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Note:  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.

When I first heard about two new books for queer people coming out of heterosexual marriages, I thought good.  Someone needs to talk about how this is done ethically.

In other words, honesty is the best policy – and this means not leading a double life (for any reason).

I was not disappointed. In fact, both books evoked compassion on my part.  As a long-time lesbian-feminist with a long-term partner in a world that has seen many advances in LGBT rights, I’ve managed to stay in a bubble where it seems like homophobia rarely touches me. And when it does, I manage to get away.

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But these two books focus on the rest of the world where our rights are under attack – indeed where progress is met with a backlash. Sadly, this world does exist.

As Darshana Mahtani writes in Greetings from Janeland (edited by Candace Walsh and Barbara Straus Lodge and published by Cleis Press):

“As an Indian daughter in Barbados, I was told who I was before I could figure it out for myself. My whole life was a preamble to marriage. How to budget for groceries, remove greasy stains from marble tables, make chai, entertain and dress accordingly, pay compliments, satisfy my husband, impress the in-laws, and most importantly, listen without having an opinion –“

So how to get out of an arranged marriage – or, for that matter, any heterosexual marriage?

The answers lie in the pages of this book – which is organized into short stories focusing on the experiences of each woman.

Many of the writers are mothers, some were raised in strict religious traditions, others come from small towns and others come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. More than a few were terrified of losing their children and the support of their families.  But they did manage to leave heterosexual marriages that were not working for them.  In the process, they were able to create lives where they defined themselves.

Married Men Coming Out (CreateSpace) by David Christel is written out of the author’s experience of facilitating the Married Men’s Coming Out Group for six years.  It is a step-by-step guide for coming out with the goal – as he puts it in the subtitle – to become the man you were born to be.”

Christel starts off with the sage advice of paying attention to your emotions.  As he writes: “I know, you’re a guy, so checking in on your feelings isn’t what you do. Do it anyway! Not dealing with your feelings is a cultural myth about men that’s been promulgated for eons – men don’t feel, men DO! Yet, men do have feelings that are fundamental to their being.”

The author then goes on to makes suggestions for telling the female spouse:

“Her pain is going to be palpable. Whatever you do, don’t go stoic on her.  Let yourself be vulnerable with her.  After all, you did marry her and you may have had children with her. Your marriage is based on something and you need to have that come through.  This way, she won’t feel completely abandoned by you and let feelings of worthlessness overtake her.”

This book is written with humor interlaced through it, and is very comprehensive.  Christel includes coming out to children, other family members, old friends, co-workers and even touches on the gay community. He also mentions support groups for coming out and also groups for dealing with addiction.

Toward the end, he advises: “If you are in a situation where you will lose social standing, please do not choose to hide or lie about who you are. People will actually hold you in higher standing for being truthful, though they may still shut the door on you. That’s their prerogative and you need to be aware of that. In the years to come, some people may still treat you as a topic of disdain, but there may be one person who will say, ‘At least he was truthful with us.’”

To read about my just released novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders, click here.

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Note:  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.

One evening before a local class that I teach, I was telling an adult student that I review LGBT books.  I live in a very diverse area where it doesn’t seem to matter if you’re gay and I’ve been coming out to my students for so long that it feels like breathing.

This particular student was a little different than the others. She was around my age – so if she had done her homework or at least paid attention over the years – she would have known that they was a time not so long ago when coming out was not so easy.

She sniffed (in a way that let me know she didn’t have a cold) and responded, “Really – only LGBT books? –“  then without pausing, she added (rather disdainfully I thought), “I guess that’s your thing.”

pride parade black and whiteWhat I didn’t say to my student is that I find LGBT books to be more interesting. I want to know how people survive – and often thrive — outside the box in a culture that is based on conformity.  I didn’t say this, because my student might find to be a defensive statement.  Maybe it is.  Perhaps it is because I am a lesbian that I find diversity to be more interesting. I am the first to admit that I like to see myself reflected on the page.  But I am also captivated by the lives of imaginary characters who are different than me.

Recently, I opened the pages of a book that had come across my desk and was reminded of this. The book is titled Acquaintance, a novel (part of Medicine for the Blues trilogy) and is by Jeff Stookey (PictoGraph Publishing in Portland Oregon, 2017). The book is a historical novel set in the early 1920s and the protagonist is a doctor who happens to be gay and is complete with references to artistic giants and gay icons Eakins and Whitman.

It is a love story written in a time when gay love was clandestine. And as the author writes:

“Love stories get especially messy when the love is forbidden.  The story of Romeo and Juliet would have been a simple one is their families had not made their love dangerous.  But love will flourish, even when it is forbidden.”

In the novel, I learned about gay life way before the liberation of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. I also learned about the medical profession, fishing, Portland Oregon, music – especially jazz – and the origins of the Ku Klux Klan.  There’s an interesting subplot regarding the connection between racism and homophobia and another subplot addresses the realistically drawn lesbian couple in the narrator’s life – of whom he is jealous of before he settles down with his male partner. Acquaintance is a well-developed and interesting page-turner, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

So, as I answered my adult student, LGBT literature is “my thing.”  Not only does it contain our history, but it proves that yes, we do exist. And because of this, we make things more interesting.

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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.

 

Before being a lesbian was trendy, before marriage equality, before we were part of the LGBT movement, lesbians were simply women –  labeled “sick” and “deviant” – who somehow found a way to live in an extremely oppressive environment.

Of course, those were the old days – when almost everyone was oppressed.

Fast forward half a century, at least. Things have changed so much. I am guilty of being lesbian statue of libertyone of the lesbians who think that society has moved on. Well, it should have at least.

But hate crimes are up – including hate crimes against those of us in the LGBT community.

And as The Advocate reports in its most recent issue, “Hate crimes (against those in the Progress doesn’t always move in a straight line. I was reminded of this when I read Olympus Nights On the Square, LGBT Life in the Early Post-War Years (1945-1955) (2017, Sans Merci Press) by Vanda.  I read  and reviewed the first volume of this series last year (Juliana (vol 1: 1941 – 1944) which gave me the back story – and while the first book, too, is an interesting page turner about lesbian history, it is not necessary to read the first book in order to understand the most recent book.

In Olympus Nights On The Square we meet Al short for Alice, a lesbian – although she was in denial for a long time – from a small town who moved to New York City and now works in the entertainment industry.  Vanda is also a playwright and dialogue drives her novels – making for interesting and engaging writing.  In the 1950s – during the time of the McCarthy witch hunts where homosexuality was often synonymous with communist – her characters reflect on the fact that things are harder for them than during the 1940s when they first met.

The novel gives us a panoramic view of the times seen through the eyes of her characters.

I found it all very fascinating.

I did at one point, however, find the oppressive tenor of the times tedious.  It was the sexism that got to me.  Women could not even be served in bars without a male escort.

Gay men and lesbians lived in fear of being found out as what society labeled a sick person, sexual deviant, or a pervert.  But the novel chronicles the changes in society too – as when Alice first sees the word “homosexual” in print (even a negative reference is an admission that such people do exist).

As the author writes in the introduction, “Knowing this history is important for both gay and straight.  It’s already starting to repeat itself.”

History is starting to repeat itself.  But things have changed. For one thing, we have stepped out of the shadows and we have allies.

In her CD, Dreamland (offered by Woodstock Arts), Jennifer Maidmen, writes of “The Conspiracy of Dreamers” where you can be anything you like there.” She sings of an invisible “revolution that is dangerous and free.”

Jennifer is transgender and identifies as “two-spirit” person. She recorded this album with her long-time partner Annie Whitehead on horns and she has toured with other musicians such as Joan Armatrading and Boy George.

Her music is haunting and liberating and tells us that not only have things changed – but that we are part of the change.

There used to be a saying in the lesbian community that we are everywhere.  Now things are different and most of us acknowledge that we are more alike than different.  Perhaps the new saying could be that, we are everyone.

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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.

 

I was having a spirited, if heated, debate with an older colleague of mine on the bus in New York City.  She was insisting that by looking at life through a queer lens, that I was limiting myself.  My voice got louder as I explained that when I listened to her advice, I felt erased.

Another woman on the bus – who apparently had been listening intently  — interrupted us to tell us that we were almost at our stop.

I said to myself that I understand that not everyone gets everything.  So I decided that nothing gay was going to pass my lips for the next several hours.  We went to our meeting in Harlem and then on the way back, as the bus detoured around the Puerto Rican Day Parade, my colleague got into a conversation with a woman sitting in the seat in front of us. The conversation led from the detour to the list of parades that the woman – a lifelong New Yorker – talked about.  She was blasé and ended by mentioning the [quote] gay parade.  I simply smiled.  But my colleague muttered, “isn’t anyone normal anymore?”

The woman she was talking to – who was probably in her sixties somewhere between our two ages – looked at her calmly and said, “Anyone can start a parade. All you need is a permit. You can start your own parade.”

At this point, I still remained silent. But my suppressed laughter nearly propelled me into the aisle. Fortunately our stop was soon.  As I disembarked, I remarked to myself that the world really has changed. Ten years ago, I would have had to contend with both of them being homophobic.

My colleague and I have since gone our separate ways. But the fact is that she initially had a point – even if my ire got the best of me.  All of us – who identify as LGBTQ – lead multi-layered lives.  I was reminded of this when I read John Garabedian’s book, aptly titled, The Harmony of Parts. Written with Ian Aldrich, the book was published in 2016 by Orange Frazer Press.

 

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I learned a few things from reading the book.  One was about the radio industry. John was a top forty radio jock en route to his dream of owning his own station – a goal which he reached and after that took a foray into television.  I thought about his statement that baby boomers wanted music that was not only good but a reflection of their social values.  This statement is true.

John is Armenian-American, the son of an Armenian immigrant mother who taught him to pursue his dreams. John is also bisexual.  And both of these identities made him feel different growing up. Also, he writes about growing up in an earlier era when masculinity was different:

“Back then, fathers weren’t expected to be affectionate.  There was a certain ‘manhood’ they had to live up to.  Get a good job, provide for your family, keep to yourself.  Men didn’t hug or show affection back then, it was regarded as queer. Not a lot of ‘I love you.” Oh sure, I thought he loved me. I know he was proud of me, but he never felt comfortable saying those things. It just wasn’t in him to be affectionate.  He didn’t feel it was manly.”

The book illustrates that radio is an extremely volatile industry. Many of John’s positions ended abruptly.  At least in one instance John was fired from a radio show because people – specifically advertisers – found out that he was in a same-sex relationship.

John started his radio career in the late 1950s and early 1960s, around the same time he fell in love with another man.  He writes, “Clearly I was in love, but uptight and timid about letting the world know about it. In 1961, homosexuals were generally regarded as perverts, rapists, and child molesters.  Any sexual act outside of heterosexual intercourse in the missionary position was illegal in Massachusetts as a ‘crime against nature’ and punishable with serious jail time. I still did care what the world saw and what it thought of me. But I worried about what Joe thought, too, I didn’t want him thinking that I was a wimp.”

This is a book about many things – about pursuing your dreams and how family can be a strong part of the drive that is necessary as well as offering love and support. It is also a book about the radio industry and musicians he interviewed and how their music can change the world. I’m a big fan of the gay-icon Lady Gaga and, in full disclosure, was pulled in by her back cover blurb that, “If it weren’t for John Garabedian, no one in America would know who I am.”

It is also a book about honesty and passion and how that, too, fuels us.  But most of all it is a book about a multi-layered life.

The Harmony of Parts contains some important life lessons – especially when it seems that there will always be individuals who look down on others – whether it be through the lens of homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, racial and ethnic discrimination – just to name a few biases.  The book ends with John’s refrain that he signed off with for more than forty-five years:  “Learn from yesterday, live for today, dream for tomorrow, but most important, be your dream.”

 

 

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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.

Just when I was starting to think that well, maybe religion gets a bad rap, I was jolted back into reality by reading three recent books on the theme of religion written by queer writers.

The moniker “queer” embraces LGBT (what a friend calls the alphabet people) — which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender.” One thing we all have in common is that we are different — from each other and from the rest of society. This fits with the original definition of the word “queer” which meant strange or odd — “unusually different.”

An article in the Baptist News Global cites Pew Research Center’s findings that 62 percent now say “homosexuality should be accepted by society … 12 points higher than when the same question was asked in 2007, when acceptance of homosexuality stood at 50 percent.”

That religion is changing — and so rapidly — is a good thing.rainbow leaf

But imagine for a moment that you are a parent and the church you are in — and probably were raised in — tends to still be in the non-accepting 38 percent. Then imagine that your teenage child comes out as gay or lesbian. Or that your young child insists that he or she is the opposite gender.

Suddenly, your world is upside down. And the people in your congregation — the ones you would ordinarily trust in a crisis — have a good chance of being non accepting. You have the choice of leaving, of course. Or you could stay and help the people around you become more open minded — but this might possible hurt your child.

This may be part of the reason that young people — who tend to be more open minded about sexuality — are leaving religion in droves. According to The Christian Post, “a third of young adults in America say that they don’t belong to any religion.”

The reason that I thought that religion might be getting a bad rap is that I’ve been having a good experience as a Unitarian Universalist (and as one of the lay ministers) for the past four years.

But my secular upbringing undoubtedly made me more open to exploring religion and I found a “Welcoming Congregation” which means acceptance of all its members, including those in the queer community. In the case of the congregation that I joined, most of the congregants are straight and they are genuinely non-homophobic. But the fact is that we’re all different (and this is a good thing) so I would say that everyone is a little bit queer. And since, people are leaving religion in droves, perhaps religion itself is in danger of becoming queer in the original sense of the word.

Yet, we’re all spiritual people and religion does have something to offer. It can use its power to heal rather than to hurt.

The first book I read was To Drink from the Silver Cup: From Faith Through Exile and Beyond (Terra Nova Books) by Anna Redsand. As an adult, Redsand explored many of the same alternative spiritual traditions that have fueled me such as yoga and the Gnostic Gospels. But since she was raised fundamentalist (and encountered discrimination early on) she eventually found a Christian congregation that embraced her whole self. Redsand, who was raised by missionary parents in the Navajo Nation, is particularly insightful in her analysis of oppression.

Redsand writes movingly about the alternative reality that many, especially those from religious backgrounds, experience:

“Twenty-one when Stonewall happened [in 1969], I was then grieving the end of a guilt-ridden, clandestine affair with one of the nurses at the mission hospital.”

In Straight Face (Green Bridge Press) author Brandon Wallace writes eloquently about the reality of living a dual existence as a gay person who had entered the ministry of a fundamentalist religion that denounced gays. He shows us how this is extremely unhealthy. But he also explores how he felt called to come out of the closet, become his authentic self, and help others. This came after he read about a gay teen who had died by suicide:

“While I was reading, all of my past came screaming back at me. I thought about my own suicide attempts, and all the nights I Iay in bed and thought about doing the same thing.”

A Faithful Son is a novel by Michael Scott Garvin that explores the life of a young man growing up gay and fundamentalist in a small town in the South. “Boys like me grow up crooked…” he writes, and tells us the story of how and why the narrator had to leave the small town and move to Los Angeles. The narrator is devoted to his mother and writes movingly about her final days. Ultimately, he writes not about finding faith in the end — but about the narrator finding himself — and maybe in some ways that is the same thing

These three books are a testament to difference. These three author may all have come from fundamentalist backgrounds, but their stories are all different.

What they all have in common was that all three authors were raised in a strong faith that gave them something, but to preserve themselves, they had to leave.

This piece was previously published in The Huffington Post

 

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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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The following is a recent review that I wrote for the Alexander Artway Archive, a very interesting photo collection that I have been working with. Alexander Artway was an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s. You can view the photos by clicking here.

We have decided to review photography books for the Alexander Artway blog — and this first book by David Freese documents that climate change is real.

Working with the Alexander Artway Archive inspired me to write the novel Looking At Pictures. You can click here to read excerpts (or watch me on YouTube).

The blog post/review is reprinted below:

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Last year or so when taking photography classes at Temple University (so that we could apply the learning to our photo archive ) we had the good fortune of taking David Freese’s course on World Photography.

When we heard that David was introducing his new book at the Print Center in Philadelphia (formerly the Print Club), we were delighted and went to the lecture and to buy David’s book, East Coast: Arctic to Tropic, Photographs by David Freese with text by Simon Winchester and Jenna Butler.

After Hurricane Sandy — when Freese saw the devastation first hand — he was, as he writes in the book on a mission to “show the connection between a warming climate and these fragile and vulnerable low-lying areas.” The result was this coffee-table sized photography book with stunning black and white images.  The images (most of them aerial) are so visually appealing that many to us were reminiscent of trips we had taken or evocative of places we had read about.

That these images are important is underscored by the fact that this coast line with be vastly different in a generation or two. In other words, people living in the future will not see what we see if global warming is to continue its cataclysmic course.

 Freese  — who writes that he “did a lot of research on the topic” of climate change – shows us the pristine beauty of ice and cloud in Greenland at the start of his journey.

As he writes, “water, water is everywhere” and we see that this is true – not only of glacially pure remote areas but major cities as he descends down the Eastern Seaboard in his book coming to the conclusion that “the albatross of global warming and a rising sea is around our collective necks.”

Among other places, the images take us to Quebec, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia where the heavens seem to shine down in sun rays from above. Freese also shows us remote views such as “Bubble Rock and Eagle Lake,” Acadia National Park, Maine.  The image, dominated by a boulder atop a mountaintop under a sky that is palpable startles with its bold simplicity.

 The book ends in Florida with images that are as equally beautiful and stunning.  The photography is done with such skill in the tradition of landscape photographers (think Edward Weston and Ansel Adams) that at times it’s easy to forget that everything might be underwater soon.

East Coast: Arctic to Tropic is published by George F. Thompson Publishing – www.gftbooks.com

 

 

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