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

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

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

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

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

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

I still remember the first time that I set foot in Giovanni’s Room, the beloved LGBT bookstore that recently closed its doors this past May. It was 1981, the year that I came out. I was in my early twenties. I had known about Giovanni’s Room, the gay and lesbian beacon on the corner of Twelfth and Pine Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. The store was founded in 1973.

The storefront was a rare and welcome presence for gay men and lesbians like myself who came out in a hostile time before the television shows Will and Grace, and Ellen, but after the Stonewall Gay Liberation Riots in 1969 which meant that gay bookstores, gay, lesbian and women’s presses were in existence. Gay marriage was just a glimmer in the eyes of our forebears (such as Gertrude and Alice) and still way in the future for us.

Stepping into Giovanni’s Room in 1981 felt like an act of courage and it was. Years later, the bookstore hosted Rita Mae Brown as a guest signing her books. I stood in the long line that went up the narrow staircase to the second floor where Rita Mae was signing her books. I arrived upstairs just in time to hear Rita Mae ask Ed Hermance, the owner, how many rocks had been thrown through his store windows over the years. As I recall, it was a high number.

On that first visit to Giovanni’s Room in 1981, I bought a book about Sojourner Truth, the African American abolitionist (born into slavery) and women’s rights activist. The book was hardback and had an off-white dust jacket with a pebbly feel to it. The title was Sojourner Truth: A Self Made Woman. It was in many ways a safe pick for me. If I ran into someone on the street and they asked me where I had been, I could be honest and say Giovanni’s Room which was a feminist bookstore, too. But Sojourner Truth had been an important figure in history and someone who gave me courage in my young life.

After my first trip to Giovanni’s, it was easier to go back. Inside the walls of that corner city house turned bookstore, I found a community of past and present. It was where I heard activists and authors of all types speak. And it was where I became most intimately acquainted with James Baldwin (whose pioneering novel Giovanni’s Room the store was named for), Willa Cather, Sappho, of course, and so many others.

Finally, Giovanni’s was a place where I came to find myself as a lesbian and as an author. I had been writing since childhood and began taking it seriously at the age of twenty-nine, the same age I learned that Gertrude had been when she started writing as a daily practice. When I began to get published in journals and anthologies, I would come into the store and find myself on the shelves. A little while later, when a small press began publishing my chapbooks, they were in the poetry section. A poster with one of my poems on it was in the rack upstairs. In the last five years, when I had readings for a novel and then a memoir, I had my book launches at the store.

I was part of many readings at Giovanni’s over the years, but that is what not I remember most. I remember that Giovanni’s shaped me as a writer and that Ed Hermance nurtured my talent. Ed and I would often talk when I came into the store, and he was always let me know when a new book had come out that I should check out, including a new translation of Sappho and a collection of James Baldwin’s letters. It was more than just good business. Ed really cared.

One of the people we both cared about was Toni Brown, the late lesbian poet, who worked at Giovanni’s Room for a stint when she first moved to Philadelphia from Amherst, Massachusetts. Toni died, unexpectedly, at the age of fifty-five. I had a very large print made from a photograph that I had taken of Toni made for her memorial service in April of 2008. The photograph was displayed on the stage of The Painted Bride Art Center where the memorial was held. Toni was a tall African American woman, about the same height as I, and the service was packed with a diverse crowd. I remember standing on the stage talking to Ed Hermance, both of us crying, and me handing him the photograph. He displayed it in the store for a time, on the wall behind the cash register. I remember thinking that I could walk into Giovanni’s Room at any time and see Toni.

Losing Giovanni’s Room is in many ways similar to losing a good friend. It was a place that contained our history, as a movement, as a people. It was a place that gave testament to our lives. It was a store that gave so many of us a safe haven and, in reality, saved many lives.

It was a place where we could be ourselves.

Note: as of this writing, Giovanni’s Room is still awaiting the decision of a potential buyer — which most likely will come by the middle of June.

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

July 17, 2015 

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

History repeats itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also puts lesbian “pulp” fiction into perspective:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Note: a version of this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

Just when I was starting to think that well, maybe religion gets a bad rap, I was jolted back into reality by reading three recent books on the theme of religion written by queer writers.

The moniker “queer” embraces LGBT (what a friend calls the alphabet people) — which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender.” One thing we all have in common is that we are different — from each other and from the rest of society. This fits with the original definition of the word “queer” which meant strange or odd — “unusually different.”

An article in the Baptist News Global cites Pew Research Center’s findings that 62 percent now say “homosexuality should be accepted by society … 12 points higher than when the same question was asked in 2007, when acceptance of homosexuality stood at 50 percent.”

That religion is changing — and so rapidly — is a good thing.rainbow leaf

But imagine for a moment that you are a parent and the church you are in — and probably were raised in — tends to still be in the non-accepting 38 percent. Then imagine that your teenage child comes out as gay or lesbian. Or that your young child insists that he or she is the opposite gender.

Suddenly, your world is upside down. And the people in your congregation — the ones you would ordinarily trust in a crisis — have a good chance of being non accepting. You have the choice of leaving, of course. Or you could stay and help the people around you become more open minded — but this might possible hurt your child.

This may be part of the reason that young people — who tend to be more open minded about sexuality — are leaving religion in droves. According to The Christian Post, “a third of young adults in America say that they don’t belong to any religion.”

The reason that I thought that religion might be getting a bad rap is that I’ve been having a good experience as a Unitarian Universalist (and as one of the lay ministers) for the past four years.

But my secular upbringing undoubtedly made me more open to exploring religion and I found a “Welcoming Congregation” which means acceptance of all its members, including those in the queer community. In the case of the congregation that I joined, most of the congregants are straight and they are genuinely non-homophobic. But the fact is that we’re all different (and this is a good thing) so I would say that everyone is a little bit queer. And since, people are leaving religion in droves, perhaps religion itself is in danger of becoming queer in the original sense of the word.

Yet, we’re all spiritual people and religion does have something to offer. It can use its power to heal rather than to hurt.

The first book I read was To Drink from the Silver Cup: From Faith Through Exile and Beyond (Terra Nova Books) by Anna Redsand. As an adult, Redsand explored many of the same alternative spiritual traditions that have fueled me such as yoga and the Gnostic Gospels. But since she was raised fundamentalist (and encountered discrimination early on) she eventually found a Christian congregation that embraced her whole self. Redsand, who was raised by missionary parents in the Navajo Nation, is particularly insightful in her analysis of oppression.

Redsand writes movingly about the alternative reality that many, especially those from religious backgrounds, experience:

“Twenty-one when Stonewall happened [in 1969], I was then grieving the end of a guilt-ridden, clandestine affair with one of the nurses at the mission hospital.”

In Straight Face (Green Bridge Press) author Brandon Wallace writes eloquently about the reality of living a dual existence as a gay person who had entered the ministry of a fundamentalist religion that denounced gays. He shows us how this is extremely unhealthy. But he also explores how he felt called to come out of the closet, become his authentic self, and help others. This came after he read about a gay teen who had died by suicide:

“While I was reading, all of my past came screaming back at me. I thought about my own suicide attempts, and all the nights I Iay in bed and thought about doing the same thing.”

A Faithful Son is a novel by Michael Scott Garvin that explores the life of a young man growing up gay and fundamentalist in a small town in the South. “Boys like me grow up crooked…” he writes, and tells us the story of how and why the narrator had to leave the small town and move to Los Angeles. The narrator is devoted to his mother and writes movingly about her final days. Ultimately, he writes not about finding faith in the end — but about the narrator finding himself — and maybe in some ways that is the same thing

These three books are a testament to difference. These three author may all have come from fundamentalist backgrounds, but their stories are all different.

What they all have in common was that all three authors were raised in a strong faith that gave them something, but to preserve themselves, they had to leave.

This piece was previously published in The Huffington Post

 

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Note: a version of this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

 

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.flags

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

 

originally in The Huffington Post

 

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(previously in The Huffington Post /Religion)

I had a spiritual revelation in my polling place last week in the presidential election. My partner and I chatted with others in line. There were many familiar faces and also many new acquaintances. It was a diverse liberal crowd. I smiled at a man wearing a blue “I’m With Her” T-shirt in the line that snaked around behind me.

madame-president-hillary-newsweek-2016

When I got to the registration table, an African American woman sitting behind the table gave me a smile when she heard me exchange names with the woman next to me  — someone in the neighborhood who I had never met before. In the hour in which we stood in line to vote — we discovered we had much in common. It was then I realized, this is like part in church where people pause and greet each other. The minister in my church calls it a “radical welcoming.”

When I joined the Unitarian Universalists several years ago, I quickly became a lay minister — called a worship associate in Unitarian lingo. As I recently explained to a vehemently atheist friend (there are many atheist Unitarians), my Unitarian Universalist experience has helped me learn about religion (I was raised secular), be open to people of all backgrounds and above all to underscore that no one group “owns” spirituality/religion.

Before I joined the Unitarians, I avoided religion all together since the religious right put me off — including the white Evangelicals who, according to The Huffington Post, voted for Trump, for the most part. They voted for him in record numbers based on hypocritical un-Christian hate filled values.

One of the epiphanies that I had in line at the polling place was that as a lifelong democrat, I have always voted, and I have voted for more than a few guys (and they were all guys) who I personally did not like. (President Obama was, in fact, the first candidate who I actually liked.) I have always strongly felt that there is a difference between the two major parties — enough of one that people’s lives will be affected.

Of course, this epiphany that I had at polling place the morning of the election was before we would see the devastating effects caused by people not voting.

If you stayed home and didn’t vote or effectively cast your lot for now President-elect Trump by voting for a third party — it is now time to wake up, suffer the consequences and step up to help those, especially the most vulnerable, who are now threatened by this administration. It’s time to cast away smugness and entitlement, and to put yourself on the line. Those (of all ages) who sat out the vote and are so apathetic they plan to do nothing are part of the problem.

As a practicing Buddhist, I meditate almost every morning. (The Unitarian faith includes and supports many spiritual paths.)

My emotions quickly cycled through me after the election results came in. On election day, spirits were high. After voting, I volunteered for the Democratic Party and went and knocked on doors. The people I talked to — almost all African Americans — had already voted. At the watch party (in my liberal neighborhood), I was stunned. By the following morning, I was devastated and depressed — so much so that I didn’t think I could get out of bed. But then I realized that anger was more healthy. Then for about two minutes, I felt deep grief — a necessary letting go and a relief — and returned to nothingness in my morning meditation.

Since then I keep going to back to anger.

Anger is linked to survival and I am blessed to have a strong streak of both. Perhaps it is my class background that makes me unafraid of my anger. I am the first in my family to have graduated from college and I have strong opinions (they may be different opinions from others from my class background but they are still strong). I am also a second-generation feminist and it may be my mother’s feminist rage (something I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters).

I also am a lesbian-feminist who came of age under a fierce patriarchal system and I remember the quote from The Woman-Identified Woman By Radicalesbians:

 

“What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”

I am empathetic but concerned about the stories I am hearing about people — especially young people— being emotionally stymied by sadness/devastation and fear. Vulnerability is a good thing but too much of it leaves us open to attack. Remember, they want us to be fearful.

When I heard a friend talking about a young gay man who said he felt like he should go back into the closet, my immediate response was, “NO! — We have to be more out than ever.”

I am with Senator Elizabeth Warren who said in an interview on the Rachel Maddow show that now is the time when “We stand up and we fight back.” She advised people to volunteer for the causes they care about, to stay connected, and to stand our ground.

Despite my spiritual beliefs or maybe because of them, I do not have any optimistic words about the future. I do not advocate acceptance and I do not buy into the theory that anything is “God’s will.”

But maybe it is the goddess in my heart that gives me joy when I see the protestors on the street (#NotMyPresident).

Now is the time to prepare for the worst (even as we may hope for the best). We have to be centered and strong — to fight for our own rights and to help those who need help.

As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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originally in The Huffington  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..

Just the other day, I was talking to a historian friend about a conversation she had with a lesbian friend who announced that she wasn’t voting. The friend told her that we’ll just have four years of Trump. This gave me pause. I know more than a few people who have announced they’re not voting. What these people, who call themselves progressives, have in common, is that they are white, mostly economically privileged (but not all of them), and straight.

Of course, I tried to talk some sense into them. But with each one, I was left frustrated and came to the conclusion that they are in denial. Even if they are white and economically privileged and straight, history can change on a dime and their lives will be changed also.

When I heard about Queer Identities and Politics in Germany, A History 1880-1945, by Clayton J. Whisnant (Harrington Park Press; 2016), I was immediately interested. It’s not an easy book to read. The first night I started reading it, I kept dreaming that the United States was sliding toward fascism. Then when I woke up I thought about the presidential election. I guess it’s safe to say that the book got under my skin and that it was published at exactly the right time.

The Weimer Republic and the openly gay culture in Berlin was embedded in my LGBT encoded memory. Whisnant writes about the “homosexual movement” launched in Germany in the 1890s and its various factions (and its scandals and political movements) that led up to the openness of the Weimer Republic in the 1920s.

The author recounts that in the heyday of the Weimar Republic, there were between 90 and 100 gay bars in Berlin frequented by gay men and lesbians. There we also many thriving publications for gay men and lesbians. I found it interesting that the lesbian publications addressed trans issues.

As open as it was, the Weimar Republic was far from being a utopia for LGBTQ people. There were anti-gay laws on the books but German police officers, for the most part, turned a blind eye to the bars. This is more than can be said for U.S. police conduct, before Stonewall when patrons were routinely rounded up, arrested and their names published in the papers (ruining careers and severing family ties).

The author writes about Christopher Isherwood, a prominent foreigner who frequented the sexual underworld of Berlin. Isherwood wrote a series of short stories — The Berlin Stories — which inspired the Broadway musical and the award-winning film Cabaret.

The book also chronicles the downfall of the Wiemar Republic.

This includes the rise of censorship laws that targeted gay and lesbian publications. The book also addresses infighting and factions in the “homosexual movement,” including the “masculinist” faction that abhorred anything feminine or feminist. Ultimately, many of the “masculinist” gay men joined the Nazi Party and were put in concentration camps and exterminated.

Things changed almost overnight. As the author writes:

“In 1930 the Nazi Party won a staggering victory in the federal elections: overnight it grew from a small fringe party with only twelve seats in the Reichstag to become the second most powerful political party in the land. Homosexual activists recognized that they were in trouble.”

The book also chronicles the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the camps and concludes with “Gay and Lesbian Life after 1945.”

Suffice to say that it took decades to repair the damage. Now, as well as historically, is not a time for skepticism, sarcasm or inaction.

There is a lot at stake in the upcoming election:

Think about what a Trump presidency would do to the Supreme Court. Trump has declared that if elected he’ll do what he can to roll back the marriage equality ruling.

You don’t have to be LGBT to have a lot at stake in this election, but it helps.

Think about climate change.

Think about our standing in the world.

And if you are still convinced that you have nothing to lose, think about voting for those who are the most vulnerable — such as the 11-year-old Mexican-American girl who lives in fear of her immigrant parents being deported.

Still, the life you save by voting may well be your own.

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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.

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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