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Posts Tagged ‘Memoirist’

Note: I am re-blogging this post in honor of World AIDS Awareness Day on December 1st, 2017.

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.”

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.aids memorial quilt

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 titled “Meeting Hate With Compassion.”  This talk was part of a larger service.

You can view the YouTube video below.  If you prefer, you can read the piece below the video.

 

 

A few years after my partner and I bought our house, now decades ago, an angry young white man who lived across the street threw rocks at our second story bedroom window. I should say that this man was young but he was an adult.

I had seen this young man looking at me with hatred in his eyes and I knew it was him.  We also had been verbally harassed since we had moved into the neighborhood – by him and by others.

Initially, I wanted to throw rocks back at his windows.  But I couldn’t do that — since he lived with his grandparents.  So I called the police.  I reported this as a hate crime — which was the logical thing to do, except that in Philadelphia, at that time, lesbians and gay men were not protected under the hate crimes bill. I was upset – understandably so – and went through the range of emotions at being targeted, including rage and grief. The dispatcher and the officer were open-minded and supportive.  The officer encouraged us not to engage with the rock thrower (he said that this usually made things worse).

I’m a practicing Buddhist now, but I wasn’t then.  I never thought about it consciously but that experience must have been a major influence. As a wise friend once said, we are all victims of victims.  And if we are different, we run the risk of being victimized more.  But the point is that we all are different – and we should value those differences in ourselves and each other. Differences are what make a community interesting.  Take this one here at Restoration, for example.  Also, it’s oppressive to try to be like everyone else – especially if you’re pretending.

Years ago, when the rocks were thrown, I practiced compassion by looking out our bedroom window and noticing that the angry young man had the same look of hatred on his face when he looked at his mother’s husband — a man who was probably not his father.  His mother was severely disabled, is now in a nursing home, and her husband left.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, my partner Barbara and I went to a gathering where one of the people, a former minister, said that we must have compassion for those who hate because “they are so broken that the only way that they can feel good about themselves is to hate others.”

King quote on refusing to hate

I knew with sadness that what she said was true. Perhaps I was a natural Buddhist years ago in that I took non-violent action. The police officer (and a neighbor) told us the young man’s full name. When I saw him on the street, I greeted him by name.  I told a neighbor who is related to the angry young man that “We were not going to take it, and already called the police.”  I also told his grandfather, who he lived with, the same thing.  The angry young man’s relatives agreed with me that I should alert the police.

After that, I kept saying hello to him by name whenever I saw him on the street, forcing him to acknowledge me.

The harassment stopped.

Over the years I have become a kind of a patchwork Buddhist. I chant every day, but am not formally affiliated with any group.  I learned Nam Myoho Renge Kyo — by watching Tina Turner on YouTube and going to a few Buddhist parties. The mantra is an expression of determination to embrace our Buddha nature and to help others achieve happiness.  For me, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is an ancient vibration that puts me in alignment with the cosmic energy of the universe.

Anger and hatred are at odds with the Buddhist philosophy. One quote, attributed to Buddha says that:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

It bears repeating:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law. If one speaks or acts, with a pure mind, happiness follows one as one’s shadow that does not leave one.”

 

Nam Myo Renge Kyo

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This Halloween we handed out treats and talked to parents to find out if they were voting for Hillary.  We got more than a few vehement “yes” es and as one mother pointed out, “isn’t everyone on this street?” Even one of the little trick-or-treaters ran down the street yelling “Hill-a-ary — Hill-a-ry”!

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As one of the father’s pointed out, he hopes this is as scary as it gets!

 

 

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Just a few weeks ago, the bridge at the foot of my street — which had been closed for renovations for several months — had a re-opening party.  This is the historic Walnut Lane Bridge. Walking down my street to the party, I had a sense of living in a village.  There were lots of Hillary stickers and people of all stripes — and instruments and food too.  We even ran into old friends!

 

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The saying that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is just as true today as it was in 1948 when Winston Churchill repeated it from the writings of the philosopher George Santanya. It is particularly true for anyone who has ever been marginalized in anyway — and that is probably most of us. But this is just one reason that I read historical fiction.

It makes sense that I would be interested in history since I was raised by older parents a generation removed from me.

 

This is something that I explore in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012). Perhaps it was having that long sense of personal history that led me to have a healthy curiosity of the experiences of those different than me. It definitely is a reason that I am deeply drawn to historical fiction — especially when I find books that are not only captivating but haunting.

 

Recently I read two books that made me think about history and my place in it. I recall wondering decades earlier, when I was young, what I would have done if I had come out earlier, say pre-Stonewall. When I read Juliana, a novel by Vanda (Booktrope Editions; 2015) the question came back to me. The story is set in the years 1941 to 1944 in New York City which did, in fact, at that time have an underground gay culture. The main character Al (short for Alice) is a young woman who with a group of friends with actor ambitions moves from a small town to New York City.

 

Alice doesn’t think of herself as gay but is in love (and in lust) with a glamorous and slightly older singer Juliana. The author who goes by the name of Vanda (one word, like Cher) is a playwright and her fast-paced writing had me turning the pages as I learned about gay culture with accurate historical references. Alice ends up at a few gay parties, even though she doesn’t identify as “one of them” in a time when gay people were deemed as perverts and pariahs. She also weaves in the cultural mores of the time when it was assumed that “nice” girls didn’t have sex before heterosexual marriage.

Ultimately Juliana is an historic novel with a sense of history itself. One character, talking to Alice about the film, Morroco, says:

“I keep forgetting how young you are. It [the movie] came out in the thirties before the Hays Code and they started censoring everything. I was only a kid myself, fifteen or sixteen. Marlene Dietrich wore a man’s tuxedo and she kissed women right on the mouth.”

I was excited when I heard that The Gilda Stories by Jewell Gomez had been reissued by City Lights Books (2016). The Gilda Stories is a pioneering black lesbian vampire story that spans a woman’s history from escaping slavery into the future, in the year 2050, when it the story ends on a positive note with a huge sense of relief (from this reader). In full-disclosure, I am not a reader of the vampire genre — except for this novel. Undoubtedly if I were I would have read the book differently. However, I have read many historical novels. And as a historical novel, tracing one character through this long historical span is brilliant. After all, we are all born from the people and places and circumstances that went before us.

 

In the afterword, the publisher in writing that The Gilda Stories in being the first of its kind (far before the proliferation of the vampire genre that came after its first publication) was written with no small amount of bravery in a time “when the rise of the religious right was impacting publication norms” and “equating lesbian and gay art with pornography.”

I read it when it was first published in 1991 by Firebrand Books. Gomez and her work was an important part of lesbian-feminist culture at that time. Of course that world was small and this new edition will be bringing her work to a wider audience.

On reading The Gilda Stories again, I was struck that it works both as a historical work of fiction and as well as a vampire story. Both of these things, perhaps, can be summed up in this single passage:

“Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes — all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of those times sustained her, somehow.”

Rage lives on — and so does history with us inside of it.

 

originally published in The Huffington Post

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I was elated with the recent victory for same-sex marriage. The dominoes are falling — even if we still have a fight ahead of us. I was delighted to read, in Michelangelo Signorile’s post on the right’s new strategy, that one of the crusaders against gay marriage is “furious and stunned.” It is a complex issue — states rights vs. federal law and Signorile’s warning that “we had better pay attention” is an apt one.

I am a new convert to the cause of same-sex marriage. I have been a lesbian for most of my life and a second generation feminist. When I was young, I never dreamed of being married. When I came out (in the early 1980s), I was hugely relieved that I had dodged the matrimonial bullet.

It was only after turning 50, that I began to see the light. I was so hugely relieved — yes, relieved — when marriage became legal in the state in which I live, that I stopped to think about the fact of having lived under layers of oppression my entire life.

Recently, I read two books — Redeeming The Dream by David Boies and Theodore B. Olson and All I love and Know, a novel by Judith Frank — that put this into perspective.

Redeeming the Dream, The Case for Marriage Equality (Viking, 2014) tells the reader how two establishment lawyers, one liberal, one conservative, David Boies and Theodore B. Olson decided to work together to defeat Proposition Eight, a history making case that ended up at the Supreme Court of the United States along with Edith Windsor’s landmark case against DOMA (the federal Defense of Marriage Act).

The book (complete with photographs) is a good primer on the history of LGBT rights as well as a compelling read about the behind the scenes context of this historic legal battle.

A central argument to the belief systems of the authors and the case was that the illegality of same sex marriage is related to bullying, hate crimes, and all other forms of discrimination that LGBT people face.

Another central argument is that everyone has a right to marry. The authors cite Loving vs. Virginia (the landmark case decided by the Supreme Court in 1967 which struck down laws against interracial marriage) as a legal precedent:

Loving had confirmed that marriage was a fundamental right, and that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from infringing on an individual’s right to marry without a sound basis.

 The central argument from the opposition was that marriage is for the purpose of procreation. After winning the case against Proposition Eight at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the proponents of Proposition Eight appealed and the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

When faced with the refutation of the procreation rationale, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan asked about the constitutionality of denying the right to marry to heterosexuals over the age of fifty five.

Justice Kagan interrupted to say, “No, really, because if the couple — I can assure you, if both the woman and the man are over the age of fifty-five, there are not a lot of children coming out of that marriage.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

All I Love And Know, a novel by Judith Frank (HarperCollins, 2014) explores the lives of a gay male couple who unexpectedly become parents when one of character’s brother, who lived in Israel with his wife, was killed along with his wife by a suicide bomber. The brother and his wife had previously made arrangements for the gay brother and his partner to become the guardians of their two children, an infant boy, and a little girl with a developing and edgy personality.

In addition to dealing with their own tragic loss, the two men are suddenly faced with the reality of becoming parents. The novel is multi-layered, the writing is illuminating and compelling (and takes up the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and the issue of gay marriage doesn’t come up until late in the story. However, the two gay men continually face the issue of homophobia. The (non-Jewish) partner of the man whose brother was killed does his best to become a good parent (and is, in fact, a natural) — but a rift develops between them based, in part, on the discounting of their relationship.

It is a novel about many things but mostly it is about family — including the legal ties that bind a family.

The novel is set in Israel and Northampton, Massachusetts, at the same time that Massachusetts is the first U.S. state to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples.

At the risk of revealing too much I will say that the little girl with the very big personality is thrilled that these two men can get married.

And that is what it is all about.

 

first published in The Huffington Post

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