A fat dog overjoyed with the plastic steak in its mouth. How Neil Young sounds like an alley cat. People-watching on the subway. Overheard snippets of conversations. The PR job, full of positive words, thatâs starting to bring him down after fifteen years. The pills he must now take to maintain his body. An eight year relationship yet no shared apartment. These are some of single-sentence paragraphs of stray observations and journal notes that build up to a portrait of the uneasy stasis that is Clifford Chaseâs life in New York City during the early months of 2001. (more…)
From a dank upstairs room in New Yorkâs LGBT Center to marches on the streets of Paris, Kelly Cogswell takes us deep between the pages of the Lesbian Herstory Archive and between the frames of the documentary, Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too, to bring us her insights and memories of the influential and fierce international grassroots outfit.
Cogswell was among the founding members of the New York City based lesbian action group, The Lesbian Avengers, which turned into one of the most important, vociferous movements on the queer liberation front. In her memoir, Cogswell details the assembly, growth, and eventual demise of the legendary dyke activist collective.
She describes this accomplished and diverse assembly of women ready to get down to business. At âthe first Avengers meeting,â she admits, âI was really just there to be among girls, and to find out if I belonged. I wanted to. Anybody would.â The matter of belonging or not, reoccurs throughout the book both in personal and in larger political contexts. It is this anxiety around belonging that is evident not only Cogswellâs persistent questions about who or what is a citizen, but also in the disintegration of the Avengers.
The story begins with the groupâs heyday when, as Cogswell writes, ââŚthe Avengers were running like the well-oiled machine you hear so much about and almost never seeâŚ It was like magicâŚâ The description of the iconic moment, when, at a demonstration in memory of two queers burned alive in their home in Oregon, a line of Avengers lit torches on their tongues and then extinguished the flames in their mouths, is nothing short of electrifying: âWe raised our flames triumphantly into the air, leaned back, and swallowed them down. The crowd cheered, a little uncertainly, at watching a circus trick transformed into a sacrament.â
As the group continued to grow, spread their message, share their skills, and build community around actions, racial and cultural misunderstanding, in-fighting, and horizontal hostility brought the group to a slow crumble. The diverse membership began accusing one another of being racist, classist, exclusive, unforgiving, manipulative, and worse. The presumption of goodwill was non-existent. Through a series of coalitions and new branches, the Avengers struggled to maintain their cohesive identity as âa direct-action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility.â
As a way to contextualize these tensions, Cogswell relays an encounter on a Brooklyn subway soon after she shaved her head. ââŚA bunch of black men surrounded me on the train once, asking, âHappy about Bensonhurst, you racist skinhead?â Until one guy finally said, âItâs just her âdo, man, like that singer,â and they moved offâŚâ This incident highlights the ways that difference (in this case Cogswellâs shaved head) are read and misread and how identifiers shift meaning depending on the context. Later in her story, Cogswell encounters similar questions as she struggles to unravel what it means to be a citizen of the United States, or of anywhere else for that matter.
Eating Fire is a reminder, an homage, a call to rally, and a plea to this generation of queer women. Change, Cogswell seems to insist, is not only not a process any of us can afford to sit out, but that our participation as women, as queers, as immigrants, as people of color, is fundamental to our collective freedom.
This book swells with astute observations about what the Internet did to and for activism and the difficulty of creating movements that are at once diverse and community-specific. While the book leaves us with more questions than answers about how we should proceed toward liberation, it does gesture toward two possibilities.
First: eat fire. While the Lesbian Avengers actually did this as part of demonstrations, eating fire also provides a powerful metaphor not only for the total bravery of acting, but also the physical and spiritual demands of those actions.
Secondly: return home. Done without an ounce of sentimentality, Cogswell provides a shard of hope in her final recalling of a trip back to Kentucky where she meets a small group of young queer locals: âWe stared at each other in mutual awe. They thought it was cool I was living in New York and had been a Lesbian Avenger and had made it as far as Paris. I was impressed that they were still at home. In Kentucky. Smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.â This homecoming leaves readers with the feeling that belonging and being seen are possible.
While this story is tenacious in some moments and vulnerable in others, it is always triumphant.
Inspiring and absolutely heroic. This story belongs to us all.
Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger
By Kelly Cogswell
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816691166, 256 pp.
Living in a “transitional” city like Washington, DCâespecially as a member of the gay communityâyou get used to having a certain subgroup of friends: the inevitable expatriates. Sometimes these individuals announce themselves openlyâwe all know people who are at any given time, according to them at least, anywhere from two weeks to six months away from moving to New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland (either one), Austin, or any of a host of innumerable more-attractive international destinationsâwhile others just seem so constitutionally incompatible with their current surroundings that we know itâs only a matter of time before they take flight. (more…)
‘In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master’ by Tim Teeman
A really good biography is a gateway drug that sends readers immediately in search of more works on and by its subject. For those unfamiliar with Gore Vidal, Tim Teemanâs book should trigger an irresistible urge to learn more about the life and literary output of the brilliant controversial writer who died in 2012 at 86. At the time of his death Vidal had been in lamentable condition for years, demented and alcoholic, mourning the loss in 2004 of Howard Austen, his companion for over half a century. When asked how their union had lasted so long, Vidal said the secret was simple: they didnât have sex with each other: âIâve always made a point: never have sex with a friend.â The biography supplies so many more examples of Vidalâs ornery provocative statements that reading it feels a bit like sitting next to him at a drunken dinner partyâmaddening sometimes, but still an experience one would regret missing. (more…)
Frank Spinelliâs memoir is about suffering sexual abuse as a child; the rupture it caused within his family; and his journey to wholeness, a goal attained only after harrowing effort. (more…)
Donna Minkowitz contributes to the long-standing Jewish-American literary tradition of agonizing self-excavation with her unadulterated new memoir. (more…)
âItâs the same old S.O.S.â -Morrissey
Morrissey, solo-artist and former lead singer-songwriter of the Smiths (whose album, The Queen is Dead, was recently named the greatest album of all time by the British magazine New Music Express), has published his autobiography under the esteemed banner of Penguin Classics in the UK Â [Autobiography is being published by Putnam in the United States, an American imprint of Penguin]. The book is one big bag of grudges with bits of wit thrown in. Every disappointment in his life is chronicled like coal caught in the vice-like grip of his Wildean observationsâevery other paragraph meant to incite a shrug and shake of the head, as if to ask, âCan you believe how Iâve suffered?â The answer is a resolute âYes.â Most autobiographies are bags of grudges ironed out into sheet after sheet of self-proclaimed sainthood or at the very least oh-so humble life lessons. That Morrissey would side-step the usual route and stick to his unloaded (save a few wilted gladiolas) guns, is no surprise and is in fact readily welcomed by the legion of fans who flock to his concerts, tattoo his lyrics across their bodies, and buy every album, single, compilation and reissue heâs put out. Itâs this emotional honesty thatâs made his music so enduring, and in turn makes this book so riveting. (more…)
Itâs been over three years since Toronto lost queer artist, activist, and community builder Will Munro to brain cancer at the age of 35. The full title of Sarah Lissâs collective memoir in tribute to Will, Army of Lovers: A Community History of Will Munro, the Artist, Activist, Impresario and Civic Hero Who Brought Together Torontoâs Club Kids, Art Fags, Hardcore Boys, Drag Queens, Rock ânâ Roll Queers, Needlework Obsessives, Limpwristed Nellies, Stone Butches, New Wave Freaks, Unabashed Perverts, Proud Prudes and Beautiful Dreamers, unabashedly encapsulates not only Willâs spirit and whimsy, but that of the communities to which he belonged and which he helped fashion. (more…)
KatsushikaÂ Hokusai is best known for âThe Great Wave Off Kanagawa,â a masterpiece of Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e. And even though âThe Great Waveâ was a part of a series, Thirty-Six Views of Fuji, it has almost eclipsed the rest of Hokusaiâs work.Â Similarly, the poet Mutsuo Takahashi is best known for his homoerotic poetry, particularly the thousand-line âOde,â which has drawn comparisons to Walt Whitmanâs work for its merging of the sacred reverence and corporeal pleasure.Â (more…)
Slipping riotously through time like a virus loose in the bloodstream and touching on everything from show tunes and divas (the variety that plays the Met, not top 40 radio) to cruising spots and tanning advice, does James McCourtâs latest book, Lasting City, live up to its cheeky designation: âThe anatomy of nostalgiaâ? Absolutely. (more…)