Monthly Archives: November 2012

Testing My Faith—- I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort. By Matt Goodman

Testing My Faith

I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort.

By Matt Goodman|November 30, 2012 7:00 AM|
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The clinic looked like many clinics I’d visited before as part of my work around HIV and AIDS: rainbow flags, earth-tone décor, and stacks of literature urging people to “Know Your Status!” and “Get Tested!” This time, though, I was in the clinic as a patient, getting tested for HIV, and that made my heart race.

My finger was pricked to draw blood for the test, and I was sent to the empty waiting room for 20 minutes to await the results. I’d come in feeling guilty, but now that guilt was replaced with a sharp sense of anxiety. Vulnerable before a power I could not change, I felt like it was neilah and the rabbi was urging me to make my final appeal. What does one do during those moments while your fate is being sealed?

I turned to God. At that moment in the waiting room, he was the only one who could help and comfort me.

***

Every Dec. 1, World AIDS Day gets a lot of people thinking about HIV, but I didn’t need a special day to think about it. It’s been on my mind for years, wrapped up in a whole complex of guilt and anxiety. Like any other Jew, I trace those feelings, which led to that moment in the waiting room, to my mother—specifically how she handled my coming out six years earlier. In fact, she had been the one who prompted me to come out in 2006 at age 17. My parents had been divorced for four years, and I was living in Atlanta with her.

One afternoon during my senior year of high school, she asked, “Are you gay?”

I had known since I was 12. I had always felt different from the other guys I grew up with—I never fit into the football-playing crowd that talked about girls more and more as they got older. Instead, as I reached middle school, I realized I was attracted to those guys. I spent a year struggling with it and pleading with myself to change, but by 14 I accepted it and a year later came out to my friends. The rest of the students in our southern, conservative prep school made assumptions, because of my natural flamboyance, and I didn’t correct them. By 17, I had a boyfriend, my first amorous dalliance. I wasn’t exactly in the closet. Still, I hadn’t planned to tell my mother yet, because I didn’t want to share my dating life with her; but then she asked. And so I answered her honestly: “Yes.”

She broke down, sobbing that I was “going to die of AIDS.” That was her first reaction.

Later that afternoon, she came back into my room and hurled a Costco-sized box of condoms at my head. “You’re not dying of AIDS on my watch!” she screamed.

My mother’s words would resound in my head for years to come. I didn’t want her to be right. From that moment on, my guilt and anxiety around getting tested and knowing my HIV status became fully operational.

The ironic part is that my mother-instilled guilt about sex and anxiety about my HIV status rarely led me to get tested myself. I was too scared. It wasn’t like I used intravenous drugs or had a sex life filled with anonymous one-night stands. I didn’t have many sexual partners and always used protection; my guilt and anxiety had conditioned me to be extremely cautious. I knew the risk of infection from what I was doing and knew it was pretty slim. Yet, I couldn’t let the anxiety go. I’d imagine finding out that I was HIV-positive, my dating life imploding, my desire for the perfect Jewish family shattered. My own dream of a husband, two kids, and a well-decorated house in Brookline, Mass., would go up in smoke. Then I’d think of my previous partners. What if I infected them? How would I tell them?

Maybe my mother, in that annoying way, was once again right. Maybe I was going to die of AIDS. I was worried that I was positive, yet too scared to find out for sure.

The first time I got tested was unexpected. I was a freshman at Boston University and went for a regular check-up at the student health clinic. The experience was uncomfortable due to the doctor’s awkward bedside manner. His questions about my sex life went beyond what I considered to be professional, inquiring about my coming out, whether I’d told my parents, and, most awkwardly, what sexual position I preferred. (I don’t think I even responded to that final question.) He concluded the exam by suggesting I get a full battery of STD tests. I couldn’t say no, even though what I most wanted to do was just leave. The results came back negative, but I didn’t share them with anyone and attempted to bury the memory of the whole experience in the back of my mind.

Around the same time, I started to engage more deeply with religion. I’d grown up in a secular family, but while I was in college, I got involved with Conservative Judaism, and later Orthodox Judaism. Ultimately, I was drawn to Orthodoxy for its theology, practice, and community. I spent the summer of 2009 in Israel, studying at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. The summer of 2010, I returned to study more. As I got more involved in Orthodoxy, my worldview started to change. While I never questioned my sexuality or sexual activity, I did start to view life through whether other things, from friendships to career choices, were kosher or Jewish or in line with mitzvot. While I didn’t view this negatively at the time, my life got more restricted and insular.

In early 2011, when I was a senior in college, I experienced a near-lethal allergic reaction to antibiotics that depleted my white blood cell count to Bubble Boy levels. The doctors feared the worst: leukemia. But the minute the doctors mentioned that I might have a “compromised immune system,” my mind instantly shot instead to HIV. My fear of HIV far outweighed my fear of leukemia. My mother’s dire warning, playing on repeat in my head, matched the tempo of my pounding heart. The doctors decided to perform a full battery of tests for seemingly every hematological illness imaginable, which I assumed would include HIV/AIDS. I hadn’t been tested since that first bad experience in college.

While I waited for the results in the hospital, I called my father, himself a doctor, to ask him my most pressing question: “Could this be an immunodeficiency disease … like HIV?”

My father and I never had the relationship that facilitated the “I’m gay” conversation. In fact, I was still officially in the closet to him, so I felt the need to code my language in a poor attempt to disguise my urgent request. He still got the picture and responded with what sounded like a disinterested “No.” I felt the guilt and anxiety subside slightly. Four days later, when my white-blood-cell count returned to normal, the feelings resumed their dormancy. This second test pacified my raging guilt and anxiety for a while. Yet it also reinforced the fact that I didn’t actually know my status because I didn’t know if the “battery of tests” included an HIV/AIDS test specifically. I assumed it did but never wanted to check to make sure.

The day after that test, I moved abroad to Switzerland for my last semester. It was not easy living and traveling abroad and being Orthodox—between the food, Shabbat, and the chagim. Often times I found myself without a community and alone. It started to seem like Orthodoxy was keeping me from realizing what I wanted in terms of my career goals and personal interests. So, I stopped keeping Shabbat, watching what I ate so closely, and believing that mitzvot are check marks on a list that is required to consider myself a Jew. I realized that I didn’t need to be shomer mitzvot to reaffirm my commitment to God and the Jewish people. I chose my secular life over being Orthodox.

But I never lost my faith. I still believe in God, pray, and celebrate the chagim in my own way. I still believe that there is a lot of truth and resilience to be found in Jewish tradition.

This summer, I was working for the U.S. Department of State in Mexico, and LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS were two of my portfolios. I met with numerous advocacy groups dedicated to both issues and talked endlessly about testing campaigns, treatment options, and HIV/AIDS patient discrimination, even visiting clinics and centers where I met HIV-positive patients. Each meeting and visit brought a new wave of guilt and anxiety over my own unknown status, leaving me feeling hypocritical discussing these issues and programs when I myself was willfully ignorant. I was given a tour of one facility where they proudly showed off their waiting room for people who were waiting to hear their results. I looked at it with a mixture of fear, anxiety, and desire to be in there. I saw it as a preview of the end of a tunnel that I wasn’t willing to go through yet.

A few months later, back in Washington, D.C., I got an email from my graduate school, with the subject line: “Free HIV tests!” Like clockwork, the guilt began and the horror score that chimed the ignorance of my status played.

But I’d had enough. It was time to confront my guilt, fear, and my mother’s prediction. I frantically Googled rapid HIV testing centers and went the next day.

***

With the 20 minutes ticking away in the waiting room, I remembered all those seminary girls I used to jostle over Egged buses in Israel—oblivious to the world around them while they furiously recited Tehilim—and I decided that I needed to do something. Like on Yom Kippur, I needed to show a commitment to the Power so as to warrant inscription in the Book of Life. I couldn’t find Tehilim for my iPhone, so I settled instead on daf yomi—something I never even did when I was studying in Israel.

So, there I was, in an LGBT HIV/AIDS clinic, surrounded by condoms, rainbow flags, and reassuring pamphlets about life with HIV/AIDS, reading a section of the Talmud about candlewicks in Aramaic. Within minutes, the anxiety was banished and the horror score that chimed a death sentence slowed. I felt like I was again performing my end of the bargain with God. I was making a sacrifice. It was by no means a religious reawakening, but it was definitely a salve. And then, just like that, the candlewick discussion was over and the gates were closed. The results were in.

Negative.

Baruch Hashem,” I said to myself. Scientific reasoning for my negative results aside, my status reaffirmed my belief in a higher power when your life stands a chance of being significantly altered. I might go to Starbucks on Shabbat, and I might ignore the lard in my tortillas. I might lie with men like other men do with women. But when it all comes to the end and I can’t change anything: He is still all that I’ve got.

***

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“Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s (Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History)” by John Shelton Reed— Saints and Sinners

Reed, John Shelton. “Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s (Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History)”, LSU Press, 2012.

Saints and Sinners

Amos Lassen

After World War I, New Orleans and its French Quarter was the place where artists and writers came too. Rent was cheap and the life in the quarter was Bohemian at a time when few places were. William Faulkner was one of the first to arrive and established a group of friends that included Sherwood Anderson and others. This is the story of an amazing group of people who lived and loved together and formed a community during the 1920s and influenced the theater and literature. There were writers, artists, jewelers, actors and journalists. They became important to the preservation of the area, and its eventual designation as a historic district. We have been aware for years of who these people were but we did not have any of the details nor did we know what happened to most of them later. Reed has done his research well and tells us not just of the group but of the individuals who formed it and were its membership. They ignored Prohibition and helped to bring out many New Orleans institutions among which were Le Petit Theatre and “The Double Dealer” literary magazine. Interesting enough this was a “white only” community and were not concerned with the plight of the black man in the same city where they lived. But this world was one that ended as quickly as it began.

Having been born and raised in New Orleans, I succumbed to the world of the French Quarter and like so many others could not wait until I was “big enough” to become a resident of the area and get into the intellectual environment I had heard so much about when I was growing up. Alas, when I finally could get to do so, the intellectualism was gone and the Quarter became a party town (which was also great fun).

The French Quarter has always been popular as a place for artists, writers, and eccentrics, “with anecdotal tidbits from earlier bohemias, but no one has, until now, given us a more concise and comprehensive picture of the mix of demimonde and haute culture of the 1920s circle that included William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson” Reed brings it all back to life and this is just a wonderful read.

 

“The New Beautiful Tendons: Collected Queer Poems, 1969-2012” by Jeffery Beam— 43 Years of Queer Poetry

 Beam, Jeffery. “The New Beautiful Tendons: Collected Queer Poems, 1969-2012”, Triton Books, 2012.

 43 Years of Queer Poetry

 Amos Lassen

Four years ago I reviewed a book with a similar title as this by the same author but then it was a volume of uncollected queer poetry and it stopped at 2007. Now Jeffery Beam has updated his book and gives us 43 years of his lush and beautiful poetry. Beam has the ability to be lyrical and dramatic, metaphysical and sensual—the very same words I used in my original review. Beam characterizes himself as “a Queer poet, child-like, saintly, sees the Kingdom of Heaven in every leaf, every drop of blood spilled, every meal, every automobile, every homeless person’s cardboard box, every bright mansion, and every bird song. The Queer-spirit sees All-in-All in every act of love”. With a self-description like this, it is easy to see how Beam can write so beautifully.

If I had to choose a poet who brought queer poetry to literature in would have to be Jeffery Beam and he is the first gay poet I ever reviewed and always has remained on the top of my list when I am asked to recommend a contemporary gay poet. His words speak to me directly and I stand amazed at how he is able to bring the erotic and the tender together. He writes with a grace that we do not often see in queer literature and his themes of desire, contemplation, passion and love are handled delicately as only a poet can do. He gives us a gift of love and spirituality and we do not owe him anything in return aside from reading his work. There are ways of saying things poetically and these are based on the experience of the author and while something may be quite dear to him, it might not mean anything to us, right? This is not the case with Jeffery Beam—every word he writes is to be shared and while you may feel like you are a voyeur that is what Beam wants. What we think is extremely personal  Beam shares with us and I am so proud to be listed on the thanks page and quoted in a blurb. Let me clarify something here—I do not know Jeffery Beam personally; we have never met but I remember when I received the original “Beautiful Tendons”, I felt I had received a wonderful gift from a new friend. Beam and I have exchanged short emails over the last few years and even though we have never physically seen each other, there is  feeling in the notes that are sent back and forth (and no, that is not the reason I am giving him a rave review—I am doing so because he is an excellent, wonderful poet).

Beam has added some new poems to the other collection which brings us to 215 poems and poem sequences as well as line drawings and three pastel portraits by North Carolinian artist Sue Anderson and previously unseen photographs by Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden and other special treats. There is also a new introduction by Beam himself. Now stop reading this review and get yourself a copy of “The New Beautiful Tendons”, have a drink, sit down, relax, read and feel Beam’s words. (Can you tell how much I love this man’s work?). However, before I let you go read what  others have to say about Beam:

“Poetry is an enrapturing process that intensifies the discovery of experience and only what arises out of this urgency produces utterance that is distinctive and honest. Here in these sinewy acts shine the mobilities of praise, the delight in the body’s beauty and its surprises, the wonder of beholding energy and love. The poems are glimpses of sensual epiphanies, lightning flashes on the dramatic heart of event, memories from the crux of dream. Here are secrets that lie within the adventures of desire. Pursue them, and participate in the pleasure”. —James Broughton

“Jeffery Beam’s The Beautiful Tendons proves what many of us have known for some time: he is one of our most important and valuable poets. No matter what he touches on, it is always observed with Beam’s precise and careful eye in spare, direct language that’s as fresh as a sunrise and the sweet air of morning. Read these poems and brighten your day. I guarantee it”. —Michael Rumaker

“All children should hear you, the universe glistening. The spirit of poetry and nature and Eros are carried forth into and for the future. You are one of the poets I feel closest to — kindred spirit in love with the natural world and kindred spirit of awe and affection to our own kind. Feather to feather, wing to wing”. —Antler

“These juicy poems, at the intersection of spirituality and sexuality, leave me breathless with their erotic thrust”.–Edward Field

 

“Return to Freedom” by Alec Clayton— After the Storm

Clayton, Alec, “Return to Freedom”, CreateSpace, 2012.

After the Storm

Amos Lassen

In Alec Clayton’s sequel to “The Backside of Nowhere”, we find ourselves in the bayous of the South after a storm ravaged the town of Freedom, Mississippi. The town has been rebuilt to a degree and three families have come back and they move into anew condo. Now, I know what a hurricane can do having lived through Katrina but what these three families deal with makes a storm look like a rain shower. Sonny Staples (a hat off to Mittens?—knowing the author’s writing I don’t think so) and Malcolm Ashton who we met in the earlier novel and were once teen trouble are now older (middle-aged). Sonny is an evangelical preacher who likes the women and Malcolm works in a grocery and tries to take care of his alcoholic wife and raise his three children. Beulah Booker Taylor is the third and she is having a bit of trouble with defining her sexual orientation. Before we realize it, the domestic winds gather strength and a storm like no one has ever seen before is heading right for the condos.

What I really like about reading Clayton is the way he introduces us to his characters and they develop before our eyes. While he is no longer a southerner, he still has the southern knack for telling a good story with a broad cast of characters. You can almost feel the humidity as you read and as the temperature rises so does the carrying-on. I can certainly say that his depiction of the storm wrought by nature is perfect and a delight to read and as I read, so many memories returned to me. I must also admit that I was reminded of some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible, the Five Books of Moses, by reading about the dysfunctional people here. If you ever have wondered why some people get so caught up in daytime television dramas, you will soon understand as you read and face the life that the characters here face. There is a lot going on and while sometimes you do not see how everything ties together, you just need a little patience. However, the ending is open which leads me to believe that the story is not over yet and the writer is most probably working on a sequel.

Clayton gives us a look at life in the South that is not the way we usually read about things. The idea that the story basically revolves around the changes that occurred because of the storm is perfect and I remain surprised that so few books have been written about it. Since I have moved north, I am constantly surprised how little people really know about Katrina especially with all of the media coverage and the passage of blame from one to another. Even more interesting is that, in Boston, at least, people want to know and Clayton has provided me with something I can recommend—a work of fiction based on fact that shows us the storm by taking us through the lives of his characters. The title is also perfect in that as our characters return to freedom, they are aware of the high price they have to pay.

 

“COMPANEROS DE LUCHA”— Standing Up for Belief

“Companeros De Lucha”

Standing Up for Belief

Amos Lassen

I am sucker romance and to me the most romantic thing is when a person stands up for what he believes it yet I am fairly sure that not many people would think this documentary to be a romance. The story here is about the Isla Verde Island in Puerto Rico and Camp Pa’l Pueblo Beaches. The Courtyard Marriott on the island wants to expand but in doing so local beaches and natural resources will be put in danger. Juan C. Davila directed this powerful film which is steeped with social content. Davila actually went to the camp so he could learn more about the environmentalists who lived there and who have done so in a cramped existence for over six years. He interviewed residents including Tito Kayak, an environmentalist,  Pedro Saade, an environmental lawyer, Rafael Hernandez Mayoral, an attorney, Carmen Yulin Cross, a representative and Francisco Lopez, an artist.

The camp is a small tent circle on the beach at Carolina, Puerto Rico. Those who live there have to deal with mosquitoes, storms, excessive heat and they do so to protest the Marriott’s plans. What unites the people at the camp is the feeling that the beach belongs to the people of Puerto Rico and they have managed to hold off the hotel expansion. They have to deal with constant pressure from the hotel and the government of Puerto Rico because tourism is so important to the country. However, the protestors are determined and are guided by deep passion. It is very interesting how this little “band of brothers” has managed to do what they have done especially when the “enemy” is a multi-million dollar business. The film follows the group that is willing to do anything for what they believe is right and just. They are intrepid activists but we also see that they are not alone and will be even less alone now that this film is available for all to see.

The protestors’ case finally went to trial in October, 2012 and the decision was such that our group lost and was informed they could not file an appeal. It is the opinion of the court that the lease granted to the Marriott is totally legal but the camp still stands, the activists are still there and the Marriott has not yet begun to expand.

“Mayon” by Mickie B. Aishling— Like a Volcano

Ashling, Mickie B. “Mayon”, Dreamspinner Press, 2012.

Like a Volcano

Amos Lassen

John Buchanan is hired as an overseer on a plantation and this is first job since being discharged from the Marines. John did not take the job so much because of the work but because the plantation is near Mount Mayon, an active volcano and this will give him a chance to use his studies about volcanoes into practice. (I did not know that studies about volcanoes are known as vulcanology and neither did the spell check on my computer. John was hired to replace Gregorio Delgado who is none too happy about losing his job but Delgado is drawn to the new man. John, however, is quite discreet and seems to dote on Margarita, the daughter of the plantation owner.

However, as the two men get to know each other they learn that they have a lot in common but John has to respect the plantation and its codes of order even though he feels an attraction for Delgado. He begins introspection so that he can deal with the way he feels and that obsession that the men share but do not speak to him resemble a volcano at rest yet preparing to spew. The key words in this novel are love, desire and respect. John realizes that there may be real consequences if he does learn how to deal with the obsessive feelings that he has for Delgado.

The novel is set in the Philippines during the period right after World War II and at a time when men could not be openly attracted to other men. It seems that many have forgotten that there was a time like this yet it seems so far away when we compare to the freedoms we have now. However there are still many people suffer because they live in places where being gay is a crime that is punishable by death. What we all must remember is that none of us are truly free until all of us are free.

Ashling has the ability to create real characters and here she sets them in a period where they could be who they were. She is able to bring together the themes are adventure and romance with two men discovering their inner feelings. I think that using the symbol of the volcano is particularly good because it is a perfect way to show the men and yet provides tension as we wonder if it will blow. Ashling writes in clear prose and while we may not identify with the characters, we can understand what they have to deal with.

Top Ten LGBT Books, 2012— My Personal List of Favorites

Top Ten LGBT Books, 2012— My Personal List of Favorites

Lots of Good Reading

Amos Lassen

There are more but a top ten list is just that–ten  items.. The only reason that these books are not on the list is numbers. Here are some of the  other books that I love:

Instead of Chinese food this Christmas–let’s dance


New York’s hottest party for gay jews!  This year… at XL!


December 24, 2012
XL NIGHTCLUB
512 West 42 Street
New York City
9pm-3am
DJ Steve Sidewalk
info & bottle service: jayson@myhebro.com
produced by Jayson Littman for
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“These Things Happen” by Richard Kramer— A Second Look

 Kramer, Richard. “These Things Happen”, Unbridled Books, 2012.

A Second Look

Amos Lassen

I rarely review the same book twice but last night I was at Richard Kramer’s reading and gained a whole perspective on the book. Kramer shared with us the backgrounds of his characters as well as the inspirations for the plot and I sat there mesmerized and wondering if I had really read the book or not. The plot goes like this:

Wesley is in the tenth grade and has two sets of parents—his mother and her second husband and his father, a very important gay lawyer/activist and his partner, a restaurateur.  Like his father’s partner, Wesley is “fabulous” and Theo, his best friend is also “fabulous” (I never liked that word but it says so much). Theo decides that after winning a major election at school, to come out publicly and Wesley is the only one surprised by this. Now Wesley lives with his father and the partner because he wants to get to know his “old man”. And then something happens at school and all of the parents come together in support and in love. Each character in the novel is then made to think about their own lives and how their priorities and decisions change the course of not only their lives but the lives of others as well.

Therefore it is easy to see that this is a novel propelled by its characters especially in the situations of parents and children. The book is set in Manhattan and the characters are members of the liberal upper class. The book is both a coming-of-age novel and a story about the modern family. Wesley, at age 15,shows maturity when he moves out of his mother’s house to live with his gay father so that the two can get to know each other better. But alongside that maturity is also youth and when we take the two together we get wisdom, love, sensitivity and humor. Richard Kramer also looks at the adults and how they feel about themselves, each other and the world. It takes an adolescent to bring it all together and we get a good sense of emotional nudity and an introspective study of the characters. Teen angst shifts to teen love and back again and the parents watch with eyes wide open. In fact, I fell in love with the character of Wesley and he has become one of my literary heroes now.

Now that I know where the characters came from and how they came to be, I see things a little differently now. Yes, this is a coming-out novel but it is more than that; it is a novel about how other deal with it when someone they love comes out. The characters have their own chapters and this lets us peek into their minds and try to learn as much about them as we can. Taken together, the characters form a kind of Greek chorus opining about their lives. There is a tragedy here but there are also some wonderful laugh aloud moments.

We see a part of New York that we do not often get to see and within the city, we are witness to a love story of a different kind and to the complexity of moving from boys to men with all of the insecurities and complexities. And it is not only adolescents here but we read of husbands and lovers and the family. Kramer has the ability to enter both our hearts and minds and you will find yourself thinking and weeping but with a smile on your face as you do. I love this book and I think after this, his first novel, Richard Kramer will be a voice we will hear a great deal from.

Hearing Kramer read was quite an experience so I went home and reread the book and loved it even more. Kramer has done something quite amazing here and that is deal with some very serious subjects in a way that makes us realize how important these are but also there are aspects about them that we can laugh over. Kramer really gives us a wonderful treat wrapped up in a big bow with a card attached that says “read me”.