Author pho­to by Bec­ca Farsace

Amelia Possanza’s new book Les­bian Love Sto­ry blends mem­oir with his­tor­i­cal archival research to high­light sto­ries of les­bian love in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Les­bian Love Sto­ry is a won­der­ful romp through les­bian his­to­ry that illu­mi­nates con­tem­po­rary les­bian life and grap­ples with ques­tions of how to tend to and care for the past. 

In this inter­view Pos­san­za dis­cuss­es love, archives, Jew­ish les­bians, and the his­to­ry of New Amsterdam. 

Julie R. Ensz­er: Amelia, one of the things that I just adored about read­ing and reread­ing this book is the way you fall in love with your sub­jects. In some ways, the real les­bian love sto­ry of the book is your love sto­ry with your sub­jects. When and how did you fall in love with these characters?

Amelia Pos­san­za: I’ve always had a big heart, and while it’s got­ten me into a lot of trou­ble in my roman­tic life, it was cer­tain­ly help­ful in the process of research­ing and writ­ing the book. I can’t remem­ber the exact moment I fell for these his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, but I’m sure my friends began to notice all the tell-tale signs before I did: casu­al­ly drop­ping their names into con­ver­sa­tion at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, stay­ing up late to lis­ten to their voic­es on oral his­to­ry tapes, bik­ing entire­ly too far in the hopes of a chance encounter (at the New-York His­tor­i­cal Society.) 

I went into this project at a time in my life when I was in search of a fair­ly tra­di­tion­al kind of roman­tic love and part­ner­ship, but my sub­jects had some­thing else in mind. The les­bians in this book — par­tic­u­lar­ly Joan Nes­tle, one of the founders of the Les­bian Her­sto­ry Archive and a fel­low Jew — taught me that care­tak­ing is one of the ulti­mate expres­sions of love. Joan prac­ticed this when she inter­viewed Mabel Hamp­ton–a Black stud who danced dur­ing the Harlem Renais­sance, helped found the LHA (Les­bian Her­sto­ry Archives), and has the star­ring role in Chap­ter 2 of my book – for a series of oral his­to­ry tapes. She wrote Mabel one of the most roman­tic post­cards I have ever read, even though theirs was not a tra­di­tion­al rom-com sort of love: I am going to buy a moun­tain here for us. Would you like to live in the Alps?” 

Tend­ing to the archive, study­ing the inti­mate details of the per­son­al lives of the les­bians who came before me and try­ing to tell their sto­ries in a way that stays true to their lives, it’s almost impos­si­ble for that not to become a prac­tice of love.

JRE: Are there oth­er his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters who you are in love with that didn’t make the cut for the book?

AP: Ever since the book came out, folks have been pass­ing along the names of folks who I wish I could have includ­ed, such as Vic­to­ri­an-era pho­tog­ra­ph­er and co-founder of the Stat­en Island Bicy­cle Club Alice Austen, whose for­mer home has been turned into a beau­ti­ful muse­um; New York City physi­cian and pub­lic health advo­cate who spent her lat­er years with a woman-ori­ent­ed woman” Sara Josephine Bak­er; and Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Good­win, founders of Tran­sy House, a 1990s refuge for unhoused gen­der non-con­form­ing peo­ple and the last place where queer lib­er­a­tion pio­neer Sylvia Rivera lived. I’m des­per­ate to know what was going on in envi­ron­men­tal­ist Rachel Carson’s roman­tic life, when she wasn’t busy writ­ing Silent Spring!

Some­one recent­ly asked a ques­tion that tru­ly stumped me: if you were to write a sequel to this book fifty years from now, who from the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry would make the cut? That ques­tion has me jot­ting down names from an entire­ly dif­fer­ent era, and think­ing about how social media, celebri­ty cul­ture, and every­one being very much online have gen­er­at­ed an unprece­dent­ed amount of archival mate­r­i­al, also known as con­tent, and yet some­how all that noise has drowned out the real­i­ties of every­day queer lives.

JRE: This book high­lights the ways that his­to­ries and sto­ries of peo­ple from the past can become bea­cons for peo­ple liv­ing today. In writ­ing about Mabel Hamp­ton, you con­fide, what I tru­ly want is for her to guide me through the now, to be the dead who takes care of me, the liv­ing.” How did you come to think about his­to­ry as instruc­tive to the present?

AP: I fell in love with Mabel, and also with one of her catch­phras­es, which I still hear in my head: The dead take care of me, and so do the liv­ing.” No mat­ter what your pol­i­tics are, it’s hard to deny that we’re fac­ing some enor­mous chal­lenges. It’s going to be a lot hard­er to con­front those chal­lenges (even if they’re just per­son­al dat­ing chal­lenges) if we stay dis­con­nect­ed from the sto­ries of the gen­er­a­tions who came before us. As I researched the book, I was often aston­ished by the res­o­nances between the lives of these twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry les­bians and today’s head­lines. These les­bians were arrest­ed for wear­ing clothes that did not cor­re­spond with their per­ceived gen­der. Their sto­ries were yanked out of libraries and banned from being mailed across state lines. When I feel hope­less about the fact that these are still issues we’re strug­gling against today, I remind myself that we don’t have to resolve them on our own. We don’t have to be, as Cher­ríe Mor­a­ga, one of the les­bians in the book puts it, ever-inven­tors of our rev­o­lu­tion.” There is a long his­to­ry of activism and resis­tance that we can draw from.

JRE: Anoth­er ele­ment of Les­bian Love Sto­ry that res­onat­ed pow­er­ful­ly with me is the way you help read­ers to under­stand kin­ship expan­sive­ly. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true in the final sto­ry of Amy Hoff­mans rela­tion­ship with Mike Riegle, which she wrote about in Hos­pi­tal Time. Talk to me a bit about kin­ship and how you see it as a part of les­bian love stories.

AP: This book was borne out of my frus­tra­tion with the gay men on my swim team and some of the rude things they’ve said to me over the years about les­bians. I’ll spare you the details! In spite of that frus­tra­tion, those men are all dear friends of mine and make up a huge part of my com­mu­ni­ty. Amy had her own frus­tra­tions with Mike, and at the height of them, called him such an ass­hole.” Kin­ship is often about care­tak­ing, even for peo­ple who aren’t your blood rel­a­tives, even for peo­ple who infu­ri­ate you. Because les­bians couldn’t rely on the state, which often worked to insti­tu­tion­al­ize them, or on their blood rela­tions, they built new con­nec­tions when they need­ed sup­port, often with oth­er queer peo­ple. They remind us to ask, what would the world look like if we treat­ed all peo­ple as wor­thy of care and support?

I have my queer com­mu­ni­ty in the present, but I also want­ed to find a queer com­mu­ni­ty that stretched across time, to sit­u­ate myself among lesbians.

JRE: One of the tan­gles that end­less­ly fas­ci­nates me is the rela­tion­ship between archive, his­to­ry, geneal­o­gy, biog­ra­phy, and auto­bi­og­ra­phy. You bring to this tan­gle many love­ly inno­va­tions through your selec­tion and cura­tions of sto­ries. Can you reflect on those relationships? 

AP: There’s a quote from Heather Love that I found after I fin­ished the book that answers this ques­tion bet­ter than I ever could: The long­ing for queer com­mu­ni­ty across time is a cru­cial fea­ture of queer his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence, one pro­duced by the his­tor­i­cal iso­la­tion of indi­vid­ual queers as well as by the dam­aged qual­i­ty of the his­tor­i­cal archive.” I have my queer com­mu­ni­ty in the present, but I also want­ed to find a queer com­mu­ni­ty that stretched across time, to sit­u­ate myself among les­bians. I wouldn’t be able to be a les­bian in the way I am today — short hair, pants, order­ing a Dyke beer at a dyke bar — with­out every­one who came before. I imag­ine a lot of iden­ti­ty groups long to feel that kind of his­tor­i­cal kinship. 

JRE: There are many Jews in these sto­ries. Can you talk a bit about what you hope Jew­ish read­ers will take away from this book?

AP:Sarah Schul­man, anoth­er Jew­ish les­bian who makes only the briefest appear­ance in the book, once said that the great loss of sto­ries dur­ing the Holo­caust was part of what moti­vat­ed her to start the ACT UP Oral His­to­ry Project, which even­tu­al­ly became a book, Let the Record Show. I asked Joan [Nes­tle] and Amy [Hoff­man] if their own archival impulse came from that same his­to­ry, and they both said no. For Joan, it grew out of her love of oth­er people’s sto­ries, and also out of her own mar­gin­al­ized back­ground. My Jew­ish her­itage has pushed me to think a lot about how to rec­on­cile the hate,trauma, and vio­lence that has left a mark on my fam­i­ly tree with the abun­dance I expe­ri­ence in my every­day life. I hope that Jew­ish read­ers will reflect on how their own his­to­ries might inform the sup­port of oth­er per­se­cut­ed communities. 

JRE: Can you talk about your Jew­ish story?

AP: A lot of friends told me they didn’t know I had Jew­ish her­itage until they read the book! I nev­er had a Bat Mitz­vah, but I grew up in Squir­rel Hill, swam for the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter, and went to tem­ple every week­end for about two years in mid­dle school to watch my friends read their Torah por­tions. I’m not a prac­tic­ing Jew, but all of these expe­ri­ences have made the cul­ture very impor­tant to me. It’s an easy expla­na­tion for my anx­i­ety, and for my love of rugelach. In some ways, for me, being a Jew is a bit like being a les­bian. Jew­ish is both a reli­gion and an eth­nic­i­ty, and there’s no one right way to become a part of the com­mu­ni­ty. Some­times, all it takes is claim­ing that identity.

JRE: The book cov­ers the entire twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and brings togeth­er a won­der­ful, mul­ti­cul­tur­al cast of char­ac­ters. The epi­logue is titled The Les­bian Future.” What are some of your great­est hopes for les­bian futures?

AP: I start­ed this project as a hope­less roman­tic, and then some­where along the way I became a polit­i­cal rad­i­cal. My idea for The Les­bian Future” came from Glo­ria Anzaldúas vision for The Left-Hand­ed World, a world where the col­ored, the queer, the poor, the female, the phys­i­cal­ly chal­lenged” would be empow­ered. Main­stream les­bian accep­tance, which we see quite a bit of today, would not have solved all the dif­fi­cul­ties the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures I stud­ied encoun­tered in their lives. Mabel Hamp­ton worked her entire life – Right up until I pass away, I’m still work­ing” – and yet she still could not afford a decent apart­ment for her and Lil­lian to live in. As a young girl, Glo­ria Anzaldúa was hit with a ruler when she spoke Span­ish in class. What would accep­tance” do for them? They pushed me to demand noth­ing short of a rev­o­lu­tion, and their sto­ries (I like to think) pro­vide some inspi­ra­tion for how we might begin to imag­ine that.

JRE: Now that the book is out, what are some of your cur­rent obsessions?

AP: Oys­ters. The col­o­niza­tion of this coun­try and the his­to­ry of New Ams­ter­dam, which even­tu­al­ly became New York City. I’m liv­ing on this arch­i­pel­ago of islands that I love so deeply, and try­ing to come to terms with the fact that it’s like­ly going to sink back into the ocean some­day soon. How did we dec­i­mate a land­scape once described as Eden” in under 500 years? Is there any hope to be found?

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.