Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding

I reviewed Winston Wilde's fascinating nonfiction book about the rich historical tapestry of LGBT relationships for the Lambda Literary Review back in 2008. Lambda has recently launched its own website, where my past and future reviews of my favorite LGBT authors are finding a new life. Hope you check out that site, as well as this great book ... and I promise to write something new for you soon! 

Winston Wilde
Reviewed by Brent Calderwood

It has often been stated that the blessing and curse of queer relationships is that we must create our own rules and models. Since most of us come from heterosexual families and heteronormative cultures, we often feel that we are reinventing the wheel—or, more accurately, inventing the wheel—when we attempt our own queer romances. This can feel like freedom or chaos, and sometimes a little of both at the same time. 

Several seminal books about LGBT relationships have come down the pike over the years since the late 1970s, notably The Male Couple by David P. McWhirter and The Intimacy Dance by Betty Berzon. John DeCecco’s Gay Relationships offered a more scholarly approach, full of fascinating statistics and charts regarding monogamy, age disparity, and much more. However, like many LGBT self-help, social science and academic works, these tomes have become dated to varying degrees. As LGBT relationships become more mainstream, and as marriage for gays, lesbians, and trans people becomes legal and acceptable in more and more parts of the world (including the United States), a book is needed that bridges historical and cultural limitations. 

As if on cue, Winston Wilde’s Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding has been released from Haworth Press to fulfill this timely but timeless need. The author, a sexologist and psychotherapist, devoted fourteen years to this labor of love, and the time and research shows.  Wilde’s attention to historical documentation, coupled with generous illustrations and juicy, little-known details about the romances of many queer legends, makes this a book worth returning to again and again. It turns out that we do have models after all, and Wilde elucidates this heritage with taxonomic specificity, but also with the light touch of a neighbor relating news over the backyard fence. 

Divided into seven chapters, Wilde enumerates various patterns. These patterns are fascinating because of what they reveal about history, and about the changing values in the dominant culture as well as within queer culture. Predictably, most well-known examples of Intergerational Love, for example, are from previous decades and centuries, dating back to Socrates and his young pupil and lover Alcibiades in the 5th century B.C.E. The author fascinates with lesser known couplings, like 13th-Century Persian mystic poet Rumi and his older, married lover Shams al-Din, who was murdered by one of Rumi’s jealous pupils. Other relationships went more smoothly, thankfully, including the thirty-three year romance of author Christopher Isherwood and the artist Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior. 

Revelations, at least to this reviewer, were the intergenerational relationships between 20th-Century writers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Conklin, as well as the passionate but short-lived romance between Martina Navratilova and Rita Mae Brown. Bringing the Pattern of Intergenerational Love to the present time, Wilde profiles the partnership of authors Malcolm Boyd and Mark Thompson. As Boyd writes to the younger Thompson, “I realize how thankful I am for your life, how precious our time together is, and what an extraordinary adventure we have embarked upon.”

Legacies of Love is chock-full of touching and revealing quotes and declarations of love, culled from love letters, poems, and historical documents. Many of these are timeless and prescient. Margaret Mead, who had a brief relationship with her professor Ruth Benedict, said, in the middle of the last century, “What is new is not bisexuality but rather the widening of our awareness and acceptance of human capacities for sexual love.” In addition to what queer readers can learn from these relationships, the book reminds the reader again and again what queer relationships have taught their participants; in the case of Margaret Mead and others, those personal lessons have been translated into intellectual, political, philosophical, spiritual, and artistic contributions. And of course, relationships teach us much about ourselves as well. In chapter 7, Pattern of Peer Love, Wilde quotes Paul Monette, who wrote of his late partner Roger Horwitz in 1988: “When we came together as lovers we knew precisely how happy we were. I only realized then that I’d never had someone to play with before.” 

In addition to its more thoughtful and poignant moments, Legacies of Love dishes the dirt on several Hollywood affairs and romances, including those of actors Cary Grant and Randolph Scott (pictured in the book washing dishes in the kitchen they shared while donning matching aprons), Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert, and Laurence Olivier and Danny Kaye. 

Finally, Wilde explores several relationships of the Victorian and Modern eras to remind us, lest we forget, just how 
queer heterosexual relationships can be. In Pattern of Heterogender Love, Wilde gives equal time to the open and ahead-of-their time pairings of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill, Jane and Paul Bowles, and even the three-way relationship of Rudolph Valentino, Natacha Rambova and Alla Nazimova. Much can be gleaned from the courage and queerness these lovers exhibited in their own time and place. As Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West wrote to her gay husband Harold Nicolson, “We are sure of each other, in this odd, strange, detached, intimate, mystical relationship which we could never explain to any outside person.” Luckily for us, Wilde has taken it upon himself to explain their relationship, and scores of others, in ways that inform our understanding not only of our queer past, but also of the loves, partnerships, and marriages we embark upon in our present lives.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Swish Beneath the Swagger: Liberating Our Queer Selves

Fans keep asking, "Brent—why no blog entry last week?" 

Actually, no one asked. But I create these little scenarios in order to justify writing another post at midnight when I should be sleeping. The answer to this koan is, I've been busy looking for full-time work, like a lot of folks these days. My hippie friends (that's most of my friends) insist it's because of Mercury retrograde. According to them, computers and other tech devices fail when Mercury seems to move backwards (as seen from Earth) several times each Earth year. 

It's a bad time to use electronic devices or sign contracts they tell me. I tell them I need to find a job.  Did Mercury make my computer crash, really? I tend to think it's because I make computers break by looking at them. Either way, I'm grateful to some wonderful friends for their help and support in getting back online. 

Owing to all this busy-ness, I haven't had time to report on some of my recent wanderings yet, so in the meantime I'm trotting out an older essay of mine. It made waves when it first appeared in the Bay Times in 2008 (I received more angry letters to the editor than just about any other editorial that year!) and led to my participation as an interviewee in the film The Butch Factor, now on DVD and appearing on the LOGO Network.

Christopher Hines, the multitalented director of The Butch Factor, a documentary about gay men's relationship with masculinity and with themselves, first saw my article in its longer form, "Queer Liberation? No Thanks, We'll Pass." The think piece first appeared on queer scholar and dandy phenom Trevor Hoppe's fabulous academic/populist online journal, Beyond Masculinity—which is also well-designed, clean and pretty, especially when you compare it to other academic-type sites. I  then went on to present "Queer Liberation?" at Hunter College in New York City at the "Twilight of Queer" conference in 2008. (Trevor, BTW, also appears as an interviewee in The Butch Factor, bringing a refreshingly un-butch irreverence to the doc.) 

An mp3 of me reading the essay (at about 15 minutes—not for sissies!) is available for free download here.

Or, you can read the shorter version here, edited by Lewis Nightingale, who coordinates the Bay Times' "Sparks!" column through his association with The Community Initiative, a local nonprofit whose mission is to help gay and queer men find community and thereby lessen depression, HIV risk, and the many other deleterious effects of isolation. The Community Initiative regularly sponsors support groups, retreats, political actions, and panel discussion. This Thursday, the Community Initiative is hosting a panel discussion titled "The State of Gay Media in SF" at 7pm at the GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission Street #300 (between 3rd and New Montgomery). It's sure to get lively.

And now, here's that article I promised...

The Swish Beneath the Swagger: Liberating Our Queer Selves

Published: January 3, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Times

photo by Rink for SF Bay Times

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I've witnessed many of my gay brothers metaphorphose over time. Now 32 [34 now] and having been outand politically active in the gay community here for half of my life, I often run into the skinny, soft boys I knew from queer youth groups in Hayward, Berkeley and Oakland, newly transformed into hulking Adonises. I even occasionally see some of them at the gym, where I seem to spend as much time as they do. We’ve abandoned our dreams of turning heterosexist norms on their heads and embracing our deviance. After years of trying to be accepted by our straight peers, we gave up and ran for the hills of San Francisco. There, we learned the same lesson over again that was drummed into our skulls as kids: If you want to make it in the world, kid, you’d better turn that swish into a swagger.
Despite living in what many refer to as the “Gay Mecca,” I still feel an intense pressure to conform, and the rules eerily resemble the ones that the jocks used to enforce in gym class. Don’t move your hands too much when you talk. Don’t lisp. Don’t smile or make eye contact with other boys (well, with one new proviso: only if you want to have sex with them). And don’t let anyone accuse you of being a 90-pound weakling. Get big, big, big. Size matters.
The Castro is full of men who are on their way to or returning from the gym. A lot of these guys would get winded just from walking to their mailbox, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. They’ve made a career out of pumping iron, all in the ironic effort to emulate the thugs who pantsed them in the schoolyard.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m certainly not immune. I understand the desire to be considered attractive and healthy, but there’s something frightening about a community of men who are bulking up their bodies to achieve some predetermined definition of masculine perfection, meanwhile neglecting the fragile psyches that drove them there in the first place. When I visit the Castro, I see a lot of hurt little boys hiding inside the suits of armor they’ve created. As gay men, I think it’s time we ask ourselves: What is the armor for? What, or whom, are we protecting ourselves from? From gay-bashers? Doubtful. If Stonewall taught us nothing else, it taught us that an artfully thrown beer bottle is far more effective at deterring physical assault than a high-definition six-pack. No, we’re protecting ourselves from one another - that is, we’re protecting ourselves from being rejected by other gay men. Having left our homes and old lives behind, we need desperately to find love and acceptance, and the possibility of being rejected yet again, by yet another community, for being soft and effeminate - or even sick, dirty, or contagious - is too much to bear. So we head to the gyms, there to sculpt physiques that look strong and healthy. Then we go to the locker rooms, where we keep our heads down and hone our finely tuned peripheral vision, just as we did in high school. If we make connections there at all, it is in the steamrooms, where faces and eyes are obscured.
It’s a sad tale, I know, and one I fear will add a new label to my already-chafing nape: cynic. Am I risking ostracism yet again? Who wants to be around a cynic, after all? After all those hours I’ve spent in the gym, the last thing I want to do is earn the scorn of other gay men. But if I am critical, it’s because I’m an idealist. It’s because I love men, and gay men in particular. And I think we can contribute more than we currently do - to ourselves, to each other, to the broader culture. I believe our presence as queer outsiders in a heteronormative world is illuminating. But we can only bring our own kind of light to the world if we are, in fact, present - here, now. Present to the reality that we will never gain political, social, or personal acceptance by disappearing ourselves, subsuming ourselves to bland, outmoded notions of masculine identity.
Queer liberation means being accepted as we are. For that to happen, we must each start by accepting, and being, fully ourselves - masculine, feminine, somewhere in the middle, or maybe somewhere entirely outside of the gender binary. We’re almost there, too. In coming out of the closet, we jettisoned expectations about who we were supposed to be in order to find out who we really were. Along the way, many of us gathered with other gay men in urban enclaves. And although it’s understandable that once there, we reverted to imposing those old, familiar expectations on each other, that strategy hasn’t brought us any closer to personal or political liberation. It’s time to make a change.
It’s time to let go of those tired old expectations and give ourselves permission to be who we really are. This will require letting go of a lot of fear, the fear that drove us into the closet in the first place: the fear that we would be punished for failing to be just like the other guys in the locker room. But guess what? Now we are just like the other guys in the locker room, in the gyms we’ve made for ourselves in places like the Castro - so why are we still afraid? If we let go of the fear and look each other in the eye, we will see ourselves in each other. We will see the beautiful, queer, imperfect boys - and men - that we were meant to be all along.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

National Poetry Month, Tonight in SF and thru April Everywhere

April is among other things National Poetry Month in the U.S.—highly appropriate for a time of renewal, rebirth, blossoming, and sunlight.

San Francisco, known for its flowering of poetry and art, and particularly strong for its contributions to beat poetry and spoken word, will be host to many, many events across The City this month—and one of those readings is happening tonight at 7 p.m., at the fabulous Books, Inc. on Market near Castro, which has become one of San Franisco's biggest supporters of independent LGBT writers. They were particularly supportive of my friend Paul Hufstedler, who's been reading from his new family memoir (that's him as a boy in the photo) at events all over The City—Paul's self-published, and the good folks at Books, Inc. were laudably enthusiastic about supporting his career and getting a few pennies of their own in the bargain.

Anyway, the folks at Books, Inc. have been good to me, too, and to the gay/queer men's writing group I'm a part of called GuyWriters, which nurtures emerging writers, presents established and "famous" writers and quarterly events, and also spearheads frequent humbler readings and open mics at Magnet, Books, Inc., and other locations throughout San Francisco.

Tonight in the Castro, GuyWriters presents a Poetry Open Mic at Books, Inc., with special guest and featured reader Dan Bellm, whose latest collection touches on Judaism and spirituality in clever and moving ways. One of Bellm's first two collections (selected for publication, remarkably, by two separate publishing houses in the same year!) is the amazing One Hand On the Wheel, a provocative exploration of the gay author's relationship with his own young son as well as with his older and then late father.... very powerful stuff, conveyed through extremely terse, textured prosody. Bellm is a master of old forms like the villanelle, the sonnet, and the sestina—this is not sissy stuff, folks (or maybe I should say it's only for tough, razor-sharp sissies... and then isn't that most sissies?)—and with taxonomic clarity and mathematical precision, he uses these forms to illuminate deeper truths about sexuality and family. Check him out tonight. And check me out—I'll be reading too, along with fellow GuyWriter James Siegel and others!

Speaking of me, a subject I'm never very far away from, I was recently selected by the San Francisco Public Library as a laureate for the Sunset District, as part of the library's annual Poets Eleven project. San Francisco Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman selects winners to represent each of The City's eleven neighborhoods, and the winners, though not wined and dined exactly, get their poems published in a handsome volume published by the library, and readings ensue. Check me out next Monday April 12 at the newly opened Sunset Library, and then later this month at the all-districts reading on May 8 at the Main. The library is cosponsoring lots of poetry-related events this month. Check the listings out here.

Whether it's hearing Paul Hufstedler and others read at the Harvey Milk branch of the Library  at 7  p.m. tonight, or whether it's coming out to Books, Inc. to support GuyWriters, I hope wherever are, you're enjoying  a renewed spring fling with the written word.

Friday, April 2, 2010

My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them

Last week I braved the packed house at Magnet, the men's health center in the Castro, to attend a powerful reading by contributors to the anthology My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them.

For culture vultures like me, My Diva is a thrill to behold. Edited by poet and fiction writer Michael Montlack, the book includes clever, urbane, campy, and ernest essays about some of my favorite pop culture icons. Encomiums include Grace Paley by Mark Doty, Margaret Cho by Kenji Oshima, and Eartha Kitt by D. A. Powell

Honestly, there's an embarrassment of riches here, and some of the best essays are about lesser-known women or by emerging authors. One of my favorite essays, which jerked tears and titters during the reading last week and earned special notice from queer theory legend Camille Paglia, is "Auntie Mame," by Lewis DeSimone. The author (who's reading more of his own work next Tuesday at the Harvey Milk Branch of the SF Public Library at 7 p.m along with Paul Hufstedler and Donny Lobree) mixes insightful film commentary with poignant self-revelation and sissy-boy memoir to create an essay that stands out and stands on its own, even as it fits nicely with the book's theme.

Another favorite essay of mine is "Wendy Waldman" by fiction author Paul Lisicky, mainly because Waldman is a wonderful songwriter, redolent of Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, whose fame hasn't risen to her '70s contemporaries' levels, despite having written or cowritten such gems as "Mad Mad Me" (Maria Muldaur), "Pirate Ships" (Judy Collins, The Cure), "Save The Best for Last" (Vanessa Williams), and several Linda Ronstadt numbers.

Wendy WaldmanIf My Diva succeeds in shining light on hidden gems, my one complaint—the complaint at every reading, says Montlack—is that too many great divas have been left out. Among the refusniks I most miss are Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Blossom Dearie, and Judy Holliday. Luckily, the book has been such a success already that a sequel may be just a year or two away. For now, Montlack, who celebrates his birthday this weekend in San Francisco, is busy promoting the first edition, as well as entertaining the idea of publishing a book of companion poems about the 65 divas, all written by the essay authors (most of whom are distinguished poets). 

Montlack began this labor of love because of his devotion to hipster queen Stevie Nicks—not a bad way to start. Who's your favorite diva?