Monthly Archives: May 2012

“One Gay American” by Dennis Milam Bensie— The Search for Identity

Bensie, Dennis Milam. “One Gay American”, Coffeetown Press, 2012.

The Search for Identity

Amos Lassen

“One Gay American” is a book that any of us who came of age in the sixties could have written. I can already hear you saying, “If anyone could have written it, what makes it special?” The answer is quite simple—no one did write it except for Dennis Bensie. Remember, the sixties were a different time and the mood of the country was different. Coming out was a political act and even though it was liberating, gay people were marginalized by society. The younger generation does not understand that and that is why it is so important. We tend to forget how it was, how we got to where we are now and who got us there.

Dennis Milam Bensie was raised in Robinson, Illinois and in a “traditional” family. He was sure that he would eventually find love, get married, father a child, etc, etc. He was aware of his sexuality that he hid and when he was 19, he married a woman even though  deep inside he knew that this was not the life for him. As he tried to find his gay identity, he left and then divorced his wife and hit the bars, public restrooms and bath houses. As happens so often, the chase becomes exciting and everything takes a back seat.

What I have always found so interesting is that we expect others to accept us yet we do not accept ourselves. Bensie goes through this as well even while mourning his gay friends that he lost to the AIDS epidemic. It has taken him a while but Bensie eventually accepted himself and this book is a memoir of that journey.

Bensie has divided his book into time periods, beginning in the 1960’s and 70’s and takes us through the present. These divisions are further broken down into short chapters each named for a significant event in the author’s life. Just as we have seen so many advances in society for the acceptance of members of the LGBT community, Bensie has experienced some of these changes personally and he relates them to us. This makes his personal life part of the larger picture of the American LGBT community. He talks about areas that need to be changed, especially the bullying of gay kids. It may seem better but then we really only hear about the urban centers. What happens when a gay boy in Damascus, Arkansas (like Bensie in rural Illinois) knows no one else like him, has no one to talk to and is bullied at school?

In effect, Bensie gives us a look at our culture and history and it not only makes us think, it reminds us of who we are. Those of us who have lived at the same time as Bensie have seen incredible changes in the gay community, both from within and from the larger society. It has not been an easy journey yet Bensie makes it an entertaining and fun read. We should never forget how it once was for us in this country and remember that every right we have today is the result of those that came before and worked hard so that each generation has it better than the generation before it. We stand on the shoulders of others and Bensie provides us with some very broad shoulders on which to stand. Red his delightful book and thank him for just that.

“Plastic Neon Signs”–a poem by Walter Thomas Beck III

Plastic Neon Signs

In the shadows of the plastic neon signs
Where the middle class pretty boys
And local college queens
Down Day-Glo shooters;
Sipping Cosmos watered down
With soap opera tears.

Where they patch their weekly broken hearts
In the blinding disco lights;
Strutting to an auto-tuned synthetic rhythm
To drown out their bad romances.

Outside
In the shadows of the polished plastic neon signs,
Sits one stone-broke pale-faced lean half-fag
Strumming a battered Dobro
Moaning out “Death Letter Blues”
At the news
Of another brother gone.

–Walter Beck

“THE LAST DANCE RAID”— A Forgotten Story

“The Last Dance Raid”

A Forgotten Story

Amos Lassen

I recently heard about a movie in production that looks at an early gay rights protest after a police raid in 1965. Being gay in San Francisco in 1965 was a crime and the police doled out their own kind of justice. On January 1, 1965 at California Hall, a rented space on Polk Avenue,  a Mardi Gras costume ball was about to take place. It was to be a fundraiser and was regarded as a coming-out party for the gay culture of the city. This was to be the first time that gays were going to reveal themselves publicly and politically. In effect, the party was really not much more than a gay drag ball but progressive Christian ministers who were actually part of the civil rights movement served on the organizing committee. There were other committee members from the early gay rights movement. The police decided to stage a rid and nothing was ever the same again.

The film uses intergenerational storytelling to show how powerful this event was in our history. What happened that night brought gay rights into politics. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons tell us about their meetings with the San Francisco Police Department. Herb Donaldson, San Francisco’s first openly gay judge, was arrested for obstructing a police officer. When the news of the raid was published in the paper, Jon Borset lost his job. These are just a few of the people who were involved that night, a night that would change history forever. What is especially important here is that religion entered the struggle for gay rights—here were faith based efforts promoting “a truly just and tolerant society in the United States”.

“The Mardi Gras Costume Ball was a fundraiser for the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, the world’s first ecumenical organization devoted to promoting gay civil rights issues in American culture, and in the life of Protestant Churches—the very issues now threatening to tear apart the Anglican Communion. We also see how this event helped politicize San Francisco’s gay community, and change the relationship between that community and the city’s political leaders. The globally significant leadership of San Franciscans of all sexual orientations, on cutting-edge social justice issues related to sexual identity, can be traced directly back to what happened at California Hall in 1965”.

“’The Last Dance Raid’ brings together an accomplished production team and a distinguished roster of advisors and consultants. Executive Producer Chris Sinton, a former senior Director at Cisco Systems and a pioneer of web-based philanthropy is making his debut as a media activist with this film. Documentary Director and Producer Jallen Rix has previous experience in music and music video production, and is also a syndicated columnist and has his doctorate of education in sexology for the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Associate Producer Susan Stryker won an Emmy® Award for her previous film, Screaming Queens, and is an internationally-recognized expert on San Francisco’s LGBT history. Cinematographer Scott Saraceno has shot commercials for Verizon Wireless, Leroy Neiman, and other high-end clients. Sound Engineer Michael Rodriguez was Grammy® nominated in 1998 for his work at Meac Studios, co-founded with rock music icon Boz Scaggs”.

“The Last Dance Raid” is a sponsored project of the GLBT Historical Society.

 

“Days of Awe” by Achy Obejas— Discoveries

Obejas, Achy. “Days of Awe”, Ballantine Reader’s Circle, 2002.

Discoveries

Amos Lassen

Alejandra San Jose was born in Havana, Cuba in 1959 while revolution was going on around her. Her parents, fearful of the danger going on fled with her to Chicago and settled with a group of other Cuban refugees. When Alejandra (Ale) matured into an adult she became an interpreter and returned to Cuba for her first visit back and she investigates her family history, learning a great deal. Her relatives had struggled with their identities and she made the outstanding discovery that her family was not Catholic but Jewish and was descended from those who were called “converses”, Jews who converted publicly to Christianity during the Inquisition of 1492 in Spain in order to save their lives. Many practiced Christianity openly and Judaism in secret. Now Ale was faced with dealing with being Cuban and American and Catholic and Jewish.

From the time she was a child, Ale could not ignore her Cuban heritage and roots even though she was being raised in America. Her American neighborhood, while Cuban, was primarily Jewish and as she grew she began to detect that her parents had something in common with their Jewish neighbors but it took her quite a while to discover that her father was indeed Jewish and her mother who was Catholic was descended from Jews. Through her father’s oldest friend, she learns more of her family’s history and through his son she learns the history of contemporary Cuba thereby being able to formulate her own identity based upon what she heard.

Obejas tackles the issues of faith, conversion and nationality is gorgeous prose and gives us a philosophical novel that delves into the nature of the heroine’s love relationships as well as the relationship between father and daughter. I found myself trying to decide what the author was thinking about when she wrote certain sections. She examines exile and return, loss and redemption. And yes there is sex in the novel—her sexual experiences help her to understand about her homeland, her new found religion and herself and she emerges as an erotic and complex personality.

I cannot resist but use the following as it says so much and so much better than I can:

“Obejas relates the compelling and disquieting history of Judaism and anti-Semitism in Cuba amidst evocative musings on exile, oppression, inheritance, the unexpected consequences of actions both weak and heroic, and the unruliness of desire and love. A journalist as well as a novelist, Obejas is also concerned with the biases and selectivity of history, politics, and the news. Richly imagined and deeply humanitarian, Obejas’ arresting second novel keenly dramatizes the anguish of concealed identities, severed ties, and sorely tested faiths, be they religious, political, or romantic”. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

This is unlike anything I have ever read before—the glorious prose united with philosophical ideas made me think all the way through and while I am the son of Jewish immigrants to America there were never any questions as to who I was. I cannot imagine what Ale went through. Every Jewish child questions so much and in that way I saw a bit of myself in Ale. The difference was I questioned while living in a Jewish home and while there were times that I resented not being able to take part in Christian celebrations etc., I, like Ale, became that much stronger because of it.

“Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples” by Rodger Streitmatter— Defying Cultural Norms and Contributing to Society

Streitmatter, Rodger. “Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples”, Beacon Press, 2012.

Defying Cultural Norms and Contributing to Society

Amos Lassen

While we debate gay marriage today, we should take a look back and see how things have been for a long time. “Outlaw Marriages” gives us the stories of fifteen prominent self-sex couples and the contributions they made to the history of the United States.

“Screen legend Greta Garbo owes much of her success to her partner, Mercedes de Acosta, who taught the actress how to dress and speak like Hollywood royalty. Frank Merlo weaned Tennessee Williams off a diet of drugs and casual sex so the playwright was able to create his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Iconic American poet Walt Whitman dotted his master work, Leaves of Grass, with references to his lover and his muse, Peter Doyle. Robert Rauschenberg urged Jasper Johns not to ignore a bizarre dream he had but instead to act on it and paint the American flag-as he had done in the dream. Frances Clayton gave up tenure at an Ivy League university to help her partner, Audre Lorde, reinvent herself as a pioneering poet who gave voice to women of color around the globe”. And these are just a few of the people we read about in this fascinating book.

“Gay marriage” has existed for a very long time in this country and it did so under the name of same-sex unions. The couples in this book lived in committed unions and were there for each other. Some of these couples were together for as many as 50 years and they loved and supported each other. Some of these unions were not only an improvement on the quality of life for the two people but also for the nation because of the contributions that were made.

The “couples featured are Walt Whitman & Peter Doyle, Martha Carey Thomas & Mamie Gwinn, John Marshall & Ned Warren, Jane Addams & Mary Rozet Smith, Bessie Marbury & Elsie de Wolfe, J. C. Leyendecker & Charles Beach, Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner & Solita Solano, Greta Garbo & Mercedes de Acosta, Aaron Copland & Victor Kraft, Tennessee Williams & Frank Merlo, James Baldwin & Lucien Happersberger, Jasper Johns & Robert Rauschenberg, James Ivory & Ismail Merchant, Audre Lorde & Frances Clayton” . Not only is this a pleasure to read, it also teaches.

“My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family” by Zach Wahls— The Power of Family

Wahls, Zach. “My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family”, Gotham, 2012.

The Power of Family

Amos Lassen

Zach Wahls became an instant celebrity when on he addressed the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in January, 2011 and spoke about his new two moms. He, at 19 years old, proudly said that his parents’ sexual orientation had “zero effect” on who he was, “on the content of his character”. Soon afterwards, his speech went viral and soon it was seen by more than 2 million people. America and the world knew who has was and wanted to hear more.

All of us are aware of what is happening now with gay marriage and how it is quickly becoming the defining issue in the upcoming presidential election. Wahls writes about that but he also looks at the broader issues of gay rights. He gives us a very strong message of love and courage and this is what he learned from his two mothers. When we think of pride, we should also think of and thank Wahls.

In the book, Wahls shares the story of his family and he clearly shows that by knowing about same sex couples, people will be less afraid of any of the stories they have heard. Yes, I said afraid and I believe that we fear what we do not know and this leads to ignorance. I bet Fred Phelps is scared of everything. What the author says in this book is relatable to everyone and family is family regardless of its components. Sexuality is not and should not be an issue.

This is a quick read and an extremely important one and should be read by everyone. Of course, we will never see that happen so I urge all of you who have read it to pass the information along. Wahls uses a unique approach by showing how the values he learned as an Eagle Scout apply to his family. What we must remember that it is not sexuality that defines a family, love does.
Before I close I must react to the review by the bigoted and poorly educated Susan Hill who says

“Simply pretending that a father does not exist does not make it so. Mr. Whals (sic—she can’t spell either) presumes fear and lack of exposure to same sex attracted individuals drives objections to the same sex lifestyle, and further that his particular experience as an accomplished young man having been raised in a same sex household validates same sex family life.

However, I question both premises. Simply knowing SS attracted persons does not make the lifestyle in keeping with human biological realities. A recognition of the facts of human procreative realities is simply to be grounded in truth. Moreover, Mr. Wahls’ accomplishments, while laudable, are not sufficient to endorse SS marriage as a good model for the rearing of children. After all everyone knows of an accomplished person having been raised by a single parent working two jobs to make ends meet, yet no one holds up single parenting as a good environment for children based upon individual circumstances now would they?”

There is always a detractor and it is amazing to me why Hill would allow herself, as the single negative voice, to be printed here. No one is going to listen to her or to anyone like her. Ignorance does not solve problems and neither do haters. In fact, I think we should all have a collective laugh about her lack f understanding and almost total ignorance.

“Hope” by William Neale— Leaving

Neale, William. “Hope” (Home). MLR Press, 2012.

Leaving

Amos Lassen

I chose to call this review “Leaving” because William Neale has left us. I did not personally know William. We were Facebook and email friends and what I know of him, I learned from his books. I doubt I will ever forget the email he sent me asking me if I would review his writing. It started with “You are a legend” and I had to laugh. I have been called many names but no one has ever called me a legend before.

William was an excellent writer and he had no idea that “Hope” was to become his last book and in a sense it is his obituary. It is the story of Spencer Hawkins and what happened after his partner left him for a guy who was already involved with another man. To make matters even worse, Spencer finished his studies and discovered that he did not have a job. Nothing seemed to be going his way and then Spencer got a phone call that changed his life and instilled hope in him (You will have to read the book to find out what that call was). At just about the same time Hunter Harrison found himself alone. His partner walked away from him and his and Hunter’s adopted son, Ethan, (who was suffering from a heart defect and was waiting for heart transplant). Fate brought Hunter and Spencer together and that brought Hunter a bit of hope. Using that hope as a basis for building a solid relationship, the two work together.

What a beautiful heartfelt story that touches the reality of emotions. The title “Hope” fits the story like a snug shoe. We hope that Hunter and Spencer would spend the rest of their lives together in bliss and that eleven year old Ethan will get the heart transplant that he needs. When we embark on a journey, we need hope so that we can finish it successfully. Yet this is not just a journey of hope for Hunter and Spencer, it is a journey of love and of new beginnings.

Neale created romantic characters and then put them into situations that many do not feel easy about because they represent injustices. Then he balances the whole thing out. Some may consider the characters to be too “nice and sweet” to face difficult situations but this is what the author does—they handle them well and with style and we learn that there is nothing that cannot be dealt with when necessary. Spencer was almost broken when his relationship with his first partner ended but that did not stop him in searching for love. Hunter faced a life/death situation with his son and that did not stop him from searching either. Sweetness and maturity join hands in Neale’s writing and adversity is faced and conquered. Since Neale imbues his novels with passion and love, we receive those same emotions as we read. For this alone, I can recommend his work. Yet there are many other aspects of William Neale’s writing that makes him commendable.

I hate to have to end this review knowing that I will never review another William Neale book but then I am extremely happy that I have had the chance to read what I have by him. He may be gone but his legacy is here and there are not many of us that can make a statement like that.

 

24th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, Monday, June 4, 2012

lambda logo

24th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, Monday, June 4, 2012

Honorees: Novelist Armistead Maupin, Feminist Pioneer Kate Millett

Hosted by Kate Clinton

Special Performance by Lypsinka / Lady Bunny to DJ VIP After-Party

Presenters and special guests include: Ted Allen, Ross Bleckner, Frank Bruni, Charles Busch, Olympia Dukakis, Wally Lamb, Anthony Rapp, Judith Regan, Ally Sheedy, Jacqueline Woodson

 

What: 24th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, celebrating excellence in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender literature

 

Where:           CUNY Graduate Center, Proshansky Auditorium

 

365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, New York City

 

When:             6 pm: Red Carpet & Reception

 

7 pm: Awards Ceremony

 

What:               VIP After-Party

 

Where:            Slate

 

54 West 21st Street, New York City

 

When:             9:30 pm

 

Award Finalistswww.lambdaliterary.org/awards/24th-annual-lambda-literary-award-finalists/

 

Event and Ticket Informationwww.lambdaliterary.org/awards

 

Ceremony Sponsors:

 

Benefactor Level: Harper Perennial, CLAGS (The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies) and Kettle One Vodka; Mentor Level: American Institute of Bisexuality; Friends Level: Bywater Books, Arsenal Pulp Press, Seal Press, Beacon Press, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Feminist Press, Torquere Press, Northwest Press, Cleis Press; Gift Bag Level: Scholastic, Sarabande, Northwest Press

 

#        #        #

LLF Logo 2011_prelim

 

The Lambda Literary Foundation nurtures, celebrates, and preserves LGBT literature through programs that honor excellence, promote visibility and encourage development of emerging writers. LLF’s programs include: the Lambda Literary Awards, the Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices, LGBT Writers in Schools, and our web magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, at www.LambdaLiterary.org. For more information call (323) 366-2104 or e-mail admin@lambdaliterary.org.

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“Tea Leaves” by Janet Mason— Mothers and Daughters, A Personal Memoir

Mason, Janet.”Tea Leaves”, Bella Books, 2011.

Mothers and Daughters, A Personal Memoir

Amos Lassen

One of the areas sorely lacking in coverage in LGBT literature is care of the elderly. Here is the personal memoir of Janet Mason, a story of mothers and daughters from a different angle and perspective. Here is a story from a lesbian point of view that really begins when Mason’s mother receives a diagnosis of cancer. The mother, Jane, is already 74 and the narrator assumes the role of caregiver and dutiful daughter. In doing so, she learns about herself but through her mother. The two women explore family history together and speak about her grandmother who was born in 1899 who worked in a textile mill yet was always a lady.  Mason learns about her own mother who was born in 1920 and was an early feminist who worked in an office. Mason, our narrator, borrows her mother’s feminism and moves forward with it. She was the first in her family to be a college graduate and most probably the first out lesbian.

I think that sometimes we forget the importance and power of love because we are so mixed up with issues of class, gender and identity. Mason shows us that power here and how love has kept her family together. Many times becoming a caregiver arises out of felt obligation but it can also come about because of the love a family shares.

The beauty of the book is not only in the gorgeous prose but in the way it is so personal yet open to us. Mason deals with her mother’s illness with great care and anyone who has ever lost a parent to a lingering illness can relate to what we read. Likewise her mother took care of her daughter as she grew and supported her as a lesbian, something that was discussed only in whispers during her own youth and maturation.

Sickness takes a heavy toll on a relationship and is heartbreaking for both the living and the dying and while much of this book is sad, it is never morose or depressing. It deals with a topic that many of us will face or have faced and is certainly relatable. Lives are cyclical and while we do not always pass through the same circles, there are always points that meet, converge and separate constantly. There is something here for everyone who has ever loved someone else or plans to. I highly recommend “Tea Leaves” just because it is so real and so beautifully written.

“Basement of Wolves” by Daniel Allen Cox— Hollywood Noir

Cox, Daniel Allen. “Basement of Wolves”, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012.

Hollywood Noir

Amos Lassen

One of the things that I enjoy most about reviewing is that I can watch an author mature from book to book and this is especially evident in Daniel Allen Cox. I remember all too well sitting back and saying “wow” after I read his first book “Shuck” some three years ago. I knew I was correct when he received a finalist nomination from Lambda Literary. Then a year or so later, I reviewed his second book, “Krakow Melt” which was a complete departure from the first, both style-wise and plot-wise and I thought to myself once again, “wow” but I added “where will he go next?” I just found out and once again I say “wow”. Cox has matured into a serious talent that other authors will have to reckon with. This time he writes a noir novel about Hollywood which is in itself not easy when we consider how many books of that genre have already been written. Yet Cox has found something new and that is one of the things that make this book so special.

Written in layers, we get to know Michel-David, a Hollywood actor who feels that he has been ruined by the fame he has achieved. While making a new film, he decides to lock himself up in a hotel and do some introspection as he explores the hidden passages of the building. With him is a young man, a skateboarder who has become his friend and they seek refuge from enemies—both real and imaginary.

Michael-David has received several threats via the Internet from a young “suitor” and this is what makes him decide to lock himself away. The director of the film that he is working on, a Chris Culpepper, at the same time is having his own personal problems and it appears that he is losing his touch with the real world. With Michael-David is Tim, a young skateboarder and as we follow the characters, we see what happens when fame takes hold of a person and how Hollywood does nothing to help one remain who he is. Cox writes with a sardonic, sarcastic humor that is biting and absolutely wonderful. Beneath the humor is something we know but do not often admit and that is that we all need to be connected to others.

I am fairly sure that most of us are aware that beneath the glitter of Hollywood, there is a very “seedy underbelly” that we do not often her about and that Cox now shares with us. Cox gives us quite a character in Michael-David and even manages to get us to enter his mind and become part of him. He is filled with paranoia and stress and is consumed with not feeling good about the way he performs. Likewise, he is a man filled with self loathing and he lacks any kind of self-confidence. We enter Michael-David’s life as he is in his forties while he makes up stories about people in his life and takes a role as a director telling people what to do and how to do it.

Written in the first person, Cox takes us into the minds of his characters through the imagination of his protagonist. The only minus I might add and I am not sure that it is really a negative statement is that while an interesting character, Michael-David is not a true original—we have seen this kind of character in movies and we have read about others like him. What is original is how we, as readers, deal with him. His struggles are indeed struggles but he seems content in his misery and therefore he does not win the reader over. It is as if, even though we have been in his mind, we are on the outside and simply observing. I realize that this sounds contradictory but, hey, life is filled with contradictions and this is only my opinion. It does not make me like the book any less because it is the author’s brilliant prose that makes this book shine like a star on a pitch black night. It has made me think and I find it interesting that even after I have finished the book and am now writing my review, I am still thinking about it. Cox is becoming a master of nicely packed sentences, concise yet full and I personally find that his shifts in perspective to be wonderful.

I must also mention Cox’s descriptive skills that are beautifully simple yet totally effective. Now it is time to bring this to a close and I just want to say that despite what some may misunderstand as negative comments, I totally love the book and am so glad that we have Daniel Allen Cox as part of our literary canon. I am sure that even greater things will come from him.