Category Archives: GLBT memoir and/or biography

“Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men” by Dr. Brice D. Smith— Becoming a Gay Man

Smith, Dr. Brice D. “Lou Sullivan: Daring To Be a Man Among Men”, Transgress, 2017.

Becoming a Gay Man

Amos Lassen

Lou Sullivan was told that he couldn’t live as a gay man, but he died a gay man. Lou was from the Midwest where “girls did not grow up to be gay men and die from AIDS.” Lou was a transgender pioneer and one of the most tragically overlooked people in LGBT history. He marched for Civil Rights, embraced the 1960s counterculture. He came of age in the gay liberation movement, transformed medical treatment of trans people, institutionalized trans history, created and forged an international female-to-male transgender community and died from AIDS. He overcame tremendous obstacles to be who he was and dedicated his life to helping others to do just that. Sullivan inspired a generation to rethink gender identity, sexual orientation and what it means to be human.

What author Brice Smith has done here is give us well-informed understanding of transgender issues by framing these through Sullivan’s life in a way that systematically introduced and expands understanding and fill in gaps about the trans movement.

Sullivan’s Milwaukee roots were instrumental in the making of LGBT history and we see that the trans community has unique qualities that have influenced the LGBT movement.

“A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain” by Simon Goldhill— An Extraordinary Family

Goldhill, Simon. “A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion, and the Bensons in Victorian Britain”, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

An Extraordinary Family

Amos Lassen

Edward White Benson became Archbishop of Canterbury at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, and his wife, Mary, was renowned for her wit and charm. Some, including the prime minister, thought her to “the cleverest woman in England or in Europe.” The couple had and raised six precocious children included E. F. Benson, creator of the Mapp and Lucia novels, and Margaret Benson, the first published female Egyptologist.

Author Simon Goldhill, however, is most interested in what went on behind the scenes of the family that was very unusual. The Benson family wrote novels, essays, and thousands of letters that opened new perspectives such topics as what it might mean for an adult to kiss and propose marriage to a twelve-year-old girl, how religion in a family could support or destroy relationships, or how the death of a child could be celebrated. There has been no other family to leave such detailed records about their most intimate moments. It is through these accounts that we see how family life and a family’s understanding of itself took shape during a time when psychoanalysis, scientific and historical challenges to religion, and new ways of thinking about society were just developing. While this is the story of the Bensons, it is also the story of how society transitioned from the Victorian period into modernity. We really realize how much has changed by reading this book and we see that what

makes this family so queer is not just their unconventional sexuality, but “how that sexuality is accommodated, denied, negotiated within the tramlines of a very conventional life.” . . . The Bensons are both exemplary and unique in their queerness and in this is the importance of this book. Goldhill takes us into Victorian discussions of sex and sexuality, of religious belief and doubt, and other engaging and “discreet” topics. We read of “child brides, cousin marriage, generational antagonisms, polyamory, lesbianism, homosexuality”. Religious fervor dominates the times as we read of the Benson family between 1850 and 1940. Here is family that wrote and rewrote itself, across generations, genders, and genres. In dramatic detail, Simon Goldhill shares the

the ‘biographical urges’ of the Bensons and the story that comes through is as much psychological as biographical. We explore the social climate in which the Benson family lived. Even with acknowledging the same sex attraction of both male and female family members, it avoids any explicit detail of any physical relationships or whether they existed.

The book is more a collection of essays and lacks a clear, straightforward narrative of the family. The six individuals we read about here would never have labeled themselves (or their siblings) as gay or lesbian, and it is unclear to what extent each of them acted on their impulses.

“A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir” by Ian Buruma— Tokyo’s Underground Culture

Buruma, Ian. “A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir”, Penguin Press, 2018.

Tokyo’s Underground Culture

Amos Lassen

Ian Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975 with little idea of anything about Japan, other than it having been a faraway place. Ian was a sensitive misfit. He was an upper middleclass guy who longed for raw adventure like he had seen in theater performances in Amsterdam and Paris and he had been particularly influenced by a Japanese troupe made up of runaways, outsiders and eccentrics and directed by a poet. He thought that if Tokyo was anything like the plays, he had to be there. He found Tokyo to be “a feverish and surreal metropolis where nothing was understated, and everything shouted for attention—neon lights, crimson lanterns, Japanese pop, advertising jingles, cabarets, and PA systems.” It was a city He encountered a city in the midst of an economic boom where everything seemed new except for the temple or shrine that had survived the firestorms and earthquakes that had leveled the city during the past century. History remained in fragments in Japan where he found wounded World War Two veterans in white kimonos. He saw the seedy old bars and the narrow alleys where street girls had once ruled. But Buruma’s Tokyo was a city going through radical transformation. His adventures in the world of avant garde theater, with carnival acts, fashion photographers, and moments on-set with Akira Kurosawa, caused him to go through his own radical transformation. As an outsider, he was unattached to the cultural burdens placed on the Japanese and so he experienced true freedom.

 “A Tokyo Romance” is a portrait of a young artist and the city that shaped him. Buruma “brilliantly captures the historical tensions between east and west, the clash of conflicting cultures, and the dilemma of the foreigner in Japanese society who is constantly free yet always on the outside. This is a story about the desire to transgress cultural, artistic, and sexual boundaries.

“Self-Made Woman: A Memoir” by Denise Chantrelle Dubois— Becoming

DuBois, Denise Chantrelle. “Self-Made Woman: A Memoir”, (Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography), University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.

Becoming

Amos Lassen

I chose to use only one word to entitle this review simply because it connotes an ongoing practice. I do not believe that we ever finish “becoming” and every day that we are alive, we “become” a little more. I think this is especially true for gay people and trans people since we never come out just once. Every time we meet someone new, we must decide whether or when to come out to them or not.

Denise Chantrelle DuBois had a rough time transition from Dennis to who she is today. She was born in Milwaukee to a working class Polish American family. He father was domineering and in the 1960s when she was growing up, the idea of gender conformity had not yet but something to speak open about especially in a neighborhood where people worked in order to survive. There was very little money in Denise’s family and there would have been no compassion for a boy who wanted to be a girl back then. Throughout school, Denise faced bullies and teasing and when she got home, the sense of deprivation was so strong that she rarely felt good about herself. She tells us, “For decades I kept Denise in the closet. Then I kept Dennis in the closet”. We can only imagine how terrified she was and she fought that by resorting to alcoholism, drug dealing and addiction and these often led to dangerous sex and eventually to prison time. She barreled from Wisconsin to California, Oregon, Canada, Costa Rica, New York, Bangkok, and Hawaii in search of some kind of peace. Somehow she managed to survive. When she was finally able to accept herself as a woman, things changed but it was a long and arduous road to get to that point.

Now that trans people are receiving the acceptance they deserve, there are a tremendous number of books about self-acceptance and transitioning and the theme always seems to be the same—- the person who was born into the wrong body and gender and who has to struggle to find the true self. In the last year, I read many but I must say that Denise’s book really got to me and had me turning pages as quickly as possible. I think that is because it is so brutally honest and so filled with both pain and joy. Yes, it is a book about transformation but it is also a book about survival. Sometimes we have to go through terrible pain to reach happiness and we see that so clearly and powerfully here. We often forget that in order to make peace with the future, we must also confront the past and that is what Denise does so beautifully here. Denise also happens to be a fine writer whose story I will not likely forget anytime soon.

 

“The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism” by Jason Tougaw— Growing Up Gay

Tougaw, Jason. “The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism”, Dzanc Books, 2017.

Growing Up Gay

Amos Lassen

In,“The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism”, Jason Tougaw tellshis story of growing up gay in 1970s Southern California in “The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism”. He had been raised by hippies who had “dropped out” in the late sixties and couldn’t seem to find their way back in. They used the expression, “There’s something wrong with our blood and it affects our brains” as a catchall answer for incidents such as Tougaw’s schizophrenic great-grandfather directing traffic in the nude on the Golden Gate Bridge, the author’s own dyslexia and hypochondria, and the near-death experience of his notorious jockey grandfather, Ralph Neves.

This is an honest and unexpected true story that seals with the big questions of “Where did I come from,” “How did I become me,” and “What happens when the family dog accidentally overdoses on acid?”

This is a wonderfully funny read but it is also sensitive and very moving in that we read about a family that is both particular and universal. It is also the story of a boy growing up in California during the years of a waning counter culture and it brings together reflections on the brain science of human memory and development and the mystery of why some of us survive a chaotic and brutal childhood while there are others that do not do so.

We read of the terrifying bonds that make a family and also see that these bonds are wonderful as well. By using social theory and neuroscience, Tougaw looks at what makes the “self” as he tries to determine how we become who we are.

 

 

“Travels with Penny: True Travel Tales of a Gay Guy and His Mom” by David Alan Morrison— A Different Kind of Family

Morrison, David Alan. “Travels with Penny: True Travel Tales of a Gay Guy and His Mom”, Dam Publishers, 2017.

A Different Kind of Family

Amos Lassen

David Alan Morrison has written a very funny memoir about family dynamics. When his father died suddenly, his life changed totally. He was a single, middle-aged gay guy struggling with his own mortality and he does so by reminiscing about travels with his gregarious mother and discovering a new dimension to his relationship with himself, his parents and his regrets. “Travels With Penny” is a candid look at the transformation of relationship between children and their parents. It seems that just when his relationship with his family became steady, his father died and he had to deal with both that and his mother. Be prepared to laugh loudly as she read and you might want to make sure that there is no one else around so people will not think you lost it.

 

“Learning What Love Means” by Mathieu Lindon— Mathieu and Michel

Lindon, Mathieu. “Learning What Love Means”, translated by Bruce Benderson, Semiotext(e) / Native Agents, 2017.

Mathieu and Michel

Amos Lassen

In 1978, Mathieu Lindon was 23 years old when he met Michel Foucault. Lindon was part of a small group of jaded but innocent, brilliant, and sexually ambivalent friends who came to know Foucault. At first they were the caretakers of Foucault’s apartment on rue de Vaugirard when he was away but they eventually shared their time, drugs, ambitions, and writings with the older existential philosopher. Lindon’s friend, the late Herve Guibert, was a key figure within this group. Lindon was the son of the renowned founder of Editions de Minuit and Lindon grew up with Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Samuel Beckett as family friends. Much was expected of him but it was through his friendship with Foucault (who was simply an older friend) that he found the direction that would influence the rest of his life.  

The book is a collage of free-associated episodes and interpretations that together teach about how to love. It is “a story of conversion testifying to an author’s radical change of viewpoint, which leads to his invitation into the social world through lessons about love.” It is also a meditation on friendship that gives insight into a part of Foucault’s life and work that until now, remained unknown.

“I loved Michel as Michel, not as a father. Never did I feel the slightest jealousy or the slightest embitterment or exasperation when it came to him.  … I was intensely close to Michel for a full six years, until his death, and I lived in his apartment for close to a year. Today I see that time as the period that changed my life, my cut-off from a fate leading to the precipice. In no specific way I’m grateful to Michel, without knowing for exactly what, for a better life.” — from  “Learning What Love Means”.

“After Andy: Adventures in Warhol Land” by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni— An Insider’s Account of Warhol

Fraser-Cavassoni, Natasha. “After Andy: Adventures in Warhol Land”, Blue Rider Press, 2017.

An Insider’s Account of Warhol

Amos Lassen

Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni gives us an insider’s account of working in Andy Warhol’s studio and “Interview” magazine and as she does, she explores Warhol’s impact on the art world, pop culture, society, and fashion and shows how his iconic status gave rise to some of our most influential tastemakers today.

Fraser-Cavassoni met Andy Warhol when she was sixteen, and then on and off over the years before moving to New York City and coming to “Warhol Land” as she calls his studio. She take us deep into Warhol’s world and also into that place in the stratosphere where socialites, fashion icons, film stars, rock legends, and art world powerhouses could be found orbiting the artist. This was where she was and where she worked with Fred Hughes, Brigid Berlin, Vincent Fremont, and others who were once part of the Factory clan and she was the last person hired at the studio before Warhol died in 1987. Fraser-Cavassoni saw firsthand the end of an era and the establishment of a global phenomenon. She witnessed the behind-the-scenes disagreements and the assessment of his estate, which included the magazine and his art inventory and the record-breaking auction of his belongings and the publication of his diaries. Now she examines the immediate aftermath of Warhol’s death and his impact, which ranged from New York to Los Angeles and throughout Europe. She includes interviews with key figures of the art world and dozens of Warhol intimates. She tells all about Warhol and his inner circle and does so in some very funny anecdotes and some serious and hard-hitting interviews while she “ explores Warhol’s indelible impact on the art world and pop culture.” This is an expose of the glamour of Warhol’s world. Fraser-Cavassoni pays sharp attention to detail and the fashion, interiors, conversation of the time is all here showing us that as she searched for herself, she found Warhol land.

The prose is filled with grace, hilarity and enthusiasm as the book moves between past and present looking at the author’s own social and professional life. This is a candid and fascinating look at a society that we will never see again.

 

“Hung Like a Seahorse: A Real-Life Transgender Adventure of Tragedy, Comedy, and Recovery” by Quinn Alexander Fontaine— Why We Are Here

Fontaine, Quinn Alexander. “Hung Like a Seahorse: A Real-Life Transgender Adventure of Tragedy, Comedy, and Recovery”, Babypie Publishing, 2017.

Why We Are Here

Amos Lassen

This is certainly an interesting title for a book and I must admit that I really never thought about seahorses having penises so I intrigued right away and then disappointed that the issue never came up. Actually this is a book about who we are and why we are here. ”We each have a story, and we are not our story. So many of us get trapped by thinking we are less than others or unlovable or that we should not be taking up space altogether”. Writer Quinn Fontaine reminds us that we are here for a reason and shares his journey of healing work to recover from childhood trauma and multiple addictions, and his full acceptance of being transgender. We read about the rough times he has had and how he was able to gain a sense of freedom and to be inspired to be more “out”. He shows us that we need to not only set ourselves free but to inspire others to do so as well. Life is about sharing who we are and there are ways to do so as we read here. Fontaine’s journey is authentic and fascinating and by reading about it, we learn a bit about ourselves.

This is not a book that is just the transgender experience, “it is about the human experience and how we can move beyond our limitations to understand each other better.” It is an insightful tale of a trans child coming of age with all of the challenges and it is inspiring.

“Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words” by Michael Ausiello— Remembering

Ausiello, Michael. “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words”, Atria Books, 2017.

Remembering

Amos Lassen

Michael Ausiello has written a gorgeous memoir “about his late husband and throughout their fourteen years together”. Ausiello’s insider knowledge on people’s favorite TV shows and stars has made him a celebrity who is now editor-in-chief of the wildly website “TVLine.com”. He is the Michael go-to expert when it comes to television entertainment.

What many of his fans do not know is that while his professional life was in full swing, Michael had to deal with the fact his husband, Kit Cowan, was diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive form of neuroendocrine cancer. Over the course of eleven months, Kit and Michael did their best to combat the deadly disease, but Kit lost the battle to his illness in February 2015. Now we have the memoir that is both heartbreaking and hilarious by which Michael tells the story of his last year with Kit while revisiting the thirteen years that preceded it, and how the beautiful and powerful bond between the two men carried them through all of the difficulties and always with laughter at the heart of their relationship. This is not a tale of sadness and loss but rather “an unforgettable, inspiring, and beautiful testament to the resilience and strength of true love”.

Ausiello has turned a story of loss into story of hope that is witty and wise. It is “grounded in the realities of modern relationships and the grim fate of mortality”.