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The transformation of Eleanor Roosevelt

New book reveals surprising flaws of first lady in layered portrayal

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Eleanor Roosevelt, gay news, Washington Blade
(Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

‘Eleanor’
By David Michaelis
c.2020, Simon & Schuster
$35.00 / 698 pages

Life, as they say, is an open book.

When you’re born, someone else starts writing it for you, but it doesn’t take long for you to be your own author. Through the years, you’ll scribble ideas, compose thoughtfully, add chapters, and crumple pages. Your life’s book might be a series of quick notes, long essays, one-liners or, as in “Eleanor” by David Michaelis, you could build an epic story.

In today’s world, we might call Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother abusive: Anna Hall Roosevelt never had a kind word to say to her daughter, often mockingly calling little Eleanor “Granny.” It’s true that Eleanor wasn’t lithe and beautiful like her mother; she was awkward and stern, a Daddy’s girl for an often-absent, alcoholic father.

Orphaned by the time she was 12, Eleanor had been long told that she was homely and plain but school chums knew her as a caring girl with a sharp mind. That intelligence later caught the eye of the dashing Franklin Roosevelt, a somewhat-distant cousin who courted her with the nose-holding approval of his mother.

It was a good match, but only for a short while: too quickly, it was apparent that Eleanor and Franklin were colossally mismatched. She needed him to need her but he couldn’t – not in the way she wanted, so she found love in the arms of another man and a woman. Her compassion for others, a rather acquired sense, helped buoy his ambition; his ambition gave her a reason to dig in and reach out to their fellow Americans in need. Despite that it invited controversy from Washington insiders, Roosevelt changed the office of the first lady by ignoring what past first Ladies had done.

Readers who are not deep historians are in for many layers of surprise inside “Eleanor,” the first being Roosevelt’s early life, and the racism she exhibited as a young woman. Famously, she was a champion of African Americans during the years of her husband’s time as president and beyond, and she strove for equality, but author David Michaelis shows a sort of axis of attitude that the former first lady experienced.

His portrayal is balanced with compassion: Michaelis lets us see a transformation in the pages of this book and it’s fascinating to watch. Rather than romanticize Roosevelt, Michaelis paints her as someone with flaws that she may not have overtly acknowledged but that she learned to work around. This becomes abundantly clear in tales of the warmth Roosevelt craved but was denied by her husband and the relationships she enjoyed in open secret, including a passionate love she shared with reporter Lorena Hickock and a much-debated, possible affair with State Trooper Earl Miller. Such tales are told matter-of-factly and without salaciousness, though you may feel a whoop of delight at a supposedly staid Depression-era White House that really was a den of dalliance.

Don’t let its heft frighten you away: “Eleanor” may be wide but so is its story. Indeed, you’ll be carried away when you open this book.

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New book explores why we categorize sports according to gender

You can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think

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(Book cover image courtesy of St. Martin's Press)

‘Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates’
By Katie Barnes
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
$29/304 pages

The jump shot happened so quickly, so perfectly.

Your favorite player was in the air in a heartbeat, basketball in hand, wrist cocked. One flick and it was all swish, three points, just like that, and your team was ahead. So are you watching men’s basketball or women’s basketball? Or, as in the new book, “Fair Play” by Katie Barnes, should it really matter?

For sports fans, this may come as a surprise: we categorize sports according to gender.

Football, baseball, wresting: male sports. Gymnastics, volleyball: women’s sports. And yet, one weekend spent cruising around television shows you that those sports are enjoyed by both men and women – but we question the sexuality of athletes who dare (gasp!) to cross invisible lines for a sport they love.

How did sports “become a flash point for a broader conversation?”

Barnes takes readers back first to 1967, when Kathrine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb both ran in the Boston Marathon. It was the first time women had audaciously done so and while both finished the race, their efforts didn’t sit well with the men who made the rules.

“Thirty-seven words” changed the country in 1972 when Title IX was signed, which guaranteed there’d be no discrimination in extracurricular events, as long as “federal financial assistance” was taken. It guaranteed availability for sports participation for millions of girls in schools and colleges. It also “enshrine[d] protections for queer and transgender youth to access school sports.”

So why the debate about competition across gender lines?

First, says Barnes, we can’t change biology, or human bodies that contain both testosterone and estrogen, or that some athletes naturally have more of one or the other – all of which factor into the debate. We shouldn’t forget that women can and do compete with men in some sports, and they sometimes win. We shouldn’t ignore the presence of transgender men in sports.

What we should do, Barnes says, is to “write a new story. One that works better.”

Here are two facts: Nobody likes change. And everybody has an opinion.

Keep those two statements in mind when you read “Fair Play.” They’ll keep you calm in this debate, as will author Katie Barnes’ lack of flame fanning.

As a sports fan, an athlete, and someone who’s binary, Barnes makes things relatively even-keel in this book, which is a breath of fresh air in what’s generally ferociously contentious. There’s a good balance of science and social commentary here, and the many, many stories that Barnes shares are entertaining and informative, as well as illustrative. Readers will come away with a good understanding of where the debate lies.

But will this book make a difference?

Maybe. Much will depend on who reads and absorbs it. Barnes offers plenty to ponder but alas, you can lead a homophobic horse to water but you can’t make it think. Still, if you’ve got skin in this particular bunch of games, find “Fair Play” and jump on it.

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Dragging Mason County is an acerbic, hilarious and timely YA novel for teenage queer misfits

Debut novelist Curtis Campbell says he hopes small town queers will see themselves in his protagonist’s search for community

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Curtis Campbell (Photo by Kevin Connery)

By Rob Salerno | HOLLYWOOD – Curtis Campbell didn’t set out to write a YA novel that sounds like it could be ripped from today’s headlines, but that’s what he stumbled into with Dragging Mason County, a hilarious and acerbic tale of a group of queer teenagers who face opposition from their small town and the local queer community when they attempt to throw Mason County’s first Drag Extravaganza.

But as protests against drag and queer youth culture have become ever present on both sides of the border, the 29-year-old debut Canadian novelist found his book about misfit teenage queers has become both incredibly timely and eerily prescient.

“I’ve talked openly about the violence of heteronormative culture, living within it, what it does to queer culture, our inner politic and how we’re interacting with it,” Campbell says. “To see it externalized in such a broad way, it feels like the monster that’s been in the closet the whole time is finally showing up.”

That’s brought Dragging Mason County huge attention, with a North America-wide release from Annick Press – unusual for a debut Canadian novelist – and glowing reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.

“I’m excited that hopefully more queer youth will be able to read this,” Campbell says. “This was written for small town queer people, regardless of where that small town is.”

But while the book undoubtedly political, it’s also incredibly hilarious, with a caustically witty but loving look at both rural life and the queer community. Campbell has a knack for both representing and cutting through the bullshit of everyday life, particularly through the voice of Dragging Mason County’s teenage protagonist, Peter Thompkin, a self-described “dragnostic” who’s accused of being a self-hating gay after getting into a confrontation with another gay classmate that goes viral. 

“I think the book is about finding pride in your community in various senses,” Campbell says. “Peter is gay but feels icked out by the sort of earnestness and big flamboyantry of the gay community and doesn’t feel that he identifies with that. And his journey is discovering that the queer community contains multitudes, and at the same time learning about his town and that it is not the one thing that he assumed it to be.”

Campbell says he drew from his own experiences growing up gay in Clinton, Ontario, Canada population 3,113, to shape the world of his fictional Mason County, a town he says could be anywhere in North America.

“Growing up here gives you a sense of this is not for me, in the sense that I am being made very aware that I am sort of an unwanted guest in my on community,” he says. “I grew up in a hockey town. All the boys played hockey. I was the one boy who did not play hockey. I was not going to the bush parties and barn parties and drunk driving, all these very masculine things. I was not comfortable around men or boys, because there was always this undercurrent of violence against gay community.” 

He says writing the book helped him find his pride in his small-town roots.”

“Growing up in that, you start to define yourself in opposition to something. Part of my journey through that is realizing that I deserve to be proud of where I’m from too. I deserve to make it a place that I’m proud to be from,” Campbell says.

As a teenager, Campbell found a means to express himself through the local summer theatre festival, where he volunteered and learned the craft of creating theatre. He eventually moved to Toronto for college and became one of the city’s most exciting young playwrights, even earning a nomination for a Dora Award – the Canadian Tony Award – for cowriting his satirical and surprisingly moving play Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay, about an acting class teaching straight actors how to play gay so they can win awards. He’s also developed his own comedy drag persona, Alanis Percocet.

“During the summer I had real on the job professional theatre experience. And they also are one of the few summer theatre companies that specializes in new theatre development, so for me theatre was writing new plays, developing them in the room, workshopping things as the script was developing,” he says.  

Campbell made the transition to writing novels during the pandemic, when opportunities to create theatre dried up.

“I decided to write a YA novel because it felt fun, and let me be funny in a way that wasn’t allowed in serious adult literature,” he says.

But while the big city offered a larger and more vibrant gay community, the rural charms of his small town keep calling him home, and Dragging Mason County is a manifestation of Campbell’s belief that queer people shouldn’t have to feel excluded or alienated from small-town life. 

“It’s beautiful. It really is beautiful. We are 15 minutes from the lake. I look that way and there’s lake, I look that way and there’s cornfields as far as the eye can see. There’s woodland areas for hiking, geographically it’s unique and beautiful. When you grow up in it, it’s just the water in your fishbowl and you don’t really think about it until you leave,” he says. “There should be queer people staying here and living here.”

This book started with Campbell returning to his own small town roots to see how a new generation of queer kids was coming of age there.

“What I discovered when I came back and talked with these students was that as visibility grew, so did the target on their back. The visibility that they were fighting for and hopefully benefiting from, also meant that they were taking up more space, and people who wanted to push back suddenly had a more visible target to push back,” he says. 

“I spent a lot of time reading and watching what these people are saying. Because we are watching a real rise in violence. In my hometown, the high school had to move their pride flag to a place where people couldn’t get it because it kept getting torn down and defaced, and the queer kids were being targeted with online bullying.”

In a climate where queer and trans youth are increasingly targeted by violent protests and intimidation, Dragging Mason County offers a kind of alternate world where queer and trans kids are able to be their own heroes and build spaces for themselves.

“I know that this book will do nothing for the people joining the protests, because this isn’t for them,” Campbell says. “I do hope that young people read it, especially small-town queers, to see some of themselves in it or just get a laugh out of it.”

Dragging Mason County by Curtis Campbell is available October 3 from Annick Press wherever books are sold.

******************************************************************************************

Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.


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New book goes behind the scenes of ‘A League of Their Own’

‘No Crying in Baseball’ offers tears, laughs, and more

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hachette Books)

‘No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of ‘A League of Their Own’
By Erin Carlson
c.2023, Hachette Books
$29/320 pages

You don’t usually think of Madonna as complaining of being “dirty all day” from playing baseball. But that’s what the legendary diva did during the shooting of “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie, beloved by queers.

“No Crying in Baseball,” the fascinating story behind “A League of Their Own,” has arrived in time for the World Series. Nothing could be more welcome after Amazon has cancelled season 2 of its reboot (with the same name) of this classic film.

In this era, people don’t agree on much. Yet, “A League of Their Own” is loved by everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents.

The movie has strikes, home runs and outs for sports fans; period ambience for history buffs; and tears, laughs and a washed-up, drunk, but lovable coach for dramady fans.

The same is true for “No Crying in Baseball.” This “making of” story will appeal to history, sports and Hollywood aficionados. Like “All About Eve” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A League of Their Own” is Holy queer Writ.

Carlson, a culture and entertainment journalist who lives in San Francisco, is skilled at distilling Hollywood history into an informative, compelling narrative. As with her previous books, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and “Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds, and Legendary Life of Meryl Streep,” “No Crying in Baseball,” isn’t too “educational.” It’s filled with gossip to enliven coffee dates and cocktail parties.

“A League of Their Own” is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played in the league in the Midwest. The league’s players were all white because the racism of the time prohibited Black women from playing. In the film, the characters are fictional. But the team the main characters play for – the Rockford Peaches – was real.

While many male Major and Minor League Baseball players were fighting in World War II, chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, founded the league. He started the AAGPBL, “To keep spectators in the bleachers,” Carlson reports, “and a storied American sport–more important: his business afloat.” 

In 1943, the Office of War Information warned that the baseball season could be “scrapped” “due to a lack of men,” Carlson adds.

“A League of Their Own” was an ensemble of women’s performances (including Rosie O’Donnell as Doris, Megan Cavanagh as Marla, Madonna as Mae, Lori Petty as Kit and Geena Davis as Dottie) that would become legendary.

Girls and women  still dress up as Rockford Peaches on Halloween.

Tom Hanks’s indelible portrayal of coach Jimmy Dugan, Gary Marshall’s depiction of (fictional) league owner Walter Harvey and Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Ernie have also become part of film history.

Filming “A League of Their Own,” Carlson vividly makes clear, was a gargantuan effort.  There were “actresses who can’t play baseball” and “baseball players who can’t act,” Penny Marshall said.

The stadium in Evansville, Ind., was rebuilt to look like it was in the 1940s “when the players and extras were in costume,” Carlson writes, “it was easy to lose track of what year it was.”

“No Crying in Baseball” isn’t written for a queer audience. But, Carlson doesn’t pull any punches. 

Many of the real-life AAGPBL players who O’Donnell met had same-sex partners, O’Donnell told Carlson.

“When Penny, angling for a broad box-office hit chose to ignore the AAGPGL’s queer history,” Carlson writes, “she perpetuated a cycle of silence that muzzled athletes and actresses alike from coming out on the wider stage.”

“It was, as they say, a different time,” she adds.

Fortunately, Carlson’s book isn’t preachy. Marshall nicknames O’Donnell and Madonna (who become buddies) “Ro” and “Mo.” Kodak is so grateful for the one million feet of film that Marshall shot that it brings in a high school marching band. Along with a lobster lunch. One day, an assistant director “streaked the set to lighten the mood,” Carlson writes.

“No Crying in Baseball,” is slow-going at first. Marshall, who died in 2018, became famous as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley.” It’s interesting to read about her. But Carlson devotes so much time to Marshall’s bio that you wonder when she’ll get to “A League of Their Own.”

Thankfully, after a couple of innings, the intriguing story of one of the best movies ever is told.

You’ll turn the pages of “No Crying in Baseball” even if you don’t know a center fielder from a short stop.

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Season’s best new books offer something for every taste

History, YA, horror and more on tap

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(Book covers courtesy of the publishers)

Shorter days, cooler temps, and longer nights can send you skittering inside, right? Don’t forget to bring one of these great books with you when you settle in for the fall.

Releasing in September, look for “Between the Head and the Hands” by James Chaarani, a novel about a young Muslim man whose family turns him away for being gay, and the teacher who takes him in (ECW Press, Sept. 10). Also reach for “Cleat Cute: A Novel,” by Meryl Wilsner (St. Martin’s Griffin, Sept. 19), a fun YA novel of soccer, competition, and playing hard (to get).

You may want something light and fun for now, so find “The Out Side: Trans and Nonbinary Comics,” compiled by The Kao, Min Christiansen, and Daniel Daneman (Andrews McMeel Publishing). It’s a collection of comics by nonbinary and trans artists, and you can find it Sept. 26.

The serious romantic will want to find “Daddies of a Different Kind: Sex and Romance Between Older and Younger Gay Men” by Tony Silva (NYU Press), a book about new possibilities in love; it’s available Sept. 12. Historians will want “Glitter and Concrete: A Cultural History of Drag in New York City” by Elyssa Maxx Goodman (Hanover Square Press, Sept. 12); and “Queer Blues: The Hidden Figures of Early Blues Music” by Darryl W. Bullock (Omnibus Press, Sept. 14).

In October, you’ll want to find “Blackouts: A Novel” by Justin Torres (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a somewhat-fantasy novel about a dying man who passes a powerful book on to his caretaker. Look for it Oct. 10. Also on Oct. 10, grab “Love at 350º” by Lisa Peers (Dial Press Trade Paperback), a novel about love at a chance meeting at a baking-show contest and “The Christmas Swap: A Novel” by Talia Samuels (Alcove Press), a holiday rom-com.

You’re just warming up for the fall. Look for “Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date” by Ashley Herring Blake (Berkley, Oct. 24) and “Let Me Out,” a queer horror novel by Emmett Nahil and George Williams (Oni Press, Oct. 3).

Nonfiction lovers will want to find “Dis… Miss Gender?” by Anne Bray (MIT Press, Oct. 24), a wide, long look at gender and fluidity; “Friends of Dorothy: A Celebration of LGBTQ+ Icons” by Anthony Uzarowski and Alejandro Mogollo Diez (Imagine, Oct. 10); and “300,000 Kisses: Tales of Queer Love from the Ancient World” by Sean Hewitt and Luke Edward Hall (Clarkson Potter, Oct. 10).

For November, look for “Underburn: A Novel” by Bill Gaythwaite (Delphinium), a layered novel about Hollywood, family, and second chances. It comes out Nov. 14. For something you can really sink your teeth into, find “The Bars are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America, 1960 and After” by Lucas Hilderbrand (Duke University Press, Nov 21). It’s a huge look at the spaces that played strong roles in LGBTQ history.

And if you’re looking for yourself or for a special gift in December, check out “Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects” by David Evans Frantz, Christina Linden, and Chris E. Vargas. It’s an arty coffee table book from Hirmer Publishers of Munich. You can find it Dec. 20. Also look for “Second Chances in New Port Stephen: A Novel” by T.J. Alexander (Atria / Emily Bestler, Dec. 5) and if all else fails, ask for or give a gift certificate.

Season’s readings!

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Intriguing historical novel based on the true story of 1800s lesbian couple

‘Learned by Heart’ by Emma Donoghue a moving read

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(Book cover image courtesy of Little Brown)

‘Learned by Heart’
By Emma Donoghue
C. 2023, Little Brown
$28/324 pages

English landowner, diarist and businesswoman Anne Lister (1791-1840) married her last partner Ann Walker in a marriage ceremony at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York. This is considered by many to be the first lesbian marriage in England, and likely, the world.

Lister, born in a landowning family at Shibden in Calderdale, West Riding of Yorkshire, who’s been called “the first modern lesbian,” is having a moment. In two seasons in 2019 and 2022, “Gentleman Jack,” a riveting series, based on Lister’s diaries, co-produced by the BBC and HBO (streaming on Max), dramatized Lister’s relationship with Walker.

“Learned by Heart,” an intriguing historical novel by Emma Donoghue is based on the true story of the queer relationship of Lister and Eliza Raine. Raine is believed to have been Lister’s first lover.

Much of the novel takes place in 1805-1806, when, at age 14 and 15, Lister and Raine were students at Miss Hargrave’s Manor School, a boarding school for girls in York.

Raine was born in Madras (now Chennai) in India. Her father, who was English, was a surgeon with the East India Company. He and an Indian woman, whom he did not legally marry, had Raine.

In an author’s note, Donoghue writes of a letter of Raine’s that refers to her as having “sprung from an illicit connection.” Another letter calls Raine a “lady of colour.”

Raine is sent to England at age 6. After her father and mother die, she’s left an orphan with a small inheritance.

Through “Gentleman Jack” and her diaries (which are being digitalized), Lister, with her brilliance and charismatic personality, has become a queer culture icon.

Raine is comparatively unknown. Perhaps, for this reason, “Learned by Hand” focuses on Raine’s point of view.

Raine arrives at the Manor School before Lister. Prior to Lister’s arrival, Raine is mousy, rule abiding.

Because Raine’s from India, she sleeps alone in a small room. Aware of unspoken racial bias (against people who are part Indian and part English), she wants to blend in – to stay out of trouble in this school with its many rules. “She’s trained herself to wake at seven,” Donoghue writes, “just before the bell.”

When Lister arrives at the school, Raine’s world and personality are transformed. Lister, known even at this young age for being too smart for her own good, is assigned to room with Raine — isolated from the other girls — in the tiny room they call “the Slope.” Donoghue skillfully illuminates how the girls’ friendship becomes sexual, passionate first love.

One day, Lister and Raine, who call each other by their last names, alone in a church, conduct a marriage ceremony for themselves.

“Learned by Heart” is heartbreaking because its chapters are intertwined with letters that Raine writes to Lister in 1815.

It’s clear from this correspondence that Lister has (and will have) other lovers than Raine. And, that, sadly, Raine is writing from what is then called an “insane asylum.”

As is evident from “The Pull of The Stars,” and her other historical novels, Donoghue has an unerring talent for creating fascinating tales out of true stories.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, Lister, the bad, outrageous girl, is far more interesting than Raine. Raine frequently comes across as loyal, passionate, but too needy and clingy. As Lister’s Barbara Stanwyck to Raine’s June Cleaver.

“There’s nothing noble about Anne Lister…,” Donoghue wrote of Lister in “The Guardian.”
Lister had the sexual ethics of a bonobo, Donoghue continued, “lying to every lover as a matter of policy.”

Yet, Lister is Donoghue’s hero. “Because she looked into her heart and wrote about what she found there with unflinching precision,” Donoghue wrote in her “Guardian” essay.

“I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” Lister wrote in a coded entry in her diary on Oct. 29, 1820. (Lister wrote one-sixth of her diaries in code to hide from homophobic eyes.)

“Learned by Heart” is a moving, entertaining read. Raine’s story along with Lister’s should be told. Even the clingy can be unsung heroes.

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More than a coming-of-age, coming out story

‘Through the Groves’ a sharp, hilarious new book

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(Book cover image courtesy Henry Holt)

‘Through the Groves: A Memoir’
By Anne Hull
c.2023, Henry Holt
$26.99/224 pages

You can’t see the forest for the trees.

Fluffy pines, and oaks that started growing before your parents were born. Tall willows, towering cottonwoods that create a canopy far above you. The forest soothes your mind; if you have an out-of-control imagination, it offers a good scare. Nature’s there, and in the new book “Through the Groves” by Anne Hull, you’ll find memories, too.

She still recalls the smell and the heat and the pesticides.

Anne Hull was her daddy’s sidekick the summer she was six years old, riding along with him on his job as a fruit buyer in the middle of Florida where rows of orange trees stretched for miles. Together, they visited the dusty, scarred older Black men who worked the groves on her father’s route, and her father taught her all about “withholding confidential information” and not telling her mother about using a chalky field as a bathroom or about the gun in his car.

Hull’s mother already knew about the roadside stops he made, and the bars along his way home: the ride-alongs Hull so enjoyed were meant to deter her father from “Friday afternoon fever” and bright neon beer signs.

Back then, Hull was only starting to notice that her family moved often, from one ramshackle house to another, and she saw the weekly checks her great-grandmother gave her father. She already knew that adults kept secrets that weren’t so secret to a growing girl who was obsessed with being a spy someday. These were adventures just like the adventures she had with cousins and her little brother, who was an accident-prone “calamity.”

When Hull’s mother left Hull’s father and moved in with Hull’s grandmother, that was an adventure, too – until it wasn’t. Hull had become old enough to understand genteel poverty and that hand-me-downs weren’t cool. She bonded with her grandmother over music; sneered at her mother, as teenagers do; and she thought about her dad, but only in the abstract.

He never forgot about her, though.

He never stopped trying to be her father.

Do you really want some treacly life story now? Nah, you want something solid and sincere, right? Something different. Part coming-of-age, but more, maybe.

You want “Through the Groves.”

Rather than opening this tale where most childhood memoirs start, with eye-rolling, attitudinal teen years, author Anne Hull’s story begins the summer she was six years old and they move forward from there. This gives readers the gift of an observant kid’s-eye view of life – one that’s older than its years and doesn’t miss a thing, but that’s not insufferably precious or precocious. Viewed through the lens of a grown-up, then, those early memories give readers the “more” they crave, becoming a triple-whammy of coming-of-age, coming out, and coming to terms with the frailty of family. That’s sharp as flint but also hilarious.

Hull says her father was a storyteller and this orange apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Start “Through the Groves” and you’ll find that you just can’t leaf it.

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Mark S. King on new book and surviving HIV and meth

‘My Fabulous Disease’ writer chronicles experiences with humor, honesty

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By TIM MURPHY

HIV/AIDS writer Mark S. King, a GLAAD- and National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association award-winning author of the popular blog My Fabulous Disease  has published a new book out Sept. 1 that’s a compendium of the blog’s best pieces, as well as pieces he wrote well before the blog, back in the 1990s. Pre-order “My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor” at marksking.com/marks-new-book. He’s appearing at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS on Sept. 7 in D.C. 

Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, Mark has taken a lifetime of ups and downs and turned them into a, well, fabulous collection of pithy, witty, often brutally honest and self-critical short essays on everything from how we gay men are so good at shaming and judging one another for all sorts of things to his gay brother’s tale of helping his lover, who was dying of AIDS, end his own life with a Seconal cocktail to what it was like starting his own gay erotic phone line in the 1980s to how he’s morphed into a total top who wants sex only a fraction as often as when he was young. The essays range from quite raw and painful to utterly hilarious. King has that perfect Oscar Wilde/Paul Lynde way with a quip: “I got The Clap so many times that I started calling it The Applause.” Or, marveling at how little sexual energy he has currently, at 62, compared to his youth, that these days, “10 minutes is a triumph of passion and stamina.”

I like Mark’s writing because he doesn’t shy away from examining aspects of himself that many of us gay men would rather look away from: His vanity, narcissism and need for attention. Things he’s done in the past that have hurt people, including family members and lovers. Even what he sees as his own manipulativeness in seducing a 30-year-old man when he was 15 — this in an age when we would almost unanimously agree that all the responsibility for a statutory-rape situation lies with the legal adult, not the child.

TIM MURPHY: Mark, thanks for talking to me. So, you and your husband Michael, a federal healthcare worker, live in Atlanta, yes?

MARK S. KING: As we speak, I’m surrounded by boxes because we’re moving in a few days from an apartment in Midtown to a home in North Decatur. Michael’s currently holed up in his home office and he doesn’t come out until after five.

MURPHY: What’s a typical day like for you?

KING: My cat Henry wakes me up around 6:30 a.m., but fortunately Michael feeds him breakfast and starts the coffee, so I can sleep longer. I stumble out around 7 a.m., have my coffee and look at my emails. Or sometimes, if I’m writing something, if the solution I’ve been looking for occurs to me around 6:30 a.m., I’m at the keyboard making it work even before I have coffee. If I’m in the zone like that, I can forget to have breakfast. But then I have my go-to daily conversations with usually two out of three people: my brother, Dick, who’s gay and lives in Shreveport, La., with [TheBody.com writer] Charles Sanchez, and with my friend Lynn.

Then I go to the gym to work on any part of my body that is visible in a tank top. As long as my chest is bigger than my stomach, I’m fine. I play racquetball, so that takes care of the legs. Things like calves, you either have them or you don’t. I know I should be doing yoga and stretching and working on what they call your core, whatever that is. At some point as I age it’s going to be more important to be able to bend over and pick things up, not lift a large weight above my head.

MURPHY: Do you do steroids?

KING: I have—I don’t any more. Testosterone is not steroids.

MURPHY: Oh, I know. Why no more steroids?

KING: Age, and the fact that they can damage your liver and kidneys. It’s also true that taking testosterone has made my prostate the size of a grapefruit, but I haven’t stopped that.

MURPHY: When you first went on testosterone, did you notice changes in your mood, libido and strength?

KING: Yes, all those things. I take it because it works. I’ve been on it for 20 years … when I’m not working out, I deflate like a balloon. I feel like the Grindr hookup that doesn’t look like his pictures. 

MURPHY: What do you do the rest of the day and night?

KING: Play with my cats and write a little bit. I sound like a man of leisure, and I kind of am. After Michael finishes work, we cook dinner. I’m a much better cook than I was when I met him.

MURPHY: Mark, you grew up Louisiana?

KING: My dad was an Air Force officer so we lived all over the place, but when he retired when I was in fifth grade—I’m the youngest of six—we moved to Louisiana.

MURPHY: When did you start writing?

KING: I wrote silly little stories when I was a kid, and then when I went to work for an AIDS agency in 1986, [the now defunct] L.A. Shanti, it was growing so fast that I became the media guy, the one writing the newsletter and press releases. But it’s only been in the last 20 years that I’ve really been able to identify as a writer. The turning point was when I started writing My Fabulous Disease consistently. Prior to that, I’d write columns for Frontiers and then send them to different gay papers around the country who would print them.

Of all the editors I ever worked with, Bonnie Goldman, who founded [the HIV/AIDS site] TheBody, challenged me the most. “Why are you saying it this way?” she’d ask. She told me that the more warts, faults and doubts I revealed, the more I’d draw people in. She really worked for me and asked me to write a blog for TheBody. 

It was after Bonnie left TheBody that I started My Fabulous Disease. I’d actually started it as a website to promote my first book, “A Place Like This,” and my web designer told me to blog on that page to keep it fresh and bring people to it. For a long time, I had to keep telling myself, “If you continue to build it, they will come.” Now, in a good month, I’ll get 100,000 hits. I’ll also share my content with HIV Plus, Poz—it doesn’t matter. 

MURPHY: One thing I like about your writing is that you are ruthlessly honest. What’s been one good and one bad outcome of that?

KING: Certainly I felt good about writing about addiction. I wrote a piece about a relapse I had when I was still dealing with its fallout. That felt good because I suffer, as many of us do, with imposter syndrome. I’d think, “If they only saw behind the curtain, that I struggle with drug addiction and have ruined relationships and have all sorts of wreckage in my wake, then they wouldn’t like me anymore.” So to have been able to write that piece only days after coming to—some might say it’s dangerous to write about such a thing so soon, but my writing is my therapy, my way of sorting out my own feelings. So I wrote it and then pressed the button.

 MURPHY: In your book, you have several pieces written about a decade ago or more about how we gay men tend to shame one another—how HIV-negative men shame positive men by using phrases like “drug- and disease-free” or “clean” and “you be, too,” or how older HIV survivors shame younger gay men for having tons of sex without condoms now that PrEP is available. Do you think in the years since you published those pieces, we’ve become a less shaming community overall?

KING: You’re right, I wrote a lot of that when social media and hook-up apps were inflaming various stigmas. Gay men are remarkably good at shaming our own—we’ve been shamed so much that we’ve developed claws of our own. I haven’t been on hook-up apps the last ten years, so I can only go by conversations I have, which make me think that stigma is alleviating a little bit. But these things are generational. We were raised for decades in mortal fear of sex, which is a really powerful emotion that doesn’t just go away with a scientific breakthrough like U=U [undetectable = untransmittable, the now-proven fact that people with HIV on meds with undetectable viral load cannot transmit HIV sexually] or PrEP.

(Continues at thecaftanchronicles.substack.com)

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Books

The play’s the thing in new book ‘Gays on Broadway

An engaging LGBTQ history of the Great White Way

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(Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press)

‘Gays on Broadway’
By Ethan Mordden
c.2023, Oxford University Press
$29.95/233 pages

You had to look around you and check your seat.

Yep, you were still in a theater in a large building, fanny planted in a dusty red seat. You weren’t in a Brooklyn tenement or a castle, or at a society party but the performance you caught made you think you were, at least for a couple hours. As they say, and as in the new book, “Gays on Broadway” by Ethan Mordden, the play’s the thing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the LGBTQ history of the Great White Way “starts with drag queens.” In the earliest parts of the 20th century, many comedies were written “specifically calling for a male character forced … to disguise himself as a woman,” often to the delight of audiences. Still, any overt mention of such things was forbidden then.

By the 1930s, Mordden says, “our tour mostly starts now.” Not only were audiences treated to titillating hints of gayness that were barely concealed, but the “odd gay character” often showed up in plays on purpose. And yet, behind the scenes, few gay or lesbian actors dared to come out; many of them, instead, entered “lavender marriages.”

In 1942, New York’s “Wales Law,” a sort of Hays Code for Broadway, shut down a “salute to vaudeville,” putting all of Broadway on notice. Even so, “gay characters did turn up in a few postwar titles.” This was, after all, a time when Tennessee Williams’ hand was all over theater – especially with what Mordden calls his “Beautiful Male” character: shirtless, buff, and highly memorable for gay audiences.

In the 1950s, Williams’ influence was joined by some “honestly gay characters” onstage, and by the talents of Tallulah Bankhead, who “maintained a strong association with camp humor.” By the 1960s, “gay characters were everywhere on Broadway,” the word “gay” was acceptable, and the adventurous theatergoer could find nudity off-Broadway.

A decade later, though Broadway was “still partly stuck in stereotype mode,” says Mordden, “now it was the turn of gay people.”

You’ve seen your favorite play how many times? You’ve followed a handful of actors from off-Broadway to on, and you’ve discovered some intriguing talent. And now you need “Gays on Broadway” to fill in the gaps of your knowledge and to see how it all began.

Starting more than a century ago – before movies were a thing and TV was invented – author Ethan Mordden acts as a sort of usher as he takes readers on a trip that goes both back- and on-stage. Mordden casually but constantly name-drops, and it’s good to see often-forgotten actors mentioned in a way that may spur you to learn more about actors and their long-ago plays. He also delightfully highlights the cleverness of actors and writers who winked at audiences when “gay” was a bad word.

Almost as much fun as collecting playbills, almost as good as a seat behind the orchestra, this is one of those books that theater-goers will want to take to the show to read during intermission. Get “Gays on Broadway” and take a seat.

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How a talented punk rocking hellion became a “Bottom for God”

The book is the stream-of-consciousness telling the tale of going from abuse to music industry top 5 Billboard Dance chart songwriter

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Barb Morrison (Photo by Strekoza New York)

HOLLYWOOD – Barb Morrison is listening.

“and i inhale, and listen. i listen to the song of the pond, and the wind and the trees and i exhale, and listen. i listen to the song of the birds and the frogs and the insects. i listen. i listen.  to every sound. of the cities i have lived in, the friends i have cried with and the families i have laughed with. i listen. to the sound of all the times i have tried to control my narrative. to force my will.  i listen. to all the times i have laid on my back and let the universe love me and teach me, through the act of allowing. i listen so i can embrace every gift, every lesson the universe has for me. So i can come back home again by bottoming for god,” they say in their new memoir Bottoming for God

The book is the stream-of-consciousness telling the tale of going from abuse to music industry top 5 Billboard Dance chart songwriter, platinum record producer, punk rocking genius. Morrison has put an imprint into artists including Blondie, Rufus Wainright, Fanz Ferdinance, LP, Asia Kate Dillon and Tripping Jupiter

If you infer from the above quote that the book is a zen-filled treatise of ee cummings-like poetry, think again. In a spoiler alert, the above quote is the end of the book, not the beginning. The road to get there is rocky, painful and poignant, and Morrison does not hold back on the details.

They tell their story their way, and in the way they want to tell it. Morrison, like poet cummings, has not met a capitalization or traditional punctuation that they have liked, and so none appear in the book. Morrison may be “bottoming for god”, but , as they shared with me in our conversation on the Rated LGBT Radio podcast, they are not bottoming for traditional publishers, of whom were denied the pleasure of getting their hands on the manuscript. Morrison was advised that such entities would tell them how to write, and they would have none of it, so Bottoming for God is self-published. So for Morrison, “allowing” is fine for the universe, for corporate media types, not so much.

Morrison’s writing is much like the artistic spirit of their music: very rhythmic, sometimes chaotic, folding in on itself, exhilarating, big, pushing boundaries, peaceful and then bombastically back in your face again. “I did that on purpose” they tell me, “Not completely consciously but because I wanted it to feel like it was different songs on an album, like you said, that it took you up, punched you in the face, then took you to some peace, and I think that all good art does that. It either gives you a traumatic feeling or emotion, or just taps into human nature which makes you remember who you are.”

The childhood memories shared in the book are not for the faint of heart. Morrison suffered grave abuse at the hands of their father. Still Morrison tells me, “He was a kind of a cool guy… before 7 PM at night.”

Morrison also was a deep disappointment to their mother who after having given birth to three boys, was elated to have a “little girl” to dote over and dress. The nonbinary identity within Morrison ran counter to their mother’s vision and Morrison had to live with the emotional abandonment, including their mother’s blind eye to their father’s abuse, that resulted. “One of my earliest memories was that I wasn’t cisgender. It made me grow up feeling like *I* was the crazy one. But little kids shouldn’t feel like they are crazy, right? As I grew up I realized ‘oh, they are telling me a thing that is actually not right’ . I had David Bowie and Boy George, but other than that, nonbinary was just the butt of a joke.”

Still Morrison rationalizes of their parents, “They did the best they could.”

Music was the savior, it entertained, allowed Morrison to please those around them, and to gain temporary peace. “I know I wanted to be a musician at 10 years old. I joined a punk rock band at 14.”

For Morrison, dealing with the consciousness that the status quo that was wrong, inspired creativity. “That kind of typifies the concept of ‘bottoming for god’ – it starts there. You accept having to think for yourself and go on from there.”

There is an observation from those familiar with Jewish Mysticism that the “bottoming for god”concept is not new. In fact, it is suggested that some biblical heroes, such as Jacob and David, had to learn to “bottom for God” in order to fulfill their divine missions. They had to surrender their ego, their will and their power to the higher authority of God, and become receptive, humble and “feminine” in their relationship with the divine.

“I never heard that before,” Morrison told me, puncturing the idea that Jewish Mysticism somehow inspired them. “But it IS the concept of the book—taking something you think is bad, or a challenge, and turning it into acceptance, and the best way you can.”

Something that was bad, was Morrison’s drug addiction and foray into long term sobriety. “If you do the work in sobriety, you absolutely will grow,” they testify. In the eighties, when Morrison reports “crack had just hit New York City”, they were living in a crack house. “The music had an edge. The punk scene was booming. It was the AIDS crisis. Everything reflects everything. It was a very intense time.”

“We made a life of it. It was raw, it was tough. I am grateful for it,” they say. They realized they had a soul sickness. “I did not feel like I fit my body correctly, being trans and nonbinary. I had society telling me a bunch of stuff that perpetuated self-hate.”

Originally, they thought sobriety was “a load of crap.” They went to recovery meetings, but still played with drugs on the side until they had an epiphany. They realized that the cosmic “it” was between them, and the Universe, and no one else. It was no one else’s business whether they used or drank, just their own, and the Universe. So, they decided to do it RIGHT, to give it a fair shot, to accept it.

The bottoming began. “I have been clean and sober since, “ they tell me. Their art and music broke into a deeper authenticity. They no longer listened to outside voices on what they needed to do, to be. “With them, I DID have to ask myself – do I top or do I bottom?” Bottoming for the universe, for God, means listening to an inner instinct and one’s ‘authentically me’.

I had to ask, given that Morrison works with major “heavy hitters”—who is the “top” and who is the “bottom” when they are in the creative process. “You forgot the third person in the equation,” they tell me. “The studio itself. You sometimes have to let the studio do its thing. The studio is an instrument. You can let it guide you. What is free will? How do I know when I am right? I have learned it is about not being self-centered. I want to be open to other possibilities. “

Morrison sees themselves as a “possibillion” –all is possible, but they are also still cynical about it. Thus going back to the aforementioned question on who would publish it.  “I was nervous about putting the book out myself. I called my friend Elizabeth Gibert, and told her, ‘am I crazy? I think I want to put this out myself. She told me ‘that’s the best thing you could do because they will just want to ‘change it for you’.  I said ‘really? I really feel nervous about putting this out myself.’ She said, ‘Barb, you have lived your life with no rules. Why would you start NOW?’

So the nice white Eat, Pray, Love lady from Connecticut had to remind me to be Punk Rock.”

Barb Morrison sees themselves as being “right sized” as they submit in the journey of “bottoming for god.”

At they same time, they are fully empowered, embracing their authentic self and talents and doing “it” their way.

With all due respect, but from all appearances, I can only make one final observation:

 God is finding out what a true power bottom is…

LISTEN:

*****************************************************************************************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including The Los Angeles Blade, The Washington Blade, Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .

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‘Moby Dyke’ a funny memoir-in-a-bar

A writer’s quest to visit the 20 remaining lesbian bars in U.S.

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(Book cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

‘Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Track Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America’
By Krista Burton
c.2023, Simon & Schuster
$28.99/320 pages

The last stool on the left, over by the neon beer sign, is yours.

That’s your spot, the place where you can see almost the entire place. You hold court there, have a few drinks there, and you meet new friends. On that stool, you’re among your people but enjoy it while you can: In “Moby Dyke” by Krista Burton, your seat is in a dwindling place.

A few years ago, toward the end of the pandemic, masking, and lock-downs, Krista Burton was asked what she missed most. Her answer was a surprise: she longed to be in a crowded “dyke bar,” shoulder-to-shoulder with people like her.

Dyke bars. Wouldn’t that make a great subject for a book?

Burton found an agent but then she found bad news: supposedly, there were just 20 lesbian bars left in the entire country.

Not wanting to miss an opportunity, and with book contract in hand, Burton began planning roadtrips. It was, she said, “the gayest possible dream project.”

She began in San Francisco at “the oldest … lesbian-founded, owned, and continuously operated bar” there. From her home in Minnesota, she flew to New York City to visit two lesbian bars. A visit to a San Diego bar was wrapped up with a friend’s wedding.

Burton’s husband, a trans man, loved the football atmosphere in a Milwaukee lesbian bar. She caught a drag show in Indiana. Columbus, Ohio was “extremely queer-friendly.” She endured karaoke in Nashville, and she visited a cannabis dispensary while in Denver. Seattle was a place of nostalgia. She was mistaken for straight in Houston, was impressed by a real Dallas club, almost missed visiting a Mobile bar, wanted to quit when she was in Atlanta (but didn’t), then went to Phoenix and Richmond, imagined herself as a “senator’s gay wife” in Washington D.C., and she wrapped her tour up in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Once, Burton says, LGBTQ people were persecuted and arrested for dancing, drinking, and for being themselves in a public place.

“We could all go anywhere now.”

Just 20 lesbian bars? You’re giving that “Whaaaat?” squint, aren’t you?

It’s OK, author-blogger Krista Burton addresses that number at the end of “Moby Dyke” by writing with delight that since lock-downs ended, lesbian bars have rebounded.

She doesn’t address the bars she missed in the first place.

And yet, you’ll get the picture with the 20 she includes – in part, because, as she admits and as many bartenders and owners told her, lesbian bars aren’t just for lesbians anymore. To call a drinking establishment a “lesbian bar” ignores the diverse crowds, drag shows, quiet activism, and the inclusion that’s now offered alongside the fun Burton craved.

Don’t think this book is all about bar-hopping, either. It’s funny, with observations that are so sharp, they’ll cut you, and it’s part memoir that’ll hurt your heart.

Yes, there are omissions in this book but what’s here overshadows what’s missing. If you want a funny memoir-in-a-bar, grab “Moby Dyke” and pull up a stool.

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