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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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(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 or you can view the segment below and below that on this blog, you can read the excerpt. (At the bottom of this post is another video link to YouTube featuring me reading from a different part of Art — and talking about the Saints.)

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.rainbow love

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.

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Note: This piece of commentary was written as part of a tribute for President Obama for This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show. Click here to hear the piece on this week’s This Way Out — which includes President Obama’s words and music from Emma’s revolution. The lead story is on President Obama’s good news about Chelsea Manning.

My partner, who ordinarily is allergic to the news, and I sat rapt in front of the television, the first time when President Obama first said LGBT and then the words “lesbian” and “transgender” at one of his state of the nation addresses.

Of course, by then we knew this president was on our side. We were on his side, too.  We stayed home from work to watch his first inauguration.  I still remember watching President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.  We both held our breath because we knew that not everybody would be happy to see the first African American president.

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Between our moments of awe, my partner tended to be nonchalant. “It’s about time,” she remarked drily when I told her that the because of the Obama administration hospitals that took money from the federal government had to honor the medical power of attorney papers of same-sex couples. She was right, of course. It was about time that we had some protections under the law.

We are of that generation of lesbians who were used to not having any rights. My partner is a drummer and to be honest we came to enjoy marching in the streets. There always seemed to be a drum contingent to hook up with.  At the time, I was a performance poet and I could count on offending people at my readings at the more conventional venues.  It was no secret that I rather enjoyed it when people walked out.  Okay, I bragged about it.

My partner and I never imagined we’d be legally married some day.

The morning after President Obama won re-election in 2012, I was working on a literacy project in an elementary school in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. An African American first grader looked up at me with large brown eyes and shyly said, “I know who the president is.”

At the second inauguration for President Obama, we learned about a poet named Richard Blanco. He was the first Hispanic person and the first openly gay poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. I reviewed several of his books for This Way Out.

President Obama made history again at this inauguration on the Capitol steps after he was sworn in, when he stated:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

He also mentioned the Stonewall Inn riots — the pivotal LGBT rights rebellion in 1969 when gay men, lesbians, and trans people stood up against police intimation.

Thank you President Obama for eight years of your service, for your personal sacrifices, for the wonderful example you set with your beautiful family, and for being a secure man. Thank you also for your commitment to the LGBTQ community.  Because of you, we are stronger and ready to take on whatever comes next.

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Last weekend, my partner Barbara and I went to the DVD release party in Philadelphia of Sharon Katz and The Peace Train.  It was an excellent concert, complete with dancing.  It was a large extremely diverse (across the board).  Sharon and her partner/producer Marilyn are from South Africa where they began The Peace Train — taking kids of all races across the country on a train.  They did the same thing in this country just this past year and made a movie about the original Peace Train and another movie about the trip they just took.  One young person who was on The Peace Train with them talked about how empowering it was to meet Americans all of types who sang and danced with them.  Marilyn who introduced Sharon and the band said that she worked hard for the Hillary campaign and was very broken hearted but that now is the time to reach out across the divide to let people get to know us.  Diversity is fun! The Peace Train attests to this.  Below are some photos and some short YouTube video clips of The Peace Train. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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originally in The Huffington  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..

Just the other day, I was talking to a historian friend about a conversation she had with a lesbian friend who announced that she wasn’t voting. The friend told her that we’ll just have four years of Trump. This gave me pause. I know more than a few people who have announced they’re not voting. What these people, who call themselves progressives, have in common, is that they are white, mostly economically privileged (but not all of them), and straight.

Of course, I tried to talk some sense into them. But with each one, I was left frustrated and came to the conclusion that they are in denial. Even if they are white and economically privileged and straight, history can change on a dime and their lives will be changed also.

When I heard about Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, A History 1880-1945, by Clayton J. Whisnant (Harrington Park Press; 2016), I was immediately interested. It’s not an easy book to read. The first night I started reading it, I kept dreaming that the United States was sliding toward fascism. Then when I woke up I thought about the presidential election. I guess it’s safe to say that the book got under my skin and that it was published at exactly the right time.

The Weimer Republic and the openly gay culture in Berlin was embedded in my LGBT encoded memory. Whisnant writes about the “homosexual movement” launched in Germany in the 1890s and its various factions (and its scandals and political movements) that led up to the openness of the Weimer Republic in the 1920s.

The author recounts that in the heyday of the Weimar Republic, there were between 90 and 100 gay bars in Berlin frequented by gay men and lesbians. There we also many thriving publications for gay men and lesbians. I found it interesting that the lesbian publications addressed trans issues.

As open as it was, the Weimar Republic was far from being a utopia for LGBTQ people. There were anti-gay laws on the books but German police officers, for the most part, turned a blind eye to the bars. This is more than can be said for U.S. police conduct, before Stonewall when patrons were routinely rounded up, arrested and their names published in the papers (ruining careers and severing family ties).

The author writes about Christopher Isherwood, a prominent foreigner who frequented the sexual underworld of Berlin. Isherwood wrote a series of short stories — The Berlin Stories — which inspired the Broadway musical and the award-winning film Cabaret.

The book also chronicles the downfall of the Wiemar Republic.

This includes the rise of censorship laws that targeted gay and lesbian publications. The book also addresses infighting and factions in the “homosexual movement,” including the “masculinist” faction that abhorred anything feminine or feminist. Ultimately, many of the “masculinist” gay men joined the Nazi Party and were put in concentration camps and exterminated.

Things changed almost overnight. As the author writes:

“In 1930 the Nazi Party won a staggering victory in the federal elections: overnight it grew from a small fringe party with only twelve seats in the Reichstag to become the second most powerful political party in the land. Homosexual activists recognized that they were in trouble.”

The book also chronicles the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the camps and concludes with “Gay and Lesbian Life after 1945.”

Suffice to say that it took decades to repair the damage. Now, as well as historically, is not a time for skepticism, sarcasm or inaction.

There is a lot at stake in the upcoming election:

Think about what a Trump presidency would do to the Supreme Court. Trump has declared that if elected he’ll do what he can to roll back the marriage equality ruling.

You don’t have to be LGBT to have a lot at stake in this election, but it helps.

Think about climate change.

Think about our standing in the world.

And if you are still convinced that you have nothing to lose, think about voting for those who are the most vulnerable — such as the 11-year-old Mexican-American girl who lives in fear of her immigrant parents being deported.

Still, the life you save by voting may well be your own.

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My partner and I, over breakfast, were discussing what a leap year is. The only consensus that we were able to come to was that time is an artificial construct. For this reason, Black History Month and Women’s History Month, etc., are also artificial constructs. It is helpful to bring our respective histories to the forefront.

I explored my family history, overlapping with the labor movement and Philadelphia history in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books). My life with my partner who worked for, now retired from, the U.S. Postal Service is also a big part of Tea Leaves as well as my relationship with my mother, especially as I cared for her in the final months of her life. Close to thirty years ago I went with my partner to her African American co-worker’s church on “men’s day.” As I wrote, the end result was that this co-worker liked me so much “she’d stopped praying for Barbara.” That is how change is made — when we enter each other’s lives.

We all live in a world where the history of the many is larger than the history of the few (that of privileged straight white men). And the fact is that the history of privileged straight white men is also impacted by the history of the many. By many I mean those of us all races, those of who identify as queer, the more than half the population that is female, as well as the rest of the many. All of our lives touch.

When I first heard of Foresaken (NewSouth Books) by Ross Howell, Jr., I was intrigued. The novel is about a sixteen year old black girl who actually lived in Hampton, Virginia, who one day retaliated against her overbearing white woman employer in her home and murdered her. The story is told from the point of view of an eighteen year old white male newspaper reporter. The protagonist, Charlie, has gone through connecting with people on a human level, befriending blacks as well as whites. This historic novel is a compelling read, and as I turned the pages, I found myself drawn into a prism where the reasons for the girl’s crime — pent-up rage — unfolds as the protagonist talks to her elderly lawyer, a former slave who is now blind.

Foresaken is a novel where the toll that societal and institutional racism takes on whites (while less oppressive and vastly different than the effects of institutional racism against black people), specifically on white people who dared to speak up on behalf of the humanity of black people, is taken into account. As the author writes:

“I felt I would never meet another man like Mr. Fields. He had been a slave. Now he was free. He once had sight. Now he was blind. Was I feeling what he felt when he heard the whip on his mother’s back? I flicked the cigarette into the street. I sat down on the curb. I was so angry that it was hard to breathe. Who does Jim Crow leave free?”

Another historical novel explores the true story of a seamstress slave from Norfolk, Virginia. The Treason of Mary Louvestre is written by My Haley (Koehlerbooks), the widow of Alex Haley. My collaborated on his groundbreaking book of African American history, Roots, and the subsequent miniseries released in 1977. As it says on the book jacket, “Now My has returned to her own roots as an author with The Treason of Mary Louvestre.”

My deftly brings the reader into Mary’s world as the plot unfolds and Mary copies the plans for the CSS Virginia (a confederate warship) and enters a world where she must take a long journey and face certain death as a spy.

Mary Louvestre is an important historical figure and a strong woman character, some might say a feminist hero.

Raised like “the daughter” of white slave owners, Mary sees the writing on the wall — if they fall on financial hard times or die, she will be sold as a slave. This is the turning point for her. She can stay and let others decide her fate or she can leave and influence history:

“What a fool she had been! …. Not only had she trusted that someday she was to be free, that she would transcend being a Negro slave, she had convinced herself she’d have financial control over her life, real power over her future.

In reality, she was special only as a special pet of her owners. They didn’t physically beat her. Nor did they board her on slave row. She didn’t eat from a peck of rice and throwaway saltfish. Yet, she still felt insignificant.

Her life testified to other Negroes that, if they worked from dusk to dawn every day of their lives to “serve the South” and “make their master’s proud,” they got to keep on doing it for the rest of their lives. That was their prize. Regarded as second-class no matter how hard they tried was the message that she had received. It was galling — and so unfair.”

We all face turning points in our lives. It might be to accept ourselves or to realize how society perceives us. Sometimes that turning point is the realization that we are all connected. Always, it is powerful.

This review was previously in The Huffington Post.

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I still remember the first time that I set foot in Giovanni’s Room, the beloved LGBT bookstore that recently closed its doors this past May. It was 1981, the year that I came out. I was in my early twenties. I had known about Giovanni’s Room, the gay and lesbian beacon on the corner of Twelfth and Pine Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. The store was founded in 1973.

The storefront was a rare and welcome presence for gay men and lesbians like myself who came out in a hostile time before the television shows Will and Grace, and Ellen, but after the Stonewall Gay Liberation Riots in 1969 which meant that gay bookstores, gay, lesbian and women’s presses were in existence. Gay marriage was just a glimmer in the eyes of our forebears (such as Gertrude and Alice) and still way in the future for us.

Stepping into Giovanni’s Room in 1981 felt like an act of courage and it was. Years later, the bookstore hosted Rita Mae Brown as a guest signing her books. I stood in the long line that went up the narrow staircase to the second floor where Rita Mae was signing her books. I arrived upstairs just in time to hear Rita Mae ask Ed Hermance, the owner, how many rocks had been thrown through his store windows over the years. As I recall, it was a high number.

On that first visit to Giovanni’s Room in 1981, I bought a book about Sojourner Truth, the African American abolitionist (born into slavery) and women’s rights activist. The book was hardback and had an off-white dust jacket with a pebbly feel to it. The title was Sojourner Truth: A Self Made Woman. It was in many ways a safe pick for me. If I ran into someone on the street and they asked me where I had been, I could be honest and say Giovanni’s Room which was a feminist bookstore, too. But Sojourner Truth had been an important figure in history and someone who gave me courage in my young life.

After my first trip to Giovanni’s, it was easier to go back. Inside the walls of that corner city house turned bookstore, I found a community of past and present. It was where I heard activists and authors of all types speak. And it was where I became most intimately acquainted with James Baldwin (whose pioneering novel Giovanni’s Room the store was named for), Willa Cather, Sappho, of course, and so many others.

Finally, Giovanni’s was a place where I came to find myself as a lesbian and as an author. I had been writing since childhood and began taking it seriously at the age of twenty-nine, the same age I learned that Gertrude had been when she started writing as a daily practice. When I began to get published in journals and anthologies, I would come into the store and find myself on the shelves. A little while later, when a small press began publishing my chapbooks, they were in the poetry section. A poster with one of my poems on it was in the rack upstairs. In the last five years, when I had readings for a novel and then a memoir, I had my book launches at the store.

I was part of many readings at Giovanni’s over the years, but that is what not I remember most. I remember that Giovanni’s shaped me as a writer and that Ed Hermance nurtured my talent. Ed and I would often talk when I came into the store, and he was always let me know when a new book had come out that I should check out, including a new translation of Sappho and a collection of James Baldwin’s letters. It was more than just good business. Ed really cared.

One of the people we both cared about was Toni Brown, the late lesbian poet, who worked at Giovanni’s Room for a stint when she first moved to Philadelphia from Amherst, Massachusetts. Toni died, unexpectedly, at the age of fifty-five. I had a very large print made from a photograph that I had taken of Toni made for her memorial service in April of 2008. The photograph was displayed on the stage of The Painted Bride Art Center where the memorial was held. Toni was a tall African American woman, about the same height as I, and the service was packed with a diverse crowd. I remember standing on the stage talking to Ed Hermance, both of us crying, and me handing him the photograph. He displayed it in the store for a time, on the wall behind the cash register. I remember thinking that I could walk into Giovanni’s Room at any time and see Toni.

Losing Giovanni’s Room is in many ways similar to losing a good friend. It was a place that contained our history, as a movement, as a people. It was a place that gave testament to our lives. It was a store that gave so many of us a safe haven and, in reality, saved many lives.

It was a place where we could be ourselves.

Note: as of this writing, Giovanni’s Room is still awaiting the decision of a potential buyer — which most likely will come by the middle of June.

 

From The Huffington Post

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