Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“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.

 

“Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions” by Andy Warner— A Graphic Memoir

Warner, Andy. “Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions”, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2020.

A Graphic Memoir

Amos Lassen

“Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions” is an intimate graphic memoir about author Andy Warner’s semester abroad in Beirut where he grows close to a crowd of mostly LGBTQ students, and suffers a mental breakdown while the city erupts into revolution.

In 2005 Andy Warner travelled to Lebanon to study literature in Beirut.  He was then twenty-one years old and had recently broken up from his girlfriend. He felt that his life is both intense and directionless. In Beirut, he became involved with a group of LGBT students, many of whom were ex-pats from different cultures and they were experiencing the freedoms of this multicultural city. He and his friends party, do drugs, and hook up as violence takes place in the city with the remains of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war re-emerging with a series of political assassinations and bombings. Beirut becomes chaotic and violent and Warner feels that his grip on reality is slipping away.  The traumas in Warner’s past return to him and he senses the anxiety over his future.

This is the story of a young man’s attempt to gain control over his life as well as a portrait of a city and a nation’s violent struggle to define its future. The parallels between Lebanese political unrest and his own mental health struggles become great worries for Warner. Through cartons we see what his collapsing around him reflecting his own psychological state crumbling within. The memoir is both of the city and the man, both of whom  are on the brink.

Warner often hallucinates, he’s paranoid, and experiences disturbing and realistic dreams. While I did not understand what caused him to “lose it” for a few monthsI was glad to see him fully recover. I would have liked a bit more background as to how he reached the state that he did.
Amid political assassination and unrest, Andy has his first sexual experience with a man, and this makes him understand that his breakup with his girlfriend was a mistake. This incident and others show us just how vulnerable a person he was and I appreciate the honesty with which he wrote this book.

“Walking In My Son’s Footsteps: David’s Fight For Freedom” by Harmohan Singh— A Dedicated Father

Singh, Harmohan. “Walking In My Son’s Footsteps: David’s Fight For Freedom”,  Thinktosee, 2020.

A Dedicated Father

Amos Lassen

As a loving and dedicated father, Harmohan Singh has had one main mission in life: to honor his son’s David’s wishes and his legacy. He runs the blog Think to See, which is dedicated to raising issues that mattered to David, including mental health awareness, women’s rights, and justice for the LGBTQIA community and other minority groups.

David Singh was a brilliant writer, a talented student, and a loyal friend. He had a sarcastic sense of humor that was both funny and incisive. He was also an activist who was ready and willing to take on Singapore’s oppressive government –including its mandatory conscription law. He believed in non-violence and considered himself a conscientious objector, but the government did not  care and drafted him anyway.

When the government refused to honor his wishes, he felt he had no other choice: he took his own life. He left behind a prodigious body of work–poems and plays that captured his feelings about Singaporean politics and life at large–as well as a clear message to his father: “Do not silence me,” he wrote, “Let my work live.”

Harmohan Singh does just that in “Walking in My Son’s Footsteps”. He works to finish what his son started, speaking out against the National Service and Singapore’s tyrannical laws, while at the same time paying tribute to David’s life and work.

Harmohan brings together research, letters, David’s poems, and his own memories and regrets for a powerful portrait of a young man’s life and work–and a demand for change.

 

“Later: My Life at the Edge of the World” by Paul Lisicky— Community, Identity and Sexuality

Lisicky, Paul, “Later: My Life at the Edge of the World”, Graywolf Press , 2020.

Community, Identity and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

I have been reading Paul Lisicky since before I began reviewing. I suppose what drew me to him is that he is a gay Jewish man of my generation and some of his life experiences mirrored my own and that he was one of the few who dared to write down and share them with us. In “Later”, we read of community, identity, and sexuality at a time in which we were all very vulnerable. Lisicky came to Provincetown as a young writer after leaving his own history of family trauma. He felt that not only did he want to live in a place that was known for its inclusion, acceptance and art but also because he wanted to move from the past to the present in surroundings where he would be accepted for who he is. It was the 1990s during the AIDS crisis when all of us wanted to feel accepted and that we belonged somewhere. On one hand our community was being devastated by the terrible disease and on the other hand we came together attempting to outlive the horrors that were happening to gay men. Provincetown was our Garden of Eden but then it was being consumed by the AIDS crisis causing the structure of town life to change and we could not all help but wonder if the town with such a large gay population would survive.

We were all afraid back then. I was lucky enough to be living out of the country at the height of the AIDS epidemic but I was constantly receiving news of who was gone and during one visit to my hometown of New Orleans, I realized that all of the gay men I had been friendly with before I left America were gone. “Later” reminded me of that visit and it is hard to think about Provincetown knowing that there were so many gay people living and dying there. We were all worried that our time was coming. We could no longer take life as a given and in order to stay alive, we were forced to be vigilant of and attentive to everything we did.

I love how Lisicky “explores the body, queerness, love, illness, community, and belonging in “Later’.” He brings us to tears and to smiles and we each learn something about who we are and that it is truly miraculous that we are alive and can look back. Candor and tenderness come together as we read of the writer finding his place. I am amazed that his beautiful words made me realize that I have also found my place. It is through Lisicky’s words that I looked at life in ways I had forgotten and reminded me that we can never forget the epidemic that took so many beautiful people from us along with many of our own feelings of self-worth. He has written an elegy to a time that was and a nostalgic memoir of living through the period. It was a time that we want to forget but cannot allow ourselves to do so. In sharing his life with us, we see that Lisicky is part of the lives of those he knew and lost and of those who stayed alive.

 

“Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son” by Richie Jackson— A Love Letter

Jackson, Richie, “Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son”, Harper, 2020.

A Love Letter

Amos Lassen

Award-winning Broadway, TV and film producer Richie Jackson looks back on his experiences as a gay man in America and the progress and setbacks of the LGBTQ community over the last 50 years. Joshua, his son, born through surrogacy, came out to him when he was eighteen and Richie was 50.  This is what caused Jackson to reflect on his experiences and share his wisdom on life for LGBTQ Americans. Richie celebrates gay identity and parenting, and a powerful warning for his son, other gay men and the world. Jackson takes us on his journey as a gay man coming of age through decades of political and cultural turmoil. 

Joshua lives in a seemingly more liberated America, and Jackson shows how far we’ve come since Stonewall — the increased visibility of gay people in society, the legal right to marry, and the existence of a drug to prevent HIV. However,  bigotry is on the rise and it is ignited by a president who has declared war on the gay community and is the cause of a good deal homophobia. The Supreme Court has a conservative tilt and is poised to overturn equality laws. Jackson writes  that being gay is a gift but that the GLBT community’s gains are in jeopardy and cannot not be complacent. 

Jackson gives us a rallying cry in this personal exploration of our uncertain times and most troubling questions and profound concerns about issues as fundamental as dignity, equality, and justice. 

This is a blueprint for our time that explains what it’s like to be gay in America and an angry, proud, fierce, tender cultural manifesto that will stand the test of time. It is also a powerful letter of love from a father to a son. Jackson shows us what it means to be a parent and what he says reminds us that being open to love and making it the central focus of our lives lets us find and ‘use our deepest inner wisdom.” 
We are reminded of the journey we have taken and that we must share this with those coming up and coming out. Using his own  experiences growing up gay, he talks to his son about family and friendship, sex and relationships, anger and citizenship.

“Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader” edited by Jamie Townsend— 30 Years of Steve Abbott

Abbott, Steve. “Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader”, edited by Jamie Townsend, Nightboat, 2019.

30 Years of Steve Abbott

Amos Lassen

Bay Area luminary Steve Abbott was prolific in poetry, fiction, collage, comics, essays, and autobiography for thirty years. His works include including underground classics such as “Lives of the Poets” and “Holy Terror” and there are joined here by rare pieces of treasured ephemera, and previously unpublished material that become a survey of Abbott’s multivalent practice, as well as reinforcing his essential role within the contemporary canon of queer arts.

Abbott could be philosophical, sensuous, angry, humorous, sarcastic, and candid. He was never maudlin. He was not just a man of memory and of moment. “Beautiful Aliens” contains poetry, prose, and essays and it proves that Abbott’s voice lives on. Abbott wrote with a complex sympathy; he was sensitive to the shifting culture of the late twentieth century.

“Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” by Thomas J.Balcerski— A Friendship Between Bachelors

Balcerski, Thomas J. “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King”, Oxford University Press, 2019.

A Friendship Between Bachelors

Amos Lassen


The friendship of the bachelor politicians James Buchanan (1791-1868) of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King (1786-1853) of Alabama has been filled with speculation through the years. We wonder why they never married, if they were gay and was their relationship  was simply a friendship.

Thomas J. Balcerski explores the lives of these two politicians and finds one of the most significant collaborations in American political history. He traces the men’s personal and professional and parallel lives before elected office, including their failed romantic courtships and the stories they have been told about them. They were unlikely companions from the beginnings, they lived together as congressional messmates in a Washington, D.C., boardinghouse and became close confidantes. Around the  capital, they were mocked for their effeminacy and perhaps their sexuality, and they were compared to Siamese twins. Over time, their intimate friendship blossomed into an important cross-sectional political partnership. Balcerski examines their contributions to the Jacksonian political agenda, manifest destiny, and the  divisive debates over slavery, while going against the interpretations that the men lacked political principles and deserved blame for the breakdown of the union. He closely examines and shares each man’s rise to national prominence, as William Rufus King was elected vice-president in 1852 and James Buchanan the nation’s fifteenth president in 1856, despite the political gossip that surrounded them.

While exploring a same-sex relationship that powerfully shaped national events in the antebellum era, we see that intimate male friendships among politicians were, and continue to be, an important part of success in American politics.

This is a pathbreaking study that suggests new ways to understand political alliances in the late antebellum years. Not simply a dual biography of two influential public men, the book also situates the much gossiped-about King-Buchanan relationship within larger patterns of intimate male friendships common to the nineteenth century.  Writer Balcerski writes about the importance of male intimacy in antebellum political culture in a new light. It is an exhaustively researched study that is discerning analysis of a distinctive, intimate friendship that crossed sectional and perhaps sexual, boundaries.

We go back into a nineteenth-century political world that depended on vicious partisanship and intimate, loving male friendships “that provided affection and support as well as serving to advance common political interests.” Balcerski explores the boardinghouses where most early nineteenth-century congressmen lived and asks how the close friendships that developed in these settings were understood in this country. He pays careful attention to the ways in which contemporaries described, praised, and attacked the intimate yet public bond between Buchanan and King. We become aware of the factors that can ruin friendships and rupture nations. We read of the way personal networks and informal groups, such as messes, ran Washington in the mid 19th century.

To understand the lives of the two men, it is necessary to understand politics. There was a division between the two men, both physically and emotionally; the political competition in which they lived; the disagreement facets that, individually and together, are fascinating to read about. The affection between the two men is clear even though we’ll never completely know the real nature of it.

This is a detailed look that follows the journey of King and Buchanan and helps give readers a l sense of this under-appreciated and under-studied period of American history. Filled with back matter– organized timelines, notes, addresses, important people, and an extensive bibliography make this a great source of information. Here is a controversial topic related in a narrative voice about a topic that was once hush-hush.

Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual” by Jonathan Katz, et al.— Changing Male Eroticism

Katz, Jonathan, Evan Moffitt, Ted Stansfield, et al. “Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual”, Damiani, 2019.

Changing Gay Male Eroticism

Amos Lassen

Peter Berlin was a self-created icon. His trademark pageboy haircut was famous and his skin-tight clothing outline every detail of his anatomy (he designed and tailored his outfits) and he became a gay sex symbol. He has a background in photography but his career was cruising. He took thousands of erotic self-portraits in the parks, train stations and streets of Berlin, Rome, Paris, New York and San Francisco. He chose to  settle in San Francisco in the early 1970s. He loved the camera as much as it loved him.

In ’70s and ’80s he was on the covers of gay magazines and defined a look and a reimagined masculinity at a time when gay male culture was changing. The focus here is on Berlin’s body of work and is a tribute to the man who “revolutionized the landscape of gay male eroticism and became an international sensation.” In addition to essays by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jonathan David Katz, Ted Stansfield and Evan Moffitt, the book includes original quotes about Berlin by Jeremy O Harris, Kembra Pfahler, Andre Leon Talley, Armistead Maupin, John Waters, Arca, Silvia Prada, AA Bronson, Jack Pierson, Simon Foxton, Chris Moukarbel, Telfar Clemens, Paul Sepuya, Tim Blanks, Mariah Garnett and Rick Castro.

Peter Berlin was born Armin Hagen Freiherr von Hoyningen Huene in 1942) and he created some of the most legendary erotic imagery of his time. His photography began as studies in self-portraiture and fashion design in the name of cruising and by the early 1970s his work became am artistic practice that included two films, “Nights in Black Leather” (1973) and “That Boy” (1974), innumerable photographs, paintings and illustrations.

He pioneered “the self-mythologizing culture we all live in today” and this was well before social media and selfies. He was able to transform himself in front of his camera into the star of his own fantasies. He saw photography “as pure and simple as sex: an act of freedom and an expression of self.”  He was well ahead of his time and did not fit into either the world of art or the world of pornography. He was a photosexual whose legacy is “an incredible archive of imagery that depicts the history and life of a young male navigating through his identity.” He was  violently subversive in that “promiscuity, even public sex, for the sake of sex alone, is currently the “dirty” unmentioned secret of today’s activists who continue their efforts to transform gay liberation into gay assimilation.”