Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry” by Bill Jones— A Gay Athlete

alone

Jones, Bill. “Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry”, Bloomsbury, 2015.

A Gay Athlete

Amos Lassen

It was in 1976 when the world watched John skate to Olympic glory at an ice rink in Austria. On that night, he became on the most famous men in the world and by himself he changed skating from a marginalized event for men to what we refer to as high art. Men’s skating had been the sport of muscular men and not of the sensual and ambiguous sexuality that Jones was. He dazzled the world with his beautiful movements and yes privately he was a man who was tortured often with his own complexities. “Alone” looks at Jones and his life that was troubled and ended much too soon.

As a child, he suffered from nightmares and homophobia. He was bothered by the politics of the Cold War, his finances were not good and he had more than his share of deep personal tragedy.
 This is not a regular biography of a sportsman but rather this is the story of a man who was restless and impatient and he possessed a dark soul yet a man whose skating moved people. Like so many others of our gay greats, he died at the age of 44 suffering from AIDS and a severe heart attack.

The book is a reminder of how close art and sports are and how much courage it takes to follow a dream and how much mettle it takes to be a gay athlete and sportsman. One cannot read this and not be moved by the book’s sensitivity and emotion.

“Certainty” by Victor Bevine—the Newport Navy Vice Scandal of 1919

certainty

Bevine, Victor. “Certainty”, Lake Union Publishing, 2014.

The Newport Navy Vice Scandal of 1919

Amos Lassen

“Certainty” is based on a true story that shocked the United States at the end of the First World War. Almost overnight Newport, Rhode Island was home to twenty-five thousand rowdy recruits ands they were preparing to enter the war. Drinking, prostitution and other activities came with the sailors who transformed the town, as many resides felt, into a place filled with vice. A young lawyer, William Bartlett, whose genteel family has lived in Newport for generations was outdone with what he saw.

The sailors accused a beloved local clergyman of sexual impropriety and Bartlett felt he had to find back by defending the minister not realizing what the consequences might be. When the trial grew to become sensational, it was learned that there were other revelations in store and the case made its way from Newport to the federal government and Bartlett had to face more than just the truth but also the nature of good and evil as well. The line between right and wrong became blurred. We meet a cast of characters who have to rethink their own identities and reconsider the rules of society and the nature of prejudice and judgment. The novel explores a real event that occurred under the direction of then Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt that forces us on a journey of self-discovery while answering to a higher power about our own personal awareness of the meanings of right and wrong.

We are pulled into the plot immediately as we read of the social dynamics of our country at the close of WWI and right before Prohibition. At the end of the war, Newport was a mix of wealthy summer residents who owned the famous and fabulous homes there and thousands of Navy men who suddenly had nothing to do but get rowdy. The Navy worried about containing their men and consequently it enacted a new rule that said that certain “deviant” behaviors were not allowed within a small radius of a Naval base. Homosexuality was considered a “deviant” behavior and it is the catalyst for this story to take place.

For the general American public at this time, homosexuality was terrible and it was an unspeakable deviant behavior. The military and the government took enforcement of the sodomy laws seriously ( with the penalty being as much as thirty years in military prison). In addition to looking at the social dynamics of the period, this is also a legal thriller and courtroom drama. There were those who were suffering with he Spanish flu that ran rampant but there was also boredom during the demobilization of the Navy. Many were waiting to

be discharged and as they waited they tried to find ways to occupy the time. There was a rise in the crime rate and prostitution and drinking took off. The Navy was particularly worried about the “crime of homosexuality” and looked at it as depraved, unnatural and an indication that a man had no moral fiber. The Navy were set on stopping the homosexual crime and established an investigative team to discover those engaged in it. The team was made up of sailors who were tricked or agreed to the perks to entice other men to engage in sex, and then to turn them in to military justice.

Samuel Kent, a local member of the clergy was caught up in the witch-hunt. He was loved for the work he did with the ill from the flu and he was truly a kind man. However, he was lured into a trap and the government quickly used him as an example. Bartlett represented him in court and because he adamantly believe in Kent’s innocence, he agreed to take on the case.

The case was known as the Newport Navy Vice Scandal of 1919. Since FDR was at the time Assistant Secretary of the Navy, what happened is regarded as his darkest hour in American government. I feel it is important to note that this was less than a hundred years ago and at a time when gay sex was considered wrong and criminal and those who were different were ostracized and penalized for whom they chose to love. Victor Bevine gives us quite a story and when we think about how it is today for gay people in this country, it is hard to accept how it was once.

“Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco” by Clare Sears— The Law and Cross-dressing

arresting dress

Sears, Clare. “Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco”, (Perverse Modernities: A Series Edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe), Duke University Press, 2014.

The Law

Amos Lassen

Many of us are aware that in 1863, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a law that criminalized appearing in public in “a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” It was adopted as part of a broader anti-indecency campaign, the cross-dressing law became a useful and flexible tool for policing multiple gender transgressions and by the end of the century there had been over one hundred arrests. Other U.S. cities (some forty) passed similar laws during this time, yet we know little about their emergence, operations, or effects. The book contains archival material that looks at anti-cross-dressing laws that were handed down in municipal courts and codebooks, newspaper scandals, the theater of vaudeville, freak and side-show performances and other venues and shows that “the law did not simply police normative gender but actively produced it by creating new definitions of gender normality and abnormality.”

We also get the story of those who dared defy the law and spoke out when they were sentenced and spoke about variations of gender and various gender possibilities.

Author Clare Sears offers a fresh look into how individuals targeted by cross-dressing law manipulated gender boundary logics to make public claims or evade unwelcome scrutiny. The volume is written clearly, extensively documented, and intelligently and vigorously argued as it explores how policing gender conformity has had quite far-reaching impacts.

The subtitle is bit misleading in that this book looks at more than San Francisco and contains many large ideas about various places and what is considered the norm and we get generative and the disciplinary function of the law as well as the historical “transience of gender categories as well as the persistence of transgendering practices”. Sears connects the exclusion of gender non-conformers “from the public sphere with similar exclusions of raced and disabled bodies.

“PRIVATE DICKS: MEN EXPOSED”— The Naked Truth

private dicks

“Private Dicks: Men Exposed”

The Naked Truth

Amos Lassen

Men think about their penises a lot and some of us even think with our penises. However, most men never talk about their penises but directors Meema Spadola & Thom Powers change that with this new film in which we hear men honestly talk about “their most prized possessions”.

The film looks at young and old, straight and gay, large and small, virgin and porn star, from all walks of life and as it does it explores the naked truth about how men feel about their penises. Several of the men appear naked and give personal revelations that are honest, humorous and often poignant as they frankly discuss puberty, power, impotence, circumcision, sexuality, myths and perceptions, growing old, and, of course, size. Throughout the film there are clips from vintage sex education films and humorous cartoons. The film provides an opportunity for both interviewees and audience to begin an honest conversation about masculinity, power, vulnerability, sex and love-all seen through the lens of a man’s relationship to his penis.

Among the 25 men interviewed for the documentary are:

Gordon, 73, a retired professor who tells of getting syphilis and gonorrhea as a sailor during WWII, and reflects on the decline in libido and prostate troubles that accompany aging.

“Lexington Steele,” 28, an adult film actor who recalls how he first realized during his college years that his 11-1/2 inch erection “might be of some interest,” and discusses the literal ups and downs of a porn star on set.

Boris, 57, an advertising director, paralyzed from the mid-torso down since age 17, who talks about sex as a paraplegic.

Jesse Sheidlower, slang dictionary editor at Random House, and editor of The F Word, explains the etymology of penis-related slang words and offers some rare historical slang. And there are many others. This is just a fun film to watch that educates as we do.

“The Life and Loves of a He Devil: A Memoir” by Graham Norton— Coming in April

the life and times

Norton, Graham. “The Life and Loves of a He Devil: A Memoir”, Hodder & Stoughton , 2015.

Coming in April

Amos Lassen

In April we will be able to read Graham Norton’s revealing, moving, and hilarious life story as he takes us through the things he loves in his memoir. Norton has been entertaining us for almost twenty years with his ability to find humor in the simplest of things. His memoir is based on love and he shows us that it is really what we love that makes us who we are. He describes what and he who he loved as a young boy along with his new loves and obsessions—big and small—as he’s grown older. Graham realizes that what makes a life interesting is not what happens to us but what inspires and drives us.

“:..And Then I Became Gay””: Young Men’s Stories” by Ritch Savin-Williams— Gay in America, 1980’s and 90’s

and then I became gay

Williams-Savin, Ritch. “:..And Then I Became Gay””: Young Men’s Stories”, Routledge, 2013.

Gay in America, 1980’s and 90’s

Amos Lassen

 “…And Then I Became Gay” is about young men who share what it was to be gay in the United States during of being a sexual outsider in North America during the 1980s and 1990s. It also contains a cross-section of men from different ethnic backgrounds. Each story has a personal meaning to the individual youth disclosing it, yet aspects of these narratives can express a normative experience growing up gay or bisexual. For many of the contributors and readers, these stories may prove to be not only about coming out, but also coming of age.

The stories included were drawn from interviews with 180 men aged 14 to 25. They contain graphic and poignant reminiscences and we read of awareness and acceptance of a gay or bisexual identity, initial sexual experiences (both homo- and heterosexual), and the coming-out process. We also look at the issues faced by youths who are both cultural and sexual minorities. While the book is essentially a scholarly study, the sensitive treatment and personal narratives will appeal to lay readers. We see that the existing stereotypes of gay male development are demolished and replaced with real life stories.

Savin-Williams uses the term “sexual minority” for those interviewed and who share their memories of same-sex attractions, first gay sex, first heterosexual sex, labeling self as gay/bisexual, disclosure to others, first gay romance, and positive identity. In each category he gives the diversity of when and how sexual minority youths achieved or didn’t/hadn’t yet reach these “milestones”. He notes similarities and differences between boys and young men who achieved them during childhood, early adolescence, middle adolescence and young adulthood. He then compares/contrasts the experiences of white males with those of ethnic young men.

 The young men tell their stories and we get a sense of real lives. It is the last chapter that is so important. We read of the current crop of sexual minority youth, those who came of age in the late 1990’s and early 21st century. He states, “A singular or normative developmental lifestyle for gay/bisexual youths simply does not exist. Those who advocate such a position are usually adherents to a straight versus gay psychology. This approach might satisfy those who desire to draw attention to either the ‘Look, we are just like them!’ assimilationists or the ‘We are different from them!’ separatists, but it also results in a misrepresentation of gay/bisexual [male] life. No two lives are identical, nor are two lives irrevocably distinct. Both concepts should be assumed concurrently….”

“Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir” by Charles M. Blow— Dealing with the Past, Living in the Present

fire shut up in my bones

Blow, Charles M. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”, Mariner Books, 2015.

Dealing with the Past, Living in the Present

Amos Lassen

One of the things that I have noticed in writings by black men is the way they deal with homosexuality but now we have a gorgeous memoir of a man who does just hat. Charles M. Blow is one of our most respected journalists and he shares with us how he dealt with his past so that he can live well in the present. He tells us in beautiful prose about having to deal with so many major issues— race, gender, class and sexuality not just in the American South and our nation as a whole.

Blow brings us a beautifully written coming of age story with an inspiring and uplifting ending of self-acceptance. We see the world through the eyes of an African-American who was raised in the segregated southern United States. He was the youngest child of a strong and proud mother and a progressive father. His extended family was unique and populated with individuals for whom stereotypes do not fit and neither do expectations. What I find so interesting is that this is not a beautiful story but it is told in beautiful prose. Alongside of sweet moments are tragic ones and the descriptions are so vivid it is as if we are there. Being from the South myself, I found so much to indentify with. We see the characters and even feel as if they are speaking right to us. This is a story of redemption and triumph but only after arduous suffering and pain.

I have always had trouble trying to find an accurate definition for the word “man”. Is it gender or a role to be played as expected by society? Perhaps it is a commitment of some kind. Then I read this story of a young man growing up in rural Louisiana and how he finds his way even with the poverty and abuse that he suffered and shook his beliefs. Here is someone who feels his difference and tries to overcome before he can deal with it. He tells us that he has spent his whole life trying to fit in but then it took the rest of his life to realize that some men are not like others and are meant to stand out from the rest. While the book deals with Blow’s sexuality it is really about finding out what is a man in a place where the rules that had been written and accepted don’t include the “strength that comes from divergence.” Here is a courageous story of an honest man who stops running and realizes who he is.

By reading this we better understand poverty, the south, racism, sex, fear, rage, and love. Here is a guy from a small town who grew up in extreme poverty in the segregationist Deep South and then became a columnist at The New York Times. He suffered through racism and poverty and we read where he took on sexuality, religion and social hierarchy in the African-American community and in doing so has revealed his inner soul and yet he became one “America’s most intriguing public intellectuals.” His story is self-critical and he says things that we cannot ignore and this is a story that few men and even fewer Black men can tell. Blow’s brilliant and self-critical narrative contains truths which no American can afford to ignore, and which few black men have dared to tell.

“Straight-Face” by Brandon Wallace— Life, Love, Learning

straight face

Wallace, Brandon. “Straight-Face”, Green Bridge Press, 2014.

Life, Love, Learning

Amos Lassen

Brandon Wallace was raised in Arkansas, a place where I lived for seven years but unlike Wallace who hid his sexuality, I was openly gay while I lived there and it was a terrible experience. It took a while for me to get out and now I can look back at those painful seven years. As he grew up, Wallace knew that he had been called to the ministry and also that he is/was a gay man. He was afraid that coming out would destroy his chances for serving God and probably make getting a job very difficult so he hid who he was hoping that he would one day find love and acceptance. However, it seems as though God had other plans for him and he was taken on a journey that would allow him to lead a life openly and authentically. With this book, we join him on that journey during which he learned to accept himself and his faith. He gives us a story about learning, love and life and his reconciliation with himself.

Wallace does not hold back—he gives us his raw and candid story and in one of the chapters he even writes his exegesis of a biblical verse that really helped him discover and live with who he is. He had to live behind a mask of a straight person that we all know is not easy. There have been so many coming-out and coming to terms with stories that it is rare to find one that has something different to say. Brandon Wallace gives us one of those and it is written with humor as well as serious reflection.

We go past biographical facts and read how he saw the world. We feel the frustration that he felt yet he doesn’t dwell ion it and writes as if we are actually having a chat about who he is.

We now see that many people are coming to terms with the way gay people have been treated throughout time and many evangelists and other church people have had difficulties with LGBT issue but there is change coming and it is coming quickly. straight faceWallace notes this new acceptance and we see by reading him, he is not in the place where he once was. It seems that the days of hiding and wearing the mask are ending. The new Brandon Wallace writes in italics thus making it easy for us to separate the old from the new.

There is a concentration on various periods in time in which Wallace analyzes experiences and shows us how they influenced his life and his dealing with his sexuality. His call to the ministry never ceases and he learns just how to deal with both issues. I do not think that the intent of this book is to write about living and hiding as so many have done and still do but rather about the challenges that are faced by such living. One of the differences here is that this is not about the dismissal of religion but integration into it as a complete person. We see that wearing masks is dangerous and with narratives like this one, we can hope that hiding and masks will soon become part of an ugly past.

“Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism” by R.W. Holmen— Into a New Age

queer clergy

Holmen, R.W. “Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism”, Pilgrim Press, 2014.

Into a New Age

Amos Lassen

We all have had the idea that Christian churches are gay-bashing homophobes. Self-appointed spokesmen and evangelicals have fostered this image. There are progressive Protestant denominations ordain gays and lesbians and celebrate LGBT weddings, but we all know that it hasn’t always been that way. It has only been in the last ten years that the principal ecumenical denominations–the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and earlier the United Church of Christ—began to adopt inclusive policies that have reversed long-standing exclusions that kept gays and lesbians from the pulpit and restricted clergy and congregations from celebrating covenant services of blessing and marriage ceremonies. Though the Methodists lag behind, prophetic voices rally the faithful and countless clergy are openly defying the Book of Discipline and facing ecclesiastical charges. We are finally in a new age.

Straight ally and author, Obie Holmen, author and straight ally in “Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism”  gives us five separate sections for five denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ) and then he brings the five together and shows their common paths and parallel journeys.

We see how these changes have come or have not come about over the last decades. Because each denomination has its own governance, advocating for change has to be crafted to that structure. R.W. Holmen understands the complicated governance structure and culture of each denomination and then he explains it to us in ways that are easy to understand. He gives us five case studies on how to advocate – each involving proponents, strategists, gatekeepers and the larger community. Into each denomination, author Holmen presents the personal, community and institutional stories. We see the differences in decision making so that we better understand the struggles some churches faced and very evident is the culture clash between emerging American values and those of the third-world, which has particularly affected the Methodists’ process of full inclusion. We certainly become more aware that misogyny and homophobia are two sides of the struggle, and that in a patriarchal system such as traditional Christianity, the two are often paired together.

The book contains much documentation and the details are here making this a very important study. It is  a celebration of how far the church has come in a relatively short time.

“The Thousand-Petaled Lotus: Growing Up Gay in the Southern Baptist Church” by Michael Fields— Gay and Baptist in Nashville

the thousand petaled lotusFields, Michael. “The Thousand-Petaled Lotus: Growing Up Gay in the Southern Baptist Church”, Langdon Street Press, 2014.

Gay and Baptist in Nashville

Amos Lassen

Having been raised in the South, I can say that growing up there can be a very strange experience and growing up gay can be harrowing (if you let it). Michael Fields shows us that it can also be a very funny but also a thought-provoking journey. He take us back to Nashville, Tennessee, a place with many characters where he had his sexual awakening and live with prayer and his search for the truth. Using the lotus as a metaphor for his growing up and coming out, Fields tries to reconcile his sexuality with his religion and his faith in God and his ultimate discovery that the concept of the kingdom of heaven is where we are right now, the present.

We have had many stories about the conflict between the church and sexuality but here it is treated differently. Fields’ story is personal and about his growth within the framework of his church, his family and the city of Nashville in the 1970s. In that journey, he touched teen gospel music, experimental theater, rock star David Bowie and he explored different philosophies until he reached his own enlightenment. While this book is about growing up gay it is also about being creative and searching for meaning within a conservative culture. Of course Fields writes about his religious and spiritual journey and his struggles to find and understand his place in the world, his relationship to God and to the Universe in general. This personal story is also filled with his thoughts of issues theological and metaphysical and this gives so much strength to his story.

His world was that of the born again Christian. His family was very religious and his dealing with his homosexuality changed things quite a bit. We begin in Nashville of the 1960s where Michael prayed that God would not let him be gay and he had to accept who he was while still being the paragon of a good Baptist boy. He is wonderful at finding humor is troubling experiences and this helped him make sense of what was going on within himself. He stresses that homosexuality is not something that is acquired and that there are gay people who follow their religions. He also stresses that while he was coming to terms with his sexuality, he learned that being gay was a liability and then could have resulted in electroshock therapy, jail time in many states for consensual same-sex behavior, raids on gay bars and institutionalized homophobia.

He begins his book writing about God and eternity and defines God as “limitless in every dimension including the fourth, exists outside time altogether.” With this, it makes it that much easier to reflect upon eternity and God. For Fields heaven is not about an afterlife, but about life here and now. This is very similar to the conclusions that I have reached as an observant Jew. Life on earth is as good as we make it and if we err, we face that here on earth.