‘Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy’ By Leslie Brody c2020, Seal Press $30/335 pages
I love reading biographies – especially, of queer artists and writers. But some bios put you to sleep.
Happily, “Sometimes You Have to Lie” by Leslie Brody, the new, intriguing biography of queer artist and writer Louise Fitzhugh, author and illustrator of the beloved children’s book “Harriet the Spy,” won’t give you any shut-eye.
“Harriet the Spy,” since its publication in 1964, has been enjoyed by generations of kids and adults. It’s been made into a movie. Brody was hired in 1988 to write an adaptation of “Harriet the Spy” for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company.
I discovered “Harriet the Spy” only recently as I read “Sometimes You Have to Lie.” What a great find!
Harriet, a sassy New York City kid, is a writer. Her nanny, Ole Golly, tells her that writers take notes on people. Harriet, notebook in hand, soon begins to “spy” on everyone – from her neighbors to her schoolmates.
As Fitzhugh, who was queer, wrote to her friend, gay poet James Merrill, Harriet is a “nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.”
Harriet is fabulously “nasty!” She wears jeans, carries a tool belt on her waist and says “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!”
Harriet is the queer love-child of Jo March and Holden Caulfield. She’s inspired thousands of hetero and queer readers to become spies and rebels (writers).
As it so often is with LGBTQ artists and writers (even creators of classics), I had no idea that Louise Fitzhugh, who lived from 1928 to 1974, was queer. Fitzhugh wasn’t just a lesbian. She was fabulously queer!
Fitzhugh was born in Memphis, Tenn. Her family was wealthy. Her parents, who met and wed quickly in a “jazz age marriage,” divorced when she was a baby. She was raised by her father Millsaps Fitzhugh and her eccentric, but loving grandmother.. For years, she was told that her mother had died. Later, Fitzhugh learned that her mother, who was denied custody and visitation rights, was alive. She was devastated to read in news accounts of her parents’ acrimonious divorce proceedings that during their quarrels her folks had thrown her (a baby) on to a couch.
As a teen, Fitzhugh had a boyfriend who thought of her as “beautiful” but “a little different from the other girls, a little bit more serious and very smart.”
He was right on all counts. Early on, Fitzhugh knew that she liked girls. As a teenager, she fell in love with photojournalist Amelia Brent. At the same time, she eloped with Ed Thompson, because he, like her, wanted to leave the Jim Crow South. Fitzhugh soon had a change of heart, the unconsumated marriage was annulled and she returned to Memphis.
She didn’t remain back home for long. Soon, Fitzhugh, 19, left to attend Bard to study poetry and painting. For the rest of her life, she lived in Greenwich Village in New York and later in Connecticut (while traveling to Rome and other locales). Over the decades, she had several loving, long-term, same-sex relationships. Fitzhugh was quite close to a male friend, but rebuffed his wish for sex, because she couldn’t “abide” a man “in her bed.”
Fitzhugh’s circle of vital, creative queer friends ranged from children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak to playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin’s spouse, was among those who knew her.
I so wish I could have been part of this glittering 1950s queer life — until I realize how closeted queers had to be.
“As an adult, Fitzhugh was unapologetically out of the closet,” Brody writes. Fitzhugh also was aware, Brody adds, that a “little lie to preserve your identity and self-respect can be a soul-saving measure.”
But, Fitzhugh knew that, as Ole Golly tells Harriet, “to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
“Sometimes You Have to Lie” is the fascinating story of the long-hidden truth about the life of the queer author of an iconic children’s book. Harriet wouldn’t be able to put it down.
‘A Promised Land’ By Barack Obama c.2020, Crown $45/768 pages
Most memoirs of politicians are pablum — ghost-written snooze-inducers. At best, good door-stops.
“A Promised Land,” former President Barack Obama’s new memoir, breaks that mold. Though it’s over 700 pages, you won’t be tempted to turn away from this, by turns, measured, moving, detailed, witty, and self-aware volume. The memoir, narrated by Obama, is a great listen (29 hours, 10 minutes) on Audible.
Unlike most politicos, Obama can write! Many of us ink-stained wretches would give anything to have his writing chops. Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama’s critically acclaimed 1995 coming-of-age memoir, came out years before he was a player on the national political stage.
Like many, I knew some of the highlights of Obama’s life before I picked up “A Promised Land”: his spouse and best friend Michelle, his daughters, his dog Bo, his rapid rise from Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to president of the United States.
As a lesbian, I knew of the many things that Obama and his administration did to support LGBTQ rights – from issuing Pride proclamations to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” At his last press conference, Obama called on Blade reporter Chris Johnson to ask a question. (Obama was the first U.S. president to call on a LGBTQ press reporter at a press conference.) No wonder many of us think of Obama as the “first gay president.”
If this memoir had been hacked out by a ghostwriter for a typical politico (even a queer-friendly politico), I’d probably just skim through it. But, because of Obama’s superb writing, the breadth of his thinking and the wide-ranging events of his administration (from his meetings with foreign leaders to the passage of the Affordable Care Act), I was hooked from the get-go on “A Promised Land.” The Republican opposition to his every move (no matter how bipartisan he tries to be) is an underlying theme.
“For a month, Michelle and I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock,” Obama writes in the memoir’s preface of what life was like for him and Michelle after he left office in January 2017, “replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act.”
No way could I stop reading after that!
“A Promised Land” is the first of two volumes. It begins with a preface in which Obama says he wants to give an “honest rendering” of the events that happened on his watch and ends with the death of Osama bin Laden.
The first third of the memoir is about his life before he becomes president. Here, Obama writes of his family, youth, college years, law school life, how he met Michelle, his time as a community organizer and political campaigns.
Obama writes personally about his evolving attitudes toward LGBTQ rights. He believes that the “American family” includes LGBTQ people and immigrants. “How could I believe otherwise, when some of the same arguments for their exclusion had so often been used to exclude those who looked like me?” Obama writes.
But, he doesn’t, he writes, dismiss those with differing views on queers and immigrants as bigots. He remembers that his own beliefs weren’t always so “enlightened.”
“I grew up in the 1970s, a time when LGBTQ life was far less visible to those outside the community,” Obama writes.
His Aunt Arlene, “felt obliged to introduce her partner of twenty years as ‘my close friend Marge’ whenever she visited us in Hawaii,” he recalls.
When Obama was a teen, he and his peers used anti-gay slurs. “And like many teenage boys in those years, my friends and I sometimes threw around words like ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ at each other as casual put downs,” Obama writes, “callow attempts to fortify our masculinity and hide our insecurities.”
After nearly four years of Donald Trump, it’s a pleasure to read a presidential memoirs written with intelligence, wit and insight. Whether you’re a political junkie, a lover of gossip or a fan of engaging writing, “A Promised Land” will leave you wanting more.
Queer or non-queer, if you value democracy, civil rights and health care, nothing’s as scary as the Supreme Court.
With the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, there’s the reasonable concern that the court (with a 6-3 conservative, Republican majority) might rule in favor of Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud.
There’s the (not unreasonable) fear that millions of Americans will lose their health insurance if the court rules in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Then, there’s Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that hasn’t gotten much attention in the midst of the election and the pandemic. But that case could have a profound, life-changing impact on the LGBTQ community and many other marginalized groups.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia on Nov. 4. As the Blade has reported, the issue of the case is whether Catholic Social Services (CSS), a taxpayer funded, religious-affiliated foster care agency, can reject same-sex couples who want to be foster parents (because of their sexual orientation).
Nothing stings more than rejection. Especially, if you’re being rejected by the church you love.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, the organization of Catholics working for LGBTQ equality, remembers the moment when the phone rang.
She and her spouse, who live in Massachusetts, wanted to adopt a child. “We’re Catholic. So we started with Catholic Charities,” Duddy-Burke told me in a telephone interview.
The couple, who celebrated a civil union in Vermont in 2000 and were legally married in Massachusetts in 2004, wondered why they didn’t hear back from the agency. Finally, one day a Catholic Charities social worker called them. “She said she was calling from her own car during her lunch break,” Duddy-Burke said. “Because she didn’t want [the agency] to know she was talking to us.”
The agency worker told the couple that Catholic Charities wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples. “She said she disagreed with the policy. But that was the policy,” Duddy-Burke said.
Duddy-Burke’s story has a happy ending: She and her wife (going through a state agency) adopted two daughters. Their older daughter (born drug-addicted, and nine months old when they adopted her) has just started college. Their younger daughter, adopted when she was five, is now a junior in high school.
“Such a rejection was so alienating – dehumanizing,” Duddy-Burke said, “to be rejected – not for our experience or qualifications, but because of who we are!”
If the couple had been a part of an “institutional” church, they might have lost their connection with the church, Duddy-Burke said. But because “we are a part of a small, independent Catholic community that provided love and support,” she said, they maintained their faith.
But, a lot of people don’t have that kind of support, Duddy-Burke added.
The all-too-likely possibility that the Supreme Court will rule that a taxpayer-funded, religious-affiliated foster care agency can reject same-sex couples as foster parents (on the basis of sexual orientation) for religious reasons makes me question my faith in democracy.
Why should we be so concerned about Fulton v. City of Philadelphia? Because allowing agencies that receive taxpayer funding to discriminate against LGBTQ people or any other group for religious reasons violates the separation of church and state.
There are more than 400,000 children in the foster care system who are waiting adoption, according to the U.S. Department of Human Services. These kids, desperately needing parental love and support, are the innocent pawns of homophobia.
In the age of marriage equality, 11 states have banned same-sex adoptions. Yet, ironically, same-sex couples are seven times more likely than opposite-sex couples to raise an adopted or foster child, according to UCLA School of Law Williams Institute.
A majority of Americans (61 percent) support same-sex marriage, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.
If the Supreme Court rules that CSS can forbid same-sex couples from adopting children because of its religious affiliation, the floodgates to discrimination of all types against many groups of people will be opened. Everyone from landlords to employers to hospitals could discriminate, based on their religious beliefs, against not only queers, but Muslims, Black people, atheists – anyone who doesn’t fit the so-called norm.
Let’s hope that justice will prevail – that the court will uphold the separation of church and state. Our life as a democracy depends on it.
“Our first and second commandment for ourselves as we ministered with people with AIDS,” Fr. Bernard Lynch, an openly gay, Irish Catholic priest, author, activist and founder of the first AIDS ministry in New York City in 1982, said in a FaceTime interview, “was thou shalt not bullshit anyone!”
Lynch, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology and theology from Fordham University and New York Theological Seminary, recalled what it was like to live during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “It’s hard to even begin to imagine what it was like if you weren’t there,” he said. “Gay men were queer-bashed. The Pink Panthers protected them. People with AIDS would be in the hospital, and the staff wouldn’t feed them – they were so homophobic and afraid they would get AIDS.”
Lynch is one of 31 icons being celebrated this October during LGBT History Month. The other icons being honored (national, international, living and dead) are from many walks of life – from politicians to clergy to writers – and time periods – from ancient Greece to 19th century in the United States to present day Russia.
The icons range from poets (Sappho) to activists (Moscow Pride founder Nikolay Alexeyev and transgender rights activist Felicia Elizondo) to elected officials (Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first openly gay, first Black, female mayor). (For a complete list and bios of all 31 of this year’s icons as well as resources for educators, go to: lgbthistorymonth.com.)
Beginning on Oct. 1, a different icon will be featured on the site. A 30-second video featuring a different LGBT icon will appear on the site daily. Before Oct. 1 and after Oct. 31, a two-and-a-half-minute overview video of all 31 icons will be on display.
History helps us to learn from the past. Stories from history inspire and encourage us to act in the present. Yet, many of us who are queer have only recently started to become informed about the history of our community.
Since 2006, the Equality Forum has spearheaded LGBT History Month in October. “In 1994, Rodney Wilson, a Missouri high school teacher, believed a month should be dedicated to the celebration and teaching of gay and lesbian history, and gathered other teachers and community leaders,” according to Equality Forum’s website.
The idea was endorsed by GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Education Association and other organizations. In 2006, Equality Forum, according to its website, “assumed responsibility for content, promotion and resources for LGBT History Month.” The Equality Forum is a national and international LGBT civil rights organization with an educational focus.
“I grew up in Central Pennsylvania,” Malcolm Lazin, 76, Equality Forum executive director, said in a phone interview. “There was a very negative view of anyone who was gay when I was growing up. Everybody was deep in the closet.”
As was the case with others interviewed for this article, Lazin learned nothing about LGBT history when he was growing up. “In 2006, when we launched Gay and Lesbian History Month [later renamed LGBT History Month], our minority was the only group in the world not taught its history at home, in schools or religious institutions,” Lazin said.
Over the past 15 years, more than 400 “icons” (31 per year) have been celebrated during LGBT History Month. Icons honored previously during LGBT History Month range from James Baldwin to Tallulah Bankhead to Barbara Gittings, widely regarded as the mother of the LGBT civil rights movement, to Alexander the Great to Billie Holiday to economist John Maynard Keynes to Billie Jean King to trailblazing transgender, gay rights and AIDS activist Marsha P. Johnson. The Blade’s Lou Chibbaro Jr. was honored as an icon in 2019.
The LGBT History Month 2020 and 15th Anniversary launch was held on Sept. 30. At the event, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Jess O’Connell, one of this year’s 31 LGBT History Month icons, who was the first openly LGBT Democratic National Committee CEO, received awards. Lightfoot received the Equality Forum’s 25th Annual International Role Model Award. O’Connell received the 6th Annual Frank Kameny Award.
“It was conservative in all the ways you would expect when I was growing up in Arizona,” O’Connell said in a phone interview.
O’Connell didn’t learn about gay history as a high school student in the 1980s. But, from early on, she was exposed to all kinds of diversity. “I was raised by a Black father and white mother,” O’Connell said, “I had an aunt in California who was gay.”
One of the first times that she grieved was when a family friend died from AIDS. “I learned that love comes in many different forms,” O’Connell said.
LGBT rights along with issues of racial and economic inequality were part of her everyday life. Her first job was in AIDS activism. In 2000, she was the first female director of AIDS Walk Colorado, a Colorado AIDS Project program. “The COVID-19 pandemic is triggering to me,” said O’Connell, who served as a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. “With AIDS, I saw the devastation that occurs when the government pretends a disease doesn’t exist.”
There are some similarities between COVID-19 and AIDS, Lynch said. In the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, people didn’t know how it was spread and people died from it. As with COVID, there was fear of contagion and of death. “But, no other disease has the stigma of AIDS,” Lynch said. “The stigma is still there today. It’s rooted in the unease that so many have with sexuality.”
Young queer men were trying to face the fact that they would die from AIDS before they had any idea of the meaning of their lives, he said. One lesson in dealing with COVID-19 that can be learned from the history of the AIDS epidemic is “compassion,” Lynch said. “During the epidemic, friends and lovers fed, visited, and cared for people with AIDS. Even when no one else would. You didn’t think about it – it was the thing to do.”
Theater can help us to connect to our LGBTQ history. “The great thing about theater,” Moisés Kaufman, an award-winning theater director and playwright, emailed the Blade, “is that it allows audiences to have several types of intimacy with the LGBTQ characters in history.”
They can see the play, and be in the room with the living actors as they encounter our ancestry, said Kaufman, one of this year’s 31 LGBT History Month icons.
“Our history is made by other LGBTQ people who had to survive in perilous and forbidding times,” he added. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to learn from them.”
His groundbreaking play “The Laramie Project,” inspired by the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard has generated worldwide empathy and dialogue around LGBTQ hate crimes. Actors “get to experience our ancestors first hand,” Kaufman said, “They get to inhabit their humanity.”
History tells the stories of LGBTQ pioneers and helps us tell our own stories. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, one of this year’s 31 LGBT History Month icons, is herself a pioneer. Waxman is the first woman and the first lesbian to lead a Jewish seminary and national congregational union. She serves as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and of Reconstructing Judaism, the leading organization of the Reconstructionist movement.
There were no role models for being lesbian or being a woman, let alone an openly lesbian rabbi when Waxman was growing up. “I just knew I didn’t want to kiss boys,” Waxman said in a telephone interview.
Waxman didn’t come out until she was into her 20s. When she said she wanted to be a rabbi, her mother was worried. Because, at that time, there were so few women rabbis. “When I came out to my Mom, she was really worried. She said, ‘It was hard enough being a woman,’” Waxman said. “How would I ever be a rabbi as not only a woman but a lesbian?”
Years later, when she was installed in her leadership positions, Waxman told her Mom, “It worked out OK.”
Her parents were immensely proud, she said.
Waxman is keenly aware that she’s often a pioneer. Frequently, she’s the only woman and only queer person during national conversations among leaders about religious matters. “I try to do it with humility,” she said. “Storytelling helps us make our way through the world, she added.
‘A Saint from Texas’ By Edmund White Bloomsbury Publishing $18.20/304 pages
I’ve never been fooled by magicians. Even if I’m entranced by their magic, I’m still trying to figure out what tricks are involved. Yet, in his latest novel “A Saint from Texas,” queer writer Edmund White makes you believe that you can pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Readers, queer and non-queer, look forward to a new book from White as eagerly as movie fans wait for the Oscars.
White, now 80, has written more books than you can count from “The Joy of Gay Sex” to memoirs such as “My Lives” to biographies of Proust and Rimbaud to “A Boy’s Own Story” and other autobiographical novels. He taught at Princeton for 19 years. White, whose husband is writer Michael Carroll, has lived for much of his life in New York and Paris.
White is part of the first generation of LGBTQ writers to write for a queer audience. “Gay fiction before that, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, was written for straight readers,” he told The New York Times.
It wasn’t surprising when the National Book Foundation presented White with the 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
White, who’s lived with HIV since 1985, has been an LGBTQ activist. He was a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“A Saint from Texas” is a departure from anything from what White has written before. Its main characters are women, twin sisters, not gay boys and men. Though much of the novel is set in Paris, the twins – Yvonne and Yvette, born in the 1930s, grow up in East Texas.
My heart sank as I first dipped into this book. The twins are teenagers in the 1950s. I have friends from Texas. There are lovely places in Texas. But who wants to read about girls stuck in Texas? True, they’re rich. Their father, born poor, has made millions from oil. And their stepmother is into clothes and society. But their father, who sexually abuses Yvette, insists that they remain “terrible Texas Baptists.”
Like Yvonne and Yvette (pronounced “Why-Von” and “Why-Vet” by their family and friends in Texas), I wanted to get as far away as I could from where they lived in Texas.
Mercifully, for the twins and readers, the sisters escape from Texas. “A Saint from Texas,” narrated by Yvonne, tells the story of their radically different journeys.
You’d find it hard to imagine people any more unlike each other than these sisters. Thank God, Yvonne is the narrator! Fortunately, we only hear from Yvette sporadically in her letters to her twin.
I don’t mean to dis Yvette. It’s just that Yvonne is the fun twin who has a sense of irony. As a teen in the 50s, she talks for hours with her friends on the phone, sneaks cigarettes (even though her father has promised to give her $1,000 on her birthday if she doesn’t smoke) and has a crush on one of her girlfriends.
Yvonne escapes to Paris. There, exchanging her fortune for his title (and entry to French society), Yvonne marries a French aristocrat. He’s a sexist, homophobic cad. Even so, Yvonne gets to hobnob with Audrey Hepburn while buying dresses at Givenchy, chat with actresses in Truffaut movies at parties and have male and female lovers.
Yvette is saintly! Early on, as Yvonne says, Yvette develops a “crush on God.” She wants to be virtuous – to help poor people – to find herself “in [God’s] immortal, loving arms.” To that end, she becomes a nun and missionary in Colombia. You almost think that Yvette is an insufferable saint until she says in a letter to Yvonne, “It occurred to me that the religious life was all hocus-pocus.”
In lesser hands, you might have given up after reading only a few pages of this novel. But, due to White’s magic touch you’ll find yourself spellbound by “A Saint from Texas.”
“Sis, you love baseball like a poet,” my late brother teased me one evening, “don’t even try to get what a foul ball is!”
He was spot on. I couldn’t tell you what a foul ball is if my life depended on it. Yet, baseball is one of the things I miss most during the pandemic. What is spring without opening day? Is anything more isolating than not being able to cheer on your home team (go Nats!)?
Our country had baseball even during World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed baseball was essential for the nation’s morale during the war. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” FDR said.
Thankfully, in our COVID-19 era, “A Secret Love,” a new documentary streaming on Netflix, provides hope for we who are baseball deprived. The touching doc is a fab love story involving queer history, aging and baseball. Watching it would make even Attila the Hun choke up.
“A Secret Love” is the tale of a lesbian couple who were together for 72 years — Terry Donahue, a player in the 1940s with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and Pat Henschel. Because of homophobia, they were in the closet for decades. They presented themselves as “good friends” or “cousins” to everyone (including their families) except a few queer friends. The couple, native Canadians who lived for many years in Chicago, didn’t come out until they were in their 80s.
The league was created so women could play baseball while many of the male baseball players were away during World War II. Donahue played catcher for the Peoria Redwings for four seasons. After she and Herschel met in Canada, they moved to Chicago. Donahue and other players in the league were the inspiration for the movie “A League of Their Own.”
“A Secret Love,” directed by Chris Bolan, Donahue’s great-nephew, isn’t about baseball statistics or record-setting home runs. But it makes you feel the grit of the game – of baseball and of keeping your sexuality hidden from the grip of homophobia. During one game, Donahue recalls, her eyebrow got cut. She refused to stop playing and have stitches put in it. Donahue put a Band-Aid on it and kept going.
The movie “A League of Their Own” presents as hetero. Yet, I couldn’t help wondering if some of the characters in the film were queer. Donahue and Herschel make it clear that there were lesbians in the league. The league officials, they say, wanted the players to be perceived as traditionally feminine and hetero. They had to wear skirts and go to charm school. “They wanted us to look like ladies and play ball like men,” Donahue says.
Even with marriage equality, it’s still not easy to be queer – especially, for people of color and folks who are trans. In more than half of the states in the United States according to the Human Rights Campaign, you can be fired from your job if you’re LGBTQ. The Trump administration is far from being an ally to the queer community.
Yet, it’s hard to imagine how much discrimination and prejudice LGBTQ people encountered until recently. In “A Secret Love,” Donahue and Herschel (and their queer friends who are interviewed) make the homophobia they experienced in the 1940s, 50s and 60s up close and personal. You could be arrested if you wore open-fly pants, Herschel says. If you were arrested during a gay bar raid, your name could be put in the newspaper and you’d lose your job.
Despite the homophobia and the struggles of getting older (Donahue had Parkinson’s disease), the couple endured. They ran a design firm, formed a chosen family with their queer friends and got married late in their lives. In sickness and in health, for better and for worse, they were a league of their own.
When we were four, many of us daydreamed about being a ballerina, astronaut or magician. But, mostly, we were clueless about what we’d be when we grew up.
That wasn’t the case with Thomas (a.k.a. Tomie) dePaola, the acclaimed, gay children’s author and illustrator, who died at age 85 in Lebanon, N.H., from complications from surgery after a fall. DePaola, whose award-winning work was beloved by children and adults, wrote and illustrated more than 270 books. If you’ve been spellbound by magical grandmas; bullied; eagerly awaited the arrival of a new baby brother or sister; or frightened by news that adults wouldn’t explain to you – you’ve found or will find a beautiful, comforting home in dePaola’s books.
DePaola knew what his life’s work would be before he started kindergarten. In an interview with readingrockets.org, he said, “I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to be an artist, and I’m going to write stories and draw pictures for books…I never, ever thought of considering any other profession.’”
From then on, dePaola never looked back. In second grade, dePaola told his art teacher “real artists don’t copy,” dePaola wrote in his series of memoirs about growing up in Meriden, Conn.
The teacher was so pleased with the picture the seven-year-old dePaola drew of her that she asked if she could keep it. “‘I told her, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I have to keep it. I might be able to sell it someday,’” he told readingrockets.org.
DePaola’s stories were often inspired by his memories of his family and childhood. “I’ve discovered that children most respond to books based on my own life,” he told The New York Times.
DePaola grew up in an Italian and Irish, Roman Catholic family. His early childhood was filled with Sunday dinners with his grandparents, dancing school recitals (he loved to dance like Fred Astaire!), Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first years of World War II.
“Strega Nona,” one of his most beloved works is set in Calabria in Italy where his grandparents were from. It features a “grandma witch” who works magic with a pasta pot. DePaola received the distinguished Caldecott Medal for the book, which was banned by some libraries for daring to expose the young to magic.
Today, though much improvement is still needed in LGBTQ representation, a variety of children’s books — from “Heather Has Two Mommies” to “I Am Jazz” to “Harriet Gets Carried Away” — feature queer characters. This wasn’t so for kids’ book authors and illustrators of dePaola’s generation. Most children’s book writers couldn’t be openly queer then. “If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest,” dePaola told T: The New York Times Style Magazine in 2019, “and schools wouldn’t buy your books anymore.”
DePaola’s work isn’t explicitly gay. Yet his picture books and chapter books have a particular resonance for queer readers. Though he didn’t come out until late in his life, his experience of being gay is reflected in some of his most seminal books.
“I was called a sissy in my young life,” dePaola said in a 1999 interview with the Times, “but instead of internalizing these painful experiences, I externalize them in my work.”
As a queer reader, I feel seen and heard as I read dePaola’s books. DePaola’s “Oliver Button Is a Sissy,” released in 1979, is the story of a young boy who’s bullied because he doesn’t like sports and wants to dance and dress in costume. It never says the word “gay,” but it’s queer quotient can’t be missed.
In his memoirs, dePaola writes of being a scared seven-year-old when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. He only knew that, as his mom said, “things will never be the same.”
Things won’t be the same after COVID-19. Thank you, Tomie dePaola for comforting us during our Pearl Harbor. R.I.P.
Many acclaimed LGBTQ people and allies died in 2019. They include:
Carol Channing, the legendary Broadway actress, died on Jan. 15 at age 97 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was best know for her performances as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello Dolly!”
Mary Oliver, a lesbian poet, died on Jan. 17 at her Florida home at age 83. Her collection “American Primitive, won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize.
Harris Wofford, a Democratic senator and civil rights crusader, died on Jan. 21 at age 92. After his wife died, Wofford fell in love with Matthew Charlton. They married in 2018.
Barbra Siperstein, a transgender rights crusader died on Feb. 3 at age 76 from cancer at a New Brunswick, N.J. hospital. A New Jersey law bears her name. It permits people in New Jersey to change their gender on their birth certificates without having to prove they’ve had surgery.
Patricia Nell Warren, author of the 1974 novel “The Front Runner” died on Feb. 9 at age 82 in Santa Monica, Calif. from lung cancer. The iconic book was one of the first to feature an open same-sex male relationship.
Hilde Zadek, a Vienna State Opera mainstay, died on Feb. 21 at 101 in Karlsruhe, Germany. She debuted in the title role of in Verdi’s “Aida” in 1947. She retired in 1971.
Jackie Shane, a black transgender soul singer who received a 2018 Grammy nomination for best historical album for her album “Any Other Way,” died at age 78 in Nashville. Her body was found at her home on Feb. 21.
Gillian Freeman, the British novelist who wrote the 1961 novel “The Leather Boys” died on Feb. 23 at age 89 in London. The book was one of the first to portray working-class gay characters.
Carrie Ann Lucas, a queer lawyer and disability rights advocate, died on Feb. 24 at age 47 in Loveland, Colo. She championed the rights of disabled parents.
John Richardson, an art historian renowned for his four-volume biography of Pablo Picasso, died at age 95 on March 12 at his Manhattan home.
Barbara Hammer, a lesbian filmmaker, died at age 79 from ovarian cancer at her partner Florrie Burke’s home in Manhattan on March 16. Hammer celebrated lesbian sexuality in “Dyketactics” and other films.
Dr. Richard Green, a psychiatrist, died at age 82 on April 6 at his London home. He was one of the first to critique the idea that being queer is a psychiatric disorder.
Michael Fesco, the nightclub owner who provided open spaces (Ice Palace, Flamingo and other venues) for gay men to dance when LGBTQ people couldn’t be out, died on April 12 at age 84 in Palm Springs, Calif.
Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old, queer Northern Ireland journalist, died on April 18. She was killed while covering violence in Londonderry.
Giuliano Bugialli, a gay culinary historian and three-time James Beard Award winner, died at age 88 on April 26 in Viareggio, Italy.
Doris Day, queer icon, actress and singer best known for her romantic comedies with Rock Hudson, died at age 97 on May 13 at her Carmel Valley, Calif. home from pneumonia.
Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan author, founder of the magazine “Kwani?” and one of the first prominent African writers to come out as gay, died at age 48 on May 21 in a Nairobi hospital.
Charles A. Reich, author of the 1970 counter-culture manifesto “The Greening of America,” died on June 15 at age 91 in San Francisco.
Douglas Crimp, an art critic and AIDS activist, died on July 5 at age 74 at his Manhattan home from multiple myeloma. He wrote many articles for journals. Yet he also attended meetings of the AIDS group ACT UP.
Elka Gilmore, a queer chef known for her fusion cuisine, died at age 59 on July 6 in San Francisco. The New York Times Magazine called her “the enfant terrible of the modern California kitchen.”
George Hodgman, a gay editor, died on July 19 at age 60 at his Manhattan home. The cause was thought to be suicide. Hodgman’s memoir “Bettyville” is his story of staying in Paris, Mo. with his widowed mother who had dementia.
Lee Bennett Hopkins, a gay poet who wrote and edited many books for children, died on Aug. 8 at age 81 in Cape Coral, Fla. In 2018, he edited “World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from The Metropolitan Museum.”
Sally Floyd, one of the inventors of Random Early Detection (RED), a widely used internet algorithm, died at age 69 on Aug. 25 at her Berkeley, Calif. home from cancer. She is survived by her wife Carole Leita.
Valerie Harper, the actress best known as Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” died on Aug. 30 at age 80 from cancer. Harper was D.C.’s 2009 Capital Pride Parade grand marshal.
Rip Taylor, a gay comedian known as The King of Confetti, died on Oct. 6 at age 88 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
John Giorno, a gay artist, died on Oct. 11 at his home in Manhattan at age 82. In 1969, he founded Dial-A-Poem, a communications system enabling people to hear Allen Ginsberg and other poets read their poems.
Gillian Jagger, an artist whose work (installations of animal carcasses and tree trunks) wasn’t aligned with any one movement, died on Oct. 21 in Ellenville, N.Y. at age 88. “I felt that nature held the truth I wanted,” she told the U.K’s Public Monuments and Sculpture Association magazine. She is survived by her wife Connie Mander.
Howard Cruse, a gay cartoonist whose comic strip “Wendel” ran in The Advocate for several years, died on Nov. 26 at age 75 in Pittsfield, Mass. from lymphoma. His graphic novel “Stuck Rubber Baby” and other work influenced other queer cartoonists. He is survived by his husband Ed Sedarbaum.
Michael Howard, a gay military historian and decorated combat veteran and pioneer of the “English school” of strategic studies, died on Nov. 30 in Swindon, England at age 97.
Shelley Morrison, who played Rosario on “Will and Grace” from 1999 to 2006, died on Dec. 1 in Los Angeles at age 83 from heart failure.
William Luce, who wrote the acclaimed plays “The Belle of Amherst” about Emily Dickinson and “Barrymore” about John Barrymore, died on Dec. 9 at a memory-care facility in Green Valley, Ariz. at age 88. Ray Lewis, his partner of 50 years, died in 2001.
Where has Ryan O’Connell, the 32-year-old gay writer, actor, and producer who has cerebral palsy (CP) been all my life? If only his semi-autobiographical, funny, hip new Netflix series “Special” had been around when I was growing up! If I’d seen the show, based on his memoir “I’m Special and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves,” maybe my youth wouldn’t have been filled with sad, awkward, embarrassing stories.
Take this tale: One night, when I was in my 20s, I left my white cane behind before going on a blind date. My date, watching, as I in my low vision fog stumbled going up the steps into the eatery where we met, was annoyed. “Are you drunk?” she asked me.
“Sorry,” I lied, “I had one too many drinks with a friend before coming here.”
I shouldn’t have tried to pass as non-disabled. (Besides, I’m a bad liar: I stammer when I fib!) But then, I knew few queer and disabled people, and I didn’t see anyone like me on TV. The stigma surrounding disability was so entrenched. I locked myself in the disability closet and poems about loneliness. (I was no budding Sylvia Plath: I was a lonely scribbler of cliched angst.)
Why am I telling you about this long-ago bad blind date from when I was (mostly) out as gay but (often, especially, when looking for love in the queer community) as closeted as possible about my disability? Because my story is far from unique. Ableism (overt and subtle disability-based stigma and prejudice) is still embedded in the queer community and the culture at large.
Few gay bars, crucial gathering spaces for many queers, are wheelchair-accessible. LGBTQ festivals and conferences often don’t have American Sign Language interpreters for deaf people or materials in Braille or audio format for blind folks. There are the stares of pity, disgusted glances and gazes of fetishized fascination at our queer, crip bodies. I’m still processing the time I danced with a woman at a queer bar. “Being blind – that’s so sad,” she said, “you probably don’t want to make out.”
Why do these ridiculous, yet pervasive stereotypes persist? Maybe because so few disabled people are seen on TV. Nearly one in five Americans has a disability according to the U.S. Census Bureau, yet, you still rarely see disabled characters on TV. With the exception of Jodi Lerner, the hot, deaf, lesbian artist played by Marlee Matlin on “The L Word,” queer, crip characters have been scarce on TV. Even fewer queer characters with disabilities are played by disabled LGBTQ actors.
Despite the large number of disabled people in the United States, “the amount of regular prime time broadcast characters counted who have a disability has only slightly increased by 2.1 percent,” according to a recent GLAAD report.
These characters with disabilities often aren’t portrayed by disabled actors. A 2017 Ruderman Family Foundation White Paper found that “95% of top TV show characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled performers.”
No show alone could transform how people think about and interact with queer, crip folk. Yet, “Special,” with its humor, charm and millennial slant without preaching, goes a long way toward debunking ableist stereotypes. In the show, Ryan, 28, finds his first experience with work (as a website intern), sex (with a sex worker) and living on his own (away from his mother). After being run over by a car, Ryan keeps his CP a secret, and says he limps because of the accident. In a funny send-up of start-ups, his boss tells Ryan to write a post about it ASAP. Posts about being hit by a car go viral, she says.
“Special,” “illustrates why more disabled people should create media – they have fresh stories to tell,” Beth Haller, author of “Representing Disability in an Ableist World” emailed me.
I can’t wait for season 2 of “Special” for more fresh, queer crip stories.
Matthew Shepard, on right. (Photo courtesy Michele Jouse)
Twenty years ago this month, when Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, went to a bar, he likely wasn’t thinking he’d die that day or that his all-too-brief life and horrific death would put a human face on homophobia and hate.
How could Shepard have foreseen on Oct. 6, 1998 that Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson would entice him to step into their vehicle and then tie him to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo.?Then beat him mercilessly – striking his head, as the Blade reported, with the barrel of .357 Magnum pistol?That the day after this blood-curdling attack, he’d be found and taken to a Colorado hospital? That this would be too late and he would die five days later on Oct. 12, 1998?
Two decades later, Shepard’s murder is still horrifying and incomprehensible. It shouldn’t be surprising that McKinney invoked the “gay panic” defense – alleging that Shepard, in the vehicle, groped him. (McKinney and Henderson have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. They said originally they intended to rob Shepard; $20 was stolen from Shepard’s wallet.)Today, in the age of marriage equality, the “gay and trans panic” defense is still legal in 47 states, according to the National LGBT Bar Association. Still, our hearts break trying to understand how Henderson and McKinney could have committed such a brutal act.
In “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard,” Lesléa Newman, a poet and author of “Heather Has Two Mommies,” struggles to comprehend Shepard’s murder. “Deliver a baby/Read War and Peace/Fall in love/Fall out of love/,” Newman writes in the poem What You Can Do in Eighteen Hours, “…Wait to be discovered/lashed to a fence/Shivering under a blanket/of stars.”
On Oct. 26, Shepard’s ashes will be interred at the Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral is an ideal choice for his final resting place, Matthew’s mother Judy Shepard, said in a statement. “Matt loved the Episcopal Church and felt welcomed by his church in Wyoming,” she said.
In December 1998, shortly after Shepard died, his parents Judy and Dennis Shepard founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation.“For the past 20 years, we have shared Matt’s story with the world,” Judy Shepard said in her statement on the upcoming interment of her son’s ashes at the Washington National Cathedral. “It’s reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world.”
This reassurance is needed now more than ever.
If you’re queer, whether you were alive when Shepard died or born after his murder, you’ve likely experienced hate-based violence or lived under its shadow.Years ago in the 1990s, my late partner and I walked to the grocery store after dinner. As we walked, a man from a passing car yelled out “you dykes!”He didn’t physically hurt us, but the verbal violence and threat of physical violence were there.
A few years ago, I waited for a bus at my bus stop. Suddenly, a man came up from behind and roughly twisted my arm, while screaming, “I hate you, fucking dyke!”
I’m acutely aware that I’m cisgender and white (as was my late partner).The rate of violence cisgender white people fear and experience has historically been lower, and received more attention, than the hate-filled violence directed at transgender people and people of color.Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist and author of the memoir “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” grew up in poverty in rural Louisiana. His older cousin, Blow, who is black and bisexual, told the Blade, was tied to a bed, beaten and murdered because he dared to be openly gay. “This hate crime against a black man, unlike Matthew Shepard’s murder didn’t receive media attention,” he said.
Shortly before Shepard was killed, James Byrd, Jr, a black man, was brutally beaten and murdered by white supremacists. After years of advocacy, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed in 2009. HCPA added sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to the 1968 federal hate crimes law.
Unfortunately, despite this legislation, hate crimes haveincreased against LGBTQ people, particularly against transgender people and people of color. Hate violence-related homicides of LGBTQ people between 2016 and 2017 increased by 86 percent, according to the Anti-Violence Project.
For Trump, hate has become a weapon to energize his base. We need to work for a “safer, kinder world” ASAP.