Log in to Frontiers
Consider expanding your intelligence and imagination in 2016 by getting a new book. It may become something of a friend.
By Karen Ocamb
December 25, 2015 :: 6:14 PM
One balmy afternoon in 1989, I sat with LGBT pioneer Hay Harry on a cliff over looking Silver Lake listening in rapt wonder as he explained his founding of the Mattachine Society and the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Like many Baby Boomers, I had been a student protester against the Vietnam War, a Women’s Libber at the dawn of the feminist movement; I’d gone to Woodstock and dabbled in Maoism and the occult in a purple haze of LSD. I identified as androgynous, though I generally eschewed labels of any kind. It wasn’t until I got clean and sober in 1980 that I realized I was hiding behind hippie obfuscation, ashamed to come out. I had been intentionally ignorant of all things LGBT and Harry was graciously catching me up. It was from Harry Hay that day that I learned that gay people are an identifiable people, with our own unique culture, history and sensibility.
Writer/activist Stuart Timmons wrote Harry’s biography, The Trouble With Harry Hay, which he brought to L.A. City’s historical dedication of the Mattachine Steps on April 7, 2012, held up then-mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti. The dedication also marked Harry’s 100th birthday celebration. These are the steps that lead up to the cliff overlooking Silver Lake.
As a journalist previously immersed in mainstream media, I studied LGBT history by listening to the stories told by these older gays and lesbians. Fact checking proved difficult, however, since each insisted that their story was The Truth and the others were just plain lying.
Luckily, since I treated each person with respect, even while challenging them at times, I was respected in turn, yielding to once-unbelievable moments such as the photo above of feuding foes Harry Hay, Morris Kight—seemingly the co-founder of everything—and Jim Kepner, the original community reporter during the 50s and early 60s and hoarder of gay publications that turned into an important gay archives.
Jim and I were seatmates during the trip from Los Angeles to Sacramento in 1991 for one of the final protests against Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of AB 101. He, too, regaled me with stories about the early days of One magazine and the ongoing spats that might have started out as political and philosophical differences but often devolved into plain old personality disputes, or vice versa. He gave me a copy of his book Rough News – Daring Views: 1950s’ Pioneer Gay Press Journalism to help me better understand the historical context.
At a huge pioneer party thrown by Robin Tyler, I got to meet and briefly interview Lisa Ben, who created the first lesbian publication with a mimeographed newsletter called “Vice-Versa;” Jose Julio Sarria, founder of the Imperial Court of San Francisco and the first out gay person to run for public office in 1961; and Hal Call, the more conservative gay rights activist who ousted Harry Hay from the Mattachine Society. Though I only used a few quotes for the article I wrote, I learned immensely from their stories.
But while oral histories are immediately captivating, there is something so pleasurable, so luxurious and so intimate about diving between the covers of a good book and surrendering to the magical story told within.
Sometimes the stories were soul-wrenchingly difficult. In the inexplicable era of AIDS, the struggle over life and death was no mere metaphor, though often books like Albert Camus’ The Plague were invoked to try to explain the existential horror of death on such a massive scale.
But more often, it was the deeply personal terror of having a loved one’s beautiful life slip away one ugly minute after another, as Paul Monette wrote in his aching AIDS love story Borrowed Time, that captured the ineffable loss. Monette, pictured above with playwright Terrance McNally at the first GLAAD/LA Awards in 1991, forsook his pleasant life as an entertainment industry fiction writer to become one of the leading voices of his dying generation. Actor Bruce Davison says he relied heavily on Borrowed Time for his Best Supporting Oscar nominated performance in the 1989 film Longtime Companion.
This was the time before the miracle three-drug cocktail and Paul felt the clock ticking. He wrote as much as he could, for as long as he could—including a wonderful 1994 essay about his dog Puck (seen here with Paul and Republican AIDS activist Mary Fisher, an artist and fellow author ).
In an article about Paul’s book Last Watch of the Night, the Chicago Tribune wrote:
Monette opens the book with a winsome, witty paean to his trusty dog Puck, half ridgeback, half lab. He takes us on their evening walks as Puck roots ahead through the chaparral. Gradually, Puck becomes companion, responsibility, pest, joyful diversion. And solace: Man and dog have lived together through the deaths of Monette’s lovers, Roger and Steve. He describes other charmer canines-a runaway one-eyed Pekingese named Pepper as well as a young, energetic boxer called Buddy. But Puck remains the Main Dog:
“I spent the first annihilating year of grief dragging myself out of bed because somebody had to let the dog out, writing so I wouldn’t have to think. I can’t count the times when I’d crawl under one of the tables where Puck lay sleeping, to hold him so I could cry.”
Like dogs, books are often an LGBT person’s good friend.
Straights were often caught off guard by our twisted gallows humor during the AIDS crisis, though for us it was relief from the perpetual stress of treading emotional water. For instance, on my main bookshelf I positioned a profile portrait of Michael Callen to look at an old skull prop and poof—a spoof with Michael as an AIDS-reflective Hamlet staring undecidedly at long dead “poor Yorick,” a “fellow of infinite jest.”
Before he died in early 1994, Michael showed me scores of letters he’d received from gay men with AIDS who’d found hope in his 1990 book, Surviving AIDS, which challenged the belief that an AIDS diagnosis was an automatic death sentence. Michael believed he’d acquired the disease in the 1982 soup of STDs that he and his peers proudly sported as red badges of gay sexual liberation. Michael was not only a serious early AIDS activist (before ACT UP), but he was actually an amazing singer, too. Actor Tom Hanks told me he listened to Michael’s music in preparing for his Oscar-winning performance in the 1993 movie Philadelphia.
We were lucky that a number of these gay liberation and AIDS warriors put their oral histories into books—and plays such as those by Larry Kramer and others—that allowed so many more people to grasp that lived history we, as a gay people, were experiencing.
In an essay posted on the Good Men Project, gay writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis shares how he inexplicably chose Larry Kramer’s Faggots out of all the gay books on the shelves of A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco. He then offers lists of “five indispensable books” provided by leading LGBT writers—it’s interesting to see how many chose James Baldwin’s 1956 classic Giovanni’s Room. Denizet-Lewis closes with:
“I thought I would leave you with some terrific advice—too often unheeded in my own life, I’m ashamed to admit—courtesy of John Waters. ‘We need to make books cool again,’ he said. ‘If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.’”
Take that as you want, but the sentiment is spot-on. Books enrich our lives, especially for LGBT people who do not find themselves reflected in public schools’ curriculum. It still falls on us to educate ourselves on our LGBT history to better find our place in the world.
That said, here are some books you might find interesting to usher you into the new year. Please note that there are many, many books to recommend—too many to mention here—so I urge you to check in with Lambda Literary Foundation, which talks about, reviews and promotes LGBT books. They also have a newsletter and a monthly book club at the West Hollywood Library, as well as other events locally.
Since I’ve talked so much about AIDS and our “lost generation,” let me first mention Sean Strub’s remarkable “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival.” I first met Sean when he came to L.A. to promote David Drake’s hit play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which Sean produced, (pictured above, left, with ANGLE politico and entertainment manager Bill Melamed and David Drake). He had been the first openly HIV-positive person to run for Congress in 1990 and he subsequently founded the aggressively activist POZ Magazine, for which I occasionally wrote.
In some ways, Sean’s story is that of the quintessential gay AIDS survivor. Out of college, he enthusiastically plunged into Democratic politics until his life was “hijacked” by AIDS. Diagnosed in 1985, he had one T-cell 10 years later, his body covered with KS (Kaposi’s Sarcoma) lesions and extreme trouble breathing. “I started to see events in my life as ‘last times’; the last time I would visit my parents in Iowa, the last time I would fly on an airplane, the last time I would enjoy a meal at a favorite restaurant. Once, when I made love to Xavier, I thought it might be the last time. When a postcard arrived to remind me of an upcoming dental checkup, I threw it away,” he writes.
And then came the triple-drug combination therapy in 1996 and Lazarus-like, Sean returned to life—a full, active and political life. He now heads the Sero Project fighting HIV criminalization around the country.
Another book to consider is Mark Segal’s memoir, And Then I Danced: Traveling The Road To LGBT Equality. Mark is an original in the gay press movement as founder of the Philadelphia Gay News in 1976. But his story stretches from Stonewall in 1969 to his audacity interrupting the “most trusted man in America,” CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, to 2014 and his activism for non-discrimination legislation and marriage equality. The dance to which the title refers was at the White House.
“I was so busy moving forward that I didn’t have time to reflect on the history that my fellow activists and I created. All I knew in 1969 was that, as an eighteen-year-old with no prospects for a future, I’d left home and found myself in New York City, standing outside a bar called Stonewall, in the middle of a riot that would ignite the struggle for LGBT equality.”
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution: How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone was written by philosopher, political columnist and ally Linda Hirshman (seen above with political activist/author David Mixner) before the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality nationwide. “Fueled by its moral ambition, the gay movement is the model of a new era. It is ironic, yet fitting, that the only counterpart to the morally driven gay revolution is its contemporary and fiercest opponent, the morally driven religious right,” she writes. “Indeed, it is the moral certainty of the gay revolution that explains why, unlike the racial and feminist movements, it has been able to stand up to that powerful counterforce and, slowly but surely, prevail.”
Lillian Faderman’s epic sweep of LGBT history, The Gay Revolution: the Story of the Struggle, is a New York Times bestseller. One marvels at how she can tell such important detailed stories from the 1950s, when homosexuality was a perverse mental illness and against the law to June of 2015 when the Supreme Court granted full marriage rights to same sex couples.
But it is this very perspective that Faderman (pictured above with her partner of over 40 years, Phyllis Irwin) knows, observed and has experienced as it happens that makes this scholar’s historical account, chockfull of footnotes, so riveting and respectful. “Yet despite the virulent prejudice that remains,” she writes, “despite Congress’ failure to pass an Equality Act, such as Bella Abzug and Ed Koch had proposed more than forty years earlier, that would in one fell swoop give LGBT people complete, first-class citizenship; despite occasional setbacks, it’s undeniable: the arc of the moral universe has been bending toward justice. Frank Kameny’s observation bears repeating: ‘We started with nothing, and look what we have wrought!’”
There are three books on the marriage movement that should be required reading for LGBT activists. Winning Marriage: The Inside Story Of How Same-Sex Couples Took On The Politicians And Pundits — And Won is written by Marc Solomon, (pictured with longtime friend L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and former spokesperson for President Bill Clinton, DeeDee Meyers) who lead the marriage project in California under Geoff Kors and Equality California and then went to Freedom to Marry. But this book is about his own earlier strategic political experience protecting the first marriage victory in Massachusetts against forces trying to undo that state’s court ruling, lead by then-Gov. Mitt Romney.
Forcing The Spring: Inside The Fight For Marriage Equality, is by Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Jo Becker (right, with federal Prop 8 plaintiffs Kris Perry and Sandy Stier) who had almost full access to all the players and the federal trials challenging the constitutionality of California’s anti-gay marriage initiative, Prop 8. Becker actually broke some news when the book came out in 2014: the daughter of Prop 8’s ProtectMarriage attorney Charles Cooper came out as gay during the trial and Cooper’s views “evolved,” with him helping to plan her wedding!
Then there’s the incomparable Roberta Kaplan, (pictured with the inimitable Edie Windsor) who weaves an incredible personal memoir into her tale of how she won the fierce battle against the harmful Defense of Marriage Act. Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA is both a page-turner and a lesson in truth-telling, political correctness be damned. (See my interview with Roberta here.)
A lot of LGBT progress must also be seen in a political context, especially in terms of the inspiring Illinois State Sen. Who became a U.S. Senator and then the first African America President of the United States, Barack Obama. To get a feel for the political atmosphere in which hope turned to suspicion and anger, please check out a terrific book of essays published in 2010, mid-way in Obama’s first term, Obama and the Gays: A Political Marriage edited by Chicago gay press icon Tracy Baim. Tracy was the first to interview Obama when he was running for state senate and subsequently produced a questionnaire in which he said he supported gay marriage. I contributed a few essays, too, about Prop 8 and the LGBT activism that exploded after Prop 8 passed.
But for a political thriller where you might know the outcome but not how we got there—please pick up Kerry Eleveld’s Don’t Tell Me To Wait: How The Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency. I first met Kerry in 2007 when we were covering the first-ever Democratic presidential forum in Los Angeles hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and Logo. She went on to be The Advocate’s Washington DC-based reporter covering the White House and Capitol Hill for four years, including interviewing Obama.
Don’t Tell Me To Wait captures the excitement, the disappointment—including Obama’s relationship with anti-gay Rick Warren of the Orange County-based Saddleback Church—the tension between the new White House and the LGBT community, the DNC screw-ups and especially the role played by grassroots activists like Get Equal’s Robin McGehee and the new and growing power and influence of LGBT bloggers. But while Kerry details the dynamics that resulted in the changes we see today, she also shares her personal dilemma being both a journalist and an LGBT person impacted by developments. She writes of that exuberant and horrific night Barack Obama was elected and Prop 8 passed in California:
“As I tapped out an election-night story in the wee hours of the morning from my Chicago hotel room, news from the West Coast drama peppered my inbox. I wasn’t just any journalist that night; I was a journalist working for the LGBT news magazine The Advocate. This one was personal. And as I tried to reconcile Grant Park’s euphoria with the Castro’s heartbreak, I faced an uncomfortable truth: the culmination of one great movement was joyously settling into the soul of America just as another movement realized that the most fundamental piece of their humanity was still not welcome, even in a progressive stronghold like California.
Barack Obama had been central to both dramas.”
I felt the same way.
Aside from indulging your own curiosity in LGBT history—if you can suggest any book for Harvey Milk Day in public schools, please consider any of these to share with others.
Finally, going back to John Waters point about making books “cool again”—perhaps one way to do that is by noting the ingenuity of LGBT culture. In the really bad old days, coming out could automatically mean gay-bashing, harassment, family rejection, shock therapy and even death. But the need to meet others like oneself was great. The Bar Area Reporter recently ran a story about historic gay bars from San Francisco’s “darker past.”
In it is mentioned Li Po’s, which still exists in Chinatown. BAR writer Michael Flanagan reports:
You may not think of Chinatown as a gay hotspot, but this has not always been the case. During World War II Li-Po at 916 Grant served as a refuge for a while from wartime bar raids. As [historian Allan] Berube‘s book Coming Out Under Fire tells us, after raids on several bars in town: “Displaced customers started to fill up Li-Po’s, a discreet gay bar in Chinatown that until then had attracted “well-dressed, handsome youths” including servicemen.
But the crackdown on the other gay spots drove some of the “swish crowd” into Li-Po’s, starting a second wave of crackdowns. “Within the last week” (Jim) Kepner wrote (in a letter to an Army pen pal), “the management has been refusing to admit a large number of the more swishy ‘girls.’ This is really a shame…as the place is beginning to get almost dull now, but I guess it was necessary”….
Li Po still exists in Chinatown and has even had Anthony Bourdain as a visitor, and still draws a crowd of locals and tourists, which are decidedly straight, but friendly. If you would like a better idea as to why Li Po appealed to the “swish crowd” in the ’40s, however, you might be better off checking out the exhibition Forbidden City, USA at the San Francisco Public Library in celebration of the book Forbidden City U.S.A.: Chinese-American nightclubs 1936 – 1970 by Arthur Dong. Dong worked on the documentary for Berube’s book (as well as many others) and the exhibition shows off costumes with doubtlessly inspired many a drag queens fevered dreams in the war years.
Indeed, it is important to recognize that for much of our pre-Stonewall history—and in some cases in some cultures today— where there was there no word for “gay,” people just were gay. I talked to filmmaker and author Arthur Dong about this and Forbidden City, which is about Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970, and he said:
When I first introduced myself to Allan Berube in 1992 for permission to use his book [Coming Out Under Fire for a documentary], he told me he was already familiar with my work, particularly Forbidden City, USA. At the time, he was teaching queer studies at UC Santa Cruz and he used Forbidden City, USA as an example of how gay people formed their identities in the 1940s without labeling themselves outright as “gay.” He also appreciated the gay sensitivity in the making of the film, and told me Forbidden City, USA was the gayest film he’d seen!
Perhaps a treasure hunt for LGBT sensibility in otherwise non-LGBT books might be fun—and cool.
But whether it’s to curl up with, learn from or share—a good LGBT book is a good friend for life.
Maybe one day, I’ll write my memoir, too. I have a few stories to tell.