“I’m gay,” she never said.
“I’m gay,” she never said.
Jill Johnston, the longtime Village Voice dance critic-turned lesbian feminist provocateur, made queer work of coming out. In 1970, she announced her lesbianism to the world, but did so by requiring her readers to listen to the news of her sexuality on her own terms. Johnston’s July 2, 1970 column, written amidst the one-year anniversary celebration of Stonewall, is generally considered the moment she most clearly marked herself as a lesbian. She began the column: “In support of the gay movement on the occasion of the gay celebration week: I guess yes I’ve been saying it in this column for a year and a half now, but always fragmentarily in the context of the literary exercises. So this will be straight on.”
There is nothing “straight on” in what follows. In the 1970 column, Johnston writes she never meant to declare her sexuality in print, questions why anyone would find such an act of interest, muses why the column has become more about “theater of my life” than “theater of dance,” and then, in a phrase that reads almost as an addendum, she mentions loving and having sex with a woman.
The mention of the woman, the loving, the sex, appears at the paragraph’s end, but it’s not the big finish—it’s an add-on, almost an aside—not only because of its place in her sequence of sharing, but because of the rhythm in the writing. By the time Johnston wrote the coming-out column, it was years since she had jettisoned dance as her topic of writing, but the importance of choreographic elements remained. Johnston’s writing resists prose’s usual linear pull, and instead conjures space, time, and flesh. Johnston’s writing requires a dance-inflected reading. Syntax and sequence enhance the rhythm of her words, the flow equal in importance to the subject. And the flow of the column doesn’t say, “I’m gay. PERIOD.” There is an urgency, a push, a layering.
That layering is the subject of the 1970 column’s next paragraph. She discusses her marriage, describes herself as heterosexual, and then bisexual, and then drawn toward androgyny. Her descriptions, again, are not about the simplicity of labels. Instead she examines each, noting the circumstances that made each appropriate or compelling at particular moments in her life, and then addresses how the press of social limits makes each label oppressive or unattainable. Heterosexuality comes with expectations and reproduction. Bisexuality becomes invisible as heteros get the public realm and homos the underground. Androgyny (or what she also terms trans-sexual) seems the most compelling, but its allure is perhaps its unattainability—a thing of Greek myths and dreaming.
“I’m gay.” She never said it. To be a lesbian never quite gets the on-the-nose attention the other labels do. Gayness swirls on the edge of legibility through the loops of Johnston’s writing. This is another writing feat that could be seen as one learned from dance, where meaning—at least in the New York postmodern dance scene Johnston was one of the first to appreciate—is never fully elaborated. Dancing bodies never tell their full story or name themselves, but they are still fully present.
Johnston writes a coming out that is never a declarative sentence. To claim gayness is to live a sexy, provocative life. To move across genders through sensation and desire. To claim the body and to claim sex as essential for living.
It’s not that Johnston didn’t champion coming out. A year later, in a 1971 column written in elliptical circuits that surpass even Gertrude Stein, Johnston chronicles composer Pauline Oliveros’s marriage to a woman. She writes, “Do you think the time has come to share with a waiting world the names of the prominent people whose lives have been changed by taking LSD asked Leary who answered yes which I answer to the same question I would terminate by saying who have taken homosexuality for the news is urgent to the health of the state… .” What to make of a call to come out that is a run-on sentence, a layering of ideas where every phrase is both the end of an idea and the beginning of another? Again, there is the urgency and the refusal of the declarative. A delirious experience that turns reading into spectatorship, moves the words on the page into a sensual confrontation between writer and reader.
Part of the lure of Johnston’s writing is her dexterity with the linguistic slingshot. To read her long sentences, structured through associative logic, is to be tossed about from subject to subject as the rhythm of the sentence carries the reader along with a sense of forward motion.
Johnston’s writing is queer prose from a prolific writer, adept with words, but it’s dance, too. Johnston’s work as a dance critic is often separated from her later writing, particularly the period from the late sixties through the seventies when, primarily in the Voice, she wrote about her personal life, holding forth on questions of gender and sexuality as they related to her life as an out lesbian.
In the Voice, Johnston’s turn from dance to the personal was most publicly announced by her column’s name change in 1971. Her writing no longer appeared under the banner of “dance journal,” but now as “jill johnston.” Yet “dance journal” remained the big bold title above Johnston’s most provocative columns, among them the 1970 initial coming out and Johnston’s slightly later column, titled “Lois Lane is a Lesbian.” (Johnston wrote her own headlines.)
The Lois Lane essay is the writing more often cited for its articulation of her open lesbianism as a political stance. The 1970 coming out column has received less attention because Johnston did not include it in the subsequent collections of her work (a choice she likely made because the 1970 column ends with criticisms of feminists she would later come to admire).
Dance wasn’t Johnston’s object of inquiry by the time she penned these seventies writings about gender and sexuality, oppression and freedom, sex and love. But the slippery, complicated communications (and miscommunications ) of dance—the intensely physical, intensely present notion of bodies—lurks in her attitudes and demeanor. Dance arrives on the scene of the writing, destabilizing meaning, casting itself into the words in a mischievous manner; the choreographic tools of rhythm and layering structure the prose.
There’s no way to say what dance expresses about gender and sexuality—dance is many things and works in many pathways and contexts. But dancing is a doing, a thing made manifest in motion, in collision. Dancing, particularly the New York scene that so captured Johnston, can offer a kind of meaning-making that Johnston often termed “messy.” For her, “mess,” a term frequently deployed in her performance criticism, was among the highest praise she could offer. In a 1968 review published in The New York Times, Johnston wrote, “The world is in a mess because of its clean boundaries. A truly messy world is a consummation devoutly to be wished. When the beans are spilled somebody loses a secret. When the dam breaks a private pond becomes a public ocean.”
These are words from a dance review, but they seem worth invoking in the midst of this year’s Pride month—in its celebrations, its protests, its anguished cries. Johnston may have moved away from dance as she became a mouthpiece for lesbian feminism, but it seems the dance didn’t leave her. That seems a worthy invocation almost fifty years later. Let gayness be your mess, your consummation, your spilling, your brilliantly layered run-on, dancing sentence.
CLARE CROFT is a dance historian and theorist, and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.