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I was delighted to find that Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room is carrying my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books — NY/Lisbon). You can order a copy when you’re in their store at 12th and Pine Streets in Center City, Philadelphia.

Or you can order your copy of THEY  on their website — and also peruse the other titles — by clicking here.

I was particularly happy to hear that Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room is carrying THEY because Giovanni’s Room bookstore in it’s earlier incarnation and now its new incarnation is/was so important to me (and to many of us).Amazon THEY

I’m republishing two articles that I wrote for The Huffington Post about Giovanni’s Room and Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room.

06/05/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

When Bookstores Save Lives and Preserve Culture: Reflections on Giovanni’s Room

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.

History Repeating Itself: Odd Girl Out and Under This Beautiful Dome

July 17, 2015 

Note:  This piece aired as commentary this week on the international LGBT syndicate This Way Out.   It was previously published on The Huffington Post.

History repeats itself.

Just last week, I went into the new Philadelphia AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room, the organization that took bought the old Giovanni’s Room Bookstore, the iconic bookstore that opened in 1973. I was thrilled to hear that Giovanni’s Room was continuing in some form, of course. But friends had told me that, alas, it just wasn’t the same. For lesbians and gay men of a certain generation, Giovanni’s Room was more than a store. It was a safe haven. It even has a mention in my book Tea Leaves, a Memoir of Mothers and Daughters (Bella Books, 2012).

So I was delighted to wander in and find that the store is charming — and remarkably similar to the old bookstore. In line at the register were a couple of very young gay men with short spiky hair and flesh plug earrings. (They looked like the young dykes of my time.) One was buying a used copy of the collected works of Oscar Wilde, and telling his young friend (who was unfamiliar with the author) who Wilde was and how important his work is. My heart was warmed, of course.

Later I reflected that it was more than heartwarming, the fact that Giovanni’s Room is continuing is historic survival.

A few years ago, I heard a rumor that many young people in the LGBT community were not interested in learning their history. I don’t know if this is true, and I certainly hope it is not true.

However, if it is true, it is understandable. We live in a time of rapid acceptance of LGBT rights. Same-sex marriage is legal in far more states than it is banned. And while federal recognition of marriage and other LGBT rights may be an ongoing battle — it is sure to follow. But not that long ago (everything being relative), gay rights were dismal and before that they were nonexistent.

I’ve always preferred learning my history through literature. That’s why I was excited when I heard that Cleis Press reissued Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out, a lesbian “pulp” classic first published in 1957. The “pulp” lesbian novels published roughly from 1950 to 1965, were written by such authors as Valerie Taylor, Claire Morgan and Marijane Maeaker ( who wrote under the pen names of Vin Packer and Ann Aldrich) among others. Ann Bannon (also a pen name) was known as the “Queen of lesbian pulp fiction” with her “Beebo Brinker Chronicles.”

The pulps were published during McCarthyism, a severely repressive time of U.S. history. In 1952 the House Un-American Activities Commission investigated gay men and lesbians in the public arena. The lesbian pulps were an important window into an identity that was illegal.

In the introduction to the re-issued edition (from Cleis) of Odd Girl Out, Bannon writes that she was a young housewife when she wrote these books, explaining that she was:

“just plain scared of to assume an identity that seemed to me full of mystery…I also had a fully reasonably fear of the public consequences. God forbid that a policeman should ever pluck me from a table in a lesbian bar, shove me into a paddy wagon, and put my name on a roster of criminals. The bars underwent regular police raids in those days…”

She also puts lesbian “pulp” fiction into perspective:

How did we get away with it, those of us writing these books? No doubt it had a lot to do with the fact that we were not even a blip on the radar screens of the literary critics. No one ever reviewed a lesbian pulp paperback for the New York Times Review of Books, the Saturday Review, The Atlantic Monthly. We were lavishly ignored, except by the customers at the drugstores, airports, train stations, and newsstands who bought our books off the kiosks by the millions. The readers tended to enjoy them furtively: probably feeling as wary as I did when I wrote them.

For a novel labeled as “pulp,” Odd Girl Out is remarkably well written and with an ending that is empowering rather than tragic — unusual in literature with lesbian characters at that time. When my partner asked me if it were worth reading, I gave her a resounding, “YES.”

I was also excited when I heard about Terry Mutchler’s heart-wrenching memoir, Under This Beautiful Dome: A Senator, a Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America. I read this back to back with Ann Bannon’s lesbian classic and quickly realized that the two books shared the similar emotional underpinnings of the love that dare not speak its name: lesbianism.

The difference is that while Ann Bannon’s book was first published in 1957, Under This Beautiful Dome was published (by Seal Press) in 2014 and recounts the facts of a relationship that ended tragically when Penny Severns, an Illinois state senator and one of the mentors of the now President Barack Obama, died at the age of forty six from metastatic breast cancer.

It is a poignant love story about two women who fall in love. There are other reasons not to disclose their relationship — Penny is a journalist and it presents an ethical dilemma for her to be involved with a politician. But the primary reason — especially after Penny is diagnosed and Terry becomes her press secretary so they can spend more time together — is homophobia. In the high powered world in which they lived, being openly lesbian was a career killer.

After Penny dies (without a will) and her relatives step in and take over, Terry is locked out of the home she shared with her lover (but does not have her name on it). Wills would be public — which is why the two women did not have them — but Terry had an agreement with Penny’s twin sister, Patty. As often happens after the death of a loved one, the sister’s behavior quickly changed. She shut Terry out completely. Mutchler, who has experienced the loss of her lover plus the betrayal of someone she thought of as family, writes:

“I felt as though I had split into two people, two Terrys: the lesbian Terry whose mate has just died and was grieving deeply and needed help, and the press secretary and good friend Terry, who created a life of lies very carefully to keep her love and partnership a secret.”

The book is flawlessly and unflinchingly written. Especially touching is the caring that Terry did for her dying lover. But for me, the saddest part was that this story in different details and variations is one that I’ve heard more than a few times when one partner dies without a will, and the surviving partner is left unprotected to the vagaries of the deceased’s biological family.

In addition to being a moving memoir, Under This Beautiful Dome is a reminder that we have to protect ourselves and our rights — or history will repeat itself.

 

 

 

 

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I am posting  a segment of my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (just published by Adelaide Books — New York / Lisbon) and available on Amazon

This excerpt was published in BlazeVox15.

 

A Perfect Mind (1272 BCE)

“It is not too late.” Tamar reached up and took Judith’s hand. “You can still conceive a daughter.” “How?” said Judith. “I am almost to the end of my bleeding time. I will do anything.” “First, you have to examine your mind. You must also look closely at your actions. You have to stop talking about your husband and sons. You have to take off the silver necklaces.” Tamar saw the look of horror on Judith’s face. Amazon THEY

“But who am I without my husbands and sons? They are everything to me — even though my husband barely looks at me, and my sons never listen to me.” Tamar nodded. Judith didn’t have to tell her this. She already knew. She was at peace as she opened her mouth and uttered words she had never heard before. She could feel, deep within her, that these words were true: “You are yourself; you are the first and the last; you are the honored one and the scorned one; you are the whore and the holy one; you are the wife and the virgin; you are the mother and the daughter; you are the barren one; and many are your sons; you are the silence that is incomprehensible; you are the utterance of your name.” Tamar didn’t know where she had heard these words before or where they had come from. They had echoed through her, a truth about Judith. She was all of these things and more. She liked the sound of these words. She would have to remember to write them down later. Judith looked at Tamar and nodded. Tamar looked at the light in Judith’s eyes — and saw her beauty. There was not much light in the tent — only from the one oil lamp and the desert sunset that filtered through the opening above the pole in the center of the tent. Judith’s eyes caught the light and cast it back.

Her long dark hair shone. Her oval face held the luster of dark olives. Tamar knew that the things that were undefined were larger than Judith’s existence as a wife and mother. And she knew that Judith was ready to know her own greatness. All Judith had to do to fly was to let go of the past and to catch Tamar’s words in mid-air. But she wasn’t ready — yet. “The necklaces are all I have to show my accomplishments. ” “Just put them away for a while. You can always put them back on later,” answered Tamar. “Every day, in the morning, sit and breath for a while — at least until the sun shifts. Let go of the outside voices that say you are less than. These voices might come from your husband, from your sons. They might be the voices of the women in the marketplace. They might be everything that was told to you since you were a girl. But you have your own inner voice. And that voice will free you.” “Okay,” said Judith. “How do I start?” Tamar smiled serenely. “Sit down with me,” she said. Tamar sat cross legged on one of the folded camel hair blankets. “Remember several growing seasons ago, when Leah brought the scroll that had been passed onto her and we sat and watched our breath and listened to the sound of “OM?” Judith nodded. “We started every ritual after that with watching out breath and making the sound,” said Judith. “Yes,” said Tamar. “And remember Leah and I said that it was good to start every day with a practice of quietness — of watching our breath until the thoughts in our own minds go away and we are emptied. This way we are making a space for your own voice.” “I remember that Leah suggested that we do this at home in our own tents. But I have too much to do to practice. Besides, I don’t have that much privacy and my husband and sons would wonder what I am doing.” “We can do it right now,” said Tamar. “Wait a minute. Tell me about the scroll. Where did it come from?” Tamar looked at Judith. “The teachings of the scroll are not outlawed,” said Tamar. The voice in her head said Yet.

This was true, but Tamar was wise enough to be protective of the scroll. “But no one knows of its existence. And because it does not acknowledge the one God, it will surely be destroyed if anyone finds out about it. You really want to have a daughter, right?” “More than anything.” “First, you must promise not to tell anyone about the scroll — not your husband and not Jacob and Samuel at the village well. Not anyone.” “I promise,” replied Judith. “Leah has a friend that she has known for many years, almost as long as she has been in our goddess cult. This friend has a friend who had gone to the South of India and he brought back the scroll in a clay jar that her friend bought and gave to her. The man who had travelled to India was trading in scents and perfumes and creams. He sells his wares to the Nabataeans, the desert nomads in North Arabia.” “I’ve heard of the Nabataeans,” said Judith. “But not good things. They worship many gods, not the one God. My husbands and sons say that they are bad and to stay away from them when they sell their scents at the market.” “And do you always do what your husband and sons say?” “I say that I do,” admitted Judith as she sat down on a folded blanket and faced Tamar. “But I bought some jars of Egyptian water lily scented cream from them. I use it on myself between the few times each week when I bathe. It really does soften my skin. The scent is delicate and fragrant. I keep the jar hidden. Bram doesn’t notice the smell and neither do my sons.” “See. You know how to keep something to yourself when it suits you.” Judith nodded. “Yes, I can keep a secret.” “Then you must keep the secret of the scroll. And do not tell anyone that you want to conceive a daughter,” said Tamar. “I know that,” said Judith. “I learned when I was a girl not to say I wanted a daughter. Mother taught me that women only pray for sons and those who pray for daughters never get what they want.” “That is what we are taught,” said Tamar. “But all prayer doesn’t have to be that way. This scroll talks about a religion that worships the feminine. And by sitting quietly and noticing our breath, by feeling our oneness and saying the first sound of creation, ‘OM,’ we can remove all obstacles because they begin in the mind.”

“But is feeling our oneness the same as worshipping the one God?” asked Judith. “I think it is the same, but others may not agree,” said Tamar. She knew that if Judith felt bad about betraying the one God, she would have a hard time removing the obstacles that blocked the conception of a daughter. But Tamar was also telling Judith what she knew in her heart to be true. Judith nodded. “Just remember,” said Tamar. “To pray not only for yourself. Yes, you want a daughter more than anything, but you want to give birth to a daughter who can help others as well. You want a daughter who will make the land better when she walks upon it. You want a daughter because she will bring happiness, joy and peace to all who look upon her. “I hadn’t thought of that,” said Judith. “But you are right. My daughter will bring happiness to others. And she will make our land a better place.” “That’s right,” whispered Judith. The two women faced each other and breathed deeply. “We’ll start with ‘OM,’ the first sound that came out of the great void, that embraces all that exists and that has no beginning and no ending, the name of God,” said Tamar. “But is He our God?” asked Judith. “Our one God?” Tamar shrugged. “Some would say so. Others would say not. And others would say that this God is not a He or a She. This God is a vibration, the sound of the brightest stars as they shoot across the desert night sky, the shifting of the grains of sand that make up the endless expanse of the desert and the song of the wind as it sculpts the sand.” “I see,” replied Judith. “This is the same as the one God, but different. OM is the sound of creation. Yet the one God is said to have made everything. I remember my mother telling me the stories. The words lulled me to sleep then. Even now they move me. But my mother told me that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden because Eve listened to the serpent and ate the forbidden fruit and then convinced her husband to have some.”

Judith laughed abruptly and said, “as if serpents could talk!”

 

click here to read the entire piece in BlazeVox15

 

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

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

View YouTube videos of readings and performances of THEY by clicking here.

Text excerpts from THEY and my introductions presented at UUCR (Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration) can be clicked on below.

To read the text to the “Descent of Ishtar” and the introduction (where I talk about ancient Babylon), click here.

To read the text to “Forty Days And Forty Nights” as well as my introduction, click here.

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