Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest To Track Down The Last Remaining Lesbian Bars In America by Krista Burton

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This book really just had to live up to the title for me to love it, and it did.

Krista Burton used to run a blog called Effing Dykes that I followed and enjoyed, so I knew I was already a fan of her writing. In Moby Dyke, she weaves together a travelogue of lesbian bars, personal writing about her own life, and discussions about why lesbian bars keep closing.

In the introduction, Krista paints a picture of her journey to writing this book. She’s married to a trans man named Davin, and they’re about both middle-aged, living in rural Minnesota. When COVID hit and they were sheltering in place, Krista found that what she missed most was the “feeling of being in a packed, sweaty dyke bar, surrounded on all sides by queers so close they’re touching me, and then to feel someone with a drink in one hand try to inch past me.” But those kinds of bars kept closing. Where there was about 200 in the 1980s, it was down to 20 across the whole country. Pandemic or not, when was she going to experience that again?

And that’s how Moby Dyke was born. Krista made a plan to visit all 20 of the remaining lesbian bars in the United States. Each would be visited twice. She’d talk to at least two people at each bar. (Approaching strangers! In a lesbian bar!) And half of the time, she’d come with her husband, while half of the time, she’d go alone.

This is, of course, an exploration and celebration of these lesbian bars, each lovingly described, but that ended up not being the main draw for me. It was interesting to get a glimpse into these bars, but I’m unlikely to go to any of them, being neither a bar/club person nor from the U.S. Instead, I was pulled in by Krista’s personal writing as well as the discussion around lesbian bars.

This book has a charming, personal voice—it feels like a friend telling you a story. There are brief detours into the rest of Krista’s exploration of a city, and some glimpses into her personal life. It makes for a very readable book that somehow didn’t feel repetitive, even though each chapter is essentially the same thing: describing a new bar and recounting how patrons/owners answered her questions.

It’s interesting to get a broad look at how lesbian bars operate and how they describe themselves. Krista quickly found out that while these bars were usually owned by lesbians and were in some way lesbian bars, each of them said they “welcome everyone.” She discusses this push and pull between wanting be inclusive and wanting to have a space for queer people:

“Queers want dedicated spaces where they can go and have everyone around them be queer. That’s because that shit is fun. And it’s such a relief, not to mention so much safer, for us all to be able to be together. But most of us also want each and every version of queerness to be welcomed in those spaces, and who gets to decide who’s queer and who’s not?”

As one bar owner put it, “Sometimes [lesbian patrons] will look around and want to know why there’s ‘”so many men here,” and—she threw up her hands—’I don’t know what to tell you! How am I supposed to have a woman-centric space that’s a lesbian bar but also be fully inclusive? How?’”

I also found it interesting the many reasons people had, especially bar owners, for why lesbian bars keep closing: because queer women are more accepted into greater society now. Because lesbians have less money to spend than gay men. Because of infighting. Gentrification and rent price. Trump. The instability of time investment of running a bar. Lesbians don’t go out.

These discussions about queer spaces were fascinating to me, and I also liked seeing the many different ways that these spaces are designed. Each has its own feel, its own events, its own kind of community. I’m not about to go out and start a lesbian bar now, but I did find it inspirational. Queer groups and communities, especially between queer women, have a reputation of breaking down and dissolving in conflict. These many different bars, whether it’s a Black-owned queer cocktail bar or a rural lesbian bar covered in novelty signs, show that it’s worth trying to build something, and that they can survive—and even thrive.

I wasn’t sure if this would end up being a eulogy for lesbian bars, a document to preserve them before they all disappear forever, or whether it would be a celebration. Thankfully, it’s much more of the latter—spoiler alert: the number of lesbian bars has grown since she started writing the book!

If the title piqued your interest, definitely pick up Moby Dyke. It’s part travelogue, part memoir, and 100% queer.

A Genre-Defying Queer Black Memoir: The Black Period by Hafizah Augustus Geter

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In 2023, I was a judge for the Nonfiction category of the Lambda Literary Awards. One of the books I read—the one that ended up winning for the category—was The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin. This is a brilliant, expansive book that I don’t feel qualified to really speak about, because there are so many layers going on in this narrative.

Geter is a poet, and you absolutely tell in this memoir. There are so many shining lines—”Safer to be accepted than loved, I thought.”—even when describing seemingly inconsequential details, like, “Even though she laughed constantly, it was like every laugh took her by surprise.”

This book is an embodiment of the idea that the personal is political. While this is in some senses a memoir, it’s also much broader than that. Geter traces back how her life is connected to all that came before it: her disability is connected to her parents’ health problems, which are connected to the racism at the foundation of the United States.

This is why The Black Period doesn’t fit neatly into the memoir category: it’s also a history book, and a collection of essays about art criticism and Afrofuturist thought, and it’s also about the connected struggles of Indigenous and Black people in the United States. Oh, and it includes original artwork from her father, a well-respected artist in his own right.

I can’t believe this book, which has won multiple awards and made several “best of” lists, is still so underread, even now that it’s available in paperback. This would be a fascinating book to read in a group, or to study in a class. I need you all to go out and read it so we can talk about it together. It’s one I can’t stop thinking about.

A Queer Guide to Home Repair: Safe and Sound by Mercury Stardust

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I’ve been following Mercury Stardust, aka the “Trans Handy Ma’am” on Instagram for a while now to get my fix of approachable, around-the-house repair tips with an added bonus of corny dad jokes. Recently she released a complete guide for DIYers of all levels, specifically geared toward renters, and it’s a gem. Admittedly I haven’t really invested much in home repair books; having the magic of the internet, I typically just look up a video if I need to fix something around the house. The beauty of their book is that you get the best of both worlds. A bit of a handy reference book that has plenty of QR codes sprinkled throughout each section so you get a thorough explanation in text, the tools you need for the job, as well as a portal to a video for those of us who learn better with a visual demonstration. 

But before you run off in search of your left handed hammer, let’s take a beat and discuss some of what makes this book so special. Written by an industry professional, someone who has been a maintenance tech for years and knows how apartment complexes and landlords operate, the book provides lots of practical advice. There are plenty of nuts and bolts when it comes to maintenance, from a simple tightening of a loose door handle or how to hang a picture without damaging the wall, to weather stripping and outlet replacement. We also get the kind of direction our parents should have given us but totally didn’t—like how to budget for rent, and don’t forget to read the lease, kids!

Now I don’t know how many home repair books exist that suggest taking a break and acknowledging your feelings. That section seems to be omitted in the Black and Decker guide to home repair, which has 2000 photos, but no one to sit you down and tell you “hey, this sh*t is stressful, maybe eat a Snickers and take a deep breath.” But this is *queer* home repair, so we will be processing some emotions and *not* operating power tools while hangry. 

While plenty of DIY books and websites explain how to fix your house, not many tell you how to make it a home. And home is a word that is not just on the front cover, but appears many times throughout the book. You might be renting, but it’s still your home, your safe space. There are sections on how to match paint and snake a sink, but also ones to make you think about how many points of entry you have to your building, and how to pack a go bag for emergencies. How to ask for help before taking matters into your own hands, and what to do if that request is ignored by your landlord. This book should be on everyone’s holiday gift list this year, whether you rent or own, whether you’re getting your first place or have owned for years. 

The Audacity of a Point of View: Opinions by Roxane Gay

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In Opinions: A Decade of Arguments, Criticism, and Minding Other People’s Business, Roxane Gay (she/her), author of New York Times bestsellers Bad Feminist and Hunger, delivers an expertly curated collection of her opinion writing on a host of different topics from approximately 2013 to 2023, or what she describes as a “decade of massive social upheaval.” 

At the outset, I acknowledge that me sharing my opinions about Gay’s Opinions where she shares her opinions is confusing and meta. Stick with me anyway!

Opinions is timely and thought-provoking. It consists of sixty-six pieces separated into seven sections: Identity/Politics, The Matter of Black Lives, Civic Responsibilities, For the Culture, Man Problems, Minding Other Folks’ Business, and Solicited Advice. Each section contains several relevant pieces in order of original publication date. I really appreciated the way the book was organized because it set the tone for each piece before I read it and allowed me to experience the evolution of Gay’s thought process over several years. I also loved that each piece was between two and nine pages. It made the process of reading and absorbing each of Gay’s opinions much more manageable.

Opinions is provocative; Gay pulls no punches. Some of my favorite titles included: “No One Is Coming to Save Us from Trump’s Racism”; “You’re Disillusioned. That’s Fine. Vote Anyway.”; “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction”; and “I Thought Men Might Do Better Than This”. But Gay doesn’t just pen witty titles—her writing style is sharp and insightful. In “Cops Don’t Belong at Pride”, she discusses the history of Pride and her opinion that law enforcement should respect the boundaries of the LGBTQ community and not attend. In “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylan Roof”, Gay opines that Black people forgive because they need to survive and asserts that some acts are so terrible, they are beyond forgiving. In “Can I Enjoy Art but Denounce the Artist”, Gay weighs in on the longstanding debate of whether we should support the work of artists who behave badly.

Gay is bisexual and Haitian. As a fellow queer woman of color, I was so proud to read this book! Although I do not agree with every view Gay espouses, I respect her deeply as a pillar in the LGBTQ community and feel incredibly empowered by her audaciousness. Opinions is an engaging and worthwhile read that you can sit with and reflect upon over time.

If you want to get a flavor for Gay’s writing style, check her out on Twitter, where she shares her 280-character point of view on anything and everything, and on Goodreads, where she succinctly reviews her own books, as well as books from other authors.

Trigger warnings for all of the subjects of social upheaval in the last decade, including: child sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, abortion, police brutality, mass murder, school shootings, racism, homophobia, and misogyny.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey. She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

The Complexity of Being a Queer Refugee: From Here by Luma Mufleh

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Trigger warnings for this book: suicide attempts and ideation, homophobia, violence

Like a lot of Westerners, when I hear about countries with laws against homosexuality, I respond with instinctual aversion: “What a terrible place! I hope any queer people there can leave!” I imagine impediments like the law and its enforcers, economic hardship, language barriers, internalized homophobia.

Luma Mufleh’s memoir, From Here, was humbling. It showed how correct some of my assumptions were, but also how shallow and unempathetic.

Mufleh doesn’t shy away from depicting the homophobia she experienced growing up in Jordan. She shows how it could be terrifying, violent, and isolating. She shows how it made her vulnerable in so many ways. In one anecdote, she recounts learning as a teenager that there were words for people like her.

She refuses to allow that to define either her or her country. Instead, Jordan is her home, defined by her big, loud, loving family. A recurring love for her grandmother’s kibbeh struck me right in the heart. I’m sure many readers will recognize the heart and home of cooking with an older relative. For me, it also brought up memories of my first bite of kibbeh, eaten in the open-air market in Tel Aviv from a stall I identified by picking out letters I had memorized off a postcard.

Maybe some comparable experiences predisposed me to connect with this book, but I believe it can appeal to just about anyone. Who doesn’t understand having a hopeless crush, annoying sibling, or piercing teenage dream? The intimacy of the book humanizes Jordan and Mufleh, and her choice to leave never seems easy. Instead, it’s a wrench, tragically necessary decision that severs her from her sense of safety and immeasurable love.

The book is also a portrait of a woman seeking belonging. It can be and often is heartbreaking, how lost she felt, and how much she shut herself down just to survive. It touches briefly on how little the United States is culturally sensitive to, even aware of people from the Middle East. It can also be hilarious, like her attempt to bribe a cop and mild bewilderment at heavy Boston accents.

One thing surprised me: Mufleh makes little mention of her married life. This is her own tale of identity. Though she mentions her wife and children, though she clearly adores them, they are not centered: this is Mufleh’s story of identity. Often, media portrayals of queerness seem outwardly focused—if you don’t have a girlfriend or a wife or at least a one-night stand, are you even queer? (Yes. Yes you are.) It’s a simplistic, deeply heteronormative idea that queerness exists only as action. Instead, Muflleh’s personal story of her internal queer identity depicts yearning, isolation, and belonging in a way that feel so close it must be universal.

What is “Queer Enough?”: Greedy: Notes from a Bisexual Who Wants Too Much by Jen Winston

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In their book of essays, Jen Winston (she/they) covers various topics about her bisexual experience, from the adoption of random behaviors as “bisexual culture” out of a desperation to be seen to the grief of friendships evolving when your best friend becomes a “we.”

Winston talks through internalized biphobia and not feeling queer enough to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Throughout her journey of accepting her bisexuality, they learn that it’s not just an identity, but rather a lens through which to reimagine the world. This speaks to the idea that one’s sexual orientation is about more than just sex. It’s about breaking systems that hold us down and don’t allow us to demand what we deserve.

A few essays, especially toward the end of the collection, begin to show Winston’s journey through gender identity as well. She comes to the realization that much of her identity in womanhood is performative and created based on patriarchal values. Accepting their bisexuality led to an understanding of their gender being on the nonbinary spectrum.

BEGINNING OF TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

Winston also opens up about instances of rape and sexual assault in essays like “A Girl Called Rhonda,” “The Power Dynamic” and “The Neon Sweater.” She goes into quite a bit of detail about the events, working through the question that many who experience assault do: Is this really rape? The lines of consent feel blurred in different situations because of social conditioning that tells women not to make a fuss. They even discuss how active, verbal consent isn’t nuanced enough because everybody reacts differently to different situations. Not saying no doesn’t mean it’s a yes.

END OF TRIGGER WARNING

One of the most fun essays was a piece written in the fairytale format. Winston tells the story of being attracted to emotionally unavailable men, an issue that stems from a culture of fairytales.

Overall, this is a funny, heart-wrenching and provocative collection of essays.

A Queer Abolitionist History: The Women’s House of Detention by Hugh Ryan

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Since the days of lesbian pulp fiction, Greenwich Village has been seen as a gay hub, a refuge for queer people from all over the country. In this book, Hugh Ryan shows that part of the reason for that is because from the 1920s to 70s, it held The Women’s House of Detention, a jail/prison for women and transmasculine people, and many of the people held there were queer.

At first glance, this seems like a narrow focus typical of a very academic book. But as each chapter looks at the prison through the decades, we see how this is a microcosm of broad social issues at the time. The story of The Women’s House of Detention is the story of LGBTQ liberation, and it also illustrates how prison abolition is a necessity.

In the introduction, the author explains how he began this research believing prisons need serious reform, but after seeing how prison reform over the decades in The Women’s House of Detention has only ever resulted in larger prisons with more people packed into them, he now believes abolition is the way forward. The prison was first built with smaller cells so that prisoners would have more privacy, each with their own cell–and then years later, they started keeping multiple people in each. A hospital was added–and then years later, it was gutted to make room for more cells. Then a hospital was reinstated. Then it was gutted again. Any attempts at reform always deteriorated with time.

Each chapter looks at a few of the queer people imprisoned during that decade, telling their stories–at least, what we know of them. It’s a fascinating look into the horrors of the criminal justice system, past and present, as well as the no-win situations these people were put in. Many of them return multiple times, because once they had a criminal record, they had no legal means of making money.

Since each chapter focuses on personal stories as a window into the lives of queer women and transmasculine people during that time period in New York, it makes this accessible and readable. We also get a look into queer communities in each decade, including how the people in The Women’s House of Detention participated in Stonewall and previous protests, even if few people saw or heard about it.

The Women’s House of Detention itself is a complicated place for many of the people imprisoned there: the conditions were horrible, but they also found a queer community there.

I haven’t read as much queer history as I would like, but this is one of my favourite books I’ve read on the topic, and I highly recommend it. The discussion about prison abolition versus reform is relevant to the conversations we’re having today, and seeing a timeline of how this push and pull has played out over a 50-year time period is helpful background. Both for the personal stories and the overall message, you should definitely pick this one up.

Danika reviews How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler

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This may be my favourite book I’ve read this year, and there’s been some stiff competition.

How Far the Light Reaches is exactly what the subtitle promises: a life in ten sea creatures. It weaves together facts about aquatic animals with related stories from the author’s own life. For example, the beginning essay is about feral goldfish: how these goldfish released into the wild—which we think of as short-lived, delicate animals—are actually extremely hardy, taking over ecosystems and growing to huge sizes. In the same essay, Imbler describes queer communities: “Imagine having the power to become resilient to all that is hostile to us.”

This is an immersive, gorgeous book that reminded me of Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller, which I also loved. Clearly, I need to pick up more memoirs infused with writing about nature and animals. I would be interested in either of these versions of How Far the Light Reaches, if the two had been separated: the memoir or the science. Imbler’s writing on marine biology is accessible and fascinating, so while it’s not my usual genre, I was completely pulled in. By braiding these two threads together, though, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Essays structured like this could be gimmicky, but this book doesn’t use easy metaphors or simplify the biology side to lend itself better to the accompanying social commentary. Imbler, a science writer/reporter, shows their deep appreciation for these animals in their own right, and the two approaches complement each other without being reductive.

Their writing is in turns beautiful, funny, and striking, with so much packed into spare sentences. Like this passage: “Before the class, M knew how to draw whales and I did not. After the class, I was in love with M and they were not in love with me.” Even without any other context, it’s still so affective. And I had to laugh at their description of returning home to visit and checking dating apps: “I told myself I was there to see my old classmates, to see who was newly hot, newly gay, or both.”

While the queer content in Why Fish Don’t Exist was a bonus I wasn’t expecting later in the book, in How Far the Light Reaches, it’s at the heart of the book. It’s a gloriously queer narrative, exploring Imbler’s relationships, gender, and queer community more generally. They also discuss their mixed race identity, both personally and in relation to their mixed race partner. In one essay, they write about how to give a necropsy report of dead whales, and then they reiterate different versions of the necropsy report of a previous relationship (M, mentioned above), giving a different proposed cause of death each time.

I savored reading this book, looking forward to ending each day with an essay. It’s philosophical, curious, thought-provoking, and kind. It explores queer people as shapeshifters, as swarms, as immortal. I never wanted it to end. Even if you aren’t usually a reader of science writing—I usually am not—I highly recommend picking this one up, and I can’t wait to see what Imbler writes next.

Content warnings: discussion of weight and weight loss, fatphobia, war

Maggie reviews Another Appalachia by Neema Avashia

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Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia is part memoir, part collection of essays as Neema Avashia recollects growing up as part of a tiny Indian community in a majority white community in a corporate town in West Virginia and her subsequent relocation for college and then for a career in Boston. Through a series of anecdotes, she remembers the kindness of neighbors and coaches as she grew up and whenever she visits, her family’s experiences in creating their own small Indian community and what that meant for their kids, and how she reconciled those experiences with her adult life away from West Virginia. Avashia’s queer realization happened later in life, once she’d already left West Virginia, but she spends plenty of page time talking about her efforts to integrate being queer, being Indian, and being from West Virginia, while being a Boston Public School teacher.

I always love a narrative about being from a rural area and being queer. Indiana is a little different flavor of rural than West Viriginia, but the underlying themes still resonate strongly. I especially resonated with her continual meditations on being happily settled in an urban area on one hand, but missing the sense of community or some traditions on the other, and on yet a third hand being unable to fit back in when driven to re-visit.  It’s a theme that I think will be familiar with many readers from rural areas who left, as are her continual efforts to decide who is safe to introduce her wife to, and to integrate her family and friends’ expectations for how a relationship progresses into her lived reality as a queer woman. Avashia handles these topics deftly, balancing good memories with bad and childhood nostalgia with a more nuanced adult perspective in a way I appreciated.

Avashia also spends a lot of time on her roots versus her moving on with her adult life, which I deeply felt reading this on a bus in Pittsburgh while reflecting on my own roots. Her meditations on her father’s expansive and caring definition of community, how her neighbors growing up took care of each other, and her efforts to apply those values to her urban life in Boston, where she didn’t even know her neighbors, is impactful and emotional. She struggles with her identity as an Appalachian writer who lives in Boston, as an Indian woman who connects to her heritage and culture differently than her parents and extended family because of where she grew up, and as a queer woman who had no context for that growing up. Avashia’s blunt, honest writing attempts to bridge the gap between past and present and is extremely easy to fall into, covering a wide range of topics in one, conveniently travel-sized book.

In conclusion, if you are looking for an impactful memoir to read this summer, Another Appalachia is an excellent book to check out. It’s not a long read, but it’s emotional. You could make an afternoon of it, or it’s perfect for small moments like a commute.  If you resonate with the material, you will appreciate the nuance, empathy, and compassion she brings to the rural experience. And if you’re new to the experience, this collection will be full of depth and understanding. I can’t recommend it enough for people looking for a queer memoir.

Danika reviews Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life by Rowan Ellis

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It was interested to read this book at about twice its target demographic, because it made me reflect back on how I learned this sort of information when I was a teen. This is a YA nonfiction book introducing queer girls to the basics of what it means to be a queer girl (or think you might be one). My first impression after finishing it was that it didn’t offer a lot that was new, but then I realized that a) it is likely new to the queer teens reading it and b) that I guess there haven’t really been self help books specifically for queer teen girls before! It feels like that should have happened by now, but I can’t think of any.

I liked that this is a highly illustrated, colourful book with glossy pages, which I think makes it a little more accessible. Speaking of accessible, though, I did find that some elements of the design left pages hard to read, with small font or dark text against a dark background.

It’s divided into three parts: Coming Out, Doing It, and Finding Your Community. The advice overall is fairly vague: how do you know if you’re queer? No one else can tell you. Take your time. Pay attention to how you feel. These are all accurate, but I’m not sure how helpful I would have found it as a teen. For me, I learned about this stuff mostly pieced together from tumblr posts, which probably isn’t the best source, but it worked fairly well for me. I would have appreciated more practical tips, but I know it’s tricky to get into specifics on topics that are so different from person to person.

One aspect I really appreciated was that Ellis brought in several different people who represent other experiences in the queer community, including being a queer woman of colour, being trans and queer, and being disabled and queer. They have an essay each to talk about their own lives and give advice to queer teen girls, which I think is really valuable. (Unfortunately, those are the sections that are hardest to read because of the design.)

While I kept reminding myself that this is meant as an introduction, it sometimes felt like it fluctuated between providing introductory, very general advice and including things that don’t have enough context for someone encountering this concept for the first time. For instance, the Stonewall Riots are described as: “… outside a bar in New York, tensions boiled over into an uprising. Police raids at the The Stonewall Inn were nothing new, but something was different this time around.” It doesn’t explain what it means for a gay bar to have a police raid, or what the specific mistreatment was that was being protested. It goes on to name some of the people involved, then says the riots lasted for days and that they inspired Pride celebrations that continue today, but I think if this was the first I’d heard of the Stonewall Riots, I wouldn’t really get what happened to start them.

I think the concept of this book is strong, but it didn’t live up to what I wanted from it. Then again, I’m not a teen queer girl, and I am glad that a book exists specifically for their questions, even if the answers aren’t exactly what I’d like to see. It is trans-inclusive and also addresses questioning your gender, which is great! While I don’t whole-heartedly recommend it, I do think there will be teens who appreciate having access to it, so it will be a good title to stock for public and school libraries (for the librarians who order, stock, and defend queer books: you are heroes who deserve so much better).

I hope that soon there will be many more advice and self help books for queer teen girls!