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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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Portions of this piece is being aired this week on This Way Out. It was previously published on The Huffington Post

I turned on the television news at exactly the wrong moment and saw Kim Davis standing on stage between (Republican presidential hopeful) Mike Huckabee and her lawyer. Kim, the homophobic clerk in Kentucky who was jailed for not issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, defying the supreme court and using her alleged religious beliefs as an excuse. When I saw her on television, she had just been released from jail and was basking in the moment.

In full disclosure, the sight of her almost made steam come out of my ears. I asked myself why I was so furious. I am a lesbian in my mid-fifties. I’ve been out since my early twenties. I’m no stranger to bigotry. The fact that the LGBT community incited someone like Davis to break the law and go to jail is progress. After all, she was protesting our Supreme Court victory.

I decided that I was furious because I grew up in “Pennsyltucky.” In fact, I still live in the state of Pennsylvania, though in my early twenties I “escaped” from a working class suburban neighborhood to a part of Philadelphia that is known to be LGBT friendly (but is not always).

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church (joining a church was a surprise even to me). My secular background is something that I wrote about in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters

This morning in church, a fifty or sixty something African American man stood up and told us that he had an argument with someone about Kim Davis: “To me, the business in Kentucky reminded me of Civil Rights.”

Now, I’ve long recognized that being white and LGBT is vastly different from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. For one thing, a white LGBT person can choose not to be out (even if that choice is often unhealthy). But the gentleman in my church had a point. And If it’s not the same thing as historic bigotry against African Americans, there are some pretty strong parallels. By the time I came home from church, I realized that some positive things actually came out of the Kim Davis debacle.

For one thing, I experienced seeing someone who may be changing his mind about LGBT rights. That is why I’m part of a diverse faith community (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Unitarian’s call it a “Beloved Community“). I get to witness people’s shifting viewpoints and, in turn, am influenced by others. Then I went online and did a quick search on Kim Davis. I found a postcard of Lea DeLaria on The Huffington Post United Kingdom.

The postcard shows Lea DeLaria (the real life lesbian actress from the prison themed Netflix series Orange Is The New Black) with text superimposed that reads: “Welcome to jail, Kim Davis. I get to be your fifth husband.”

That postcard (and the others on the same page) is definitely a positive thing that came out of the situation — positively hilarious.

The “business in Kentucky” definitely underscored the importance of the book I just read, Crooked Letter i: Coming Out In the South. The book is a collection of essays, with a Foreword by Dorothy Allison, edited by Connie Griffin.

Dorothy Allison (the Southern born lesbian feminist author of the novel, Bastard Out of Carolina) writes:

“…My mother’s hopes and dreams for me were as heavy as my stepfather’s contempt and lust. I was the one who escaped but who really escapes? …. In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives?”

The stories are filled with religion — Southern Baptist, Fundamentalist Christian, you name it. It’s not surprising or shouldn’t be — but it is. At first I was appalled at the damage done to people in the name of religion.

Logan Knight, who transitioned from female to male, writes as he returns to his home town years after he left:

“This is what I know, only because I have seen it before. There will be no yelling, no crying; no sermons. If my grandmother cannot reconcile who I am against her religion, if the musculature of my shoulders is an affront to her beliefs, she will simply forget me. She will not speak to me; she will not acknowledge my presence in her house ever again. The sun burns into my arms, and I tense with nervousness.”

While the stories by LGBT people who had to break ties with their families are poignant and heartbreaking. In the ending of Knight’s essay and in the content of other essays in this collection, I began to see another narrative. There is not only acceptance of family and friends but warmth and real love.

People — including Southerners and religious people — are a collection in individuals. They have their own beliefs.

Click here and scroll down to hear the audio file of This Way Out.

 

 

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hands-Girls-Rock-PhillyGloria-Rohlfs-backLast weekend, our friend Gloria Rohlfs participated in a Girl’s Rock Philly Ladies Rock Philly weekend event.  Girls Rock Philly teaches girls to play music and their weekend for adults was spectacular.

Gloria has real rock and roll presence as you can see in this You Tube clip.  Her group, Rude Folx, debuted its WE’RE NOT SORRY! rock -n- roll rant — a needed feminist statement for  ggrrlls of all ages.

The energy of the event was spectacular — and as Gloria aptly put it — this is an organization that is not uptight about age or gender.  My partner said that it always was a fantasy of hers to play in a rock -n- roll band and plans to participate next year!

Yours truly will be taking the pictures!

Gloria-and-Barbaradrummer-one

 

 

 

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This review  aired on This Way Out (the international radio show) — click here to listen

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.

(This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post and OpEdNews.com)

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

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