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Portions of this piece is being aired this week on This Way Out. It was previously published on The Huffington Post

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.

Click here and scroll down to hear the audio file of This Way Out.

 

 

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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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I like surprises. And (almost) nothing is better than a good book that takes me to an unexpected place. I recently picked up Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit (2014) by Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal, and then I picked up Active Duty: Gay Military Erotic Romance, edited by Neil Placky, and Rookies: Gay Erotic Fiction, edited by Shane Allison. The latter two books were both published in 2014 by Cleis Press. I like to mix it up a little. What the books have in common is that none of them was what I expected.

When I first heard of Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit, I expected a book about, well, sex. But the book is written by a lesbian couple in a committed relationship who in 2013 celebrated the anniversary of 28 years together by getting married. The book is about relationships and is told from the first-person perspectives of the authors as well as other coupled lesbians. Its 12 chapters — each starting with a story that presents a relationship challenge — are followed by a “Dos and Don’ts” section following up on the relationship challenge.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the book is so well-written and useful, given that I was familiar with the work of one of the authors, Kim Chernin, who in 1982 published In My Mother’s House, which, although I didn’t know it at the time, was probably one of the major inspirations for my book Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters.

When my partner of 30 years and I married this past year, we did so to claim our equality for legal rights. We were also caught up in the mad rush of history. But the fact is that there are many pros and cons of marriage — even when claiming your equality. As Chernin and Stendhal point out in Lesbian Marriage, “half the people who get involved in it for the first time get back out again. The second time they try, sixty percent leave it behind.”

When I was younger, I never wanted to join the rest of the population in what is, basically, a failed institution. But then my partner and I got older. Suddenly we had to face the inequalities of being a same-sex couple — including a lack of hospital visitation rights. Considering that many, if not most, of the lesbian couples who marry are younger, the question posed by Chernin and Stendhal is a valid one:

We are obviously not intending to make gay marriage a replica of conventional marriage … so what do we want? It’s probably a good idea to have the discussion before we, and as we, and after we rush down to stand in line all night at City Hall.

 
 

The authors address the issue of “lesbian bed death” — the dwindling of sex in a long-term relationship. They put it in context by stating that “all the couples we know, and I mean all the heteros and a lot of the boys, too, are complaining about not having sex,” and by concluding that “marriage is not the remedy for couple trouble.”

Some highlights include sex after menopause (don’t think you are defined by your hormones), arguing fairly (don’t berate your lover), issues around monogamy, listening to each other, and scheduling time for play (“time is like freedom; no one gives it to you, you have to take it”).

Thinking about marriage left me thinking about gays in the military, another mainstream institution that I have had a change of heart about. While I once had the viewpoint that no one, including the LGBTQ community, perhaps especially the LGBTQ community, should have anything do with the military, I came to the conclusion that having equality is far better than not having it.

After I read Active Duty: Gay Military Erotic Romance, I scanned the bios in the back of the book and did not see anything that led me to believe that the writers were actually in the military. Many of the writers in this anthology must have talked to friends in the military, however. In addition to being well-written, most of the stories got to the heart of the matter of what it means to be openly gay in an hostile institution. The editor of the anthology, Neil Placky, explores the experiences of two prisoners of war, both of whom happen to be gay, in Afghanistan. The two men manage to escape — but, of course, not before a tryst. In this story, which is remarkably written with a strong sense of place, as in many of the others, there is a sense that the two men want to get together again after they return to their respective units.

There is overlap with the other anthology from Cleis Press, Rookies: Gay Erotic Fiction, particularly in the story “Busted” by Johnny Murdoc, when the cop character talks about his brother being a soldier in Afghanistan: “I miss Bobby. Then I think about him shooting at people in cars and I hate this whole fucking country.”

So the cops in this anthology have moral compasses, and they have fully developed characters. They cross the line, as in “Busted,” from arresting a man for smoking a joint to smoking one with him (and having sex with him). In another piece a rookie cop and his partner find themselves in the position of having to investigate a park where men meet for sex. The ending of this piece, by Eric Del Carlo, is perhaps predictable, but it’s touching, as the partner satisfies his rookie partner’s long-suppressed longing.

There is something appealing about cops stepping over the line, but as I read these two books I began thinking about something else. The characters in these anthologies are young — as the writers most likely are. They are from a post 9/11 era. Some of the men have husbands. And some are planning to have families. There is little to nothing written about the horrors of war or the perils of a police state. At first I was concerned for them — that they may be more conservative, despite the gains that the LGBT movement has made. Then I let the thought pass. They are of their time; they’ll figure things out just like we did.

from The Huffington Post

 

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“So are we all legally married?” was the question that I posed to our long-time friends, Mary and Joanne, and my partner as we all drove to a Thai restaurant. Last summer, the four of us went to the Montgomery County Courthouse when a judge went rogue, got married, and afterwards went to a nearby Thai restaurant.

“I don’t know,” replied Mary with characteristic drollness. “But I don’t think it’s fair to call Pennsylvania ‘Pennsyltucky’ anymore since Kentucky struck down its same sex marriage ban.”

This time we were having Thai again and had lots to catch up on after the long cold weather that kept us in our respective homes. My partner Barbara and I have been together for 30 years and Mary and Joanne have been together for nearly as long. We have known each other for decades. Joanne and Barbara used to work together at the Post Office.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon sitting on the patio behind Mary and Joanne’s lovely home. We talked about many things — chiefly about how we all were living on less money (both of us consist of one partner who is retired and the other self employed) and how we actually have a higher quality of life.

Gradually, the talk turned to marriage.

We all agreed that same-sex marriage is redefining the institution of marriage. For one thing, we are not taking each other’s last name. (Straight women often disappear into their husband’s last name — unless they choose to keep their own.) As lesbian-feminists, all of us dislike the word “wife” and refuse to use it to describe ourselves.

We were having such a good time sitting in the sun and laughing, that we forgot to check the news, even though we knew that the ruling on the PA constitutional ban against same sex marriage was due soon. It wasn’t until my partner and I had had left and were driving down the street, that Joanne came running after us and told us the good news.

I gave my friend a high five, kissed my partner (now my legal partner/spouse), and as we drove home, we joked about putting a sign and a trail of tin cans on the back of our car.

“Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 U.S states and the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington,” according to CNN.

The Huffington Post quoting the Associated Press, explains:
“Pennsylvania’s ban on gay marriage was overturned by a federal judge Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III called the plaintiffs — a widow, 11 couples and one of the couples’ two teenage daughters — courageous.
‘We now join the 12 federal district courts across the country which, when confronted with these inequities in their own states, have concluded that all couples deserve equal dignity in the realm of civil marriage,’ Jones wrote.
An appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is likely. Gov. Tom Corbett’s office had defended the law after Attorney General Kathleen Kane called it unconstitutional and refused to defend it.
State marriage bans have been falling around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
In all, 18 states give legal status to gay marriage. If Jones’ decision stands, Pennsylvania would become the 19th and legalize gay marriage throughout the Northeast.”

The ACLU has an online petition requesting that the PA Governor (who is running for re-election this year) respect all families in the state by not appealing the ruling. I signed the petition and hope you will too.

I have to admit it feels good to have equal rights.

(from The Huffington Post)

Post Script:  Today (5-21-14), I read the news that the PA Governor is not going to appeal the ruling.  Now it feels REALLY good to have equal rights.

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from The Huffington Post

I knew about Edmund White as a writer long before I read his books. I knew that he was a gay icon and had written many books, fiction and nonfiction. I knew that he was especially known for his coming of age novel, A Boy’s Own Story, written in 1982, around the time that I came out. I knew that he had lived in Paris for a time and had written a biography of Jean Genet, the controversial French poet, playwright and novelist who was born in 1910.

When I heard about White’s latest book, Inside a Pearl, My Years in Paris (2014, Bloomsbury), I decided that it was time to read Edmund White. As a lesbian writer, even as one who has known many interesting people, I have very little in common with White. When I started reading Inside a Pearl — which is replete with namedropping — complete with a description of one of Elton John’s parties, this became clear to me. But for whatever reasons I have long been interested in Paris thanks to Gertrude Stein and the Left Bank Sapphic crowd — I kept reading. And what I found was an Edmund White I could relate to — one who could lay his life on the page.

It was when I read about White’s experiences as a caretaker of friends and lovers with HIV and being HIV positive himself — along with the ups and down of his friendships with both men and women — that I began to relate to him. His vulnerabilities made him human. He ruminates about his decision to live in Paris:

“I asked myself why I was here. Sure, I’d won a Guggenheim and a small but regular contract with Vogue to write once a month of cultural life. Right now I was writing a piece about why Americans like Proust so much. Back in America I’d worked around clock heading the New York Institute for the Humanities and teaching writing at Columbia and New York University. I never seemed to have time for my own writing. When I was president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the biggest and oldest AIDS organization in the world, I hadn’t liked myself in the role of leader; I was power mad and tyrannical… And secretly I’d wanted the party to go on and thought that moving the Europe would give me a new lease on promiscuity. Paris was meant to be an AIDS holiday. After all, I was of the Stonewall generation, equating sexual freedom with freedom itself. But by 1984 many gay guys I knew were dying in Paris as well — there was no escaping the disease.”

White goes on to write about his life in Paris about the friendships that he forged, many through his writing projects, about his lovers — his “great love” was “from Zurich, the manager of a small chain of Swiss cinemas, whom I met in Venice” — and his familiarity with French customs. “The French seldom drank after the wine was cleared away with the meal — wine is a good, not a conversation enabler to be poured hours after the dinner.”

He also writes about the European tradition of older gay men calling their younger lovers, their “nephew.” He writes about an interaction between two gay men when one says to the other, “Do you know my nephew?” and the other replies, “Yes, he was my nephew last year.”

He writes about taking care of his former lover turned friend John Purcell who was in the advanced stages of AIDS. White tells us that he told John he would take him anywhere he wanted:

“India? France? He chose Disney World in Orlando. I thought it might be a hoot, but I found it boring and tacky. At Epcot, we went to some horrid replica of the Eiffel Tower when we’d lived in the real Paris for years.”

When White lived in Paris, he took many trips to England. He recounts the conversation at one London party. “Pat (who was notorious is London literary circles for her affair with Jeanette Winterson), looked around and said, “What’s annoying about Paris is that every woman looks like a lesbian but none is.” White goes on to write, “Pat was one of my favorite people.”

In his sardonic style, White introduces us to the cast of characters that he has met and interacted with on the road of life. Not surprisingly, many, such as Susan Sontag, did not like being written about in his previous works and he writes about that also. It is true that Edmund White has been in the company of many well-known people. But Inside a Pearl left me with was a deeper knowing of Edmund White, the gay icon, the writer, the human being.

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from The Huffington Post

I was reminded of the quote from the late poet Muriel Rukeyser — ”What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open” — when I read Judith K. Witherow’s collection of essays, Strong Enough To Bend, Twin Spirits Publishing, 2014. Then when I read The Rules by S. Renee Bess, a novel published by Regal Crest Enterprises, 2014, I was reminded of this quote again.

Judith and Renee are both lesbian writers who bring their truth home through their writings.

In her collection of essays, Strong Enough To Bend, Judith K. Witherow describes herself as a “back up writer, one of many who stand in the background, providing the harmony and staging the recognition for those whose names are on the covers of the books or the mastheads of the publications.”

She describes Strong Enough to Bend as her solo performance. And what a performance it is. I found that I could not put Strong Enough To Bend down — except for time to recollect how much the essays reminded me of friend’s lives and my own.

Native American lesbian and truth teller, Witherow starts her collection with essays on her background being raised poor in the northern Appalachian mountains.

“We never lived in a place that had screen doors or screens in the windows. This allowed everything, including snakes, to come and go at will. We learned at an early age to pound on the floor before getting out of bed.”

In the second section, Judith talks about how she came out with three sons that she gave birth to during a marriage to an abusive man. Raising her sons in the 1970s a time when lesbians were losing their children to custody battles with ex-husbands, presented Judith with an ongoing dilemma of when to officially come out to her children. It’s not surprising that her three sons, who were raised by Judith and her long-term partner, Sue, knew that their mother was a lesbian far before she told them and were fiercely protective of their two mothers.

She devotes another section of the book to her multiple health issues which stem, no doubt, from her poverty ridden childhood, and to her struggles with the medical establishment. In 1979, Judith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Judith’s health issues are numerous and it is clear that we are lucky to have her with us on this planet. Hers is a voice that we were not meant to hear.

A strong feminist, Judith is a role model for valuing herself. In the 1996 U.S. presidential election, Judith was a write-in candidate prompted by her belief that she “was the best qualified of any of the candidates. Her belief was bolstered by,

“Clinton’s first shot at four years of Democratic leadership…Don’t Ask Don’t Tell sounds like a warmed over version of the Reagan’s ‘Just Say No.'”

When I read The Rules, a novel by S. Renee Bess, I was reminded that truth can be found in fiction. Ranee is a Black lesbian and in these pages we meet an assortment of characters, most of them Black lesbians, at least one of whom lives by the rules — meaning that she lives her life by a certain code of ethics but sometimes she is confused by what the rules are. The protagonist, a woman by the name of London, defends herself to her long-term lover who is leaving her.

“What do you mean?”
“You don’t seem sure about your blackness.”
“What are you talking about. I know I’m black.”
“Do you? You could have fooled me. Most of your friends aren’t black. You don’t talk like a black person. You couldn’t even keep working for a black-owned construction company.”
“My friends are all different colors. I speak the way I was taught to speak, and I left Clive Wittingham’s firm because I wasn’t climbing the ladder there, not because I didn’t want to work for a back man’s company.”

Two of the characters are profoundly influenced by their childhoods — and in fact we meet them as children when they were friends. As adults they are joined by a cast of characters complicated by intrigue and lesbian love. Equally intriguing to me was the prism of race and class.

I read this lesbian duo back to back and when the last page was turned, I felt the world split open — just a little.

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