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originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here.

“To the queerest person I know.” This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different.  I read books rather than watching the TV.  I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball.  Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community.  This was before we had the term LGBT.  I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend, who embraced the term.  She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society.  In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or het, as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned.  My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me,  “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.”  So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I,  are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.”  Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different.  We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen.  The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school.  High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced.  He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again.  High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully: “I now had the power over him. I was in control.  In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”  But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39.  It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths.  It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on.  They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march.  Over my shoulder. By my desk.  In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague  Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:  “For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt.  And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

 

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The saying that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is just as true today as it was in 1948 when Winston Churchill repeated it from the writings of the philosopher George Santanya. It is particularly true for anyone who has ever been marginalized in anyway — and that is probably most of us. But this is just one reason that I read historical fiction.

It makes sense that I would be interested in history since I was raised by older parents a generation removed from me.

 

This is something that I explore in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012). Perhaps it was having that long sense of personal history that led me to have a healthy curiosity of the experiences of those different than me. It definitely is a reason that I am deeply drawn to historical fiction — especially when I find books that are not only captivating but haunting.

 

Recently I read two books that made me think about history and my place in it. I recall wondering decades earlier, when I was young, what I would have done if I had come out earlier, say pre-Stonewall. When I read Juliana, a novel by Vanda (Booktrope Editions; 2015) the question came back to me. The story is set in the years 1941 to 1944 in New York City which did, in fact, at that time have an underground gay culture. The main character Al (short for Alice) is a young woman who with a group of friends with actor ambitions moves from a small town to New York City.

 

Alice doesn’t think of herself as gay but is in love (and in lust) with a glamorous and slightly older singer Juliana. The author who goes by the name of Vanda (one word, like Cher) is a playwright and her fast-paced writing had me turning the pages as I learned about gay culture with accurate historical references. Alice ends up at a few gay parties, even though she doesn’t identify as “one of them” in a time when gay people were deemed as perverts and pariahs. She also weaves in the cultural mores of the time when it was assumed that “nice” girls didn’t have sex before heterosexual marriage.

Ultimately Juliana is an historic novel with a sense of history itself. One character, talking to Alice about the film, Morroco, says:

“I keep forgetting how young you are. It [the movie] came out in the thirties before the Hays Code and they started censoring everything. I was only a kid myself, fifteen or sixteen. Marlene Dietrich wore a man’s tuxedo and she kissed women right on the mouth.”

I was excited when I heard that The Gilda Stories by Jewell Gomez had been reissued by City Lights Books (2016). The Gilda Stories is a pioneering black lesbian vampire story that spans a woman’s history from escaping slavery into the future, in the year 2050, when it the story ends on a positive note with a huge sense of relief (from this reader). In full-disclosure, I am not a reader of the vampire genre — except for this novel. Undoubtedly if I were I would have read the book differently. However, I have read many historical novels. And as a historical novel, tracing one character through this long historical span is brilliant. After all, we are all born from the people and places and circumstances that went before us.

 

In the afterword, the publisher in writing that The Gilda Stories in being the first of its kind (far before the proliferation of the vampire genre that came after its first publication) was written with no small amount of bravery in a time “when the rise of the religious right was impacting publication norms” and “equating lesbian and gay art with pornography.”

I read it when it was first published in 1991 by Firebrand Books. Gomez and her work was an important part of lesbian-feminist culture at that time. Of course that world was small and this new edition will be bringing her work to a wider audience.

On reading The Gilda Stories again, I was struck that it works both as a historical work of fiction and as well as a vampire story. Both of these things, perhaps, can be summed up in this single passage:

“Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes — all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of those times sustained her, somehow.”

Rage lives on — and so does history with us inside of it.

 

originally published in The Huffington Post

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