by Richard Labonte
“Hidden,” by Tomas Mournian. Kensington Books, 392 pages, $15 paper.
Much has been written, factual and fictional, about so-called conversion therapy – attempts to turn queer kids straight. But that’s just the starting point for this intense novel – based on real-life journalism for a San Francisco weekly – about 15-year-old Ahmed’s life on the run, after he escapes from 11 months of molestation and overmedication at a Nevada treatment center, and makes his way to a San Francisco safe house. Much of the action is set primarily in the house, where Ahmed – now known as Ben – is caught up in the personality quirks, emotional hurt and sexual allure of other runaway teens. These damaged kids include golden boy Hammer, an adolescent who transmits sultry webcam shows to leering men from inside (ironically) a safe house closet, and J.D., a Mohawked beauty who falls in love with a fearful Ahmed. Mournian evokes the claustrophobia of a confined life, the terror of an uncertain future and the heartbreaking reality of family rejection with brilliant, ferocious insight in this one-of-a-kind debut.
“Love in the Balance,” by Marianne K. Martin. Bywater Books, 216 pages, $14.95 paper.
Connie has just dumped a man, and Kasey has just been dumped by a woman for a man, so caution is the watchword when the two come together in what is, at first, merely a professional relationship. But a cautious friendship eventually leads to an intensifying emotional and then physical connection – complicated by Connie’s sexual-identity uncertainty and by Kasey’s pugnaciously protective coworker, Sage, who is almost menacingly wary about Connie’s presence in her friend’s life. Martin, author of seven previous novels, depicts the dramatic interplay of courtship, friendship and an eventual relationship with realistic insight and satisfying sensitivity. At its core, this is unquestionably a well-crafted romance, with plausible characters and a convincing plot. But a heart-wrenching subplot about virulent, homophobic hate – and its impact on all of the characters – elevates it from the genre category by adding an activist dimension that connects the fictional to the all-too-real.
“Boys & Girls,” edited by Paul Burston. Glasshouse Books, 168 pages, $10 paper.
There are six stories by women and six stories by men – hence the title – in this anthology, and every one is stellar. Lesbian contributors include Karen McLeod, VG Lee, Jay Bernard, Sophia Blackwell, Helen Sandler and – perhaps the only one known to American readers – Stella Duffy (most recently, “Parallel Lies”); gay contributors include David Llewellyn, Keith Jarrett, Joe Storey-Scott, North Morgan, Kristian Johns and editor Burston – also the one name likely to be recognized by American readers, for his novel “Shameless.” And that lack of familiarity is the single best reason for American readers to search out this powerful collection; it’s always exciting to discover great queer writing and new queer writers. In addition to the fiction, the book features mini-essays by two of the homeless, at-harm or bullied LGBTQ youth supported by Britain’s Albert Kennedy Trust, for which this book serves as both a fundraiser and a consciousness-raiser (information at glasshousebooks.co.uk).
“Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States,” by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock. Beacon Press, 240 pages, $27.95 hardcover.
Visceral unease and mounting rage aren’t the usual reactions to what is essentially a scholarly-studies title. But from its opening account of Spanish conquistadors throwing “men dressed as women” to hunting dogs to be dismembered, to its recounting of the well-known murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie in 1998 and the less-known but no less heinous police beating in Memphis a decade later of transgender Duanna Johnson, this is a harrowing book. Hate crimes against queers are part of the focus, but the authors – a civil rights attorney, a police-misconduct attorney and a lesbian activist – are centrally concerned with how America’s police and justice systems over-criminalize the LGBT community. Among the real-life examples: a police raid on an African-American gay club in Detroit in 2003 resulted in beatings, verbal abuse and the handcuffing of 350 people – charged with the offbeat infraction of “loitering inside a building,” one of many incidents of state-condoned and authority-incited violence against the queer and trans communities cited in this encyclopedic work of advocacy, an eye-opener for any reader accepting the myth of equal justice for all.
Now I can laugh about it, but there was a time when I used to cry about it. I tried to commit suicide twice. One time when I was back home, and one time when I was living with my cousin. I just wanted to die. My mum was always very nice to me, but my dad was abusive. He used to beat me and my mum. Everything came to a head when my dad tried to sell me to a man from Dubai. He wanted money. Alongside that, from the age of 7 to the age of 12, I was used sexually. There were different people, but the worst was my blood cousin. He was about 30, old enough to be my dad, and he used to rape me basically.
– by Malachi, from “Boys & Girls,” edited by Paul Burston
THE NUMBER OF QUEER Bookstores shrinks again in February, when 15-year-old OutLoud in Nashville is scheduled to close; co-owners Kevin Medley and Ted Jenson cited financial pressures…BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Gertrude Stein’s “To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthday” – originally conceived as an illustrated children’s book but rejected by several publishers in 1940 as too complex for the wee ones, and eventually published as a text-only tome in 1957 – is back in print in May from Yale University Press, with new illustrations by Giselle Potter… NORTH AMERICAN RIGHTS to Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, “The Stranger’s Child,” have been acquired by Alfred A. Knopf, for publication later this year or early in 2012; by the author of “The Swimming Pool Library,” “The Folding Star” and “The Line of Beauty,” it’s described as “an epic story following the lives of two families from the eve of WWI to the close of the 20th century,” and will be published by Picador in the U.K. in July… FELICE PICANO’S FIFTH (or is it sixth? – he’s prolific!) memoir, “True Stories: Portrait from My Past” is coming in a few months from Chelsea Station Editions, along with a playscript of Jon Maran’s off-Broadway hit play about Harry Hay and the founding of the Mattachine society, “The Tempermentals.”