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Posts Tagged ‘Gay And Lesbian Equality’

This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a reading from Maya Angelou’s poem “The Human Family” and a talk on “Difference” — the theme of this week’s service.

To see the reading and the reflection on YouTube, click here. (You can also view the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” — Dalai Lama 2 dala lamai petting cat compassion png

 

I am different, of course. We all are.  In my view that’s what makes life interesting. I would say I gravitate to difference.

I’m a lesbian-feminist who came of age in the early 1980s and I had the good fortune to hear and meet many of the icons and writers of that era — including Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.

It was at the celebration of Audre Lorde’s life — the “I Am Your Sister” conference held in Boston in 1990 two years before she died of cancer at the age of 58 — when I went to one of the conference’s “Eye-to-Eye” sessions. There, I really began to understand difference.

The idea behind the “Eye-to-Eye” sessions is that you break into a smallish group of people from a similar background and have  a heart to heart discussion.  It was based on Audre Lorde’s philosophy that she writes about in Sister Outsider, a collection of her essays, that we cannot love each other until we love ourselves.

This is the same theory that RuPaul, the internationally known drag queen icon, says every week on his televised program Drag Race — if you don’t love yourself, how the [heck] are you gonna love anyone else?”

(RuPaul is one of my sources of spiritual inspiration.)audre-lorde-1062457_H130420_L

At the conference, I chose the white working class women Eye-to-Eye session. The other Eye-to-Eye group that I could have chosen was white lesbians — but lesbians tended to be everywhere in my world back then and it seemed more important for me to focus on class.

I still remember being in that room with the tall windows and high ceilings — sitting on the floor in a circle of women. It was like being back in my high school bathroom.  But this time we were honestly discussing our lives instead of masking our pain with drugs and alcohol.

As I recall, the discussion that we had in that room was liberating.

To make a long story short, I have absolutely no connection with anyone from my background — except that my partner and I are lucky enough to still have my 97 year old father.

But in this election year, I was reminded of my background, every time I turned on the television news.

I found the racism at the rallies — and I think you know which rallies — to be painful. I also find it painful — and appalling — that someone — some unnamed someone in power — is fanning the flames of fear and hatred.  But I also do not think  that all of the people in the white working class will be taken in to vote against their own interests.  I also strongly suspect that the media is just showing us a slice of white blue collar voters who are racist — etc. — and that most people have neighbors and co-workers of all races including African Americans, Muslim-Americans, and Mexican Americans.  And even if they don’t, white working class voters can think for themselves and realize that racism and xenophobia are wrong.

This election is getting under my skin. The stakes are high, and it feels personal.  When people tell me they are not planning to vote — educated people, who might feel more privileged than they are under the circumstances — it kind of makes me crazy.  Of course, this is not a good feeling.

I meditate almost every morning — and it came to me during my meditation that I need to be more compassionate.

I was watching the Discovering Buddhism series number 11 on You Tube, when Richard Gere talked about a practice that was so helpful to me that I thought I’d share it with you. Years ago, Gere started wishing every being — insect, animal, or human — that he encountered with the greeting: “I wish you happiness.”

“I wish you happiness.”

Gere talks about the fact that there are times that this is difficult, and that these are the times when this thought turns a destructive emotion into love.

I have just started this practice and don’t know where it will take me. I suspect, though, that it will make me even more aware of the fact that as Maya Angelou writes in “The Human Family” that we are more alike, than unalike.

“We are more alike, than unalike.”

 

 

Namaste

Oh, and remember to vote.

“I wish you happiness.”

 

 

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originally in The Huffington Post

When I woke up and heard the news that 50 people in a nightclub were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, Florida my heart sunk. Then I heard that the club was gay and that the murderer was of Arab-American descent and publicly declared his allegiance to ISIS and my heart kind of caved in.

What can be said about such senseless violence? This is the kind of hatred that usually engenders further hatred.

One of the first things I heard on the news was the father being quoted about his son’s intense homophobia and the fact that the killing spree “had nothing to do with religion.”

Being the kind of person I am — I immediately thought it had everything to do with religion.

“People in churches and mosques need to think about what they are teaching,” I said to my partner over breakfast. “It’s not that different,” I said, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems have the same common ancestor Abraham who is in the Hebrew Bible.”

I read the Bible last year or so as research for a novel — and learned a few things about religion. I learned that modern culture is rife with biblical references. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Bible is not that anti-gay. I did find it to be extremely misogynist and violent, but I thought the anti gay parts were really taken out of context and greatly amplified. If you listen to Sarah Palin, for example, (who probably never read the actual Bible) you’d think the entire thing was an anti-gay tract.

My partner and I have been together for 31 years and you would think that there are no surprises, but I could tell she was impressed with my recently-acquired religious knowledge.

She is a deep thinker. “Of course it has to do with religion,” she replied. “Where do people learn about hate?”

Then I saw the photograph of the murderer (who was killed by authorities). To my mind, he looked gay. When I learned that he was married and had fathered a child or children, it still didn’t change my mind. There is a good chance that a man with that kind of rage inside him who specifically targeted a gay club and professed his repulsion at gay men holding hands and kissing on the street, was acting out in suppression of his deepest desires.

In full disclosure, I think far more people are gay who say they are gay. I have known more than a few gay men who specialize in straight married men. It works for these guys who don’t want to end up in a relationship. In fairness, I have known more gay men who are healthy enough to avoid men who identify as heterosexual. And through the years, I have rarely met lesbians who are interested in women who are married to men.

I’m not saying that all closeted gay people — or those who are bisexual and secretive — are gay bashers. But it is true that plenty of homophobic hate crimes, including murder, have been committed by men who can’t handle their own same-sex tendencies as was documented in American Honor Killings (2013, Akashic Books).

Granted there are also other issues at play here including gun control and the availability of automatic weapons colliding with mental health issues.

In the interest of not responding to hatred with hatred, I immediately thought of the fact that we are a human family. We have more in common than not and often there is considerable overlap between identities. I spent the day reading Guapa, a novel by Saleem Haddad (Other Press; New York; 2016).

In the novel, a man just under thirty living in an un-named middle eastern country, falls in love with another man and is walked in by his conservative grandmother with whom he lives.

The narrator is not from a religious family but he is grappling with homophobia in a deeply religious culture that includes check points, revolution, and a deep connection to family.

When the narrator reflects back on his adolescence, he gives voice to the same sentiments, unfortunately, that most young people feel regardless of their country of origin:

“I was different from everyone else.
I was doomed to be alone.
I was going to spend eternity rotting in hell.”

The narrator attends college in America — where he also grapples with homophobia and what he describes as his “Arabness” and all that that entails.

When he comes back to the Middle East and moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, he finally falls in love only to face more struggles. The narrator writes of his lover:

“He was right when he told me once that he had one foot in and one foot out. It was a balancing act, and he navigated it so effortlessly. But I was his one foot out, wasn’t I? In fact, he made sure I never met his mother. He introduced me to his father once, a few years ago at the wedding of his distant cousins. I remember being surprised at how tall his father was, but like Taymour he was very handsome.”

Judging from my reaction to the Orlando massacre, if I ever had any doubt, the LGBTQ community is home to me. I agree with President Obama when he said that gay clubs are meant to be safe spaces. I remember the days when gay clubs were not out in the open and when people of the same sex did not dare to hold hands in public.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been in a gay club in a good ten or fifteen years. It doesn’t matter if those murdered were all young people who I most likely would have never met. I grieve for them and their families.

The massacre is an American tragedy. It is a nightmare for the LGBTQ community. And it is a problem for people of faith. I was raised secular, but in recent years became a Unitarian Universalist — a faith that really does embrace all people, including those of us who are LGBTQ.

Being part of a religion occasionally puts me in contact with people from other religions who are not so welcoming. I usually don’t mind when I am the LGBTQ spokesperson — and I do understand that being myself and being out can change hearts and minds.

Religion is still evolving. I am sometimes astounded that traditional religions are changing at all — such as the time I drove by a church in my neighborhood and did a double take at a “Happy Pride” sign outside. But other times, I am appalled that many religions are not changing fast enough and the young people raised in them feel compelled to leave.

As we can see from the Orlando massacre, religion is not, in fact, changing fast enough for young people and their families who are found in all religions and denominations.

Where does hatred come from?

 

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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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Last summer, it was my pleasure to see the Woodstock Historical Society show “Living Large,” based on a book by the same name written by Joseph P. Eckhardt  (WoodstockArts 2015). The book chronicles the life of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, a lesbian couple, who moved to Woodstock NY in the 1920s and stayed.  The two women were both artists (Wilna was also a comedic actress in the silent films of the 1920s), and the show includes many paintings, drawings, and photographs that they took.  I’m writing a review of the book for The Huffington Post. Click here to read the review.  Meanwhile, here’s some photos of the show:

Historical Society of Woodstock Living Large exhibitionWoodstock Historical SocietyWoodstock Hist. Society -- portrait of Nan Mason & Wilna HerveyWoodstock Historical Society Gaylite CandlesWoodstock Historical Society Living LargeWoodstock Historical SocietyWoodstock Historical Soc. blue bowl fishWoodstock Historical Society Janet Mason woodstock-historic-soc-frame-mirror-Janet-Mason

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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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Marriage Equality

(Below are photos of the recent wedding of Sharon Katz and Maralyn Cohen — it was quite the party!)

(I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here  to see the video.

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.)

This excerpt is from a novel that I wrote recently titled Art: a revolution of love and marriage.  The novel is based on the working class landscape in which I grew up and takes place in the seventies.  The main character is named Art and is based on a real person (who is not me). So here is a short excerpt from her story. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality is a good hint at the happy ending.

 Art, a revolution of love and marriage

Art strode from the counter, past the grill and the fryers and into the backroom.  She tore her yellow headscarf off triumphantly as she clocked out.  Then she put on her sweater and her padded royal blue jacket. She slammed the metal back door behind her.

The sun was setting. It was about ten after five.  Her brother was scheduled to pick her up at five thirty. Art stood behind the building. She put up her hood and looked up. The sky was streaked with violet.  Long white wisps of clouds unfurled like banners. A single bright star came out from behind a cloud.  She watched it for a moment.  It stayed in one place so she knew it was a star, not an airplane.  It was bright enough to be a planet: either Jupiter or Venus.

She thought about the fact that the star was light years away.  Maybe her junior year physics teacher was right.  Perhaps they were made from the stars they wished on. Most of the atoms spinning around in her body were made from stardust. Art would never admit it — in physics class last year, she had just rolled her eyes along with the others — but the fact was that she did have dreams.  She wished that she could be with Linda forever. She wished that Linda’s mother would stop telling her daughter that it was a waste of time to study trigonometry and that she would stop telling Linda that her life was going to turn out just like hers. She stared at the star.  It was so bright that it seemed to be burning a hole in the winter sky.  She wished she and Linda could make a life together.  She wished they could get married.  She wished that they could even have a kid or two. But first they had to get through this last year of high school. Getting into the trig class would be easy compared to the rest.

marriage of Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohenmarriage of Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen

marriage of Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohenmarriage of Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen

marriage of Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen

marriage of Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen

marriage of Sharon Katz and Marilyn Cohen

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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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Lately, I’ve been warming up to religion. Like many in the LGBT community, I had managed to avoid the whole thing. I haven’t so much run from it. Thank God, I was raised by a Bible-burning, atheist mother — something that I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters.

But I kept religion at a distance. Then I started going to a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. It started with a crisis, of course, like many religious conversions. I was laid off from a high-stress job. But it was more than that. I was a mess — physically and spiritually. I felt like I looked: fried. An old friend who was a yoga instructor suggested that my partner and I take her yoga class at the UU church where she is the music director. When my partner began drumming there some Sundays, I went with her. I liked it so much that I became a member and then joined the lay ministers.

To me joining a church was a major leap of faith. I was concerned how many I have known over the years, would take the news. Some were surprised. I overheard someone who we had known for many years saying, “Janet joined a church?” A close friend asked abruptly, “What gives, Janet? A church?” I told her that it was about community, and she could understand that. It’s also about diversity — including sexual orientation, age, gender and race as well as religious, or lack of, background. Fortunately, many of my friends calmed down when they heard it was a UU church the place where people sing Holly Near songs and Sweet Honey in the Rock on Sunday mornings. Becoming a UU has broadened my horizons. For one thing, I found out that many have been damaged by early religious experiences — even many who were not LGBT. This gave me pause.

I understood intellectually, of course, but it took me a while to really “get” that LGBTQ teens were killing themselves because they thought that they were going to hell. My secular intellectual background translated hell into mythology (starting with Greek mythological creation stories ) and literature (I’ve always loved the Divine Comedy). These teens, however, were told they were going to hell by their communities. And hell was real to them. They were told that their lives with not worth living.

Traditional Christianity is not my path. But there is hope. Rev. Al Sharpton writing on The Huffington Post addressed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that was signed by Governor Mike Pence last week, by stating that “My religious conviction compels me to fight for civil rights and social justice; I don’t divide the two. Each and every one of us must speak out against this egregious Indiana law.”

When I read Gay Conversations With God: Straight Talk On Fanatics, Fags and the God Who Loves Us All by James Alexander Langteaux from Findhorn Press, I had a little snicker. The author was a senior producer and host of the Christian 700 club. He writes that invariably after an “ex-gay” show (where men who had been through so-called reparative, conversion and ex-gay therapy all of which is condemned by the American Psychiatric Association), the “cured” men would hit on him. His response was that it sounded fun, but what would their lesbian wives and their 17 children think. My snicker at this hypocrisy stayed with me as a kind of joy that arose every time I heard anything about the 700 club. I came to think that maybe God (feel free to substitute any other word that works for you, Divine, Great Spirit and definitely She as well as He) wants me to feel that joy. The sad part of the author’s experience is that he was struggling with his own sexuality at the time and the ex-gay overtures only made him depressed. But he also talks about his faith in terms of “pure love:”

“Perfect love casts out all fear. And on that final day as you stand in the presence of that perfect love, the last thing you will feel… is queer.”

The book is written glibly but leaves no doubt that the author has been through it — as a result of being gay and Christian.

In The Peace Seeker (Peace Seeker Press) author Susan E. Gilmore goes deeper in relating her struggles between her sexuality and her strong faith in the Baptist religion in which she was raised which instilled her with “an unwavering confidence that the Bible was the infallible word of God and that every word was correct and could be relied on for spiritual truth and everyday wisdom.” The Peace Keeper talks about her observation from a young age of the church’s position that the role of women “was to be submissive to men.” The author is bright, intelligent and driven — qualities that any organization (including her church) should develop and put to use. Instead, she was thrown out of Bible college for having an “inappropriate” sexual and romantic relationship with another female student. Ultimately, she is accepted by another Bible college and goes abroad to do missionary work.

Since her entire life is based in her religion, the author partners with other Christian women. This is during the late ’70s and early ’80s and there was a lesbian community in existence. At one point when she comes home and becomes involved with another partner, the two of them attend a church together, but stay in the closet. What follows is a harrowing tale of the couple being broken up by the church members and elders. Susan left that church, but at no point does she consider changing her religion or leaving it entirely. Her faith was that strong.

Susan finds love again with another Christian woman, and together they find a church that embraces them because one of the pastors’ mind and heart had been opened because he had a gay brother who had been treated badly by the church. This man checked in with the two women, encouraged them to come out, and accepted them as a couple. It would be nice if this part of the story ended there. However, this pastor’s acceptance created considerable division among the congregation. The church leadership, however, encouraged them to stay. Susan generously describes the situation: “Some church members fully accept us; others remain on the path to understanding.”

Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron was, as I anticipated, a breath of fresh air. The writers in this collection share their experiences of being amazed at being around straight allies who are genuinely not homophobic. Social justice is a strong component of Unitarian Universalism and LGBT rights are important among them.

One of the writers is Drew Johnston who identifies as “a queer bi/trans Unitarian Universalist.” Drew relates the experience of transitioning while being a UU minister. Drew attended a potluck dinner and took questions from the congregation. One person asked about gendered pronouns. “Did I prefer male or female …. Then I heard myself finally answer the question. I said I like it when people at least alternate. I said, ‘Then I feel seen.'”

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This morning, for Palm Sunday, I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here to see the video.

Although I was raised by a card carrying atheist mother and an agnostic father, I always loved Palm Sunday.  I loved the pale green palms.  I loved the story. I loved the donkey.  Maybe it was the pagan origins that drew me in.  Even as an adult, Palm Sunday held its appeal.  Still, I thought that religion had nothing to do with me. And over the years, I came to think that I had dodged a bullet.  Still, I wanted to believe in something — maybe I wanted to believe in myself more.

A few years ago, I experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of coming to this church.  My first thought was that “they don’t own it.” ‘They’ being the Christian right and ‘it’ being religion.  Last year when I read the Bible — I was actually surprised to see how little anti-gay material is in it, except for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis, and some rules in Leviticus — that also include not eating shellfish or wearing garments made of linen and wool.

As a second generation feminist coming of age in the seventies, I lived by  the motto that rules were made to be broken.  As a creative writer, it is not unusual for me to view the world through  my characters. When I heard that the theme for worship this month was Brokenness and Resilience I thought of my maternal grandfather, Joseph.

His brokenness and resilience is something that has been passed down to me. He was a Merchant Marine, a lover of opera (he was Anglo not Italian), an alcoholic and a batterer to his wife (my grandmother) and his daughters (my mother and my aunt). I developed my own theory about him and when I told my gay male friends about him, they gave me knowing nods.

I am going to read an excerpt from my novel Catwalk which is set in the late 1920s in the Prohibition era.  Joseph, the protagonist, is a gay man and is also the son of a Baptist deacon. My grandfather, Joseph, was raised in Biloxi, Mississippi.  The fictive Joseph is in love with his boyhood friend Vince, who he was separated from and who he pines for. Joseph, my grandfather, abandoned my mother (and the rest of her family) when she was seven.  I never met him. I always wanted to know more about him — even if I had to make it up.

I’ve been working on this novel for ten years and when I was in the revision process, I noticed that it was full of religion.  I realized then that religion has always been with me — as a fact and as a fiction. Palm Sunday, which Rita will tell us more about, was my pathway to religion.  Religion fueled Joseph’s demons.  But in this section where Joseph falls asleep under the stars on the beach of the Mississippi Sound — religion enters his subconscious in a good way.

————–

Joseph lay down on the sand and curled into a fetal position. It was a hot summer night.  He shut his eyes and listened to  waves wash over pebbles.  He fell asleep and dreamed that he was standing in the cemetery with a shovel, digging into the sand.  A familiar voice called to him. It was deep and pleasant.  But it was distant. The voice brought back everything that he had ever loved.  They had been boys together, sitting next to each other in church, swimming through the waves to a deserted isle where they could pretend they were shipwrecked sailors. Vince was a part of him.  His voice brought everything back — Vince being bullied when he was a boy — the scar that was left on his cheek when Joseph had defended him. The two of them becoming fast friends, boys growing to men. He remembered the first time they had made love.  Memories of sea foam.  Their shared experience of being fathers was part of their love, too.  Vince was at his happiest when he had become a father, twice over.  Joseph had been happy for him. He had almost been as happy when his own children were born.

Vince called to him in a deep, melodious voice that was separate from Joseph but part of him, too.  The voice was louder with every shovel full of sand that Joseph dug up and flung over his shoulder.  He dug faster and faster – but still the voice was far away.  Eventually the hole he dug was so deep that he could no longer reach the bottom.  Joseph saw translucent arms reaching toward him from the hole.

Suddenly the apparition became filled with blinding light.  As Joseph stared into the light, he saw that it was a tall figure with wings the span of an Albatross.

It was Vince disguised as an angel — like one of the angels who came to visit Lot in Sodom.  There were two angels that visited Lot.  Joseph could be the other angel. The neighboring men from the town had knocked on Lot’s door, saying that they wanted to “know” the angels. But in Joseph’s version, the angels would leave together — hand in hand.

They would fly to a land in the clouds where two men could love each other.  Their love was bright and true.  Their love was so strong that it would change everything — including a world that denied they existed.

Joseph cast down his shovel and dove into the hole.  When he reached the brilliant angel that was Vince, he fell right through him.  He realized then that the dazzling light was fire.  Yet the flames did not burn or scorch him. The fire cleansed him.

The Bible said that Godly fire would consume the wicked, but not the righteous.

His love for Vince was as pure as the fire of God, and Vince returned it.  Together, they would spread the gospel of love.

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History repeats itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also puts lesbian “pulp” fiction into perspective:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in The Huffington Post

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