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.
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…)
A Raisin in the Sun is one of the most enduring plays in modern American literature. “The play that changed American theater forever,” wrote the New York Times. The author, Lorraine Hansberry, was only 29 when it debuted on Broadway on March 11, 1959. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African-American woman to reach Broadway. There it won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for best drama. Hansberry was only the fifth woman to win the award as well as the youngest playwright and first black to win it. (more…)
Americans have had conflicted opinions about sex work since European colonists brought Christianity, slavery, and racism to North America. In the twenty-first century, the United States provides no federal protections to sex workers. Sex work remains illegal in most states of the Union due to its association with immorality, substance abuse, venereal disease, organized crime, and human trafficking. Significant percentages of gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans—particularly those from communities of color—have had to engage in sex work for survival. They have suffered abuse at the hands of law enforcement as well as clients and pimps; for these reasons, queer sex workers were the most likely to rise up against the system to fight for their civil rights.
In Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk (Beacon Press), author Melinda Chateauvert reveals the relatively unknown history of sex workers’ involvement in LGBT civil rights protests in the United States, as well as their efforts to organize for legalization and regulation of their trade. Chateauvert sits us on her knee and bluntly tells the story of how mainstream gay and lesbian historians—as well as activist groups themselves—marginalized, ridiculed, or left out the major contributions of sex workers to the Stonewall Riots, gay and lesbian liberation movements, and AIDS awareness campaigns. Predominantly white and cis-bodied, leaders of these movements believed that no one would want to hear from transgender prostitutes or other disadvantaged groups.
Chateauvert is an activist, historian, and professor involved in multiple campaigns to change policies and attitudes toward sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights. Based on her experience, she has also taught courses on Community Organizing and Sex Work. Unlike other academics who would provide a well-researched but distanced account of sex worker organizing efforts in the United States, Chateauvert’s personal experience makes her a champion for the cause. Rights for sex workers, she says, are human rights.
While Sex Workers Unite is impressive in its documentation and mentions many historic American activist groups that included sex workers (Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP, COYOTE, and many others), Chateauvert only touches the surface of the parallel challenge to sex workers in modern America—the lack of unity of women’s rights activists and feminists on the issue of sex work as choice, as opposed to patriarchal oppression. The majority of American women have harsher attitudes toward female prostitutes than men; In Chapter 2, “Those Few Came on Like Gangbusters,” Chateauvert cites American feminist writer and activist Kate Millet:
PROSTITUTION AND SISTERHOOD?
Prostitution provokes gut-level feelings in women precisely because it reveals so starkly fundamental and tacit assumptions about women’s relations in a patriarchal society. It reminds us that we are defined by our sexuality: i.e., wife, spinster, lesbian, whore; and it reminds us that most women are dependent on men…in one way or another [to] secure our survival in exchange for the commodity that men want most from us. Feminists see this sexual objectification as dehumanizing and degrading—with the ultimate degradation experienced by women who sell their bodies to earn a living. (The Prostitution Papers, 1973)
Nearly fifty years later, this anti-prostitution still rings true for a significant percentage of American women whether or not they consider themselves feminists. In the twenty-first century, American women are more likely to support criminalization of prostitution because of its overlap with sex trafficking. While Chateauvert does mention this more contemporary issue, this reader would have appreciated deeper coverage of how women can be their own worst enemy at times in the quest for social justice. Chateauvert does an excellent job, however, of depicting how American transgender sex workers have historically been at the losing end of women’s and LGBT civil rights movements; crimes against transgender sex workers in the United States are most likely to go unresolved by law enforcement. Transphobia, coupled with American society’s disdain for prostitutes, puts transgender sex workers most at risk for disenfranchisement, abuse, and murder.
Readers of Sex Workers Unite will come away with an enlightened view of sex work and the contributions of sex workers to civil rights movements in the United States. The notes and bibliography of this book alone are a treasure trove for those who wish to learn more. Chateauvert’s book just may cause American readers to question our country’s policies toward sex workers, and wonder how other countries made them work.
Havoscope: Global Black Market Information. (2014). Sex trade: Prostitution facts and prostitution statistics. Retrieved from http://www.havocscope.com/tag/prostitution/
ProCon.org. (2014). 100 countries and their prostitution policies. Retrieved from http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000772
ProCon.org. (2014). US federal and state prostitution laws and related punishments. Retrieved from http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000119
Treasures. (2014). Statistics. Retrieved from http://iamatreasure.com/about-us/statistics/
World Health Organization (2014). Sex work. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/sex_work/en/
Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk
By Melinda Chateauvert
Paperback, 9780807061398, 272 pp.
Many of us grew up with stories which ended with the words, “and they lived happily ever after.” We never knew the rest of the story… how they managed to live happily ever after. Love Burns Bright is a compilation of short stories which tell the rest of the story. These are mature couples who show, in the words of singer Judy Fjell, “love that goes the distance.” In the story “Sepia Showers,” author Andrea Dale writes, as one of her characters copes with her mother’s dementia, and wonders how she and her partner will age, “Someday, down the line, we might forget the person… but we can never forget the love.” In “Forever Yours, Eileen,” Rebekah Weatherspoon writes about two African-American women who are finally together again after nearly fifty years. Through all those years, they faithfully wrote to each other, staying in touch, but not able to touch each other.
Some of the stories are quite erotic, while others, such as Radclyffe’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” are sexily sweet. Some of the women are living the American dream with a house, jobs, and kids, and yet still working to find ways to keep their love and passion alive. In “Waiting For the Harvest,” Sommer Marsden’s characters successfully explore their passion for each other by using very creative and erotic tools.Chris Paynter’s “Full Circle” begins with two women meeting at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969 and then returning to that special place in 2009, to celebrate forty years together.
Each of these eighteen authors is very skilled at creating characters who are fully developed, and have a compelling story to tell. Many times their situations are very real, as in Dena Hankin’s “Cooling Down and Heating Up.” Her two characters live in a lovely 180-year-old farmhouse in North Carolina. They are restoring what they can, and going without what they can’t afford, including air conditioning. As the story begins, it’s summer, and one of the characters groans, “I love you sweetheart. Don’t touch me.” How they solve their sweaty situations is creatively funny. Catherine Paulssen’s “The Way to a Woman’s Heart” has her characters, Matilda and Olivia, finding some alone time by sending the kids to Matilda’s mother for a vacation. How the two women handle their alone time is both creative and sexy! English writer Rachel Randall, in her story “Ravens,” gives readers a sex scene in the Tower of London! It happens in the cell where Sir Walter Raleigh was housed. Randall plays with fantasies as well as a curious raven.
Author Derek Shannon’s two characters include one who is in the Army and deployed. Counting the days and hours until she returns, the couple keeps in touch via telephone calls, some of which are quite sexy! Again and again, the different authors show loving relationships which are held together by creative passion and caring. These are not couples in trouble, but couples who have stayed the distance and made their unions work. They are about women who are growing older together, and experiencing the physical changes that come with aging. In these well-written stories, readers are treated to mature couples who have made their unions work. As more and more states recognize gay marriages, books that support and celebrate successful relationships are important to couples who are together for the long haul.
Love Burns Bright: A Lifetime of Lesbian Romance
Edited by Radclyffe
Paperback, 9781627780001, 242 pp.
“When I was younger I read a lot of books about how to write–or more specifically How to Be A Writer–and they were so, so bad for me. I think they set me back like ten or fifteen years as a writer; I didn’t need to find my creativity, I just needed to quit romanticizing and write.”
“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from writer Imogen Binnie. (more…)
Today, two poems by Stephanie Goehring.
It’s a new year, and Qu33r, Rob Kirby’s grand, glorious anthology of thirty-three queer comics, feels as fresh and bright as these early days of January. Since 2010, Kirby has been editing Three, a high quality, LGBT comics anthology of three cartoonist’s works, with the expressed purpose of giving the creators space for their work to shine. The high quality of work, editing and presentation of these comics recognized Three with nominations for two Ignatz awards and a 2011 Prism Comics Queer Press Grant. Qu33r (Northwest Press), a beautiful hardcover volume, feels like an exponential expansion of all these good qualities, times three. (more…)
In Jean Roberta’s collection of eleven historical erotic short stories, The Princess and the Outlaw (Lethe Press), readers will encounter a broad range of characters and situations, from the fantastical to the mundane, from the joyous to the horrifying, from Amazon warriors and wayward nuns to down-and-out women of the 1920s and Canadian Mounties, all presented with an eye towards chronological sequence and the queer experience. (more…)