Danika reviews The ABC’s of LGBT+ by Ash Hardell

Note: This was published under the name “Ashley Mardell,” but the author has since changed her name to “Ash Hardell,” so that’s what I’m using here.

What a useful, thoughtfully considered book. The ABC’s of LGBT+ is an introduction to a long list of LGBTQIA+ identifiers and terminology. This covers a huge range of labels. I am someone who’s been in queer communities online (and offline) for about 10 years, and I feel like I’m pretty well-read in LGBTQIA+ topics, especially current use, but I encountered quite a few words I didn’t recognize, which was exciting!

My favourite thing about this book, though, is that it is almost entirely people representing their own identities. Hardell has gathered a huge amount of contributors, all writing about their own labels. On top of that, Hardell has gathered a lot of great, knowledgeable people representing different letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym to edit and proofread the book. This makes for definitions that are obviously very well thought out, and tailored to be inclusive and allow for the many nuances that this conversation introduces. Hardell even includes a few discussions between different readers about the intricacies of some of the more thorny topics brought up–how these words might be used, or how they might be offensive.

If this sounds academic and dense, I’m completely misrepresenting it! Although I learned new words here, it’s also written to be very accessible to people who are new to learning queer terminology. It’s a lot of personal essays, and even the definitions attempt to be easy-to-read. There are also tons of colourful illustrations included, as well as photos of contributors.

I think this would be such an awesome book to have in school libraries, GSAs, public libraries—any place where people are questioning their identities! This could be hugely affirming for lots of people, especially since so many identities are accompanied by personal stories by people who share that identity. This way, people can not only find a label that might speak to them, they can also, at the same time, find representation of that label! And these essays are accompanied by links to those people’s videos, blogs, and various online endeavors, so anyone interested can find out more.

I did have some minor complaints. One is some minor typos and page formatting. The other is all the bit.ly links included in the footnotes. I love the idea! Seeing the videos and online lives of the people linked would be amazing! The problem is, even though they’re short links, it’s just not conducive to the experience of reading a book to put it down, pull out your laptop, and carefully type out the link as printed.

What might be a good solution is having a website that you can go to that has all the links, sorted as they appear in the book. So after reading Chapter 1, you can go the website and click through all the links and embedded videos that were mentioned in that chapter!

That’s just me getting excited about a way to make this book even better, though. It’s already an excellent text. I would highly recommend it for any school, library, or any other place where people might be questioning their sexual, romantic, or gender identities. I was impressed!

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Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker, illustrated by Julia Scheele

When I picked up Queer: A Graphic History, I was expecting a pretty short, easy read. Queer history! In a graphic format! I was surprised, then, to realize that this is not just queer history as in LGBTQ history, but queer as in queer theory, which is a whole different ball game.

I took queer theory in university years ago, and I had a complicated relationship with it (appropriately). Most of the time I felt like I was totally over my head, but I actually did okay in the course. I also found a lot of the ideas intellectually stimulating, but I felt like they had little use in the real world. I was especially annoyed at how little queer theory seemed to have to do with queer people. Especially when my teacher scoffed at people identifying as queer, because queer as defined in queer theory is not something you could ever achieve, at least not all of the time.

So this ended up being much better and more interesting than the book I thought I was picking up would have been. It served as a refresher for some of the concepts I’d been introduced to years ago, but it also brought up a lot of ideas I hadn’t heard about. Although sometimes it got a little intimidating, I think overall it did a great job in introducing a very dense, complex, sometimes incomprehensible subject.

I also found that a lot of the discussions at the heart of queer theory resonate with me a lot more than they did years ago. This book talked about the dangers of identity politics, and how many possibilities open up when we discuss queer/LGBTQ issues as things people do, instead of what people fundamentally are. This emphasis on actions, and on not limiting people in categories seemed a whole lot more literal and relevant as someone who recently had to change how I identify after experiencing sexual fluidity.

This is just an introduction to queer theory and queer studies, so a lot of things are just touched on (like asexuality and crip studies), but I think it managed to be pretty thorough for the restrictions. It also addresses some of the criticisms of queer theory, especially its failure to incorporate race and other intersectionality.

I wish this had been around when I was first learning about queer theory and felt completely lost! This is a great introduction. If you’re at all interested in queer theory, especially if other texts have seemed intimidating, this is a great one to pick up! I think other queer theory texts will seem much more comprehensible once you’ve gotten the basics from Queer: A Graphic History.

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Julie Thompson reviews A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout

“I expect our letters to be someday public property, and, though I write with little self-consciousness about being overheard at some future date, talking intermittently to you and to myself, it seems to me what has concerned us is richly human and significantly focused on the concerns of our time and our tribe.” – Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, August 2, 1989 (Intro, xiii)

Some of the most powerful love stories occur between friends. I have always longed for a bosom buddy, someone who would stand by my side fending off the zombie apocalypse and navigating ethical dilemmas. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout edited by Marilyn R. Schuster, presents fourteen years (1981-1995) of correspondence between Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, two such friends. Margaret Atwood, a longtime friend of Jane and her partner, Helen Sonthoff, penned the foreword and is mentioned with affection in the letters.

Jane Rule (1931-2007) was an author and social commentator, a tidy summation of the innumerable roles and contributions she made to the Arts and LGBT+ community. Among her novels, she is perhaps best known for her 1964 romance, The Desert of the Heart (later produced as the 1985 film, Desert Hearts). Rule emigrated with Sonthoff from the United States in the 1950s and made their home in Galiano, British Columbia.

Rick Bébout (1950-2009) wrote prolifically for The Body Politic (TBP) (a Toronto-based publication written for LGBT+ readers, on social issues and culture) and contributed to other publications, as well; tirelessly advocated for the rights and respect of queer folks. He assembled through AIDS education materials for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and the Hassle Free Clinic, among others. A fellow American expatriate, Bébout moved to Canada during the Vietnam War and later gained Canadian citizenship.

Rule’s and Bébout’s relationship began as that of writer and editor, when she submitted articles and pieces for her column, “So’s Your Grandmother”, to TBP. As managing editor, Bébout lived and breathed the magazine; the ebb and flow of his life was dictated by the publication cycle. He juggled multiple hats and personalities at TBP. Over the years, a deep friendship developed. Topics they discussed run the gamut, including racism, same-sex marriage, violence against women, freedom of expression, and the effect of fantasy on behavior.

Rule and Bébout weathered the heartbreaks of losing friends to AIDS, the frustration in fighting for equal dissemination of health information and access to health care, career changes, and more. They offered strength, solace, and safe space. More than once, Rule and Sonthoff bought Bébout round-trip plane tickets to Galiano Island, where he could relax at their home and elsewhere on the West Coast of Canada. Subtle clues about the evolution of their relationship manifests in subtle ways, such as how they sign-off their letters. The transition of Rick’s sign-offs from the semi-formal “sincerely” (1981) to the more companionable “love” (1985), for example, shows a shift of sentiment.

It’s not only the sweeping scope of events and issues, but the more mundane, everyday pleasures of life, that draw me into their story: Helen and Jane reading aloud to each other at night; swimming at a community pool; and Rick meeting and making friends at gay bars in Toronto. Between the two writers, they show the joys and challenges of rural and city lives.

“We die bravely and well, so many of us, giving all the way to the end – and those of us left mourning hold to that and cherish it and grow from it. But dammit, the end is too soon, and children born today will never know things they might have known if the end were not so soon for so many of us. That’s my rage, that’s what my grief is for: what’s lost.” —Rick Bébout, 1988 (Introduction, xxv).

Rule and Bébout were cognizant of the potential posterity of their letters, given their high visibility within the Arts and LGBT+ community. When Schuster approached them with her idea of publishing the letters, they not only approved, but facilitated access to materials in various formats. Headnotes and endnotes for each chapter (how I refer to sections encompassing a calendar year) enrich the two friends’ discussions. A “Dramatis Personae” section details persons of note found in the letters. It is also worth noting the immensity of Schuster’s project. Her skilled editing chiseled 2,700 pages of correspondence into a coherent and engaging volume representing twenty-five percent of the original total.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to “watch” their friendship grow. I highly recommend A Queer Love Story for folks interested in LGBT+ history and fans of Jane rule, in particular. If you want to learn more about Jane Rule and view her through the autobiographical lens, check out her posthumously published memoir, Taking My Life  (2011), reviewed last year by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. You can learn more about Rick Bébout via his website, http://www.rbebout.com/. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout is available for purchase on May 1, 2017.

Page numbers refer to the uncorrected proof received from the University of British Columbia Press and are subject to change at time of publication.

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

Julie Thompson reviews Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party by Lisa E. Davis

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Undercover Girl chronicles the exploits of Angela Calomiris, an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the 1940s. An otherwise easy-to-miss figure in history, author Lisa E. Davis goes behind-the-scenes to reveal a more complex story of Calomiris’s life. The depiction of her impoverished childhood in New York through her fifteen minutes of fame as a witness for the prosecution during the Smith Act trials of 1949, and how it clashed with the version that Calomiris presented to the press, is fascinating. Author Lisa E. Davis also explores the divisive nature of Red Scare tactics, the ways in which it pitted groups against each other, and promoted fear, xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. This provides essential context for Calomiris’s behavior and how her fabrications were positively received by mainstream American citizens, the press, and government agencies. Davis’s appraisal of her subject is critical and well-researched.

The Photo League (TPL, 1936-1951), a club focused on capturing the lives of ordinary folks, was Angela’s primary target during her time as an FBI informant. TPL drew the attention and ire of the FBI due to its advertisement of club classes in The Daily Worker, a newspaper of the Communist Party USA, and its photographs chronicling New York City life, which included images of African-Americans. Her bread and butter income came from divulging names and activities, as well as her own amateur photographs, of the TPL to the FBI. A closeted lesbian, Calomiris played up her public image as an “All-American girl” (read: America first, heterosexual). As Davis delves into Calomiris’s appearances in the media and on the witness stand, contradictory information proves challenging to untangle. Readers are treated to an epilogue of the informant’s life after the trial. Did she attain wealth and lasting fame, as some of her fellow informants did licensing their stories in film and television? Did her duplicitous and fabulist tendencies continue to isolate her from friends and community?

Davis draws from de-classified FBI reports available through the Freedom of Information Act; oral interviews with people who knew Calomiris during the 1940s-1950s; archival collections; film, radio, scripts, and sound recordings; newspaper and journal articles; theses; and books. All of these materials enrich the narrative and provide the work with a credibility lacking in its subject’s own life. Calomiris’s keen desire for fame and fortune is perhaps one reason she meticulously preserved her extensive collection of newspaper and magazine articles, correspondence, and other ephemera. The large collection was ultimately bestowed, through the executrix of her estate, to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City.

An engrossing tale for researchers, history buffs, and casual readers alike. Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party is slated for release in May 2017.

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

Kalyanii reviews Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

 

 

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After stumbling upon the announcement of Elizabeth Gilbert’s coming out last month, l thought I’d key a quick Google search in order to become acquainted with the woman who’d rocked her world. It took the perusal of only a couple results to discover that Gilbert’s relationship with Rayya Elias is no fly-by-night romance; rather, Elias has been her dearest friend and confidante for the past fifteen years. So, when I learned that Elias had published her memoir in April of 2013 (with an introduction penned by Gilbert herself), I grew determined to get my hands on a copy. Little did I realize at the time that Elias would rock my world as well.

Born in Aleppo, Syria, Elias and her family knew more than a modicum of luxury, residing in an eight-room flat, complete with long marble hallways and manicured gardens to look down upon from the several balconies above. Beyond a handful of secrets and emotional scars, the family made pleasant memories while surrounded by the warmth of its members, good friends and caring neighbors; yet, the relative ease of daily life began to slip away with the rise of nationalism as the Ba’ath Party came into power. Amid mounting religious and political tensions and threats to his financial security, Elias’s father decided they had little choice but to leave all they knew in order to seek safety and a better life in America.

Elias was only seven years of age when her family arrived in Warren, Michigan, near Detroit, and the transition was anything but easy. Not only was their standard of living well below what they enjoyed in their homeland, but cultural differences set Elias apart as the target of incessant and utterly relentless bullying. All the while, her desire to assimilate into American culture left her feeling alienated from her family and the local Arabic community within which they had found a sense of home.

It was only in her early adulthood that Elias’s fashion-forward outlook and talents, not only as a hairstylist but a musician as well, provided her the positive regard that enabled her to flourish. The club scene, with its techno new wave vibe, enlivened and inspired her while offering the promise of a world to which she belonged.

… this was the 1980s, my time, and I was enamored with both the music and the look. They allowed me to escape; with no rules or boundaries, I could express myself and be part of an underground culture that accepted my newfound ambivalence toward being “normal,” and make cross-gendered sexuality look cool. Instinctively, I got it. Everything about this genre spoke to me, and it was the first time and place in society that I felt cool and accepted by gentle, intelligent, creative, and like-minded people…. I’d found my clan, my own pack of wolves.

With two careers budding simultaneously, Elias began to wonder if she might be outgrowing Detroit. She craved an independence beyond her family’s protective embrace and the freedom to discover her most authentic means of self-expression, both creatively as well as sexually. Thus, Elias decided to petition the owner of the salon at which she worked for the opportunity to prove herself on the East Coast whenever one became available. As luck would have it, there was need for an artistic director in Stamford, Conneticut, just 45 minutes outside of New York City. If Elias wanted it, it was hers.

The bulk of Harley Loco follows Elias’s rise as a high-end hairstylist and cutting-edge musical force into her descent within the hell of hardcore drug addiction, complete with overdoses, arrests, evictions, threats to her life, homelessness and a well-remembered stint at Rikers Island. All along the way, she takes the time to introduce her reader to those who inhabited her world during those tumultuous years, from lovers, party buddies, drug lords and down-and-out junkies to fair-weather friends and guardian angels. She shares heartrending moments of the most intense love and desire for a woman amid several doomed attempts at navigating the ever-shifting terrain of polyamory, the no-strings-attached comfort of a stranger’s bed as well as the loss and devastation sustained within a committed relationship when another’s love, regardless of how true, cannot come close to competing with that initial high.

Aside from a handful of returns to Detroit, Elias’s memoir is set against the backdrop of New York’s Lower East Side as it was in the 1980’s and early 90’s with its underground clubs, drug-dealing bodegas, shooting galleries and dens. The seediness of Alphabet City, so vividly drawn through its cast of characters, proves enthralling as Elias proceeds to paint an utterly visceral portrait of what the neighborhood was prior to gentrification. Though I spent only one night amid those streets during that epic era, the experience remains permanently etched within my memory, for the edginess of the neighborhood was nothing less than mythic in its time; and, given her penchant for telling things precisely as they were, Elias reveals with uncompromising grit the reality behind the legends that we had all so naively romanticized from afar. Though narrated with an ambivalent air of nostalgia, Elias’s innumerable falls from grace are evidence of the true underbelly of a drug culture that film, literature and the other media of its day portrayed as captivating rather than demoralizing and often deadly.

Given that Elias lived to tell the tale, it’s probably safe to say that the unfathomably hard lessons learned while looking down a gun barrel, seeking shelter within Tent City at Tompkins Square Park or writhing, dope-sick, on the cement floor of a holding cell were all a part of a journey which awakened a voice within her—a voice which, at last, spoke with certainty, “Rayya, you don’t need to do this anymore. You can be free.”

Immediately after the acknowledgements, Elias includes a section entitled “Music Links,” which directs readers to her website, where they can access the six tracks that she considers something of a soundtrack to Harley Loco. As you might expect, I beelined to my laptop, keyed in the web address and promptly pressed “play.” With palpable harkenings of Aimee Mann, Portishead and early Sleater-Kinney, the tracks presented so satisfyingly meld that which influenced us back in the day with the hard-earned jadedness of the present. My favorite track, by far, is “Fever,” which boasts a chorus I simply can’t shake:  “Got a fever in my soul, cancer in my heart; never had any place to shelter, never had anywhere to start.”

According to Gilbert’s September 7th Facebook post, it was Elias’s diagnosis of pancreatic and liver cancer that brought her to crossroads, where, after fifteen years of friendship, she chose, what else, but love.

Death — or the prospect of death — has a way of clearing away everything that is not real, and in that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth. The thought of someday sitting in a hospital room with her, holding her hand and watching her slide away, without ever having let her (or myself!) know the extent of my true feelings for her…well, that thought was unthinkable.

It’s beautiful yet heartbreaking, isn’t it, that which brings us face-to-face with who we are and who it is that we truly love?

I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to come to know Elias through her memoir as well as her music, which has not only brought me back to the ecstatic sensation of inhabiting my own skin but provided me a sense of the badass that I always fantasized I’d been. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if her soundtrack were to end up playing a role in the creation of my own.

In conclusion, to quote Gilbert’s courageous coming-out post once more, “Truth is the force that guides us to where we need to be in life, but love is the power that heals us once we arrive there.”

With that in mind, I wish both Gilbert and Elias the most treasured of journeys together.

Kalyanii reviews The Raging Skillet: The True Life Story of Chef Rossi

 

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After reading The Raging Skillet, I’m not certain whether I’m desperate to marry the legendary culinary mastermind known simply as Rossi or to live within her skin. It would be futile to deny my appreciation for the handful of openly lesbian chefs whose careers have blossomed in spite of – or perhaps due to – their determination to manifest a passion for food while remaining true not only to their culinary sensibilities but to the very essence of who they are. Gabrielle Hamilton, even amid the rumors surrounding her personal life, most notably comes to mind. However, none have inspired within me the spirit of resilience, determination, creativity and authenticity to quite the extent that Chef Rossi has. Her journey’s not been an easy one; she earned every bit of her success. And, the woman who’s lived to tell the story holds my admiration as well as my most heartfelt gratitude, for I just may be something more of a force in my own right for all that she’s endured.

It is to the introduction of the microwave oven that Rossi attributes her professional destiny, for once the appliance found its way into her family’s home, seldom did her mother serve any of the Hungarian faire that had graced the table, day in and day out, prior to its arrival. Unimpressed with the flavorless, prepackaged dinners that took the place of her mother’s slaved-over kosher dishes, the young Rossi began inventing and presenting concoctions that gleaned the enthusiasm of her family, later the adoration of her stoner friends and eventually the devotion of the drunks to whom she served avant-garde nachos in an attempt to sober them up before last call. It didn’t take long for her to realize where to access her influence.

Aside from a two-week bartending course, Rossi embarked upon her culinary career with no formal training. However, her chutzpah landed her positions in the food industry shortly after she ventured out on her own as a teenager, fleeing the oppressive Hasidic expectations of her family and religious community. Beyond a stint selling subscriptions forThe New York Times, a gig on The Matthew Rousseau led to both dive and ultra-trendy establishments until she found herself named by Zagat “the wildest thing this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Her anecdotes pertaining to her mother’s frugality and over-the-top kitchen dynamics inspire laugh-out-loud snorts and giggles against a backdrop of poverty, friends lost to AIDS and the challenges of proving herself in what was, especially in the 80’s, very much a man’s world. Rossi’s sense of humor proves caustic while still rather cornball, a combination I found to be terribly endearing.

I appreciated that Rossi opted for a less sentimental approach to her hardships and losses, for their gravity is evident in simply being what they are. In addition, the objectivity with which she addresses painful circumstances serves as indicative of her forward focus and innate refusal to become mired within the muck of a life lived well and boldly.

Though Rossi admits to a tendency to kvetch, or complain, the reader never sees it. She attributes the wise words “Sweetie, I come here to work, not talk about what hurts. What does not? Everything hurts. This is life… so forget it. Make some gorgeous food!” to Niko, a chef who over time assumed the roles of brother, son, wife and prodigious butter-plater, but I suspect that his guiding principles are as much hers as his own, even if she hesitates to give herself credit for it.

The chapter pertaining to her time spent at Ground Zero was perhaps, for me, the most profound of them all. Rossi does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of 9/11’s early aftermath and humanizes what remains, for anyone born post-WWII, the most jarring event of our lifetimes.

Each chapter of The Raging Skillet is accompanied by a couple of recipes associated with the events described within. Viewing the measuring cup as a “soul-crushing” instrument, Rossi notes amounts in plops and coffee cups of a given ingredient, making the recipes incredibly accessible; however, I would have given anything to learn more about her technique and creative process, secrets and all. I’m just that greedy… though it doesn’t stop me from noshing “Riverboat Guacamole” even as I pen this review.

Within the acknowledgements, Rossi thanks her girlfriend, Lydia, for “filling a void in my heart that I didn’t know was there,” so I won’t hold my breath for a proposal. However, I will continue to ponder the lessons that Rossi’s learned, share her story with fellow foodies and remind myself, when push comes to shove, within or beyond the kitchen, to hold my own when it matters and find humor in the rest.

Katelyn reviews Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

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When Portia de Rossi first released her memoir, I was just testing the waters of an eating disorder and six years past admitting to myself that I wasn’t straight. I desperately wanted to search the book for weight loss tips, but it had been described as so inspiring that I was afraid it would convince me to recover before I even got started (Plus I was afraid everyone would think I was a lesbian if they saw me reading a book by a famous lesbian). Throughout the next few years, I debated reading it, alternating between fear of recovery and fear of relapse. When I found it at a library sale a couple of weeks ago, I figured it was time and finally went for it, and I have to say, it surprised me.

First of all, I think it’s worth noting that I’m probably the healthiest I’ve ever been with regards to my mental health, and I participate in therapy regularly, and I found this book very triggering. The main focus of the memoir is de Rossi’s eating disorder and the time before her recovery, and this includes detailed descriptions of the methods she used to lose weight, her thoughts and feelings during this time—specifically self-hatred in the form of body image disturbance and internalized homophobia—and of course, numbers (weight, body measurements, calories, number of meals, number of exercises, and the list goes on and on as anyone with an eating disorder can tell you). If you’re thinking about reading this book to find some inspiration to work toward a healthier mindset and lifestyle, you will probably be disappointed.

There is plenty of debate around the topic of recovery when it comes to mental illness, especially among people with eating disorders, but I think people on all sides would agree that de Rossi’s outlook on her personal struggles and recovery are not exactly healthy. It could be that she was not far enough from the experience to look back with clarity, but it seems that she puts a lot of focus on a sudden and complete change brought on by her serious relationship with her ex-girlfriend and then maintained by her relationship with her wife. I don’t want to police people on how to handle their eating disorders, especially someone I don’t actually know personally, but I do worry about the message people who are in the depths of their struggle will take away from this, especially impressionable young girls.

Not to mention, there are some cringe-worthy parts in the epilogue that kind of stung, like the conversation between de Rossi and her wife, Ellen DeGeneres, in which Ellen calls de Rossi crazy, and a “poor thing” whom she wishes she could have “saved.”

“You did save me. You save me every single day.” I kiss her and get up off the bed to make her coffee. “I’m so proud of you, baby. It’ll help a lot of people.” As I pour the coffee, she suddenly appears at the doorway of the kitchen, her blond head poking around the door. “Just be sure and tell the people that you’re not crazy anymore.”

I’m sure there are people who will say I’m being too sensitive, but I’m also sure I’m not the only one who would be pretty upset if my significant other said something like that.

There is no perfect eating disorder memoir, just as there is no one, perfect and healthy way to recover from an eating disorder, and I respect that de Rossi’s story and methods are not the same as mine, but I can’t help but worry for her and for some of the people who might read this book.

However, even with my disappointment with the “recovery” aspects of the book, I thought the story was relatable, and de Rossi’s writing was simple yet captivating. She perfectly captured the experience of living with an eating disorder, from the life-altering moments to the mundane, stuck-in-traffic ruminations. One of my favorite passages is her description of the experience of eating nachos.

The blend of cheese and sour cream with the crispiness of the corn chips and creaminess of guacamole will always turn a sour mood into a happy one. A peace came over me when I ate food like that. Like life had no other meaning than pure enjoyment. I had nowhere to go and nothing to accomplish. For that moment, I could put life on hold and believe I was perfect the way I was. I was focused on the present—in the moment—and the moment was bliss on a corn chip.

The writing isn’t anything mind-blowing or particularly unique as it might be if written by a ghostwriter, but it is honest and real without the need to prove herself as a writer that is evident in other celebrity memoirs. Also unlike a lot of other celebrity memoirs, there isn’t a lot of name-dropping or bragging. Yes, a few stars are mentioned, as are award shows and paparazzi, but it’s done in a way so that it just feels like part of de Rossi’s job, just as it would if she was talking about working in a cubicle and talking to the guy in the copy room. So if you’re just looking for some Hollywood dirt or an inside scoop about Ally McBeal or Arrested Development, this probably isn’t the book for you.

This book also might not be for you if you’re just looking for a story about a famous lesbian’s coming out process. Although de Rossi puts a lot of emphasis on her experience in the closet and how it impacted her mental health, the actual descriptions of that experience are sparse and dull in comparison to the raw emotions behind her descriptions of her disordered eating and her relationship with her mother.

Unbearable Lightness wasn’t the inspiring push to recovery or the coming out story I was expecting. It’s not something I would recommend for people who are still feeling hopeless and trapped in their eating disorder, but it was still a breath of fresh air for me after deciding to leave my eating disorder behind once and for all. It made me feel less alone as de Rossi wrote the words that I’m still too afraid to speak. This also might make it a good read for anyone who has a loved one with an eating disorder so they can better understand what their loved one can’t explain. It could also start some healthy conversations. Above all else, it’s an interesting read and good as a memoir as well as a book about eating disorders. I just think it’s good to approach with caution.

Elinor reviews The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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The Argonauts is an amazing book. It is a memoir but not a neatly narrative one. It’s been called “genre-bending,” which it certainly is. I’d describe it as a meditation of family, queerness, gender, love, bodies, connection, and a whole lot more. Nelson quotes academic theorists as readily as she shares visceral, personal details from her life. The book primarily focuses on Nelson’s relationship with and marriage to genderfluid artist Harry Dodge, being a stepmother to Dodge’s son from a previous relationship, and being pregnant with, giving birth to and parenting the couple’s younger son. Each of these topics is examined thoughtfully through multiple lenses, giving the reader plenty of food for thought.

This book offers up many intriguing questions without giving easy answers. Everything from assumptions about pregnant women, reified identity, personal expression, death, and the act of giving birth get a turn. I find it hard to summarize such an eclectic and fascinating book while truly doing it justice. It’s creative nonfiction at its best.

I’m also grateful that I read it exactly when I did, just after I finished graduate school and nearly at the middle of my pregnancy. It was the only book I’ve found that spoke about the personal experience of pregnancy, let alone queer pregnancy, in a way that rang true for me. The questions about parenthood and marriage that it raises were extremely relevant to me and I found myself jotting down references for further reading.

It can be fairly academic in places. I appreciated this, but others might not. It’s short but dense with ideas, and I’m glad I took my time reading it. Going slowly with it allowed me to absorb the subject matter and I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much if I’d read it in a rush.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in queer family and partnership, or just a truly unique memoir.

Danika reviews Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond

sexual fluidity lisa m diamond

This was a life-changing book for me. The only thing I can compare it to in terms of reading experience is Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue, which opened up a whole world of queer women lit throughout time to me that I had never heard of before. Instead of changing my view of lesbian and bi books, though, Sexual Fluidity revolutionized my entire outlook on sexual identity and orientation.

I wish that was an exaggeration. This was an incredibly affirming book, but it also frustrated me that it took this long for me to discover a different framework from which to view sexuality–one that viewed my experiences not as an aberration, but as a normal, valid example of how sexuality might flow over time.

Lisa M. Diamond follows a group of almost 100 women over the course of ten years, most of them lesbians or bisexual women, checking in several times throughout to see how their sexual identity and behaviour had changed. Although the standard understanding of sexual orientation would assume that these women would stay in the same categories after they came out, this wasn’t the reality. 2/3 of the women changed identities (lesbian/bisexual/heterosexual/unlabeled) at some point during the ten years. Most of that change was because of sexual relationships women had since the last interview. Diamond argues that typically it isn’t actually that these women’s orientation is changing–the interviewees generally reported staying in a fairly narrow range of attraction to their preferred gender(s)–but that instead these experiences were due to examples of sexual fluidity.

This is a fairly academic text, but it’s packed full of fascinating information. It covers the biological aspects and psychological aspect of this concept, drawing from a huge amount of studies. I apologize for this long-winded review, because this book was so central in changing how I think about sexuality that I’m determined to note it all down so that I can’t forget.

Diamond argues sexual orientation indicates not a rigid  prediction of the gender(s)/sex(es) you are and will always be attracted to, but instead indicated a range from which you can fluctuate–meaning that being attracted nonexclusively to a certain gender is not necessarily a bisexual orientation, but may be brought on by sexual fluidity. Basically, sexuality is not just a range from 0% same-sex attraction = heterosexual, 1%-99% same-sex attraction = bisexual, and 100% same-sex attraction = homosexual. Instead, orientation is only one aspect of sexuality. Here are some of the things she argues make up sexuality:

  1. Sexual orientation, which indicates a tendency to seek out sexual experience with a certain sex/sexes
  2. Degree of fluidity: the capacity a person has to react to triggers for fluidity. Where orientation determines someone’s already-existing attraction to certain sexes, same-sex arousability determines someone’s receptivity to environments that might trigger fluidity–like becoming emotionally intimate with a same-sex friend
  3. Exposure to environments that might trigger fluidity (usually exposure to certain genders/sexes in everyday life–an all-women college won’t offer a lot of opportunity for sexual fluidity towards men)
  4.  Capacity for “person-based” attraction: for some people, emotional intimacy with someone may lead to romantic feelings, which may then lead to sexual attraction, just as sexual attraction to someone may then lead to romantic feelings for them

I know that I am over simplifying and likely mangling that explanation, but that is my understanding. Diamond also explores the roles of “proceptivity” (sexual drive) vs “arousability” (receptivity to sexual cues) in certain people’s lives. For people who menstruate, the hormonal fluctuations mean that arousability plays a bigger part in day-to-day attractions than proceptivity (unlike cis men).

She also explains that the biological foundation for romantic love evolved independently from sexuality. So while sexual orientation evolved to encourage mating, romantic love evolved from infant-caregiver bonding, which means that the biological underpinnings are not gender- or sex-specific, which explains why people might more easily fall in love with someone who does not match the sex they are usually attracted to. (These are systems that evolved separately, but they are connected, which is how romantic love might develop into sexual attraction and vice versa.)

Sexual Fluidity contains some pretty controversial statistics. For example, 60% of the women who identified as lesbians in the initial interviews went on to have sexual contact with men in subsequent years. More than 50% of the women who continued to identify as lesbians had sexual contact with men over the course of those ten years, and 30% of the women who identified as lesbians in the first interview would go on to have romantic relationships with men (though the vast majority of these women then stopped labeling themselves as lesbians). There seemed to be an unstated agreement that over 75% attraction to women meant you were a lesbian–people who crossed that line tended to change how they identified.

As someone who identified as a lesbian since high school, who felt at home in that label for ten years, and then found myself in a romantic relationship with a man, this was revelatory. Where I had always viewed my history of attraction as somewhat embarrassing and out of the ordinary, this recast it as perfectly valid and not even uncommon. According to this framework, it still made perfect sense that I would have a lesbian orientation but be in a relationship with a man (though I won’t call myself a lesbian anymore–I know that wouldn’t go over well). It just meant that I have capacity for fluidity, even though I have a pattern of being attracted to women. I can’t explain what a relief it was to read about my experiences as…. well, normal.

The conclusion of this book proposes that we change the way we look as sexuality, especially women’s sexuality. One promising avenue is dynamical systems, which in a psychology context means that it views a subject by acknowledging that biology and environment are constantly influencing and changing each other: it is a system that is based in change and assumes that change will happen, rather than seeing sexuality as a fixed point.

It’s important that we teach about sexual fluidity, because despite the fact that the majority of the women interviewed were affected in some way by fluidity, they usually explained these examples with some embarrassment, feeling as though they were the exception to the rule. Diamond shares that when she speaks at queer events about this research, she always has women come up to her afterwards and “confess” their experiences with fluidity, and how they had felt alone in this. We should not be teaching that perfectly normal shifts in sexuality or “exception to the rule” person-based attractions are abnormal.

This isn’t a perfect book. Diamond acknowledges that more research is needed, especially in the biological aspects that she mentions, which are often based on animal experiments. My primary criticism is the cissexism: gender and sex are conflated, which explains my muddled use of both in this review. Intersex people and nonbinary people are erased–despite the fact that two of the participants went on to identify as nonbinary in some way. And, of course, this is all based on interviews of people during a specific time period, and from a fairly narrow sample. It isn’t perfect, but it did blow my mind and make me consider my worldview, so I can’t help but give it 5 stars. If you have ever felt like your experiences don’t fit into the standard explanation of sexual orientation, I highly, highly recommend reading this one.

Danika reviews Queer By Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and The Politics of Identity by Vera Whisman

queer by choice

One of my favourite books is Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Laura André. There are some beautifully-written essays in the collection, but what really grabbed me were all the narratives that didn’t match the classic queer storyline: I knew since I was a kid, and it’s always been the same (though I might not have always known it and accepted it). My desire has been a constant in my life. I took that narrative for granted, even though it didn’t match my experiences, and it was only when reading Dear John, I Love Jane that I realized that there are many people who didn’t experience attraction or romantic love in that same way. Sexual fluidity exists! So when I saw the title of Queer by Choice, I was excited to revisit that. I wanted to read about people whose queer identities didn’t match the mainstream story, including those who did feel like they had a choice in being queer.

Queer By Choice was written as a doctoral dissertation, and it reads like one. The book is based around a series of interviews of gay and lesbian people centered around the role of choice in their sexual identities. The main conclusion Whisman draws is that despite the “born this way” party line, most people identify their sexuality as not entirely chosen or determined, but as a mix. Primarily, most people she interviewed saw their orientation as determined and out of their control, but that they demonstrated choice in how they dealt with this orientation, how and when they came out, and how they acted on their desire.

This was published in 1996, and the interviews were done in the late ’80s, which both makes this outdated and an interesting look at a particular time in queer community and politics. The interviews took place during the AIDS epidemic, and also during a time where many lesbian interviewees came out during the height of lesbian feminism. Most of the interviewees who identified their sexuality as chosen were part of the lesbian feminist movement.

For being written 20 years ago, Queer By Choice was more inclusive than I was expecting. It recognizes the role of race in identity narratives, and acknowledges the lack of bisexual participants. It also critiques the “gay ethnicity” model as racist. Unfortunately, its discussion of trans people is awkward, expressing surprise that a lesbian would still consider herself a lesbian while in a relationship with a “pre-op” trans woman.

My main complaint with this book is that I was most interested in hearing from people who do see their sexuality as a choice, because that is not something that gets a lot of attention in the queer community. Despite the title, the vast majority of this book discusses people who do not see their sexuality as a choice. The bits that do are interesting, including a section that explains that earlier in the queer rights movement, there had been a push to “free the homosexual in everyone”, and that the biological minority model “fails to interrogate the inevitability of heterosexuality”: it posits the hetero/homo (or generously, hetero/bi/homo) as natural instead of seeing queer rights as freeing all people to explore the possibility of their sexuality. Another point that I found interesting was when Whisman argued that because women are taught to contain their sexuality, the “choice” narrative is more appealing to them, while men are taught that their sexuality is an uncontrollable force, making the “determined” narrative more intuitive.

While there were some interesting points contained in Queer By Choice, the bulk of the book discusses some variation of the “born this way” narrative, which I didn’t find interesting. It also got repetitive, both in the sense of reiterating thesis points over and over, and in the repetition of quotes in different chapters. Although this is a short book, it felt padded. This is definitely a topic I’d like to read more about, but I wouldn’t highly recommend this particular title.