Laura reviews Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid


Have you been on the internet at all in the past two weeks? Yes? I’m guessing the cover of this book probably looks familiar to you. If not, try it in red:

That’s right: we’re talking about gay marriage! Marriage equality! A hot topic for around the world right now. While we won’t hear the US Supreme Court’s verdict until June, that certainly isn’t going to stop the internet from deliberating.

Speaking of which, have you seen this one?

Or maybe this one?


They’re symbols being posted, generally, by queer people who don’t support gay marriage or the HRC. When I first saw these symbols making the rounds, I admit – I was baffled. So I did what I always do. I bought some books.

Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid begins with a history lesson on gay political activism in the United States. Vaid writes,

“Throughout the history of our resistance to prejudice, gay people have clashed over a fundamental question about the overall goal of our movement. Are we a movement aimed at mainstreaming gay and lesbian people (legitimation), or do we seek radical social change out of the process of our integration (liberation)? Gay and lesbian history could be read as the saga of conflict between these two compatible but divergent. Legitimation and liberation are interconnected and often congruent; the former makes it possible to imagine the latter. But our pursuit of them takes different roads and leads to very different outcomes.”

Today, proponents of legitimation argue to the straight world that gay people are just like straight people, with the one small difference of who we are attracted to. They lead the fight for gay marriage, arguing to straight people that we are merely a minority, and that prejudice against us is irrational and unconstitutional.

Proponents of liberation, on the other hand, often believe that marriage is part of an oppressive sexual and political order. They argue that vast set of protections available to married people should also be available to single mothers, unmarried couples, single people, etc. Many feel that gay marriage should not be the top priority for the LGBT movement and would prefer to push for broader social change, in which “racism, homophobia, sexism, economic injustice, and other systems of domination are frankly addressed and replaced with new models.”

Of the two camps, Vaid is more of a liberationist, but certainly not an unquestioning one. Throughout the book, she deliberately lays out the limitations of both approaches. (Legitimation: elitist, preoccupied with single-issue politics, tends to leave many groups behind, does not make society more just. Liberation: idealistic and impractical, slow moving, not easy to relate to, tends to be disorganized.) She sternly calls out those making personal attacks, and the movement’s tendency to tear down our political leaders. At the book’s conclusion, Vaid calls for a new understanding among gay people, and for more debate among all political sides in the LGBT movement.

Although Virtual Equality was published in 1995, Vaid’s analysis is relevant, and indeed, anticipated many of the issues that the movement now faces two decades later. Her clear-eyed analysis of the supremacist right as a totalitarian regime is one I believe has only increased in relevance over time. So, too, her exploration of the economy of queerness, with the queer as consumer, and its corollary, the selling of gayness.

One other prescient point that I thought Vaid articulated particularly well is why the “born this way” argument is misleading and ultimately not politically advantageous for LGBT people. She writes,

“Homosexuality always involves choice – indeed, it involves a series of four major choices: admitting, acting, telling, and living. Even if scientists prove that sexual orientation is biologically or genetically determined, every person who feels homosexual desire encounters these four choices.”

Further,

“Because we choose to engage in gay behavior, says the right, we are not entitled to legal protection. Gay activists most frequently respond to this argument with an assertion that homosexuality is innate. … But in doing so, we radically limit the original reach of our political movement. Where we once sought to free the homosexual potential in everyone, by making it safer to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, we now assert the conservative view that all we want is the freedom to be our biologically determined selves. History shows that the shelter of biology has never protected a people from persecution. The right does not care that we were born gay; they object to us because we are not straight.”

I like to imagine how differently her anthem might have turned out if Lady Gaga had read this book before penning her pop hit. Or how much further we might be if this book was required reading for every LGBT person about to enter a leadership role. Or what would happen if every Facebook activist changing their profile picture were to read this book. (Do our allies really understand the full historical weight of the symbols they’re using? Do we? I know I didn’t.)

I have a lot of respect for the work Vaid did as the director of NGLTF, and her decades of queer activism. If you’re even remotely interested in LGBT history, involved in social activism of any kind, or just want to put political discussion about LGBT issues into context – I can think of no better source than Urvashi Vaid and Virtual Equality. I highly recommend this book to you.

Bonus: for further reading, Vaid just put out a new book called Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics. I’m excited to pick it up.

Laura reviews “Wine For A Shotgun” by Marty McConnell

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Wine For A Shotgun by Marty McConnell is the most beautiful collection of poetry I’ve ever read. Now, a caveat: I say this as a reader of fiction who is generally interested in — but hasn’t read read an awful lot of — poetry. Like Danika, I often don’t feel feel qualified to write about it. However, I’m not going to let that stop me, especially if I find something awesome. Like this.

Wine For A Shotgun deftly pulls apart the knotted mess of gender, sexuality, love, and fidelity. The collection unravels along two threads: one largely autobiographical series following McConnell’s childhood, her relationships with various family members, and experiences as a secret keeper; and another series that pushes outside of her life, inspired by the traditional Tarot deck.

In the universe of Wine For A Shotgun, human emotion changes the very fabric of reality. For example, in “When Your Ex-girlfriend’s Sister Corners You in the Kitchen,” the room comes alive in a tense situation: “you can hear / the filaments in the ceiling fixture / sizzle, the glue under the linoleum starting / to bubble. all the liquor in the house is in / the other room and your mouth is a desert / with a side of sand, you are stranded / on the moon with a woman who thinks / you can make the atmosphere breathable / just by believing it.” Of course, we all know that you can’t make the atmosphere of the moon breathable through belief alone. It’s an absurd, false choice. Yet queer people are asked to pull off similarly impossible decisionmaking feats all the time. In the above poem, the subject has been cornered and taken to task on her “queer status.” As a bisexual woman, I really appreciate the way McConnell frames the issue.

McConnell’s background is in slam poetry, and the influence is apparent in many of her poems. The cadence of “The Magician Is A Drag King,” for example, just begs to be heard aloud: “you’re a sucker / for the sideshow and I’m your spirit / gum queen, your strapped-down / goddess, your husband with a little extra / in between, I’m Venus with a goatee / I markered on myself, no Hottentot / can shame me, you can’t mock / this, I made this, my playlist / is gay bliss, go on DJ, / break it down – everybody / wants somebody. every body wants / some body. everybody wants. some. / body.”

As in the above, McConnell has a knack for picking underexplored topics — particularly queer ones — and taking a graceful, headfirst dive in to plumb the depths. In “The Chariot in Love,” she writes about the experience of being in love with a person undergoing gender transition. In “Queen of Rods on Top” she gives a big, sassy wink and a nod to genderqueer sex. In “The Fool and Her Hunger” she writes about going to a lesbian dance club in Brooklyn. Though some topics are arguably more serious than others, McConnell gives careful consideration to each, and finds significance where others might easily overlook it. It is this quality which multiplies the importance of her work. Plus, like I said: her writing is really beautiful.

Wine For a Shotgun is currently a lambda award finalist under the category of lesbian poetry. Marty McConnell is performing April 2 at the Urbana Poetry Slam in New York City.

 

Laura reviews Sister Spit edited by Michelle Tea

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In the introduction to Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road, editor Michelle Tea proudly writes that Sister Spit is what she did instead of college. Reading this collection is like digging through a pile of her study group’s crumpled looseleaf notes at the end of the semester. It’s enough to get the gist of the lesbian-feminist-trans-vegan-poet-artist-addict-activist-adventurer curriculum, but by no means will you gain any mastery of it. You’ll just wish you’d enrolled in the classes, then lie awake at night questioning every major life decision you’ve ever made. In a good way. Really.

Sister Spit was formed in 1994, when Tea and Sini Anderson created a girls-only open mic night to get away from the Bukowski-worshipping bros dominating the San Francisco literary scene. Their show ran every Sunday for two straight years before they picked it up and hit the road. Together, Tea and Anderson led a roving band of queer poets and storytellers across the country in couple ramshackle rental vans, stopping in a new city every night to give live performances.

“Most Sister Spit shows are about class,” writes Tea. “About class and being female, or about class and not being female, about being trans, a faggot. There is feminism in everything, a punkness too.” The same gut feeling is also true for the works contained in Sister Spit (the book), and it is a pleasure to read.

Covering 15 years of Sister Spit’s best work, this anthology shows incredible range. The collection starts off strong from the very first piece: “Star,” a violent, bitchy, improper, fabulous poem by Samuel Topiary. A little further in, I loved “Training for Goddesses,” in which the hilarious Kat Marie Yoas describes her experiences at a dominatrix training camp. And “Real Paper Letter” by Tamara Llosa-Sandor was funny and wonderful in a gentler, contemplative sort of way.

My favorite piece of writing in Sister Spit is “High Five for Ram Dass” by Harry Dodge. Consider:

Chuck Mangione, Late Zeppelin and a Streisand are stuffed under the bleachers in a throbbing gyroscopic heap. Late Zeppelin’s head is banging into the aluminum bench at a pace that makes me feel like doing “The Bus Stop.” I watch them for a long minute and the crickets rev up their nighttime calypso. Buttes the color of ash and pumpkin ascend until mercifully, they eclipse the sun. A totally relaxing primal event. I feel looser. The air is soft, exactly the temperature of my skin and fragrant to boot. Orange blossoms. Tuna. Whimpers, screams, yells replace the metallic fuck-gonging and before long the trio emerges into the soft dark night smiling. Stumbling on loose hips.

Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s from a story about formerly feral children resynthesizing into contemporary culture.

Perhaps my least favorite segments in Sister Spit were the ones “from the road.” I found the constant name dropping to be distracting and annoying. Still, I loved reading the tales. I love knowing that these people — interesting, creative, inventive and resourceful as they are — existed and exist. I love that they’ve documented their stories and that I can access them whenever I want. And, okay, “Where Is My Soul?” with Cristy C. Road’s reflections from the road, equal parts inspirational and relatable, are pretty wonderful. “How do you do this?” she asks. “How do you grow so gracefully, achieving levels of confidence and success while maintaining your grit and spirit? Your anger and identity? How do I become Eileen Myles?” Oof. This. Or alternatively, how do I become Michelle Tea?

Sister Spit’s Spring 2013 literary tour begins in just a few short weeks! For a full list of tour stops, check out the City Lights website.

Laura reviews Adaptation by Malinda Lo

Publisher’s Blurb:

Reese can’t remember anything from the time between the accident and the day she woke up almost a month later. She only knows one thing: She’s different now.

Across North America, flocks of birds hurl themselves into airplanes, causing at least a dozen to crash. Thousands of people die. Fearing terrorism, the United States government grounds all flights, and millions of travelers are stranded.

Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens. Everyone knows the world will never be the same. On their drive home to San Francisco, along a stretch of empty highway at night in the middle of Nevada, a bird flies into their headlights. The car flips over. When they wake up in a military hospital, the doctor won’t tell them what happened, where they are—or how they’ve been miraculously healed.

Things become even stranger when Reese returns home. San Francisco feels like a different place with police enforcing curfew, hazmat teams collecting dead birds, and a strange presence that seems to be following her. When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction—and threatens to expose a vast global conspiracy that the government has worked for decades to keep secret.


I have mixed feelings about Malinda Lo’s Adaptation.

On the one hand, I think the “young adult” aspects are stellar, particularly where Lo delves into sexuality. She really captures the feeling of adolescent excitement and uncertainty — and boy, can she write a kissing scene. When the bisexual protagonist is walked in on by her mother, the ensuing “coming out” discussion feels totally natural. I really appreciated how smoothly it was integrated with the rest of the plot. (Because that’s more or less how it happens in real life, right? The world doesn’t grind to a halt as you figure out your sexuality. Life — work, school, alien invasions, whatever — continues to happen.)

I also loved the realistic reactions the characters had to the (sometimes very fantastic) events unfolding around them. For example, when a national emergency strikes, Reese and David aren’t dashing about making heroic speeches — they’re worrying about the charges on their cellphones running out. Lo’s attention to detail brings this novel a long way.

Unfortunately, this dedicated effort isn’t quite enough to redeem the plot’s pitfalls. When the author treads in familiar YA territory (the sexual awakening, the love triangle, the gay best friend, the single mother, etc.), I barely notice. It’s still compelling. However, when similarly well worn sci-fi tropes (government conspiracy, Area 51, sudden unusual abilities, etc.) are trotted out on top of this, I can’t help but cringe a little.

Lo’s application of sci-fi elements feels like the heavy handed work of a student attempting to imitate the work of a genre master. It’s almost Frankenstein-y — bits and pieces of other things that are good, stitched together into something much less attractive. I don’t want to give too much away, but basically, whenever you get a hunch about anything in this story, you’re right. There’s very little subtlety to the book’s storytelling — you’re just repeatedly hit over the head with “hints” about what’s coming next. By the time your suspicions are confirmed, you aren’t even pleased to find that you were right all along. You just have a headache.

Still, I hold out hope that this book’s weaknesses will be worked out in the sequel, which will be published in September. The story ends on an intriguing cliffhanger, and depending on how the next book plays out, it could very well redeem what currently reads as weak story development. Adaptation is Lo’s first foray into science fiction, and while there are many flaws, I trust the author. I loved Ash, and I want to believe that Lo knows what she’s doing. Maybe subtlety will come in time. Maybe not. Either way, I know I’ll be reading the next book to find out.

Adaptation was also reviewed for the Lesbrary by Erica.

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.

Laura reviews “Thicker Than Blood” by Avery Vanderlyle

Publisher’s Blurb:

When the Nanotech Plague began killing off the large population of America using the tiny, implanted robots, the so-called “normals” took it upon themselves to wipe out the rest to prevent the spread. Now, fourteen years later, performer Ayana is in a dangerous position. Her nanotechnology implants are impossible to hide, having been tattooed onto her skin. Worse, the nanobots in her brother James are malfunctioning and slowly killing him. The pair of them, along with Ayana’s lover Yan, are slowly making their way across the fractured country, hoping to find a sanctuary and a cure.

David was only five when his parents died in the Plague. It wasn’t until he was grown that he realized that he’d been born with his own ‘bots, passed down from mother to child. Now, his second generation nanobots may be James’ salvation, if only Ayana and Yan can convince him that the nanobots aren’t a curse or a disease, but the key to rebuilding their ruined society.


Some thoughts:

  1. For an 11,000 word short story, there’s an awful lot of exposition. I mean, there’s definitely a need for explanation when the setting is… what it is. But this format really struggled to accommodate it all. A little breathing room would have been nice.
  2. That said, I wasn’t exactly choking it down. I found the premise really interesting. If Vanderlyle wrote another piece set in this world, I’d probably pick it up.
  3. It totally took me by surprise when the characters started boning. Storm Moon Press is apparently an erotic fiction publisher — and I’ve read another story of theirs, so I probably should have known that coming in. But, uh, yeah. This is erotica.
  4. Regarding the sex scenes: there was a lot of shimmying. I wasn’t crazy about it, but… I guess it could have been worse? There’s no lesbian sex, although there are two women in a relationship together. There are explicit M/F and M/M scenes.
  5. What actually happens in this story is ridiculous. You think it’s going to be mediocre erotica, and then at the end… Well, it’s one of those things where it’s so bad, it comes back around again and is brilliant. And hilarious. On this basis (and this basis alone), I recommend it.


“Thicker Than Blood” by Avery Vanderlyle is available for $1.99 in eBook format.

Laura Reviews All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen

Much as I despise cold weather, there’s something really wonderful about the rituals of early autumn. You pack up your shorts and sundresses. You begin wearing scarves and boots. You convince yourself that flannel is fashionable outside the lesbian bar. You slurp Oktoberfest ales every evening, and pumpkin spiced lattes every morning. You reach for increasingly heavier blankets at night. You stack books high beside your bed, snuggle in, and read, and read, and read. This fall, make sure All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen ends up in your stack.

All We Know is a triple biography exploring ideas of ephemerality and what it meant to be a woman in the anxious modernist moment of the 1920s and ‘30s. It tells the stories of three lesbians:

  • Ester Murphy – A verbose intellectual who played an integral part in the literary scene of New York.
  • Mercedes de Acosta – A muse, collector, seductress, and devoted fan who connected with some of the most celebrated actress and dancers of the twentieth century.
  • Madge Garland – A powerful woman who was a key figure in building the fashion world in London and Paris as we know it today.

Despite their impressive influence and notoriety at the time, Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland are now largely forgotten. A brilliant biographer, Cohen deftly captures them in all their complexity, and writes a compelling analysis of how the era these women came of age in impacted the course of their lives.

Writes Cohen, “It was at this fraught moment that an American woman could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.” An important time for all women, this era holds special significance for lesbians and bisexuals. Particularly with the publishing of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (discussed on the Lesbrary here, here, and here), lesbians were a newly visible group in society. Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland all struggled with questions of exposure and discretion at various points in their lives — and this on top of being part of the first generation of independent women who had left home without marrying, setting out in a still largely misogynistic world to pursue other interests. Simply living through these times was an accomplishment, never mind all the actual successes they had.

So why have these women been forgotten, and why did the author choose to bring them to light now? In part, the answer lies in how society views the fields that these women excelled in. Over and over, Cohen questions the boundary between the inconsequential and the important. Why are fashion and interior decoration characterized as trivial, while painting is elevated as fine art? Why is talking seen as commensurate with failure, while writing and publication is seen as a mark of success? Why, when fans and stars both need and desire each other, is one dismissed while the other is lauded with accolades? From a certain perspective, the accomplishments of Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland can be seen as case studies in “beautiful uselessness.” Lisa Cohen asks readers to consider: why?

Early in the book, Cohen describes Murphy’s belief that history links the elusive past to the equally elusive present, and that some biographies can be written and read only at certain times, “not because of censorship or some progress toward openness, but because of what is was possible to understand when.” This fall — against the gorgeous backdrop of the changing leaves and continued (completely awful and depressing) political debate over women’s bodies and behavior — is the perfect setting to take in the lives of these women, and to try and understand.

All We Know is available in hardcover and for the Kindle. An excerpt is available on the publisher’s website. Lisa Cohen is giving a reading on the 16th at KGB bar in New York.

Laura reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

So, I know that Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is, like, the lesbian book. But I’ve got to be honest with you: I really wasn’t all that into it. Terrible, I know! But hear me out.
 
Background:  Tipping the Velvet is set in Victorian England in the 1890s. It’s a coming of age “lesbian romp” involving singing drag kings, prostitutes, sugar mommas, and suffragists. Just about every type of lesbian activity you can imagine is portrayed in this book. (And I don’t mean that in an erotic sense, although there’s quite a bit of that, too.)
 
This book’s 1998 publication and subsequent literary reception and commercial success paved the way for many other lesbian books. And I am so, so happy about that. But the actual content of this book didn’t do much for me. Here’s why:
    1. The main character, Nan, was completely awful. The way she treats other people is totally wretched. Her irrational behavior is so unrelatable. I really just wanted to smack her. Repeatedly. Ugh.
    2. The plot just sort of… rambled. And on the one hand, that’s sort of how life is, right? Directionless? Unexpectedly veering off into weirdness? A little smutty? I would say yes. But on the other hand, books are not real life. And I prefer books with a little more structure.
    3. Oysters. Before she left home to fulfill her lesbian destiny, Nan’s favorite activity was sucking on juicy oysters. Which, I mean, really? Really?
I’m not saying this was the worst book ever.Tipping the Velvet was okay (and in fact, much better than many other works of lesbian literature I’ve read). I just felt let down after hearing so many great things about it! And after having read Fingersmith, I had really high expectations! All dashed!
 
Anyway, I think you should still read this. Or at least watch the BBC miniseries adaptation. But don’t expect it to be life changing or whatever. This is more like homework, so that you can converse intelligently with other people on the subject of queer media. Because if most people have only encountered one lesbian book in their lives, it’s probably this one. (Sigh. Can we change this? Can we all get together and take a vote? Where are my lesbian literati at? Call me, ladies.)
 
Tipping the Velvet has also been reviewed for the Lesbrary by Ami and Danika.

Laura Mandanas Reviews A Fucking Brief History of Fucking by Janet Mason

Dedicated to the author’s “wide ranging tribe of friends, accomplices, and cuntpatriots,” A Fucking Brief History of Fucking is a chapbook of poetry by Philadelphia-based writer Janet Mason. And it is so, so lesbian. In one poem, a former dancer gives another woman a musculo-skeletal overview of how pasties are twirled; in another, two women autograph tampons and throw them around the bar. So fucking great.

Though there are some lovely sad and serious poems in this collection, I find that Mason is at her best when she’s at her silliest. My favorite was “The Cunt Sonnet.” Opening lines: “The cathedral of my cunt is a real cunt-nundrum: what and who it wants often I do not.” Love love love the ridiculous cunt puns. So will you. You should own this.A Fucking Brief History of Fucking is available for $5 at Giovanni’s Bookstore in Philadelphia. Some of Mason’s other chapbooks (When I Was Straight and a woman alone) are also available on her website, www.amusejanetmason.com.

Laura Mandanas reviews Drift by Rachel Maddow

As the first out lesbian primetime anchor, Rachel Maddow has always been a pleasure to watch. She’s also a pleasure to read. Engaging and full of personality, the voice and tone of her recent release, Drift, will sound very familiar to fans of The Rachel Maddow Show. (Literally. As in, I could hear the author’s voice in my head as I read each and every sentence. Which was great, because I’m madly in love with Rachel Maddow’s sexy brain and adorable haircut. Ahem. An unbiased review this is not.)

The central argument of Maddow’s book is that over the past 40 years, US military life has drifted away from US civilian life, causing a profound shift in the country’s approach to war-making. Increasingly secretive and privatized, war is now essentially waged at the whim of the president. Drift traces back the chain of events that brought us here.

While readers who aren’t familiar with American politics or history might have to look up a few things here or there, the book lays things out in an exceedingly clear manner. Anyone with at least a passing interest in American warfare should be able to follow along. It’s worth a read no matter which direction one leans politically.

Terrifically well researched, this book makes a strong case for a) how weird things have gotten, and b) how important it is to fix it. In the last chapter, Maddow gives a bullet point list of ways to begin. It’s excellent stuff.

Bottom line: Drift is a smart book by a smart (and somewhat smart-alecky) lady. There aren’t any lesbian characters between the covers, but you should read it anyway.

For a sample, check out msnbc.com. For upcoming book tour dates and locations, check out The Maddow Blog.