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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.

Amazon THEY

 

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This morning, I took part in a Unitarian Universalist summer service. In my talk, I reflected on The Egyptian Cat Goddess the Goddess Bastet (a part of my novel The Unicorn, The Mystery) and on the spiritual practice of gardening.

The YouTube video of my talk  is below. The complete text of my talk is below that.  The service took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia.

 

 

In the summer, I garden.  This is a common hobby for many, especially writers.  It teaches patience, attention, and relentless hope.  Not everything that we plant comes back – especially after a long icy winter.  Not every seed sprouts and not every sprout makes it.  In this way it makes me focus on the positive – on what does come back and on what does sprout.

Being a Unitarian Universalist gives me a spiritual context in which to think about gardening. Many of our flowers attract bees – such as bee balm, lavender and the butterfly bush. And bees, of course, are good for the planet.

Every now and then, a plant from my writing appears in my garden – seemingly out of nowhere but probably from a seed dropped by a bird.  Last year it was a tall flowering weed known as a “sow’s ear” which was also in the manuscript I just finished writing, titled The Unicorn, The Mystery which is set in the 1500s in France.  I was amazed, of course, at the sow’s ear in my backyard.

Recently, I planted catnip.  Cats love our backyard and often we see one sleeping there – most often in the shade of the young hazel nut tree that my partner’s sister sent us. Inside, my office looks out to the backyard where the garden is. Our old cat Felix has taken to sleeping on the inside back windowsill – no doubt protecting his territory.

godess bastet threeI have long been fascinated by the Egyptian Cat Goddess Bastet. In my novel, The Unicorn, The Mystery, my monk character (who in many ways is a Unitarian Universalist at heart) prays to the Goddess Bastet.

 

I stepped slowly and softly as if the soles of my feet had ears.  I took another step. A branch snapped under my foot.  I winced. That would never do.  If my beloved unicorn heard that she would assume there was a human nearby – big enough to snap a branch under foot – and hide.  It seemed like I would never find her.  I decided to pray.  But I had prayed to the One God before and it hadn’t worked.  Who would I pray to? Who would help me?

Immediately, the Goddess Bastet leapt to mind. Bastet was an Egyptian Goddess who was half woman and half cat. I knew about her because when I was a boy, my mother would tell me the stories that her father had told her.  He had loved Greek mythology and found out that the Goddess Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was related to the earlier Goddess Bastet from Egypt who came from the even earlier fierce lioness Goddess Bast, the warrior goddess of the sun.

The followers of Bastet ruled ancient Egypt for a time in the land where cats were sacred.  I remember that my mother’s emerald green eyes gleamed as if she were a cat herself when she told me about the Goddess Bastet who kept away disease and was the protector of pregnant women. The stories she told me about the fierce, soft, cat Goddess Bastet were so vivid that she made me want a cat for my very own pet.

My mother cautioned me, however, not to mention cats to anyone but her. People with cats were looked on with suspicion, she warned me. For some reason cats were looked down on by the Church as wily creatures associated with Satan. Again, my mother told me that it was very important never to anger the Church.

Surely, the Goddess Bastet would help me find my beloved unicorn. She of all the gods and goddesses would understand why I had to find my beloved unicorn to save her.

I closed my eyes tightly until I saw a slim woman, standing tall.  She had very good posture, with the head of a cat.  I knew it was Goddess Bastet, just as my mother had described her.

 

 

And so, the Goddess Bastet and other worlds – real, imagined and both – is something for me to mull over as I tend the soil and do the spiritual work of gardening.

 

Namaste

 

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 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.)

 

I was just telling a friend that the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s and 30s – and the TWO Repert 2lesbians that still live on in history and my imagination — is my favorite era. Then a copy of Never Anyone But You arrived. This book is heralded as “A literary tour de force,” is written by Rupert Thompson and published by Other Press in 2018.  The writing does live up to its reputation and, just as importantly, the story holds together.

As the novel wanders through Paris, the reader glimpses cameos of legendary places and people – most notably the bookstore “Shakespeare and Company” run by Sylvia Beach and her partner Adrienne Monnier.  But as I turned the last page and wiped the wetness from my eyes, I realized that it wasn’t the history that got to me.  It was that the author exquisitely captured the life time of love that existed between these two women who are actual historic figures.

The story opens in 1909 when teenage Suzanne Malherbe and Lucie Schwob meet, fall in love and scheme about how to have a life together.  Through a series of events, Suzanne’s mother marries Lucie’s father.  This renders the two teens step sisters, a convenient cover for the social mores of the time. Suzanne paints and Lucie writes.

The two “sisters” reinvent themselves with male names.  Lucie takes the name Claude and Suzanne goes by Marcel.  They move to Paris (from a provincial town in France where they were from) and become involved with the Surrealist movement. In the 1930s with anti-Semitism on the rise (Claude is from a Jewish family), they leave Paris for the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, where eventually they are forced to deal with Nazi occupation.

Along the way are interesting asides, such as this quote from the well-known writer of the time and place Djuna Barnes, who described Paris as having “the fame of a-too-beautiful woman” meaning that as Thomas wrote, “One could be overwhelmed by Paris. One could become sated.  And it was hard for a city to retain that kind of allure.”

Early in their relationship when the two girls chose their male names, the author writes:

            “And then, in a finger snap, my new name came to me, the name that would be mentioned in the same breath as hers, and it flew straight from my brain into my mouth and out into the air.  “Marcel Moore.”
“What?” Claude too, it seemed, had been in something of a trance.  I repeated what I had said.  Marcel, after her uncle.  I had never met him, but I admired him, both as a writer and as a spirit.  And there was another factor.  Marcel was a man’s name, and yet it sounded feminine. I liked the way it loitered between the genders, as if it couldn’t make up its mind.    Claude was nodding. “And Moore?”     “It’s an English name.”   “You wanted to set yourself apart … “        “Yes.” Though the truth was, I had chosen the name to appeal to the Anglophile in her. Also, she claimed she was related to George Moore, the Irish novelist.   “How did you think of it?”             “I don’t know.  It just arrived.”     Claude leaned her elbows on the table, her slender forearms upright and considered me.  “Marcel Moore,” she said.  “That sounds like someone I could love.”

 

The novel covers a fair amount of history.  And while it is obviously well-researched, enlightening and the thing that first hooked me, it was the love that I remember, the love between these two women Suzanne and Lucie and the names they gave themselves, Marcel and Claude.

 

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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Following is a YouTube video of me reading from Catwalk a new novel that I am currently revising.  The same story — that of revisiting and revising Sodom and Gomorrah — is printed in my blogpost below the video.

Based on a fictional interpretation of the life of my maternal grandfather,  Catwalk opens in 1927 when Joseph leaves his wife and two daughters to find himself.  He is in love with his best friend Vince, but does the love that dare not speak its name exist in the 1920s?

It does – in speakeasies, honky tonks, in the back rows of silent film houses, the alleyways near Times Square, between sailors in Gulfport, Mississippi and in the Merchant Marine where Joseph and Vince enlisted at the beginning of the Great War. Still, Joseph is torn between being a “normal man”  (in the vernacular of the time) and a “degenerate.” He tells himself that he is not a “fairy.”  He just loves Vince. He day dreams about the two of them setting up house, and  having a life together.

But this son of a Southern Baptist deacon raised in Biloxi, finds himself constantly at odds with his own demons.  Catwalk is a tale of romantic adventure where historic settings come to life. This excerpt of Catwalk takes place when Joseph falls asleep on the beach in Biloxi Mississippi and dreams of a different world.

 

 

 

Joseph opened the car door and stepped out onto the shoulder of the road. He walked around the front of the car to the beach. He felt the sand sink under his shoes. Unsteadily, he put one foot in front of the other and walked to the water’s edge. He relieved himself and when he was done he staggered backwards and found himself sitting on dry white sand. He sat cross-legged and dug his right foot into the sand.  A clump of sand fell into his shoe. Joseph reached down and untied his shoe. He took it off and held the black leather shoe upside down. He emptied the sand onto the beach. He put the narrow toed shoe on again and tied the laces tightly. He ignored the grains of sand clinging to his pant legs. He tied his shoes. He felt the sand in his shoe again. Joseph started to reach for his shoe to empty it out again but let it go. What did it matter?
He stared up. Bright stars punctured black sky. Vince was out there somewhere.  Perhaps he was looking at the stars, too. Joseph wanted to stop thinking about Vince, but he couldn’t think of anything else. Joseph clutched his hand to his chest and rocked back and forth. He rarely cried. He didn’t even cry at his mother’s funeral. But now he was alone in the dark. He was drunk. He spent the day with a cadaver that looked like Vince. Joseph could still smell the acrid scent of the embalming fluid. Joseph looked to his left at the sand dunes and then to the right at the vaults and tombstones. He twisted around and stared back at a vault that was behind the tombstones at the top of the beach. The cross atop the vault shimmered.
Joseph was alone with the tiny white stone house of death that was waiting for him. A flash of inspiration came to him. The only way that he could escape his memories of Vince was to leave Biloxi. Vince’s presence was too strong here. The two of them had grown up here together as boys. They had run off together and joined the Merchant Marine when they were young men. As adults, they had talked about returning to Biloxi.
Joseph lay down on the sand and curled into a fetal position. The humid summer’s night air wrapped around him like a blanket. He shut his eyes and listened to waves wash over pebbles. His crossed his arms so that they made an X across his chest. The fingertips of his left hand burrowed into cool grains of damp sand. He fell asleep and dreamed that he was standing in the cemetery with a shovel.  He was digging into the sand — digging and digging.  A familiar voice called. It was deep and pleasant   But it was distant. Joseph had to find Vince. 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. The first time they had made love was in the memories of sea foam. Even Joseph’s jealousies of Vince’s girlfriends seemed important now. He realized that this had been part of the love that formed him, before and after they had joined the Merchant Marine.  Their shared experience of being fathers was part of their love for each other, too.  Vince was at his happiest when he had become a father, twice over.  Joseph had been genuinely 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 began digging faster, faster. The voice still sounded like it was far away. He dug the hole so deep that he could no longer reach the bottom. Joseph thought he saw translucent arms reaching toward him from the hole. They were attached to broad shoulders, a barrel chest. Joseph saw Vince’s olive skinned face with the scar above his cheek.  His mouth was open. He was calling to Joseph. Joseph could see Vince’s chiseled face, but Vince looked like a ghost. Joseph hoped that Vince wasn’t dead.
Like a man dying of thirst, Joseph peered at the apparition. His eyes were that parched for a glimpse of Vince. Suddenly the apparition became filled with blinding light. Joseph stared into the light. He saw that it was a tall figure with wings the span of an Albatross.

angel in city
Joseph realized, as he stared into the light, that it was Vince disguised as an angel. Vince was one of the angels who came to visit Lot in Sodom. But instead of an angel disguised as a man, he was a man disguised as an angel. But it wasn’t one angel that visited Lot. There were two angels. Joseph knew that Vince was alone and lonely. He was searching for Joseph. Joseph could be the other angel. They would be together again. Together they had visited Sodom where the neighboring men from the town had knocked on Lot’s door, saying that they wanted to “know” the angels. But in his version of the story, the angels would leave together, arm in arm, rather than assisting God in burning down Sodom and Gomorrah.
They would leave together and fly off with their Albatross wings to a land in the clouds where two men could love each other. Their love would be bright and true.  Their love would be so strong that it could change everything, including a world that denied they existed.
Joseph only had to tell Vince that their love could change everything — that they could create a world that was so good it was brilliant.
If only Joseph could touch him. Joseph cast down his shovel and dove into the hole. When he reached the dazzling angel that was Vince, he fell right through him. It was as if he was plunging through flaming hoops at the circus.  Yet the flames did not burn or scorch him. The fire cleansed him. It was as if he were precious metal. He could feel the dross dropping away. His intent was purified.
The Bible said that Godly fire would consume the wicked, but not the righteous.
His love for Vince was righteous.
He fell through the light into the darkness.  As he entered the darkness, he knew that his love was as pure as the fire of God. Vince returned that love. They would be reunited.  Together they would spread the gospel of love.
Love was the energy that created the world.
The fire did not destroy him.  It fueled him.  He would find Vince. He had faith in the power of love. He would seek love, and he would be rewarded in this life and the next.
His joy would be fulfilled through Vince. This was his word.
Joseph tumbled heels over head through the long tunnel that he had dug.  The apparition of Vince and the blaze of the angel vanished.  But Joseph could hear Vince calling to him from far in the distance.
“Joseph. Joseph.”
Joseph kept falling through darkness.
“Joseph. Come closer. Closer.”
Joseph kept falling. He created a V with his arms behind him so that he could fly more smoothly with the wind rippling off his body. He was no longer falling. He was soaring downward.
Vince was somewhere in this tunnel.  Together, their love would illuminate the darkness.
Joseph kept soaring.  He was determined to find Vince — even if he had to plunge straight through to the other side of the earth.

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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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keeping our dreams intact when we are forced to work mind-numbing jobs

This morning, Sunday September 3rd, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist service on Labor Day Weekend.  The theme was labor.  As part of this service, I read from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012).

You can view my reflection below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

 

 

Good morning.

 

Today on Labor Day weekend our theme is labor.  I immediately thought of this section of my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters. This is a story about the survival of how we keep our dreams intact when we are forced to work mind-numbing jobs.

                      ________________________

My mother and I both stared at the iron legged ottoman, covered with a faded tapestry that my grandmother wove more than a half century ago.  Whenever I looked at the patterns of the ottoman, the faded edges and the lines of darker colors, I saw my grandmother, a single mother who worked in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in a textile factory.

My grandmother was a woman of great dignity.  The Episcopal Church, especially after she had divorced and returned to the city, was one of the major pillars in her life.  I don’t know, in fact, that she was particularly religious.  But I remember visiting Saint Simeon’s with her, and I could see the appeal of the church, especially to a poor woman who had little, if any, luxury in her life.

She might have been saying prayers that she no longer believed in as she sat there, her head bowed and covered, next to her two girls—my mother squirming in the aisle seat and my aunt sitting next to her daydreaming as she stared at the stained glass windows. The shiny brass organ pipes reached to the ceiling and looked as beautiful as sound.  The pews were polished mahogany, the wood smooth and cool. The scent of incense and flowers permeated the air.   All St. Simeon’s needed was some red-velvet seat cushions and gilded cherubs on the ceiling and it could have been easily transformed into the sensuous lair of an opera house or, perhaps, a bordello. Sundays at St. Simeon’s was a respite from the rest of my grandmother’s life.

trinity-three-blog

Her days in the textile mill encompassed her like the full spectrum of shadow falling from a sundial.  The morning light filtering through the small windows of the dark mill would have been diffuse.   Her hair would have been tied back into a bun as the light fell around her.  She would have bent over the heddles that kept the warp lines in place as she threaded the machine.  The colors on the ottoman— rust red, dusty blue, olive green, black—would have filled the spindles that unraveled furiously into the automated looms as her hands kept pace.  When the morning light turned into afternoon and the heat rose in rivulets of sweat dripping from her skin, my grandmother would have reminded herself that she was lucky to have found a job.  The soup lines were getting longer.  The unemployed and the homeless were marching in the streets.  Even if my grandmother didn’t know anyone who committed suicide, she would have read the listings in the daily papers.

I wondered what it was like for my grandmother, a woman with dreams and aspirations, a woman whose life dictated that her only option was to work in a mill or to clean someone else’s house, which was what she did after she left the mill. Did her dreams keep her going through the tedium of her life?  Or did knowing that her dreams would never come true make her life close to unbearable?  And if her life was unbearable, what kept her going?  Did the thought of her girls having better lives make it all worthwhile?

When my grandmother worked at the textile mill, she was a woman who was no longer young but not yet old.  She still had her girlhood daydreams as an escape from the pure tedium of her life.  At the same time, the features of her face would have been hardening themselves into the lines of her future.  Her lips may have opened easily in laughter, but they were on their way to becoming a stitch in the center of her face.

My mother told me that when she was a girl my grandmother would tell her stories about her own childhood when she and her cousin took bit parts in the People’s Theater, the local community theater.

My grandmother’s memories would have swirled through her mind as she stood sweltering in the textile mill, reloading the spools that needed to be filled faster than her fingers could go. Her back might have been aching and her fingertips numb—she might have been wondering how she could afford to pay the rent—but in her dreams she was stately as a queen as she stood center stage.  Her imagined green chiffon dress was a waterfall cascading down her.  A diamond tiara sat on her head, sparks of light reflected in Romeo’s eyes.

Sitting in the living room with my mother, I could hear the distant applause, replaced suddenly by the din of the mill.  The noise of the loom, the thud, the thwack, entwined with a ceaseless rhythmic tramp—the tread of hundreds and thousands marching through history.

————-

Namaste

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originally in The Huffington Post

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.flags

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement

 

 

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