Danika reviews Be Gay, Do Comics!: Queer History, Memoir, and Satire from the Nib

Be Gay, Do ComicsBe Gay, Do Comics is an anthology with more than 30 contributors, all discussing some aspect of queer life. This was a refreshingly diverse and thought-provoking collection. Most anthologies in this vein that I’ve read have played it pretty safe: they’ve usually been very white, and mostly focused on gay cis men, with the overarching message being one of acceptance. Be Gay, Do Comics covers a wide range of topics from a lot of different voices, including many artists of color and trans artists, and includes comics about queer liberation and resisting assimilation.

There is a mix of one-page comics and longer pieces, with some being fairly simple one-off jokes or observations and others looking at queer history. I was especially interested in the comics that looked at queer history and culture that is lesser known, including looking at gay characters in Puerto Rican TV shows, comparing that to the history and present state of LGBTQ rights in Puerto Rico. Another explores how LGBTQ people have been treated in the Philippines, pre-colonialism up to the present. There is also a comic including interviews from queer parents raising kids in Malaysia.

Some comics are biographies of queer people in history I wasn’t aware of, including Gad Beck, a gay Jewish spy, and Baron von Steuben, an openly gay military leader in the American Revolution. Some of these figures at larger than life, others are everyday. Others look at events, such as Hazel Newlevant’s comic about queer uprisings that preceded Stonewall, or an explanation of the Lavender Scare, or the history of the rainbow flag.

Of course, there are also a lot of personal stories included. Some talk about exploring their gender, or coming out. One is about being non-binary while taking folk dancing lessons. Another talks coming out in their late 30s, and the pride and embarrassment and mourning of that–mourning for their younger out queer self who never was. While I’m used to LGBT anthologies being mostly cis gay men, there were lots of trans comics in this one, and even an intersex contribution. There was also a variety both in identities and politics, including a comic about gay Republicans, comics about gatekeeping in the queer community, and one about gay liberation.

It’s hard to speak about an anthology like this in a cohesive way, because they are all so different: in art style, tone, topic, and identity. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Although as always there were some comics I liked more than others, there weren’t any that I felt were weak. It’s a great opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different artists as well. This is one I would happily recommend. It’s not focused specifically on lesbians and bi women, but there is definitely sapphic representation. I’m happy to see that queer anthologies are expanding to be a little more challenging and diverse than they were just a handful of years ago.

Danika reviews Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

Zami by Audre Lorde

Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home.

Audre Lorde is a name that looms large in lesbian literature, in Black history, and in her legacy in poetry. I have read some of her essays and poems, but I hadn’t before read a long-form work by her. Zami is her autobiography, starting from early childhood and covering up to about her mid-20s. It was interesting to read about this period of her life, because I think some part of me imagined Lorde as appearing fully formed as the imposing figure she became. I’m also used to memoirs, which focus on one aspect of the author’s life, where this explores many subjects, from relationship to her mother, her education, her various jobs and relationships, and growing up as a Black gay woman in the United States in the 40s and 50s. I didn’t realize how early she wrote this: we don’t get to see her as the established poet she became, or as a lesbian activist or leader–instead, this is her journey to get there.

Lorde’s foundation in poetry is definitely visible here. While some passages are matter of fact, others are phrased poetically or even have whole excerpts of poems. I’ll admit that I was a little bit intimidated to pick this one up because of her reputation as both a poet and a theorist. This isn’t a book to speed through: like a poem, it’s packed with so much to pause and consider. Some lines I couldn’t understand, but that’s just the nature of reading poetry.

Lorde’s observations are often timeless or depressingly still timely commentary, while other aspects are firmly rooted in the time period she was coming of age. At some points she seems to have a wild and enviable youth: moving to Mexico on her own just for the love it, entertaining a rotating cast of down-on-their-luck friends piled in a room together, experimenting with drugs and relationships–while the next page will bring something truly horrific. Having to work a bad job as a young person is relateable, but having that job expose you to harmful levels of radiation (Lorde would develop cancer later in life) is not. Trying out polyamory, having endless lesbian processing, relationship miscommunication, that could all have been written yesterday. But having your partner go through shock therapy for her mental illness is very different. It was surreal to see historical events occur casually in her life, such as McCarthyism resulting in the FBI showing up at her door multiple times.

Her crispy hair twinkles in the summer sun as her big proud stomach moved her on down the block while I watched, not caring whether or not she was a poem… I loved her, because she moved like she felt she was somebody special, like she was somebody I’d like to know someday. She moved like how I thought god’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me.

The structure of Zami is a tour through the women that shaped Lorde’s life, from her mother to long-term relationships to brief friendships or conflicts. From the perspective of reviewing for the Lesbrary, it was interesting to see how Lorde’s sexual orientation comes up. This isn’t a “coming out” story–there’s no tearful reveal to her mother, no angst-ridden turmoil over choosing a label–it’s just a gradual exploration of her feelings for women. Her observation about lesbians I found to often be applicable still:

Meeting other lesbians was very difficult, except for the bars which I did not go to because I did not drink. One read The Ladder and the Daughters of Bilitis newsletter and wondered where all the other gay-girls were. Often, just finding out another woman was gay was enough of a reason to attempt a relationship, to attempt some connection in the name of love without first regard to how ill-matched the two of you might really be. Such were the results of loneliness…

That loneliness and confusion about coming out or just beginning relationships with women is, sadly, I think something lesbians and queer women still deal with.

In wonder, but without surprise, I lay finally quiet with my arms around Ginger. So this was what I had been so afraid of not doing properly. How ridiculous and far away those fears seemed now, as if loving were some task outside of myself, rather than simply reaching out and letting my own desire guide me. It was all so simple. I felt so good I smiled into the darkness. Ginger cuddled closer.

Reading about Lorde’s first relationships–intoxicating, all-encompassing, and burning at both ends–was painfully nostalgic. I wanted to reach through the pages and try to reason with her, but only because I want to do the same thing with my own past.

Each one of us had been starved for love for so long that we wanted to believe that love, once found, was all-powerful. We wanted to believe that it could give word to my inchoate pain and rages; that it could enable Muriel to face the world and get a job; that it could free our writings, cure racism, end homophobia and adolescent acne. We were like starving women who come to believe that food will cure all present pains, as well as heal all the deficiency sores of long standing.

Her romantic relationships are not the only women showcased in Zami, though. One person I found interested was a roommate who was dedicated to the feminist cause. Unfortunately, the feminist movement at the time was anti-gay, seeing at as somehow bougie–something only frivolous capitalists did. (Interestingly, since the government at the time seemed to associate with communism.) This roommate had a string of disastrous relationships with men, and Lorde speculates about how she must have felt seeing Lorde’s happy “incorrect” relationship, when she couldn’t make it work in a “correct” relationship. The schisms within “the movement” also strike a chord today:

Every one of the women in our group took for granted, and would have said if asked, that we were all on the side of right. But the nature of that right everyone was presumed to be on the side of was always unnamed.

Of course, the woman that played the biggest role in her early life was her mother. Lorde’s mother is almost a mythic figure in these early chapters–fitting, for how a young child perceives their parents. She commands attention and respect. She is strong, unrelenting, and Lorde would grow up to clash with her–then we see very little of her after Lorde’s teenage years. This makes sense from a real life perspective, but from a story view, I wanted to see more of her. Unsurprisingly, racism plays a major role in this narrative, and we see how Lorde’s parents try to shield her from it. When white people in the street spit on 4-year-old Audre’s jacket, her mother wipes it off (keeping a handkerchief for this purpose) and chides people for carelessly spitting on the street and missing. When Audre asks to eat in the dining car, her parents say it’s too expensive–never mentioning that it was illegal for them as a Black family to each there. Of course, they can’t protect Lorde from the everyday racism of growing up Black in the 40s and 50s, but it did confuse her about the source of these common indignities. As a child, she internalized her ill treatment by others as something wrong with her personally, having no words for racism.

Once we talked about how Black women had been committed without choice to waging our campaigns in the enemies’ strongholds, too much and too often, and how our psychic landscapes had been plundered and wearied by those repeated battles and campaigns.

It wasn’t until Lorde grew up, as a teenager and young adult, that she began to really understand how she was treated differently as a Black woman. She dreams of going to Mexico, working grueling, mind-numbing jobs to save up the money. Once there, she revels in being able to look around and be surrounded by Brown faces, by people who were friendly and curious about her instead of hostile.

Lorde faces the intersecting oppressions of being Black, gay, and a woman, finding very few people who can relate: she explains that most Black lesbians were closeted. Being a Black woman was a difficult enough hand to play, and most say being Black, gay, female, and out as suicidal. In lesbian circles, her Blackness is erased. Her white girlfriend is confident that being gay is the same as being Black: they’re both outsiders. Lorde can’t find the words or strength to fight her on this. The book ends with a sexual encounter with another out Black lesbian, and although it is a brief relationship, it’s a sigh of relief to see her find a connection where she doesn’t have to explain or hide any aspect of herself.

I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.

There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and Black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school nor office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour. Just as there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles, there were no names nor reason given or shared for the tears that messed up the lab reports or the library bills.

We were good listeners, and never asked for double dates, but didn’t we know the rules? Why did we always seems to think friendships between women were important enough to care about? Always we moved in a necessary remoteness that made “What did you do this weekend?” seem like an impertinent question. We discovered and explored our attention to women alone, sometimes in secret, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in little pockets that almost touched (“Why are those little Black girls always either whispering together or fighting?”) but always alone, against a greater aloneness. We did it cold turkey, and although it resulted in some pretty imaginative tough women when we survived, too many of us did not survive at all.

Zami is not an easy read. Lorde goes through some horrific things, including an unsafe illegal abortion. Trigger warnings for pedophilia, an incest fantasy, self-mutilation, racism, and homophobia.

It’s also a book that asks to be read slowly and thoughtfully. I feel like I’ve just skimmed the surface of it. Don’t expect this to be Audre Lorde’s full story–it’s more like the prologue to the woman we remember her as today.

I also wanted to shout out Autostraddle’s 2020 feature, the Year of Our (Audre) Lorde, where every month, Jehan examines one of Lorde’s essays or poems and discussed how it is relevant today for queer and trans people of colour. I highly recommend it.

I look forward to reading more of Lorde’s work, especially her poetry, though I now know to be prepared for some slow reading, leaving lots of time for contemplation. Have you read any of Audre Lorde’s books? What did you think of them?

Emily Joy reviews Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan

Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence

Growing up in a Catholic family and Catholic environment as a lesbian had its challenges. As a young girl, I thought that I would become a religious sister because the idea of living in a community of women seemed much preferable to getting married. You know, back when I thought that getting married automatically included a man. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that lesbian/bi women have been joining religious orders for centuries, finding that life with other women is better than married life with a man.

First published in 1985, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan is a nonfiction anthology with 51 accounts of lesbian nuns and ex-nuns, speaking on the topic about how their sexuality intersects with their vocations.

The success of this book has an interesting story. The Boston archdiocese contacted a news station and appealed for the cancellation of a televised interview with one of the book’s editors. The Boston Globe wrote an article about the censorship, and Lesbian Nuns almost immediately sold out of its first printing with indie lesbian publisher Naiad Press. Shortly after, Warner Books bought the rights for mass-distribution and spread the book far and wide with its second edition. In the book itself, one interviewee said:

Lesbian nuns I know are going to dance! In convents, this book will go around like hotcakes. […] Everybody will read it. Lesbian nuns will be more self-conscious about this book. I can see them dying to get hold of it, but trying not to show too much interest. […] All hell’s going to break loose. Religious communities are going to have to discuss this book. They’re going to have to respond to the reality, and they’ve never had to do that.

One of the contributors to this book might be familiar to some Lesbrary readers. Jeanne Cordova is the author of one of the first chapters, and she is also the author of Kicking the Habit: a Lesbian Nun Story and When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution.

The other stories and authors will likely be new to readers, and I think impactful in the way they mirror each other with shared experiences and ideas. Certainly, it was impactful for me with my Catholic background. There were several times that I felt like saying, “Hey! Those are my feelings, too!” There’s so much power for me in connecting with other lesbian women from the past, both distant and not so distant.

“My pain is that I can’t share being a Lesbian with most of these women. Since my Lesbianism is a part of me, they don’t really know me. Yet, if they knew I was a Lesbian, they might know me even less, because of whatever homophobia, stereotypes, or projections they might have. Another source of pain is my Church. I’m not sure what kind of a Catholic I am. I like the Catholic traditions and my personal history. However, I cannot reconcile myself to the Church’s clericalism and sexism.”

I may not personally prefer to capitalize the “l” in lesbian or call my sexuality an ism, but this passage and others truly resonated with me as an ex-Catholic. In fact, regardless of readers’ connections with Catholicism or other religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, I think this book has something for everyone to recognize in themselves.

The book is divided into nine themed sections, including sections on “particular friends”, the relationship between being a lesbian and vows of celibacy and chastity, and women who chose to stay in their religious orders rather than leave. It’s fascinating to read each section and find such similarities and differences in these women’s stories.

There is so much to learn from this book. It is full of first-hand accounts and the personal histories from our lesbian heritage. Catholic or not, religious or not, I highly recommend picking up a copy. Although originally published through an indie publisher, this book has since been reprinted several times and is available widely for anyone interested in exploring the relationship between religion and homosexuality.

Carmella reviews Gentleman Jack: a Biography of Anne Lister by Angela Steidele

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele

Earlier this year, HBO and the BBC treated us to Suranne Jones swaggering across the screen in butch Victorian get-up, playing the character of Anne Lister. The first season of Gentleman Jack follows just a segment of Anne’s life starting in 1832, as she woos her future life-partner, Ann Walker.

While I loved the show, it left me wanting to know more. What was Anne Lister really like? Who was she before 1832, and how does her story end? This led me to pick up Angela Steidele’s biography (also titled Gentleman Jack, which was an insulting nickname for Anne used by the townspeople of Halifax) to find out all about her for myself.

In case you haven’t come across her before, Anne Lister was a Regency era landowner from West Yorkshire. She’s now remembered as ‘the first modern lesbian’, mostly thanks to the extensive diaries she left behind, in which she recorded everything from her opinions on the pressing political issues of the time to the minutiae of everyday life – and, encoded in her secret ‘crypt hand’, explicit details of her numerous sexual affairs with other women.

These diaries run to over four million words, but thankfully Steidele has condensed them into a very readable 338 pages for those of us who don’t quite have enough time to manage them in full! Gentleman Jack follows Anne’s life in chronological order, separated into chapters named after her girlfriends – which is an entertaining touch.

As a history fan, I found the delve into the life of an unconventional Regency woman compelling, and welcomed the chance to learn more about the era. One of my favourite sections was the story of Anne’s first girlfriend, Eliza Raine. Eliza was the mixed race child of an English man and an Indian woman, born in Madras and raised in Yorkshire. When the Regency era is so often portrayed as exclusively white (think of most adaptations of Austen and the Brontës), hearing Eliza’s story is proof that this wasn’t the case.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a happy ending for Eliza, who was committed to a mental asylum. Steidele even suggests that Eliza may have been a model for Charlotte Brontë’s character Mrs Rochester – the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre – as the asylum was not far from the Brontës’ home in Haworth.

Also very interesting is the final part of the biography, following Anne and Ann’s travels around Europe and Russia in 1839-40. Anne’s travel diary gives a fascinating description of every stopping point as it was in the mid-19th Century. It also reveals that Anne was impatient with Ann, argued with her frequently, pushed her into travelling further than she wanted, and even flirted with other women in front of her!

During the trip, Anne developed a fatal fever. She died in Georgia in 1840, at the age of 49, and Ann dutifully returned her body to be buried in Halifax.

What I enjoy most about the biography is this ‘warts and all’ approach to Anne’s life. It doesn’t shy away from Anne’s flaws; as Steidele puts it, “Anne Lister was a beast of a woman” – and all the more interesting for it. She lied to and manipulated her lovers, didn’t have much regard for other people’s feelings, and was a staunch Tory (which counts as a flaw in my book). At the same time, she was a remarkably intelligent and competent businesswoman, extensively well-read, well-travelled, and had a curious scientific mind.

Even when you disagree with Anne you can’t help but like her, and you can understand the allure that drew so many women to her. As Anne herself put it in 1816, “the girls liked me & had always liked me”. And we always will like her, I’m sure!

Susan reviews Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

Sensible Footwear: A Girl's Guide by Kate Charlesworth

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide is Kate Charlesworth’s combination cook’s tour of 20th queer history in the UK and memoir of being a lesbian cartoonist born in 1950s Yorkshire. It covers attempts at local organising, queer publishing houses, and her experiences with trying to find a queer community, along with the shift in attitudes to queerness (and the massive amounts of work done to shift those attitudes) in culture and politics.

The cast is huge and frequently bewildering to me; Kate Charlesworth knew A LOT of organisers and creators, and I struggled to distinguish everyone and remember who they were and what role they had in her life. People are mentioned to have died, and I was left looking at the page blankly trying to work out whether it was anyone that had been mentioned before this! Despite that, I really did appreciate how well she managed to make it clear that she and her friends were aging, while keeping them recognisable. It helps that her drawings seem to be fairly accurate, based on the photographs and her depiction of celebrities, and I adored her ability to catch tiny, realistic expressions as well as the cartoonish exaggerations. And her depictions of the places she’s lived are excellent; her depiction of Manchester’s gay village was instantly recognisable! I also liked her coloured washes, and the way that they give immediate context for what time period you’re reading about.

The memoir parts are mostly done in comic form, while the history side of things is laid out like a scrapbook, full of sketches, photographs, activist badges, scribbled notes, and Gilbert & Sullivan parodies. I did have some problems with the panelling of the comics sections (there are sections where it’s unclear whether the page carries on across a double-page spread or not, which is a shame because those pages are often the best looking ones), but I really liked the scrapbook style. Some of it was chaotic, but for the most part it was full of visual interest and gave a lot of context to the movements and activism of the time. Her overviews were fascinating, especially of how there were wide gaps in opinions within the same activist groups, let alone the same queer communities. Plus, she does specifically acknowledge that bisexuality, trans people, and shifting cultural norms exist, which is such a change from the latest queer books I’ve read. It feels a little bit like discovering Dykes To Watch Out For as someone who wasn’t even born when it started being released; both of them are a steady, shifting acknowledgement of the way that our cultural approaches to queerness and gender are changing over time, both represent activism and politics as an integral parts of people’s identities, and both capture the historical attitudes of queer women, just in very different ways.

All that said, the ending itself didn’t hold up for me; I liked the idea of the aurora queerialis as an acknowledgement of how much things have changed and how many different ways there are to be queer, apart from the paths that she and her friends took, but I found its textual acknowledgement to be clunky. I’m also fundamentally suspicious of any narrative that posits that someone who was actively homophobic (in this case, Kate Charlesworth’s mother) was that way because they were queer themselves and in denial, but this is a memoir, and if that is how Kate Charlesworth chooses to remember and depict her mother, more power to her. I just found it tonally jarring, and a really odd note to end the book on.

What hits me hardest about Sensible Footwear is how much of it I didn’t know. I was at school during Section 28, which was a law the British government passed that banned schools from “promoting homosexuality”, and I didn’t even know about it until last year. Seeing it shown on page, seeing how angry people were about it, feels like validation of how angry I am knowing that “You are not broken or alone” was a message deemed too dangerous for me and other children. The recurring themes in queer histories is “We’re here, we’ve always been here,” and Sensible Footwear felt like Kate Charlesworth was throwing a guide rope back to give people like me – people who weren’t alive for most of this, people who don’t know where to look to find queer history – a link to the community’s past, and that is immensely valuable all on its own.

… Although let’s face it, as a queer lass from Lancashire, we all knew that I was going to give it the highest of recommendations from the moment it taught me that in 1960s Yorkshire, “bats for Lancashire” was a euphemism for being queer!

Caution warnings: Homophobia, the AIDs Crisis, sexual harassment, forced outing, references to historical treatment of queer people including aversion therapy and chemical castration.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Maggie reviews Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis

Boots of Leather Slippers of Gold

October is LGBT History Month in the US and Canada, so I thought I’d switch it up from romances and review some nonfiction. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis dives deep into the lesbian community of Buffalo, NY from the 30s to the 50s. Through hundreds of personal interviews with 45 women, Kennedy and Davis create an oral history of the community, covering such topics as the locations they frequented, class divisions, racism, butch/femme dynamics, sexuality, and dress, among other topics. Not only is it a book focusing solely on women, it is full of absolutely amazing personal anecdotes and quotes from all of their interviews. It is a phenomenally rewarding read that I whole-heartedly recommend.

This is an academic work, stretching over 13 years of research and interviews, and the care and attention to detail show. Kennedy and Davis meticulously document many aspects of the Buffalo community, how they related to the greater Buffalo community, and how the community changed over time. I really appreciated that the authors clearly laid out how they defined and were framing each topic and how it relates to other topics. It is an academic piece, but the writing is clear and easy to follow. Each theme is treated as a separate topic but also as simply one aspect of a whole community. I learned so much reading this – it rewarded slow reading so I could think about each topic, but it also would be easy to skim for topics of interests.

Even if you are not interested in a thorough analysis of the history of Buffalo’s lesbian community, this book is worth it for the personal anecdotes and firsthand accounts that pepper the book. The authors conducted hundreds of interviews with dozens of people who participated in the community. It’s jam-packed with personal stories, quotes, and details that are often left out of books. One page might recount the narrator’s experience in buying butch clothes, while another might describe how my new role model Sandy would fight back when men would harass her in bars, and then when the men pressed assault charges on her, would dress in borrowed femme clothes for court and get the charges thrown out by the judges, who didn’t believe that a woman could beat up a man that badly. It brings readers directly into the community, in the words of the women who participated in it. It’s not just an impersonal listing of facts, it’s a detailed portrait of real people.

In conclusion: if you are at all interested in lesbian history, this book is a must to track down. Not only did I learn a ton about queer history of this era, I spent so much time excitedly texting my friends about the interviews. I was delighted not only to learn about a broader time period, but also the little details that make it easier to connect to the past. The line between making the stories personal and archiving the history of the community in detail is fine, but this book walks it with confidence. I’m still resisting the urge to just mail it to my friends and demanding they read it.

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

We Still Demand edited by Patrizia Gentile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

secret-diaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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