Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir” by Mark Gevisser— Growing Up in South Africa

lost and found

Gevisser, Mark. “Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Growing Up in South Africa

Amos Lassen

Our story starts with a transgression—the armed invasion of a private home in the South African city of Mark Gevisser’s birth. But far more than the riveting account of a break-in, this is a daring exploration of place and the boundaries upon which identities are mapped.

Gevisser was born and raised in apartheid South Africa and as a kid he was obsessed with “Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg”, a street guide that erases entire black townships. He realizes that Johannesburg is full of divisions between black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight; a place that “draws its energy precisely from its atomization and its edge, its stacking of boundaries against one another.” In this book, Gevisser starts a journey to understand the inner life of his city.

 He uses maps, family photographs, shards of memory, newspaper clippings, and courtroom testimony to chart his intimate history of Johannesburg. First he traces his family’s journey from the Orthodox world of a Lithuanian shtetl to the white suburban neighborhoods where separate servants’ quarters were legally required at every house. Gevisser, who eventually marries a black man, tells stories of others who have learned to define themselves “within, and across, and against,” the city’s boundaries. He writes of the double lives of gay men like Phil and Edgar, of the servants that the upper classes were lucky enough to have,  of the private clubs and swimming pools where there was a chance for intimacy between those of different races. white and black and of the laws of the apartheid which prohibited sex between the ever-present housekeepers and gardeners, and the private swimming pools where blacks and whites could be discreetly intimate, even though the laws of apartheid strictly prohibited sex between people of different races. He explores physical barriers like The Wilds, a large park that divides Johannesburg’s affluent Northern Suburbs from two of its poorest neighborhoods where three men held Gevisser at gunpoint.

The book is an existential guide to one of the most complex cities on earth. Gevisser  tells us that, “Maps would have no purchase on us, no currency at all, if we were not in danger of running aground, of getting lost, of dislocation and even death without them. All maps awaken in me a desire to be lost and to be found . . . [They force] me to remember something I must never allow myself to forget: Johannesburg, my hometown, is not the city I think I know.”

We have two contemporary dramas here—one violent, one quiet and they frame the memoir. Gevisser was born in 1964, the year Mandela was jailed for life. He remembers his privileged childhood in a walled white world. Then, in the mid-1990s, he returned to Johannesburg after studying at Yale for years. He had also lived in Paris for a while. His return included when he was held hostage at gunpoint. He was bound and gagged with two women friends when three brutal robbers broke into his home. From this point the story is driven by ire and sympathy. He feels guilty by having lived a life of privilege. Is his assailant a prisoner from the apartheid war? The honest blend of sympathy and fury drives the story: his guilt now about his privilege as well as relief and sadness.

Gevisser asks questions about race, sexuality, faith, and politics and  examines his own history as well as Johannesburg’s. He uses a map as a metaphor to describe the borders and lines drawn by class, economics or racial segregation. He writes with an honesty that we do not usually find when we read about apartheid and race as well as his own sexual orientation. There were sections that made me feel that Gevisser is driven to tell the truth and set the story straight.

Parts of the book are unique in that they are intellectually mesmerizing. The part about the robbery is frightening and I was riveted to the page. And this is not something I often say. This is Gevisser’s take on growing up in white, privileged Johannesburg and living steps away from poverty and violence.

The use of the map was a stroke of genius— they take us back to the writer’s personal past, as well as to guide us through the history of Johannesburg. “Maps define and divide, frame and exclude, and so do the boundaries of city ; we are defined by society. Sometimes we don’t fit in and we have to struggle to find who we are beyond these limitations”.

“The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World” by Alan Downs— Homosexuality and Shame

the velvet rage

Downs, Alan. “The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World”, Da Capo Lifelong Books, Second Edition edition, 2012.

Homosexuality and Shame

Amos Lassen

 Alan Downs’s “The Velvet Rage” is an examination of the psychology of homosexuality and explores why it leads to shame over one’s identity and how to overcome it.  Let’s face it— today’s gay man enjoys unprecedented, hard-won social acceptance, yet serious problems still exist. We still see substance abuse, depression, suicide, and sex addiction among gay men and they are at an all-time high and these cause us to ask, “Are we really better off?” Author Downs, a psychologist who also struggled with shame and anger uses himself and some of his patients to describe the stages of a gay man’s journey out of shame and he offers practical and inspired strategies to stop the cycle of avoidance and self-defeating behavior.

This is a newly updated version if Downs’s previously published book of the same title. It reflects the effects of the new social, cultural and political changes and it is a reflection of how the public discourse on gay culture has shaped an entire new generation of gay men. We get an accurate picture of the relationship between self-esteem, happiness and suicide. This is a different kind of self-help book since it does not assume that everyone who reads it is suffering or struggling with issues covered here. It does not ever become generic in its strategies and is based on the foundation that most gay men face similar challenges during their lives and these challenges result in deep-seated shame that often precludes any ability to maintain healthy, loving adult relationships with other men. And on this point, Dr. Downs pretty much gets it right.

I am certain that many gay men will see themselves in the pages of this book especially in the sections dealing with shame. It is shame that cripples us when we try to have a loving relationship with another man.

 Downs explains how and why our contemporary culture (20th and 21st century America) makes it well nigh impossible for a gay man to grow up as a healthy, self-actualized person, yet he does not excuse any of us for our failure to overcome these obstacles. Downs writes in clear, frank language and relates anecdotes from his private practice to illustrate the various ways in which gay men sabotage their own relationships. (More importantly, he offers practical, specific advice for overcoming the various stages of shame many of us grew up with. Downs never explicitly draws the comparison, but the shame-redemption process he describes seems to closely parallel the coming out process in general. For many gay men, coming out is merely the first step on the long road toward mental, emotional health and self-acceptance.

I do have one problem with what Downs says here. In the world he writes about, there are only gay and straight people, strongly defined by their jobs, and at some point “wildly successful” in some sort of capitalist pursuit. This makes me think that Downs limits his worldview to the men who can afford his therapy or would choose to pursue therapy, the cost of which, I imagine is quite high. In this case, he has excluded variety. Not everyone has a lot of money to spend on pursuing the lack of meaning in life. What we do not get here is what it is like to grow up poor and gay or black and gay or Latino and gay or Asian and gay, etc. Downs also writes of the limitations of stereotypes and then reinforces every gay stereotype there is.

As I read the book, I saw that it recounted the experiences I had while growing up gay in a straight world. For me, it was a bit of a painful read but then realizing that I had managed to get through so much of what is said here made me feel a lot better.

 

“Second Son: Transitioning Toward My Destiny, Love and Life” by Ryan Sallans— The Transition Experience

second son

Sallans, Ryan. “Second Son: Transitioning Toward My Destiny, Love and Life”, Scout Publishing 2013.

The Transition Experience

Amos Lassen

Second Son is a unique lens on life and love, intimately exploring the transition experience of Ryan Sallans was born Kimberly Ann Sallans and in this book we are with him as he transitions from a child to a young woman with an eating disorder, from female to male, from daughter to son. Ride alongside Ryan s transition from a child to a body-obsessed young woman with an eating disorder; from female to male, daughter to son and to a beloved partner and a cherished fiancée.

Ryan shares with us the struggle he went through as he searched for love and acceptance. His road was not easy—he almost died from extreme anorexia when he was a female college student. His inner spirit saved him. He went through battles with his family, his romantic partner and his body. We are with him as he learns self-empowerment that was so necessary as he went from female to male. We also read about his gender reassignment surgeries and we become very aware that it took twenty-nine years for him to find himself.

This is quite an intimate autobiography that gives us a new and unique look at life and love and it is really very special for me since my niece went through this as she became who he really felt he was.

Ryan is a handsome, brilliant, talented, courageous role model. His story is one of humanity, love, and being true to oneself. The fact that he chooses to share his story so openly and honestly is refreshing because it seems that the many transmen out there prefer to complete their transition and move on with their lives and blend into society. Ryan writes his story honestly and unflinchingly and while he may not be a great writer, he gets his ideas across. The book includes

before/after photographs, a lot of description of “the surgeries,” and I get the feeling that this book is for an audience that is totally unfamiliar with trans issues. Topics are explored on very basic levels. The most important aspect of the book is its honesty. 

Confessions Of a Str8 Gay Man” by RP Andrews— A Commentary

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Andrews, RP. “Confessions Of a Str8 Gay Man”, RP Andrews Enterprises, 2011.

A Commentary

Amos Lassen

“Confessions of a Str8 Gay Man” is ‘blurbed’ as being  “a no-holds-barred, unvarnished, introspective social commentary on Gay Life in today’s America from the perspective of a “str8 gay” man, a member of the great silent gay majority who do not espouse to the fluff of gay sub-culture or all its political correctness but lead quiet, ordinary lives”. (You can see where we are going with this”. It covers topics such as the gay psyche, gay culture, sex and where to find it, relationships, man makeovers, the hirsute man, friends and family, gays and God, playing the Web, and much more. The author also offers his own critical reviews of some of America’s so-called gay hotspots including his own home base of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, frequented by over a million gay travelers annually. From what that says above, you would think that you are getting an encyclopedia about everything gay but instead you are really getting the musings of an arrogant and privileged gay man who thinks that the world sees him as straight.

RP Andrews has very specific ideas about what it means for him to be gay and “has contempt for those who do not or cannot match his personal standard” although I am not sure that anyone would want to subscribe to the meanderings of a smug and conceited person like him. He comes across as insulting and self-loathing.  We immediately become aware his likes and dislikes, his biases and his conceit.

One reviewer claims that “RP Andrews has put in his writings so many of the thoughts, frustrations, and pleasures I’ve felt over the years with a wide array of the gay community”. He says, according to this reviewer, what not “many gay men are brave enough to verbalize, open enough to tell it as he sees it, or willing enough to articulate”. Andrews has taken off his rose colored glasses as he presents to us the kind of gay world he would to see but I am quite sure that he would be one of the very few living within it.

The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America” by Edward White— A Cultural Giant

tastemaker

White, Edward. “The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America”, 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

A Cultural Giant

Amos Lassen

Carl Van Vechten was the most influential cultural impresario of the early twentieth century: a patron and dealmaker of the Harlem Renaissance, a photographer who captured the era’s icons, and a novelist who created some of the Jazz Age’s most salacious stories. He was a close confidant of Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, George Gershwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Knopfs. This is the first comprehensive biography of Carl Van Vechten in fifty years  and the first to seriously look at his relationship to race and sexuality and we see him here as a controversial figure who defined an age. Van Vechten was a devoted husband with a coterie of boys by his side, a supporter of difficult art and lowbrow entertainment, and a promoter of the Harlem Renaissance whose bestselling novel—and especially its title—infuriated many of the same African-American artists he championed. He was a defender of what many considered to be bad taste or even worse, tasteless—modernist literature, African-American culture, and sexual self-expression. Not only does the book explore his private fears and desires but it also is a reminder of the social scene at the time in Manhattan and how taboos were  broken within it.  Because he ventured into major issues such as race and sexuality, Van Vechten was one who ushered in a new age in this country.

Author White maintains that “the man is simply too contradictory to slot snugly into the established narrative of the American Century.” He was a critic, a reporter, an essayist, a novelist, a photographer and above all, a cultural impresario. Because of his own multifaceted career his fame diminished with the passage of time.   Carl Van Vechten was born in 1880 to a prosperous Cedar Rapids family to parents who were early champions of civil rights and who taught him morality. In 1906 Van Vechten moved to New York City, where he would live the rest of his life. Soon after, he became the music critic for The New York Times, and was the first American critic of modern dance He promoted the careers of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller and Anna Pavlova. Van Vechten has a unique gift for finding and publicizing all types of artists including those who were just beginning their careers and those who, for whatever reason, were forgotten. Not only did he launch Gertrude Stein’s career but he also helped bring Herman Melville back into the public eye. Others whose careers were either begun or helped by him include Ronald Firbank, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and George Gershwin, among many others. He was a friend to many leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and he introduced  indigenous art to the world.

As the twentieth century began, the art and culture center of the world was in Europe but within thirty years his promotion of American art including black music and dance brought American into a permanent place as a harbinger of culture. Some of the names that we read about here include a who’s who in culture—Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, W. Somerset Maugham, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holiday, Salvador Dali and Diego Rivera, to name but a few.

Van Vechten lived a very complicated personal life He married twice; his second wife, Fania Marinoff and he were married for fifty years and it is thought that the marriage lasted because Marinoff shared him with young men. White says that Van Vechten was not attracted physically to women and he had a sincere need for female friends and companions but only emotionally. 

Growing Up Before Stonewall: Life Stories Of Some Gay Men” edited by Peter Nardi— 11 American Gay Men

growing up before stonewall

Nardi, Peter. “Growing Up Before Stonewall: Life Stories Of Some Gay Men”, Routledge, 2014.

11 American Gay Men

Amos Lassen

Eleven gay men who have tried to make sense of their identities in the years before the modern gay movement began are featured here. The book is written in the men’s own words and they tell us fascinating accounts of what it was like negotiate their desires within a social and psychological context in which homosexuality was marginalized. They tell us what it was like before Stonewall the issues and problems in presenting such stories are made clear,

“This book provides an exemplary introduction into the social construction of sexuality in the fullest sense”. It helps to give the lesbian and gay community a sense of its history and recent achievements.

“I Probably Shouldn’t Have Done That” by Edmond Manning— The Mistakes He Made

I probably should not

Manning, Edmond. “I Probably Shouldn’t Have Done That”. Pickwick Ink Publishing, 2013.

The Mistakes He Made

Amos Lassen

We all make mistakes in life but I am pretty sure we do not share those mistakes with others (or at least we try not to tell anyone about them). Edmond Manning chooses to call his mistakes “experiences” and here he looks back at some of his biggies and confessions them to us. He does not hold much back or perhaps doesn’t seem to and whether he is writing abut his personal idiosyncrasies or dealing with homophobia, he gives something about and to laugh about.

This is a collection of essays that are based upon real events and occasions in Manning’s life. He deals with his family, his sexuality, daily happenings and anything else. He welcomes us into his world as if we have always known him and are his friends. We feel that he is sitting there with us and that we are actually having a conversation. His stories run the gamut from hilarity to heartbreak and each has poignancy about it. Because much of what he writes about are everyday happenings, we identify with him and I am sure some of us have had similar experiences. Manning writes with emotion— anger, fear, humility, joy, compassion—the list goes on.

Manning has had some really weird days but through them all, he never lost his love for life and certainly not his ability to tell a story. Be prepared to laugh aloud and then to save a thank you for Manning.

“Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination” by Michael Schwalbe— Manhood and Domination

manhood acts

Schwalbe, Michael. “Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination”, Paradigm Publishers, 2014.

 Manhood and Domination

Amos Lassen

There have been many changes in the theory of gender and many of these have come about because of the feminist movement. In fact, the study of men and masculinity took a back seat to feminism because it lost touch with its own feminist roots. It then tried to find a place in the politically safe idea of multiple masculinities. Now Michael Schwalbe offers a new perspective on the social construction of manhood and its relationship to domination. The book starts out with an alternative view that delineates the practices males use to construct women and men as unequal categories, to claim identities as men, and to compete for status as men.  Schwalbe maintains that we must reclaim the feminist radical idea that gender itself is a field of domination and manhood is basically about either using or resisting control. He also looks at the intersection of capitalism and manhood and shows how manhood and economic exploitation are co-emergent and mutually sustaining. The conclusion reached is that to abolish gender, as an oppressive system requires a good more than transgressive self-presentation. It is necessary to end the exploitive economic relationships that necessitate manhood itself and thereby end the damage that has been caused by acts of manhood and by competition to win manhood status.

 This is a “valuable sociological analysis of masculinity and manhood using critical gender theory to deconstruct masculinity and its destructive outcomes”. Schwalbe takes issue with the current focus in men s studies on multiple masculinities and argues that masculinity, as part of the hierarchical gender order, is based on domination of women and less-valued men. He ends with a radical feminist call for a gender-free society. He feels that a radical feminist demand for a society not based upon gender is the best outcome that we can hope for.

Schwalbe here develops a compelling theory of manhood in all its manifestations, from relations between women and men to the dynamics of global capitalism. He totally clarifies the feminist case against male dominance and while we may find some discomfort reading what he says, it is almost impossible not to find his ideas important and compelling.

“When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity” by Judy Y. Chu— Boys and Development

when boys become boys

Chu, Judy Y. “When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity”, (with a foreword by Carol Gilligan), NYU Press, 2014.

Boys and Development

Amos Lassen

“When Boys Become Boys” is based on a two year study of boys from the ages of four to six. Author Judy Y. Chu first met the boys that she writes about, they were four years old and going through social initiation into boyhood.  They could see each other’s emotions and they were emotionally present in relationships and fairly sure about navigating the social world in which they lived. Then they gradually seemed to be less perceptive, less articulate and less responsive. They even became more guarded in their relationships because they were learning to prove that they were boys and not girls. It is Chu’s theory that “that behaviors typically viewed as ‘natural’ for boys reflect an adaptation to cultures that require boys to be emotionally stoic, competitive, and aggressive if they are to be accepted as “real boys.” However, even as boys begin to reap the social benefits of aligning with norms of masculine behavior, they pay a psychological and relational price for hiding parts of their authentic selves. Using obstacles and pressures as variables, we see that the way they comply to what are considered to be the norms of masculine behavior are neither automatic nor inevitable.

Chu presents ways that adults can use to help boys to gain access to options for ways of expressing themselves and resisting other options. I can only imagine the difficulty that went into the author’s fieldwork while researching this topic. She was able to get the boys to confide in her and thereby open up and give details about their lives. She, in turn, listens compassionately and then analyzes what she has heard. Because of this she is able to give us a look into the world of young boys who are caught between the performance demands of others and the eagerness to be who they are.

It is obvious to me that this is a book that was written with love. It takes a brave person like Chu to buck the ways things have been—“we have been telling ourselves a false story about boys and their development” Chu finds that boys do not start begin “being the emotionally disconnected stereotype that our culture projects onto them”.  She claims that boys become those stereotypes via cultural socialization.  We forget that boys also resist and still keep their humanity even though the culture that they live in denies that. Yet boys also resist, and maintain their humanity despite living in a culture that denies that resistance.  

“The Radical Bishop and Gay Consciousness: The Passion of Mikhail Itkin”— The Man and ˙His Movement

the radical bishop

Sullivan, Mark Aelred and Ian Young. “The Radical Bishop and Gay Consciousness: The Passion of Mikhail Itkin”, Autonomedia, 2014.

The Man and His Movement

Amos Lassen

Bishop Mikhail Francis Itkin was no stranger to the LGBT world where he was known as a non-violent anarchist and activist as well as an independent openly gay bishop. He was a bother for radicals and a scandal to Christians. Born Jewish family, he chose Christianity and became one who got people angry by stirring things up a bit.

He organized and led a group of anarchists, and worked to reconcile opposing forces with the societal framework. “The Radical Bishop and Gay Consciousness”, presents five appraisals of his life, and reprints excerpts from his “The Radical Jesus” and “The Gay Anarchist”. Within the Order of the Divine Love he was consecrated as a bishop was a champion of oppressed minorities and the poor during the 1960s-80s. I suspect that many have never heard of him because outside of the urban centers of New York City, Los Angeles / West Hollywood, and San Francisco, he did not have any direct influence (at least any that was heard about). Nonetheless, he was the first openly gay bishop as well as a pioneer of gay liberation and its theology. This new study of Itkin aims to let people know about the man who did so much to help our community move forward. Yes, he was controversial but many times controversy is what gets things moving. Aside from Itkin’s own writings, we hear from gay poet and psycho-historian Ian Young (author of “The Stonewall Experiment”), Bishop John P. Plummer (author of “The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement”), Tau Rosamonde Miller (Church of Gnosis – Ecclesis Gnostica Mysteriorum), Gnostic archpriest Michael Pelagius of the Liberal Gnostic Community, and Mark Aelred Sullivan of CFS and LGC.

It was Itkin’s mission in life to work for the poor and oppressed, everywhere. He was passionate about this. This is a somewhat small book (166 pages) and there is not a wasted word or thought in the book. In fact, it is so filled with information that I often had to stop, think about what I read and then move forward. The book is also filled with images and facsimiles throughout and it is a valuable tool for those who want to know how we got to where we are and for those who are searching for some kind of spirituality.