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Archive for the ‘LGBT Books’ Category

Note: a version of this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

 

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.flags

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement

 

originally in The Huffington Post

 

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I recently had the honor and privilege of having a Conversation with William E. Berry, Jr., Publisher & CEO, of aaduna literary magazine.  The journal published my novel excerpt “The Mother”  and nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.

Below is an excerpt from the Conversation and a link to the full piece in aaduna:

Janet Mason:

First off, thanks bill for your compliments about my work in aaduna.  I feel honored that you described it as having an “intriguing intensity,” “subtle edginess,” and a “provocative premise.”  The inspiration for my novel She And He, which “The Mother” came from, reflects several sources.  I review books for The Huffington Post and the radio syndicate “This Way Out” based in Los Angeles, and three of the books I reviewed that influenced me were on transgender topics.  The other major influence was reading the Bible pretty much for the first time which gave me a fresh take on it.

I wanted to write something fun and upbeat based on this landscape — and come to think of it, I did put a fair amount of myself into it.  I am tall and because of my height and angularity, I am frequently called “Sir.”  And though I identify as female, I have always identified with male and female interests.  When I was a child, I had an imaginary friend who was a boy my age who lived in my mind.  I actually didn’t think of this until now, but this must have influenced my thinking of having a line of intersex characters that are born in “The Mother” and the intersexed twins Tamar and Yeshua.  Tamar, the narrator of the story, indentifies primarily as female but is born intersexed.  And her brother, Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) identifies as male but was born intersexed.

I think my life is pretty normal — normal for me!  I spent a lot of time alone writing and I also garden (this summer I planted and harvested a lot of pumpkins and carnival squash).  My partner, who I live in an old farmhouse with, is retired from the postal system, and is a fabulous cook.  I take long walks everyday and do yoga and a Buddhist meditation practice almost daily, so my day to day is pretty tame but it suits me.

to read the rest of the Conversation, click here

“The Mother” is an excerpt from my novel in process, She And He.  It is loosely based on a character (Tamar) from the Hebrew Bible, and is told from the spin of how independent women and gender-variant characters not only survived but thrived in ancient times.

You can see a skit from She And He on YouTube .  The skit was done at the Unitarian Universal Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.

You can also read another excerpt, written as standalone short fiction, in the online literary journal  BlazeVOX15

Another excerpt is forthcoming this year in Sinister Wisdom —coming out in April.
janet-and-sappho

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The alternative to the LGBT community is to be invisible. There is strength in numbers and in community and that is why we band together. Historically, we have a collective history of living in the shadows — out of self preservation in a homophobic society. But living in the shadows was and is unhealthy. It has led to isolation, dishonesty (in particular with opposite-sex heterosexual spouses) and all the guises of self-destruction, including substance abuse and suicide. Recently, I read two books — Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc originally censored but in 2015 published by The Feminist Press and Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts) by Joseph P. Eckhardt — that brought these issues to the surface of my thinking.

I had heard about the book by Joseph P. Eckhardt Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts), but it took a visit to the Historical Society of Woodstock to really pique my interest. I was visiting the area when friends who lived nearby told me that the show — based on the book and the lives and some of the original artwork of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason who were life partners and residents of Woodstock, NY, for decades was a “must-see.” So I went. The show, which ended in early September, featured a 1920s silent film which the more than six feet tall, larger than life, Wilna Hervey had a role.

I went with my partner and some old friends from the area and as we were leaving, one of the women said to me, “Doesn’t it make you angry that so much of our history had been lost?” I am, by nature, an optimist, so I agreed with her. One way to look at it, is that this is just one slice of our history, most of which has been lost. But I have to admit that I had the feeling of an absolute afterglow in thinking about these two women. I’m sure the fact that I, too, am a lesbian in a long-term relationship, and that I am over six feet tall (like both Wilna and Nan) and that my last name is the same as Nan Mason and that I have a raucous laugh like Nan did brought some bearing on my fascination. We all like to see ourselves reflected in the world.

Living Large is billed as “a rollicking dual biography of one of America’s earliest ‘out and proud’ same-sex couples” and it does not disappoint. Eckhardt did a thorough and meticulous job of telling us the story of their lives and relationship. Wilna Hervey was a comedic silent film star. Nan Mason was the daughter of Wilna’s co-star and friend, Dan Mason, and the two women hit it off with the father’s blessing. He wrote a letter to them, saying:

“I am happy when I know you are both happy. I want to see that harmony grow and expand in your two lives. Both giving and taking for your mutual welfare and happiness. Love is the great vital force. Love is life, without it life is a void. Poor indeed is the man or woman who do not or never have known true love.”

Nan and Wilna were both visual artists and in 1924, they moved to an art colony in the Catskills which became their permanent home. In the epilogue Eckhardt writes:

“It is their enthusiasm, their eagerness to explore the adventures that each new day might bring — and their joy in sharing them with each other — that the most important legacy of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason is to be found. Their enduring companionship serves to remind us of a profound and timeless truth: enthusiasm and love are the secrets to a happy life, and the essence of Living Large.”

Eckhardt emphasizes that Wilna and Nan did not experience discrimination based on their sexual orientation. This is unusual, but it is easy to believe. They lived protected lives as artists in a community of artists and also (Wilna was an heiress) came from protected class backgrounds.

Still, Living Large left me with some questions. Was my friend (who I saw the exhibition with) right? Would Wilna Hervey be as well known as Charlie Chaplin if it wasn’t for the sexism and heterosexism of the time? Would they have had better luck as artists if the climate was different? In particular, the artwork and fine art photography by Nan Mason (reproduced in the book) is nothing short of stunning.
We may never know, but it is no small thing that we know about their lives in Living Large.

Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc was censored in the author’s time but in 2015 was published by The Feminist Press which explains, “In 1966 when it was originally published in France, the text was censored because of its explicit depiction of young homosexuality. With this publication, the original, unexpurgated text–a stunning literary portrayal of female desire and sexuality–is available to a US audience for the first time.”

Leduc lived from 1907 to 1972. She was respected by the well-known writers of her time and place including Camus, Cocteau and Genet. Simone de Beauvoir was her close friend and champion. Even so, she was ahead of her time and was largely unrecognized in her lifetime with the exception of her autobiography La Batarde, published in 1964.

Still, as a writer she accomplished her goals. Of her work that was censored, she wrote:

“I am trying to render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love. In this there is doubtless something that every woman can understand. I am not aiming for scandal but only to describe the woman’s experience with precision….”

This precisely explains Therese and Isabelle. Leduc takes sensuous writing to new heights in capturing the erotic energy between two French school girls:

“….Clasping her against my gaping open heart, I wanted to draw Isabelle inside. Love is an exhausting invention. Isabelle, Therese, I pronounced in my head, getting used to the magical simplicity of our two names.”

The sensuous language is not reserved for the erotic scenes, but stay with the reader as the protagonists turn from lovers back into school girls — “Girls flew off toward their violins, their primers, their pianos.” Hers is a language that captures the subtlety of forbidden love: “…I linked my arm in hers: twining together, our fingers made love.”

The book includes two essays at the end. In “A Story of Censorship” by Carlo Jansiti and the “Afterward” by Michael Lucey, we learn about Violette’s struggles as an author, including the heartbreak of censorship. Despite the way that she may have felt in her lifetime, Violette Leduc’s work endures, and it is absolutely necessary.

To view the photos of “Living Large” at the Woodstock Historical Society, click here.

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Note:  This piece aired as commentary this week on the international LGBT syndicate This Way Out.   It was previously published on The Huffington Post.

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.

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June is LGBT Pride Month. President Obama sanctioned it in 2011 — “I call upon all Americans to observe this month by fighting prejudice and discrimination in their own lives and everywhere it exists.” Before that, President Bill Clinton declared June as Pride Month in the year 2000. Between those years, of course, there was silence from the U.S. president (George Bush) who opposed gay rights.

Pride Month originally came from the anniversary of The Stonewall rebellion. The Stonewall Inn is a bar in the village in NY (that the Pride march goes by) that was routinely raided by police. In 1969, the bar was routinely raided (in those days patrons of gay bars were routinely rounded up and put in paddy wagons), and this time the members of the gay community (including butch lesbians and drag queens) fought back. The LGBT movement began. In 1952 until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. Two of the symbols of Pride — the pink triangle (for gay men) and the black triangle (for lesbians) — were reclaimed from the camps of Nazi Germany where homosexuals, along with gypsies, mentally and physically disabled persons and, of course, Jews were persecuted.

To say that Gay Pride came out of a repressive era is an understatement. There are, sadly, those who think that there is no need for Pride — that it is a celebration of flamboyance and difference. Exactly. That’s what I love about Pride. It celebrates who we are. As someone who has always been secure in myself and welcoming of difference — I’d like to think that I would be supportive of Gay Pride even if I wasn’t part of the party.

In reading two memoirs by members of the LGBT community, I was reminded of our similarities and differences. In full disclosure, I have to admit being a fan of the show “Orange is The New Black” — the popular Netflix series. I was delighted when I found out about the memoir Out of Orange by Cleary Wolters (2015; HarperOne). Cleary is the real life lesbian counterpart to the character Alex Vause on the series. Finally, I thought. The book details Cleary’s involvement in the high stakes world of international drug smuggling (very unusual for a lesbian) and her unfolding romance with Piper Kerman (whose experience the Netflix series is based on).

In prose that is brilliant (at times breathtaking), Cleary also offers us a story of regret and redemption. At one point when in jail and thinking about her future, Cleary reflects:

“I could see myself coming back, getting back to work in software. I might be close to forty-seven by then, but I would still have some good years left in me. My whole life wasn’t wasted. Maybe I could even write a book about the whole ordeal and save someone foolish from making my mistakes.”

Wolters father, who she was close to, died while she was in prison. She writes unflinchingly about her ordeals in the violent and overcrowded prison system. But ultimately she takes responsibility for her own mistakes and in the Epilogue apologizes to “generations of nameless families troubled by addiction.” Drug trafficking is not a victimless crime.

I was drawn to Bettyville (2015; Viking), a memoir by George Hodgman because it is a story of a gay man who returns to his hometown of Paris, Missouri to care for his mother when she is in her nineties. The writing is witticism taken to new heights. It’s not hard to see where Hodgman gets his own quirky sense of humor:

“I hear Betty’s voice from the hall: ‘Who turned up the air-conditioning so high? He’s trying to freeze me out.’

And here she is, all ninety years of her, curlers in disarray, chuckling a bit to herself for no reason, peeking into our guest room where I have been mostly not sleeping. It is the last place in America with shag carpet. In it, I have discovered what I believe to be a toenail from high school.”

Hodgman puts his life on hold when he finds his mother doing things like trying to put her sock on over her shoe:

“I am doing my best here. I will make it back to New York, but frankly, to spend some time in Paris, Missouri, is to come to question the city, where it is normal to work 24/7, tapping away on your BlackBerry for someone who will fire you in an instant, but crazy to pause to help some you love when they are falling.”

In the process of caring for his mother, this middle aged man, who is an only child, re-examines his childhood and adolescence filled with secrets and self hate as he came of age in small town America with zero role models for being gay. He examines his own young adulthood, including his relationship with his father. He also reflects on surviving the AIDS epidemic in the years when it swept through the gay community.

When I finished these two very different memoirs, I found it interesting that they both ended up in the same place with adult children taking care of elderly parents. As members of the LGBT community, we are different and but we are also are the same as anyone else. We often have elderly parents and we often take care of them. I chronicled my own journey in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books 2012). We often have pets and they often are important topics in our writings and conversations. We don’t fight for “special rights” but demand human rights.

Happy Pride!

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It’s been a cold winter. Very cold. One of the things that I’m doing to keep warm is to take an imaginary LGBT cruise in my head — through books — to exotic lands.

The first stop was the land of queer history, which I entered by reading Katie Gilmartin’s mystery Blackmail my Love from Cleis Press. This who-dunnit traces a lesbian narrator, Josie, tracking down her gay brother’s disappearance in 1951 in San Francisco. The book begins with Josie donning her brother’s clothes, exploring gender as she interviews people who knew her brother. One person she talks to is a deeply closeted, gay, school teacher. At that time, gay school teachers had to keep their sexuality under wraps at all costs or lose their jobs. One of the chief misconceptions was that “homosexual” was synonymous with being a child molester. The thought of being thusly accused is at the heart of this gay teacher’s internalized homophobia. He watches himself scrupulously — his every movement. The story of intrigue also leads us through the underworld of gay bars. This page-turner of a mystery is rooted in historic fact and is a reminder of how LGBT people survived before gay liberation.

My next stop was sunny Thailand in Ladyboy and the Volunteer by Susanne Aspley (Peace Core Writers). I learned a little bit about the Peace Corps but far more about the culture of Thailand where sixty percent of foreign men entering the country participate in the sex industry. I also learned about “ladyboys”, who are male to female transgendered women, who in many ways are accepted in their culture. Many of the ladyboys participate in the sex industry to send money home to their families. In my favorite passage in the book, the straight but not narrow female narrator asks her ladyboy friends what their clients do when they find out. One replies:

When I do tell them, they get more excited, because they have never been with a ladyboy. Susan, all men are a little gay. Homo in some way. They just don’t admit it. When they travel to Thailand, no one knows them here, so they do things they would not do back home. Experiment.

When I picked up Love Together, Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication by Tim Clausen, I thought I would be reading about an experience vastly different than mine. But what I found was that as a lesbian in a long-term relationship (thirty years now and counting), I have a lot in common with these guys. The author interviews many couples by the length of time they have been together, starting with ten to twenty years and ending (in Section Six) with couples together sixty to seventy years. Overall, I enjoyed reading the commonalities between all the couples. Many talked about making each other laugh and gave commonsense advice such as being kind to your lover.

I loved reading the words of the men who had been together many decades — maybe because they had much wisdom to offer or because they made me feel young again (possibly both). In particular, I enjoyed reading the words of John McNeill described as “one of the true giants of the gay and lesbian community.” McNeill is a former priest and in 1976, penned the groundbreaking book The Church and the Homosexual. He’s been with his partner Charlie for almost fifty years. In the interview, he says:

Spiritually, I take very seriously that statement in the scripture that God is love. Any if anyone loves, they know God. I have always believed that this includes a gay love relationship, which is a genuine human love and therefore contains the Divine. It’s another way of knowing God. That certainly has been the fundamental belief system for me in my relationship with Charlie for the last forty-seven years.

The temperatures were dropping, but I was a little warmer when I came back from my cruise.

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