Aug Sept 2016
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The Advocate

18 Must-Read LGBT Books We Missed Last Year

Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men, edited by Robyn Ochs and H. Sharif Williams (Bisexual Resource Center)
If there’s one myth bantered about in the gay community the most, it has to be that bisexual men don’t exist; great authors, artists, and agitators have said as much in print. Which is why the earnest, bittersweet, and occasionally profound essays in Recognize are such winners. Thanks to some careful curation by editors Robyn Ochs (probably the most renowned bisexual speaker right now) and Dr. Herukhuti (billed here as H. Sharif Williams — a clinical sociologist, cultural studies scholar, sexologist, and author), the pieces in Recognize really let you feel as though you’re walking in the lives of these bi men, as diverse a bunch as one could find, and it helps us understand what’s probably the most misunderstood portion of LGBT. Moreover, Recognize is never clinical, never removed from the writer’s life; each essay further humanizes people who are too often caricatured.

When My Boyfriend Was a Girl by Sunshine Mugrabi (CreateSpace)
As the author of a memoir about falling in love with a woman and ending up with a man who happened to be the same person, I devoured Sunshine Mugrabi’s memoir. A bisexual woman who has dated both men and women, the author focuses on meeting and falling in love with Leor, a transgender man just beginning his transition journey. It follows their love affair, including the ups and downs that come with loving someone who is just growing into themselves for the first time, creating a casual but highly readable memoir. Best part: no sad endings.

 

Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks with Barbara Smith (SUNY Press) Few people were as groundbreaking and pivotal in pushing dialogue about the intersectionality of class, gender, race, and sexuality than Barbara Smith, who did so as a writer, scholar, publisher, and elected official. Smith, the founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press (which published, among others, the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back), and her Kitchen Table colleagues were attributed with creating the term “identity politics,” and as a black lesbian feminist whose life crossed numerous liberation movements, she’s always fought for a lens in which our whole lives and myriad identities are reflected. In Ain’t Gonna… the editors worked with Smith to explore every aspect of Smith’s life, including childhood (and her life with twin sister Beverly, herself an impressive activist) and her time as an elected official in Albany, N.Y., using over 200 articles, images, recordings, and a dozen original interviews. It’s a wonderful read on solidarity, resistance, and outsider politics, as evidenced by the fact that it was showered with praise by folks like Cornell West and Gloria Steinem.

Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves, edited by Zander Keig and Mitch Kellaway (Transgress Press)
This is a great compilation of essays from 27 transgender men, among the first books to tread modern territory in the years since Max Wolf Valerio’s very smart memoir, The Testosterone Files. A rather diverse collection (in age, race, class, and sexuality as well as cultural and ethnic background), Manning Up is fascinating and plain-spoken. Nobody here is trying to overreach as a literary wunderkind; every single essay reads more like a letter from an old friend than a literary treatise from a powerhouse, and in this case, that’s a damn good thing. That isn’t to say they aren’t powerful; indeed, Aaron Devor (author of FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society) takes on fatherhood and personhood in a way that childless women will find themselves moved by. Equally affecting is Trystan Cotten’s essay about discovering that the little “privilege” he had as a black lesbian is now gone, as he finds new terror and danger as he enters “black/brown manhood.” Jack Sito, on the other hand, recognizes and yet struggles with the new found privilege he’s gained after transitioning. Their stories both illuminate the paradox of male privilege that trans men struggle with; it is not the male privilege that cisgender men grow up with. Thought-provoking, illuminating, and smart, Manning Up is a must-read.

Drive All Night by Jamie Anderson (Bella Books)
I fell in love with musician Jamie Anderson when she embarked on her first national tour in 1987 because she needed to earn gas money to get to a women’s music festival (back then such festivals weren’t mired in antitrans controversy). She was witty and irreverent but also so damn nice, you had to like her. In 1993 she cemented her place in the lesbian pantheon with a song that became a pre-marriage equality anthem about having to attend straight weddings when we couldn’t marry, “The Wedding Song” (whose choice lyrics include “Sure I’ll come to your wedding, but I’ll dance with the bride”). In this new book, fans and newcomers get to hear about those nearly 30 years as a working lesbian musician, touring festivals and concert halls, sharing horror stories from the road that’ll crack you up, name-checking some of our favorites that she played with (like the Indigo Girls), dishing on skeevy producers, and more. It’s as funny as the woman herself and a great glimpse at the pre-Sister Spit women’s music festival era of lesbian musical wonders.

The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar June 24, 1973 by Clayton Delery-Edwards (McFarland)
This award-winning book is a must for history and crime buffs, though it’s a sometimes tough read about the 1973 arson fire that killed 32 people in a New Orleans gay bar, still the largest mass killing of LGBT people in U.S. history. Delery-Edwards, a Louisiana native, reviewed hundreds of accounts and interviewed survivors and those behind the criminal investigations to come up with The Up Stairs Lounge Arson. Most telling: why an arrest was never made and what impact the fire had on the city, the queer rights movement, and even public policy.   

 

Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns (Beacon Press)
Anyone who has grown up in a once-booming town will understand the city of author Amy Jo Burns’s childhood: Mercury, Pa., an industrial town beset by the steel collapse of the 1980s, where vacant lots butt up against boarded-up houses and old strip mines. It’s here that, when Burns was 10 years old, her beloved piano teacher was accused of sexually assaulting his female students. Seven girls came forward with allegations, and she watched as the town turned against them. Burns herself did not come forward. She lied and said it didn't happen, but later found lying has a lifetime of consequences. Burns, an LGBT ally, offers a really redemptive story about the consequences of growing up in a culture that doesn’t trust girls. Best yet, though she's not queer, the book is a wonderful nod to the power of coming out and breaking your silence that anyone can understand.

Falling Into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home by Catherine Reid (Beacon)
Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst was a brilliant collection of essays from a lesbian author who follows it up with this equally powerful memoir about the importance and disconcerting nature of place and time and geography and family. When author Catherine Reid writes, “It’s not easy to love a person and a place in equal measure,” I understand exactly what she means. I married someone from Idaho, like me; if I hadn’t, I fear this would constantly be my concern. The push and pull of land and home and the outsider status of being a queer person means that the gap between love, acceptance, and geography may never be bridged. But Reid pontificates more eloquently on the rhythms of nature and why we call a place home in a way that anyone can understand.

 

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The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took to Keep My Best Friend in America and What It Taught Us About Love by Liza Monroy (Soft Skull)
When Liza Monroy’s best (gay) friend, Emir, is about to be deported back to the Middle East, after exhausting all legal attempts to get a green card, Liza does what she needs to in order to keep Emir safely in the U.S. and away from the harm that often befalls queer men in his homeland. So she proposes marriage. One quickie Vegas wedding later, the duo are off on an adventure that is sometimes unexpectedly harrowing (dodging the INS, a mother who works for the State Depeartment preventing immigration fraud!) but always sounds every bit the “real” marriage — even if sex wasn’t part of the bargain. It’s a nice way to look at what the author calls “gender neutral marriage” and the bonds we create.

Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall (Gallery Books)
A Catholic lesbian who has struggled to balance her own needs with those of her parents, Michelle Theall knew she was queer growing up in Texas, “bullied by her classmates, abandoned by her evangelical best friend whose mother spoke in tongues, and kicked out of Christian organizations that claimed to embrace her — all before she’d ever held a girl’s hand.” Eventually she does come out officially into a quiet life with her partner; then at 43 she and her partner try to have their son baptized into the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Boulder, Colo. Then the real battles begin — between her and her mother, her and the church — and the author realizes that to really parent her own child she has to stop trying to please her mother.

 

A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez (Beacon)
The former editor of ColorLines has penned a pitch-perfect coming-of-age memoir, about growing up in her Cuban-Colombian family and coming to create her own new, queer life. All the lessons she gets in childhood about migration, colonization, love, faith, race, and class are fodder for her life, but she goes outside the rules set up by the women in her life by coming out as bisexual, dating women and transgender men, and finding her own identity without losing the one she grew up with. Simply beautiful.

 

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Republic of Outsiders by Alissa Quart (The New Press)
Brightly analytic, Alissa Quart offers a fascinating look at the impact of cultural outsiders — those who have created new ways to keep themselves happy, fulfilled, and even paid in the process. Republic takes on the wonderfully disruptive nature of technology that lets us crowdsource our work, create alternatives to long-held financial structures (alternative banking, anyone?), and innovate our own identities. Republic also offers a very smart look at how some folks (including trans, bi, and queer folks) are turning amateurism into a strength rather than a weakness.

 

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Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma by Jason Whitesel (New York University Press)
In both pop culture and in the academy, the field of fat studies has been largely led by women (no pun intended), often queer women, but author Jason Whitesel, an assistant professor of women's and gender studies at Pace University, upends that by putting the focus squarely on men — fat gay men, gay culture, and the stigma so prevalent there. Even though gay men have bear culture, Whitesel argues that fat men still exist at the margins of gay culture. His research takes him inside Girth & Mirth, a 40-year-old social club dedicated to big gay men, exploring how it has created safe space for big men; he attends drag shows and other club events to look at how these guys use “campy-queer” behavior to “reconfigure and reclaim their sullied body images, focusing on the numerous tensions of marginalization and dignity that big gay men experience and how they negotiate these tensions via their membership to a size-positive group.” After attending hundreds of events from pool parties to gay weekend retreats, Whitesel uses his own insider/outsider status as a gay man to critique the gay rights movement, looking at the ways in which gay fat men are battling stigma, and questioning why the social consequences of being fat and gay are so extreme.

 

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Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers by Anne Balay (University of North Carolina Press)
The image of the LGBT rights movement in American is largely a middle-class one, but in Steel Closets, gender studies professor Anne Balay uses the stories of 40 working-class lesbian, gay, and trans steelworkers (most from Indiana) to illuminate a previously invisible population. In doing so, we get to better see the intersections of class, gender, sexuality, and labor that exist in the treacherous industrial workplace of a steel mill. (One isn't sure if bi steel workers were hard for Balay to find or if they were lumped in other categories.) At a point when we’re celebrating wins like marriage equality in some states (and setbacks in others, including Indiana), this collection is a stark reminder of the reality of working-class queer lives: Almost all the subjects are closeted at work, and many have experienced harassment, violence, and even rape.

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Scoop: Notes From a Small Ice Cream Shop by Jeff Miller (Minnesota Historical Society Press):
Jeff Miller was a successful lawyer, and he and his partner, Dean, had a fabulous urban life in London with money, success, and great vacations. Still, after 15 years as a lawyer, Miller was unhappy, so two months after a promotion he quit his job, they sold the house, packed up the pooches and moved to a tiny town called Hayward, Wis., to run a vintage ice cream shop (albeit with inventive modern flavors) and a Victorian B&B. Cue every scene from Baby Boom, with dogs instead of babies. But it’s a delightfully real story about midlife changes, gay romance, the meaning of geography, and the poignancy of shared community.

 

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Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
A New York Times columnist, Charles Blow is everywhere: he appears regularly on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and HBO, and was recently named 11th most influential African-American in the world by The Root magazine. Knowing his credentials, howeve,r will never prepare you for what a breathtaking, heartbreaking, and illuminating memoir he has penned. He tells the painful and complicated truth about his life as a black boy in the Deep South, where gender, class, race, and sexual orientation intersect in complicated ways. Alice Walker called Fire Shut Up in My Bones “a luminous memoir that digs deep into territory I've longed to read about in black men's writing: into the horror of being submerged in a vast drowning swirl of racial, spiritual, and sexual complexity, only to somehow find one's self afloat, though gasping for breath, and then, at long last and at great cost, swimming.” There’s no way I could say it better than that.

 

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Under This Beautiful Dome:  A Senator, A Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America by Terry Mutchler (Seal Press)
Anyone who has lived in a relationship in the closet will understand the sheer psychological difficulty of journalist Terry Mutchler’s secret five-year relationship with Penny Severns, the Illinois state senator who mentored Barack Obama. The two women meet in the halls of justice in 1993, Mutchler trying to determine if Severns is a lesbian but also worried about outing herself. They fall in love but then go to great lengths to keep their relationship a secret from their family, friends, colleagues, constituents, and even the cleaning lady (one stray hair could spell doom). They marry privately but can’t wear rings in public. Eventually Terry goes to work as Penny’s press secretary, in part to explain why they are always together. But then Penny develops cancer and suffers a quick march to death, while Terry’s understandable grief gives way to shock and horror as Penny’s family denies her rights to her home, her belongings, even her own grief. Perhaps anyone under 30 won’t understand how these women could live this way (though plenty of queer couples still do live this way today). But anyone who lived in the 1980s and before will surely understand the tough choices many queer and trans folks made around relationships, closets, and identity as well as the prices we paid and the consequences some of us still live with. 

 

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An American Queer: The Amazon Trail by Lee Lynch (Bold Strokes Books)
This collection of Lee Lynch's always delightful, incisive, and sometimes homespun “Amazon Trail” columns chronicle over a quarter century of queer life. Inspired by legendary writers like Jane Rule, Ann Bannon, and Vin Packer as a “baby dyke,” Lynch says she wanted to “give to gay people what those writers gave me. And I want to do it well enough that my words might someday be considered literature and, as such, might endure because, as open as some societies have become, there are always haters, and cycles of oppression.” Indeed it does endure. Lynch, whose novels, such as Old Dyke Tales and Sweet Creek, have won numerous awards, deserves to be in the pantheon of legendary lesbian journalists since her columns straddle the literary and the journalistic, always contemporary in their look at queer women's culture and beyond.
 
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