Danika reviews We Still Demand!: Redefining Resistance in Sex and Gender Struggles edited by Patrizia Gentile, Gary Kinsman, and L. Pauline Rankin

We Still Demand edited by Patrizia Gentile

A weird thing about living in Canada is that you tend to know US history, laws, politics, etc more than you know your own. Reading We Still Demand! was a wake-up call that I actually know very little about Canadian queer history and activism, and that’s something I want to fix. Unfortunately, I had some issues with this particular text on the subject. For one thing, it is a very academic text, and it becomes dense to the point of being unreadable at several points. They do give a rough timeline of Canadian queer activism, but the focus is mostly on talking about radical vs neoliberal/homonormative/transnormative/homonationalist/human rights activism, and they seem to immediately dismiss out of hand anything that could be included in the latter category.

I will say, this is first time I’ve read anything and thought “I wish this was less radical.” Generally I am completely for radical activism. In this collection, though, it looks backwards at activism of the 70s and 80s and seems to neatly divide any work being done then as being either radical (worthwhile) or neoliberal (counterproductive). At times, this seems to require some odd mental gymnastics, such as defining 70s same-sex marriage activism as purely radical, but the same-sex marriage activism that followed as purely homonormative.

The essay that really got under my skin was about the beginning of trans activism in Canada (as an aside, this collection uses “trans*” “transman” and “transwoman,” even though it was published in 2017. Not sure why.) Instead of celebrating Raj and the work he did for trans representation, while also acknowledging the problems/limitations, this seems to drag him through the mud for not being radical enough, despite him publicly changing his stance on gay trans men (he originally posits trans men as being in opposition to butch women, so he paints all trans men as straight, but after backlash he became quite active in including gay trans men in his magazine, helping them to make connections with each other). It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to say that fighting for trans rights is homonormative or transnormative–that fighting for human rights isn’t worthwhile, because it doesn’t singlehandedly fix every problem.

Another essay acknowledges that Doug Wilson, who was fired as a teacher for being gay, lost his court case because sexual orientation wasn’t covered under the human Rights commission, but the text seems to congratulate him for walking away from teaching and entirely into activism, instead of acknowledging that fighting for rights has a place in queer activism. It also mentions a quotation from a queer rights activist that change happened because lobbying for rights laid the groundwork, but militancy of gays in streets brought results. Instead of recognizing this as two sides to the same fight, the author seems to conclude that the lobbying was pointless, or at least not very important.

There also seems to be some nostalgia about 70s and 80s activism as being back when All Queer Activism Was Radical. I would argue that the reason for that is because at the time, being out at all was radical. The liberal queers were still in the closet. Now, more people are able to participate in the discussion, because there is less danger in coming out, especially for cis white wealthy privileged gay men, so it’s not surprising that the conversation has changed. I also disagree with this strict division between radical and neoliberal activism because there is so much grey area: is fighting to repeal anti-queer laws radical, but not fighting for human rights that would prevent those laws?

Homonormativity/transnormativity also assumes that queer people can be easily absorbed by the system–that same-sex marriage did not change the institution of marriage at all. Can’t there be some space between revolution and assimilation? Isn’t it possible that same-sex marriage complicates the institution of marriage even as it reinforces other aspects? I agree that we should be fighting for big, radical change, for dismantling the system, but I also think there is merit to people trying to change it from within in the meantime. This collection seems to suggests that anything less that revolution is misguided. It made me think of the Trevor Project, which seems calls skyrocket after things like trans people being barred from the military–policy changes have real immediate effects for some people. Same-sex marriage may not have ended queer oppression, but it did change people’s lives: for the people able to see their partner in the hospital, for people able to bring their partner into the country, for kids who saw the world as a little less hostile to their existence.

All of this is not to say that I disagree with centring the most marginalized members of our community. One of the later essays describes how gay activism dropped issues of class and poverty after gay community was labelled as the “pink market” (white, middle class, cis, etc), and I do see how this plays out in ignoring the most vulnerable people in our community. I do believe that we should be prioritizing the most pressing, life-threatening issues the queer community faces, even if it’s not politically expedient (such as acknowledging that the issues of safety in sex work and the rate of murders of trans women are intertwined). I think we should be fighting on all fronts, though, and not promoting further fracturing inside the community by sorting people into Good Queer Activists and Bad Normative Activists.

I feel a little silly going into such depth in my issues with a book that very few people have even heard of, but it got me thinking! And honestly, that’s a good thing in itself. I do like exploring academic texts every once in a while as a way to stretch and test my own thinking on a topic. A few other notes that I have on this one: the introduction acknowledges that there is no indigenous perspective offered in the collection, and says that it’s a huge gap, but… I don’t feel like that’s good enough. It seems strange to me to say that an indigenous viewpoint is crucial, and then go ahead and publish your collection without one. Isn’t that your job to find that contributor?

I liked the later chapters much more than the first section. The “passing” chapter introduces the difficulty of “reading” people in the past as either trans men or butch women, and the problems that these categories suggest, as well as the ones present in the language of “passing.” I was also really interested in the chapter about dyke s/m in Canada, and how the “lesbian sex wars” debate on BDSM didn’t really exist in Canada (unlike the US), possibly because Canadian censorship of lesbian SM material could have allowed for solidarity in lesbian communities in fighting censorship. The later section also seems to be less concerned with the division between neoliberal and radical activism–for instance, the sex work chapter has a very different attitude towards police coalition than earlier chapters did.

I definitely want to explore this topic further. I want to know more about both the past and present queer activism in my own country, without just swapping in the US queer history that I know and assuming that it’s the same. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out these particular editors in the next books on the topic I pick up, because I didn’t think that their lens added to the topic.

Elinor Zimmerman reviews Staying Power: Long Term Lesbian Couples by Susan E. Johnson

Published in 1990, this book draws from Johnson’s study of over 100 couples who have been together a decade or more. Her research included questionnaires, in depth interviews, and opportunities for those in her study to write in detail about their relationships. I picked it up because I’m interested in long-term partnership and especially because I love reading lesbian nonfiction from previous decades. I found this book more relevant than I anticipated and I recommend it not only to those interested in lesbian history but anyone who wants to be in a long term partnership.

Johnson includes extended transcripts from conversations with eight couples as well as study findings around major themes that emerged such as commitment, sexuality, and problems. Quotes pepper every section and the women’s stories are amazing. There were a lot of different attitudes and approaches to relationships and a broad range of ages. One of the couples in this book had been together for more than 50 years and reading about their life together was worth picking up the book even if you take nothing else from it.

There is practical advice in this book but more than that there are interesting stories. Some of the couples had relationships I would never want and some had relationships I thought sounded incredible. Some couples were monogamous, some were poly, and some had become celibate. Some had formalized and celebrated their relationships to the extent they were able to at the time and some were largely closeted. A handful were raising children. I found some new ways of envisioning a long term relationship and gained some insights that apply to my own marriage.

The one major shortcoming of this book is that nearly everyone in the study was white. Only 6 out of 216 women in the study were women of color and all of them were partnered with white women. Johnson admits this huge flaw in the study early on but it didn’t appear to me that she did much to try to correct it once she became aware that her outreach efforts were dramatically underrepresenting people of color. She suggests that other researchers, especially women of color, do their own studies to correct this, but I would have liked more attempts to remedy this huge imbalance in her research. Subjects in the study were also more educated and skewed wealthier than the average population. Probably due to the era it was written, trans people aren’t mentioned at all. My only note of caution for interested readers is that you’re getting a book almost exclusively about white cis women and most have a fair amount of class privilege, so the perspective is limited in this way.

Still, I found this book useful. I would recommend it to those interested in recent queer history or in long term partnerships. Whether or not you can apply the ideas in Staying Power to your own life, it’s fascinating to see how marriage equality and increasing ability to be out have shifted intimate relationships over the last few decades. Keeping in mind its limitations, it’s interesting book worth checking out.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018 and is a contributor to the anthology Unspeakably Erotic, edited by D.L. King, and out now. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com


Julie Thompson reviews Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book edited by Avery Cassell and Jon Macy, Foreword by Sasha T. Golberg

From the publisher of The Queer Heroes Coloring Book (featuring a delightfully bedecked Edward Gorey on the cover) comes Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book, a collection of performers, mechanics, millionaires, and unknowns, from the 1920s through the 1940s. Nineteen artists, including Maia Kobabe (Louise), Avery Cassell, and Jon Macy (X Garage), bring these figures to life. The expressive takes on famous photographs and persons allow you to fill in each image with your own technicolor sensibilities, as well as fill in gaps in your own knowledge of queer history. The more time you spend with the woman or women on the page, carefully selecting just the right shade of purple for a suit jacket, the more time you end up spending thinking about who it is you’re looking at. Who is this defiant individual gazing back at me from a mugshot? What does it mean to find community in a public place, yet remain anonymous to history? I love the assortment of intimate moments between couples; the affability and charm exuded in solo portraits, coming across more as a conversation between the subject and the viewer; and the moments that project calm or exhilaration, and everything emotion in between. In the foreword, Sasha T. Goldberg, offers up her thoughts on butch identity and history. Goldberg acknowledges that the lens of experience and parameters through which she sees this collection and the identities of its subjects, may differ from yours.

Biographies of known persons and historical context for unknown persons, found at the back of the book, provide this collection with extra heft. A few of the images were familiar to me during my own readings of the eras covered here, such as thrill seeking heiress Joe Carstairs and the X Garage she ran with friends following WWI; night club performers, Gladys Bentley and Buddy Kent; and writers Djuna Barnes, Willa Cather, and Radclyffe Hall. There are a few historical figures that I’m unsure about, though, regarding their inclusion as butch lesbians. For instance, I haven’t found information about Bessie Coleman’s sexual preferences, though I admit I don’t know much about her aside from tales of her aviation prowess. The collection could also benefit from the addition of a book list for further reading. Readers and colorists will better connect with the writers’ and artists’ intentions of honoring these women.

I had a lot of fun (and plenty of hand cramps and that red indent on my ring finger) coloring in Louise and the X Garage crew. Coloring books for adults are seeing a surge in renewed interest, popping up as library programs, meditative exercises, and small gatherings. Does your book club need an excuse to spend afternoons coloring and discussing art and history? The end of the coloring book includes three discussion questions from Ajuan Mance about gender, how artistic visions influence a viewer’s interpretation.

I’ve included a list of titles if you’d like to learn more about these women’s lives or want a more general context of what life was like for queer people during the 1920s-1940s. The list is by no mean comprehensive and the asterisked titles reside on my TBR shelf. You can help grow this list by adding suggestions in the comments below.

Further Reading:

Julie Thompson reviews Secret Diaries Past and Present by Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme

secret-diaries

In 2013, British writer and academic Helena Whitbread and diarist Natasha Holme (a pseudonym), met to discuss a subject of mutual interest: diaries written by lesbians in original code. Aside from investigating the connection between two diarists, as stated in the title, highlights include early and adult sexuality, preservation and publication, and obsessive writing. The similarities and differences presented over the course of the book provide a fascinating insight into how connected these women are despite great distances of time, social status, and solitary endeavors.

By the time the authors of Secret Diaries at down to talk in Brighton, Helena had spent over thirty years exploring the life of fellow Halifax native, Anne Lister (1791-1840). Anne played many roles over the course of her life: businesswoman, landowner, lifelong learner, lover, and friend. As of this writing, she is also considered the first modern lesbian. The more personal sections of Anne’s journals are coded with what she referred to as “crypthand”; while on the other side Natasha shrouds every single entry, no matter how mundane, in code. Thanks to Whitbread’s unflagging scholarship and promotion, Anne’s journals have been added to the United Kingdom Memory of the World Register for documentary heritage of UK significance in 2011. Whitbread’s in-depth knowledge of Anne Lister’s life allows her to act as a sort of intermediary in the discussion.

Co-author Natasha Holme was born in England in 1969 to middle class parents. Her experiences growing up with a dogmatic Christian father and volatile mother had a long lasting influence on the formation of her identity and relationships. Diaries offered a safe harbor for her thoughts and questions. Many folks find the same kind of comfort and sense-making afforded through journaling.

One point that strikes me is how the act of creating and the existence of physical copies have allowed this conversation to take place. Think about all of the tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, diaries, and other forms of communication you’ve created and all of the people with whom you’ve interacted. Think about people two hundred years from now. What kind of conversation will you facilitate through your private and public recordings? Anne Lister’s contribution to this book is unintentional, while Holme has published her diaries and thoughts on the diaries.

Natasha discusses her compulsive need to record every aspect of her life in great detail. Every entry is in code. As a teen and young adult, she often squirreled herself away to work at the laborious task of writing down conversations, activities, and thoughts. Over the course of her life, Natasha has written nearly nine million words. I am amazed at the energy and time she has devoted to her diaries. I have written in journals off and on over the years, but have never reached the consistency Natasha has demonstrated in memorializing her life. Natasha eventually edited and published three volumes from diary entries written in the 1980s to the early 1990s.

Anne Lister, on the other hand, did not have such safeguards against damage or loss. On at least one occasion, a diary had gone missing in transit. Thanks to whatever wonderful combination of factors (the secure hole in the wall she hid the diaries in, atmospheric conditions, lack of fire, etc), her personal accounts survived centuries and censorship. Who knows how many stories have not survived time? It further emphasizes how important it is to not assume that what we are aware of is the sum total of the human story. LGBT+ stories are especially vulnerable to loss; their existence and publication is essential.

Despite its brevity, Secret Diaries offers readers with a lot to mull over. The multiple vantage points from which Whitbread and Holme discuss the diaries inspires further questions, making it a great fit for book clubs. I have been sitting with this book for nearly a month and am still chewing on the nuances of coded identities and the interconnectedness of our stories. If you need to take the long view of history, especially now, add this title to your TBR shelf.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Elinor reviews Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities by Jerome Pohlen

gayandlesbianhistoryforkids

There isn’t a lot of nonfiction for young readers out there about LGBTQ people or issues. For this reason alone, Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities stands out. With just over 150 pages, tons of beautiful photographs, and a century of gay history, there’s nothing else like it on the market for children. Public and school libraries should stock it and let interested readers learn about the context and story of gay activism in the United States. There is nothing overtly sexually in this book and nearly all the language is totally school-appropriate, so there is little for adults to object over, except for the folks who are upset about the spotlight on gay history itself. The book also lists resources so interested readers can find out more.

Is it something you should buy for the kids in your own life, though? That depends. I’m a middle school teacher and a former elementary teacher, and I received a copy of this book for my class library in exchange for an honest review. I currently work at a school in the Bay Area with an active gay-straight alliance and a handful of out teachers, including me. While I was very excited for this book and think it would be great for some kids, it has limitations.

The biggest of these is that the intended audience is more unclear than it seems on the surface. The reading level is advanced, at least upper elementary if not middle school, but the tone is clearly for children, not young teens. Teens and tweens who see themselves as mature or who already have some awareness of LGBTQ history and politics may find it patronizing. Many sections struck me (and some of my volunteer eighth grade readers) as talking down to the reader. This wouldn’t be as noticeable to, say, a third grader but the vocabulary and writing style is beyond that of most third graders. A child would likely find it frustrating to read unless they are a very fluent reader with a great vocabulary or they are reading it with an adult. The activities are all for students in elementary school, some of them best for students in early elementary grades. These activities don’t add much to the book either. Gay and Lesbian History for Kids would have had a wider audience with an easier reading level, without activities, with “young people” instead of “kids” in the title, and/or with a little more faith in its readers.

It’s noteworthy to me that the title and subtitle don’t really line up in this book, which is reflected in the book itself. Bisexuals don’t get mentioned very much. Trans people and trans rights get more attention, but huge chunks of trans history in the 20th century are absent. Even the lesbian history sections are condensed to the point that I felt important parts of the story were missing. Part of this is just that summing up a century in the space allotted means things will be left out. Yet as a history buff, and history teacher, I know that what we cut for space is often as telling as the history itself.

Similarly, the book briefly explores homosexuality and gender variance in ancient history in ways that didn’t read as balanced to me. Africa’s left out of the early history section entirely and Asia’s section mentions only a gay emperor in China and a gender flexible Hindu god/dess. In reality, pre-colonial queer and trans history around the globe is really interesting! Many homophobic laws and cultural influences in Asia, Africa and the Americas are leftovers from European imperialism and colonialism. It’s fascinating to look at how that lingers. In some places globally there’s never been a large scale gay rights movement because queerness is more culturally normalized, even if that normalization occurs in flawed ways. I wish, if pre-modern LGBTQ history were going to be mentioned in a global context, it had been explored more deeply. The rest of the book is about LGBT history mainly in North America and somewhat in Western Europe. The bits about Two-Spirit Native peoples are all in the past but not the present, and queer and trans people are discussed in ancient cultures when the modern descendants of those places are never mentioned in modern history sections of the book. The attempt a global multiculturalism feels more like spice than substance.

Along those same lines I wish this book took a more intersectional approach. A featured picture in the book shows the first Annual Reminder in 1965, with Frank Kameny holding a sign reading “Homosexual American Citizens–Our Last Oppressed National Minority.” A similar idea later popped up unchallenged in a Larry Kramer quote from the 1980s. But obviously when we look back at the 60’s or the 80’s or even when we look at the U.S. today, we can see racism, sexism, ableism and other forms of oppression had and have devastating effects on people, that homophobia isn’t necessarily “the worst,” and that trying to pick a “worst” oppression isn’t really the point. The fact that gay white men thought that gay people were the last or most oppressed minority strikes me as pretty clueless. The idea that it’s possible to experience oppression and privilege in a variety of intersecting ways isn’t presented at all. It is a complex idea, but a valuable framework for people who may be reading about activist history for the first time.

Despite all the criticism, I am really glad to have this for my classroom. I absolutely think it should be in libraries for young people. I don’t think it should be the only book on LGBTQ history available, and I hope future authors fill the gaps. If you’re thinking of buying this book for an individual child or teen you know, consider their reading level, age, and how much support they’ll get reading it. If you’re there to bridge the gap between the tone and the reading demands, and ready to provide information about what’s left out, go for it. If not, you might want to read it yourself before you decide if it’s really right for the young person you have in mind.

Audrey reviews Gay & Lesbian History for Kids by Jerome Pohlen

gayandlesbianhistoryforkids
The full title is, Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, With 21 Activities. We’ll get to the activities part. First, as this is a history and reference book for children, I want to break down my impressions.

Layout: Are kids going to want to read this? Is it attractive? It’s a manageably sized paperback in landscape format with a 4-color cover; good start. The interior isn’t 4-color, but it’s 2-color (magenta and black). There’s plenty of visual interest, and the text is broken up appropriately and attractively. Useful and relevant sidebars also add appeal.

Organization: Chronological. The first three chapters cover up until 1960 (chapter one is “a brief history to 1900”), and each decade thereafter gets its own chapter. The content is paced well. There are other important features to consider in children’s nonfiction, though. The table of contents is easy to read, and a two-page timeline follows, summarizing much of the content covered in the book. There’s a short, but well-chosen, resources section, and lots of notes, and wonder of wonders, a useful index, which I used at least twice. There’s also a short introduction featuring a scenario that’s wrapped up in the afterword. It pulls kids in, and later gives them a happy ending.

Content: The table of contents doesn’t give chapter subheadings to clue readers in to what’s going on within chapters; it lists only one title and what decades are covered and then gives page numbers for corresponding activities. So the timeline on the next page is very useful in getting an idea of what the book covers. The first event marked is the death of Sappho, and only a few dates later, we’re solidly in the 1900, ending a page and a half later in 2015 with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Pohlen explains that of necessity, well-documented LGBT history coverage started only within the 1900s, and although there’s much historical speculation, that’s all it is–speculation. The book is useful in providing some avenues and figures that may pique interest (Emily Dickinson, Katharine Lee Bates, Leonardo da Vinci), but doesn’t go into much detail. A small section about two-spirit people in the first chapter is particularly interesting.

The first chapter contains more of a world perspective, but once Pohlen gets down to it, it’s clear this is really the story of a century-long battle on the American front. And the story covers all the major bases one would expect and hope to find, and in clear and engaging prose. The content and writing are supposedly appropriate for ages 9 up, but I’m not sure many 9-year-olds would stick with it. Middle graders seem like a better audience, even given Pohlen’s penchant for inserting an exclamation point every now and then. Middle graders would also appreciate the non-busy layout for research purposes. If it’s weapons or flags or Legos, the busier the better (Dorling Kindersley!), but for research, straightforward and easy-to-follow books are greeted with relief. The activities are the only point of contention. More later. The book does contain content on Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts, but doesn’t go beyond four consonants, and most of the book is Gs and Ls.

Authoritativeness: Pohlen has already had a title on the VOYA Nonfiction Honor List, and the afterword makes clear this one is close to his heart. He’s the right guy to have written a book that’s factually correct and primarily neutral in tone–it’s curriculum-adoptable in terms of the basic text.

Entertainment factor: I struggle with this one. Kids don’t generally sit down with nonfiction for the fun of it. (I don’t, either, with some exceptions.) But this was really engaging material, and the age group that would probably be using this book tends to get fired up about injustice–they might take to it more strongly than predicted.

Activities: This is where the book did not work for me. I understand the concept of making history participatory, and “enlivening” it. But the material is already in capable hands. The tie-ins for some of the activities make sense (“Remember a loved one with a quilt panel”). Some are kind of cool (“The high five”). Kids can learn about designing a flag, or boycotting something, or reading banned books. But conducting an inkblot test or finding a constellation seem like they may be reaching. Many of the activities didn’t seem integrated. However, many were designed to help kids learn about methods of protest or of effecting positive social change, which seems to fit. Some are better than others. The boycott activity was phrased particularly effectively and seemed like it would go a long way toward starting excellent conversations.

Quibbles:
Photos on title page, table of contents pages, and timeline lack captions and credits./Photos all appear later in the book with captions and credits.
“Other rallies were held in cities like Cincinnati, Ohio, and Dallas.” Only two of these things jumped out at me in the whole book (the other was an affect/effect thing), but that’s still two too many for something I would use in a classroom.

Final thoughts: Well, isn’t this something! Great timing for a book of this nature, and something my library certainly has…none of. What about yours? I like this book and wish something like it had been around while I was growing up. This version, though it notes next steps that need to be taken and more progress to be made, ends on such a high note. Get it for the kids in your family and recommend it to your local library, as there is a paucity of books on this subject for this audience, and this is actually a very nice title.

Danika reviews Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown

immodestacts

 

Between being an English major (recently graduated!) and a book blogger, it has been years now since I’ve been able to just pick a book to read because I was in the mood for it. I always had a stack of school books and review books I had to get through first. Finally, I have finished school and caught up on my review copies! Which means that I have been able to select completely random things to read next. Anna M calls it “Reading Roulette”! This one has selected by numbering my unread shelves and having my roommate randomly choose a number, and then doing the same with some of the books on that shelf. I ended up with Immodest Acts, which is probably a book I wouldn’t have chosen to be top of my reading pile, but I was delighted to get a chance to read, after it’s been languishing on my shelves for years!

Immodest Acts is nowhere near as salacious as the title would have you believe. Brown is clearly a historian, and this book is packed with footnotes (well, endnotes) and historical context. This means that it’s not exactly a fast read, but that’s not because the writing style is difficult to read; it’s just dense with facts. (Especially if you’re the kind of reader I am, where you have to check every footnote.) It follows Sister Benedetta Carlini from childhood to death, who was at times considered a mystic and Jesus’ wife, and other times a fraud and worse besides.

The “lesbian” aspect doesn’t come into the story until the last twenty pages or so, though it’s what the introduction is all about. I put lesbian in quotation marks because not only is it anachronistic, of course, but it’s particularly unsuitable for Carlini. She has (sexual? romantic?) relationships with men as well, and [spoiler?] claims to be a male angel when she is with a woman, and the other woman may not have given consent [end spoiler] Her religious fervor for Jesus is semi-sexual/romantic  (and often masochistic). At the same time, it is rare to have such explicit documentation of female/female sexuality in the seventeenth century, so I can see how it is relevant to lesbian history.

More than lesbian nun escapades, Immodest Acts provides an interesting look into being a woman in the seventeenth century, especially as a nun. And even besides the sexual accusations, the history of Carlini is compelling, from her claims to visions to her denunciations. This book discusses her life both religiously, leaving room for her having genuinely experiences miraculous things, as well as from a psychological perspective, suggesting that she may have disassociated from her male angel identity in order to deal with her sexuality–though the psychological aspect comes up more in the final couple dozen pages. If you’re just reading for the lesbian aspect, then most of this book will drag for you. To be fair, though, the lesbian aspect is more explicitly described in the documentation than I was expecting! I thought it would be all euphemism and sly winks. If the life of a failed seventeenth century mystic seems interesting to you, though, then I recommend that you pick this one up.

Danika reviews Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue

I don’t think I can properly express how much I adored this book. As I was reading it, I wrote down the page numbers where there were quotes I wanted to post on my LesLit tumblr, as well as books I wanted to add to my TBR list, and thoughts/comments I had. Typically when I do this, I end up with half a page of notes. This time, I ended up with 5 full pages.

When I posted a quote on tumblr, I suggested the subtitle of Inseparable should be Or: How All the Authors You’ve Ever Heard of Wrote Lesbian Love Stories and No One Told You and I stick by that. Ovid? Shakespeare? Apparently every author who was anyone wrote lesbian love stories and I was somehow not aware of it. We are taught that lesbian literary history begins with Radclyffe Hall, with Sappho a distant anomaly. That’s not true at all. Desire between women has always existed, and it’s been written about throughout time. It’s just that somehow our history has been hidden from us.

Emma Donoghue excavates this masterfully. The breadth of works covered is astonishing, and it clearly took a huge amount of work. There are even passages in the novel that Donoghue translated from the French herself! And it is meticulously arranged. The book is divided into sections: Travesties (cross-dressing), Inseparables, Rivals, Monsters, Detection, and Out. Some are brief, and some have subsections of their own (the cross-dressing section is the most detailed), but it flows together very organically.

Inseparable is a fantastic academic resource for les/bi/etc literature, but it’s not written in an academic voice. It’s extremely easy to read. If you’re looking for a casual read, there are no footnotes to distract you, but if you want to go more in depth, the notes at the end are packed full of information (they note the page they are referring to), as well as gems like this note, referencing the introduction to the book: “In the ongoing controversy known as essentialism vs social constructionism, both extremes seem to me to verge on silliness (“Joan of Arc was a dyke” vs “lesbianism was invented in the late nineteenth century).”

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you like les/bi/etc literature (and why else would you be here?), check Inseparable out! You’ll be amazed at the explicit f/f romances in literature going back more than a thousand years! And it will give you plenty of ideas for more lesbian books to find. This is definitely now my favourite nonfiction book, and one of my general top five!

Lesbrary Sneak Peek: Nonfiction

Lesbian nonfiction! Now, I’m going to be honest, the first book on that stack I only picked up because I got it for free. I am not a parent. It will be interesting, though, to hear about it from the other side. I’ve heard so many horrible stories about parents’ reactions to coming out (I luckily have a life that may be one of the most ideal to come out in) and I just can’t wrap my head around it. It was published in 1997, which you may say makes it outdated, but I say it makes it an interesting view into the attitudes of the past. These are based on interviews with PFLAG parents, so they should have a positive tone overall.

This article on glbtq literature (which I highly recommend, by they way) has a quick overview of the importance of coming out stories in the queer community. In fact, one of the first things queer people do once they get together is to tell our coming out stories. This collection is from 1980, and looks like it was one of the first of its kind. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Lesbian (Out)law was published in 1992 and tackles the relationship of lesbian to the law. According to the author’s website, “Robson argues that the law’s traditional categories and themes sacrifice and damage lesbians. She reveals the centuries of legal punishment of lesbians, hidden behind the myth of lesbian impunity.” I know that the law has changed in eighteen years, but with same sex marriage and DADT continuing to be big issues, I imagine a lot of this will still be relevant or at the very least interesting.

Now this one I was definitely happy to find. A lesbian nun! A lesbian nun in renaissance Italy! If that is not automatically a draw for you, we have very different tastes in books. I honestly can’t think of anything to say to improve on that. This is a true story and also looks like it will be a pretty easy read, too.

Hidden From History looks absolutely fascinating. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m a fan of nonfiction and fiction alike, and this looks like it will be particularly good. It, as far as I can tell, attempts to sift through the past and bring up gay and lesbian narratives that have been forgotten or, as the title states, hidden. It also covers some non-Western history, which is refreshing. It’s a collection of essays, so there should be some variation. I’m very glad I could snap this up.

I’m not a historian… at all. I’m terrible with names, dates, and places. And yet, these queer history books are some of the finds I’m most interested in. Making History is more of a modern history than Hidden From History, focusing on the gay rights movement. I think it’s incredibly important, especially for someone like me, who’s had it pretty easy, to recognize and attempt to understand the struggles that lead us up to this point. This looks like it will be a good overview for me. Maybe I’ll pass it on to my girlfriend after so she no longer horrifies other lesbians by not knowing what Stonewall is.

Have you read Beyond Acceptance, The Coming Out Stories, Lesbian (Out)law, Immodest Acts, Hidden From History, or Making History (or its updated version, Making Gay History)?What did you think of them? Do you recommend any other lesbian nonfiction?

Bi & Lesbian Book Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with queer women books, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first lesbian book you read! If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgender, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Young Adult

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumored to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.

Memoirs/Biographies

1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully).

Thanks for reading!