Lesbian Pioneer Johnston Dies at 81

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com September 21 2010 10:45 AM ET

Jill Johnston, the author of books including Lesbian Nation and one of the first women to come out in the mainstream media, died over the weekend at age 81.

According to an obituary published Tuesday in The New York Times, Johnston passed away Saturday in Hartford, Conn., as the result of a stroke, said her spouse, Ingrid Nyeboe, whom she married in Connecticut last year.

Johnston, a longtime dance critic for The Village Voice, published Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution in 1973. In the groundbreaking work, which helped launch the lesbian separatist movement, she argued for a complete break from men and the capitalist institutions dominated by men.

“Jill Johnston was really an inspiration to very young lesbians who were
just coming out,” said Roberta Sklar, a New York City-based
communications consultant, in a conversation with The Advocate.
“We followed her avidly.”

Sklar once worked as a director at
Caffe Cino, an off-off-Broadway venue Johnston frequented in the 1970s,
and she chatted with the critic on numerous occasions.

“She said it all, and at the
same time, she broke the rules, particularly by being out, by being a
public figure who made no apologies for who she was,” said Sklar.

The Times recounts a famous episode from 1971 in which Johnston, with Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and Jacqueline Ceballos of the National Organization for Women debated Norman Mailer at Town Hall in Manhattan.

“After reciting a feminist-lesbian poetic manifesto and announcing that ‘all women are lesbians except those that don’t know it yet,’ Ms. Johnston was joined onstage by two women. The three, all friends, began kissing and hugging ardently, upright at first but soon rolling on the floor.

“Mailer, appalled, begged the women to stop. ‘Come on, Jill, be a lady,’ he sputtered.”

Following the height of her fame as a lesbian, Johnston continued to write for Art News, Art in America, and the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Her other books include Marmalade Me; Gullibles Travels; Mother Bound; Paper Daughter; Secret Lives in Art; Jasper Johns: Privileged Information; At Sea on Land: Extreme Politics; and most recently a novel, England's Child.

Born in London in 1929, Johnston was taken to the United States as an infant and raised on Long Island in New York. She graduated from Tufts University in 1951. Her first marriage, to Richard Lanham, lasted six years and ended in divorce in 1964. In addition to Nyeboe, she is survived by two children, Richard Lanham and Winifred Lanham, and four grandchildren.

Johnston’s legacy likely will loom large over the the fall festival to be presented by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York next month. In Amerika They Call Us Dykes: Lesbian Lives in the 70s will take place October 8, 9, and 10.