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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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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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by Janet Mason — first published in The Huffington Post

Rigid gender roles are irritating to many of us, damaging to society at large (whether people know it or not), and absolutely toxic to gender nonconforming children and their families. But like it or not, there are “boy’s toys” and “girl’s toys” and they are marketed aggressively.

As a second-generation feminist and a lesbian feminist who has spent many years confronting gender stereotypes, some decades ago I had reservations about transgender issues. My thinking was that we should feel free to pursue our interests, regardless of gender. I still think that. But as the transgender liberation movement grew, so did my awareness. I met a few people. I read a few books. But ultimately it was a seven year old child who opened my heart and changed my mind completely. This child was born as a boy and identified as a girl. She was fortunate to have loving and accepting parents. As I listened to this extremely articulate child talking on the radio, I identified with her. She was saying that she had a few friends that she told, but that she had to be careful about telling most people. At the time, I was working for a large organization and I was treading a fine line about who I came out to since some of my co-workers could handle it and some clearly could not. As in denial as I was about my work situation, a very clear voice in my mind said that this seven year old should not have to live her life in the same way that I did.

It was my privilege to read three new books that were recently published on transgender issues and the story of a gender nonconforming child. Raising My Rainbow, adventures in raising a fabulous, gender creative son by Lori Duron (2013, Broadway Books) is a funny yet serious first person story of a mom doing her best in the raising of her gender creative son, who insists on wearing a tutu to dance class and has to be talked out of knotting his soccer shirt at his hip. Lori is already ahead of the game. Her brother is gay, and she has long been a member of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) which she describes “as the most supportive support group that I’ve ever seen; it’s good for the soul; it’s what church should feel like.”

Duron covers important family issues that a family raising a gender creative child, including parenting his gender conforming older brother and confronting bullying issues that he faces as a result of his younger sibling. Ultimately, she and her husband work with her children’s school, the ACLU and her younger son’s therapist ( who warns the parents that parents that transgender children have the highest rate of suicide) to resolve the issue. The book has helpful sections in the back, including a listing of resources and a section titled “Twelve Things Every Gender Nonconforming Child Wants You to Know.” Item number two: “If you are confused and can’t quite tell if I’m a boy or a girl, just know that I am a person. Please treat me that way.”

On the other side of the equation is Stuck In The Middle With You, A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan (2013; Crown). Boylan writes about her journey of fathering two sons with her wife, transitioning, and being a mother to her children. Particularly poignant is Boylan’s struggle with her gender identity, her decision to tell her wife, and the couples’ decision to stay together through and after her transition. Stuck In The Middle With You is also a writer’s memoir that includes interviews, on identity, parents and parenting, with many authors including Augusten Burroughs, Edward Albee and Ann Beattie.

“Most of the time I just have to resign myself to the fact that this whole business is beyond comprehension for most straight people. If you’re not trans, you’re free from thinking about what gender you are in the same way that white people in America are generally free from having to think about what race they are,” writes Boylan.

 
 

In Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, A Resource For The Transgender Community, Boylan quotes her mother in the introduction, It is impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (2014; Oxford University Press) is a great resource book (a whopping 648 pages) full of important information and lots of stories. Sections include Sex and Gender (with a simple line drawing indicating that gender identity is located in the mind, sexual orientation in the heart, and sex is in the genitals. The issues are more complex — but the drawing is spot on.

Other sections include “Race, Ethnicity, and Culture;” “Disabilities and Deaf Culture; “Religion and Spirituality;” “Legal Issues;” “General, Sexual, and Reproductive Health;” “Medical Transition;” “Mental Health Services and Support;” “Intimate Relationships;” “Sexuality;” “Parenting;” “Youth;” “Aging;” “Arts and Culture;” just to name a few. The volume ends with an Afterword from the founders of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, authors of Our Bodies, Our Selves. I expect that Trans Bodies, Trans Selves will become a staple in the trans community, including non-trans family members and loved ones — and, like Our Bodies, Our Selves, will become such an integral, helpful resource that we cannot imagine living without it.

from The Huffington Post

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