Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship” by Joshua Gamson— The Changing Family

modern families

Gamson, Joshua. “Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship”, NYU Press, 2015.

The Changing Family

Amos Lassen

The American family has been going through constant change and we are certainly aware that today they are much different than they were, say, ten years ago. Parenthood has taken new directions with the advent of technology, activism, and law.   Joshua Gamson in “Modern Families” brings us some new ands extraordinary family stories of families that have been created (including his own) and in them we see that indeed the world has changed. The stories we have here come from a child with two mothers, made with one mother’s egg and the sperm of a man none of them has ever met and carried by the other mother; another child who was born to a man and a woman in Ethiopia and delivered by his natural grandmother to an orphanage after both his parents died in close succession one after the other. He was then taken to another woman to be his mother and she is raising him alone. We have the story of a girl with two dads, conceived with one father’s sperm and eggs donated by a friend and carried to term in the womb of another close friend who becomes their surrogate. Then there are two girls, one born in Nepal and the other in India, legally adopted by a woman who is co-parenting them with her girlfriend and a gay male couple. These are certainly not the stories we heard as children but they are the stories that today’s will likely hear. 

While these stories are personal, they are most certainly political. In “Modern Families” we have stories that include the personal the ethnographic. These are what we call unconventional families and their stories include adoption and assisted reproduction, gay and straight parents, coupled and single, and multi-parent families and this is all seen against a background of true multiculturalism and the social, legal, and economic contexts in which they were made. We see the difficulties encountered in creating a family and that many times parts of biological reproduction took place in a different body than that of the parents raising the child. We see that sometimes the model of kinship was made up virtually from scratch and many times with tension. We see also that becoming parents is not biological and that it can involve dealing with many issues including social conventions, legal and medical institutions and have been dealt with by heightened intention and inventiveness, within and across multiple inequities and privileges.  We must remember that institutional change often comes after the creativity of everyday living. Each of the families in this book shares the joy of being part of a family.

“Modern Families” looks at change from the inside out instead of the usual opposite way. The new relationships that we have here are complicated in many ways but they are balanced by love and hope. We now live in a society where we are now free to marry who we want and our families now come from how we choose to make them. There is beauty in creating a child extraordinarily. Our vocabularies are changing and we now have words and phrases such as assisted reproduction and we now face new forms of co-parenting and global adoption. In effect, we are challenging what was once considered to be traditional kinship and even intimacy has taken new forms and directions. It is all happening very fast. We now have new questions to which we do not have answers and choice has now entered the equations dealing with family. It is a wonderful time to be alive.

“The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle” by Lillian Faderman— Our Fight for Gay Rights

the gay revolution

Faderman, Lillian. “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle”, Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Our Fight for Gay Rights

Amos Lassen

Scholar Lillian Faderman brings us the epic story of the fight for gay rights from 1950 through the present and shows, by the use of interviews with politicians, military figures, legal activists, and members of the entire LGBT community that this has been and still is the most important civil rights issue of the present day. The fight is not yet over and we still face challenges every day. Faderman shows that some of what has been achieved is beyond the dreams of many and when we take a look back (even just a few years) we really realize how far we have come. This fight is an unfinished story and author Faderman has done her research well.

It all began in the 1950s at which time gay people was considered criminals and the American Psychiatric Association considered us as mentally ill. Religions looked at us as sinners and there was strong hatred for us coming out of society. Even with this atmosphere of hate and distrust, there were a courageous few that dared to fight back. They were the ones who actually paved the way for what was later to follow—the protests in the 1960s; the counter reaction of the 1970s and early eighties; the AIDS epidemic that took so many from us and the new problems that brought us to the fight to gain equal marriage rights.

By using the interviews with eyewitnesses to the movement we get the “you are there” feeling. Faderman has written the book that will be the standard for many years. Her look at the LGBT movement for civil rights is authoritative and the most complete yet and the work of a true scholar. I think that what we really see here is that equality is not a completed goal. We also see the reality of true citizenship and respect through the lens of cultural history. Our story is the story of the human spirit seeking the ideals of democracy upon which the United States was founded. This book is our collective history and I found it to be an emotional experience—especially for those of us who lived through it.

“Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA” by Roberta Kaplan and Lisa Dickey— Defeating DOMA

then comes marriage

Kaplan Roberta and Lisa Dickey. “Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA”, W.W. Norton, 2015.

Defeating DOMA

Amos Lassen

Roberta Kaplan seemed to know from the beginning that to bring down the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA she had to have the perfect case and that was what Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer presented. They were together for forty years and went thorough good days and sicknesses and for all of that time they had to deal with homophobia from society as if it were not enough that Spyer was nearly totally paralyzed multiple sclerosis. Even though they were ultimately allowed to get married, when Spyer died the federal government refused to recognize their marriage thereby forcing Windsor to pay a huge estate tax bill.

This is the story of one of this nation’s most significant and important civil rights victories and Kaplan gives us the definitive account. She shares her meetings with Windsor and how together they worked to defeat DOMA. We learn of what went on behind-the-scenes (the good and the bad), the worries, the ups and downs, the excitement and Kaplan’s insights which alone are worth the price of the book if not more. We also get Kaplan’s personal story and how she came to self-acceptance so that she could create her own loving family.

I think what makes this book and this story so special is that it is truly American and it is told to us with lots of heart and complete honesty. We need to know about how this victory happened and to understand that it was not just an LGBT victory but also one for all Americans.

Kaplan and Windsor became American heroes as a result and all of us won something. Even if you think you know all about it, you will learn a great deal here. Kaplan did not deal with easy issues yet she manages to explain them so we can all understand. None of this would have happened if there had been no Roberta Kaplan and as we read we laugh with her and we cry with her. Her book wonderfully explains how we got to the moment that changed history and it reads like a story that is wonderful and at times hard to believe—especially when we remember how things were just a few years ago. Were in not for Kaplan and Windsor we would still be back there.

 

 

“Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU” by Cory Silverberg with illustrations by Fiona Smyth— Bodies, Gender and Sexuality… For Kids

sex is a funny word

Silverberg, Cory. “Sex is a Funny Word: A Book about Bodies, Feelings, and YOU”, illustrated by Fiona Smyth, Triangle Square, 2015. July 28, 2015.

Bodies, Gender and Sexuality…  for Kids

Amos Lassen

There seem to be comic books about everything these days so why not have one about sex? That is probably want Cory Silverberg was thinking when he decided to begin his project of a book about sex for kids. Silverberg uses children and all kinds of families, sexual orientations and gender identities in his new book, “Sex is a Funny Word”. His book is not only for children from eight to ten but also for their parents and their caregivers and it is not just those basic facts of life that are so important—it gives us a way to talk about the topics that kids need to know but parents are always a bit apprehensive to discuss. Using the book makes it easy to segue to the issues about beliefs and values while at the same time discussing the necessary information about pleasure, safety and joy. Silverberg gives us “sex talk” for the twenty-first century.

I am sure that all of us are aware of the shifting attitudes regarding sex in the world today and for some parents it makes talking about sex difficult. Silverberg places the emphasis on “trust, respect, justice, and joy—as well as open communication—it’s a thoughtful and affirming exploration of relationships, gender identity, and growing sexual awareness.”

We meet Zai, Cooper, Mimi, and Omar and see how they, children themselves, respond to information in chapters about bodies, language and touch. These kids come in different colors as to emphasize the differences in society and there is a lot here that anyone can find something and someone to identity with. Diverse crowd scenes present other opportunities to make the discussions wider and bring in ideas that might usually be placed on the back burner.

Silverberg and artist Fiona Smyth use plenty of bright colors (that often clash wonderfully) and lively fun characters as well as humor and style to get the ideas across and this is a perfectly delightful look at how we regard sex today. Each chapter closes with questions that lead to further discussions and the only sexual activity that is described is masturbation. We see that there are more than two kinds of bodies and one of the characters, Zai, does not identify with either male or female. We see how gender is assigned but with room for there to be more than just two. I love the originality here and have gone back and look at it again and again. If you want to find out how Corey Silverberg came to write this, have a look at the Lambda Literary site (August 19, 2015) for a wonderful interview. I understand that a volume on puberty is next up for him.

“Masculinities in the Making: From the Local to the Global” by James W. Messerschmidt— “What a Piece of Work is Man”

masculinities

Messerschmidt, James W. “Masculinities in the Making: From the Local to the Global”, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers , 2015.

“What a Piece of Work is Man”

Amos Lassen

In “Masculinities in the Making”, writer James Messerschmidt looks at three groups— wimps, genderqueers and American presidents to see how, if at all, they help us to better understand the concept of masculinities. Working with a new and “revised structured action theory; an intersectional analysis of sex, gender, and sexuality; and an examination of the differences among masculinities from the local to the global”, Messerschmidt us an easily accessed and provocative argument that show how we see these masculinities. We have life histories that illustrate the varied ways masculinity is constructed from the local to the global.

Other points considered include “how the body constrains and enables masculine social action, hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities by people assigned male and female at birth, the intersection of sex, gender, and sexuality and the interplay among relational and discursive social structures”. As we read, Messerschmidt is able to expand the concept and theory of masculinities as structured action, and illustrates this analysis with wimps and genderqueers and then focuses on Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. These two presidents saw themselves and therefore projected that they are “hegemonic masculine heroic protectors.”

By reading here we get a deep and personal look and understanding of social relations and the role gender plays in them on local, regional, and global levels. The book also looks at non-conformist sex and gender patterns, and presents an analysis of “how masculine fantasy can become global political reality”.

Basically we get a new way of looking at key concepts and what we see is backed-up by data. By examining new gender practices and the older patterns of dominance, Messerschmidt provides valuable ways of looking at masculinity.

“Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home” by Leah Lax– Moving On

uncovered

Lax, Leah. “Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home”, She Writes Press, 2015.

Moving On

Amos Lassen

Of late, there have been many memoirs written by Jews who have left the religiosity of Orthodox Judaism. Obviously the authors of these have something to say. Interesting enough is that the majority of these are written by women. There must be an interest in this type of book because they are selling and people are reading them. One of the newer titles is Leah Lax’s “Uncovered”. In it she tells hr story which begins when she was a young teen who left her secular Jewish home to become a Hasidic Jew and it ends with her becoming a forty something-year-old woman who knows that to find the personal freedom that she seeks is to leave the religious world. We read of her arranged marriage, her former fundamentalist faith, being a mother and a member of the Hasidic community. She looks inside herself to consider her creative, sexual, and spiritual longings and discovers that they have been simmering beneath the surface as she lived the life of a truly religious woman. Even with all of the other memoirs out there, this is the first that tells about a gay woman who spent years in the Hasidic sect. This is also the story of a woman finding the place where she knows she really belongs.

Even though her story is very personal, I am sure that it is a story that many will recognize. Everywhere in the world there are women who are forced to cover their bodies by patriarchal religions that actually control the wombs of their females. Lax was one of those but she had the courage to break away and the honesty to tell her story. It is not a pretty story but it told tenderly. It is a story of damage and struggling and it is the story of some helpful people. Above all else, it is the story of a person trying to live an authentic life.

The prose is pristine and it touches the heart to read about a woman who had to deal with shame and live a life of rules that kept her bound and could not be changed. It is also an inspiring story about just how hard it can be for a person to become who he/she really thinks they are. Lax’s voice as a Jewish woman and as a lesbian is the voice of one who must be silenced—after all, we all know there are no such things as religious Jewish lesbians and we also know that religious Jewish women do not have the right to speak about themselves. (I see this almost daily in Boston—a beautiful young girl with a terrible wig on her head and five children who walks steps behind her husband and who does not speak unto spoken to—when a child cries, the husband looks at his wife as if to say, “quiet the child”. What I do not see are exchanges of love in their eyes. It is as if she is there to serve and not disturb him).

We read of how Lax moved from loneliness through what promised to be a new family and a new community and then ultimately into a pure appreciation of the world away from the world that made her suppress her needs.

Lax had been the perfect Hasidic woman. She taught young believers and spoke at conferences while at the same that she raised her seven children. As she aged, however, she felt less sure of her place in both her life and her religion. She found the courage to take control of her life and then becoming true to herself. We see that the Judaism of the Hasidic sect is an old religion being practiced in a modern age where most of it is outdated. Leah Lax brought it up to date in her life and we can only wish the best for her and admire hoer courage to do what she felt she had to do. I just wish that others would do the same. I say that as an observant Jew who loves his religion and who has found a way to reconcile sexuality with faith.

 

 

 

“Oklahomo: Lessons in ‘Unqueering’ America” by Carol Mason— “Unqueering” America

oklahoma

Mason, Carol. “Oklahomo: Lessons in ‘Unqueering’ America”, SUNY Press, 2015.

“Unqueering” America

Amos Lassen

Carol Mason in her book, “Oklahomo” uses the state of Oklahoma as a case study for how US conservatives have attempted to unqueer America since the 1950s. She looks at the lives of four Oklahomans to show how the process of “unqueering” works in a conservative American state. We Mason presents to us is a story about how homogenizing, antigay ideas evolve from generation to generation “so that they achieve particular economic, imperial, racial, and gendered goals”. The four people we look at here are antigay crusaders Sally Kern and Anita Bryant and Billy James Hargis and Bruce Goff who were two queer teachers dismissed from their positions. We see how the lives of these figures represent “paradigmatic moments in conservative confrontations with queers”. They aid us in understanding the conflation of terrorism with homosexuality that goes as far back as the McCarthy era with its witch-hunts. This book adds to the studies of rural life and sexual norms as we see how terrorism has come into being right next to the cultures of sexuality in this country. Many us forget today with all of the freedoms that the LGBT community has that we are still part of a very conservative country. Below is the table of contents as it appears in the book:

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

1.“Unqueering America”: An Introduction

2. Sally Kern: The Queer Terrorist in Middle America

3. Anita Bryant: Oklahoma Roots and National Fruits

4. Billy James Hargis: Sinister, Satanic Sex

5. Bruce Goff: How to Stop Enjoying and Learn to Fear Queer Art

6. Queer Times in Wal Mart Country: A Meandering Conclusion

Notes

Works Cited and Collections

Index

 

 

 

“Foucault Against Himself” by Francis Caillat— Reframing Foucault

foucault

Caillat, Francis. “Foucault Against Himself”, translated by David Homel, Arsenal Pulp, 2015.

Reframing Foucault

Amos Lassen

One of my great philosophical and literary heroes is Michel Foucault with whom I was lucky enough to have studied. “Foucault Against Himself” is collection of essays that re-examines him and then reframes the legacy he gave to us. He was a man of many contradictions in his private, political and his academic life. He often found himself battling the very institutions with which he worked. We see here in this collection that is based upon the documentary film of the same name how contemporary critics and philosophers try to find new ways of thinking about his struggle against what he considered to be domination by society. To do so they demonstrate how internal conflict is at the core of Foucault’s philosophy as well as his life and work.

Michel Foucault was an intellectual who was never content to rest with what the found or wrote about at from one moment to the next. His work and thoughts always seem to fall back on themselves— with Foucault, there was no such thing as start or finish. He would review and re-review, add and subtract, correct and amend. It seemed that he was transforming himself as he transformed his work. If we do the same today we would avoid the holes of “intellectual complacency”.

This collection includes a foreword by Paul Rabinow, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California (Berkeley) and an influential writer on the works of Foucault; he is the co-editor of The Essential Foucault.

The essays and interviews include:

Leo Bersani, American Professor Emeritus of French at the University of California (Berkeley) and the author of Homos

Georges Didi-Huberman, French philosopher and art historian; his most recent book is Gerhard Richter: Pictures/Series

Arlette Farge, French historian and the author of The Allure of the Archives

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, French philosopher and the author of La derniere lecon de Michel Foucault

“Finding Masculinity: Female to Male Transition in Adulthood” by Alexander Walker and Emmett J.P. Lundberg— Transgender Men Beyond the Traditional Narrative

finding masculinity

Walker, Alexander and Emmett J.P. Lundberg. “Finding Masculinity: Female to Male Transition in Adulthood”, Riverdale Avenue Books, 2015.

Transgender Men Beyond the Traditional Narrative

Amos Lassen

Trans gender people are coming into their own now and we are hearing more and more about them than we have ever heard before. Most of us have our own ideas about trans gender issues but as one who has experienced it in my own family, I want to tell you to be careful how you reach conclusions and that is because there is so much that those of us outside of the trans community do not know. Here we learn about some of the issues and the facts about the community and it does so by having members of the community speak for themselves.

This is a collection of stories from members of transgender male community that insightfully take us into the diversity of life experiences of transgender men. We read about how transition from female to male influences and impacts of transitioning on the job, emotional and spiritual growth, family, navigating the medical community, as well as romantic relationships. The stories within come from scientists, teachers, fathers, veterans, and artists who share how being visible as the masculine humans they identify as has developed, changed, and evolved their sense of masculinity. For me this book is very special as my former niece recently transitioned into my nephew and surprisingly enough, I, his gay uncle, am the family member that has understood it the least. Reading the stories here opened my mind and my feelings. I did not really know my nephew very well as we have never lived in the same place and I have spent the majority of my life away from the rest of my family. Getting together with him after many years of being separated was especially difficult because I only really remembered him as the young blonde curly-haired niece that I had seen as a child. Now at 40 years he was a professional man and academic and I felt very guilty about not having been part of his life. Evidently the family reaction to the transition (that was not negative) has since caused him to sever ties with all of us. The last I saw of him was some five years ago after not having been part of his life for more than forty years.

Now I can only wonder how it was to live life as someone you do not believe you really are. This is the main thing I learned by reading this very important book. So often what we read about trans gender people resembles tabloid journalism or lately about Caitlyn Jenner whose transition has made her even more of a celebrity simply because of who he was and who he is now. Suddenly becoming the poster child for trans people must be quite a burden but there is one major difference here. Caitlyn received almost unanimous support simply because of the person he was. Most trans people are not so lucky.

The authors of this book have done quite a service to all of us and we certainly sense the love with which this book was written. There have been serious books written before about the topic but this is by far the most comprehensive and personal of them all and I believe that is because it is about several different people who experienced several different transitions.

Many people have problems with understanding and accepting trans issues and it takes something that is written seriously and personally to help explain the entire process and ways of life. That is what this book does so beautifully. Because trans voices are so seldom heard, this is a fresh and vibrant look about those who do not take their gender for granted. There is diversity and variety here and many will be surprised that almost all of the contributors are living “straight” lives. It is also important that both ages and stages of transition are represented here. What we really read about are the people we work with, who teach our kids, who are next to us as we walk down the street. While the stories express the pain they have felt, they also express the joy they have while being who they really are. Isn’t that what all of us strive for?

“No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions” by Ryan Berg— Homeless LGBTQ Teens in New York City

no house to cal my home

Berg, Ryan, “No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions”, Public Affairs Books, 2015.

Homeless LGBTQ Teens in New York City

Amos Lassen

So many of us are so lucky to never have experienced what it is to be homeless. It is a “gritty, dangerous, and shockingly underreported” especially for LGBTQ teens in New York. Ryan Berg, a caseworker in a group home for disowned LGBTQ teenagers, has witnessed the struggles, fears, and ambitions of these disconnected youth as they resisted the pull of the street and seesaw between destruction and survival.

Berg traces the efforts of these teens to break away from dangerous sex work and cycles of drug and alcohol abuse, and, as they do, to heal from years of trauma. Here we meet Bella who yearns fervently for stability, Christina who has dreams of becoming a star and Benny who just wants someone to love him and who tries so hard to find just that. There are over 4,000 youth who are homeless in New York City and 43% of them identify as LGBTQ.

Reading these stories makes us rethink who we are and the definitions of such terms as love, identity and privilege. What we see in these young people once we wipe away the tears of broken goals is the hope they have for the future. This is not a pretty read and we see that there exists in this country homelessness for young people and that life on the streets is tough. It is even rougher when someone is a member of the LGBTQ community. Reading writer Berg’s stories is not easy and just as he tries to offer these young people hope, we see that perhaps we can do the same. These are stories that break the heart and give us something to worry about (as if we need more) but we see our problems as compared to theirs to be rather small. Everyone likes to know that he has a place to lay his head at night and a meal to wake up to. As they stories give us a sense of fear they also inspire us. The heroes here are those who have been and are “denied the common decency of house and home” yet they refuse to give up or give in. nonetheless refuse to surrender their humanity.

“Sometimes we don’t understand the life we find ourselves in the midst of living”. Think about what that sentence means. Sometimes we want something so badly that we lose ourselves and sometimes we just try to hard. At the same time, there are others trying but not making progress and those are the kinds of young people that we read about here. What we need to remember is that we must love each other.

These young people refuse to stay in these situations and do everything that they can to leave them behind.