Not that I'm not almost always reading books by LGBTQIA+ authors and/or featuring LGBTQIA+ protagonists, but this month I have extra reason to, because it's our time. Just like every month is Black history month, every month is Pride month, but I don't mind making an extra special time of it to celebrate how great queers are.
However, like Black history month, and all the other "special" months, the very fact that there is a specific time set aside for honoring, remembering, and celebrating is complicated. "Marginalized groups" (ugh) are still actively oppressed in myriad ways, and yet we are here and we are making art and we are shining. Being seen is important, celebrating how beautiful we are is important, but it's just as important (if not more so) to step back from the rainbows and the, frankly, pretty over-the-top pinkwashing that a lot of corporate America keeps trying to cash in on, and remember what Pride is about. Pride is about human rights for everyone. Even as rainbows plaster every corner of my city and many others, discrimination, violence, homelessness, and oppression still plague many of our siblings. Pride started as a riot led by trans women, many of color. It's infuriating that cis white folks have benefitted more from their courage than they have.
I think of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and our millions of remembered or erased fore-humans every day, especially when I see Amazon and T.Mobile and Bank of America shroud themselves in rainbows this month. I thank them. Without them, I would not be here, I would not be me, and neither would so many LGBTQIA+ people. No one owns Pride; it's a feeling and a state of being that can't be owned. So while I don my rainbow gear, because I want to be seen and acknowledged, I think of that truer spirit, the one that will continue to fuel us. I also want to shout out Gender Justice League, the Trans Women of Color Collective, the National LGBTQ Task Force which is focusing on stopping murders of trans people, and GLSEN, which works to make schools safe and nurturing for LGBTQIA+ kids. I also want to shout out lgbt_history on Instagram, which serves as amazing supplemental reading when it comes to learning more about our shared history. (If you have favorite LGBTQIA+ resources, leave them in the comments!)
So, all that said, this post is about books! I have the hugest stacks of queer lit to get through but only so many reading hours, so here's what I've read for Pride month so far, including my first Michelle Tea books, Terry Galloway's memoir, a gorgeous novel that was recently made into an equally gorgeous movie, some poetry (outside my comfort zone!), and of course some lesbian melodrama!
Michelle Tea is one of those iconic names in the queer literary canon, having written no less than 16 books so far, and approximately 1 million essays/speeches, of which this collection is made up. Some of the work is repurposed, some new, but all of it is extremely relevant to 2018 life (especially queer life).
In Times Square, she writes:
…to love queers was to love damage. To love damage was a path to loving yourself… queers do not come out of the minefield of homophobia without scars. We do not live through our families’ rejection of us, our stunted life options, the violence we’ve faced, the ways in which we’ve violated ourselves for survival, our harmful coping mechanisms, our lifesaving delusions… unharmed.
Of course everyone is damaged, but here she address the damage specific to queer people, which certainly is not universal across time or geography, but is specific nonetheless.
However, the flip side of damage is often art, and within this book (its own art piece), Tea explores a lot of queer art.
In On Erin Markey, which is one of the most excellent essays I’ve read despite knowing nothing about Erin Markey, Tea meanders through the weirdness of being a queer woman in a strip club, where the “intellectual and aesthetic brain” analyzes the “gross and the cute” while “the lizard brain that’s like, I don’t want to think so much I just want to space out and watch this girl.” She muses on how awesome the vagina is and how much it can do; she lays bare capitalism as “absurd, a lie, a tragicomedy” that, seeing it as such from the excluded margins, creates queer art like drag queens and kitsch. And Erin Markey. I just love this essay it’s like a magic rainbow braid.
Tea also explores transness and what is perceived as masculine in several essays, including Transmissions from Camp Trans, about the trans-run camp that was set up in response to the trans-exclusive (and now defunct) Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. It’s a really long and meandering chronicle of several individuals, the history of the two festivals, and Tea’s own experience at Camp Trans. It’s a fascinating meditation on gender and identity politics, and includes this potent quote from activist and author of Whipping Girl Julia Serano:
“I can’t think of a more humiliating way to be raped by male culture than to be forced to grow up as a boy against one’s will. Every trans woman is a survivor, and we have triggers too.”
How Not to be a Queer Douchebag, which was originally a keynote speech given at the Five College Gender and Sexuality Conference in 2011, also addresses the double standard of exclusivity within the queer community, and is maybe my favorite essay.
“Let’s not anthologize each other’s differences,” she writes. “This tendency to want to champion the most radical way while tearing down or deriding the many other ways is such a bummer, It makes people feel stupid and insecure, which is so weird, right, because as queers and people who are sort of activist minded, aren’t we wanting a world where people can be happy and safe and healthy and feel confident and whole in their lives?”
She goes on to drop this wonderful truth bomb in response to demonizing anyone on an extreme end of the gender spectrum: “Femininity is not an aberration and masculinity is not the norm… In the fight to destroy sexism, we turn on femininity. It seems like there is this subconscious belief that left to our own devices, without television or the gender binary or Barbie or patriarchy, all female humans would be sort of androgynous and masculine.” This passage hit home for me, because androgyny is kind of masculine in a lot of ways, and I hadn’t really thought about it that way before. But then again, what is masculine and what is feminine, other than what patriarchy tells us it is? That question is too big for me, so I’ll leave it to Michelle Tea to keep exploring it and espousing her thoughts in her golden writing.
Reading this was a great introduction to Michelle Tea’s writing. I love how bold and honest and unafraid it is. It felt like it was written for insiders, those of us who are queer and grappling with what that means in the world – whether in how we navigate our internal selves, relationships with others, politics and the terrifying state of dominant capitalist society, or making/consuming art. That’s not to say this isn’t totally readable for non-queers (which, are there any true non-queers? I’m skeptical), but I think it will taste just that little bit sweeter to the queer audience.
The titular essay is the last one, and addresses the inherent narcissism of the memoirist, aka herself. Tea is great at getting meta with things, as I found out from listening to Black Wave (see Audio); this collection stands as both a memoir, since all the pieces are written by one person and are subjective, but also as a kind of broader cultural diary.
As she writes in How Not to be a Queer Douchebag:
Isn’t it just the best time to be queer and aren’t you glad we all are? I am.
Another memoir! I love reading about queers and their lives. This one is written by total theater nerd and very funny/witty writer Terry Galloway, who at the age of eight began experiencing loss of hearing due to side effects of a presumed-safe prescription drug her mother took while pregnant. She describes the ways in which her body and mind began to separate at that time: she experienced delusions in which she left her body, and illustrates her hearing loss as something that happened in fits and starts. But once it was nearly complete, and she rejected her hearing aids (which at the time were bulky and she found them embarrassing), she relied almost exclusively on lip reading and trying to learn the nuances of the sounds she could hear in order to live her life in a hearing-centric world. She characterizes her early hearing aids as “making the private failings of my body visible for all to see,” making her destined to be the butt of jokes. But her confidence – or as she often says, her self-aggrandizement – saturates her character and the book with a kind of beautiful charm, at the same time that it shows the reader how deeply human (and therefore flawed) Galloway is.
Galloway’s writing is funny, touching and insightful and most of her stories are pretty gripping. I especially found the end to be really intriguing as she talked about her relationship with deafness and the threat she feels to her identity at the prospect of modern technology helping her hear better. She describes “the existential funk you can get into when you lose a sense the way I did – uncertainly, in increments… wondering why, to what end… it’s a process akin to dying… when your body betrays you like mine did me, then who’s to say the world won’t crack open at your feet, the sea rise up to sweep you away, or the sky rain down its cosmic debris?” The disorientation and fear is potent, and yet in the end, when facing the prospect of getting nearly all of her hearing back after most of her life, another existential funk comes up. She questions why she matters, why anyone matters. After building so much of her life, her identity and decisions and approaches to so many details and situation, around what her body was and was not able to do, it makes sense that she would question what’s important when presented with such a simple yet profound “fix.” Because it’s not a fix, not really. What does it even mean to be broken?
I am not disabled, but I have been thinking a lot about the intersections of bodies and ability and identity, and found this memoir really valuable as I continue to think about those things. It was also really fun to read; Galloway is funny and earnest in all the right places.
We The Animals by Justin Torres
I read this book really quickly in advance of seeing the film at Seattle International Film Festival, and was a little torn apart by it. It is just the kind of lyrical prose I live for. Justin Torres created something so consistently beautiful, so dense, so harrowing, so tender, so atmospheric.
The protagonist, an unnamed youngest of three brothers, provides us with the point of view, but the brothers are (for most of the book) a unit. They are one animal, sharing pulses and love and survival, like “a three-torsoed beast.” The novel is a sparse vignette of a boy and his family – his ever-complicated wolf pack of a family – and the beating-heart, bloody, fissuring intensity of figuring out his sexuality.
Structure-wise, it really works for me that the majority of the story is centered in childhood with just the quickest stroke of adulthood at the end. I also loved how humans and animals are one in the same in this story; so much is about the earthly and visceral, the pack, the dirt, the clawing, the fighting, the grooming. The film was really great, too, and I highly recommend both, but the book (as is almost always the case) is more nuanced and so should be read first.
I haven’t read a book of poetry since college, when I was obsessed with Mary Oliver (a fellow queer, I might add) and also very angsty. I know it’s a total stereotype (and a pretty terrible one at that) to associate poetry with angsty young people, but some of those brain ditches die hard, you know? I really enjoyed this collection, mostly because it was very reverent toward edible plants and flowers. It made me nostalgic for the time in my life when I devoted my heart and life to growing things. Other strong themes include race, family, and community.
I had one disappointment, which is not the fault of the author: I thought he was queer and that’s why I decided to read this now, during pride month. Alas, he is ‘mostly straight,’ though one of his neighbors and friends is gay. So it still counts as a pride read, right? Regardless, I’m glad I read this. It required a lot of focus due to my rustiness with reading the broken-up fragments of poetry, but the language was gorgeous and also quite funny at points.
In my attempt to read more queer/lesbian classics, I decided it was about time I break into a Sarah Waters book, since she’s, like, so popular with lesbian readers. Unfortunately, this one disappointed me. The story is so melodramatic and extra. Points for an ending where no lesbians die. Other than that, despite the steamy lesbian romance, I was not a fan of this book. Based on this novel, I don’t really get the Sarah Waters hype. I think I just don’t love historical fiction, especially about white ladies and their lives ruled by western ‘social graces.’ Even if they’re lesbians.
Black Wave by Michelle Tea
This book was so wild. Because I started it at the same time I was reading Against Memoir, I was a little bored at first- it seemed autobiographical, which in some ways it was, and I was already reading about Michelle Tea’s adventures as an alcoholic 90s San Francisco queer. I mean, she’s a great writer and I want to hear what she has to say, but I thought I was in for more of the same. NOPE. This novel has an apocalyptic alternate-dimension kind of bent that got pretty meta, which could’ve turned out badly in the hands of a less deft writer, but hell if I wasn’t so freaking invested by the end. I cried?! I’m not sure when it happened but somewhere in this story I fell in love with the protagonist and with all the weirdos around her, all so flawed and damaged and beautiful, and was really, really shook by the poetry of the ending.
That’s it for this month! Let me know in the comments if you have any favorite queer books, or what your pride month reading has been like (if you are pride-reading).