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“They” is a groundbreaker and I am sure that the author will agree with me that attempting to add new meaning to given bible stories is tantamount to heresy. I have no doubt that she will suffer repercussions from those who do not agree with her approach. Personally I found her story to not only be wonderfully written but charming and liberating to us who have lived in a binary world for too long.     — Amos Lassen, on THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books)

Beyond the Boundaries of Gender

Amos Lassen

I have always found it interesting how coincidences come together. For the last month I have been in a study group about the Hebrew Bible or what is commonly known as the Old Testament. We have been studying the women of the Bible and trying to raise their position in the written text so I suppose we could call this redefining gender in the holy books. It also happens that in a very week weeks the state of Massachusetts will have a referendum on gender rights and it seems that all of sudden gender has become important in our lives whereas ten years ago we would not have heard a peep about it. The third coincidence is that I received a copy of Janet Mason’s new book. “They” in which the Hebrew bible is the background for the story of Tamar that goes beyond the boundaries of gender. I believe it takes a strong person to tackle gender in literature these days and the impression that I got from reading Mason’s last book is that she is a person who can do so… and she did so, quite beautifully.

“They” is a groundbreaker and I am sure that the author will agree with me that attempting to add new meaning to given bible stories is tantamount to heresy. I have no doubt that she will suffer repercussions from those who do not agree with her approach. Personally I found her story to not only be wonderfully written but charming and liberating to us who have lived in a binary world for too long.

To read the review in its entirety, click here.

 

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Note: This piece is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show.  Click here to listen to the entire show.

As a lesbian writer, I am continually confronted with the fact that we are many things – at the heart LGBTQ but perhaps not in everything we do.  I’ve come to the conclusion that LGBTQ status shouldn’t matter even when it does.

Recently, I was reminded of this dilemma in the reading of two books from Other Press about men who happen to be gay in the Middle East. Both books are well-written and delightfully complex. Both also represent stories within a story. coexist rainbow flag two

In The Parting Gift (Other Press 2018), a novel by Evan Fallenberg, we meet an unnamed narrator who tells us the story by writing a letter to his former lover Adam who he knew in a university in the states when the narrator left abruptly for Israel where he fell in love with a for a time lived with an alpha male who was previously heterosexual – and who in fact, as the narrator tells us, may not have an orientation other than being macho and selfish.

The story line, like the sexuality of the two male beloveds, is fluid. “This story, like most stories, could begin in a number of different places,” writes Fallenberg.  His narrator explains that he chose to go to go to Israel “because if you’re a Jew you can get off the plane in Tel Aviv, tell them you want to be a citizen, and you get processed right there at the airport.  Full rights and benefits – housing, education, medical.”

Once in Israel he meets and falls in love and lust with a spice-dealer who is close to his ex-wife and his children. The gay narrator becomes totally ensnared in the relationship and once things quickly begin to go bad, he is forced to examine entitlement – first that of his lover but then also the entitlement that he himself grew up with even as he acknowledges that he is now on the receiving end of entitlement.  It is being used against him. The narrator explains to Adam (and to the reader) that he didn’t leave abruptly because, “I had no friends, no real prospects. I was suddenly a 1950s housewife, trapped and helpless.”

The Diamond Setter, a novel by Moshe Saka (Other Press 2017) which was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen is a sprawling novel that traces the role of a blue diamond — a cursed but inanimate object with a storied past — in connecting people and communities.

A main character — Fareed a young Arab man from Syria who crosses the border and sneaks into Israel with the destination of Yafa – is gay. Fareed (who is carrying the diamond) finds himself in a community that evokes his past.

In addition to being culturally significant, or perhaps as a result, the novel has love at its core. It begins with a few paragraphs that contain the passage that this a story “from back in the days when the Middle East was steeped not only in blood but also in love.”

When Fareed is amazed at the acceptance of gays in Israel, one of his new friends in Yafa warns that,

“Most gay Palestinians in Israel are closeted. It’s a very conservative society. Even our leaders, the ones in the Knesset, say things like, ‘Arab society is not yet mature enough to contend with this issue.’ What is it mature enough for it to deal with then? … What’s for sure is that the Shami Bar, here in Yafa, is an oasis.  It doesn’t represent anything going on in this country, certainly not the discrimination and racism against Arabs.”

Perhaps the novel can be summed up by what Sakal writes in the Afterword:  “Anyone who lived in Palestine before the State of Israel was established in 1948 had tales of brave relationships that survived even the bloodiest of times, love affairs and friendships between Jews and Arabs … “

As complex as The Diamond Setter is, it can leave the reader with the feeling that with love, anything is possible.

 

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (just published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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Note: This piece is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show.  Click here to listen to the entire show.

(TWO is the first international LGBTQ radio news magazine.)

 

Despite the fact that I am (still) filled with lesbian rage, I am a nonviolent person – if not by nature, then by principle.

But, at the same time, I have to admit that a woman hero avenging injustice gives me arainbow ww logo little thrill.  Lately, I’ve developed an intellectual reasoning to this:  we need more feminist heroines.  We need to keep believing that a woman protecting other women is possible and we need to keep thinking that it’s important.

Reading Chaser (a Jinx Ballou novel) published in 2018 by Pariah Press furthered my thinking on this.  The book was written by Dharma Kelleher who is heralded as one of the top authors in transgender crime fiction.

I don’t ordinarily read mysteries.  But when I do I am impressed with the suspense and tension inherent in the form, and I always learn something new.  As a non-mystery reader, I found that the book was a delightful and suspenseful page turner with heart.

The narrator, Jinx Ballou, is a bounty hunter hired to bring a teenage disabled girl — charged with her mother’s murder — back to face her charges in court. The girl has skipped bail which is why Jinx was hired to find her.

Jinx takes on this case after she is outed by a local newspaper as transgender and is fired by her former agency.

Jinx is astounded to discover that simply by knowing she is transgender can make it now obvious that her employer is small minded.  As the author writes:

“I sighed, even as my heart revved in my chest like a race car engine.  ‘I’ve always been a girl, Sara Jean.  It’s just that through some crazy mix-up of biochemistry or genetics, I was born with a boy’s body.  It’s hard to explain.’

“She fixed her gaze on me once again. ‘Ain’t nothing to explain. Boys is boys, and girls is girls. God made you what you are.  Ain’t no changing it.’

‘I wish it were that simple, Sara Jean, but it’s not. I’, — ‘

‘Perverts like you’s what’s wrong with this world.  Making it dangerous for God-fearing folks to use public restrooms.’

‘A pervert?  Seriously, Sara Jean, is that what you think I am?’  I rolled my eyes.  ‘Want to know what trans people do in public restrooms? We pee. We poop.  And we wash our hands which is more than I can say for some people.”

 

And so the author proves her point.  Discrimination that can be proven with the prohibition of use of public restrooms, is absolutely ridiculous.

Jinx goes on to find new work, gets her girl who she develops great empathy toward. While doing so, she confronts a mobster running a human trafficking operation.  I observed that in many ways this novel contained many mysteries including who outed Jinx to the reporter, and why should the fact that she is transgender matter anyway?

And so I learned a lot from Chaser, but perhaps most of all, I learned that yes, given the right circumstances, I can count myself as a fan of crime fiction.

 

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (just published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

Amazon THEY

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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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