Pfalzgraf, Markus. “Stripped: The Story of Gay Comics”, Bruno Gmunder, 2012.
Everything You Could Possibly Want
Just in case you have not noticed, gay comics and graphic novels have become very popular lately (not they were not before but it does seem that we have lot of them and this is the second book published within three months about them). What I think is unique about gay comics is that they dare to go where others don’t and nothing is sacred. This collection has everything and includes selections from Ralf Konig whose specialty is humor to Tom Bouden and his twinks to Mioki who illustrates love. This collection is gorgeous and also contains some of the wonderfully twisted comics that we have come to love. Imagination is everywhere and this is the perfect addition not only to the collector but to the canon of gay literature. And since it is from Bruno Gmunder, you know it is bold.
Barton, Bernadette C. “Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays”, NYU Press, 2012.
A Very Important Book
“Pray Away the Gay” is a book I have been waiting to read since I first saw it on the list of coming publications from NYU Press and it is everything I had hoped it to be (with one exception–I would have preferred a more detailed index but that is a minor point). Those of us who live in urban centers across America really know little of what is is like for our LGBT brothers and sisters who live in the Bible Belt. I had the misfortune of spending almost seven years in Arkansas after Katrina so I pretty well understand the area and the politics of southern Christian fundamentalists who would rather see us living behind bars rather than as their neighbors. It is very common and everyday to be stuck in traffic behind cars that have “bumper stickers that claim One Man + One Woman = Marriage, church billboards that command one to “Get right with Jesus,” letters to the editor comparing gay marriage to marrying one’s dog, and nightly news about homophobic attacks from the Family Foundation“. I remember all too well the visits of Fred Phelps and his crazy congregants coming to town to protest our very existence and how riled we became when a school board member in an Arkansas town made public homophobic statements.
Sure there are wonderful places in this country where gays have rights and much progress has been made and that makes it easy to forget that not everyone shares in that. It was a big shock for me when I moved to Boston and participated in my first gay pride parade this year to see people lined on the street 6 and 7 deep and they cheered as we passed. I thought of Little Rock where there had been only two pride events in the entire seven years I lived there and there has not been one in the last five years.
The states of the Bible Belt lag far behind the other states in the union–there are no domestic partnership provisions, gays and lesbians find their jobs in jeopardy, police still arrest people in public parks. Bernadette Barton shows us that the way people live in the small town South is the result of what are known as “Southern manners” and the Christian majority wields great power. It is even legal in the state of Arkansas to carry firearms into houses of worship. Conservative Christian ideology reinforces homophobia and we see there that daily life for gay people involves negotiation of attitudes; something I was not ready to take part in. Barton uses the stories of gays and lesbians in the Bible Belt as the basis for her book and she tells us their thoughts and experiences as well as their insights as we explore with her the sad situations in which some have to live. With the culture of this nation now progressing forward, it might be a bit surprising to some that there are still places where hate crimes continue to take place and parents tell their children to leave their houses. She uses the term “compulsory Christianity” (the small “c” is mine) to describe the region known as the Bible Belt and she maintain“that the influence of Christian institutions on secular life creates “a foundation for passive and active homophobia.”
Barton’s data includes ethnographic studies, in-depth interviews, visits it to the Creation Museum and to a mega church, talks with those who have attended Exodus International as well as her attendance at a conference and her own personal experiences as an openly lesbian professor. The stories we read are heartbreaking and we see the pain that gays and lesbians feel as they strive to forge an identity in places where they are denied that identity. There is a large percentage of gay youth among the homeless and the risk of suicide is great. (And there are stories that we don’t hear which I am sure make some of the stories here look like easy going). There are countless cases of religion based abuse but she also tells us about what she calls “conservative christians” who are “mostly nice people intent on doing good even if our definition of what that meant differed.” Even though many of her subjects felt abandoned by their religion, “others discovered that adversity strengthened their understanding of faith, God, and spirituality“. I can tell you as one who has lived there that unless you live it, it is hard to imagine what it is like to be gay in the Bible Belt. What is written here will sadden you and hopefully drive you to action to do something about it. None of us are really free until all of us are free. If you really want to know what it is to be gay in America today, you must read this book.
“Fill the Void” (“Lemale et ha’halal”)
Israel’s Entry for 2012 Foreign Film Academy Award
The film, “Film the Void” is officially Israel’s entry into Academy Award competition for Best Foreign film. It is the story of a young religious woman from Tel Aviv who is to be married but must decide if she will marry her brother-in-law when her sister dies in childbirth as the Holy Scriptures say she must do. The film claimed Ophir Awards (the Israeli Oscar equivalent) for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Makeup, after being nominated in 13 categories.
This is a first full length film for director Rama Burhstein who is an Orthodox woman and Hadas Yaron not only won the Israeli best actress award, she also won the same at the Venice Film Festival. The film is a social drama set in modern Tel Aviv where the Orthodox Jewish community continues to use the age-old practice of match-making. Esther (Renana Raz) is married to Yochai (Yiftach Klein) dies in childbirth and this delays her younger sister Shira’s (Yaron) engagement.
When Shira’s mother learns that the community has made arrangements for Yochai to remarry a woman from Belgium, she does not want this to happen as her former son-in-law and grandson would be moving away. She proposes that Shira be matched to Yochai and Shira is caught in the dealings for an arranged marriage and therefore must decide if she will follow Jewish tradition or not. What we see here is a depiction of the Tel Aviv Orthodox community and the way the people in it live and follow religious law. The rituals and traditions of Orthodox Judaism are rarely seen on film and w also get a look at the gender separation of the religion. The men, led by the Rabbi, are responsible for economic and spiritual power and the women have the last word on matters dealing with family and shaping the destiny of their partners.
The film deals with a delicate subject that is treated with discretion. Yet the film also scrutinizes yet does not judge something very rare in the world of modern cinema. Shira faces a difficult decision—whether to become a dedicated wife and stepmother or to find independence. While none of this sounds particularly exciting there is not a dull moment in the film. The film is part of a new Israeli trend of exploring the routines of the ultra-Orthodox Jews and showing their place in the society of the country
Burhstein observes the dilemma of her protagonist, the youngest member of an unyielding family that’s nevertheless revealed to be vulnerable and human in the face of grave loss. Shira, in theory, is a symbol of rebellion because she refuses to accept the wishes of her family yet we see her as just another member of her community. The main issue for her here is whether she can love a man she does not want to marry. I am not sure if the director is criticizing or vindicating the community of Orthodox Jews and in effect, we really see this community as misunderstood. The film still shows that women in Orthodox Judaism remain in the background and give up their free will in the name of their religion. I believe that we can respect this but I do not feel that we can accept it.
The film takes into the Hassidic community is what it known as a “dramedy of manners”. It explores the limited options that women in that community have, respectfully imbuing them with dignity and in Shira’s case, “a strong will that’s yearning to break free”. It also successfully marries slight comedy with a heartfelt sort of-love story and accomplishes the near-impossible task of making a feminist film about a bunch of women whose ultimate goal is getting married. There are some very funny moments alongside some very sensitive moments and I absolutely fell in love with it–but then these are my people and I lived like that once.
Martino, Joshua. “Fontana”, Bold Strokes Books, 2012.
A Secret and an Obsession
Ricky Fontana is handsome and shy and he may be the greatest ball player ever to have lived. He plays for the New York Mets as an outfielder and is now facing the biggest challenge to his career and that is that his gay lifestyle might become public. Sportswriter Jeremy Rusch has been following Jeremy’s career and wants to break the story as Americans watch Ricky getting ready to pass DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and becoming a national hero. Rusch writes a front page expose hoping for recognition but it turns that baseball summer into a furor.
There is a lot of emotion and passion in this first novel by Joshua Martino. We are witness here to the power of envy and the desire to get ahead. Jeremy tied his career to Ricky so much so that he lost himself to alcohol and his wife leaves him. From the moment he saw Ricky kissing another man in a bar, he published that information in order to save his job which he was close to losing. He thought by outing the player in what he considered to be a supportive way, Jeremy thought that he would help him live a more honest and open life or….did he? Ricky was the first major league player to be outed and still playing but the result was that he was constantly examined and re-examined and his sexuality instead of his athletic prowess is what was making news.
Ricky loves his sport and Jeremy loves the way Ricky plays. Jeremy’s marriage was failing and he knew he needed one big story to save his job and he found it by accident but in doing so he loses his personal sense of worth so that he can save his career and because of what he wrote, a wave of intolerance and bigotry was unleashed. Ricky had taken great pains to keep his personal life separate from his athletic life and in one moment, everything changed. His fans turned on him and his outing brought about a national debate on whether gay athletes should be free to play professional sports. We see here something about the power of the median and how it can almost control personal lives.
All Ricky ever wanted was to play ball and we see a different kind of courage in him as he fights to survive the wrath of his fans while remaining true to himself. Jeremy at the same time finds his career taking off but at a very high price and the price he pays for fame is very high. Martino has drawn some very string characters and his plot looks carefully at how envy destroys and the homophobia that still exists in this country. Even though Jeremy feels remorse about what he has done and attempts to bring about damage control, he is still to blame for the downfall of a popular young athlete. Martino also has something to say about how we are fascinated with the private lives of those in the public eye.
This is a read that will immediately pull you in and it is a powerful read. I love that it is a first book and I suspect that Martino will be a part of gay literature that we should watch and that there will be more great stories coming from him.
Luczak, Raymond (editor). “Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience”, Squares and Rebels an imprint of Handtype Press, 2012.
Living in the Midwest
Eighteen male poets come together in this anthology edited by Raymond Luczak and they share their Midwest experiences with us. The Midwest is the heartland of America, a place of perpetual flux and state of mind and the poets here show us a Midwest that most of us have never known. We get a feel of what it is like to live in the Midwest and to grow up gay there. Never having really thought about that part of the country before I was amazed to read of its uniqueness and how people there think. It is very different from the urban places where I have lived— gay ghettos do not exist there and there are no Barney’s or Bloomingdale’s.
The poets share not only their poetry but their voices as well and like our community what we read is as diverse as the colors of the rainbow. Here is a way to connect with others and have their experiences blend into your own. We all share the same problems and have the same issues and it is only the locations that are different but there is something else.
In this collection you feel the voice of honesty and reality guiding you as you read. Whether the poem is about football or about bullying, we soon realize that we are all the same and we all are members of the same community. The seasons of the year are evident and for me that is really special as I have only lived in places where are just two seasons—summer and winter. I have rarely experienced watching the leaves change colors or been on a hayride on a cool October night.
In the Midwest the land is important and Midwesterners are tied to it. The pressures of society are greater than say Boston or New Orleans and the gay men are different as well. There are dichotomies there and the Midwest can welcome you on one hand and tell you to leave on the other. It is a play of religion and a home for atheists and it is surprising to learn that there is something for everyone
Some of the writers are names you will recognize instantly—Luczak the editor, Jack Fritscher, my boy Thomas Beck, Gregg Shapiro and there are poets you will meet for the first time and some have been writing poetry for years but were not as available to everyone as they should have been. They all share two things—their love for their homes and the ability to write good poetry. Put those two together in one anthology and you have a wonderfully inspiring read.
Hibbard, Kate Lynn (editor). “When We Became Weavers”, Squares and Rebels a Handtype Press Imprint, 2012.
The Midwest Queer Female Experience
We do not often think of the Midwest (aside from Chicago) when we think of queer life but that should change with this book by gay female poets and we must thank Raymond Luczak and his press for that. The Midwest is that part of our country where we can really see the extremes in our culture and seventeen female poets share that with us here. They write from a range of experiences.
The Midwest is made up of twelve states so we know that the selections will be different and many based upon the geography of where these women—lesbians from Wisconsin to Illinois to Minnesota take us into their lives via their poetry and what a trip it is. Kate Hibbard states in her introduction that she feels that the term “lesbian “is too narrow to describes the writers and the selections in this volume about this area of the country and that perhaps “queer” and “female” are more suitable. The poems here deal with the themes of abuse, love, wit, beauty, and history. Also like we get in most poetry, we also get a sense of transformation based upon experience and the poems present this is beautiful sensitive language.
How is poetry geographically classified? It seems to me that what we see here is female power and energy that is erotic while at the same time spiritual and moves past all boundaries. In other words, there are no “sacred cows here” and the variety and diversity of the poems is stunning. The voices we hear when we read explore the queer female of the Midwest and her experiences. Everyone and everything is accepted and we become aware that in acceptance there is more than toleration—there are no boundaries. We indeed sense the necessity and the urgency of the poets and as they create new meanings with new words we are witness to a unique experience—the poets’ experiences soon become our own and they weave a new product that is fresh and vital, important and a thing of beauty. When imagination and experience join hands, we become better because of it.
Carson, Michael. ”Benson at Sixty”, Cutting Edge, 2012.
Martin Benson, the hero of Sucking Sherbet Lemons, after years of being an alcoholic, is facing a big step. He is thinking about finally settling down to a life with one man, Ted, a motorcycle test examiner. Benson has been away for a long time and has come home to Merseyside and bought a house which he has stuffed full of souvenirs from a lifetime of wandering. He and his memories live with Ted who had found him once comatose and felt that Benson was having a serious problem with drink. Ted took him to a meeting of “Queers Anonymous” and the two men began to live together and now Benson must decide if this is the kind of life that he has been searching for. There is a lot of fun in this book which is part of series that British readers have been enjoying and now we in America also get the chance.
Mordden, Ethan. “The Passionate Attention of an Interesting Man”, Magnus Books, 2012.
A Novella and Four Stories
It has been quite a while since we have heard from Ethan Mordden and the good news is that he is back with a new book from Don Wiese’s Magnus Books. This time he brings us a novella and four stories about the dominant male and his “boy”. Always bringing us his surprises, one of the stories is about two straight men who find love with each other. A second story is about a geek who picks up a ”dangerous black sailor” and takes him home and the third is about roommates whose relationship contains a rape. The fourth story is a comic look at two friends taking turns talking about what happened when a famous porn star comes to their small home town.
One of the stories uses the characters we met in Mordden’s “Buddies” series about New York and a man who is caught between being aggressor and submissive.I understand that these are new stories and this is their first publication. If you have read Mordden before then you are well aware of his writing and plot skills. If you have not, this is a great place to start.
Lennon, Tom.”When Love Comes to Town”, Albert Whitman and Company, 1993.
Finally in the United States
This is an Irish novel that I have been hearing a great deal about and now we are finally going to have a chance to read it in this country. Set in Dublin in 1990, we meet Neil Byrne a rugby player and a popular guy at school. He is a regular guy and he is gay. Being gay is Neil’s secret and no one knows that at night he goes out looking for others like him as she struggles with himself as to how to accept himself and how others will accept him if he comes out. The novel is often regarded as Ireland’s “Catcher in the Rye” and it is a book rich in humor, honesty and originality. Perhaps we also learn the real name of Tom Lennon who writes under a nom de plume so as to protect his teaching position at a religious high school.
Neil shows one face to the world but buries his real feelings and is able to keep his secret. However when he goes into the gay life of Dublin all pretenses must stop and the truth emerges. What happens to Neil is both funny and painful in this story that is related with honesty that we do not often get in young adult novels.
Lennon gives us a wonderfully romantic and sensitive novel of a young man searching for love. In addition we get a picture of living in Dublin and Neil comes to represent a man looking not just for love but for acceptance as well, something he knows he will not find at home. It is almost as if he is looking for life from the outside and wants to be on the inside. His siblings and friends are important to him but he feels that if they knew his true feelings, they would abandon him. In that aspect, he is a character that we can all identify with. He shifts from fitting in to going out on his own into the gay nightlife of Dublin. When he does come out to his friends and family, we are left a bit in the dark and I certainly will not spoil a wonderful read by saying what happens. What I will say is that I was glued to the pages of the book as I read and I felt like Neil was there beside me and in front of me at the same time. I felt what he felt especially when he found himself living in two different and separate worlds. Fear of rejection rendered Neil’s silence and it is not until he steps into gay Dublin that he is able to face himself totally. He meets the usual stereotypes we all have met from the older leering man to drag queens and transvestites and the young who are hot to trot but not to chat. He also meets Shane who he thinks he is in love with while he actually goes from one problem to another. Soon he feels stifled at home and stifled when not at home until he discovers that true love is very close to home. Neil’s search for truelove is not only hindered by his family but also by the gay scene in his town. While he wants to live truthfully as a gay person, he is not totally honest with himself. It took being the object of a gay bashing for him to understand that dating can be very difficult and trying especially when he has to hide his true self. He decides that the time has arrived for him to come out and face the consequences and even though he does get some support, everything changes. (I could not help but be taken aback by that because me to remember the first line of James Joyce’s wonderful short story, “Eveline”, which simply says “everything changes”).
However the novel provides hope for Neil and so many others like him as it shows that it is possible to avoid the loneliness of living as a gay male in a small town. Lennon gives us an in-depth look at what it means to be young and gay.
There are several characters around Neil who Lennon portrays honestly and Neil’s parents love their son unconditionally but in their own way. We read as Neil comes to terms with the reality of life. An interesting fact is that the book was published in 1993 originally and this was very near the date that homosexuality was legalized in Ireland and while this is not mentioned in the book, it is significant if we consider what Neil experienced and how he internally suffered. His family certainly did not react favorably and it made me proud to read that Neil did what he had to do to survive in a community that would not accept him. The last part of the book is emotional and it is hard not to be touched by it. It is this honesty that makes this such a wonderful read. It is a short book that takes the reader through all the emotions of growing up and being gay. Parts of it will enrage, others cause laughter or tears but that is what happens when we empathize with the main character. If there is one word to describe how I feel about the book it is bravo.