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Note: I am reblogging this in honor of World Awareness Day on December 1st 2019.

This piece of commentary was previously aired on This Way Out, the LGBTQ news and culture syndicate headquartered in Los Angeles and published 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.”

aids memorial quilt

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.

Amazon THEY

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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Just when I think I am ready to move on to immerse myself in other projects, I am harassed about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books— New York — Lisbon).  I am a creative writer after all and we do tend to move on and write about other things and be fascinated by other details.

This time it was someone quoting the apostle Paul from the New Testament in one of his homophobic passages —  from Romans. Paul, hmmm, I thought, he sounds familiar. So I did a little research. I learned from Q Spirit, an online Christian zine, that Paul most likely struggled with his own homosexual nature when he was writing these passages.  To be fair, the author also writes that Paul also wrote some superb passages on unconditional love.

I also learned from Q Spirit that I was hit with one of the “clobber passages” from anti- LGBTQ bigots in quoting the New Testament.

Now, internalized self-loathing is a complicated thing. There are reasons for self hatred, but when that self hatred is used to oppress others — we have a problem.

There are lots of congregations that welcome LGBTQ members. There are so many that it seems like a no-brainer.

But we still have work to do.

Meanwhile churches are going out of business and there is a trend for old churches to be sold and to be turned into private residences.

When churches do discriminate against LGBTQ people, they hurt the children of their congregants, so people leave.

Also, when a young person who is just learning about his or her sexuality or gender expression leaves, a generational thread is broken. Often the parents leave too. And their friends and so on.

The antiquated notion of homophobia is one reason that churches go out of business.

Other online sources — such as Belief Net— have the same theory about apostle Paul suppressing his own homosexuality as the impetus behind his anti-gay writings.

I remember the feminist author Mary Daly, decades ago referring to Paul as the “little man who hated women.” That would be about right.

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To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

 

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(I presented this novel excerpt at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I am a lay minister.  The segment is also on You Tube. Click here  to see the video or you can view the segment below and below that on this blog, you can read the excerpt. (At the bottom of this post is another video link to YouTube featuring me reading from a different part of Art — and talking about the Saints.)

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.)

 

This excerpt is from a novel that I wrote recently titled Art: a revolution of love and marriage.  The novel is based on the working class landscape in which I grew up and takes place in the seventies.  The main character is named Art and is based on a real person (who is not me). So here is a short excerpt from her story. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality is a good hint at the happy ending.

 Art, a revolution of love and marriage

Art strode from the counter, past the grill and the fryers and into the backroom.  She tore her yellow headscarf off triumphantly as she clocked out.  Then she put on her sweater and her padded royal blue jacket. She slammed the metal back door behind her.

The sun was setting. It was about ten after five.  Her brother was scheduled to pick her up at five thirty. Art stood behind the building. She put up her hood and looked up. The sky was streaked with violet.  Long white wisps of clouds unfurled like banners. A single bright star came out from behind a cloud.  She watched it for a moment.  It stayed in one place so she knew it was a star, not an airplane.  It was bright enough to be a planet: either Jupiter or Venus.rainbow love

She thought about the fact that the star was light years away.  Maybe her junior year physics teacher was right.  Perhaps they were made from the stars they wished on. Most of the atoms spinning around in her body were made from stardust. Art would never admit it — in physics class last year, she had just rolled her eyes along with the others — but the fact was that she did have dreams.  She wished that she could be with Linda forever. She wished that Linda’s mother would stop telling her daughter that it was a waste of time to study trigonometry and that she would stop telling Linda that her life was going to turn out just like hers. She stared at the star.  It was so bright that it seemed to be burning a hole in the winter sky.  She wished she and Linda could make a life together.  She wished they could get married.  She wished that they could even have a kid or two. But first they had to get through this last year of high school. Getting into the trig class would be easy compared to the rest.

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Note: This piece of commentary was written as part of a tribute for President Obama for This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show. Click here to hear the piece on this week’s This Way Out — which includes President Obama’s words and music from Emma’s revolution. The lead story is on President Obama’s good news about Chelsea Manning.

My partner, who ordinarily is allergic to the news, and I sat rapt in front of the television, the first time when President Obama first said LGBT and then the words “lesbian” and “transgender” at one of his state of the nation addresses.

Of course, by then we knew this president was on our side. We were on his side, too.  We stayed home from work to watch his first inauguration.  I still remember watching President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.  We both held our breath because we knew that not everybody would be happy to see the first African American president.

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Between our moments of awe, my partner tended to be nonchalant. “It’s about time,” she remarked drily when I told her that the because of the Obama administration hospitals that took money from the federal government had to honor the medical power of attorney papers of same-sex couples. She was right, of course. It was about time that we had some protections under the law.

We are of that generation of lesbians who were used to not having any rights. My partner is a drummer and to be honest we came to enjoy marching in the streets. There always seemed to be a drum contingent to hook up with.  At the time, I was a performance poet and I could count on offending people at my readings at the more conventional venues.  It was no secret that I rather enjoyed it when people walked out.  Okay, I bragged about it.

My partner and I never imagined we’d be legally married some day.

The morning after President Obama won re-election in 2012, I was working on a literacy project in an elementary school in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. An African American first grader looked up at me with large brown eyes and shyly said, “I know who the president is.”

At the second inauguration for President Obama, we learned about a poet named Richard Blanco. He was the first Hispanic person and the first openly gay poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. I reviewed several of his books for This Way Out.

President Obama made history again at this inauguration on the Capitol steps after he was sworn in, when he stated:

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

He also mentioned the Stonewall Inn riots — the pivotal LGBT rights rebellion in 1969 when gay men, lesbians, and trans people stood up against police intimation.

Thank you President Obama for eight years of your service, for your personal sacrifices, for the wonderful example you set with your beautiful family, and for being a secure man. Thank you also for your commitment to the LGBTQ community.  Because of you, we are stronger and ready to take on whatever comes next.

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A version of this commentary was aired this week by This Way Out, in international LGBTQ radio news and culture wrap. Click here to listen to read more about This Way Out and to listen to the complete podcast.

In full disclosure, I often describe myself as not being a “kid person.” And it’s true — when I came out in the early 1980s, I thought I was off the hook for getting married and having children. Whew. I chronicled my young child-free lesbian life in Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (2012, Bella Books):

“It was the early 1980s, a few years before lesbians were starting to take trips to the sperm banks. Most of the lesbians we knew with children had them in previous marriages — to men — and more than a few women we knew had been through painful custody battles.”

Things changed rather rapidly — but not for me. I successfully avoided the lesbian baby boom of my generation and some peer pressure to adopt. Now — safely past the child bearing and even the adopting age — I find myself wondering if LGBTQ people have changed the face of parenting — or if they what they do is any different than other (heterosexual) parents?

Society has changed, in large part, to accommodate us. But have LGBT people, in particular by parenting, changed society? Almost magically, recently published books started arriving in my mailbox to help my understanding.

Gay Fathers, Their Children, and the Making of Kinship
(Fordham University Press) by Aaron Goodfellow is the most academic of the books. It quotes Michel Foucault, the innovative French philosopher, whose work much of Queer Theory is based on. In a lay person’s terms, Foucault’s work emphasizes thinking outside the box and explains how society polices itself to maintain a conservative social order. As Goodfellow writes, Foucault

“has famously described it is not the specter of two men having and enjoying sex that unsettles the social order. Rather, it is the specter of two men who have had sex living happily and tenderly ever after that proves unbearable.”

Goodfellow’s book is a survey of many different gay men who have decided to become fathers. It emphasizes that gay men being fathers challenges the social order because there are two men — not one — in charge (as opposed to Father Knows Best).

Saving Delaney, From Surrogacy to Family (Cleis Press) by Andrea and Keston Ott-Dahl chronicles the story of a lesbian couple who gave birth to a daughter with Down syndrome. The two women were already parents of two small children when they began the journey of becoming what they thought was becoming a surrogate for another lesbian couple. Saving Delaney is an honest and compelling read. The author writes of coming full circle in facing her fears and prejudices toward disabled people to loving her daughter and becoming an advocate.

Which One of You is the Mother? by Sean Michael O’Donnell is a witty page turner with heart about the author’s true story of adopting two sons with his partner. I was fascinated by the book’s revelation that the fathers decided early on that neither child would share the fathers’ last names. In the case of the oldest son, adopted when he was around the age of nine, the author/ father who is Caucasian writes that there was no reason to change his son’s name, because it was part of his past. “It was connected to his Native American heritage.”

When I picked up Queerspawn in Love, a memoir by Kellen Anne Kaiser (She Writes Press), I was skeptical. Despite the fact of having of having four lesbian mothers (in a complicated arrangement), the author writes about a conventional girl meets boy, loses herself, and gets dumped scenario. But as I turned the well-written pages, I was drawn in by the story and by the fact that this self-described “queer spawn” had different mothers to turn to for different types of advice.

Before the end of the story, I was rooting for Kellen. I certainly identified with her sentiments when she writes:

“What if I never got married, never found the right guy? I only had to look at my mothers’ lives for the answer, in the way they have found self-satisfaction outside of men — outside of partners, too, for the most part. They are happy for their own sake. Lesbians do not live in spite of or despite of men. They build their lives to their own specifications. I have learned to take comfort in the comfort they find within themselves.”

Initially, when I finished these books, I thought about the fact that LGBTQ people need allies — and one way to get allies is to parent them. But then I realized that the parents did not only influence the children. By becoming parents, the men and women in these books became more compassionate, loving people. Being a queer parent is learning to live outside the box. For one thing, they are living outside the queer box since so many of us are happily childless.

But when a child is raised intentionally, everyone involved is changed, including society.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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madame-president-hillary-newsweek-2016

My partner, Barbara, glimpsed this Newsweek when it first was on the stands and has been looking for it ever since. Today we found it — behind other magazines on a rack at our local supermarket!

The Atlantic Monthly just reported that the votes are still being counted and that Hillary won the popular vote by one and a half million and the lead is growing with early voting still being tallied.

There is a petition at Change.org for the Electoral College (which votes on Dec 19th) to vote to make Hillary president.  To sign the petition, click here.

 

NEVER GIVE UP!

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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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