Acclaimed poet, documentarian, and lifelong activist Jane Byers takes a courageous dive into modern LGBTQ parenthood in Small Courage: A Queer Memoir of Finding Love and Conceiving Family. At once a unique story of a transnational lesbian couple raising biracial twins adopted in Canada in the aughts, and a parallel narrative about coming out and finding oneself, Small Courage represents multiple journeys rolled into one. Adopting is a journey, parenthood is a journey, finding oneself is a journey…coming out is not a singular event, it is a lifelong process that repeatedly occurs during these journeys. And while being lesbian in no way defines Byers’ parenthood journey, it is this powerful part of her identity that gives her much of the strength she needs to overcome challenges in conceiving and raising a loving family.
Small Courage begins with detailed accounts of the adoption process that Byers, who is Canadian but immigrated from England at a young age, and her wife Amy, an American, undertake to build a family. Byers vividly illustrates the amount she and Amy must “explain” themselves throughout the adoption process–the simple desire, and ability, to provide a loving, safe home for children is not enough. The reality of having to assert her identity beyond being a lesbian, to everyone involved in the anxiety-inducing adoption process, peaks in a moment inside the home of an evangelical Christian family fostering the 15-month-old twins that eventually become Jane and Amy’s children. In preparation to bring the twins home, Jane and Amy spend two weeks with the foster family. In a lull between diaper changes and spilled sippy cups, the foster mom asks Jane, “So how does it feel knowing you will go to hell because of your lifestyle choice?” As she does with many similar encounters throughout, Byers responds with mental fortitude: “I chose not to engage and instead focused on cleaning the sippy cups, while thinking up rebuttals (“Hell will be more fun”).” In a testament to Byers’ compassion toward others, by the end of the journey, she and Amy are friends with the foster parents, people who, at one point had a “deeply held belief” that “a family is a mom, a dad, and children, and that anything else is somehow less.”
By braiding her now decades-long journey in parenthood with powerful personal anecdotes regarding her growth as a woman, a lesbian, and a feminist, Byers illustrates why her courage–derived from having her own identity challenged by society, the organized state, and even her own family—is exactly what is needed to be a loving parent. Byers is deeply attuned to her children’s and partner’s physical and mental well-beings, largely because of her life experience learning not only to survive, but to overcome and thrive, despite carrying the trauma of sexual abuse at age 9, frequently feeling invalidated by her parents and close family, and first coming out during a challenging time historically (she writes: “When I was first starting to allow cracks of queer light to enter my consciousness, homosexuality hadn’t long been off the books as a disease, and only a radical few had dared to think of it as an identity”). Her strength and courage are inspirational.
While the courageous act of raising children becomes validating for their relationship, Jane and Amy are also hyper-sensitive to ensuring the children feel validated too. “Perhaps because of my mother’s inconsistent parenting,” Byers says, “it seems to have been my parental mission to see the shit out of my children. Perhaps being seen is just another definition of loving. To love is to see and not to try to change.” Identity and validation are also important to Byers in relation to addressing adoption trauma and recognizing her children’s multiracial backgrounds, two of the other many challenging topics astutely addressed within her memoir. Byers regularly deliberates about whether she is doing enough to expose her kids, whose birth mother is Indian and whose father is “likely Caucasian,” to “cultural heritages and to other transracial adoptees…to usher them through to adulthood with a healthy sense of self.”
Readers will delight in Byers’ interspersed poems, which nicely complement her practical encounters with parenting, marital, and physical and mental health challenges. As a transgender writer married to a cisgender schoolteacher with two young children of our own, I adored the applicability of Byers’ memoir in thinking about my own journey as a parent and partner (e.g., “it is the quality of the relationships, not the gender of the parents, that matters”), while at the same time indulging in her more artistic portrayals of love and family. Byers’ voyage to becoming herself, finding deep love, and conceiving a family is full of stormy weather, but, movingly, she sails through life’s storms with strength and determination, leaving rainbows of vibrant poetry in her wake.
It is worth noting that Byers also pays ample homage to LGBTQ pioneers throughout her memoir, for example, with a pilgrimage to the Stonewall Inn with Amy on their tenth anniversary. Byers’ recognition of those who made it possible for her and Amy to love more freely, and to legally marry, adopt, and raise a family, seamlessly detaches Byers’ narrative from the personal and elevates it to the communal. Small Courage is more than a familial memoir, it is an ode to the power of community, and a call to courage.
The memoirends with joyful, reflective notes: “Heck, if a lesbian couple can spend every waking moment for two weeks with a Christian fundamentalist couple and come out at the end as friends, there is hope in the world.” In addition, Byers concludes with somber reminders that finding meaning is synonymous with living our truths. “I spent a long time forging meaning,” Byers writes, “it took me a while to get to changing the world. How do I change the world? I came out. I walk through airports with my wife and our children and we don’t hide being a family.” Small Courage is continually coming out–it is the journey,the meaning, and the joy.
This book about pornography—with 28 pages of endnotes, a colon in the title, and a $173 price tag on the hardcover edition—unapologetically identifies itself as an academic tome. Flipping through its charts and statistics, we might hear our own inner voice grumbling, Even queer fuckfilms have succumbed to the graphs of social scientists.
But, as with pornography itself, first impressions can be misleading. Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography, at $28 for the eBook, is enlightening and even affordable. Its author, Jeffrey Escoffier, a founder of OutLook and director of Out/Write, a professor who has taught at Berkeley, Rutgers, and The New School and is now a researcher at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, avoids pedantry. His graphs, viewed in close focus, give us a rich view of the upheaval in global culture that has taken place since the nudist and bodybuilding magazines like Physique Pictorial, passed furtively from hand-to-hand among closeted men in the 1950s, giving way to Tom of Finland and the abundantly stuffed crotches of his models, and all that has followed since.
“Perversions” and “Scripts”
Escoffier’s book recounts an engaging history that culminates, after millennia, in the mainstreaming of modern hard-core porn—meaning, in his very specific definition, sexual imagery, particularly in videos, of explicit depictions of intercourse, including oral copulation. Escoffier notes that sex researchers of the 1920s, whose focus was primarily on married heterosexual couples, broke ground that later was deeply plowed by Alfred Kinsey, who began in the 1940s publishing the results of surveys that included homosexual feelings, fantasies, and behavior. He doesn’t mention Magnus “Max” Hirschfeld, the German doctor whose Institute for Sex Research, founded in 1919 in Berlin, was the first association in the modern world to promote homosexual and transgender rights.
The author employs the words “perverse” and “perversion” in a way that might be off-putting to an LGBTQ audience. But he is openly gay himself, and no prude, and uses these words in context as a social scientist and historian. Escoffier is known, among many other things, for his earlier studies of “gay for pay” film actors wh6ose heterosexual orientation does not impede their sexual performance with men. He has examined with particular interest what he calls “the social conditions that enable heterosexually-identified men to turn in credible sexual performances in gay pornographic videos.”
Like “perversion,” the word “script” has a special meaning for Escoffier, who devotes most of the book’s attention to films featuring sex between men, and treats pornography as a vast screen on which all of our fantasies are projected. He writes boldly, “Sexual scripts are necessary at every stage of production and are the reason that people watch porn.”
Such a broad assertion concerning people’s interest in porn risks neglecting the developments we see in amateur, do-it-yourself fuckbuddy videos, in which guys who obviously like and are attracted to each other are having fun—not posing or “performing” together. Amateur videos may prove to be a more reliable measure of what people want than statistical analyses of commercial video sales. Joe Gage, creator of rough-trade classics beginning with Kansas City Trucking Co. in 1976, commented in a 2007 Butt Magazine interview, when asked if he liked the work of other directors, “I like amateur porn the best, because it’s real. It’s real sex.”
As is so often the case, LGBTQ people were at the forefront of a social upheaval that soon paid benefits to the entire world. Remember “Chat Rooms”? Maybe you don’t, but if you use any form of social media you are an heir to the slow, noisy, dial-up services that began in the early 1980s, patronized by gay men eager to hook up in a new, virtual way. Personal use of the Internet exploded as men learned to cruise without having to look their best—and, as the technology evolved and allowed them to share photos and videos, to create a new species of pornography. This new generation of do-it-yourself porn embraces various body types, ages, and racial groupings—not as fetish categories for commercial-porn keyword clicks, but as real-life guys doing what comes naturally.
Escoffier refers to the video audience as “spectators,” reinforcing the understanding of porn as a creation tightly controlled by producers who believe they know what the porn-consuming public wants. He nods to Pornhub as the world’s largest distributor of porn and notes that “video pornography on the Internet is not only a hugely popular form of entertainment, but also a body of knowledge about sex that is both a form of sex education as well as a self-help guide”—the modern pillow book. What he doesn’t mention is that the early growth of Pornhub was driven largely by non-commercial, amateur, DIY videos making Pornhub and other amateur sites like XHamster and @ment4us wildly profitable.
From the 1970s through the end of the last century, commercial studios refined and professionalized their product, catering to increasing numbers of fetishes, “perversions,” and interests, in slickly produced, high-quality, keyword-driven commodities. Long gone are the original black-and-white “Old Reliable” films of the early 1970s, which featured snarly, rough-trade types masturbating on camera, often on a familiar worn-out couch, chewing cigars and, occasionally, flipping off the viewer. Meanwhile, technology has allowed fuckbuddies to make quality video recordings of themselves and to post their videos online for anyone to enjoy. The production values are not as impressive, but the intimacy more than compensates.
The Object of Knowledge
But even this erudite observation is subject to reexamination: In a section near the end of Escoffier’s book, perhaps to atone for the statistics and graphs in earlier chapters, he quotes from reviews written by film critics who have had the opportunity to hire their favorite porn actors for live, in-the-room-together, sex. A film scholar studying PornHub and OnlyFans is likely to be able to find his favorites on RentMen. An enterprising performer/escort uses his recognized profile name everywhere, and posts his travel schedule months in advance.
These explicit reviews end the book on a good-humored note: “He was not Rick Gonzales the porn star… he was Rick Gonzales my LOVER for two hours and he just made love to me.”
Andrew Holleran, in his 2015 essay “Notes on Porn,” commented that the occasional moment “when two men do make contact is more powerful than all the anonymous pistonlike fucking of ordinary porn films.” The three-page essay was one of the most often cited items ever to appear in the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. Concerning the illusion furthered by porn that the viewer is, in Plato’s terms, experiencing “the object of knowledge,” Holleran wrote, “…you are as alone after sex with someone in a porn film as you were when you began. Depending on your age or temperament or circumstances, this may be a good or a bad thing.”
Queer friendships, in art as in life, are often complex. Zak Salih’s debut novel Let’s Get Back to the Party powerfully and broadly explores these friendships—the joys and tensions that exist within them, and the lines between platonic and romantic that can blur to the point of disappearance—celebrating the ways in which they help define us.
Shortly after the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, Sebastian Mote, a high school art history teacher, runs into his childhood friend Oscar Burnham at a wedding. In the decades since they last saw each other, Sebastian has faded from Oscar’s memory, while Oscar still occupies a potent space in Sebastian’s mind. As children, Sebastian’s role as Oscar’s protector defined their closeness—their friendship was a cocoon within which Oscar could forget about his difficult home life and severe father.
Now, at least on the surface, they couldn’t be more different. Oscar, distressed by the new “epidemic” of marriage, sees gay domestication as a death. He is equally affronted by the “colonization” of uniquely queer spaces—gay clubs attracting straight women, the gayborhood now “just another neighborhood.” Endlessly pursuing casual, detached sex as a distraction from everyone around him coupling off and settling down, Oscar is, at first, a frustratingly one-dimensional character. (Aware his friends see him this way, he can’t quite admit they’re right.)
After a chance meeting with Sean Stokes, an older writer whose frank, explicit autobiographical novels of 1970s gay life captivate Oscar, leading to a friendship and correspondence through which Oscar becomes enthralled by what he sees as a distant past where “being queer was still strange.” Sean’s words become manifesto-like truths for Oscar—amidst the tame “storybook love” now ubiquitous, he glamorizes a lost era of risky, rebellious sex, the “grit and grime … the sheer faggotry of it all.”
Meanwhile, a failed “experiment in domesticity” with a now-ex-boyfriend has left Sebastian single, housesitting at his father’s rural northern Virginia home. Unlike outgoing Oscar, Sebastian keeps to himself: avoiding the popular gay dating apps, he spends long afternoons at museums and pores over biographies of the artists he teaches. (One of the most moving and inventive episodes in the novel is an extended section in which Sebastian recalls moments in his boyhood through works of art—Copley, Turner, Pollock—interleaving these memories with the story of a gay student’s suicide at the school where he teaches. Perhaps, he argues, intimacy and artmaking come from the same impulse, that “uncanny, inexplicable compulsion” to reach out to another.)
Sebastian takes an interest in the self-assured, magnetic Arthur, a student whose “uncanny confidence” he admires and envies. Like Oscar and Sean, Sebastian and Arthur form something like a friendship, but while Oscar longs for Sean’s past, Sebastian yearns for Arthur’s present. For him, Arthur is a reminder of the desperation and shame of his own adolescence: “[the] boyhood I never had, the warped manhood I was stuck with for the rest of my life. … If I had his life, then I wouldn’t have to have my own.”
Salih treats his two narrators’ sensibilities with meticulous care. They begin as distinct voices: Sebastian’s episodic, digressive reflections, populated with nods to art history (“…flung across the flannel sheets like a troubled Fuseli dreamer”) are a stark contrast to Oscar’s snappy, bold observations, which pulse with attitude and sarcasm, recalling the bullet-like directness of cruising apps. But as the novel progresses, a shift takes place; the two voices blend and blur. Most strikingly, Oscar begins to transform—growth that is no less moving for its expectedness. His aversion to change yields as he starts to feel the hollowness in the reports he brings Sean of his sexual escapades; he attempts to frame queer rebellion in new ways. Sebastian changes, too. His friendship with Arthur allows him to reconsider how he sees himself as a gay man and to search deeply for the beginnings that lie within all endings.
In a letter to Oscar, Sean writes, “Perhaps experience without transformation isn’t experience at all.” Whether in pursuit of gay rights or in search of our own queer identities, what is the point of the struggle if we can’t, then, acknowledge and celebrate the progress? Salih addresses the queer “struggle” within and without—how the ways we fight in the community are always in conversation with the ways we fight within ourselves; our need “to be desired, to be seen” but also the need to look inward and see ourselves. Throughout the novel, Salih deftly captures the pervasive, intangible melancholy that can color experiences of detachment and isolation, writing movingly of the relationships—friendships and otherwise—that can bring us back from these moments. Let’s Get Back to the Party reminds us how we fight to keep going in spite of it all.
Ruth Coker Burks never intended to be an advocate, activist or even an angel. She just wanted to do the right thing.
“Oh, I’m no angel,” Coker Burks, 62, told TODAY. “I’m just a person.”
But that’s how her legacy has been defined when one fateful day in 1986, at just 26 years old, she was visiting a friend, Bonnie, at a local hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, who had been suffering from oral cancer. Bonnie had her tongue removed, and Coker Burks was her interpreter. This was their fifth extended hospital stay, but this time there was something different. Out of the corner of her eye, Coker Burks spotted a door down the hall with a bright red tarp across it, food trays piled up outside and a group of nurses at the door, unwilling to go in.
“I had been in hospitals a lot of times and so I thought that was really bizarre,” she said of the biohazard red door. “The nurses were literally drawing straws to see who would go in and check on this person. They would draw straws and it’d be best out of three, and then they didn’t like that and so then it’d be best 2 out of 3 and then no one would end up going in to check in on this person. They just walked away.”
Her curiosity overcame her, so when the nurses left their stations, she snuck into the room to see who was there. She struggled finding the person at first, who was so frail and near death, she couldn’t even tell he was in his bed. “I had to look for him,” she explained. “I thought maybe he was in the bathroom. You couldn’t tell the difference between him and the bedsheets. It was just horrible.”
This was the first time she would encounter a person dying from AIDS, but it wouldn’t be the last. Over the next decade, Coker Burks would care for over 1,000 gay men dying of the disease who were abandoned by their families.
In honor of LGBTQ Pride Month and the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the HIV and AIDS epidemic in 1981, TODAY had the opportunity to talk with the accidental activist to look back on her incredible story that above all else, shows what happens when someone overcomes fear for love and life.
Prior to that fateful hospital visit, Coker Burks had heard rumors about the then-unnamed disease when visiting her hairdresser cousin in Hawaii. A devout Christian, single mother of one and real estate agent working in the timeshare industry, Coker Burks pretended to know a lot more about the gay community than she actually did.
“Oh honey, don’t worry about that,” her cousin told her about the disease soon to be labeled HIV and AIDS. “Just the leather guys in San Francisco are getting that.”
But it was that day while caring for her friend Bonnie when she encountered AIDS for the first time in person — and knew it wasn’t just affecting the “leather guys” in California.
“I went over to the bed and I didn’t know what to do but I took his hand and I said, ‘Honey, what can I do for you?’” she remembers of the fateful encounter. “He looked up at me and he didn’t have any more tears to cry. He was so dehydrated there was nothing left to produce any tears. But he looked up at me and he said he wanted his mama.”
Coker Burks felt this was something she could do: Get his mother to come to the hospital and then go back to Bonnie and get back to minding her own business, something she admits she’s never been very good at doing. But what she quickly realized is that his mother knew where he was, and she had no intentions to visit him.
“I went over to speak with the nurses, and they backed up like I had them at gunpoint,” she said. “They said, ‘You didn’t go in that room, did you?’ Well yeah, I noticed that y’all weren’t going in. So they started fussing at me and then they just backed up even more.”
She recounted what they said to her: “His mother’s not coming. Nobody’s coming. He’s been in this hospital for six weeks, nobody’s been here and nobody’s coming and don’t you go back in that room.”
Well, Coker Burks didn’t listen.
The man’s name was Jimmy, and his experience was more common than not. Many gay men who became sick with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s were shunned by their families, abandoned and left to die alone.
Coker Burks tried calling Jimmy’s mother numerous times, but each time his mother refused to take the call. After a few attempts — and a heated threat to put his obituary in her local newspaper — his mother answered her questions. “My son died years ago when he went gay,” she told Coker Burks. “I don’t know what thing you have at that hospital but that’s not my son.”
Coker Burks knew that was the best she was going to get out of her, so she stayed by Jimmy’s side until he died the next day.
“I thought he would be the only one, and I would get back to going to church every Sunday and you know, being a good Christian living the best life I could,” she said. “I had a young daughter, her father and I were divorced, and I was just trying to be the best mother and set the best example I could for her. I thought I’d just go back to that.”
But after leaving Jimmy’s hospital room after he passed, she learned that the homophobia these men experienced lived on well after their final breathes. The nurses said the body needed to be dealt with, and that the hospital’s morgue didn’t want him because they were scared the other bodies would get contaminated. (She jokes, “Of course, you don’t want a dead body contaminated with anything, especially imagination.”)
The nurses insisted she take him. It was difficult to find a funeral home who would take Jimmy, but after many attempts she was able to find a place that would cremate him and she buried him with her father. With her daughter Allison by her side, they got a cookie jar for his ashes, dug a hole above her father’s coffin and planted flowers to mark the spot.
“We had a little do-it-yourself funeral, said the Lord’s prayer, put the flowers and a big rock on top of him and we left,” she explained. “And I thought, you know, that’s going to be the only person I ever have to do this for. I mean, who would think you would ever have to do it twice in your life, right?”
She went back to selling timeshares. Then more and more local men in Arkansas began getting infected with HIV and becoming sick with AIDS. Nurses started giving out Coker Burks’ number to their patients.
No matter what, Coker Burks answered their calls. She buried 39 others in her family’s cemetery and cared for hundreds more for over a decade.
Hope, friendship and understanding
Coker Burks tells her story in the book, “All the Young Men,” published in December 2020.
“It is not to diminish her story to say that heterosexual angels weren’t the dominant narrative of the AIDS crisis, but a vanishingly rare exception to a rule of homophobia, cruelty and prejudice,” writes The Guardian’s Olivia Laing. “That said, there’s something immensely uplifting about her decision to involve herself in the travails of a community not her own, simply because she could see that there was a need. It’s a brighter story of human nature…”
Last year, it was also announced that her story will be made into a film as well, “The Book of Ruth,” starring Ruth Wilson and Matt Bomer.
Above all else, Coker Burks wants people to understand that her story is one of hope.
“It’s about friendships, and it’s about having the very worst of situations and turning it into something else,” she said. “It’s about kindness and stepping through the door, whatever the door is. It’s a fear that you override. Whatever fear you have and you just walk into that room, because everybody always asked me what made me walk into that room. To me, it was a voice of God saying, ‘Go in there. It’s going to be OK.’”
Coker Burks said what she learned the most was to see joy in everything, even in death.
“Oh no, my guys lived until the day they died,” she said. “I learned more about living from the dying than I ever learned about dying with the dying.”
“Hope was all they had. That was it. And, you know, we would go to drag shows. … I had never even heard of a drag queen but I would stand by the stage with my dollars, I wouldn’t even go back to my chair, I was just handing out dollars all night, thinking to myself these are the most fabulous creatures I’ve ever met in my life.”
“Step out of your lives, step out of your boundaries and deliberately meet new people who aren’t you.”
During LGBTQ Pride Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of June. For more, head here.
Last year at this time, as much of the world was on lockdown due to the pandemic, Leslie Jordan began posting daily videos of himself on Instagram.
The actor known for roles in the “American Horror Story” franchise and “Will & Grace” was staying near family in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was bored.
Many of Jordan’s videos included him asking “How ya’ll doin?” He referred to his followers as “hunker downers.” Sometimes he posted stories about Hollywood or his childhood growing up with identical twin sisters and their “mama,” as he calls her. Other times he did silly bits like complete an indoor obstacle course. He quickly became a bright spot during an otherwise bleak time and his followers grew.
“Someone called from California and said, ’Oh, honey, you’ve gone viral.’ And I said, ’No, no, I don’t have Covid. I’m just in Tennessee,” said Jordan. Celebrities including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Alba and Anderson Cooper, along with brands such as Reebok and Lululemon, would post comments.
Soon he became fixated with the number of views and followers he had, because there wasn’t much else going on.
“For a while there, it was like obsessive. And I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. Stop, stop, stop.′ You know, it almost became, ’If it doesn’t happen on Instagram, it didn’t happen.’ And I thought, ‘You’re 65, first of all. You’re not some teenage girl.’”
The spotlight led to new opportunities. Earlier this month he released a gospel album called “Company’s Comin’” featuring Dolly Parton, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Eddie Vedder and Tanya Tucker. He also has a new book called, “How Y’all Doing?: Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well Lived.” It’s Jordan’s second book. His first, “My Trip Down the Red Carpet” was published in 2008.
“That sort of dealt with all the angst and growing up gay in the Baptist Church and la, la, la, la, la. And this one, I just wanted to tell stories.” In “How Y’all Doing,” Jordan writes about working with Lady Gaga on “American Horror Story,” how meeting Carrie Fisher led to Debbie Reynolds calling his mother, and the Shetland pony he got as a child named Midnight.
Jordan says it was hard to narrow down what he wanted to write about because he’s a storyteller by nature.
“It’s very Southern. If I was to be taught a lesson or something when I was a kid, I was told a story.”
With no shortage of anecdotes, Jordan ends the book with a tease there’s more to come. “This is not goodbye forever,” he writes but won’t say if there is an official plan for more, just that if this book does well, he’d love to write another.
Now that the globe has hit the one year mark of the pandemic, Jordan is less reliant on Instagram. He sometimes has to remind himself to post something new and can scramble for content.
“I didn’t plan it in any way at all,” he said of his quarantine surge in popularity. People say to me, ‘Tell me what you did, because I want to get a lot of followers.’ I have no idea. I remember the day it got to a million. Now it’s almost 6 million. … I’ll tell you where it helps, when they go to negotiate the money,” he laughed.
Jordan, who was most recently in the Fox comedy “Call Me Kat” starring Mayim Bialik and “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” says he made a decision when he turned 60 to treat showbiz like a regular job and clock out each evening. “At six o’clock, the curtain goes down. TV and movies, see, that’s my job. I have other things that I do besides that.” These days, Jordan spends much of his spare time taking riding lessons and is preparing for his first horse show in June.
Friday, April 23 Online program Free | $5 suggested donation
In honor of National Poetry Month in April, poet James J. Siegel will read excerpts from his new poetry collection The God of San Francisco (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020), a poetic exploration of San Francisco’s queer history from the North Beach drag scene to Twin Peaks Tavern in the Castro, from the triumphant election of Harvey Milk to the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic. Siegel will be joined by queer poets Natasha Dennerstein, Dazié Grego-Sykes, Baruch Porras-Hernandez and Jacques J. Rancourt to read poems that explore our personal connections to LGBTQ history, our queer ancestors and the ongoing fight for equality. Register online here.
Sunday, April 11th @4pm. Occidental Center for the Arts’ Virtual Book Launch Series presents Barbara Gonnella and Gaye le Baron in conversation on newly published Occidental, Images of America. Admission free, all donations gratefully accepted. Visit OCA website (occidentalcenterforthearts.org) for link to this event live-streaming on YouTube. Book sales through author or at the Union Hotel.
Jen Silverman’s debut novel, We Play Ourselves, reads like the work of a more established novelist. Silverman is no novice though. She has a body of work as a playwright and staff writer for TV shows and her sense of pacing shows clearly in the book’s plot. The reader learns from the first two pages they’re in the assured hands of a writer who knows how to immediately captivate. The protagonist, a playwright named Cass, has fled the theatre world in New York, where she has become infamous, to hide out in relative anonymity in LA. She did something horrible in New York, this act is not initially disclosed, but it’s bad enough to destroy her professional life. And that’s just the first few pages. The richness doesn’t stop there.
Part of the engrossing tension of the book is waiting to find out what it is Cass did, but plenty happens before that startling reveal. The plot weaves between two time periods, one delves into Cass’s life as an up-and-coming playwright in New York City, and the other focuses on her post-NYC life in LA, where she seeks to escape from her past foibles. But of course, as the cliché goes, everywhere you go there you are.… Cass is forced to confront her demons in LA despite her desire to escape them. Silverman does a masterful job of creating a protagonist who does unlikeable things and has unlikeable thoughts but whom the reader still roots for her. Silverman imbues Cass with a fully-realized personality; she is funny, vulnerable, sardonic, and soft-hearted beneath the carapace she hides behind. To Cass, success equals happiness. She desperately wants to be famous, the star playwright, the woman of the moment. Despite her flaws, or maybe because of them, we want her to do well.
When we see her in NYC, Cass, the winner of a prestigious playwriting award, is having her first major play produced. It’s a high-profile production with a big-name director and a TV star in the lead. Cass falls in love with the director, Helene, and starts an affair with the TV star. Helene rejects Cass’s advances and offers sage advice about her career and putting her art first. The director tells Cass to never sabotage herself in order to punish someone else. The idea that Cass may wish others ill is central to this character exploration. When her play receives a spectacularly bad review, her worst fears are realized; her actions following this fallout force her to flee New York.
When she lands in LA, Cass is at an emotional low point. While seeking anonymity, Cass meets Caroline, her charismatic next-door neighbor who is directing a film about a group of teenage girls in a fight club. She becomes the director’s number two and grows increasingly appalled at the uber-manipulative way the girls in the film are treated. Cass grows to care for one of the girls, BB, and wants the best for her. Her compassion toward BB is in stark contrast to the wholly self-centered existence she’s been living. As Cass slowly realizes the extent of the artifice of the film and the exploitation of the girls, she becomes engaged in a furious campaign to free the young women from mistreatment.
Through these various plotlines, philosophical questions arise. Where does happiness come from? Is it the heady feeling that comes with great success or the peace of mind that comes with some humility? Cass’s story is about how our worst thoughts and impulses can diminish our world. How do we work our way back? Is success the only route to happiness?
Along with Cass’s personal journey to redeem herself is a narrative rich with details on both the Hollywood system and the New York theatre scene, details that don’t put either in a particularly good light. Silverman has inside knowledge of both, and she seamlessly guides the reader through these well-drawn worlds.
We Play Ourselves contains a page-turning plot, with a truly complex character at its core. Silverman is a talented writer and knows exactly how to pace the story so the reader remains suspended in the intense world of the novel. I had a hard time putting the book down, which is always one of the best compliments a writer can receive. Silverman deserves it.
We Play Ourselves
by Jen Silverman
Penguin Random House
Hardcover, 9780399591525, February 2021
Since the events of January 6th, I have been struggling with how to respond. What should engaged citizens and residents do when democracy is under attack, particularly amid a global pandemic? Perhaps I have been struggling since quarantine began in March and April of 2020. Maybe I have been struggling since the election in November of 2016. Perhaps even longer. It is hard to pinpoint when the struggle began. Maybe you, too, have been feeling similarly? Through these struggles, I have been reading, particularly poetry. Recent books remind of one powerful aspect of poetry by queer and lesbian women: the call to community. These are some reflections.
Ellen Bass’s newest poetry collection, Indigo, arrived nearly a year ago. I have been savoring it. Bass’s work continues to deepen in its power. She expresses complex experiences in the world with beauty and joy. In Indigo, ample poems are quintessentially Bass; her poems demonstrate the power of lesbian sexuality and exuberantly celebrate life in the body, richly observed, deeply felt, joyful even—or especially—as the body ages.
Bass’s poems accumulate power because she is as willing to explore emotions with more negative valences with the same wonder and appreciation as positive. Poems in Indigo explore failure, loss, and despair with vivid clarity. For example, Bass describes her “first / entrance into the land of failure” as a “country / I would visit so often / it would begin to feel like home.” In a litany of regrets in the poem, “Pearls,” Bass beings “I’m sorry I didn’t buy my father the cashmere sweater with suede trim the summer / I went to Europe. And I’m sorry I didn’t stay longer with my mother when he died.” Each regret invites readers to understand how the speaker has disappointed people, causes, the beloved one; each regret a reminder of the vital web of shared life, finally concluding, “Forgive me, the sun will burn out. / I can’t hear your heart beating in the silence between us.” One remedy: listen more closely, more intensely, to the sound of a beating heart. Bass calls readers to the intimate and vital pulse of life. I understand it as a call to community.
The gesture is not only in Indigo; it marks Bass’s entire career. It can be easy to forget the scope of Ellen Bass’s work and linger only on the four collections of published poetry: Mules of Love, The Human Line, Like a Beggar, and now Indigo. There is so much pleasure to experience in these books, but they are only a part of her public poetic work. In 1973, with Florence Howe, the founder and publisher of The Feminist Press, Bass edited No More Masks an anthology of poetry by women; it galvanized poetry as an art form of the women’s liberation movement. In the 1980s, with Laura Davis, Bass published The Courage to Heal, another transformative book about recovery from sexual abuse. It is not too bold to assert that the #MeToo movement could not exist without Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s work—along with the work of many thousands of feminists naming sexual violence. In The Courage to Heal, Bass and Davis named the problem and, just as importantly, provided a path for recovery. I posit that The Courage to Heal—the book itself and public engagements with it—is a poem. It is a language that transforms readers’ understanding and lives in the world. Considering these two books, The Courage to Heal and No More Masks, in combination with her own poems, Bass is one of the most influential public poets today. The break-through of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman reminds us of the power of poetry in public life. Public poets occupy spaces such as inaugural poets or city and state poet laureateships; some public poets like Mary Oliver and Rupi Kaur are best-seller authors. All of these public roles are vital. Ellen Bass is another type of public poet: a poet who is a transformative thinker and writer in the world, a poet who brings new formations into being, a poet who convenes and conjures vibrant communities.
Bass’s work extends five decades, fifty years of community-making. Kelly Rose Pflug-Back’s work is just beginning. Her impressive debut collection, The Hammer of Witches, uses magic and mythology as central metaphors to conjure the communal. Pflug-Back draws on an eclectic array of mythology—in one poem alone alluding to the Vedas and the Edda—as well as the practice of witchcraft to highlight the magical and mysterious of contemporary life.
“We were witches once, you and I,” Pflug-Back asserts in the opening poem, “Malleus Maleficarum.” This artful poem blends the history of woman/witch hating with contemporary lesbian life, confiding “your love is a heathen ritual” then concluding, “the two of us lost together / still / / in this forest / of tall buildings.” Rich history combined with current imaginative practices is a defining characteristic of this collection.
In “After the Fall,” Pflug-Back writes,
every vast and ancient magic that this world of men has killed and pined for
alive somewhere just out of site
The conclusion is an ars poetica:
Outside the realm of clumsy words there are no such things as endings only new things made from the old.
Like many religions, witchcraft is communal, practiced in covens. Part of its spiritual and material work is providing human explanations for the inexplicable, magical as well as painful. Pflug-Back’s poems evoke magic as in “Grimoire” or the delightful “Hepatomancy,” a practice of divination from entrails. They also recognize communal gatherings as a vital part of magic. In “Hepatomancy,” Pflug-Back writes,
I am sewn together from the flesh of many and we ache.
Human life is both constituted by others and sharing in the pain of others. Elsewhere, Pflug-Back mines magic in human relationships. “For Dave” begins:
The day after you died my son asked me to draw a picture of you holding a blue balloon.
This lamentation concludes,
And now here I am wishing I could have found and afternoon somehow
to take that trip across town
and show up at your door
with a big blue balloon while you were still alive.
Perhaps unknown to the Pflug-Back, “For Dave” echoes Maureen Seaton’s stunning poem “White Balloon” demonstrating a generational shift but the endurance of lesbian lyrical poetry. United by the image of a balloon, white for Seaton, blue for Pflug-Back, these poems also document the material changes of queer lives. Seaton’s poem emerges from a communal memorial for people who died from AIDS; Pflug-Back’s is a domestic scene with a child. Both poems call readers into a community for mourning. Seaton laments “the ease with which we love”; Pflug-Back wishes for more time with beloved friends. Both poems call us to community.
torrin a. greathouse’s new collection Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil for the Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, is in a dynamic conversation with Pflug-Back’s collection. greathouse’s opening poem, “Medusa with the Head of Perseus” introduces many of the themes of this collection: disability, body dysmorphia, rape. It also artfully demonstrates greathouse’s proficiency with language and her energetic ability to transform images in service to her story.
Many will read Wound from the Mouth of a Wound with admiration for the way that it brings language and visibility to trans experiences and the realities of living with disabilities. greathouse and this collection join vibrant conversations in contemporary poetry communities on trans identities and living with disabilities. I appreciate both of these elements and particularly the way greathouse calls readers into a community that values trans people and people with disabilities.
“Weeds” demonstrates greathouse’s extraordinary poetic power. With short lines and stanzas between four and six lines, greathouse establishes the “shower stall” as the “body’s confessional” where she admits, “I love / most what can be / removed from me.” She builds an extended metaphor between unwanted parts of the body and weeds with a moving meditation on weed removal as “women’s work.” She writes, “Nothing’s more / femme than empty / / field, a place to bury / seed.” The poem concludes with the voice of the weeds:
We were your first teachers. Even in the harshest season, we survive. We bloom forever where we are told we don’t belong.
This poem reworks communal formations in meaningful ways, echoing feminist insights from the 1970s with contemporary trans sensibilities, making vibrant connections between human bodies and nature, and calling readers into the collective first-person plural with weeds. We were your first teachers. We survive. We bloom. This vision of community is one that leaves me awed.
Theorem, Elizabeth Bradfield’s newest collaboration, is a departure from her earlier work. Created with artist Antonia Contro, Theoremcounterpoints the words of Bradfield with the art of Contro. While Bradfield’s previous books establish her as a naturalist concerned with human-created conditions on the natural world, Theorem looks to mathematics, particularly geometry, as a tool to refract her childhood experiences. Bradfield writes:
There were five of us. And a dog. Only one dog at a time.
No one else.
The results are fractal The trajectories radiate.
The combination of Bradfield’s words with Contro’s art demonstrates the energy of collaborative enterprises; each element opens meanings for the other. In the afterword, they describe their collaboration as “words and image influencing, pushing, urging, questioning each other. Artist and writer finding new ways to articulate what is embedded in what they create.” In addition to inspiring more collaborations between artists, Theorem is a physical manifestation of community, a community of a singular poet and artist, but, by extension, in an invitation into communities of poets and artists.
Amid this reading of new work by lesbian and queer women poets, I returned to the work of Chrystos and spent weeks marveling at the corpus of her work. If I had more time and could really stretch out to tell you everything, I would write a detailed, sustained meditation on the poetry of Chrystos. Maybe it will come. Right now, I want to note that echoes of Chrystos’s work are in all of these collections. Chrystos’s work is filled with gorgeous, vexing, challenging, inspiring images of bodies and nature. She breaks conventions of contemporary poetry just because she can, because she has so much control over language, images, and the line, that she wants to flaunt her power. It is heady. It is exciting. It is worth your consideration as a reader, as a human, longing, hungering for some meaning, for connections in our troubled world. Chrystos knows about community and connection, and she wants them. She wants us to have them.
Funeral Diva, the new collection by Pamela Sneed, joins this gathering of new poetry that powerfully calls readers into community. While Sneed fashions herself as a diva in the title, in fact, these poems demonstrate rich community engagements that belie the temperament diva implies. The work in this collection—a hybrid of poetry and prose—calls a range of people, living and dead, into a community invoking a history of queer Black writers and insisting on a powerful present and future for Black queer writing.
Like the hybrid work that characterized lesbian-feminist writing in the 1980s and 1990s, Funeral Diva is a mix of poetry and essay braided together to illuminate how the two genres intersect, co-exist, merge, hybridize. Reading Funeral Diva amid COVID-19 as it harkens back to another, different epidemic, AIDS, is a powerful reminder of the responses of queer communities during the 1980s and 1990s. Sneed writes,
when I saw the poster silence equals death in the windows of the Leslie Lohman Museum That pink triangle on black paper from blocks away It called to me like a beacon Amidst societal madness/personal struggles and the Trump presidency to never give up It reminded me too of a generation of gay and lesbian warriors who are no longer here with us felled to AIDS and cancer But on their deathbeds used the mantra to inspire Silence=Death I think about when Black gay and Latinx poets Essex Hemphill Donald Woods Don Reid Roy Gonsalves Rory Buchanan David Frechette Craig Harris Alan Williams and Assotto Saint and so many more were still here How their black hair began to sprout twists and knots go wild and kinky to signify early Black gay consciousness I think about when I first met Donald Woods outside of a bookstore in the West Village called A Different Light and we fell in love We were all so young Black awkward and gangly but fierce and determined.
Funeral Diva fueled my desire to return not only to the poems of Chrystos, but also the poems of Dorothy Allison, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and many other writers that I read thirty, thirty-five years ago when I was coming out. Sneed is an inheritor to the vibrant poetic traditions of lesbian-feminism and the Black gay and lesbian renaissance of the 1980s. Funeral Diva is her love letter to the people and work who created her. Sneed, like the other poets here, calls us into community with all of its challenges, its foibles its uncertainties. As she tells us in her conclusion to Funeral Diva,
And then I understand what it all means If we can survive have equipment means money support conditions There are also other possibilities We can heal.
by Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press
Paperback, 9781556595752, 64 pp.
The Hammer of Witches
by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back
Paperback, 9781773860299, 72 pp.
Wound From the Mouth of a Wound
by torrin a. greathouse
Paperback, 9781571315274, 88 pp.
by Elizabeth Bradfield
Potry Northwest Editions
Paperback, 9781949166026, 96 pp.
Press Gang Publishers
Paperback, 9780889740471, 131 pp.
by Pamela Sneed
City Lights Books
Paperback, 9780872868113, 160 pp.
With The Sense of Brown, José Esteban Muñoz left a love-letter to brownness that acts as a dream for its desire. Extending to the minerals of the soil, to the animals, and to the people who bare its shade, it is an ode to a brown of rapturous multiplicity. A testament to those things that thrive under duress and thirst for excessive contact, the book fosters a Marxist militancy that he translates into Latina/o radical study. It acknowledges the incommensurability of brown itself, as a plural, dynamic site, wielding many names, and provokes a range of feelings. The text tells the story of an “identity-in-difference”, a phrase borrowed from Norma Alarcón, that sketches the details of an iridescent brown and cracks open standard definitions of brownness to include a myriad of “ethnic” backdrops.
The book begins with the notion of the brown commons, which is wild insofar as it describes a boundlessness that is not situated in individual identity, but something more expansive. Illustrative of an interconnectedness with all beings who suffer the strange fate of coming into the world as “brown”, it tells the story of a sacred solidarity between them. The theory practices a politics that is rooted in a Platonic proto-communism that tends towards alternative notions of kinship, imagined through a thriving undercommons. The work engages in a materialism that is influenced by the politics of race, resources, and the commonalities between them. The dominance of the template of the normative Human fades away, and the brown thing comes forth out of the shadows as something emotive, raw, and finally, at last, written.
Muñoz’s readings span a homosexual/social continuum that ties ethnicity to emotion, as it is an affectivity brought on by a shared sense of alterity. Queerness is felt as being in excess, a belonging and a failure to belong, which carves a space for those who are both brown and out at the same time. Consisting of equal parts ecstasy and melancholia, the brown outlaw is spoken and lived through artists like Nao Bustamante, Wu Tsang, Isaac Julien, Carmelita Tropicana, Tania Bruguera, Ana Mendieta, and José Feliciano, just to name a few. He colors them into the world of theory, and grants access to signatures and structures of feeling specific to being minoritarian within a complex web of interdependency.
The chapter “Chico, What Does It Feel Like to Be a Problem?” stands out as an urgent message for our current political landscape. It works to coalition build between the “black radical tradition” and brown liberation movements. With grace, Muñoz acknowledges these movements are not the same but have a shared sense of political aspiration. Invoking Brown Power’s modeling after Black Power, he braids the two together through shared dissident sentiments. These notions are essential for today’s movement concerning Black lives, as they model a continued practice of these groups supporting each other. Thinking through W.E.B. Du Bois, with agility and tact he addresses the communality of racial recognition and belonging in difference. For Du Bois, this feeling like a problem is in itself a mode of belonging, and for Muñoz, this feeling procures an opening, another way of relating in the alt-space of minoritarian becoming, with a built-in quasi-militant utopianism that lives and breathes otherwise.
This book enters the contemporary discourse of latinidad not without its complications. As of late, the area of study has never been more divided–between dark and light, brown and white, with a sharp focus on colorism and individual identity, which is a line of thinking that seems to move in opposition to what Muñoz seeks to drive forward with this book. As someone who is not the whitest brown person and not the brownest either, questions about these divisions continue to ruin my sleep. Not to invalidate contemporary discussions around the topic, I find Muñoz’s approach to be the more generative discourse regarding collective movement-building for achieving equity across race relations. Utilizing the work of theoreticians like Vijay Prashad and Wilfred Bion, Muñoz engages a global brownness that encompasses latinidad, but also reaches beyond it. I will admit, some of the language does have a dated tinge to it but keep in mind this posthumously published text has been in the works for the past decade and without his contemporary editorial eye for revision. There are so many questions I wish I could ask Muñoz, like about language choice when using the terms “African American” and “black” interchangeably throughout the text, especially when theories around these terms have been differentiated to mean different things and have also fused with latinidad by way of Afro-Latin scholarship. There is also the tense difference between the terms “Latina/o”, and the more recent (and also contentious) “Latinx” which he doesn’t employ in the text. Perhaps we can attribute this to the failure of the written to keep up with the spoken? Predictive of this problem, Muñoz addresses the issue of the unsatisfactory group identificatory term, saying that these terms themselves contribute to feeling brown, which he marks as inseparable from naming it. Given his mentioning of this, the text performs a discomfort with its own language, disidentifying with itself, as it strives to make known these difficulties and how they manifest in brown performance, how the words we have are still not enough. Despite the text’s time being somewhat out of joint, this book and Muñoz’s thoughts remain an arsenal full for any minoritarian subject who desires to understand and even love themselves, and their sense of being, more–a radical proposition.
The Sense of Brown
by José Esteban Muñoz
Duke University Press
Paperback, 978147801103, 185 pp.