Danika reviews Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid


Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid is an examination of the history of the gay and lesbian right/liberation movement, as well as its current trajectory. It takes a close look at gay and lesbian advocacy as it stands now and suggests what some of the problems with the movement are and how it can improve. It’s obviously well-informed and thorough about the political climate of the time. There’s just one problem: it was written in 1995.

It’s maybe an odd choice to pick up a book about the state of queer activism from 20 years ago, but I actually found Virtual Equality an interesting—if not a page-turning—read. For one thing, its look at gay and lesbian (and Vaid does mostly concentrate on gay and lesbian activism, though transgender and bisexual activism is mentioned as well) history is still accurate, and since Vaid lived through the activism of the 80s, it’s described in the kind of detail that I think would be glossed over in a more modern overview.

That detail does sometimes devolve into dense history and statistics that are fairly irrelevant now and are a a slog to get through, but the more general history is fascinating, and reminds me that I have a lot more to learn. Also interesting is seeing some of Vaid’s predictions and recommendations some to pass. For instance, she argues early in the book that gay and lesbian activism at the time had relied too heavily on political activism, ignoring cultural activism. Vaid said that we needed to have more cultural representation in order to turn the tide of public opinion. And, of course, in the late 90s onward, we did get a lot more gay and lesbian representation in media, and the public opinion did shift dramatically!

More than history or a look at “current” 90s politics, however, Virtual Equality has a lot to offer in terms of activist strategy. Vaid has a lot of very practical advice about how to build the movement and make it more effective. One of the more interesting aspects of this is her examination of the Christian Right as a political force. I’ll admit that I saw the Christian Right as a sort of timeless presence in American politics, but Vaid describes its rise as a political force, and also what we can learn from them. Namely, the Christian Right in particular and the Supremacist Right (Vaid’s term) in general are incredibly organized, and Virtual Equality argues that we need to use a similar system to educate activists in order to spread knowledge and strategy.

Overall, reading Virtual Equality reminded me of how much we have to learn from our past so that we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes of previous generations of activists. And yes, the bulk of the criticism that Vaid has is still valid. (I was especially grateful that as a woman of colour activist in a community largely of white men, Vaid offers an intersectional look at sexism and racism within the gay and lesbian community as well as homophobia in the feminist and activists of colour communities.) In fact, I might even say that Vaid’s warning about “virtual equality” versus true equality is even more true today. We need to pass on knowledge of activists so that we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel, and so that we can continue to make progress.

I did find Virtual Equality to be a slow read: it’s dense and occasionally irrelevant, but it also has so much valuable knowledge packed into it. I would highly recommend this for people who are in queer activism—and even if you’re not, Virtual Equality finishes the book by describing practical ways to get involved in activism and politics, or to take it to the next level if you already are. This gave me a lot to think about: it was well worth the time commitment.

Elinor reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha


I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.

Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.

The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.

Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.

Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/

Danika reviews Drag King Dreams by Leslie Feinberg

I loved this book. I still have yet to read Feinberg’s classic novel Stone Butch Blues, but I definitely am motivated to now. I read Drag King Dreams for an English class of mine, and I can see why it would be assigned: there is a lot here to tease out.

[mild spoilers] On the one hand, and probably the reason I enjoyed it so much, Drag King Dreams is a deeply political novel. Not just because it deals with subjects that are always politicized (trans people and racialized people, especially), but because it is about Max’s political reawakening.

Max, as a visibly gender nonconforming person, spends the beginning of the novel just attempting to survive, just trying to get through day by day in a world that is largely hostile to hir. Throughout the novel, however, Max reconnects with hir activist past. I totally understand that there’s sometimes when the only thing we can do is just try to survive, but when that’s all you’re doing, every day, it becomes nearly impossible to do without losing momentum. In rediscovering activism, Max finds a reason to do more than just struggle to survive day-to-day, and I feel like that’s such an important message. [end mild spoilers]

There is more than just queer politics in Drag King Dreams, however. Max’s aunt, despite not being there physically, is a constant presence in the novel. Max’s experiences with virtual reality weave throughout the novel–though, arguably there are never really resolved. Max’s Jewish identity is explored. The war in Iraq plays a part in the novel.

It is odd that, despite Max playing on a computer, and despite the prominence in the novel of the war in Iraq, Drag King Dreams still felt like a timeless story to me. It explores, I think, the endless struggle in being part of an oppressed group. I really recommend this one, as long you’re okay with your fiction having a heaping dose of political opinion, and now I can’t wait to read Feinberg’s previous novel.