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.

Sheila Laroque reviews Nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

Nîtisânak is the Cree word for family; and Linday’s non-fiction account of growing up punk, queer and Indigenous in smaller cities of the Canadian prairies will resonate with many folks from many walks of life. After all, the concept of a ‘chosen family’ has been discussed widely in queer writings before, but nîtisânak brings new perspectives and ways of writing that will appeal to a broader audience. The text is peppered with shorthand, acronyms, and other shorthand ways of writing that makes the text feel less formal. The way that Lindsay writes feels very organic to Internet message boards and a Twitter-savvy audience; without feeling forced. This makes sense, because part of their story discusses the importance of Internet messaging boards in the punk scene on the prairies to find the next shows and a sense of community.

Lindsay’s story takes place in many of the same cities as my own. Reading this book at times feels like it could have been written by myself, or any other of my friends from when I was younger. Their story takes place largely in Regina, Saskatchewan which is a rival city to where I grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They then move to Edmonton, Alberta and have a tumultuous and in many aspects an abusive relationship with a girlfriend that is referred to as B2B. This acronym stands for ‘back to black’, in reference to the Amy Winehouse album of the same name. Nixon’s description of this relationship of being both something beautiful and something that was the source of a great deal of pain for them resonated a great deal for me. Romantic relationships blend into familial relationships; and Nixon highlights with great care some of the foundational ways that young queer friendships can also create the same family bond and structure in our lives.

Peppered throughout this work are different prayers that are numbered. Setting aside the text like this gives the sense that these parts are special and need to be paid attention to. They are different than prayers that many people would have likely encountered in other contexts. For example, prayer 3 states: “Thank you to all the trees who breathe in poison on the daily, who gift us the air that we breath and the wind that propels everything forward”. These moments stand out in the text, while other Cree words are used seamlessly, without definition or italics. In a way that makes the Cree language just as another part of the text, and another part of their story. Cree is spoken widely enough that the curious reader could easily look up the words in any online Cree dictionary to the definitions of a new word. By just leaving it as it is, Lindsay is inviting the reader into their reality and the worldview that they and their family hold. This choice of writing style also signals that the work is for an Indigenous audience; to whom might not have seen themselves reflected in other coming of age stories. Being queer, Indigenous and punk in a particular local prairie context is an important story that can reflect back pieces of our own realities to us; even if we ourselves are not necessarily those things.

This is an important piece of writing that will appeal to people from many different backgrounds and families. I would give this a 4 out of 5 stars.

Sheila is a queer Métis woman, living in her home territory of Edmonton, AB, Canada. She has worked in a number of libraries across Canada, but being back in the public library has given her the space to rekindle some love with books and reading. She also co-hosts a podcast about Indigenous publishing called masinahikan iskwêwak (which is Cree for Book Women) with two other Métis librarians. The podcast can be found at https://bookwomenpodcast.ca/; and Sheila tweets at @SheilaDianeL.

Danika reviews The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat & Fierce edited by Angie Manfredi

The (Other) F Word edited by Angie Manfredi

This isn’t an entirely queer collection, but it refreshingly diverse. There are eleven queer contributors, which is about a third of the entries! LGBTQ Reads just put up a post that has notes from these contributors about their entries, so you can check that out if you want more details. There are also lots of indigenous authors and authors of colour, which offers a much more complex look at how being fat is experienced in different contexts by different bodies.

When I was a teenager, I read Fat!So? by Marilyn Wann, and it had a profound impact on me. It introduced me to the idea of fat positivity, and Wann exuded happiness and confidence and whimsy from the pages, which made it feel possible to accept my own body. It continues to be something I work on, but since that time, my relationship to my body has improved dramatically. I am so happy to see The (Other) F Word, because I know that this book will be able to serve that purpose for teens growing up now. And even better, this book can reach so many people because it represents a variety of perspectives.

Honestly, just the inclusion of photos of all the contributors is so nice to see even now, but it would have blown me away as a teenager. They show fat people looking proud, happy, fashionable, artistic, and confident. They are different sizes and races, with their own styles and personalities. A Korean American plus size fashion model poses sweetly in a bikini on the beach. A black fat femme journalist smiles from their professional head shot. A fat white artist and activist wearing a cat-patterned shirt smiles in her selfie. One of the things that helped me become more fat positive was following fat tumblrs and blogs, because just seeing people happy in their fat bodies is revolutionary.

I’ll be honest: this isn’t a book focused on queer content. Usually in collections like this, I will pull out the queer pieces and talk about them in depth, but although there are a lot of queer contributors, it’s usually mentioned in passing. I don’t think that’s a drawback, but it is a departure from what I usually review at the Lesbrary, so I wanted to be upfront about that.

I think this is an essential addition to any high school library, or any book collection teenagers have access to. Between the poetry, anecdotes, advice, and humour, there will be something here for anyone to connect to. This is really a book that could change lives, and I hope it gets into the hands that need it.

Megan G reviews We Love You, But You’re Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O’Reilly

We Love You, But You're Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O'Reilly

“The first place homosexual should be able to turn to is the Church. Sadly, it is often the last.”

I am deeply honoured to have been given the opportunity to read and review We Love You, But You’re Going to Hell by Dr. Kim O’Reilly. This is a very important book, one of which I believe we need many more of in this world.

This nonfiction book delves into the current crisis of Homosexuality vs Christianity. In her introduction, Dr. O’Reilly encourages people to read this book even if it is simply to strengthen their own beliefs. She clearly wants to get this book in the hands of as many people as possible and to encourage discussion. The introduction is non-confrontational, something I think is very important when dealing with issues like this. It is merely asking that people read this book with an open mind, to question both their currently held beliefs and the ideas given throughout the book. It leaves the door open for a lack of change of mind – which, when challenging people’s long-held beliefs, particularly religious beliefs, is incredibly wise.

As I was reading this, I could think of about ten people I wanted to pass it on to, friends and family alike. It covers a variety of topics, almost all of which are brought up in most debates about homosexuality. It answers questions, gives private testimony, and also analyzes scripture in a way that few likely have.

This book works as a marvelous introduction to the debate of Homosexuality vs Christianity. It encourages further study, but gives brief overviews and thoughts based on the author’s own beliefs. It would be perfect for anybody who has never challenged their own beliefs on this topic. Someone who maybe just found out a loved on is queer and is struggling with their love for them vs their love for God. Someone who wants to know more, or who wants to hear an opposing view on a strongly held belief. Personally, as somebody who has been deeply invested in this particular topic for going on a decade, I felt it a little light at parts, as though the author could have gone deeper. However, I am fully aware that I am not the target audience for this book, and that by going deeper or heavier Dr. O’Reilly may have alienated some of those who are the target audience. So, in many ways, I understand why she did it.

One thing to be aware of about this book is that it is very United States-centric. It is clearly written by an American and for Americans. Because of this, as a Canadian, there were a lot of things I was lost on, or that I felt weren’t present in my own experience growing up as a queer Christian. While this is not enough of a negative for me not to want to show this book to other non-American’s, it is something I feel I have to warn about, as in some sections the amount of American-centrism was quite jarring (at one point the author states that one member of the couple being a citizen of the United States is a requirement for being married with no follow-up specifying that this is obviously only a requirement in the United States).

There also isn’t a lot of discussion about transgender issues, or people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, or polysexual. Similar to what I said above, this could be because the author felt it would alienate the target audience to throw so much queer vocabulary at them. I am not sure. But it is something to be aware of.

My final criticism, and this is really the only one that might hold me back from giving this book to certain people, is that too often there are quotes for which no reference is provided. Almost every quote credited to “anonymous” does not have a source, and there are multiple quotes throughout the book that are not credited to any speaker and do not have a source. This lack of crediting causes these quotes to lose credibility – after all, anonymous could be the author herself for all we know. Because of this, I would be hesitant to give this book to any academically-minded Christians, or really anyone who would read this with the intention of proving it wrong. Seeing as the author is a University professor, this feels like a surprising oversight.

Despite these things, however, I still feel this is a very important book. I would recommend it not only to Christians who are unsure about their views on homosexuality, or who are looking for something to challenge them, but also to any member of the LGBT community who has felt alienated by the church. I hope that this book sparks more similar books – not just for Christians, but for people of all religions.

Tierney reviews Real Queer America by Samantha Allen

Real Queer America by Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen’s Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States is a must-read for all LGBTQ Americans, regardless of whether they hail from or live in red states. Following the motto “Something gay every day,” Allen and her friend Billy took a road trip across the Midwest and South in summer 2017, visiting places like LGBTQ centers and gay bars from Utah to Georgia, and uncovering queer and trans stories along the way.

Allen’s travelogue is an important and necessary response to the common societal narrative of LGBTQ folks fleeing their rural small towns to big cities on either coast the minute they get the chance. Allen showcases the vibrant, resilient, interconnected LGBTQ community that exists wherever there are LGBTQ folks – and especially in places where the community has had to band together and organize to push back against political or societal adversity. Allen makes no bones about the fact that life in a big (and expensive) city like New York is absolutely not for her: her book is a love letter to the places that have shaped her into the queer, trans woman that she is today, and to all the places that hold those wondrous possibilities for others in the LGBTQ community.

The LGBTQ community Allen depicts is so much more than gay bars (though she certainly depicts some awesome ones, like the Back Door in Bloomington, Indiana, and WonderLust in Jackson, Mississippi): she tenderly paints a picture of queer gathering spaces and networks of support, and she places the people who bring these spaces and movements alive front and center. Real Queer America reads smoothly, like cruising down the highway with the wind in your hair and the open road ahead of you – you feel like you’re along for the ride with her and Billy, like you’re hearing from the folks she interviewed yourself, firsthand. Allen invites you into their world, and their struggles and triumphs become your own, all members of one big, beautiful community together.

Throughout the book, Allen pays particularly loving attention to sharing the stories of trans and gender nonconforming folks across the southern and midwestern United States, starting with her own story of the development of her identity, from attending BYU as an unhappy Mormon student furtively wearing women’s clothing, to coming out and transitioning as a graduate student at Emory, to meeting her wife-to-be on a summer research trip to the Kinsey Institute (you just can’t make up a queerer meet-cute!). Through her travels we meet trans parents and partners, business owners and politicians, activists and youth – each person richly described, and illuminated by their relationships to the places that have made them the people they are today.

Real Queer America is a gorgeous patchwork of a book, bringing together so many places in America and people in the LGBTQ community, interwoven with Allen’s thoughtful musings and memories, solid yet accessible connections to theory and statistics, zippy pop culture references, and even a center spread of road trip photos (be still my heart!). It’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser, with something for everyone – approachable and thoroughly enjoyable for anyone on the LGBTQ spectrum, no matter where they are in their own journey. Allen’s work pays tribute to the undersung backbone of queer America.

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

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 writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha cover

This is a book that I will be processing for a long time. It is beyond almost anything I’ve read before. I’m not proud to say that I have very little knowledge around ableism and disability activism, which is part of why I picked up Care Work (The other being that Bodymap, Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.) This work is about disability justice: disability activism that centres queer and trans black, indigenous, and people of colour. It encourages leadership by the most impacted, people who are experts in ableism and the other interlocking oppressions that they live with every day, and who have spent years fighting a system that works against them. Disability justice sees ableism as intertwined with colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and all of the others ways that bodies are policed and evaluated.

I am having trouble writing this review, because there is so much here to think about. I will muddle through and share some highlights, but I definitely recommend picking this up for yourself.

Care Work is a collection of essays, and it’s packed full of ideas, ranging from theory, history, memoir, advice and tips, and more–that I have to stop frequently to digest it. Here are just a few ideas that really stopped me in my tracks and made me think:

  • Piepzna-Samarasinha refers often to her “bodymind,” which seem to relate the mind as part of the body, an integrated whole–it reminded me of The Body Is Not an Apology, which discusses how policing of the body is a commonality of many types of oppression, including ableism against neurodivergent people.
  • The concept of “crip doulas” to guide disabled people into the community and share resources and tips for navigating the system. This is such a powerful idea, and I see the echo of it in queer communities, where many people would have loved to have a queer elder to provide wisdom in navigating their new identities. This is a beautiful vision of a future where interdependence is celebrated, and community is guaranteed.
  • Care Work talks about Octavia Butler’s books as disability justice narrative, which really made me think about that story in a new light.
  • I love the idea of “prefigurative politics:” acting as if the revolution has already happened. . Spending more time building than attacking, and focusing on power and not powerlessness. I think this is a powerful idea in activism, to not spend all of our time and energy criticizing a terrible system, and instead using some of those resources to build our own networks.
  • I was intrigued by the way that parents are talked about in this text, as not being directly targeted by ableism, but being restricted by much of the same system. Disability justice includes accessibility not just for neurodivergent and disabled people, but also for parents (by making sure that child care is provided).
  • A quotation by Qwo-Li Driskill, which says that one way ableism works is that disabled people “are not even present within the imaginations of a supposedly radical future,” really stuck with me.
  • Care Work does not present a monolith of ideas or opinions. Although these are all essays by Piepzna-Samarasinha, she pulls in works and ideas from other disability justice activists, and details differences in opinions. For instance, she advocates for strong personal networks of care while also recognizing the difficulties in maintaining them, and mentions a friend of hers who explains not wanting to rely on a personal network because she doesn’t want to have to be well-liked in order to use the washroom.

Reading Care Work required me to sit with some discomfort, because it helped me to face my own ableism and try to confront that. It reminded me in how many careless, thoughtless ways I prioritize abled people and fail to consider people whose bodyminds differ from my own. When I came across a mention of the “ugly laws” and looked into them, I was appalled that I had never heard of them, which from the mid-1700s to the 1970s across the United States and other cities and countries around the world made illegal “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view.” This such an obvious and horrific injustice–to dictate which bodies are allowed to be seen in public life–that it is a profound statement to me of how much I have to learn when I didn’t know this basic, crucial piece of history. I am angry at myself for not learning this, but I am also angry that this was never taught to me in my education.

Another takeaway I have from this book is how much disability justice is fighting a world that would be better for every single person. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s love letter to femmes made me think about how everyone should live in a world where we can feel safe and valued no matter what. It made me think of Elana Dykewomon’s quotation:

Almost every womon I have ever met has a secret belief that she is just on the edge of madness, that there is some deep, crazy part within her, that she must be on guard constantly against ‘losing control’ — of her temper, of her appetite, of her sexuality, of her feelings, of her ambition, of her secret fantasies, of her mind.

It made me think of how that fear is driven by the way we treat the “mad” or “crazy.” About how Piepzna-Samarasinha refers to the “not(yet)-disabled.” I think about all the disabled and neurodivergent people who are being prevented from living their lives, through denial to care and inaccessibility and stigma. And also those people who don’t have a label for who they are, or who hide that idea even from themselves. And the people who are constantly afraid that they are “crazy” or not enough or too much, and that if they are found out they won’t be loved or valued or supported. Disability justice doesn’t have to benefit abled people to be worth supporting, of course, but I am inspired by this movement that is fighting tooth and nail to try to inch towards the future we all should be aspiring to, and am infuriated by the system that counters them at every turn.

In case it isn’t already obvious, this is a powerful, brilliant book. I can imagine it would be life-changing for so many people, and even if it isn’t directly applicable to your own experience, I highly recommend giving it a try and absorbing what you can. I’m grateful that Care Work exists, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

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.