeved in acid free sheet protectors. How honoured I am to have had the opportunity to work with these papers, with these expressions of committed lives and how valuable the collection will prove to those who want to explore many kinds of histories, among them the history of Jewish dissent in twentieth century Australia. This collection is, however, just a beginning, both in terms of its scope and its future, for AJDS is a vital growing community of Jewish activists for social justice who do not take ‘no’ for an answer. The AJDS archives will never be a still place; they speak in a loud voice of those who dreamed, acted and stood strong.
The Lesbian Herstory Archives
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 1958 (French), 1965 (English).
By Joan Nestle