Category Archives: GLBT non-fiction

“Alvin Baltrop: The Piers” edited by James Reid and Tom Watts– Looking Back at Gay New York City

the piers

Reid, James and Tom Watts (editors). “Alvin Baltrop: The Piers”, TF Editions, 2015.

Looking Back at Gay New York City

Amos Lassen

Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of the piers are a groundbreaking exploration of clandestine gay culture in New York in the 1970s and 80s. During that time, the derelict warehouses beneath Manhattan’s West Side piers became a lawless, forgotten part of the city that played host to gay cruising, drug smuggling, prostitution and suicides.

Baltrop has documented this scene candidly and the photographs capture everything from fleeting naked figures as they meet in the architectural for scenes of explicit sex and police raids on the piers. His work is little known and under published and this id because of the subject matter.

the piers1

Baltrop photographed the city’s gritty flipside; his work is an important part of both gay culture and the history of New York itself. This is a powerful tribute to a long-forgotten world at the city’s seedy margins.

“Alvin Baltrop (1948-2004) was born in the Bronx, New York, and spent most of his life living and working in New York City. From 1969 to 1972, he served in the Vietnam War and began photographing his comrades. Upon his return, he enrolled in the School of the Visual Arts in New York, where he studied from 1973 to 1975. After working various jobs–vendor, jewelry designer, printer–he settled on the banks of Manhattan’s West Side, where he would produce the bulk of his photographic output”.

These gritty but moving photos gave a view into the past of the gay community. As gay civil rights continue to improve, we must never forget that it wasn’t too long ago that people had to take great risks just to connect with one another.

“Cursed Legacy: The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann”— A Dislocated Life

cursed legacy

Spotts, Frederic. “Cursed Legacy: The Tragic Life of Klaus Mann”, Yale University Press, 2016.

A Dislocated Life

Amos Lassen

Klaus Mann was the son of Thomas Mann and he was also a homosexual, drug-addicted, and forced to flee from his fatherland. He was also a gifted writer who had quite a short and dislocated life. His literary output, however, is amazing. He was the author of author of “Mephisto” and regarded by many as the literary enfant terrible of the Weimar era. He wrote seven novels, a dozen plays, four biographies, and three autobiographies of which one was one of the first in Germany to deal with issues of being gay. He also wrote against the Nazis and because of this he was blacklisted and denounced as a dangerous half-Jew and his books were burned in public squares around Germany. Another result was the revocation of his German citizenship. Mann served with the U.S. military in Italy. He was undone by anti-Communist fanatics in Cold War-era America and Germany and he died in France when he was just forty-two. He did not commit suicide as many thought.

This is the first biography of Klaus Mann to appear in English and in it we see the results of reactionary politics on art and literature. This is the story of a great talent that was destroyed by personal circumstance and the world-shaking events of the twentieth century.

“Boy Erased” by Gerrard Conley— Identity, Love, Understanding

boy erased

Conley, Garrard. “Boy Erased: A Memoir”, Riverhead Books, 2016.

Identity, Love, Understanding

Amos Lassen

I lived in Arkansas for seven years and learned the mentality and the perspective of many Arkansans yet to this day how I survived those seven years. I still cannot imagine how a young man could deal with being gay in a state filled with born-again Christians. Garrard Conley managed to do so and he was raised in the small town of Mountain Home. Living in Little Rock and/or Fayetteville would have easier no doubt but he did have that opportunity. I think what surprised me the most was that when I would sit and speak with many of the gay population was that they knew nowhere but Arkansas. That was why I began reviewing. I wanted the gay community to know that there was a big gay world out there but since they would not go to it, I brought to them.

Conley was the son of a Baptist pastor and therefore he was deeply into the church life of small town Arkansas but as a young man he knew who he was and he was filled conflict and fear. He tells in raw but compassionate prose about being outed to his parents as a college student. He had to decide whether to go through conversion therapy from a church-supported program that supposedly would cure him of his desire to be with men or lose his family and friends as well as being told that God would longer find favor in him.

He tried the therapy that consisted of an institutionalized Twelve-Step Program that concentrated on Bible study. When he finished it, he and his parents were told that he was supposed to emerge heterosexual, ex-gay. All impure urges would be gone and he would have stronger faith in God because he had chased sin away. Nonetheless, he found the strength to break away and look for his true self elsewhere. He first had to face his past and in doing so was forced to deal with having lived in a dark world and try to find a way to face his family, his friends and his faith. It is very difficult to read this with dry eyes—we feel his pain throughout. I thought to myself that if it is so hard to read this, it had to be unbelievably difficult for Conley to write it. Yet he has managed to do and in the process write in all in beautiful prose. (That is also something for someone from Arkansas. I taught several writing classes at one of the universities near Little Rock and I was constantly amazed at the lack of ability of many of my students to write a decent sentence. Should I have expected more from a state that elected Mike Huckabee as their governor? I know, I know, Bill Clinton had also been governor but his education took place past the border of the state).

The description of Memphis’ “Love in Action” conversion therapy techniques made me sit up straight and try to understand how anyone thought this could possibly work. It has been a long time since I read something with such emotional vulnerability. The boys there were told by their counselors that they were broken inside and something very important was missing from their lives. It is hard to imagine how this sounds to someone who feels that something is not right. The twelve steps that they had to deal with involved sins of infidelity, bestiality, pedophilia, and homosexuality as well as addictive behavior, such as alcoholism or gambling. The guys were already broken and adding this to their problems had to really devastate them. They were told that God was angry with them because of their homosexuality. Conley shares what they were to do in group sessions and taught to take a moral inventory of their lives. They were given statistics about LGBTQ teen suicide and rejection by parents as if this was what they need to know.

In his group were guys from all over the south and they had all been given ultimatums—to change or else and that “else” depended on person and situation. The ultimatum caused fear and Love in Action became known for the use of fear. There is one story that I have to share:

“In fact, several years before I arrived, the facility had been responsible for staging a funeral for a would-be ex-gay defector, a young man of nineteen or twenty who felt he might benefit from an openly-gay life outside the facility. The other members of his group were instructed to stand before his reposing body, read mock obituaries that described his rapid descent into HIV, then AIDS, and cry over him, until he was fully convinced that his sinful behavior would lead him to a death without any hope of resurrection, his only consolation that he might be buried in his Sunday Best with a Bible tucked beside him, no other traces of his former self preserved. It was our fear of shame, followed by our fear of Hell, that truly prevented many of us from committing suicide”.

There is not much that I can say after that.

Conley reminds us of how much work there is left to be done and we have to make sure that his words are believed and used. This is one of the most enlightening books that I have read in a very long time and it really brings home what we have to know about this bogus therapy that has been outlawed in this country. That does not mean that we do not have to know about it.

It is not enough just to read this book—we need to think about it. We are lucky to have it and to have it so beautifully written is a blessing. (Yes I use the word blessing because I still believe like so many others that there is good in people—we just need to find it).

” Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist” edited by Jeremy Mulderig— Remembering Samuel Steward

philip sparrow tells all

Steward, Samuel.” Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist”, edited by Jeremy Mulderig, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Remembering Samuel Steward

Amos Lassen

Samuel Steward (1909–93) was a man of many talents: English professor, tattoo artist for the Hells Angels, sexual adventurer who shared the considerable scope of his experiences with Alfred Kinsey, and a prolific writer whose publications ranged from scholarly articles to gay erotica (the latter appearing under the pen name Phil Andros).

He was also a monthly contributor between 1944 and 1949 to the “Illinois Dental Journal”, a trade publication for dentists, where writing as Philip Sparrow he concocted a series of “charming, richly allusive, and often quirky essays on a wildly eclectic assortment of topics”.

Editor Jeremy Mulderig has collected thirty of these columns and, prefaces them with revealing introductions that relate the essays to people and events in Steward’s life as well as to the intellectual and cultural contexts in which he wrote. Steward wrote about some of his famous friends including Gertrude Stein, André Gide, and Thornton Wilder. He shares his stint as a holiday sales clerk at Marshall Field’s (where he met and seduced fellow employee Rock Hudson), of the roles he played as an opera and ballet extra in hilariously shoddy costumes, of his tendencies to hoard and his disappointment with the drabness of men’s fashions, and his dread of turning forty. There are essays about a bodybuilding competition and a pet cemetery, the boulevards of Paris and the alleys of Algiers. Mulderig carefully explains the gay context and the allusions present in these essays and highlights what we now see as a kind of private game that Steward played with his mostly oblivious audience of Midwestern dentists.

This is the first collection of any of Samuel Steward’s writings to be republished since his death in 1993 and is a major step in documenting his important place in twentieth-century gay literature and history. Steward was a once-neglected figure in queer history and recently we have learned a great deal about him thanks to Justin Spring’s wonderful biography.Steward’s essays were well constructed and sarcastically funny and probably misunderstood by the dentists who read the journal. We can be positive that they did not catch the coded gay references.

Steward dared to experiment “with the comic, personal and confessional modes of the casual essay in ways that might have been difficult to risk otherwise.”The essays were written at a time of censorship and homophobia.Steward’s skill, intelligence, and wit allowed him to get away with the many gay references. Muldering has gone a wonderful job in editing and annotating the essays and even today they are great fun to read.

How Queer!: Personal Narratives from Bisexual, Pansexual, Polysexual, Sexually-Fluid, and Other Non-Monosexual Perspectives” edited by Faith Beauchemin— The Power of Sexuality and Gender

how queer

Beauchemin, Faith (editor).“How Queer!: Personal Narratives from Bisexual, Pansexual, Polysexual, Sexually-Fluid, and Other Non-Monosexual Perspectives”, On Our Own Authority Publishing, 2016.

The Power of Sexuality and Gender

Amos Lassen

 “How Queer!” is a collection of “fourteen short autobiographical essays written by ordinary bisexual, pansexual, and sexually-fluid people from diverse backgrounds, sharing their experiences and telling their own stories”. In these personal narratives, we explore themes of bisexual and pansexual visibility, activism, confrontations with homophobia, and non-monosexual experience in the LGBT community.

Editor Faith Beauchemin gives commentary in the form of an introduction and five reflective essays that show the contributors’ experiences in the context of broader movements for radical social change. Beauchemin argues that the common trend toward bisexual erasure in LGBT activism functions only to serve the interest of patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia. The stories here help to subvert oppressive hierarchies by highlighting the perspectives of people who refuse to fit neatly into categories like “gay” or “straight.”

The book and the study that came to be what is here is a rightfully unapologetic refusal to assimilate to heterosexist and homophobic societal standards. We feel what the writers here feel— a consistent feeling of hope throughout the stories as each author demonstrates the courage it requires to live and love as our authentic selves. What the book really does is call upon us to dismantle the systemic forms of oppression, namely capitalism and patriarchy, which are a result of colonization and are therefore responsible for the denial and erasure of gender and sexual fluidity in modern American society.

“How Queer” is an important book not only because it s a fascinating read but also because it centers on the experiences of bisexual and pansexual people.

“Sexual and Gender Diversity in the Muslim World: History, Law and Vernacular Knowledge” by Vanja Hamzic— Islam on Gender and Sexuality

sexual and gender diversity

Hamzic, Vanja. “Sexual and Gender Diversity in the Muslim World: History, Law and Vernacular Knowledge”, I.B. Tauris, 2016.

 Islam on Gender and Sexuality

Amos Lassen

We are taken on quite a journey into Islam in Vanja Hamzic’s scholarly look at the religion and its views on sexuality and gender. International human rights law forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Yet we see something quite different when looking at Islamic law. Writer Vanja Mamzic gives us an historical and

anthropological analysis of the discourses on sexual and gender diversity in the Muslim world. In doing so, we get new information about diversity and resistance to how Muslim societies see “self”. Mamzic looks at contemporary Pakistan and at the hijra community there whose pluralist sexual and gender experience are in defiance of international and state law with new archival research and he examines Islamic jurisprudence this book provides a unique mapping of Islamic jurisprudence, court practices and social developments in the Muslim world.

He also gives is a look at how sexually diverse and gender-variant Muslims are seen by themselves and by others and within the context of Islam’s legal tradition. There are millions of members of Muslim communities who suffer from discrimination and prejudice only because of because of their perceived or actual gender and/or sexual diversity. We see here that the systemic oppression of ‘queer Muslims’ runs against the fundamental principles of both analyzed global legal systems and that the notions of gender identity and sexual orientation, as pronounced in the Yogyakarta Principles, should be upheld in framing the related legal, religious, social and human rights claims. I often think about academia and the LGBT community and this book makes, unintentionally, a case for a gay academic discipline and that s because we see here how sexuality is a major part of life

Hamzic’s book rests on three interrelated premises. One is to give a critical and comparative look into the history of international human rights law and Islamic law. By doing so we can see “uncharted legal and social landscapes and reach a conceptual interpretation of the law. Secondly we look at “the shadow of the law” and thirdly is the result of what one can find in the study of international human rights law and Islamic law.

The book is written by the use of an interdisciplinary theoretical approach and pays careful attention to critique and its value as well as critical studies of law, gender and sexuality. These include but are not limited to post colonial Marxist feminist and legal realist views. Hamzic leaves no stone unturned and after a chapter of introduction, we go right into the issues. Human rights law speaks volumes to Islamic law about sexual minorities in the Muslim world but here Hamzic turns the tables with what he gathered doing fieldwork in Lahore, Pakistan. Many of us will be surprised at what he learned and found regarding the salvational agency of the law. We are made to think and consider how we deal with sexual and gender difference.
This is a not a book for the layman—it is scholarly and expensive ($99) but for the serious study of law and LGBT citizens, it is a must read.

“Unbuttoned” by Walter Cooper— Gay Santa Fe

unbuttoned

Cooper, Walter. “Unbuttoned: Gay Life in the Santa Fe Arts Scene”, CreateSpace 2016.

Gay Santa Fe

Amos Lassen

It is often said, “Where gays live, creativity thrives!” However, do we think of New Mexico when we hear that? Our thinking seems to be about the large urban centers where gay life thrives and I am pretty sure that most us are unaware that for over 100 years, the Santa Fe/Taos region of Northern New Mexico has nurtured a rich gay culture. Therefore we also are unaware of the tremendous “impact lesbians and gay men play, and have played, in shaping the art and cultural mecca of the American Southwest”.

In Walter Cooper’s memoir we go behind adobe walls and into the queer world that was Santa Fe artistic life in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. There is lots of LGBT history, camp humor, fascinating anecdotes as well as 80 photographs, and the author’s personal encounters with such cultural icons as Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Norman Rockwell, Buckminster Fuller, Tennessee Williams, Shirley MacLaine, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The main part of Cooper’s story and book look at those in the region—painters, potters, writers, poets, photographers, designers, tastemakers, and opera people he has met and known for forty years. Here we meet a dynamic LGBT community that helps make Santa Fe truly different. This is writer Cooper’s untold story of a closeted copywriter who left a 10-year career in New York and Tokyo with J. Walter Thompson of advertising fame. He left the to the ad biz and took his dreams West. He banged down the closet door and a full-time painter and printmaker. His work has been shown in many galleries and it can be found in private and corporate collections. He has produced book and record covers, posters for operas, rugs, greeting cards and postage stamps.

We are with Cooper in New York and Fire Island in the 80s and then in Santa Fe at a time when it was changing from an art colony into a boomtown. I must say that I knew a bit about Santa Fe—my sister was living there with her then husband and children who she had met on a trip to Israel to visit me. I never got there because the marriage did not last but I do remember her letters about the place.

Cooper has written an intimate biography of himself as a gay man and as an artist. He risked it all to be an artist and he really lets us see Santa Fe at her gay prime. This was a time before the Stonewall riots and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. This was certainly way before gay pride. It is not what it was but neither are we who we were.

“Growing Up Twice: Shaping a Future by Reliving My Past” by Aaron Kirk Douglas— Reliving Life

growing up twice

Douglas, Aaron Kirk. “Growing Up Twice: Shaping a Future by Reliving My Past”, Newsworthy Books; , 2015.

Reliving Life

Amos Lassen

Aaron Kirk Douglas looks at the emotional risks and the rewards that he had during the period that he was mentoring a young Latino boy. At the same time he learned a great deal about himself. Douglas is an award-winning social activist and mentor in the Big Brother Big Sister program. Before that he was a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He shares what goes inside of himself while working with an at-risk youngster and he tells us how it was to be just a weekend mentor.

Rico is a fatherless foster child that Douglas meets through Big Brothers Big Sisters. In working with him, he has had to face his own \ memories-and pain-of growing up gay in rural Oregon without the love and acceptance that he wanted from his own father. His experience leads him to forge a new kind of family–the kind one creates for oneself.

This is a book that is filled with raw emotions and inspiration but there is also humor and motivation. It also brings forth question as to whether the life we are now living is as challenging as it should be. Douglas is a man who has a great deal of courage and he drives himself.

Douglas’ story is not only rich and complex but it is also the story of a gay man who was looking for something more in his life. Just because, hg decided to mentor a young at-risk male and at first felt overwhelmed and unsure that Rico would l like him. As the two begin their journey of acquaintance, we see that both Douglas and Rico have their own insecurities and uncertainties as they learn about one another and find they have a lot more in common than they ever realized. Over the course of their relationship, Douglas sees Rico through foster care, placement back with his illegal immigrant mother, and trouble with the law. They become friend and later “family” but it took a while for Douglas to understand that there is more to being a mentor than playing ball and going to movies. He soon realized that he was dealing with much the same pain as was Rico. We become very aware of the life-changing power of unconditional love and perseverance. When and Rico were matched up by Big Brother/Big Sister, Douglas saw that they did not have much in common but as time progressed, they began to learn from each other about how to deals the struggles that life presents us. with life’s struggles.

Douglas saw that he had certain tools that he used on himself to deal with his own childhood and he was able to teach those to Rico. Of course there were periods of struggle but persistence made him stay and work with Rico. This is not just a story but also a reflective journey of “mentorship, of brotherhood, of struggle, of fatherhood, of friendship”. While Douglas’ own story is sad and heartbreaking, it is encouraging to read about how he, without any legal ties, was able to work with Rico who had been selected for him at random. Douglas became determined that Rico was to have his chances at a good life.

It all began when Douglas naively decided that he could have a positive influence on a child with a troubled background. Rico, however, had other ideas. As Douglas dealt his fears and concern for the boy whose life he’d agreed to work with, Rico’s anger and destructive apathy made it very difficult. The two seemed to constantly antagonize each other (at first). Douglas soon understood that he had become impatient and uncertain to the point of becoming resentful and this is not what was expected of him as a mentor to a troubled boy. Ultimately he learned to look past himself to find ways of being able to incorporate direction into young Rico’s life. First off was his refusal to give in to problems and obstacles and he began to find truth and beauty in unexpected places and then brought that to Rico, sometimes quite bluntly.

We see the boy and the man change each other and they both gained a great deal. We, the readers also gained by Douglas’ writing this book. What makes this such a special read is honesty and self-reflection that make this such a fascinating read. We see quite clearly here that people change and how important it is to accept these changes.

“Equal Ever After: The Fight for Same-Sex Marriage – And How I Made it Happen” by Lynne Featherstone— March 24, 2014

equal ever after

Featherstone, Lynne. “Equal Ever After: The Fight for Same-Sex Marriage – And How I Made it Happen”, Biteback Publishing, 2016.

March 24, 2014

Amos Lassen

On March 23, 2014 same-sex marriage was made legal in Britain. It had taken decades of hard work and campaigning but it finally happened and the marriage of two people of the same sex was legalized and married LGBT couples could begin to enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples. Lynne Featherstone had a lot to do with this. She had been Equalities Minister in the coalition government and she worked with activists, lawyers, campaigners and civil servants to bring about a legal change that would have epic importance to Britain’s LGBT community. We see that this was not an easy thing to do and the opposition was fiercely opposed (I say that to stress the importance). Some of that opposition came from religious communities, from the media and it seemed like it was going to be an impossibility. Featherstone was able to find support and she knew how to use it. One of the most surprising supporters was Theresa May, Home Secretary.

This is the inside story and it is told by the person who was really responsible for pioneering it and staying with it. We read how Stonewall initially tried to “scupper” marriage equality. It was Featherstone who got it all started. As she worked she faced the abuse with which the gay community was regularly confronted. Through her rebuttals against the noise and fury of her opponents, She ultimately made history. She shares revelations about finding allies in unexpected places and encountering resistance from unforeseen foes.

Even though this happened recently, it is still history. We see the emotional lows and the exhilarating highs involved in turning hard-won social acceptance into tangible legal equality.

“Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics” by Timothy Stewart-Winter— The 1960s Forward: Politics and Social Movments

queer clout

Stewart-Winter, Timothy. “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

The 1960s Forward:  Politics and Social Movements

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many consider Chicago when thinking about social movements and politics in this country but we learn here that it is much more representative than other major cities. In “Queer Clout” we learn of the coalitions that gave the LGBTQ voters the power to become a “pivotal political constituency.” There is a lot to be leaned from Chicago; we see from author Timothy Stewart-Winters’ study. I understand that this is the first study based on archival urban gay politics between the 60s and the 90s. It will be on interest to those looking at cities, sexuality and politics in this country.

If gays and lesbians wanted political power in this country, it could only be achieved by going through city hall. By the late 1980s, those who were elected to power were those who had political advantage that came from raiding gay bars and then taking the patrons to the booking stations. The aggressive pursuit of gays and lesbians was a way to form a bloc and the irony was that the campaigning often took place in bars that had been raided or that would be. Then there was a turn in which gays acquired power and influence and they used clout.

The book traces the gay movement from the 1950s through the rise to municipal power as it brings together activism and electoral politics, shifting the story from the major gay meccas to Chicago. Steward-Winter challenges what had been the traditional division between the homophile and gay liberation movements, and stresses that gay people and African Americans were the focus of police harassment. The black civil rights activists played an important part here in that offered gays and lesbians not only a model for protest but also an opening to join an emerging liberal coalition in city hall. The book uses diverse oral histories and archival records over fifty years and also includes undercover vice and police red squad investigators, previously unexamined interviews by social scientists who studied gay life, and newly available papers of activists, politicians, and city agencies.

Here we see the politics of race, religion, and the AIDS crisis in a different light and we also learn how big-city politics paved the way for the gay movement’s unprecedented successes under the nation’s first African American president. Below is the Table of Contents:

List of Abbreviations

Introduction

Chapter 1. A Little World Within a World

Chapter 2. Maximum Feasible Intimidation

Chapter 3. Freaking Fag Revolutionaries

Chapter 4. Clark and Diversey (sic) Is Our Ghetto!

Chapter 5. Lesbian Survival School

Chapter 6. Balance of Power

Chapter 7. A New Disease Is Not Welcome Here

Chapter 8. Flexing Gay Economic Muscle

Notes

Index

Acknowledgments