The Kiss, 1950s-1990s


Joan Nestle with plaster wall plaque of women kissing.
Photo by Robert Giard courtesy of Jonathan Silin. Copyright © The Estate of Robert Giard.

Tropes of Erotic Memory: “I Wanted to Live Long Enough to Kiss a Woman”

I have always done my history work in that strange landscape where flickers of memory coalesce into historical landscapes. Oral histories, photographs, fragment of insight—fitting into a narrative perhaps I had already in my head. That is always the danger.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I worked on documenting the primary lesbian erotic form of my time, butch-fem relationships. I did this for two reasons. First, because I felt an iron curtain of ideological rejection falling over these communities of women, threatening to remove them from our historical records.[1]

The other reason was that I was trying to find a way to question the prevailing notions that in the near past, lesbians were mostly isolated victims or dupes of inescapable gender scripts. My life of desire that had lifted me above the constraints of 1950s America gave me a clue—find a way to let the wanting body speak its own history.


Marge McDonald (center), 1957.

It is many years on now from those hours of conversations, usually held around the wooden French peasant’s table that was the heart of the Lesbian Herstory Archives when it was in my apartment (1974-1992), but over and over again, I have found myself resurrecting selected tellings—these voices have become my own tropes of erotic memory, a poetics of the body that seems to have only grown in importance as I reflect upon our times.

This is what I want to give you, fragments only but so hugely important, it seems.


Marge McDonald, 1970s.
Photo by Joan Nestle. Copyright (c) by Joan Nestle. All rights reserved

In 1985, an older Jewish woman, with a European style, sat with me around that table. She was interested in my project—but couldn’t stay long. And then she said,

"I had a chance to read ‘The Well of Loneliness’ that had been translated into Polish before I was taken into the camps. I was a young girl at the time, around twelve or thirteen, and one of the ways I survived in the camp was by remembering that book. I wanted to live long enough to kiss a woman."

War and the body. Lesbian desire as life giving. All the texts of pathology and pity fell away. A moment of speech that broke though all conventions of what constitutes valid historical inquiry.

You see I was tracing ephemeral moments of desire, fragile things that were still struggling to be seen as material reality.

In the late 1970s, Deborah Edel, the co-founder of LHA, and I met Marge McDonald, a woman living alone in Syracuse, New York who thought she was going to die soon. She had called the archives, anxious to have a place to be remembered. After her death in 1986, we managed to save her bequeathed materials from a family bent on destroying them.[2]


Page from McDonald's diary.
Image courtesy of Joan Nestle.

From the Diary of Marge McDonald (1931-1986):

"March 31, 1955, Thursday. Five o’clock found us sitting side by side on the couch still talking, We thought we should get some sleep, so Lynn decided to be my pillow. She held me in her arms. My face was against her breast. I wasn’t sleepy though, so we continued to talk all the while. I was so happy to be so close to a woman. I lifted my face and she kissed me. My first kiss from a woman! I could never describe my feelings so I won’t even try. It is sufficient to say that as long as I live, I shall never forget that moment—or the kiss."[3]

Lynn, we are told, kept playing “Ebbtide” on the jukebox of this 1950s Columbus, Ohio, lesbian bar and "talked about her life in the navy. She said that if she had known what she was in the navy, she would have been court-martialed."

How does kiss, touch, stand in the face of war? The most fragile of histories, the most concrete of histories.

On June 7, 1999, I received an e-mail from Lepa Mladjenovic, a feminist lesbian peace activist from Belgrade, Serbia. She wrote:

"From the beginning of wars in this region from '91 on, I felt that I have to invent Ten Thousand ways to let my lesbian desire breath. At some moments during the last 8 years, it was not easy for me to put into words how do I feel when making love with a woman and in the background there is a radio with the news of the war. Killed or expelled or other Fascist acts. In my room, I would not be able to switch off the news because I thought respect to the killed I will show by not turning off the radio…"

Lepa’s words reached me at the end of my century; they are now part of the poetics, the tropes, that have become the heart of my body of work, in this new time of war and longings. Now they are yours.


  1. Excerpts from these oral histories can be found in “The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader,” 1992. Unfortunately, the book is out of print but LHA has made the text available to libraries.
  2. The full story of the archive’s struggle to save Marge McDonald’s papers, including her handwritten diary, can be found in LHA Newsletter #15.
  3. “From the Diary of Marge McDonald (1931-1986) in “The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader,” 124-129.