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Posts Tagged ‘The Huffington Post Books’

originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here.

When I woke up and heard the news that 50 people in a nightclub were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, Florida my heart sunk. Then I heard that the club was gay and that the murderer was of Arab-American descent and publicly declared his allegiance to ISIS and my heart kind of caved in.

What can be said about such senseless violence? This is the kind of hatred that usually engenders further hatred.

One of the first things I heard on the news was the father being quoted about his son’s intense homophobia and the fact that the killing spree “had nothing to do with religion.”

Being the kind of person I am — I immediately thought it had everything to do with religion.

“People in churches and mosques need to think about what they are teaching,” I said to my partner over breakfast. “It’s not that different,” I said, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems have the same common ancestor Abraham who is in the Hebrew Bible.”

I read the Bible last year or so as research for a novel — and learned a few things about religion. I learned that modern culture is rife with biblical references. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Bible is not that anti-gay. I did find it to be extremely misogynist and violent, but I thought the anti gay parts were really taken out of context and greatly amplified. If you listen to Sarah Palin, for example, (who probably never read the actual Bible) you’d think the entire thing was an anti-gay tract.

My partner and I have been together for 31 years and you would think that there are no surprises, but I could tell she was impressed with my recently-acquired religious knowledge.

She is a deep thinker. “Of course it has to do with religion,” she replied. “Where do people learn about hate?”

Then I saw the photograph of the murderer (who was killed by authorities). To my mind, he looked gay. When I learned that he was married and had fathered a child or children, it still didn’t change my mind. There is a good chance that a man with that kind of rage inside him who specifically targeted a gay club and professed his repulsion at gay men holding hands and kissing on the street, was acting out in suppression of his deepest desires.

In full disclosure, I think far more people are gay who say they are gay. I have known more than a few gay men who specialize in straight married men. It works for these guys who don’t want to end up in a relationship. In fairness, I have known more gay men who are healthy enough to avoid men who identify as heterosexual. And through the years, I have rarely met lesbians who are interested in women who are married to men.

I’m not saying that all closeted gay people — or those who are bisexual and secretive — are gay bashers. But it is true that plenty of homophobic hate crimes, including murder, have been committed by men who can’t handle their own same-sex tendencies as was documented in American Honor Killings (2013, Akashic Books).

Granted there are also other issues at play here including gun control and the availability of automatic weapons colliding with mental health issues.

In the interest of not responding to hatred with hatred, I immediately thought of the fact that we are a human family. We have more in common than not and often there is considerable overlap between identities. I spent the day reading Guapa, a novel by Saleem Haddad (Other Press; New York; 2016).

In the novel, a man just under thirty living in an un-named middle eastern country, falls in love with another man and is walked in by his conservative grandmother with whom he lives.

The narrator is not from a religious family but he is grappling with homophobia in a deeply religious culture that includes check points, revolution, and a deep connection to family.

When the narrator reflects back on his adolescence, he gives voice to the same sentiments, unfortunately, that most young people feel regardless of their country of origin:

“I was different from everyone else.
I was doomed to be alone.
I was going to spend eternity rotting in hell.”

The narrator attends college in America — where he also grapples with homophobia and what he describes as his “Arabness” and all that that entails.

When he comes back to the Middle East and moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, he finally falls in love only to face more struggles. The narrator writes of his lover:

“He was right when he told me once that he had one foot in and one foot out. It was a balancing act, and he navigated it so effortlessly. But I was his one foot out, wasn’t I? In fact, he made sure I never met his mother. He introduced me to his father once, a few years ago at the wedding of his distant cousins. I remember being surprised at how tall his father was, but like Taymour he was very handsome.”

Judging from my reaction to the Orlando massacre, if I ever had any doubt, the LGBTQ community is home to me. I agree with President Obama when he said that gay clubs are meant to be safe spaces. I remember the days when gay clubs were not out in the open and when people of the same sex did not dare to hold hands in public.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been in a gay club in a good ten or fifteen years. It doesn’t matter if those murdered were all young people who I will never meet. I grieve for them and their families.

The massacre is an American tragedy. It is a nightmare for the LGBTQ community. And it is a problem for people of faith. I was raised secular, but in recent years became a Unitarian Universalist — a faith that really does embrace all people, including those of us who are LGBTQ.

Being part of a religion occasionally puts me in contact with people from other religions who are not so welcoming. I usually don’t mind when I am the LGBTQ spokesperson — and I do understand that being myself and being out can change hearts and minds.

Religion is still evolving. I am sometimes astounded that traditional religions are changing at all — such as the time I drove by a church in my neighborhood and did a double take at a “Happy Pride” sign outside. But other times, I am appalled that many religions are not changing fast enough and the young people raised in them feel compelled to leave.

As we can see from the Orlando massacre, religion is not, in fact, changing fast enough for young people and their families who are found in all religions and denominations.

 

Where does hatred come from?

 

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originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.  To listen to the program, click here.

“To the queerest person I know.” This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different.  I read books rather than watching the TV.  I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball.  Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community.  This was before we had the term LGBT.  I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend, who embraced the term.  She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society.  In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or het, as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned.  My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me,  “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.”  So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I,  are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.”  Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different.  We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen.  The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school.  High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced.  He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again.  High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully: “I now had the power over him. I was in control.  In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”  But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39.  It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths.  It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on.  They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march.  Over my shoulder. By my desk.  In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague  Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:  “For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt.  And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

 

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originally in The Huff Post

note: This review (in a modified form) will air on this week’s This Way Out, the international LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles.

For women’s history month, I decided to read two books of fiction by women back to back. The two books that I selected — Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Susan Wittig Albert and Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson — did not disappoint. In fact, the two books are both so well written that I remembered why I first fell in love with reading.

Reading has always been an important part of my life. It is how I’ve always learned about the world and the people in it. In Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, I write about my love of reading and how it shaped my life. This includes reading every book in the school library when I was a child and reading poetry to patients in an AIDS hospice as a young woman. Reading factored heavily into my coming out as a lesbian. I credit The Women’s Room, the classic novel by Marilyn French with turning me into a radical feminist and from there it was just a short leap to becoming a lesbian. As I write in Tea Leaves, my boyfriend (just before I came out) “ accused me of loving books more than him.”

Touché.

It is no secret that reading has taken a back seat to just about everything in our smart phone driven information age. But reading remains an important link not only to literacy but to thinking critically.

 

As Publishers Weekly points out the publishing industry is making necessary changes. In “The Future of Reading” the author states that:

“Smart bricks-and-mortar retailers have figured out that they not only sell books—they sell the experience of buying books, and they are selling it to a connoisseur consumer base that distinguishes between the book as physical object and the book as a container of information.”

I would take this thought one step further to say that the joys of reading itself must be publicized and encouraged. Reading is not a necessary evil — it is fun and joyous. The turn of a phrase and a page registers on the conscious as an effortless activity. And, as when I was a child, the end of a book is a sad thing and often the characters live on in our imaginations.

The two books that I read definitely fit my description of everything that is wonderful about reading. Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (Persevero Press), is a beautifully written and richly detailed historical novel that lets the reader fully enter the time span of journalist Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt’s love affair and intimate friendship. The book also chronicles the sacrifices that both women had to make to keep the rumors at bay about their relationship. Hickok left the Associated Press (where she was a highly regarded reporter) because of a conflict of interest with her relationship with Eleanor who was then the first lady. She took government jobs as a writer and was transferred to remote locations. We hear the thoughts of Hickok first hand in the writing of Susan Wittig Albert:

“I wasn’t to linger in Washington, where gossip still linked my name with hers. (I would later learn that Princess Alice had exclaimed loudly, and in a fashionable Washington restaurant, “I don’t care what they say, I simply cannot believe that Eleanor Roosevelt is a lesbian.”)

In Bull and Other Stories (Autumn House Press), lesbian author Kathy Anderson does not address a LGBT audience in most stories but she does explore the “queerness” in the thoughts of married couples toward each other, employees and bosses, of children to their parents and of parents toward their children. And she does so in such beautifully written and intriguing ways, that I was turning the pages without a thought to the world around me.

Her prose is often bitingly funny. In “Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians,” Anderson gives us the thoughts of an upscale “foody” lesbian:

We are So not losers, Jane thought. This is proof. Look at us, in a fabulous restaurant enjoying ourselves. Take that, ex-lovers. She hoped they were all sitting at home wearing sweatpants and stuffing their fat behinds with pizza and beer, utterly bored with each other and their lives.”

Reading these two books reminded me that reading also helps you learn more about yourself, in addition to learning about the world in all of its time dimensions. Reading is like looking in a mirror and seeing things that not only have you never seen before but things you never expected to see.

originally in The Huffington Post

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Note: A variation of this piece, originally on The Huffington Post, was aired this week on This Way Out, the international queer radio syndicate. To hear the piece on This Way Out, click on the link and scroll down on the page to ‘Now Playing” and click again.

 

Lately, I’ve been warming up to religion. Like many in the LGBT community, I had managed to avoid the whole thing. I haven’t so much run from it. Thank God, I was raised by a Bible-burning, atheist mother — something that I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters.

But I kept religion at a distance. Then I started going to a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. It started with a crisis, of course, like many religious conversions. I was laid off from a high-stress job. But it was more than that. I was a mess — physically and spiritually. I felt like I looked: fried. An old friend who was a yoga instructor suggested that my partner and I take her yoga class at the UU church where she is the music director. When my partner began drumming there some Sundays, I went with her. I liked it so much that I became a member and then joined the lay ministers.

To me joining a church was a major leap of faith. I was concerned how many I have known over the years, would take the news. Some were surprised. I overheard someone who we had known for many years saying, “Janet joined a church?” A close friend asked abruptly, “What gives, Janet? A church?” I told her that it was about community, and she could understand that. It’s also about diversity — including sexual orientation, age, gender and race as well as religious, or lack of, background. Fortunately, many of my friends calmed down when they heard it was a UU church the place where people sing Holly Near songs and Sweet Honey in the Rock on Sunday mornings. Becoming a UU has broadened my horizons. For one thing, I found out that many have been damaged by early religious experiences — even many who were not LGBT. This gave me pause.

I understood intellectually, of course, but it took me a while to really “get” that LGBTQ teens were killing themselves because they thought that they were going to hell. My secular intellectual background translated hell into mythology (starting with Greek mythological creation stories ) and literature (I’ve always loved the Divine Comedy). These teens, however, were told they were going to hell by their communities. And hell was real to them. They were told that their lives with not worth living.

Traditional Christianity is not my path. But there is hope. Rev. Al Sharpton writing on The Huffington Post addressed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that was signed by Governor Mike Pence last week, by stating that “My religious conviction compels me to fight for civil rights and social justice; I don’t divide the two. Each and every one of us must speak out against this egregious Indiana law.”

When I read Gay Conversations With God: Straight Talk On Fanatics, Fags and the God Who Loves Us All by James Alexander Langteaux from Findhorn Press, I had a little snicker. The author was a senior producer and host of the Christian 700 club. He writes that invariably after an “ex-gay” show (where men who had been through so-called reparative, conversion and ex-gay therapy all of which is condemned by the American Psychiatric Association), the “cured” men would hit on him. His response was that it sounded fun, but what would their lesbian wives and their 17 children think. My snicker at this hypocrisy stayed with me as a kind of joy that arose every time I heard anything about the 700 club. I came to think that maybe God (feel free to substitute any other word that works for you, Divine, Great Spirit and definitely She as well as He) wants me to feel that joy. The sad part of the author’s experience is that he was struggling with his own sexuality at the time and the ex-gay overtures only made him depressed. But he also talks about his faith in terms of “pure love:”

“Perfect love casts out all fear. And on that final day as you stand in the presence of that perfect love, the last thing you will feel… is queer.”

The book is written glibly but leaves no doubt that the author has been through it — as a result of being gay and Christian.

In The Peace Seeker (Peace Seeker Press) author Susan E. Gilmore goes deeper in relating her struggles between her sexuality and her strong faith in the Baptist religion in which she was raised which instilled her with “an unwavering confidence that the Bible was the infallible word of God and that every word was correct and could be relied on for spiritual truth and everyday wisdom.” The Peace Keeper talks about her observation from a young age of the church’s position that the role of women “was to be submissive to men.” The author is bright, intelligent and driven — qualities that any organization (including her church) should develop and put to use. Instead, she was thrown out of Bible college for having an “inappropriate” sexual and romantic relationship with another female student. Ultimately, she is accepted by another Bible college and goes abroad to do missionary work.

Since her entire life is based in her religion, the author partners with other Christian women. This is during the late ’70s and early ’80s and there was a lesbian community in existence. At one point when she comes home and becomes involved with another partner, the two of them attend a church together, but stay in the closet. What follows is a harrowing tale of the couple being broken up by the church members and elders. Susan left that church, but at no point does she consider changing her religion or leaving it entirely. Her faith was that strong.

Susan finds love again with another Christian woman, and together they find a church that embraces them because one of the pastors’ mind and heart had been opened because he had a gay brother who had been treated badly by the church. This man checked in with the two women, encouraged them to come out, and accepted them as a couple. It would be nice if this part of the story ended there. However, this pastor’s acceptance created considerable division among the congregation. The church leadership, however, encouraged them to stay. Susan generously describes the situation: “Some church members fully accept us; others remain on the path to understanding.”

Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron was, as I anticipated, a breath of fresh air. The writers in this collection share their experiences of being amazed at being around straight allies who are genuinely not homophobic. Social justice is a strong component of Unitarian Universalism and LGBT rights are important among them.

One of the writers is Drew Johnston who identifies as “a queer bi/trans Unitarian Universalist.” Drew relates the experience of transitioning while being a UU minister. Drew attended a potluck dinner and took questions from the congregation. One person asked about gendered pronouns. “Did I prefer male or female …. Then I heard myself finally answer the question. I said I like it when people at least alternate. I said, ‘Then I feel seen.'”

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One of the things that I love about being part of the LGBT community is feeling strongly connected to the rainbow way that spans the globe. Sometimes our experiences are different — vastly so — but there is some commonality in struggle and, for me and most likely for many others, this increases empathy and identification.

Recently, I read three books — Pride Climbing Higher: Stories by LGBT People from Nepal, Mardis Gras (a collection of photos from Australia), and The Last Conception (a story about an East Indian woman who is also American) reminded me that we are all deeply connected.

In Pride Climbing Higher, Stories by LGBT People from Nepal (Creative Nepal, 2014), editor and writing instructor Chad Frisbie and his associates put together a moving collection of stories by sexual and gender minority identities in Nepal.

In “Power From The Inside,” Simran Sherchan writes poignantly about being transgender:

“When I arrived in Nepal, my heart would not allow me to return to Pokhara because my parents would force me to marry a girl. I didn’t want to ruin someone’s life, my wife’s life. So I hid her in Kathmandu. In front of the mirror in Katmandu, I took off my clothes. I looked at my body. I felt that my soul was in the wrong body. I realized that I had to wear what my mind and heart wanted. The very first time I wore the clothes I wanted to wear since childhood, a woman’s casual attire, I felt like a magician’s wand had touched my body — I became a lady.”

Pride Climbing Higher also includes photographs, some taken by the authors, from the Nepal Photo Project. One photo taken by Simran Sherchan, is of a red flower with a blue sky background and the caption reads: “The saying about Nepal goes that it is a ‘garden of four castes and thirty six sub castes.’ In the garden, there are so many different flowers, and we as third genders are also one of those flowers.”

Mardis Gras (2014, Sonia Friedrich) is a beautifully done collection of photographs from Australia. There are no words to accompany the photos, but there is something about a man in a gold lame nun’s habit or two men wearing mostly sparkles and skin holding hands that in undeniably gay. There are also photos of drag queens with pink hair, and a pretty young woman waving a rainbow flag, and a sign about Christians supporting Equality through Marriage that looks absolutely pedestrian in this context.

The Last Conception a novel by Gabriel Constans (Melange Books, 2014), is a mystery of sorts about a lesbian couple who get together and have a baby. But will their plan work? And what about one of the women’s tradition-bound East Indian family who she finally comes out to?

A major part of the mystery lies in the religious beliefs of the protagonist’s parents. As the Savarna, their lesbian daughter, says, “But Mom… Dad… doesn’t this sort of thing go against all your religious beliefs? I mean, I’m not trying to put a damper on anything, but I’m a little confused.”

In The Last Conception, the main characters discover many of the challenges that lesbian couples face when deciding to have a baby — plus it has the added dimension of family expectations based on culture and tradition. It reminds us that we can never leave our past behind us, especially when it involves family and culture.

A free download of Pride Climbing Higher can be found here

from The Huffington Post

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