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

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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

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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

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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

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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.