Aside from the lgbt books that crossed my path recently, one book, The Lives of Angels by Emanuel Swedenborg, caused me to look twice. (more…)
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, that’s 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 Chase’s life in New York City during the early months of 2001. (more…)
Family Issue (Bella Books) is set in southern Louisiana, near the Gulf of Mexico. Denni Hope, who grew up near Fortune Farm, has been asked by her ex-girlfriend, Patty Price, to investigate a rash of violence and vandalism which is plaguing the farm. Denni is a trained insurance investigator, and is quite willing to use her skills to help Patty. She is not sure, however, how she’ll feel about seeing Patty with Yolanda Elliott, the woman Patty left her for. (more…)
From a dank upstairs room in New York’s 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 “the first Avengers meeting,” she admits, “I was really just there to be among girls, and to find out if I belonged. I wanted to. Anybody would.” 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 Cogswell’s persistent questions about who or what is a citizen, but also in the disintegration of the Avengers.
The story begins with the group’s heyday when, as Cogswell writes, “…the Avengers were running like the well-oiled machine you hear so much about and almost never see… It was like magic…” 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: “We 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.”
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 “a direct-action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility.”
As a way to contextualize these tensions, Cogswell relays an encounter on a Brooklyn subway soon after she shaved her head. “…A bunch of black men surrounded me on the train once, asking, ‘Happy about Bensonhurst, you racist skinhead?’ Until one guy finally said, ‘It’s just her ‘do, man, like that singer,’ and they moved off…” This incident highlights the ways that difference (in this case Cogswell’s 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: “We 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.” 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.
In his debut novel, Revolutionary, author Alex Myers puts forth a refreshingly unique Revolutionary War story. While still rooted in the loss and triumph of bloody battles, Myers challenges the well-worn patriot’s tale by focusing on Deborah Sampson Gannett, a real-life historical figure who successfully disguised herself as a man in order to enlist in the Revolutionary army. Under the name Robert Shurtliff, Deborah shook free of her small town in order to get a taste of what she really wanted: freedom and opportunity, two highly American values that have been (and still are) denied to some citizens. (more…)
A church and a bar are two very different institutions, but Marie Cartier, in Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Acumen Publishing Limited), proposes that the bar, and specifically the gay bar, served both a communal and spiritual function for many queer women in the mid-twentieth century, pre-Stonewall. (more…)
In his well-reviewed debut Enter, Night, a chilling and atmospheric throwback to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot fused with the gothic leanings of an early V.C. Andrews novel, author Michael Rowe added both depth and dimension to the otherwise overplayed vampire mythos, injecting it with some much needed viability. (more…)
For most of the lgbt community, knowledge of Ballroom culture in America begins and ends with Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. While the film’s release was one of the defining moments of lgbt culture with its masterful (though not unproblematic) depiction of the genius and spectacle of Ballroom performers balanced with the reality of urban poverty, racism, and the AIDS epidemic they faced, its subject matter has largely been frozen in time as 80s nostalgia and aestheticized in the lgbt imaginary. The snarky quotes, over the top fashions, and Madonna’s appropriation of Voguing have stuck in lgbt culture, but the film’s messages about black lgbt life seem to have faded from memory. (more…)
When people describe a book as a “reader’s novel,” they usually mean that a novel is “reader-friendly”–it’s accessible, features an engaging plot, and is written with relatively simple and straightforward prose. But Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press) sets forth a different definition of a “reader’s novel”: this is a novel for voracious readers of literary fiction and fiction in translation. (more…)
Almost a year ago, when I first heard Robert Siek’s poetry at a reading at the Bureau of General Services – Queer Division in New York, I immediately responded to his brazen, sharp-tongued, surprising and intimately detailed work. One poem in particular, a sendup of online dating entitled “Good Wording and Perfect Punctuation,” stuck with me. It’s that striking, lonesome opening detail of a landlord’s rained on couch on a lawn that sparked. In his vibrant and blunt debut Purpose & Devil Piss, Siek’s poems have a way of hooking you in with the specificity of daily life’s doldrums (commuting, car battery lugging, grocery shopping, mail opening, dishwashing, working, and working out) and the speaker’s inner thoughts and lively, sometimes brooding associations. These thick-blocked poems recall Bishop in the way that they unravel ordinary events in a stream of detail and “filthy reminders” that make them end up otherworldly. I think of the collection’s title as a sort of division one can face in the everyday: Purpose (the what-we-have-to-do-to-get-by) and Devil Piss (the fanciful and dark ruminations we all may harbor). The title poem, shaped different visually (in couplets: the past and present self) from the others, appears towards the end as a sort of demented prayer (“I’m the first man on earth, / no worries, no past”). In fact, many of the poems in the book end on ambiguity and prayer: “Thank God for turkey dinners / on Saturday afternoons and new family members to care for— / proof that something happened here” and in the evocative “Holiday,” a beautifully described still-life of an urban neighborhood on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, that cleverly pleads “let’s pray for change.” (more…)