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Archive for December, 2014

History repeats itself.

Just last week, I went into the new Philadelphia AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room, the organization that took bought the old Giovanni’s Room Bookstore, the iconic bookstore that opened in 1973. I was thrilled to hear that Giovanni’s Room was continuing in some form, of course. But friends had told me that, alas, it just wasn’t the same. For lesbians and gay men of a certain generation, Giovanni’s Room was more than a store. It was a safe haven. It even has a mention in my book Tea Leaves, a Memoir of Mothers and Daughters (Bella Books, 2012).

So I was delighted to wander in and find that the store is charming — and remarkably similar to the old bookstore. In line at the register were a couple of very young gay men with short spiky hair and flesh plug earrings. (They looked like the young dykes of my time.) One was buying a used copy of the collected works of Oscar Wilde, and telling his young friend (who was unfamiliar with the author) who Wilde was and how important his work is. My heart was warmed, of course.

Later I reflected that it was more than heartwarming, the fact that Giovanni’s Room is continuing is historic survival.

A few years ago, I heard a rumor that many young people in the LGBT community were not interested in learning their history. I don’t know if this is true, and I certainly hope it is not true.

However, if it is true, it is understandable. We live in a time of rapid acceptance of LGBT rights. Same-sex marriage is legal in far more states than it is banned. And while federal recognition of marriage and other LGBT rights may be an ongoing battle — it is sure to follow. But not that long ago (everything being relative), gay rights were dismal and before that they were nonexistent.

I’ve always preferred learning my history through literature. That’s why I was excited when I heard that Cleis Press reissued Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out, a lesbian “pulp” classic first published in 1957. The “pulp” lesbian novels published roughly from 1950 to 1965, were written by such authors as Valerie Taylor, Claire Morgan and Marijane Maeaker ( who wrote under the pen names of Vin Packer and Ann Aldrich) among others. Ann Bannon (also a pen name) was known as the “Queen of lesbian pulp fiction” with her “Beebo Brinker Chronicles.”

The pulps were published during McCarthyism, a severely repressive time of U.S. history. In 1952 the House Un-American Activities Commission investigated gay men and lesbians in the public arena. The lesbian pulps were an important window into an identity that was illegal.

In the introduction to the re-issued edition (from Cleis) of Odd Girl Out, Bannon writes that she was a young housewife when she wrote these books, explaining that she was:

“just plain scared of to assume an identity that seemed to me full of mystery…I also had a fully reasonably fear of the public consequences. God forbid that a policeman should ever pluck me from a table in a lesbian bar, shove me into a paddy wagon, and put my name on a roster of criminals. The bars underwent regular police raids in those days…”

She also puts lesbian “pulp” fiction into perspective:

How did we get away with it, those of us writing these books? No doubt it had a lot to do with the fact that we were not even a blip on the radar screens of the literary critics. No one ever reviewed a lesbian pulp paperback for the New York Times Review of Books, the Saturday Review, The Atlantic Monthly. We were lavishly ignored, except by the customers at the drugstores, airports, train stations, and newsstands who bought our books off the kiosks by the millions. The readers tended to enjoy them furtively: probably feeling as wary as I did when I wrote them.

For a novel labeled as “pulp,” Odd Girl Out is remarkably well written and with an ending that is empowering rather than tragic — unusual in literature with lesbian characters at that time. When my partner asked me if it were worth reading, I gave her a resounding, “YES.”

I was also excited when I heard about Terry Mutchler’s heart-wrenching memoir,Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America. I read this back to back with Ann Bannon’s lesbian classic and quickly realized that the two books shared the similar emotional underpinnings of the love that dare not speak its name: lesbianism.

The difference is that while Ann Bannon’s book was first published in 1957, Under This Beautiful Dome was published (by Seal Press) in 2014 and recounts the facts of a relationship that ended tragically when Penny Severns, an Illinois state senator and one of the mentors of the now President Barack Obama, died at the age of forty six from metastatic breast cancer.

It is a poignant love story about two women who fall in love. There are other reasons not to disclose their relationship — Penny is a journalist and it presents an ethical dilemma for her to be involved with a politician. But the primary reason — especially after Penny is diagnosed and Terry becomes her press secretary so they can spend more time together — is homophobia. In the high powered world in which they lived, being openly lesbian was a career killer. 

After Penny dies (without a will) and her relatives step in and take over, Terry is locked out of the home she shared with her lover (but does not have her name on it). Wills would be public — which is why the two women did not have them — but Terry had an agreement with Penny’s twin sister, Patty. As often happens after the death of a loved one, the sister’s behavior quickly changed. She shut Terry out completely. Mutchler, who has experienced the loss of her lover plus the betrayal of someone she thought of as family, writes:

“I felt as though I had split into two people, two Terrys: the lesbian Terry whose mate has just died and was grieving deeply and needed help, and the press secretary and good friend Terry, who created a life of lies very carefully to keep her love and partnership a secret.”

The book is flawlessly and unflinchingly written. Especially touching is the caring that Terry did for her dying lover. But for me, the saddest part was that this story in different details and variations is one that I’ve heard more than a few times when one partner dies without a will, and the surviving partner is left unprotected to the vagaries of the deceased’s biological family.

In addition to being a moving memoir, Under This Beautiful Dome is a reminder that we have to protect ourselves and our rights — or history will repeat itself.

First published in The Huffington Post

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This review is featured on this week’s wrap of This Way Out, the internationally syndicated LGBT radio show based in Los Angeles.

One of the things that I love about being part of the LGBT community is feeling strongly connected to the rainbow way that spans the globe. Sometimes our experiences are different — vastly so — but there is some commonality in struggle and, for me and most likely for many others, this increases empathy and identification.

Recently, I read three books — Pride Climbing Higher: Stories by LGBT People from Nepal, Mardis Gras (a collection of photos from Australia), and The Last Conception (a story about an East Indian woman who is also American) reminded me that we are all deeply connected.

In Pride Climbing Higher, Stories by LGBT People from Nepal (Creative Nepal, 2014), editor and writing instructor Chad Frisbie and his associates put together a moving collection of stories by sexual and gender minority identities in Nepal.

In “Power From The Inside,” Simran Sherchan writes poignantly about being transgender:

“When I arrived in Nepal, my heart would not allow me to return to Pokhara because my parents would force me to marry a girl. I didn’t want to ruin someone’s life, my wife’s life. So I hid her in Kathmandu. In front of the mirror in Katmandu, I took off my clothes. I looked at my body. I felt that my soul was in the wrong body. I realized that I had to wear what my mind and heart wanted. The very first time I wore the clothes I wanted to wear since childhood, a woman’s casual attire, I felt like a magician’s wand had touched my body — I became a lady.”

Pride Climbing Higher also includes photographs, some taken by the authors, from the Nepal Photo Project. One photo taken by Simran Sherchan, is of a red flower with a blue sky background and the caption reads: “The saying about Nepal goes that it is a ‘garden of four castes and thirty six sub castes.’ In the garden, there are so many different flowers, and we as third genders are also one of those flowers.”

Mardis Gras (2014, Sonia Friedrich) is a beautifully done collection of photographs from Australia. There are no words to accompany the photos, but there is something about a man in a gold lame nun’s habit or two men wearing mostly sparkles and skin holding hands that in undeniably gay. There are also photos of drag queens with pink hair, and a pretty young woman waving a rainbow flag, and a sign about Christians supporting Equality through Marriage that looks absolutely pedestrian in this context.

The Last Conception a novel by Gabriel Constans (Melange Books, 2014), is a mystery of sorts about a lesbian couple who get together and have a baby. But will their plan work? And what about one of the women’s tradition-bound East Indian family who she finally comes out to?

A major part of the mystery lies in the religious beliefs of the protagonist’s parents. As the Savarna, their lesbian daughter, says, “But Mom… Dad… doesn’t this sort of thing go against all your religious beliefs? I mean, I’m not trying to put a damper on anything, but I’m a little confused.”

In The Last Conception, the main characters discover many of the challenges that lesbian couples face when deciding to have a baby — plus it has the added dimension of family expectations based on culture and tradition. It reminds us that we can never leave our past behind us, especially when it involves family and culture.

A free download of Pride Climbing Higher can be found here

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