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Posts Tagged ‘lesbian memoir’

The alternative to the LGBT community is to be invisible. There is strength in numbers and in community and that is why we band together. Historically, we have a collective history of living in the shadows — out of self preservation in a homophobic society. But living in the shadows was and is unhealthy. It has led to isolation, dishonesty (in particular with opposite-sex heterosexual spouses) and all the guises of self-destruction, including substance abuse and suicide. Recently, I read two books — Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc originally censored but in 2015 published by The Feminist Press and Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts) by Joseph P. Eckhardt — that brought these issues to the surface of my thinking.

I had heard about the book by Joseph P. Eckhardt Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts), but it took a visit to the Historical Society of Woodstock to really pique my interest. I was visiting the area when friends who lived nearby told me that the show — based on the book and the lives and some of the original artwork of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason who were life partners and residents of Woodstock, NY, for decades was a “must-see.” So I went. The show, which ended in early September, featured a 1920s silent film which the more than six feet tall, larger than life, Wilna Hervey had a role.

I went with my partner and some old friends from the area and as we were leaving, one of the women said to me, “Doesn’t it make you angry that so much of our history had been lost?” I am, by nature, an optimist, so I agreed with her. One way to look at it, is that this is just one slice of our history, most of which has been lost. But I have to admit that I had the feeling of an absolute afterglow in thinking about these two women. I’m sure the fact that I, too, am a lesbian in a long-term relationship, and that I am over six feet tall (like both Wilna and Nan) and that my last name is the same as Nan Mason and that I have a raucous laugh like Nan did brought some bearing on my fascination. We all like to see ourselves reflected in the world.

Living Large is billed as “a rollicking dual biography of one of America’s earliest ‘out and proud’ same-sex couples” and it does not disappoint. Eckhardt did a thorough and meticulous job of telling us the story of their lives and relationship. Wilna Hervey was a comedic silent film star. Nan Mason was the daughter of Wilna’s co-star and friend, Dan Mason, and the two women hit it off with the father’s blessing. He wrote a letter to them, saying:

“I am happy when I know you are both happy. I want to see that harmony grow and expand in your two lives. Both giving and taking for your mutual welfare and happiness. Love is the great vital force. Love is life, without it life is a void. Poor indeed is the man or woman who do not or never have known true love.”

Nan and Wilna were both visual artists and in 1924, they moved to an art colony in the Catskills which became their permanent home. In the epilogue Eckhardt writes:

“It is their enthusiasm, their eagerness to explore the adventures that each new day might bring — and their joy in sharing them with each other — that the most important legacy of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason is to be found. Their enduring companionship serves to remind us of a profound and timeless truth: enthusiasm and love are the secrets to a happy life, and the essence of Living Large.”

Eckhardt emphasizes that Wilna and Nan did not experience discrimination based on their sexual orientation. This is unusual, but it is easy to believe. They lived protected lives as artists in a community of artists and also (Wilna was an heiress) came from protected class backgrounds.

Still, Living Large left me with some questions. Was my friend (who I saw the exhibition with) right? Would Wilna Hervey be as well known as Charlie Chaplin if it wasn’t for the sexism and heterosexism of the time? Would they have had better luck as artists if the climate was different? In particular, the artwork and fine art photography by Nan Mason (reproduced in the book) is nothing short of stunning.
We may never know, but it is no small thing that we know about their lives in Living Large.

Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc was censored in the author’s time but in 2015 was published by The Feminist Press which explains, “In 1966 when it was originally published in France, the text was censored because of its explicit depiction of young homosexuality. With this publication, the original, unexpurgated text–a stunning literary portrayal of female desire and sexuality–is available to a US audience for the first time.”

Leduc lived from 1907 to 1972. She was respected by the well-known writers of her time and place including Camus, Cocteau and Genet. Simone de Beauvoir was her close friend and champion. Even so, she was ahead of her time and was largely unrecognized in her lifetime with the exception of her autobiography La Batarde, published in 1964.

Still, as a writer she accomplished her goals. Of her work that was censored, she wrote:

“I am trying to render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love. In this there is doubtless something that every woman can understand. I am not aiming for scandal but only to describe the woman’s experience with precision….”

This precisely explains Therese and Isabelle. Leduc takes sensuous writing to new heights in capturing the erotic energy between two French school girls:

“….Clasping her against my gaping open heart, I wanted to draw Isabelle inside. Love is an exhausting invention. Isabelle, Therese, I pronounced in my head, getting used to the magical simplicity of our two names.”

The sensuous language is not reserved for the erotic scenes, but stay with the reader as the protagonists turn from lovers back into school girls — “Girls flew off toward their violins, their primers, their pianos.” Hers is a language that captures the subtlety of forbidden love: “…I linked my arm in hers: twining together, our fingers made love.”

The book includes two essays at the end. In “A Story of Censorship” by Carlo Jansiti and the “Afterward” by Michael Lucey, we learn about Violette’s struggles as an author, including the heartbreak of censorship. Despite the way that she may have felt in her lifetime, Violette Leduc’s work endures, and it is absolutely necessary.

To view the photos of “Living Large” at the Woodstock Historical Society, click here.

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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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It has been said that children are our future. This is exactly why we should be concerned about LGBT children and teens — and in fact with any kids who are different in any way. I was strongly reminded about this with two new books that recently came across my desk.

Heal This Way, a Love Story (Hot Glue Press, LLC, 2013), written by the Little Monsters ( the name for Lady Gaga fans derived in part from her song titled “The Fame Monsters”) and photographed by Tracey B. Wilson, is a rare gem of a book conceived by Wilson. As she explains in the preface,

In the winter of 2013, Lady Gaga had to cancel the remainder of her concert tour due to a debilitating hip injury. On the weekend that was to be the Born This Way Ball at Madison Square Garden, Little Monsters from around the world gathered in New York City to celebrate their love and devotion to Lady Gaga and to the community that she has given them. Knowing how anxious they were to let Mother Monster know that they loved her no matter what, I had an idea. A signup sheet, three tweets, and 100 Little Monsters later, Heal This Way was born…

The result is a profoundly touching collection of color photographs and letters — many of them handwritten.

I am eleven years old and You have already changed my Life. I love You because You support people who are bullied everywhere.

Dear Lady GaGa,

I want to thank you for INSPIRING a generation! For creating a message and a platform that changed not only how gay, bisexual and transgender people are viewed and portrayed in the media, but for creating an incredible positive message for people in my community everywhere!

One fan, writing about how Lady Gaga has changed her life, writes:

Probably the biggest way that she had impacted me would have to be helping me accept that I’m a lesbian. Before I heard “Born This Way,” I felt ashamed and longed for something to make me feel proud of this part of my identity. The first time I heard her sing, “No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life/ I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to survive,” I got chills like she was singing that line directly to me. I haven’t come out to my family and not sure if I ever will; I’m terrified of how they would react if they knew. I have come out to my friends and I’m definitely more open about it to other people and I have Gaga to thank for that.

To read Heal This Way, was for me a, baby boomer lesbian (and, in full disclosure, a Lady Gaga fan) was extremely empowering. In the words of one Little Monster, “You have inspired us to follow our dreams and to try our hardest at things people say we can’t do.”

When I picked up, Coming Around, Parenting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Kids by Anne Dohrenwend, (New Horizon Press, 2012), I was surprised to see that it was addressed to straight adults of my generation. But then it made perfect sense. These are the majority of the people parenting the next generation and they need help.

Coming Around offers help by explaining what being LBGT means and then acting as a guide of how to be tolerant, accepting, and lovingly guide LGBT children into adulthood.

The author explains:

People often confuse sexual orientation with gender identity. Sexual orientation is about the gender to whom one is attracted: men, women or both. Gender identity has to do with one’s internal experience of being male or female.

The author offers the advice for the liberal and conservative parent of what to say when a child comes out to them. Her basic advice is to tell the child (who may be a young adult) that you love him or her (not that you love them despite the fact that they are LGBT) and that you are glad that she or he told you.

She says:

I look forward to the day when mockery of LGBTQs is viewed as socially repugnant. Until that day comes, there are always bridges that can allow passage from the world view to another. Stand up for your child by interrupting gay jokes that occur in your presence. Listen to your child’s insights and perceptions. By valuing his or her experiences, you build the bridge that maintains your connection.

The author also mentions the importance of connecting with others, and mentions PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) which is one of the country’s largest ally organizations with 350 local chapters. PFLAG is committed to advancing equality through its mission of support, education and advocacy.

Coming Around gives the sound advice of getting to know your child’s partner, and includes sections on marriage equality, same sex parenting and becoming a grandparent.

While the advice that Coming Around offers may just sound like commonsense — the fact is that this information is not common knowledge in the dominant culture. Coming Around is the kind of book that could change an entire family’s experience of life.

first published in The Huffington Post

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Last night when I was watching the news, there was a short segment about a 84-year old retired postal worker who is helping the government solve its debt problems by sending $50 of his postal pension to the government each month along with the revenue he gets from collecting aluminum cans.

Mr. Garcia, the retired postal worker, is also a veteran and is acting on his sense of public duty. I tend to agree with his wife of 59 years in thinking that he is a little crazy, but the story also made me sad. My partner, who I have been with for almost 30 years, is a recent retiree of the U.S. Postal Service, so I know how small the postal pension can be. The post office wasn’t unionized until 1970. So it is likely that Mr. Garcia spent at least half of his working life in a nonunionized environment — a fact that is most likely reflected in his pension and social security benefits.

But retired postal workers are never short on ingenuity. My partner, Barbara, suggested that the government should charge people five dollars to take a whack with a sledge hammer on an old car with dollar signs painted on it and call it “Make a Dent in the Deficit.” She told me that she could solve all the government’s problems, but no one ever listens to her. I write about Barbara in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

It’s time to listen to our retired postal workers. And Mr. Garcia, by sending his donation to the Treasury Department every month, is telling us something. He says it is about service, but he is putting the one percent of the country to shame. Millionaires and billionaires are the ones who should be helping the country pay down its debt.

Speaking of public servants, let’s start with our representatives. Your basic senator (who does not have an extra leadership position such as Speaker of the House, etc.), earns $174,000 per year. And this is salary alone, not accounting for benefits, allowances, or retirement.

Let’s do the math.

read the rest of the article in The Huffington Post

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