Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“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.

“Understanding John Rechy” by Maria DeGuzman— Rechy On Another Level

DeGuzman, Maria. “Understanding John Rechy”, University of South Carolina Press, 2019.

On Another Level

Amos Lassen

John Rechy is best known for his novel, “City of Night” is also an essayist and playwright. He is recipient of PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, ONE Magazine’s National Gay and Lesbian Cultural Hero Award, the William Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Luis Leal Award for Excellence in Chicano/Latino Literature, and the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement, Rechy has written fifteen novels, at least three plays, and several volumes of nonfiction.

Maria DeGuzman in “Understanding John Rechy” gives us a short biography and then begins to trace his work and craft through his major works. She looks at “central issues, recurring situations and characters, styles, and special techniques and examines the complexities of his representation of identity, the subjectivity in his male homosexual odyssey and identity quest novels, and his experimentation with genre.” She presents us with “an intricate analysis of the major organizing paradigms and themes, genres, modes, styles, and handling of the gay Chicano’s oeuvre.” The real concentration is on the ways in which Rechy’s works are a cultural critique challenging mainstream values in a deep-structure manner.

“She situates the writer’s synesthetic prose, his embrace of sexual and social outcasts within U.S. conformism, as well as his contribution to women-centered narratives and the Chicana feminist canon. DeGuzmán underscores Rechy’s experimental methods given to transform experience into visionary novels, true fictions, and mixed-media memoirs into works imperative for understanding our nation in the present.”

“No Place Like Home: Coping With the Decline and Death of Toxic* Parents: *Wounding/Absent/Narcissistic/Traumatic” by Nick Nolan— A Death in the Family

Nolan, Nick. “No Place Like Home: Coping With the Decline and Death of Toxic* Parents: *Wounding/Absent/Narcissistic/Traumatic”, Independently Published, 2019.

A Death in the Family

Amos Lassen

It is hard to believe that it has been some 18 years since I reviewed “No Strings Attached”, Nick Nolan’s first book and, in fact, one of the first books I reviewed. I remember being blown away by the lyrical language and character developed and I often return it when I need a bit of a pickup. That book was followed by two, equally as good books and the three made up “Tales of Ballena Beach” but since the publication of the third volume, Nolan has been quiet. He’s back now and dare I say, better than ever. Moving away from fiction Nolan tackles the very difficult topic of aging, death and a bit more.

In “No Place Like Home” he shares professional perspectives on “the dying parent who was seldom – if ever – emotionally supportive of their child.” He gives us a very intense look at his violent father’s decline and death from diabetes and probable Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (Concussion Syndrome). Nolan interviews three adult survivors of child abuse, as well as eight licensed clinicians who specialize in family systems, women’s issues and Christianity, People of Color, LGBT clients, military PTSD, child sexual abuse, and neurology. In turn, we get diverse and multiple views on  anger, guilt, and resentment that those who survive  familial abuse and neglect deal with as they help the offending parent.

We forget that death is a fact of life and it must be dealt with like any other fact of life. Most of us face death with fear and it remains the great unknown. The way we deal with a parent who is ailing and declining health wise is a rough topic to pursue and to talk about. Yet, as we get older, death becomes realer. For many people, the first time they face death as an issue is with the death of their parents. We can ask ourselves what about parents that are toxic? What about abusive parents who were cruel to a child and his/her siblings? How about parents who were parents only in name and did nothing to provide a loving home for their children? How are the children of such parents to deal with their ill heath, their declining years and ultimately their death?

Nolan takes on this issue and as a survivor himself, he knows the steps that are taken and he shares them with emotion and in doing-so gives us a self-help guide. He takes us through the events of his childhood and as he reflects on them, he pulls us in. I am sure that he wrote this with many tears. Through interviews with eight clinicians he looks at the major issues of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, narcissism, abuse (of any kind). We also have interviews three adults who are survivors of child abuse. 

You might think that this all sounds depressing but as you read you will find that the way Nolan deals with these topics is full of feeling and quite interesting. Yes, it is depressing at times but so is life and we get over depression if we want to.

I find it fascinating to find written on the page the fact that abuse can be the result of an injury and that a hit on the head while a child can result in brain damage that could cause someone to become abusive.

There is a lot of information here and it is presented in ways that are easy to understand.  Nolan takes us on a journey of his personal story and what he has learned in the interviews. I think what really pulled me  is the sincerity and honesty of Nolan and the fact that he is completely open with one he says. I have always enjoyed the chats we have shared and the emails we have exchanged and these gave me a heard start because I already knew something about Nolan. I clearly remember that after reviewing his first book, we had a chat about how he came to write it and he even shard some information about his background and the kind of work he was doing then. I could tell that he felt comfortable speaking to me and vice versa and not only did I read a good book but I made a new friend as well. He is sensitive and moral, compassionate and humble and a wonderful writer.

He shares valuable information that guides us to make a choice of either forgiving or walking away. But walking away from Nick Nolan’s literature is not an option. I believe that once you read him, you will come back for more.

“Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917” by Dale Cockrell— A History

Cockrell, Dale. “Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917”. W.W. Norton, 2019.

A History

Amos Lassen

Dale Cockrell’s “Everybody’s Doin’ It” is the story of popular music’s seventy-year rise in the brothels, dance halls, and dives of New York City. We read about the birth of popular music, including ragtime and jazz, in convivial meeting places for sex, drink, music, and dance. Whether coming from a single piano player or a small band, live music was a nightly feature in New York’s dive bars where men and women, often black and white freely came together and this presence shocked the elite.

This drove the development of dance music that would soon span the world. The Virginia Minstrels, Juba, Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin and his hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band all played a part in beginning making new sounds and making them popular.

Musicologist Dale Cockrell recreates this underground world by researching tabloids, newspapers, court records of police busts, exposés, journals, and the reports of undercover detectives working for social-reform organizations who were gathered evidence against such places. “Everybody’s Doin’ It” illuminates the how, why, and where of America’s popular music and its journey from the dangerous Five Points of downtown to the interracial black and tans of Harlem. The book contains 30 illustrations. It also exposes the interracial and underworld origins of popular song and dance in the United States by taking is us into nineteenth-century concert saloons, cabarets, dives, and dance halls.
we are reminded that  prostitution was everywhere back then and was one of the ways that women could survive and it was an integral part of New York’s  music scene.”
Cockrell’s uses an archivist’s gaze to open  a new world for readers, showing how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

“Queer Faith: Reading Promiscuity and Race in the Secular Love Tradition” by Melissa E. Sanchez— Queer Logics of Postmodern Religious and Secular Texts

Sanchez, Melissa E. “Queer Faith: Reading Promiscuity and Race in the Secular Love Tradition”, (Sexual Cultures), NYU Press, 2019.

Queer Logics of Premodern Religious and Secular Texts

Amos Lassen

“Putting premodern theology and poetry in dialogue with contemporary theory and politics, Queer Faith reassess the commonplace view that a modern veneration of sexual monogamy and fidelity finds its roots in Protestant thought.” If we suppose that this narrative of “history and tradition” suppresses the queerness of its own foundational texts, what becomes the result. “Queer Faith” looks at key works of the prehistory of monogamy (from Paul to Luther, Petrarch to Shakespeare) and shows that writing assumed to promote fidelity actually speaks about the affordances and benefits of promiscuity, both in its sexual sense and in the designation of all that is impure and disorderly. Writer Melissa E. Sanchez does not see promiscuity as the ethical, queer alternative to monogamy and she instead shows how ideals of sexual liberation are themselves attached to nascent racial and economic hierarchies. Because discourses of fidelity and freedom also deal with racial and sexual positionality, understanding the complex historical entanglement of faith, race, and eroticism is not only necessary but urgent to contemporary queer debates about normativity, agency, and relationality.

We see new conceptual frameworks at the juncture of secular and religious thought, political and aesthetic form  and this is because the assembly of these ideas have been deliberately unfaithful to disciplinary norms and national boundaries. The contexts, objects, and authorized genealogies of queer scholarship are enlarged and retracing a history that did not have to be. In doing so, Sanchez recovers writing that “inscribes radical queer insights at the premodern foundations of conservative and heteronormative culture.”

“Sage Sapien: From Karma to Dharma” by Johnson Chong— A Gay Asian-American

Chong, Jonathan. “Sage Sapien: From Karma to Dharma”, Kohler Books, 2019.

A Gay Asian-American

Amos Lassen

It is a lot easier to be gay today than it was even five years ago. Each ethnicity has its own set of ideas about homosexuality and gay people and we see that with so much emphasis on family life among Asians Asian -Americans, it can be very difficult for one to be his/her/self.

Writer Johnson Chong looks at and writes about the obstacles and triumphs of being a second-generation Asian American gay man. It is not easy to be split between a conservative upbringing and living his truth. We are with him as he journeys through the pangs of youth to developing self-awareness and life-changing lessons in India and abroad. This is not a new story— we shifting old attachments of self-rejection and shame into a new paradigm of peace and unconditional love. We can never expect anyone to accept us if we cannot accept ourselves. To do so, we must love our emotional problems, mistakes and errors and self-deprecating tendencies and use them as ways to become stronger. These problems give us opportunities for strength and growth. Chong brings spirituality, memoir and self-help together, to give us a universal story of the “underdog who steps into their authentic expression” and shows us how to do likewise.

There is another reward in reading this. Johnson Chong is an international yogi, meditation teacher and Self-Mastery Guide. He also the created  Exodus Retreats, where he leads transformational retreats to sacred places around the world. Here he integrates his love of storytelling to empower life changing shifts in consciousness and he is available for speaking engagements and group coaching. Johnson runs a holistic self-mastery podcast, “Sage Sapien” and offers guided meditation audios and online and live coaching programs. This is his first book.