Jill Johnston

2 minute read
Dan Fastenberg

At the height of the 1960s sexual revolution, the Village Voice touted her as “the country’s first shameless public lesbian.” Jill Johnston, who died on Sept. 18 at 81, spent the majority of her literary career as a cultural critic for the Voice, the New York City–based weekly at the forefront of the gay-rights revolution. And throughout her writing, she laid bare her belief that the revolution should shun even the slightest hint of incrementalism.

That stance led Johnston to espouse the view that “all women are lesbians except those that don’t know it yet.” Her willingness to take on the competing tensions of sexuality and gender equality found full expression in her 1973 book Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution, in which she championed separatism and a total break from men. Johnston’s “lesbian feminism” received particular attention during a debate at New York City’s Town Hall in 1971, when she shared a three-way necking session with two friends before much of New York’s cultural establishment, led by writer Norman Mailer.

Her art and dance criticism was in keeping with the avant-garde movement she reviewed. Of composer Meredith Monk’s 1964 choreographed piece Break, Johnston said it was an “empty canvas with splattered incidents.”

But as the tumult of the ’60s and ’70s gave way to a conservative backlash, Johnston no longer saw fit to continue with her punctuation-free, daring prose. Rather, she came to refer to Lesbian Nation as a “period piece” and left the Voice in 1978 after 19 years. Johnston then entered a period of self-exploration that culminated in the 2008 publication of the book England’s Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells. In writing a biography of the bellmaking father she never met, Johnston saw a connection to her own ambitions. “I would like to swing some real bells, better, swing on them, preferably mighty ones, make a fearsome racket,” she wrote.

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