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I turned on the television news at exactly the wrong moment and saw Kim Davis standing on stage between (Republican presidential hopeful) Mike Huckabee and her lawyer. Kim, the homophobic clerk in Kentucky who was jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, defying the supreme court and using her alleged religious beliefs as an excuse. When I saw her on television, she had just been released from jail and was basking in the moment.

In full disclosure, the sight of her almost made steam come out of my ears. I asked myself why I was so furious. I am a lesbian in my mid-fifties. I’ve been out since my early twenties. I’m no stranger to bigotry. The fact that the LGBT community incited someone like Davis to break the law and go to jail is progress. After all, she was protesting our Supreme Court victory.

I decided that I was furious because I grew up in “Pennsyltucky.” In fact, I still live in the state of Pennsylvania, though in my early twenties I “escaped” from a working class suburban neighborhood to a part of Philadelphia that is known to be LGBT friendly (but is not always).

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church (joining a church was a surprise even to me). My secular background is something that I wrote about in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters

This morning in church, a fifty or sixty something African American man stood up and told us that he had an argument with someone about Kim Davis: “To me, the business in Kentucky reminded me of Civil Rights.”

Now, I’ve long recognized that being white and LGBT is vastly different from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. For one thing, a white LGBT person can choose not to be out (even if that choice is often unhealthy). But the gentleman in my church had a point. And If it’s not the same thing as historic bigotry against African Americans, there are some pretty strong parallels. By the time I came home from church, I realized that some positive things actually came out of the Kim Davis debacle.

For one thing, I experienced seeing someone who may be changing his mind about LGBT rights. That is why I’m part of a diverse faith community (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Unitarian’s call it a “Beloved Community“). I get to witness people’s shifting viewpoints and, in turn, am influenced by others. Then I went online and did a quick search on Kim Davis. I found a postcard of Lea DeLaria on The Huffington Post United Kingdom.

The postcard shows Lea DeLaria (the real life lesbian actress from the prison themed Netflix series Orange Is The New Black) with text superimposed that reads: “Welcome to jail, Kim Davis. I get to be your fifth husband.”

That postcard (and the others on the same page) is definitely a positive thing that came out of the situation — positively hilarious.

The “business in Kentucky” definitely underscored the importance of the book I just read, Crooked Letter i: Coming Out In the South. The book is a collection of essays, with a Foreword by Dorothy Allison, edited by Connie Griffin.

Dorothy Allison (the Southern born lesbian feminist author of the novel, Bastard Out of Carolina) writes:

“…My mother’s hopes and dreams for me were as heavy as my stepfather’s contempt and lust. I was the one who escaped but who really escapes? …. In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives?”

The stories are filled with religion — Southern Baptist, Fundamentalist Christian, you name it. It’s not surprising or shouldn’t be — but it is. At first I was appalled at the damage done to people in the name of religion.

Logan Knight, who transitioned from female to male, writes as he returns to his home town years after he left:

“This is what I know, only because I have seen it before. There will be no yelling, no crying; no sermons. If my grandmother cannot reconcile who I am against her religion, if the musculature of my shoulders is an affront to her beliefs, she will simply forget me. She will not speak to me; she will not acknowledge my presence in her house ever again. The sun burns into my arms, and I tense with nervousness.”

While the stories by LGBT people who had to break ties with their families are poignant and heartbreaking. In the ending of Knight’s essay and in the content of other essays in this collection, I began to see another narrative. There is not only acceptance of family and friends but warmth and real love.

People — including Southerners and religious people — are a collection in individuals. They have their own beliefs.

Previously in The Huffington Post and OpEdNews.com

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Note:  This review ran this week on the international LGBT radio syndicate This Way Out. Originally, it was published on The Huffington Post.

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.

To hear this review on This Way Out, 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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In celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir (the feminist choir in Philadelphia and one of the nation’s longest standing feminist choruses) — I found pieces of myself. They weren’t forgotten — but rather strengthened by being in the company of women who have known me for decades.

That’s what community is all about.

The concert was billed as reclaiming the f-word — and joking to my partner I wondered which f-word they were talking about.  Both came up — and on the screen at the concert!  I realized that for me, the two major f-words are somewhere synonymous. My first chapbook of poetry was called “A Fucking Brief History of Fucking” from Insight To Riot Press (my favorite line was and still is ‘the dickless dyke fuck’).  I was delighted to be in the company of women who remembered me from my poem Boobs Away! — which I performed with the choir twice around 2005 at the Friends School in Center City Philadelphia and at the large Episcopalian Church in West Philadelphia. Boobs Away! is written on a broadside based on a breast portrait by the artist Clarity Haynes.  Clarity went to women’s music festivals where she painted breast portraits of women.  The portraits were and are a powerful statement — undoubtedly, my inspiration for the Boobs Away! — which includes the lines

…. The boobs refuse to be replaced by imposters /  one boob, two boobs, double mastectomies, phantom boobs, third nipple boobs// Boobs All! //BIG BAD BOOBS// ….

I guess you could say it was kind of a rant.  I don’t have a link a video of me reading the poem — but I hear that such a video does exist — but recently I put the image of the broadside, along with my published books on my You Tube banner of my channel that show cases my new work (Janet Mason, novelist).  You can click here to see the image.

We went to the Saturday evening Anna Crusis Concert.  Here are some photos from the powerful event and from the F-word celebratory weekend. Enjoy!

Anna Crusis F-words on screen behind choirAnna Crusis choir sings Hildegard Von Bingham, mosaic on screen behind choir Jane Hulting, past conductor, in center

Anna Crusis current member in silhouette

Anna Crusis with tree on screen behind them

Anna Crusis after party at October Gallery

Anna Crusis choir -- quote on screen behind themgroup at party --with Janet Mason

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For my fifty-sixth birthday, my partner took me to Relish, a celebrated jazz club in Philly, to see The Sherry Butler Quartet.  The evening was enchanting. We had dinner (Southern style, delicious, very large portions) and then saw the show.  Sherry Butler is a Philly institution — extremely powerful — and her quartet was pretty awesome too.  My favorite song of the evening was Four Women originally done by Nina Simone.  Nina lived in Center City Philadelphia and we saw her on Penn’s campus decades ago when we were freelancing for the concert producer. Philadelphia has quite a jazz history!

Sherry is a customer Barbara first met at the Mt. Airy Post Office and she also performed at the Unitarian Universalist church in Philly on Stenton Avenue last year.

Relish is an experience not to be missed — we’re planning to go back soon.  Here are some photos from the evening.

Sherry Butler singing at Relish

Sherry Butler Quartet at Relish

vocalist and keyboardist of Sherry Butler Quartet

Sherry Butler Quartet at Relish

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Author Janet Mason with ocean behind herRecently, I went to the Richard Stockton College near Atlantic City to be part of the  Women’s History Month reading series.  South Jersey is a favorite place of mine — in particular Brigantine Beach.  My late aunt (my mother’s sister) lived nearby in Absecon.  I went down early to take a long walk on the beach. One of my last memories of being with Aunt Ethelind before she became terminally ill was driving her and my elderly father down to this beach at night when there was a full moon.  It was very cold that night so my aunt ran up the ramp, looked at the full moon, ran back to my car and said, “It was beautiful. Thank you.”

The day of the reading was the day of the March snowstorm.  It was windy and cold and when it started to snow, the air smelled like rain.  The ocean was beautiful.

The Seventh Annual Women’s History Month Prose & Poetry Reading was hosted by poet Emari Digiorgio who brought together a chorus of

Emari DiGiorgio at Stockton Collegediverse voices including poets and prose writers from all stages of their writing lives, including students and established writers.

In particular, I was happy to see my long-time literary colleagues Anndee Hochman (who opened with a poem by Lucille Clifton) and Crystal Bacon.  Crystal was nice enough to send me some of the poems that she read. One of those poems (Anniversary)  is below and more will be featured next month on my webzine amusejanetmason.com.

At the reading, I read from Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012).  A short excerpt is below:

Anndee Hochman reads at Stockton College

 

Sitting in the living room with my mother, I stared into her face and saw my grandmother, not as I knew her, but as a girl whose life lay before her. My grandmother, Ethel, a girl who dreamed.

 

Anniversary

For Thomas

by Crystal Bacon

The Schuylkill purls and glitters

its way East between thawing banks

of snow crawling back from gold

grass, white as the scumbled fur

of the cat hit crossing River Drive,Poet Crystal Bacon at Stockton College

its few days journey from form

to shape. Still, it carries a memory

of repose that somehow brings you

to mind. Image, imagined,

your nameless body found,

in the seaside town where you left,

last year, your lived life.

Trees reach bare knuckled toward heaven

holding emptiness, that luminous blue

defined by black lines, branches,

wires silently humming with voices,Stockton student reads at Women's History Month reading

both letter and speech, like prayer. A train

clatters across the river, I mean above

it inexplicably. Tons of metal: cars,

cargo, rails resting on those piled rocks

that span what flows, one heavy leg

planted on either side, bridge of agency.

Last March, I scattered a small bag of ash

into the cold and flowing Arno, like all

its kind relentless toward the sea. It took

you South beneath the seven bridges

past old men fishing at dusk.

Along this city’s scenic river, out pastJanet Mason reads at Stockton College

the steel and glass, reflection glides

on its lighted surface, sunset glowing

and generic against the smudged

domestic trees. I think of you,

gone now, like February’s late,

last days.

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