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Note: a version of 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.

 

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

 

originally in The Huffington Post

 

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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.aids-memorial-quilt

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.

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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This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a talk on gender (including transgender and non-binary) and read an excerpt from my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders. I introduce the piece by giving a talk on gender –including transgender and non-binary — from a Unitarian Universalist perspective. The reading is an excerpt titled, “Becoming Thomas.” (This reading was part of a service on “Entering the Sacred.”)

You can view the YouTube video of the introduction and the reading of “Becoming Tnomas” below.  Or below the video, you can read the introduction and “Becoming Thomas.”

 

Several years ago, my partner became friendly with a young couple with two young children — at the time two boys — who lived down the street from us. The oldest child kept saying to my partner, “I am a girl, I am a girl.” At the time, the child was four years and old, and somehow knew.  Fortunately, she was born to open-minded parents and now she is a little girl — and I might add she is more of a little girl than my partner and I ever were!

Around this same time, I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist and taking a class here at Restoration and reading the Bible for the first time (this was not required). Soon the muse was descending on me and I was writing a novel based on biblical themes with gender-fluid characters.  At the same time, I was reviewing a book on transgender issues and remember reading a passage that if trans people saw themselves reflected in the Bible, we would live in a different world.

I titled the novel THEY. They is known as a plural pronoun in the English language– which is inclusive of both genders. They is also increasingly used as a singular pronoun to signify a person who does not identify with male or female. (It also has a history as a singular pronoun.) It is a pronoun of  choice for many who identify as non-binary — that is not male and not female.

Gender is a spectrum — and in my experience it ranges from extremely butch to extremely femme — and there are many options in between. As a lesbian over six feet tall — who on occasion is called sir — I have given gender some thought.  I have always believed that we are more a alike than different. Gender is not necessarily fixed at birth, some people are born intersex (that is with male and female sexual characteristics), many transgendered people feel like they were born in the wrong body, and increasingly many young people are identifying as non-binary.

To me, it all makes sense, including the non-binary choice. Behavior and clothes do not have a gender. When I was young we called this way of thinking androgyny.  As a very independent feminist friend said to  me when her niece became her nephew — “I’ve been gender non-conforming my entire life!”

We should be beyond gender.

But the recently released U.S. Transgender Survey, found that we as a society are definitely not beyond gender — or beyond making it extremely difficult for trans people.

The statistics are disturbing — and not unfamiliar to me. Much has changed since the early 1980s when I was coming out in my early twenties. But some say that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Enter Vice President-Elect Mike Pence. The incoming administration is extremely right wing –and is very anti-human rights on all fronts  (and also holds positions that are destructive to the planet).  So what can we do about it?  One thing we can do is to keep an open mind and heart and stand strong and be allies to each other.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe in the sacredness of ourselves and the sacredness of each other.

I have presented several excerpts from this same novel at Restoration. In this version, Tamar is reborn from the Hebrew Bible as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.  In this excerpt, “Becoming Thomas,” Tamar transitions to Thomas.

There are many non-gendered pronouns that people who identify as non-binary use to define themselves. In “Becoming Thomas,” I use the following pronouns which may be new to you:

h-i-r which is pronounced (“here”)

h-i-r-self pronounced (“here-self”)

z-e which is pronounced(“zee”)

 

Becoming Thomas

Since Tamar had become Thomas, ze carried a small scroll. One of the benefits of hir twin brother Yeshua deciding to make hir male was that ze could write in public. It felt liberating.  Thomas unraveled hir scroll and wrote: “So this is how the one known as Tamar became known as Thomas and joined forces with hir twin to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead.”

First Yeshua gathered his apostles. It wasn’t difficult to transition from Tamar to Thomas, one of the twelve. The other apostles were more concerned about themselves — that they get good placements (Jerusalem was a popular destination) and with sitting closest to hir brother, Yeshua.  Thomas didn’t care.  Ze was quiet — even meek.  But ze was okay with this.  Ze had heard somewhere that “the meek will inherit the earth.”

Ze had been sitting next to Yeshua, but the others had jostled hir to the outer edges of the activity room at the Temple. Thomas rubbed hir arm.

Ze didn’t appreciate being jostled by the other apostles and questioned their motives in wanting to be close to Yeshua.  Ze pushed the thoughts from hir mind.  Now that ze was helping Yeshua, ze tried to follow the example of turning the other cheek.

Thomas decided to leave since ze wasn’t waiting for a placement — ze would be travelling with Yeshua. Ze could sit next to him at any time.  They were both staying with their Mother. Tamar had told the Mother that she could now call hir Thomas and that ze would be helping Yeshua.  The Mother just smiled.

In the Temple, Thomas grew tired of waiting for Yeshua. He would be flanked by apostles when he was leaving anyway. Peter and James and John were always vying to walk next to him. Thomas yawned.

Ze wondered what the sun dial said. It seemed like days had passed. But it was probably only a few hours.  Ze slipped out the back door.

“Thomas?”

Startled, Thomas jumped.

It was Mary Magdalene. Thomas had met her once before.  Ze recognized the angular planes of her dark face.  Her large hands. Her smooth dark skin. The strands of her dark hair fell in narrow plaits past her shoulders.

“I recognize you. You’re Thomas, the twin,” she said.

The transformation from Tamar to Thomas felt natural. Ze had wrapped a piece of cloth tightly around hir small breasts.   Ze wore a tunic and a brown linen robe that ze borrowed from Yeshua.  Hir breasts didn’t show.  The tightness of the fabric pressing into hir breasts reminded hir to lower hir voice. Ze wore a shawl around hir head, of loose woven linen, draped over hir shoulders just like Yeshua’s.  The shawl fell over hir tunic. As Tamar, ze had usually worn a blue robe like the Mother’s. When Yeshua first saw Tamar as Thomas,  he said that he had always known that ze would make a righteous brother.  Thomas took it as a compliment.  Ze didn’t feel like ze was impersonating a man. Ze felt more like hirself.

Yeshua had told hir to smile less, because it would make hir appear more masculine. It was true.  Ze trained hirself not to smile.  The Mother smiled all the time.  Sometimes it was a distant smile.  A tired smile. A mysterious smile. At times an inquisitive smile. Tamar had to remember to drop hir voice when ze was dressed as Thomas — even though the Mother had named hir Thomas when ze was born.  Thomas was Greek for twin.

“I wasn’t allowed in the Temple, so I took off my head scarf,” Mary Magdalene explained apologetically.

Thomas kept hir voice at a low register:

“What do you mean, you weren’t allowed in?”

Mary Magdalene responded:

“When I came to the Temple to attend the meeting that Yeshua called, Peter met me outside and told me that the meeting — because it was being held in the Temple — was closed to females.”

Thomas replied:

“That is not true. I used to go … I mean the Mother comes to the Temple all the time. Yeshua invited you, so you are welcome.”

“If only all the men were like you,” replied Mary Magdalene. “I had a feeling that Peter was up to no good when he sent me away.  He had evil in his eyes.”

Thomas replied:

“Yes. Peter is jealous of you and Yeshua.”

Mary Magdalene looked dejected.

“It does not matter,” Thomas said. “You and I are Yeshua’s favorites. We’re the only ones he trusts.  He told me himself that there is no way to know that the apostles won’t abandon him in a crisis.”

“That’s true,” said Mary Magdalene.

Thomas replied:

“Besides, we’ll be travelling with Yeshua when he performs his miracles. There’s nothing that Peter can say that will change that.”

Mary Magdalene nodded and said,   “Peter treats me like an adversary. But I am trying not to respond with anger. For one thing it would tarnish the feeling that I hold for Yeshua.  I do feel that he can truly save us.”

Thomas had an idea:

“I’ll walk with you to your destination. Yeshua would want that.”

Thomas felt bad about deceiving Mary Magdalene. Ze wanted to tell her that ze was born as  Yeshua’s female twin.  But then ze remembered the pact with Yeshua in the desert — when he had declared that they were beyond gender.

The next day Thomas and Mary Magdalene travelled with Yeshua and the Mother to a marriage in the town of Cana in the tribal region of Galilee.  It was a hot day and a half a day’s journey. The Mother had borrowed some camels so that they could make the trip.  When they arrived at the dusty grounds outside the tabernacle, Yeshua  poured himself  a cup of water from one of the stone water jugs sitting in the shade.

“It’s a shame that the wedding party has no wine,” said a man standing nearby.

Yeshua drained his cup, wiped the arm of his robe across his lips, and spoke:

“But the water is cool and refreshing. And it is infinitely better for a body than wine — especially on a hot day like this.”

Thomas was helping Mary Magdalene with her bags and turned around and looked at the man to whom Yeshua was speaking. The man was dressed in a white linen robe woven through with strands of gold.

He narrowed his eyes, looked at Yeshua, and spoke: “I don’t recognize you.  You must be a traveler. Allow me to introduce myself.  I am John, the son of the governor of Cana.”

Yeshua responded:

“Then, your father is a Roman?”

“No,” replied the man. “He’s a Jew — a well-respected Pharisee.”

“I see. I’ll tell you what. I can change this water into wine,” replied Yeshua.

The man cocked his right eyebrow, looked amused, and asked:

“And you are?”

“Yeshua, the son of God.”

Thomas had a sinking feeling in hir stomach. Yeshua was acting  sincere, but ze knew that he had something to prove. It occurred to hir that Yeshua might be going around saying that he was the son of God because he wasn’t sure that Joseph was his real father. Thomas had a moment  of feeling sadness for hir twin.  The bad feeling that ze had felt when she heard Yeshua saying that he was the son of God, didn’t go away.  It got worse.

“The son of God?” asked the man.

“Yes. I will prove it to you by changing this water into wine.”

THE END

 

You can also read an excerpt, written as standalone short fiction, in the online literary journal BlazeVOX15

Another excerpt is in the recent issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

A diffenent excerpt is also in the aaduna literary magazine  (this excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize)

Another excerpt (starring Janice Roland Radway as Tamar) “The Descent of Ishtar” can be seen on YouTube.

To learn more about THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders, click here.

 

 

 

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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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