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Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers



‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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Queer film fans will love ‘Hollywood: The Oral History’

‘The most cruel, most despicable town in the world’



(Book cover image courtesy Harper)

‘Hollywood: The Oral History’
By Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson
c. 2022, Harper
$30/741 pages

Whether you adore old Hollywood, are fascinated by 1970s new Hollywood, intrigued by digital filmmaking or love to hate on Tinsel Town, you’re in luck this holiday season.

Hollywood is “The most cruel, most despicable town in the world,” assistant director Ridgeway Callow says, in “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, a compendium of 100 years of gossip, reminiscences, and historical tidbits about Tinsel Town. At nearly 800 pages, it’s an intriguing, diverting doorstopper of a book.

Hollywood aficionados, especially Tinsel Town’s queer fans, will find it hard to resist this book. 

It’s often been said that there would be no Hollywood without us queer folk. “Hollywood: The Oral History” doesn’t explicitly mention Tinsel Town’s queer quotient. But you’ll find tantalizing hints of it, if you have queer radar.

If you believe that compiling a comprehensive history of Hollywood is a frivolous endeavor, you may well want to think again. 

Hollywood has been, and still is, (despite some progress) sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic. Not to mention its distortion of body image. And, that’s just a sampling of its sins.

Yet, Hollywood is everywhere. Whether you love movies (Old Hollywood films or the newest digital offerings), or loathe even the mention of the word “celluloid,” your life has been shaped by Hollywood.

Tinsel Town is in our DNA: from the words of endearment we whisper when we’re in love to the shade we throw during break-ups to the clothes we wear to our gestures of affection or rage.

In 1969, the American Film Institute held the first of a series of “intimate conversations” between AFI conservatory students and Hollywood professionals, Basinger and Wasson write in the introduction to “Hollywood: the Oral History.”

These conversations were named the Harold Lloyd Master Seminars “in honor of their very first guest,” Basinger and Wasson report.

During the past half century everyone from actors (including Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and, thankfully, Bette Davis) to directors (including George Cukor who directed Hepburn and Garbo), to costume designers (including Oscar-winning Edith Head) to producers as well as stunt men and women have talked about Hollywood.

“They speak with the attitudes of their own time,” Basinger and Wasson write, “but they speak with authority.”

Wasson and Basinger were given “unprecedented access” to the Harold Lloyd seminars, oral histories and complete archives. The more than 300 interviews for this remarkable book were culled from more than 3,000 seminar guest speakers and nearly 10,000 hours of conversation, the authors write.

The people speaking in this entertaining history aren’t actually hanging out – being interviewed together. Yet, it feels as if we’re a fly on the wall at a Tinsel Town pool party, as stars and their director/producer Hollywood pals sip martinis and gossip.

“The press did everything in the world to see that Joan Crawford and I had a big fight,” Bette Davis says.

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” was made in three weeks, Davis says. There was no time for a feud, she adds. But, who knows what would have happened if “Baby” had taken three months to make, Davis asks.

This is just one of the many fun quotes in the fascinating interviews in “Hollywood: The Oral History.”

A caveat: Wasson, author of six books on film, including “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” “Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the “Dawn of the Modern Woman,” and Basinger, a trustee of the AFI and distinguished film scholar, offer scant context on the interviews in the book. There is, for example, little comment on the racism in “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” or on homophobia in Hollywood. It’s understandable that the authors wanted the interviewees to speak for themselves (as part of their time). Yet, some historical context would have been welcome.

If you read “Hollywood: the Oral History” from beginning to end, you’ll likely feel that the party is going on too long. But if you read it in short bursts or dip in and out of it, you’ll find it a delicious treat.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Geena Davis kicked ass onscreen long before she did in real life

Iconic actress revisits her ‘Polite’ life in new memoir



(Book cover courtesy Harper One)

‘Dying of Politeness: A Memoir’
By Geena Davis
c.2022, Harper One
$28.99/288 pages

Years ago, a colleague videotaped me as I apologized for bumping into a desk. “I’m sorry,” I said to this inanimate object, “I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.” 

If you’re terminally polite, love kick-ass movies and worship bad-asses, you’ll lap up “Dying of Politeness: A Memoir” by badass, feminist, Academy-Award-winning actor and activist Geena Davis.

In the memoir (Davis’s debut as an author), Davis, 66, tells  entertaining,  sometimes moving, stories about her wide-ranging life: from her childhood (her parents were more polite than Emily Post ever dreamt of) to her acting career to finishing in 24th place in archery in the 2000 Summer Olympics trials.    

Davis, a queer and feminist icon, has been in many movies. Her awards include an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of dog trainer Muriel Prichett in “The Accidental Tourist,” the adaptation of the Anne Tyler novel of the same name. Davis watched her boyfriend (Jeff Goldblum) turn into an insect in “The Fly” and played Barbara in the comedy-horror picture “Beetlejuice.”

Davis is loved by LGBTQ folk for her work in two 1990s classics.

In 1991, she was Thelma (Susan Sarandon was Louise) in “Thelma and Louise,” the classic film that made many women cheer and a lot of men squirm.

Just a year later, Davis was Dottie in the movie that’s still a fave of hetero and queer girls and women — “A League of Their Own.” Unlike the series with the same name recently released by Amazon Prime, the film has no explicitly queer characters. But with Madonna (Mae) and Rosie O’Donnell (Doris), the picture has a fab queer quotient.

You’d think, after watching Davis as Thelma and Dottie, that the Oscar-winning actor leapt from her mother’s womb as a badass.

But it’s clear from the get-go that it took more than a minute for Davis to emerge as her badass self. Davis could easily have titled not only the first chapter of her memoir, but the entire book, “My Journey to Badassery.”

“I kicked ass onscreen way before I did so in real life,” Davis writes.

But, “Dying of Politeness” is a more than apt title for the memoir. Her parents were loving, but polite to the point of absurdity.

They insisted that Davis say “no thank you, I’m not thirsty” “even if someone was handing me an already poured glass of ice water,” Davis writes.

One of Davis’s childhood memories was of the time her 99-year-old great-uncle drove her and her family to his house. The relative kept veering into the oncoming “if blessedly empty,” traffic lane, she recalls. Rather than saying anything, “my parents simply moved me to the spot between them on the back seat,” Davis writes, “thinking, I presume, that when the inevitable head-on collision occurred, I’d be killed a little less in the middle.”

The humor in this anecdote of a childhood brush with death is typical of the wit sprinkled throughout “Dying of Politeness.”

Davis, who grew up in Wareham, Mass., decided at age 3 that she wanted to be in the movies. After studying acting at Boston University, Davis left college and moved to New York. 

Davis may have been as she writes, “a cripplingly polite New Englander,” but she wasn’t lacking in chutzpah. 

In New York, Davis worked as a Lord and Taylor sales clerk. On a dare, she joined a group of mannequins in a café scene in the department store window. Soon, people lined up to watch her perform in street theater.

Davis got her first movie role in “Tootsie” after Sidney Pollack saw her pictures in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Dustin Hoffman, starring in the movie, mentored her. He told her not to sleep with her co-stars.

The memoir is more than entertaining. Davis writes of sexual harassment, her effort to create inclusion in Hollywood by founding the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and how her dad cared for her mom when she had dementia.

It’s hard to think of a timelier book than “Dying of Politeness” in our current political climate. Badassery is needed now more than ever.

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‘Working Girls’ offers over-the-top advice on the workplace

Drag stars tell you how to get along with co-workers, ask for a raise



(Book cover image courtesy Plume)

‘Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood’
By Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova
c.2022, Plume
$28/224 pages 

You want stuff.

A nice wardrobe, say. Decent dishes, nice lamps, food and drink. Somewhere to relax and a place to sleep. You want stuff, and a home to put that stuff in, but that generally takes money, honey, and it usually comes from a j-o-b. Fear not, though: help is on the way with “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” by Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova.

If you must work, at least you should find a job that fits you, right? So grab Trixie and Katya’s guide and start with the career aptitude test. You might be surprised – or you might “qualify for 0 percent APR financing.”

Next, think about what you really want to do with your life. How about a career of service as a cleaner who removes “the carnage of lowly grifters, criminals, and monsters”? You might rather hang out with kids as a nanny, or be a “tipped laborer.”

Remember, always tip the waitstaff.

You could work in publishing, “big tech,” financing, whatever you choose, always dress for the job. If that means drag, “grab a wig, some fabric, and two lashes… and poof!” You’re ready to hire.

But wait. First, you’ll have to go through an interview, so think about the skills you want to showcase, then “reel them in” with thoughtful answers to those silly interview questions. Once you’ve got a job offer in hand, be forearmed with the handy guide to the types of coworkers you might encounter. Remember: work is not like college, where you can avoid “germs, viruses, and nonessential enzymes named Carol from Accounts Receivable.”

Know how to ask for a raise (do you even deserve one?). Be glad if they ask you to do a Zoom meeting from home. Know how to manage your time, know when it’s time to leave your job, and know how to be graceful if it wasn’t exactly your idea. Learn to recognize work scams. And then prepare for retirement. Yeah, you do deserve that.

It should be crystal-clear by merely looking at the cover of “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” that this book pokes plenty of fun at the world of work. It’s funny, saucy, and over-the-top and it actually includes surprisingly decent advice, too.

Just be willing to read between the lines, although that shouldn’t be a problem. Readers who are old enough to handle the theme of this book should be smart enough to know when authors Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova aren’t exactly trying for Dear Abby here; there’s an overload of snark and sarcasm in these pages, and it’s in neon. Still, the fact remains that there are usable nuggets inside this book – on working from home, on getting along with coworkers, on asking for more money, and on how to quit.

Bring your sense of humor when you tackle this book, but bring your resume, too. “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” is funny and useful, and, well, you want it.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Book about lesbian affair is steamy erotica with thin story

‘Mistakes Were Made’ delivers heat but the romance falls flat



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

‘Mistakes Were Made’
By Meryl Wilsner
c.2022, St. Martin’s Press
$16.99/346 pages 

It was so not cool.

And yet, you owned it because it was your error, there was no denying it, and you can’t go back in time and undo it. It wasn’t cool, but it happened. Then again, was it really such a misstep, or was there something good inside the something bad you did? As in the new novel, “Mistakes Were Made” by Meryl Wilsner, will it all turn out right in the end?

The bar wasn’t one she usually frequented, but it was as far from the dorm as Cassie Klein could possibly get. It was Family Weekend at college, she’d graduate soon, and the whole “family” thing was ridiculous. No, the bar was a better place to be and she was preparing to get drunk, until she started watching the older woman who was watching her.

She bought the woman a drink and one thing led to another, which led to the back seat of the woman’s car, the exchange of first names, and a semi-public one-night stand that Cassie was sure she’d never forget.

Erin Bennett had hoped being at Family Weekend might heal the broken bond she had with her daughter, Parker. She knew Parker was still angry that Erin had filed for divorce from Parker’s father, and Erin wished she could explain things but she wasn’t exactly sure herself why the divorce was important. She was mulling this over when Parker arrived at breakfast with one of her closest friends in tow – a friend that Erin had never officially met, but that she knew very well.

Intimately, in fact.

It was the woman she’d had sex with the night before.

Clearly, this was awkward and Parker could never find out what had happened. While the obvious thing to do was to put the brakes on, that was impossible – especially after Parker wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when she invited Cassie to her mother’s house for Christmas break. Being in the same home together was hard enough, but being in the same room, and in pajamas? How could anyone resist that?

There are really two basic ways to perceive “Mistakes Were Made.” It’s either an overly long, mostly-bare-bones story that contains some explicit bedroom scenes. Or it’s soft erotica with a tissue-thin story between steamy trysts.

Could it be better? Well, that, too, will depend on what you want in a novel.

Author Meryl Wilsner’s bedroom (kitchen, back seat, living room) scenes are hotter than a baked potato straight from the oven. They’re steam-your-glasses hot and there are enough of them to seize your interest and handcuff it to a bedpost – if that is, indeed, your interest. Come to this novel for a romance-y tale, though, and you could be bored because, while girl-meets-girl is all over this book, it’s frustratingly slow getting to it.

And so, know what you want before you pick up “Mistakes Were Made.” If erotica is your thing, stay for the heat. If you want a good story, though, it’ll leave you cold.

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“Grace: Barack Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America”

Obama speechwriter reflects on marriage, Charleston shooting in new book- Cody Keenan revisits 10 critical days from unique vantage point



Cody Keenan (Photo by Melanie Dunea)

WASHINGTON – Cody Keenan, director of speechwriting for President Obama, had a prominent vantage point in the White House during an eventful 10 days that included recovery from a violent memory underscoring lingering issues with racism.

Those 10 days, which saw the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage and upholding Obamacare as well as Obama’s speech in the aftermath of a racist shooting at a Black church in Charleston, are now encapsulated in his new book, “Grace: Barack Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America.”

The Washington Blade spoke with Keenan about his book in an interview on Tuesday that includes an exchange the author and this reporter shared from different perspectives during Obama’s speech in the Rose Garden after the Supreme Court’s ruling for same-sex marriage.

Read the full interview below:

Blade: Why was the time now for this book?

Cody Keenan: There’s a couple of reasons for that. No. 1 is sort of technical. I was still working for President Obama up until the beginning of 2021. And so I didn’t feel appropriate to start writing a book that’s largely about him as long as he was paying me. So that’s the technical answer.

The other is I’d just been rolling these 10 days around in my head for a while. You know, it doesn’t coalesce all at once. You don’t wake up in the morning after marriage equality and Charleston and say, “OK, I’m going to write a book.” It really took the Trump years to actually crystallize it in my head because suddenly we were living through the opposite. We come through this kind of amazing 10-day burst of progress. That, of course, is not limited to 10 days. It was a result of decades of effort, and then the backlash to it. It makes it seem all that more sharp.

Blade: I think our viewers are going to be very interested in the discussion on the marriage ruling and the potential outcomes that you depict in the book. Looks like there was a lot of anxiety behind closed doors about the decision as well as the possible decision on the Affordable Care Act. Do you think that anxiety was shared by President Obama?

Cody Keenan: I’ll never know for certain. He didn’t show his hand like that. He never looked at the drafts we wrote the kind of ‘in case of emergency break glass’ drafts. He just he never did. Not on election nights, not on Supreme Court rulings. It’s not that he’s cocky, he was confident. I think it was more confident in the ACA decision because he knew that it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. So, I don’t so I don’t know how he felt about the marriage equality ruling coming in. I know how he felt about it after the fact. You can watch his remarks on YouTube, which are pretty extraordinary.

They were fairly short as written and then he decided to keep going, which is always interesting as a speech writer, knowing that the remarks are over. I love watching him ad lib, but when the remarks are over, and he just keeps going and there’s no runway to land that plane and that’s always a little interesting. On the page, it’s not a lot but he was really thinking as he was saying the words, as he was tying it to the countless small acts of courage with people who came out and parents who love their kids in return, people who just who made this happen through decades of efforts. And then, he tied this into Bobby Kennedy, which is really exciting. So that was kind of fascinating to watch.

I’ve always thought that he was genuinely moved by the fact that America had come so far and, relatively speaking, so fast on the equal rights issue like that. … I asked him later why he ad-libbed all that and why he was talking so slowly. He just he said he was up too late, reworking my speech, which isn’t true, because he gave it back to me like 11 p.m. But no, I think he was genuinely proud of the country, and then a whole lot of people at that point.

Blade: Yeah, I remember that day very well because I was actually right in front of Obama as he was giving those remarks. I’m a White House reporter, so I wanted to be able to see these remarks firsthand. I was at the Supreme Court and I rushed back to the White House. I actually missed the call time just by ever so slightly but a when the White House staffer saw me there, she escorted me to the Rose Garden. And I was seated there, then press saw me there and they knew how important it was to me so they allowed me to take the seat in the front row where normally the major news stations sit. I was a few feet away from Obama, as he was saying those words.

Keenan: Oh wow. Well, this isn’t a two-way interview, obviously, but I’d be very curious afterwards as to how you were feeling that morning before and then.

Blade: For me, it was a very surreal and very powerful experience to have this issue that has been a really important issue for so many people, and really animated my work for so long, to more or less reach its conclusion. And one thing that really stood out to me was it just seems to me like when I was writing about marriage equality, it was really of interest to a certain group of people and other people really weren’t that interested. But on that day, it was a reminder that that wasn’t the case. Because remember, President Obama gave his remarks and then the entire White House staff circled around the perimeter of the Rose Garden and gave applause and it was just it was very touching, very moving. I don’t think they did that for the ACA speech. It struck me just how powerful it was because people wanted to embrace that decision with that reaction.

Keenan: The difference there is that we had — this is who people are, we had so many colleagues that — I just dreaded the idea of having to look a colleague in the eye or a friend had it gone the other way. There was anxiety and we were also relieved and excited that it went the right way. There was anxiety that morning. I guess I can always speak for myself, but as a Democrat and as a Chicago sports fan, I am never satisfied until it’s over…I’m always hopeful we’re gonna win, but I don’t ever expect. So until that really came down, I was pretty anxious for sure.

Blade: Was there anything during that speech that surprised you. I think you said Obama said a few things you didn’t think he was going to say but just anything that otherwise happened that just really opened your eyes on that either after the ruling or in his remarks?

Kennan: The remarks didn’t surprise me…I just thought it was so interesting that he kept going. He always gave long speeches, but for a speech to be over on paper and for him to not want to stop. You know, he didn’t want to stop and just wanted to say more, and I thought that was so fascinating and awesome and exciting, and then obviously five minutes after that we need to head down to Charleston.

Blade: I do want to ask you about Charleston, but one thing I want to ask you about was that was the night that the White House was lit up in rainbow colors. And I’m just wondering if you were part of the discussion, if you aware of that, if you remember your reaction to that?

Keenan: I was not a part of the discussion. I didn’t know what was going to happen until that morning or the morning after, I can’t remember. We were on the Rose Garden for the remarks, and Denis McDonough came up and told me, “God, that’s cool.” It’s one of those things where you wish you thought of it because it seems so obvious. I’ve talked to a lot of people for this book. I talked to Jeff Tiller and Tina Tchen. [Jeff Tiller was an Obama White House LGBTQ media liaison.] And one of the coolest things Jeff told me was he was the one that kind of spearheaded this whole thing and found funding for it, found quotes from contractors and was out there kind of tearing his hair out when the lights weren’t necessarily working.

But the coolest thing he said is they were talking about what to do if the Supreme Court ruled the other way. Do they light it up? And Jeff said, “Yeah, it’s even more important then.”

Blade: That’s definitely something that was planned for. I was really surprised at how they were able to keep it under wraps for so long. It was a surprise to everyone I think.

Keenan: The only bummer is that Obama was gonna fly around the front of the White House on Maine One to look at it. But I don’t think anybody remembered this was like the longest week of the year daylight-wise. So we’ve been back for maybe two hours before it actually started, before colors actually started getting visible.

Blade: So on the Charleston speech, a much more somber moment, do you think having the nation’s first Black president at the time offered us something unique in that moment?

Keenan: Sure. I talk a lot about how difficult it was to write about race just because we haven’t all lived the same experiences. It may have actually been more difficult to write that speech had it been for a white president to deliver. The fact that a Black president gave that eulogy was pretty remarkable. It’s not just that he is a walking sign of progress and change, and a lot of people didn’t like that, hence some of the backlash we’re living in now.

….He can speak to race and the possibilities of reconciliation and change, I think, more so than a white president could have in that moment. It’d be easy for a white president to just condemn it, but for a Black president to go up and find the words is easier symbolically. It might have been more difficult on the page. I really don’t know. But it was a quintessential hit, what he did to the text, using the lyrics to Amazing Grace to kind of create the space for people to change their minds, the space for people to — the whole song was written by a slave owner who changed his ways, to repent. And it’s sort of the same thing, if anything’s ever going to wake us up to the long legacy of racism and to what gun violence is doing, that’s what the Confederate flag means to some people. It has to be this. So in some ways, I don’t know the answer as to whether it be easier or harder, but he did bring something unique to it just by virtue of his experience.

Blade: Did you think the Charleston shooting represented the last dying breath of racism in the United States, or that it was a prelude of things to come?

Keenan: I don’t think either. I could see the argument for each but I don’t think either. We’ve obviously endured racial violence for centuries. A Black church was set on fire in Massachusetts the day Obama was elected. He had more threats against him than any other president. It’s what we live with. So it definitely wasn’t the start, and it’s not the end. I mean, in a lot of ways, the fact that Donald Trump announced his candidacy the day before the shooting, it’s just kind of an awful reminder that a president’s words can unleash a lot of bad things, and at their best they can inspire the best in people, at their worst they can turn people against each other and kind of let loose the country’s worst demons and create permission structure for people to act out their political violence.

What kind of linked those things that week, and even Obamacare to a lesser extent, is who are we? Do we stand up to white supremacy and bigotry? Or do we allow this to continue, do we allow state legislators to fly the Confederate flag over where Black people live and work and worship? Do we allow the Supreme Court to basically codify bigotry by saying, “No, you can’t get married”? Do we allow them to say sorry to millions of poor people and working people you don’t get to have health insurance unless you’re wealthy? And like all those things just came to a head in the same week.

Blade: So my final question for you is what kind of impact would you like for your book to have?

Keenan: There’s kind of three buckets here. One is first I really do think it’s an important story to tell for history. I want people to read about this some day as this kind of amazing spasm of progress that is not due to one president, but to two generations of people who marched and fought and bled for this. I also teach speech writing at Northwestern, I want young people who are in college now and look at politics and think, “Why would I want to do that?” and change their minds. I want them to think this is a place that’s worth my time and effort. It can actually be fulfilling and collegial and fun.

And anyone else myself included who’s started to feel really cynical in recent years, and there’s plenty of reasons for it, I wanted to throw that up. I’ve gotten some of the greatest feedback so far from a couple strangers who reached out to say they sign up to knock on doors and one of my former colleagues texted this morning to say just reminded me in politics in the first place, and that’s what I want. I want people to read it and say, “You know what, for all the awfulness out there and for the act of undermining of our democracy and the heinous cruelty, we’re still in charge.”

{Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length.]

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New ACT UP book is part history, part memoir

‘Boy with the Bullhorn’ chronicles hard work, grief, anger



(Book cover image courtesy of Fordham University Press)

‘Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York’ 
By Ron Goldberg
c.2022/ Fordham University Press
$36.95/512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old… scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign?

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting, which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness. And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but if you have patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

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