Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“Rocking the Closet” by Vincent L. Stephens— Queering Pop Music

Stephens, Vincent L. “Rocking the Closet”, University of Illinois Press, 2019,

Queering Pop Music

Amos Lassen

The nature of rebellion in Fifties America included pop music’s challenge to ideas about masculinity. Within that, four prominent artists– Liberace, Johnny Mathis, Johnnie Ray, and Little Richard–dared to behave in ways that let the public assume but not see their queerness. That these artists cultivated ambiguous sexual personas often reflected a fear and a struggle to fulfill personal and professional expectations. 

Vincent L. Stephens looks at the ideas about coming out and staying in in the closet by analyzing the careers of these four men. They used performance and queering techniques of all kinds. Liberace’s flamboyance, Mathis’s intimate sensitivity, Ray’s overwrought displays as “Mr. Emotion” seemed far from Little Richard’s raise-the-roof joyousness. They not only  lived but they thrived in an era of conservative men and  they pioneered the ways generations of later musicians who would consciously adopt sexual mystery as way to success.

Stephens questions and complicates “the established historical way of thinking, and to provide a nuanced reading of queerness that admits the powerful possibilities of the ‘open secret’ in a pre-Liberation era when popular male musicians neither could not necessarily desired to come out of the closet.”

“Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising” by Alexandra Richie— A Great Revolt Ending in a Great Crime

Richie, Alexandra. “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising”, Picador Paperback, 2019.

A Great Revolt Ending in A Great Crime

Amos Lassen

Alexandra Richie in “Warsaw 1994: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising shares the complete and untold story of how one of history’s bravest revolts ended in one of its greatest crimes. In 1943, the Nazis liquidated Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto.  Then just a year later, they threatened to complete the destruction of the city and the  deportation of its remaining residents. This was the end of a “sophisticated and cosmopolitan community a thousand years old was facing its final days”. But then opportunity struck. Soviet soldiers turned back the Nazi invasion of Russia and began pressing west and the underground Polish Home Army decided to act. Taking advantage of German unpreparedness and disarray because of the seeking to forestall the absorption of their country into the Soviet empire, they chose to liberate the city of Warsaw for themselves. 

For more than sixty days, the Polish fighters took over large parts of the city and held off the  most brutal German forces. But in the end, their efforts were doomed. Totally scorned by Stalin and unable to win significant support from the Western Allies, the Polish Home Army had to face the full fury of Hitler, Himmler, and the SS. What followed was one of the most brutal episodes of history’s most brutal war. Richie gives us the tragedy in grear detail based upon primary sources. We read of the terrible experiences of those who fought and died in the uprising and perished in it. I was often moved to tears and unsettled by what I read and I have read a great deal about the War and the treatment of citizens.

Richie’s recounts many unpublished stories and the survivors’ testimonies included make this the definitive study of the uprising. For those who are well learned and interested in the subject of the Warsaw Uprising, this book provides a great deal of new information in English for the first time.

“The Berlin Mission: The American Who Resisted Nazi Germany from Within” by Richard Breitman— An Unlikely Hero

Breitman, Richard. “The Berlin Mission: The American Who Resisted Nazi Germany from Within”, Public Affairs, 2019.

An Unlikely Hero

Amos Lassen

Richard Breitman gives us the story of an unlikely hero–the US consul who analyzed the threat posed by Nazi Germany and what was to come. In 1929, Raymond Geist went to Berlin where he handled visas for emigrants to the US in his job as a consul. Geist helped Albert Einstein leave Germany just before Hitler came to power. Once the Nazis began to persecute and oppress Jews and others, Geist’s role became exceedingly important. He was responsible for extricating Sigmund Freud from Vienna. He understood the scale and urgency of the humanitarian crisis.

Geist hid his homosexual relationship with a German while challenging the Nazi police state when it abused Americans in Germany or threatened the interests of the United States. He made great use of a restrictive US immigration quota and secured visas for hundreds of unaccompanied children. At the same time, he maintained a working relationship with high Nazi officials such as Himmler, Heydrich, and Göring.

While US ambassadors and consuls general came to Germany and went from Germany, Geist remained in Berlin for ten years. He was an invaluable analyst and problem solver and the first American official to warn that Germany’s Jews would become part of the genocide, later known as the Holocaust. This is a look at Germany of the 1930s as seen through the life of a lesser-known historical figure. There was no American that knew Nazi Germany better than Raymond Geist. He served as the trusted intermediary between terrified Jews and the Gestapo. Here is Geist’s extraordinary, largely untold life, along with a politically risky homosexual romance that is an exciting read.  

Breitman has based his book on entirely new documentation and shows us the difficult job of an official in charge of visas to the United States, who both saw and understood the growing plight of German Jews and helped many to get to America’s safety even with this country’s restrictive immigration policy. Geist’s efforts became all the more crucial as, in early as in December 1938 when he understood from his contacts at the highest ranks of the Gestapo that the Jews who stayed under Hitler’s domination would ultimately be done away with. He shared this with Washington.

We read of interesting and infamous historical figures that Geist  comes in contact with, including Hitler himself and his fight to get people out of Germany in the face of Nazism and American anti-Semitism is totally admirable.
Geist worked to manipulate his superiors while he was meeting with and personally pressuring Nazi to allow Jews to leave the country—and hiding his romantic relationship with a German man. “Geist fought against Nazi Germany indirectly” and was among the first to sound the alarm about Hitler’s plans for world domination and the genocide of the Jewish people.

“Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language” by Paul Baker— Our Unique Language

Baker, Paul. “Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language”, Reaktion, 2019.

Our Unique Language

Amos Lassen

Polari is a language that was used chiefly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century in Great Britain. It was a time when being gay could result in criminal prosecution, or worse, and Polari offered its speakers a degree of camouflage from the public and a way of expressing humor as well as a way of identification and of establishing a community. From whence it came is fascinating with colorful and varied roots that included thieves’ Cant to Lingua Franca and prostitutes’ slang. In the mid-1960s it came into the limelight by the characters Julian and Sandy, (Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams) on the BBC radio show “Round the Horne”.  

In almost every gay community there has been a coded language spoken by the members of the community to each other but not as an established language like Polari.
In “Fabulosa!”, Paul Baker gives us the story of Polari and he does so with “skill, erudition, and tenderness’, going back to its historical origins. He shares its linguistic traits and looks at the ways and the environments in which it was spoken, why it  declined, and its surprise reemergence in the twenty-first century. The cast of characters includes drag queens and sailors and “Dilly boys and macho clones.” Baker gives us a wonderfully readable account the language that is funny, filthy, and ingenious.

We have parts of interviews with Polari speakers, whose firsthand recollections are both arresting and funny. The innuendo is very important and therefore Baker manages to sneak one in whenever he can. There is evidence that the language persisted into the 1980s and ’90s in theater circles, and now it is enjoying a rebirth as a cultural curio. I look at it the way Yiddish to the Jewish people has also seen a rebirth.

It is a language that does not want to die and neither do we want it to because its death could also bring about the death of some of the unique attributes of the gay community. Both vocabulary-wise and for sociological reasons, it is important to read this.

Polari came about as a reaction to the torment and harassment of the gay community and for that alone, it  must not be forgotten and this explains which is why this book is important. We see Baker’s work here is that of a writer “interested in language who has been led by his subject to think about social oppression.” Polari flourished in the circles of the theater and the merchant navy. There were political uses of vulgar innuendo yet even with this, Baker’s interviews are filled with warmth and good humor.

We become aware of the linguistic lengths to which gay people had to go to hide in plain sight in a culture that was homophobic . Baker writes about the changing attitude towards Polari within the gay community in the seventies and eighties, and on the important reclamation performed by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. This is also a fine primer for would-be Polari speakers. This book has great style as it presents the roots and history of Polari during a time of days of “illegality, secrecy and peril.”  We get a picture of gay underground culture and its transformations “in the years since homosexuality was decriminalized, if not destigmatized, in 1969.”

We see here that linguistics area potent force in social analysis and it brings back the lives of the gay men of the past and preserves the diversity of experiences at an age of hardship and bigotry. “Fabulosa!” is an important celebration of Polari’s message—which is about laughing at your flaws, creating hope from tragedy, and seeing humor in the face of cruelty and oppression.”

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“How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir” by Saeed Jones— Growing Up Gay and Black

Jones, Saeed. “How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir”, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

Growing Up Gay and Black

Amos Lassen

Saeed Jones’ “How We Fight for Our Lives” is an intimate portrait of the writer growing up as a young, gay black man in  the South in America who tries to understand the complex realities of his identity. He “fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears.” Through a series of vignettes, Jones pulls us into his boyhood and adolescence and the tumultuous relationships with his family, with his lovers and friends. Taken as a whole he weaves an intense look at “race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.”

His prose is gorgeous and powerful and his voice is a rallying cry to bring us together. This is that rare kind of book that shares what it is to be needy, human and strong. It is a commentary on what it takes to become truly and wholly oneself, on race and LGBTQ identity, on power and vulnerability, and how relationships can either make or destroy us.

This is a primer in how to keep going and stay at it. I have a new challenge now and like Jones, but older, I intend to keep fighting until all of us are free.

“Disasterama!: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977 to 1997” by Alvin Orloff— The True Story

Orloff, Alvin. “Disasterama!: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977 to 1997”, Three Rooms Press, 2019.

The True Story

Amos Lassen

“Disasterama!”: Adventures in the Queer Underground 1977 to 1997, Alvin Orloff’s true story of how a shy kid from the suburbs of San Francisco found his way into the post-Stonewall American queer culture of the late 1970and a world ravished by AIDS in the 1980s. Orloff writes of his youth from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York where he spent crazy nights, had deep friendships with the members of the underground, and he lived a life that took him into a “free-spirited life of art, manic performance, high camp antics, and exotic sexual encounters, until AIDS threatened to destroy everything he lived for.”

Those of us who lived through the period, like in the introduction by Alexander Chee experienced dual feelings of love and despair and remember those days with tears and smiles. We were aware of the terrible plague that was happening around us and yet we still saw the beauty of what we had. We were able to find friendship and sex and we were strong determined to live through this even though many of those we loved did not. We gained strength and it was that strength that helped us get to where we are today.
 Orloff moves past the politics of AIDS and writes about the people who did not make it through.  He sees them not as victims, but those who loved life and fun.

Orloff writes with wit and poignancy about a group “of pathologically flippant kids floundered through a deadly disaster, and, struggled to keep the spirit of camp and radicalism alive, even as their friends lost their lives to the plague.” There was a creative resistance that was able to save ourselves and our culture during that time. This memoir is clever and funny but it is also dark. We were mad as hell and we were not going to give in.

The book include4s more than 60 now rare photos of the time and we get to see who was who, who were icons, pictures of the counterculture that many of us were a part of, flyers and of course, the drag queens.

. “This is memoir in the classic (or classic Hollywood) sense: a witty and glamorous raconteur who’s lived a wild life tells all.”  It is a “a memoir, a eulogy and a love letter to San Francisco” of a time we must never forget—“an explosive era of outspoken and unprecedented art, breathless interpersonal discourse and dysfunction, dug-in protest culture, and mind-bending fashion that put the word “flamboyant” to shame.”

I found this book to be especially important to me because I left the country while most of this was going on and only returned for a visit during the height of the AIDS epidemic. The club kids were just beginning in New Orleans when I moved to Israel and I understand that while the scene did not come close to the West Coast or New York City, it was significant on its own.
I was aware of the club scene and certainly of  the panic of the AIDS years.

Orloff spent most of this time in the Bay Area, with occasional visits to New York and other places. He was involved with the queer culture of the time and organized some groups, such as the Popstitutes, Klubstitute as other groups were also coming into being. He has been a male stripper and model, and shares how that was.

Instead of crying for the friends lost to AIDS, Orloff instead celebrates their lives.  Prepare yourself to clear your day before you begin to read because you will probably not do anything else until you close the covers.

“Pride: The LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: A Photographic Journey” by Christopher Measom— A History in Photographs

Measom, Christopher. “Pride: The LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: A Photographic Journey”, Sterling, 2019.

A History in Photographs

Amos Lassen

“Pride: The LGBTQ+ Rights Movement: A Photographic Journey” is a lavishly illustrated book commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. It takes us on an inspiring photographic journey through the LGBTQ+ Pride movement over the last century. It is an in-depth visual tribute to the LGBTQ+ pride movement. We start in the bohemian subculture of post–World War I American cities, move on to the influence of World War II and the relocation of millions of people to single-sex barracks and factories thus encouraging a freedom and anonymity that helped spark the formation of gay communities after the war. We next visit the repressive ’50s and the two important rights organizations, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis which ultimately  led to the rebellions of the 1960s and the Stonewall Uprising of June 1969. We explore the devastating results of the AIDS crisis and its impact on gay culture and the fight to bring awareness to the disease. In the section on the present day, we have coverage of the struggles for equality in marriage, the military, and beyond as well as the push for gender rights. Illustrated with more than 120 photos, posters, artworks, ads, and memorabilia including profiles of Christine Jorgensen, Marsha P. Johnson, Harry Hay, and Stormé DeLarverie; excerpts from key news reports; speeches by leading activists and political figures including Harvey Milk, Urvashi Vaid, and Barack Obama; and passages from important dramatic, musical, and literary works such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, this book pays homage to a historic movement and its achievements and hurdles.

This is a stirring history of the LGBTQ Pride movement that explores how historical events and the cultural zeitgeists helped to shape the LGBTQ experience before the Stonewall uprising. The book is organized by era, from the sexually liberated 1920s to the repressive culture of the 1950s through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. We see how generations have sustained the Pride movement.”

“Drag Queen Brunch” by Poppy Tooker with Sam Hanna— Breakfast with the Girls

Tooker, Poppy with Sam Hanna.  “Drag Queen Brunch”, Rainbow Road Press, 2019.

Breakfast with the Girls

Amos Lassen

Many people do not realize two of New Orleans’ greatest LGBT activities are drag queens and brunch. If you put the two together, you have a wonderful way to start the day. Poppy Tooker certainly understood this and she gives us a fabulous new book, “Drag Queen Brunch” and it is filled with beautiful photographs of food and queens.

When I lived in New Orleans, my favorite book to keep on my coffee table was a small little volume entitled, “Cross Dressing for Success” and I would love to see the looks on people’s faces as they wondered if I did indeed cross dress or not. Now in Boston, I have replaced that with “Drag Queen Brunch”. Those that might question that never know if I do either or both, drag queens or brunch. I am sad to say that in my circle of friends, brunch is seldom an option and I have grown too old to do drag unless as a queen mother.

With a foreword by Vinsantos Defonte, “drag-mister-ass of the New Orleans Drag Community and founder of the New Orleans Drag workshop, we get a bit of an overview of the drag community. In the introduction to the book, we get a bit of history of drag and food and it is fascinating reading especially because two of my favorite New Orleans restaurants, Antoine’s and Tujague’s are named and oh so many memories came forward. You have not lived until you have baked Alaska at Antoine’s and a meal with no menu at Tujague’s. New Orleans is unique in that eating in some of the finest restaurants in the world is n9t just about the food but also a celebration of having the opportunity to eat some of the best food in the world. At the Drag Queen Brunches, performance is key to success as the girls entertain audiences as diverse as the population of the world. It gets even better when you know that what you eat and what you see also benefits CresentCare, the nonprofit organization once known as the NO/AIDS Task Force (where I often volunteered when I lived there). Let me quote Poppy in saying that “This book is intended to curate the beauty and tell the delicious tales of drag queens past and present”.

 Writer Poppy Tooker is one of New Orleans’ most celebrated preservationists and historians. Here she combines the history and tradition of New Orleans drag culture with stories and curated recipes from some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants and chefs, including Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s, Antoine’s, Alon Shaya, Isaac Toups and more. I found myself flipping pages as quickly as I could looking at the wonderful photographs by Sam  Hannah and marking the pages that I planned to come back and read in more detail (almost all of them). I mused over how much I am dying for a plate of grillades and grits. I found a place here in Boston that attempts to make them but does not really know how and I had to explain the difference between hominy and grits and to use veal instead of brisket (although this cookbook allows you to use beef). It was a noble attempt but a supreme failure.

We get some 60 recipes and profiles of some of New Orleans’ finest drag queens. I have been gone now almost twenty years and I had completely forgotten about such dishes as Eggs Sardou, Crawfish Strudel and Crepes Fitzgerald and Eggs Hussarde to name a few. I do not know if I will be able to wait until March to get to New Orleans and to taste  so many of the dishes here. I so appreciate this book but on the other hand (there is always an other hand, I am experiencing severe homesickness and dire hunger pains and pangs).

You can always tell when a writer is passionate about their work and you certainly feel Poppy’s passion in her words and in Sam Hanna’s photographs. I love when s book is a pleasure to read and one that you go back to over and over again. I know that will be true for me, especially regarding the recipes. A portion of the proceeds will also go to CresentCare.

“Love Falls On Us: A Story of American Ideas and African LGBT Lives” by Robbie Corey-Boulet— Not the Same in Africa

Corey-Boulet, Robbie. “Love Falls On Us: A Story of American Ideas and African LGBT Lives”, Zed Books, 2019.

Not the Same in Africa

Amos Lassen

 Robbie Corey-Boulet’s “Love Falls on Us,” looks at the complicated relationship between African LGBTQ activism and American foreign policy and its shifts on gay rights which have often exacerbated their difficulties simply by giving a global spotlight to ways of living that might have been unnoticed. Corey-Boulet keeps his focus the three countries of Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Liberia and on activists and individuals there rather than attempting to take on the entire continent. He looks at the peculiarities of these countries’ respective political and cultural contexts.

With the major changes regarding LGBTQ rights in this country, there is little consensus on how to advance those rights beyond the United States and Europe. LGBT activism and allies have created international winners and losers. This is especially true in Africa where  those who easily identify with the identities of the global movement find support, funding and care. Those whose sexualities do not match up and left out in the cold.

Corey-Boulet shows that LGBT liberation does not look the same in Africa as it does in the United States or Europe. We are now at a time when there is great interest in LGBT life in Africa and there are actual attempts at reversing LGBT rights across much of the “developed” world, we see that there have been failures in the past. There must be a right way to come together on LGBT issues in Africa and it is in this book that we begin to learn how to do so. Reading this helps us to understand those who do not have the same rights as the free Western world.

Corey-Boulet has great knowledge of LGBT rights in Africa and a deep connection with local activists. He understands “the complex relationship between well-intended outside human rights groups and the local activist community.” He is both sensitive and connected to the people whose lives and struggles he writes about giving him a great advantage.  

When Hilary Clinton gave her speech on International Human Rights Day in December 2011, announcing that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights”, it was, in part, directed at the African countries where homosexuality was and, in some places, still is a crime punishable by death. She was lauded in the West due to growing popular support for LGBTQ issues. However, in Africa, the speech might have had negative consequences for LGBTQ communities that had gone underground and away from public view.

Corey-Boulet makes it clear that his book is a series of looks and not a “single, generalized picture of gay life across an often maligned and misunderstood continent.” He is very much aware of the common mistakes that are made by writers and journalists make about Africa and that is basically “the mistake inherent in conceiving of sexual minorities in one city, or one country, or anywhere, as a kind of monolith”. Therefore, he avoids hierarchical language and stereotypes choosing to humanize his subjects by showing the complexities and differences among LGBTQ lives, closeted or not.

We gain. understanding of lives “beyond the persecution described in Western media.” We see the importance of awareness to avoid sensationalizing minority life, and to show its full range. The writers and the activists that we meet here are critical of those from the West who seem to be looking at this issue that a colonial mindset which simply means not allowing Africans “to discuss the issue on their own terms, but instead to respond to what Westerners were doing and saying.”  What we really see is the challenge that exists when we attempt to raise the regularity of LGBTQ life in Africa to those who simply want to live peaceful lives free of persecution in the countries of their choice.

“Space Between: Explorations of Love, Sex, and Fluidity” by Nico Tortorella—Their Personal Story

Tortorella, Nico. “Space Between: Explorations of Love, Sex, and Fluidity”, Crown, 2019.

Their Personal Story

Amos Lassen

In “Space Between”, Nico Tortorella explores love, sex, gender, addiction, family, fame, and fluidity through their personal story and the lens of their nonbinary identity
 
Nico Tortorella is an LGBTQ activist who was raised on Ram Dass and raw food and is a person who has always been interested in the more spiritual aspects of life. Their desire for fame and fortune  once took over their journey toward enlightenment and sent them into addiction and self-destructive behavior. Nico has examined the fluidity of both their sexuality and gender identity so that they could be comfortable with who they are and maintain sobriety from alcohol. They became part of an unconventional marriage with the love of their life, and also fully embraced a queer lifestyle that afforded them the opportunity to explore the world outside the gender binary. It was in that space between that Nico met the very diverse community of open-minded, supportive peers they’d always dreamed of having.
 
They share the intimate details of their romantic partnerships, their dysfunctional yet loving Italian family, and the coming together of their feminine and masculine identities into one multidimensional, sexually fluid, nonbinary individual. Nico has become one of the leading voices of the fluidity movement through encouraging open dialogue and universal acceptance. Here they share their story and also give us a manifesto for both the labeled and label-free generations as well as a personal memoir about love, identity, and acceptance.

“Space Between” is so much more than an autobiography; it is a peek into a world that so many off us know so little about. We meet a family that is filled with love for all of its members regardless of the lifestyle they participate in. We read of the daily struggle that Nico has to deal with because they are different.  Nico strives to make this world a better place for everyone in this book about addiction, familial trauma, and gender but more importantly it is about living an authentic life.

As I read, I thought about my own feelings about gender fluidity and sexual fluidity and I realized that I really did not have a position and that in actuality, I had never really thought about these topics before even though I have a transgender nephew who is pansexual.

Tortorella’s journey from the early days of feeling loved to becoming an adult and feeling more comfortable about who they are and what they want is amazing and enlightening.
Their journey is both spiritual and personal. Tortorella is candid about gender identity, addictions, homophobia, biphobia, sexual fluidity, relationships, Hollywood and almost everything else. “Space Between” is honest, inspirational, insightful, and beautifully lyrical.