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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia history’

Note: This piece of commentary is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out(TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show. Click here to hear the entire show.

 

I’ve seen a lot of history — especially in the LGBT movement. But even so, I find it helpful to have a refresher now and then. This is particularly true with LGBT history — which sadly to say has been erased with a few notable exceptions. It was in this spirit that I read three books on history. It made me reflect that knowing your history is necessary — but reading about it can also be enjoyable.

In The Right Side of History, 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism by Adrian Brooks (Cleis Press; 2015), which is put together as a collection of lively essays, many by well-known LGBT activist, writers and public figures, including Barney Frank, I learned more than a few things.

I was particularly taken with New York Times bestselling author Patricia Nell Warren’s essay on Bayard Rustin. Rustin spoke out about gay rights in the 1940s and he went on to become a major Civil Rights activist and Dr. Martin Luther King’s right hand man. Warren gets to the heart of why history is important when she writes about teaching LGBT students of color in Los Angeles who “were hungry to know that they had some towering historical role models like Rustin.”

“To a black kid who was one of the school district student commissioners at the time, I gave a copy of a biography about Rustin. He devoured the book and told me that he cried all the way through it.

“‘It’s just awesome,” the student said, “that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King’s head guy.’”

Mark Segal’s book And Then I Danced (Akashic Books; 2015) is a historic memoir, chronicling his life in the LGBT political scene in Philadelphia where he the founder and the head of the Philadelphia Gay News, New York where he lived for a time, and on the national front. In addition to chronicling his role in LGBT history, including his important and pioneering role in housing for low-income LGBT seniors, Segal also presents his personal and family life in a warm, engaging manner and this writing extends to his interactions with public figures. Writing about meeting Hillary Clinton for the first time, Segal says:

“She gave me a warm hug and said, ‘You’re more tenacious than me!’ Coming from her, it was the ultimate compliment.”

In Literary Philadelphia (The History Press; 2015) by Thom Nickels, I particularly enjoyed the insights that Nickels a gay writer and activist provides. This includes the mention of Walt Whitman (the bearded poet was a familiar site on Market Street), along with lesser known gay writers along with non-LGBT Philadelphia literati such as James Michener and Pearl S. Buck.

In the chapter called “Poetdelphia,” he writes about poet Jim Cory and quotes him extensively about his stumbling across The Mentor Book of Major American Poets:

“‘It was sacred text. It explained everything. I still have it. Five year later, it was all about the Beats and Bohemian rebellion. Fast-forward ten years and a lot of what I was writing was gay poetry. In my sixties, I write in different modes to satisfy different ends. Short poems appeal because of the challenge of getting something complicated into seven lines, cut-ups and collage because they’re fun and with any luck can be fun for the reader too.’”

Jim and I were part of a poetry collective that he founded in the early to mid-nineties called Insight To Riot Press. We published the late Alexandra Grilikhes (among others) who is mentioned in the book. Nickels muses “If Philly poet Alexandra Grilikhes were alive today, would her various poems to female lovers in books like The Reveries …be deemed too risqué?”

In this same chapter, I was surprised to come across a photo of myself, Jim Cory, and poet CAConrad (also an Insight To Riot! collective member) taken in 1994. We all look much younger.

You know what they say. It’s a small world.

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Previously published in The Huffington Post

 

Around ten years ago, I stood on the sidewalk and watched then senator of New York, Hillary Clinton march down Fifth Avenue in the midst of the Gay Pride Parade. What I focused on at the time was that she was the only person in the parade wearing high heels. The lesbians certainly weren’t wearing heels. Even the drag queens that year had started wearing sneakers with their dresses. What I remember now, of course, is that Hillary was there — before marriage equality, before LGBT rights were known as human rights.

Fast forward to the current presidential election. I am having dinner with an older, less out, lesbian friend who gives me a look and says that gay people will have problems if a Republican wins the presidency. She is right, of course. The backlash to marriage equality is already underway.

It’s not only publicly out people who will suffer. Now that so many of us are married, we have government papers identifying us. Too many gains have been made, to go backwards. That is why I am supporting Hillary Clinton for president. She has the best background for the job. She is ready on day one. As a relatively recent member of a Unitarian Universalist church and a lay minister, I am technically open to all religious faiths in a way that I have not been before. But I have to admit that the white evangelical conservative Christians in the middle of the country scare me.

It is because of them that I am writing the following three Tweets outlining the reasons that I support Hillary:

Supreme Court justices decided in the nxt pres. term will decide our fate — including LGBT rights http://tinyurl.com/j3ujxlh #VoteHillary

Prez Obama first friend in white house to LGBT community — #VoteHillary continue the legacy http://tinyurl.com/ja38xw5 @HillaryClinton

African American support buoys #Hillary http://tinyurl.com/jtgjh9x Let’s take their lead. The last thing we need is a divided Democratic Party.

Of course, there are many other reasons to support a mainstream Democratic candidate. These include reproductive rights which are already being eroded and will be influenced by the Supreme Court. Bernie Sanders has some good points. But the candidate who defines himself as a “Socialist Democrat” and uses words such as “oligarchy” will not win over middle America. Chances are slim to none that he will win a general election.

No one wants to dash the idealism of young people — or those who stand with the young. But in pointing out the obvious, we are helping the young people avoid the decades long (or more) struggles that affect them too. Yes, LGBT rights can be rolled back. Reproductive rights can be taken away.

Hillary Clinton is tough and more than competent.

And speaking as a second generation feminist descended from the working class (something that I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters), I am thrilled that a woman candidate has a good chance of securing the presidential nomination. I am voting not just for myself, but for the women who came before me.

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Yesterday, a the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, I presented a “Dharma Talk” on ancestors and religion — how they intersect in my life.  I also presented some photo compositions that I shot and put together.  The photos are below and the presentation can be seen on YouTubetrinity-blog-one

What does religion mean to you?

I found this question in my home office. It was on a yellow Post-It note (which I often use) and it’s in my handwriting, so I know it didn’t drop from the sky.  But I have no memory of writing it.  It is a question that unconsciously I’ve been asking myself for a while.

To me religion at its purest is a connection to spirituality and spirituality is connected to the ancestors. My channel to religion/spirituality/myself has always been my writing. (My spirituality is now also connected to a regular meditation practice, yoga — with my gifted teacher the one and only Jane Hulting — and through attending services at Restoration.)

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My feeling of ancestry runs deep — and it makes me stronger. For example, when my mother was dying, my taking notes on our conversations (which I did not do in her presence) gave me focus.  I wrote my memoir Tea Leaves after she died. The writing of the memoir allowed me to keep my mother alive in my imagination — she had a wicked sense of humor — and at the same time it gave me the space to process her death.

Tea Leaves, which I just read from, includes stories about my mother, who was an office worker, and also my grandmother, who was a spinner in a textile factory in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in the 1920s and 30s. Later in life, she was a domestic. My mother and grandmother were artists at heart — just like me — so the book is full of mythology and dreams as well as family and labor history.

Ancestors are something that we all have, even if we have never known them. Like the Sweet Honey in the Rock song Breaths, if we listen more often to things than to beings, we can hear the ancestors speaking. In Santeria, and other religions in the African and Cuban traditions, there are rituals for communicating with the ancestors and seeking their wisdom.

In Native American spiritual paths there are many traditions that honor the ancestors.

All over the globe, ancestors are honored in Hinduism and Buddhism.

As extensive as these are, they are just a few of the spiritual traditions that honor ancestors.

Last fall, I started working on a project with an old friend and we are taking classes together at Temple University. One of the classes was on anthropology and photography and required field work. When I began classes, I was taking the bus and walking down North Broad Street.  I noticed that I was passing Glenwood Avenue, the street where my grandmother lived. She died when I was twelve and despite the fact that I attended the nearby campus of Temple when I was young, I never returned to her house.

 

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I decided that I needed to see the house that she lived in. Fortunately, I still have my father. He is 96 years old and is in good shape aside from bad eyes and increasing aches and pains.  He has a mind like a steel trap.  He told me my grandmother’s street number.  He also confirmed the name of her church — St. Simeon’s Episcopal Church — at 9th and Lehigh. This is the church where my father and mother were married.

I took my camera and visited the church which was bought by an evangelical group in Washington D.C. several years ago, partially rehabbed, and from the looks of it abandoned again. Then I walked several streets to my grandmother’s old house.  I took the bus home and put the photographs together with a smaller portrait that my friend took of me and my memoir.

 

In Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov writes “our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” That is why the background of this composite photograph is black with a drop shadow on the images of my grandmother’s old house and church as they currently exist (representing also their imprint in my memory).  And there’s me at the bottom with my book, Tea Leaves, tying the generations together.  The title comes from the first line in the book with my mother saying to me: “Your grandmother read tea leaves.”  My mother told me this when I was 35 and she was in her mid 70s and dying.  I never heard about my grandmother reading tea leaves until then.

Since I titled the photograph “Trinity” — I decided that there should be three of them. The second photograph shows the door of my grandmother’s church as it is now in a collage with my parents wedding photograph above it. Like memory, the photograph of my parents’ wedding is fading into the background.

Finding my grandmother’s old church was magical. I recognized the arched red door from an old wedding portrait of my parents. When I photographed the broken stain glass window, a scent of musty decay reached my nose.  It may be the scent of abandonment and poverty, but I remember that smell from childhood. I associate it with my grandmother’s house — in particular with her basement.

The third photo shows the church, the house and my grandmother.

If I had done this project five or more years ago, I would not have thought of returning to my grandmother’s church. Perhaps being a member of Restoration — and of finding a church that I could be a member of — gives me a stronger connection to my grandmother and to my ancestors.

I always thought that my grandmother’s strong attachment to her church was mainly social and not religious. Some years after my mother and father were married in Saint Simeon’s, my mother became a card carrying atheist and my father declared himself an agnostic. They both were, in many ways, ahead of their time. The secular upbringing they gave me was a gift.  Yet, here I am, a Unitarian Universalist, searching for religious significance.

I share my grandmother’s sense of the spiritual, be it be reading tea leaves or clairvoyance in finding a parking spot. Since my ancestry involves religion, I come back to my original question, “what does religion mean to me?”

One purpose for religion is to make the world a better place. For this reason, I am proud to be part of a tradition that honors social justice and the legacy of “deeds not creeds.”

Another purpose of religion is to explain mortality.

When I heard the UU belief that “everyone goes to heaven,” I thought as party lines go, that’s not a bad one.

There’s lots of room in this religion — enough for you and for me. As the UUA website says:

“We are Unitarian Universalist and: Atheist/Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, and more.”

There’s room for my belief in karma — that what goes around comes around.

There’s also room for traditional beliefs. I heard someone say, in this church, of a departed loved one, that he is in a better place. I really began to think about it. It is comforting.  And if you look at the statement logically (even without a religious context) it is true.

I watched my mother and my aunt die slow agonizing deaths — there is no doubt in my mind that wherever they went is better than where they were.

I agree with the Buddhists that “we should always keep in mind the impermanence of life.”

I also have a kind of Buddhist theory about the energy or the consciousness of our lives continuing after death.

For example, my mother’s wisdom and acerbic wit is often in my mind.

So who do you see when you look in the mirror? I see my late aunt and mother. When I laugh I hear my grandmother. He is still living, but when I look in the mirror sometimes I see my father. Specifically, I see his hair. When he had hair, it was just like mine.

You don’t have to answer now, but think about it. Who speaks to you and what are they saying?

 

 

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Yesterday, a the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, I read a passage from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mother’s and daughters as part of a service on ancestors that I presented.  Click here to see the reading on YouTube.  I’ll post the accompanying “Dharma Talk” and photographs tomorrow.

I am going to read an excerpt from my book Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters.  This selection is taken from a meditation that I did with my mother toward the end of her life.

I look beyond my mother and grandmother to the other women standing higher on the hill. Their arms outstretched, faces beatific. I turn around and lay back in my grandmother’s arms. A warm breeze rustles through the grass, bending the long stalks into a green wave. My knees relax as I go limp. I am weightless in the air, held securely in the crook of my grandmother’s arms. I feel the firm grip of her hands. The broad fingers, that in her life were calloused and cracked, now cradle me with gentle strength. She speaks to me without words, telling me I am going back…back…to a place where I have come from but have never been…

As she passes me back to the woman standing behind her, I look up into a face I have seen only in old faded photographs. My own features mirrored back to me: the same square chin and full cheeks chiseled from the triangular lines. A flash of recognition passes between us, filial. Her features have changed from the few old photos I have seen. Fear has fallen from her face like a mask. Her strong hands cradle me, the resilience of a woman who knelt and scrubbed and, when she could do no more, kept on kneeling and scrubbing. The features of her face that were once tense and drawn have softened into wrinkles that fold easily in on themselves. Her face is lined with immeasurable wisdom. Dissolved in the cadences of time, transmuted between life and death, is the contempt she felt for her only daughter: my grandmother, abandoned by her husband, who raised two children on her own and was destined to live out the same fate as her mother. Staring into her blue gray eyes, I feel the tension in my shoulders dissolve. Tensions that I have never acknowledged, passed down to me from my mother, and to her by her mother, back to my great-grandmother and beyond.

More than a century of forgiving and forgiveness passes between us. I am safe, secure in her arms, feeling waves of compassion flow over me as she passes me back…

…..

I am passed back to great grandmothers and great great grandmothers before that. I go back before the rise of feudalism resting on its foundations built by the greed-driven church fathers, back to the green pastures lush with fruits of plenty growing next to clean waters. I think of my mother reciting the Twenty-third Psalm and suddenly understand her tears:

Yes, there was a time when we feared no evil.

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I recently had the honor and privilege of having a Conversation with William E. Berry, Jr., Publisher & CEO, of aaduna literary magazine.  The journal published my novel excerpt “The Mother”  and nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.

Below is an excerpt from the Conversation and a link to the full piece in aaduna:

Janet Mason:

First off, thanks bill for your compliments about my work in aaduna.  I feel honored that you described it as having an “intriguing intensity,” “subtle edginess,” and a “provocative premise.”  The inspiration for my novel She And He, which “The Mother” came from, reflects several sources.  I review books for The Huffington Post and the radio syndicate “This Way Out” based in Los Angeles, and three of the books I reviewed that influenced me were on transgender topics.  The other major influence was reading the Bible pretty much for the first time which gave me a fresh take on it.

I wanted to write something fun and upbeat based on this landscape — and come to think of it, I did put a fair amount of myself into it.  I am tall and because of my height and angularity, I am frequently called “Sir.”  And though I identify as female, I have always identified with male and female interests.  When I was a child, I had an imaginary friend who was a boy my age who lived in my mind.  I actually didn’t think of this until now, but this must have influenced my thinking of having a line of intersex characters that are born in “The Mother” and the intersexed twins Tamar and Yeshua.  Tamar, the narrator of the story, indentifies primarily as female but is born intersexed.  And her brother, Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) identifies as male but was born intersexed.

I think my life is pretty normal — normal for me!  I spent a lot of time alone writing and I also garden (this summer I planted and harvested a lot of pumpkins and carnival squash).  My partner, who I live in an old farmhouse with, is retired from the postal system, and is a fabulous cook.  I take long walks everyday and do yoga and a Buddhist meditation practice almost daily, so my day to day is pretty tame but it suits me.

to read the rest of the Conversation, click here

“The Mother” is an excerpt from my novel in process, She And He.  It is loosely based on a character (Tamar) from the Hebrew Bible, and is told from the spin of how independent women and gender-variant characters not only survived but thrived in ancient times.

You can see a skit from She And He on YouTube .  The skit was done at the Unitarian Universal Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.

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

Another excerpt is forthcoming this year in Sinister Wisdom —coming out in April.
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Last summer, it was my pleasure to see the Woodstock Historical Society show “Living Large,” based on a book by the same name written by Joseph P. Eckhardt  (WoodstockArts 2015). The book chronicles the life of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, a lesbian couple, who moved to Woodstock NY in the 1920s and stayed.  The two women were both artists (Wilna was also a comedic actress in the silent films of the 1920s), and the show includes many paintings, drawings, and photographs that they took.  I’m writing a review of the book for The Huffington Post. Click here to read the review.  Meanwhile, here’s some photos of the show:

Historical Society of Woodstock Living Large exhibitionWoodstock Historical SocietyWoodstock Hist. Society -- portrait of Nan Mason & Wilna HerveyWoodstock Historical Society Gaylite CandlesWoodstock Historical Society Living LargeWoodstock Historical SocietyWoodstock Historical Soc. blue bowl fishWoodstock Historical Society Janet Mason woodstock-historic-soc-frame-mirror-Janet-Mason

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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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