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Jean Carlomusto

Photograph #1 Jennifer Jones with L's

Preserving Desire

On September 22, 1991, L is for the way you look premiered as a benefit for the Lesbian Herstory Archives Building fund. The benefit was held at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center.

Photo #2 Val w/ Lesbos map

"To name us one goes by way of reference to the poet Sappho, which in turn is an indirect reference to the poet Sappho, (who used to live there they say), which in turn is itself an indirect reference to what fragments of her poetry have survived a few millennia of patriarchy and this in turn,(if we haven't lost you by now) is a prophylactic avoidance of direct mention of the sort of creature who would write such poems, or, to whom such poems would be written." -- Marilyn Frye from The Politics of Reality.

Even before L is for the way you look was completed, I knew I wanted to premier it as a benefit for the Lesbian Herstory Archives. As I write this, the Archives is preparing to purchase a new building that would allow it to grow out of Joan Nestle's West Side apartment into a cultural center. The screening was to be part of an organizing strategy to raise money for the purchase of the building.
Since the Archives have always chosen to exist independent of city, state or federal funding, it must rely on community support. The Archives eschewal of federal, state and city funding is not surprising. There has always been varying degrees of manipulation and censorship attached to this money. Imagine what would be lost if lesbians entrusted our histories to a dominant culture: the history of women of color, passing women and sex workers. There would be the loss of the personal detail: the diaries, stories of first kisses, descriptions of lesbian bars of another era and stories of daily struggle. Our lives are impoverished when these details are lost, forgotten or destroyed.

"How could gay people have a memory of themselves as a people with a history when, for many years, our only social existence was on the pages of medical, psychological, legal and religious texts -- all dedicated to proving our pathology. It is not that our people did not speak, but their words and their lives lived in the context of the colonizer."
-- Joan Nestle from When Lions Write History

L is for the way you look was made because I didn't want to forget this period of my life, or this point in time. It's like a diary. It shows a period in my life when I actively chose to stop trying to find myself represented on television, to go outside and see what is happening in the world, to become an activist, to make television about my friends and community. Each woman in it participated candidly because they too felt their perceptions and insights were worth preserving. The desire to preserve a history and give validation to our lives is crucial towards constructing our identities.

The idea first came to me for L is for the way you look at a party when somebody said that they saw Dolly Parton at Reno's show at PS 122. Since Reno initially became popular among lesbians and gays, Dolly's presence sparked considerable interest and questions. In fact, once this topic came up, the party changed completely. There were no more separate conversations, only one central one that was guided by various renditions of what really happened that night. The individual re-tellings of the event by the women who had seen her, created a narrative from a lesbian perspective which I found provocative to explore. It reminded me of Kurosowa's Rashomon.
The discussion of Parton's presence at this event was more complicated than: "is she a lesbian or not?" Although these women readily engaged in a spirited discussion about the event, their excitement was tempered by the fact that Dolly has never identified herself as a lesbian. Instead of proving anything about Parton's sexual orientation, it pointed to larger questions of lesbian identification. Dolly's presence became analogous to dyes injected into cells under a microscope, to make them more visible.

I wanted to preserve lesbians' perceptions of this event. My desire for women has always been nourished by efforts to preserve meaningful events and artifacts. Since lesbian culture has been scorned and deemed worthless by dominant culture, I grew up keeping scrap books, hiding items in shoe boxes hidden under my bed, keeping a secret diary, cherishing the remembrance of a gesture all night long in my mind. My work in video has always satisfied me most when it duplicated these early efforts to duplicate my desire.
The new Lesbian Herstory Archives building presents an exciting opportunity to make a contribution to what should never be taken for granted. As the urge to preserve our past grows our communities are strengthened. Young lesbians have more options to influence what they do think or say. Older lesbians have a place where their past is preserved. Lesbians from out of town have a friendly place to come and meet the locals.

"My heart is moved by all I cannot save, so much has been destroyed. I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world."
-- Adreinne Rich from Natural Resources

When I delve into the resources at the archives, I feel the same excitement as when I see my lovers face after a relatively long separation. I feel as if I've come home.

Let me tell you something,
There will be a few,
Who will remember us.
-- Sappho