Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Southern. Gay. Teacher” by Randy Fair— Been There, Done That

Fair, Randy, “Southern. Gay. Teacher.”, Atmosphere Press, 2020.

Been There, Done That

Amos Lassen

I was very anxious to read Randy Fair’s “Southern. Gay. Teacher” because I had once been a southern gay teacher. The conservative south has not been welcoming to gay teachers (even though there are many). There are Southerners who feel that there should be a ban on gay teachers and a law preventing them from teaching. Randy Fair shares what he went through in his over 40 years of teaching and as a student in the southern United States. He shows his evolution as a teacher while having to deal with homophobia, conservatism and just plain chaos.

Fair received threats from administrators, distrust from homophobic students, and challenges by students (both gay and straight) who desperately needed more openness surrounding the issues of concern for members of the LGBTQ community. In looking at his experiences, we see the concerns of gay teachers and from those who are gay and want to teach.

Fair’s teaching experiences also bring up issues of concern for both current and prospective teachers. He looks at the questions of “which parts of a teacher’s life are public and which are private? What right does a teacher have to engage in politics and activism? How much of a teacher’s beliefs are consciously or subconsciously embedded in the curriculum and the classroom experience”? We see the many roles and identities that a teacher must face constantly.

Fair looks at the life of a teacher who not only survives, but thrives and inspires his students and fellow teachers in an environment that is often hostile to him. We gain insights into American public education for students, parents, and the general public and we that there are those who feel that  teachers are cogs in the education machine and are unaware of how school policies affect classroom content and teaching style. Fair looks at his encounters with homophobia in school systems and his activist bringing awareness and inclusion into schools and society at large. We see what society can and should be and how he became an inspiration to his fellow teachers and beloved by his students. I identified with so much that I often felt as if I was reading my own story.

I began teaching when racial discrimination was the primary concern in the schools and I was one of the first white teachers to go into a black school. I was not publicly out (it was a long time ago— I taught on both the high school and college level for 53 years).

People forget how much influence a teacher has on a child and like Fair, I remember there was no training on LGBTQ issues for those in the educational system. There were courses and in-service workshops on multiculturalism, special needs, and gifted learners but nothing about LGBTQ students and teachers. Fair’s anecdotes show the  importance and vitality of understanding. He challenges us to continue being activists so that schools are safe places.  

We also read of the highs and the triumphs that have been the result of hard work and determination. Randy Fair was a brave teacher  who often risked his livelihood to do the right thing. Administrators became nervous because of him but he did not stop. He helped people who subtly discriminated against those that were different overcome their prejudices and stood up in the face of unfair treatment for students. This is a memoir of his journey from small town Southern boy to an advocate for LGBTQ students.

“At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life” by Fenton Johnson— Solitude

Johnson, Fenton. “At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life”,   W.W. Norton, 2020

Solitude

Amos Lassen

I fell in love with Fenton Johnson’s “Geography of the Heart” when I first read it years ago so naturally I was eager to get his new book, “At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life”. Johnson writes that “solitude is the inspirational core for many writers, artists, and thinkers. Alone with our thoughts, we can make discoveries that matter not only to us but to others. To be a solitary is not only to draw sustenance from being alone, but to know that our ultimate responsibility is not only to our partner or our own offspring, but to a larger community.”

In lyrical prose, Johnson explores what it means to choose to be solitary. He celebrates this idea and shows that solitude “is a legitimate and dignified calling.” He shows this by looking into the lives and workings of He delves into the lives and works of nine iconic “solitaries” who he sees as his kindred spirits (Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Bill Cunningham, Cézanne, Hurston, Rod McKuen, Nina Simone, Rabindranath Tagore, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Eudora Welty). He writes about these inspirations in wonderful detail and shows us their legacies. He intertwines his old life journey into what he has to say about the characters.  

This is something of a memoir but it is also so much more including research and social criticism. We see the world through Johnson’s eyes are led to think about solitude as a catalyst for spirituality and creativity. He encourages us to understand “solitariness as consecration, a fecund, rich condition for the pursuit of beauty. We see “how sterile loneliness can become creative solitude.” I found it amazing at how much of myself I found here and how far I have yet to go. I am nonetheless challenged to take part in a call to action.

“Couchsurfing: The Musical: A Travel Memoir” by Gary Pedler— A Journey

Pedler, Gary. “Couchsurfing: The Musical: A Travel Memoir”, Adelaide Books , 2019.

A journey

Amos Lassen

Gary Pedler’s “Couchsurfing: the Musical” is about a physical and psychological journey as author. He explores the phenomenon of Couchsurfing. He was then middle-aged and set in his ways and a skeptic. It was strange to thinking about spending the night in the home of a complete stranger yet he slept at the homes of thirty-five of these strangers in nine countries. He began in Tel Aviv and ended in Boston. He realized that he would, not only save money, but find himself changed for the better by the experience. He looks at these experiences through the lens of musicals that have played a part in his life.

The book is both travelogue and journal. Pedler traveled casually around the world without much advance planning or. He just went  to wherever that sounded interesting fitting himself into the vibe of each new place and each new host. He never knew what accommodations to expect, and had to give up a lot of privacy.

His observations of all the various apartment setups, and behavioral quirks  are related in a casual conversational tone. He found that some people are friendlier and open to real friendship than others, but it is also interesting to read about the awkward, difficult ones. We feel like we’re there with him, participating in what the hosts do; sharing meals, walking dogs, going to theater, or just hanging out.

The journey was one of colorful characters and many places., the hosts and some of the guests of the many localities Gary had visited as frugal, yet generous traveler. As met a new host in a different state or country, he soon realized how much in common we all are and yet each of us is unique. Some of the localities Pedler visited are notorious touristy destinations yet he was able to resist the main sights, preferring quieter corners from where to observe life. Pedler shows us the mindful presence in a particular place at a time that feels suspended. He risks not being able to communicate to his hosts. We learn of the couchsurfing set of rules and etiquette.

Pedler gives glimpses into the places, lives and personalities of his hosts via brief sketches. Each sketch has just enough information so that we get a sense of recognizing the person being described. In choosing the unexpected, the writing becomes strong. The focus is basically on the hosts and their homes. Pedler gives just enough of himself to the reader so that he too becomes a character. He pushes himself into new situations and struggles with parts of himself as he deals with various challenges. The book is filled with episodes that invite the reader to think about the world differently and consider travel as an exploration of people as well as places.

“Unrequited Love: Diary of an Accidental Activist” by Dennis Altman— A Memoir

Altman, Dennis. “Unrequited Love: Diary of an Accidental Activist”, Monash University Publishing, 2020.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

Dennis Altman’s writings have been about shifting terrain sexual politics and the AIDs epidemic, which he witnessed while living in New York. His memoir, “Unrequited Love”, is large and remarkable as his career, moving between Australia, the United States, Europe and parts of Asia, and influenced by meetings with intellectuals and writers including James Baldwin, Gough Whitlam, Dorothy Porter, Christos Tsiolkas, Anne Summers, Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag. 

He writes through the lens of recent activism and the global rise of authoritarianism and his story is of fifty years activism, intellectualism, conflict and friendship.

“Sex, Death, and Tantra: How Sex Changed My Life After Death” by Ed Swaya— Understanding Tantra

Swaya, Ed. “Sex, Death, and Tantra: How Sex Changed My Life After Death”, Ed Swaya, 2019.

Understanding Tantra

Amos Lassen

Ed Swaya’s husband, Zachary went out to walk the dog while Swaya remained at home with their 6-year-old daughter watching television. He never returned. At 39, he was hit by a car and killed. “Sex, Death and Tantra” is the story of the writer’s first years as a single, gay, widower, dad who learned to embrace his grief and becoming sole parent to a grieving child and take care of her educational, social, emotional needs. At the same time, he was attempting to build a new life for himself.

A year before Zachary’s death, he and Ed met Ken and began to study tantra with him. Ed explains that he sought a marriage of sex and spirituality even though these practices seemed to exclude gay men. Tantra includes pleasurable sex is a part of it but it is so much more. Tantra is a set of principles and practices (most of which are not sexual) which transcends the self. Ken was a successful psychotherapist who taught tantra to gay men. He had used tantra, eroticism, and sex to help men do deep emotional, psychological healing work. There is also a separate erotic healing practice where. Zachary and Ed individually and as a couple dealt with painful psychological and emotional issues while deepening their spiritual selves and their erotic knowledge and experience. They learned how pleasurable and conscious sex can be a way to heal, grow and become spiritually aware.  

Ed felt lost and afraid, when he sat at the hospital with Zachary’s body. He decided to call Ken and together they explored Ed’s grief together using tantra as our foundation. From the day of that call,  Ken and Ed met most days at 5AM and for tea, meditation, erotic practices, and conversation. Ken saved Ed’s life. While this is a story about love and loss it is also the story of optimism and healing. We see an uncommon, radical, application of Tantra that transcends gender and orientation.

 

“Bent but Not Broken” by Don Cummings— A Memoir About Peyronie’s Disease

Cummings, Don. “Bent but Not Broken”,  Heliotrope Books LLC, 2019.

A Memoir About Peyronie’s Disease

Amos Lassen

Don Cumming’s “Bent but Not Broken” is a personal and honest memoir about Peyronie’s disease, “a painful and sexually limiting condition that is estimated to affect more than 5% of the worldwide adult male population.” Don Cummings writes about the emotional and collateral damage brought on by a suddenly curved penis as he struggles to maintain his sense of sex and self. He does so with humor as he shares the details about his doctor’s visits, his treatments, and his anxiety over the state of his long-term relationship with a man who is supportive but often helpless. Cumming’s domestic life takes a hit and he tells us about his hyper-active sexual past. His extreme sexual were part of his quest to minimize the effects of his disorder.

Don Cummings invented a new genre, the phallic memoir, with the writing of this book. He writes of  his private torments and gives us a a story of winning and transcending.

This is the story of a penis and its owner as well as a look at the nature of love, relationships, and how we are betrayed by our bodies.  Cummings wants to be human and have what so many of us long for—”love, intimacy, money, fame, and sex.” We see his honesty through his humor as he pulls us into his life. He could have written this just for laughs but he decided to also write about his outrage. He uses his disease as a way to look at his relationship with his husband, Adam and he does so beautifully including what a gay relationship is or should be today.

Cummings’s story is written with respect and sensitivity. By bringing us into his life we learn that many men see their penises as representative of their entire identities. We cannot help but identify with him as he reflects on his life and what aging, family, sex and love mean to him. I totally respect his honesty and I love the way he searches for truth.

 

“One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square” by Michael Cashman— A Memoir

Cashman, Michael. “One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square”, Bloomsbury, 2020.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

Michael Cashman has lived many remarkable lives. He has been a beloved actor of stage and screen; a campaigner for gay rights, a MEP and a life peer.

Cashman was born in the post-war East End of London. His life changed when he is spotted in a school play and then cast in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” and is transported to London’s West End. He acted on stage and screen into adulthood. He found his most defining role as Colin in “Eastenders” and made television history as one half of the first gay kiss ever broadcast on a British soap. A chance encounter in a Butlins resort led him to the great love of his life: Paul Cottingham, who became his husband and partner of 31 years.

Along with Ian McKellen, he founded and chairs a gay rights organization, Stonewall, and fought tirelessly for civil liberties all over the world before entering the world of politics. His adventures and misadventures lead him and Paul all over the world including having high tea in Los Angeles with David Hockney and flirting with Joan Collins and to flying the rainbow flag over the Albert Hall with Elton John. His greatest triumphs are seasoned with bitter loss  as he continues his ceaseless fight bearing a profound grief. The autobiography is filled with nostalgia, wicked showbiz gossip, a history of a civil rights movement and a sorrowful exposition of Britain’s standing in Europe, and an unforgettable love story. He shares his story with warmth, wit and humanity.

“Here for It or How to Save Your Soul in America: Essays” by R. Eric Thomas— A Memoir in Essays

Thomas, R. Eric. “Here for It or How to Save Your Soul in America: Essays”, Ballantine Books, 2020.

A Memoir in Essays

Amos Lassen

  1. Eric Thomas tells us that he didn’t know he was different “until the world told him so.” Everywhere he went, he found himself on the outside looking in. He shares with us what it means to be an “other” and does so through his own life experience. He takes us into the two worlds of his childhood: “the barren urban landscape where his parents’ house was an anomalous bright spot, and the verdant school they sent him to in white suburbia.” He struggled to reconcile his Christian identity with his sexuality and became exhausted with code-switching in college; he became famous accidentally on the internet (for the wrong reason) and had the chance to cover the 2016 election, and the ground-braking  changes that came with it later.  He searched for the answers to major questions— is it worth it and why bother when everything seems to be getting worse? He finds the answers to these questions by looking at what “normal” means and what happens when you see yourself at the center of your own story. He does this through his memoir-in-essays in which he examines “growing up seeing the world differently, finding unexpected hope, and experiencing every awkward, extraordinary stumble along the way.”

For those of us who have ever felt that we did not fit into the way society says we should, this is an extremely relevant read. While this does not seem to be a serious read, we find the answers that we need in order to move forward.
Through smart wit, we are with writer Eric Thomas as he explores dealing with identity and pop culture. His writings about the internet are brilliant are his observations about Christianity, and his ever-changing relationship with it. This is the story of a lost young man struggling to find and to form an identity. We see the ways that race, sexuality, geography and family come together to make that a process all of us should be able to relate to. I love that Thomas sees his past as compassionate and tender and that his future is filled with hope. Thomas shows us how success works and what to do when things do not go well. 

As an urban, African American, gay, professional writer. Thomas’s shares his distinct and fun voice so that we can all have t better than what he experienced.  He provides lessons so that we can all overcomes the challenges of life.  

His reflections on young love, faith, the intersectionality he lives in as a gay black man, and the importance of family are enlightening. We are finally getting a chance to see what young, black urban, gay males have to deal with. I laughed and I wept as I read; sometimes on the same page.

“My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” by Jean Shapland— Re-seeing Carson McCullers

Shapland, Jenn. “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers”, Tin House, 2020.

Re-seeing Carson McCullers

Amos Lassen

I love the writing of Carson McCuller’s even though the person behind the writing has always been enigmatic. I have always felt that was something missing from her biographies and now Jenn Shapland might have found just what that is. While working as an intern in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center, Jenn Shapland found the love letters of Carson McCullers and a woman named Annemarie. These letters are tender, intimate, and unabashed in their feelings. Shapland recognizes herself in the letters’ language giving us a new look at McCullers.

Shapland felt compelled to undertake a recovery of McCullers’s life and she went through the therapy transcripts and even stayed at McCullers’s childhood home reliving McCullers’s days at her beloved Yaddo. Shapland  realizes  that there is a nearness between her and McCullers, she sees how McCullers’s story is a way to say something about herself. What we get here is something new about life and how we tell queer love stories.

Through vignettes, Shapland brings her own story together with Carson McCullers’s giving was a new look of one of America’s most beloved writers and “how the writers we love and the stories we tell about ourselves make us who we are.”

Shapland first learned that Carson McCullers was queer while she was interning at the Harry Ransom Center, an archive of many famous writers’ and artists’ papers and books at the Austin campus of the University of Texas .  Her job was to take inquiries from researchers. She had never read a McCullers book but then she received an inquiry about correspondence between McCullers and Swiss writer and another woman: photographer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach.

Shapland admits that she never really broke-up with her first love after six closeted years together. She was in the second year of a six-year PhD program, and bored with academia. She knew that being an be an archivist was not for her. As she read the letters between McCullers and Annemarie. She felt that she was part of a mystery.  From there, Shapland is able to form a biography/autobiography/queer theory hybrid using her own story as a woman coming to terms with her sexuality, with being a writer, and with the chronic illness she was dealing with. Interesting enough, McCullers dealt with the same three issues.

Shapland writes about what archives are, who gets to have them, and whose stories (and what parts) are told.  She explores archives and the nature of archives. The relationship of McCullers and Clarac-Schwarzenbach  correspondence is central to the book. McCullers was white, a successful writer, and seemed to always be with the well-to-do people of the time. We are reminded of her tempestuous on-again off-again relationship with husband Reeves McCullers, her best friend Tennessee Williams, the many artists and writers who came to Yaddo. Because of this, McCullers was able to produce and accumulate archives and this was something that many queer, trans, people of color, and disabled people were not able to do.

It is interesting that in the biographies written about McCullers, her sexuality is either not mentioned or disregarded. Shapland is quite naturally surprised when she finds so much clear evidence of McCullers being a lesbian not only  in love letters between McCullers and other women, but in therapy transcripts in which we can see that she struggles with her identity and emotions (she also had an intimate relationship with her therapist, Dr. Mary Mercer). Shapland found photographs of McCullers wearing masculine clothing and there is evidence of her sexuality in her novels. Shapland becomes familiar with, the evidence she finds from both the queer aspects and the life McCullers led. We should not be surprised when we do the same with characters in literature that we identify with.

There is so much to be taken from this book especially about how we find ourselves in the books we read and the research we do. “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” is a powerful addition to the LGBTQ literary canon and Jenn Shapland is a powerful voice that I hope to hear more from.

“Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition” by P. Carl— A Memoir

Carl, P. “Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition”, Simon and Schuster, 2020.

A Memoir

Amos Lassen

“Becoming a Man” is P. Carl’s journey to become the man he always knew himself to be. He lived as a girl and as a queer woman foe fifty years during which he built a career, a life, and a loving marriage, even though he waited to realize himself in full. He takes us with him as he  embarks on his gender transition and we are privy to the complex shifts and questions that he has to deal with throughout especially the alternating moments of arrival and estrangement. This is an intimate look at how transitioning reconfigures both Carl’s own inner experience and his closest bonds including his twenty-year relationship with his wife, Lynette; his relationships with his parents which are quite tumultuous. We see how seemingly solid friendships are subtly changed, often painfully and wordlessly so.

Carl combines the story of his own personal journey with an incisive cultural commentary, writing brilliantly about gender, power, and inequality in America. He transitions takes place during the rise of the Trump administration and the #MeToo movement, a transition point in America’s own story. Transphobia and toxic masculinity are under fire even as they seem to be thriving in the halls of power. Carl’s quest to become himself and to reckon with his masculinity in many ways reflects the challenge before the country as a whole— “to imagine a society where every member can have a vibrant, livable life. Here, through this brave and deeply personal work, Carl brings an unparalleled new voice to this conversation.”

The prose style is intimate and direct and we are taken in as if we are having a conversation. It is a raw and brutally honest memoir that is beautifully written and filled with passion.

Carl wrestles with his own biology, gender theory, politics, and relationships. As he does, he becomes an important voice in the conversation around gender identity. His story is also “a call to action: to love, embrace, and fight for transgender lives.” We read of Carl’s experiences with self-perception and mortality and these experiences are important to all of us. There is risk to gender transition and the ways that others are affected by it. But there is a bigger in living dishonest lives.

In sharing his difficult yet triumphant gender transition, Carl shares his thoughts on what can happen while thinking about what will be. These are the kinds of thoughts that we rarely get. Carl’s “transition upended both his marriage and his notions of white masculinity. This is a first-hand account on what it is like to go from one gender to another and all the love and support, and anger, and isolation that is part of it. 

Carl transitioned at 51, after a many years of knowing himself as a man but not living as one. He wrestles with masculinity as well as how his life as a female affected his experience of manhood. There is a lot of nuance and uncertainty and contradiction here as examine the nature of identity.