Jill Johnston Taught Me to Be a Lesbian

Jill Johnston was the boldest lesbian of her time. I religiously read her Village Voice columns in the 1970s and ’80s, and her classic book Lesbian Nation was probably the first I ever saw with the word “lesbian” in the title.That was my coming-of-age time as a lesbian feminist, and push-the-envelope Jill Johnston serving as the standard bearer of the cause, both sexual and political.

When I read that Johnston died on Sept. 18 at age 81, I immediately wanted to re-read some of those experimental, stream-of-consciousness writings. And what do you know, I actually found a file where I kept of dozens of these. So, randomly, some of her musings:

Imagine that the women in charge of the film industry use their power to ridicule men’s liberation, presenting [men] in films as a bunch of frustrated studs, deluded into thinking they can be women, burning their jockstraps and waving signs–but always ending up in the boudoir of a condescending woman, always giving up the struggle and being happily subservient to her.  [“Women and Film,” July 12, 1973]

the real feminism that nobody knows about yet is not known because it’s being invented. then when it’s invented we still won’t know what it is because it will continue in a state of invention. as soon as you call it something so far as i’m concerned it’s a male institution. [“A Critique of Male Voices,” date unknown–and yes, Johnston was uncapped before bell hooks]

The only way I know it’s love is when I want to die … This is what I call a successful love affair: two people in the death grip of love. Love is the form of murder humans devised when they outlawed cannibalism. … It’s the very nicest way to die. … The angel of death is what true love is. [“A Few Rude Generalizations on Behalf of Enslavement And Other Remembrances of the ’70s,” Feb. 18, 1980]

Johnston was an outrageous public figure, bringing laughs as well as jaw-dropping attention to herself. Like the time she jumped into a Hamptons’ swimming pool at a private feminist fundraiser and swam topless while Betty Friedan was speaking. (Friedan says that her own boob somehow escaped from her “otherwise demure scoopneck dress” because the elastic of the neckline broke as she tried to divert attention from Johnston’s water ballet.) Even more famously, while Johnston participated in a well-publicized town hall debate pitting her, author Germaine Greer, New York NOW president Jacquelline Ceballos and literary critic Diana Trilling against anti-feminist figurehead Norman Mailer, she didn’t just give a subversive speech (“All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet”) but ended up hugging and kissing on the floor of the stage with two women friends. “Come on Jill,” said an exasperated Mailer (who said he did want to talk about lesbianism, dammit, if only Johnston would stop talking/performing), “Be a lady.”

I got to see Johnston up close in 1975 when she appeared at the Woman’s Words conference at The Woman’s Building–the Los Angeles feminist cultural center where I worked. I don’t remember what she talked about, but I do recall a woman in the audience asking a question and Johnston–dressed in her familiar uniform of plaid shirt, jeans and combat boots–then engaging her in a most public discussion of their past relationship. Oh my! I couldn’t imagine someone being so public about private matters, but that was the-personal-is-political era where the more off-limits we ventured and the more out of our comfort zones, the more we shed the polite traditions and mores we’d been brought up with in the 50s and 60s.

That day at The Woman’s Building, I had another brief encounter with Johnston: My straight friend Margy wanted a photo taken with her, to add to her collection of photos with less-than-major celebrities (Lauren Chapin of Father Knows Best). We couldn’t find Johnston at first, but we were finally tipped off to look for her up on the roof. And there indeed was Johnston with young Susie Gottlieb–the 18-year-old singer/artist who would soon be known as Phranc, the All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger–lying on a mattress making out. Johnston was 45 at the time. (Here she is on that mattress, just talking to other young feminist women; and here, at the 1:45 mark, is the photo of Jill and Margy.)

I knew that not all lesbians behaved like Johnston, but it was nice to know where the avant-garde of the movement ranged. Then, when I came out myself later that year, I could feel safely conservative in comparison–even if being gay in the mid-1970s still felt like being an outlaw.

A final, perhaps prescient quote to remember Johnston by:

In 1984 I will listen to big brother and in 2001 I will hijack a starship and in 2010 I will pay off my mortgage and in 10,000 or so I will be burning up in orbit with love. If that isn’t funny I am no longer a serious revolutionary. [“A Few Rude Generalizations…”]

I hope she paid off her mortgage this year. Keep burning it up, Jill.


Jill Johnston at the Town Hall debate with Norman Mailer, from the documentary film Town Bloody Hall.

Photo of Jill Johnston by Diane Davis from NY Public Library Digital Collection, photographed by Flickr user bobster855, licensed under CreativeCommons 2.0.


The late Michele Kort—a dedicated feminist—was the senior editor of Ms. magazine for 13 years. She died June 26, 2015, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She worked for decades in field of journalism, covering sports, music, culture, art and feminist issues for publications like LA Weekly, The Advocate, Shape, Redbook, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Songwriter, InStyle, Living Fit, Fit Pregnancy, Vegetarian Times, Fitness, UCLA Magazine, Women's Sports and Fitness and more. She is the author of four books, including a biography of singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro. Rest in power, Michele.