By Richard Labonte
“Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America,” by Nathaniel Frank. St. Martin’s Press, 364 pages, $25.95 hardcover.
What an infuriating book – in a good way. By recounting dozens of sordid tales of dubious discharges, and with a damning distillation of how military queers now serve openly in the armies of a couple of dozen other countries, Frank eviscerates the absurdity of the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Interviews with current and former officers and enlisted men and women, who report that they have served or are serving openly without backlash from their peers, buttress this lucid, scholarly assessment that there is “enormous potential for change.” If true, Frank’s dispassionately factual refutation of old boy prejudice is leading the charge. Among the book’s maddening (and stunning) facts: By the end of 2007, more than 12,000 queers had been discharged from the military since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented in 1994; the Congressional hearings that backed the policy excluded testimony from former conservative Republican Barry Goldwater, who opposed banning gays; and in 2006, 742 queer troops were “booted out” while the military signed up 733 ex-convicts – granting them, ironically, “moral waivers.” Grrr.
“Ugly Man,” by Dennis Cooper. HarperPerennial, 256 pages, $13.99 paper.
Cooper’s first book after naughtily erotic “The Sluts” (a Lambda Award-winning novel) and allegorically soulful “God Jr.” is a treasure trove of odds and ends, many of them two- or three-page sketches that nonetheless pack the literary punch of a longer short story. This is a Cooper collection, so there are sexually damaged teen boys: “The Guru Artists,” “The Hostage Drama,” “Ugly Man.” There are autobiographical essays: “The Worst (1960-1971),” a horrifyingly matter-of-fact litany of the writer’s life-threatening experiences up to age 18, and “Brian aka ‘Bear’,” about 16-year-old Cooper’s Hawaiian summer of love with a sexually promiscuous 15-year-old. There’s even a list: “The Fifteen Worst Gay Russian Porn Sites,” including spankingforest.com. Among the longer pieces, “The Anal-Retentive Line Editor” is a hilariously cautionary tale about porn-story cliches, and “The Ash Gray Proclamation” – worth the price of admission by itself – is a sarcastic, subversive and sexually edgy piece, previously available in a limited edition, emblematic of the powerful precision of Cooper’s controlled, jewel-like prose that shimmers on every page.
“The Sublime and Sprited Voyage of Original Sin,” by Colette Moody. Bold Stroke Books, 242 pages, $15.95 paper.
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, me maties. Or lassies. The fearsome pirates in Moody’s high-spirited historical romance of the high seas – set in 1702, when Spaniards ruled Florida and no ship plied the Caribbean with impunity – are swashbuckling lesbians. Tough Gayle Malvern has taken over as captain of the Original Sin, after her father, Madman Malvern, is grievously wounded during a bloody encounter with Spanish blackguards. Sweet Celia Pierce, an accomplished young seamstress, is kidnapped from the mainland to treat the ship’s battered pirates. And though Celia is betrothed to a man, mistress Malvern’s shipboard charms eventually lead her to the pleasures of Sapphic carnality. Seamy port towns rife with riff-raff, the stink of unwashed bodies long at sea and a perilous quest for buried treasure figure in the fast-paced novel, enlivened by nuggets of fact woven through the fiction by the author, a self-proclaimed history buff. Though it’s as formulaic as most other lesbian romances – ill-matched gals are fated for each other – this one is yo-ho fun.
“My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them,” edited by Michael Montlack. Terrace Books, 320 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
The stereotype, cemented in fact, is that gay men love them some divas. Could it be that poets, a romantic subset of queers, are the most devout diva-philes? Evidence abounds in Montlack’s inspired anthology of often-poignant mini-portraits. Judging from author bios, 45 of 65 contributors identify as poets – though, counter-intuitively, only two poets are diva-fied: Sappho and Grace Paley (by Mark Doty). Singers from Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson to Celine Dion and Mary J. Blige are paid homage, as are actresses from Margaret Dumont and Ava Gardner to Karen Black and Parker Posey. Liza Minnelli makes the grade, though mama Judy doesn’t; nor do Barbra or Madonna, though several contributors name-check all three before turning to their true lady loves. Activist therapist Betty Berzon (by Jim Van Buskirk) and chef Julia Child (by Bill Fogle) are among the few non-artists paid tribute. Among the quirkiest: Wonder Woman and Princess Leia, one-dimensional creations more real than real for their devotees, and – most inventively – Kiki Durane, the alcoholic chanteuse persona of Justin Bond: man as woman as diva, indeed.
The culture of the military throughout the 1990s – largely unchanged from previous decades – was one that lazily exploited anti-gay and anti-female sentiment to bolster feelings of male vigor and machismo that were, for centuries, felt to be central to warrior success. Yet it is the demeaning behavior encouraged by these beliefs – not the private lives of gays and lesbians – that, in the modern age, is damaging to morale and unit cohesion.
-from “Unfriendly Fire,” by Nathaniel Frank
AWARDS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Transsexual author and activist Leslie Feinberg and novelists Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano and Edmund White – members of the historic 1970s gay writer’s group, The Violet Quill – are recipients of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award, to be presented May 28 in New York… THE OTHER NATIONAL queer writers’ association, The Publishing Triangle, is bestowing the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement on gay historian and biography Martin Duberman; the ceremony, on May 7 in New York, also includes awards for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry… LESBIANS SUSAN GRIFFIN (“Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy”) and Stacey D’Erasmo (“The Sky Below”), gay short story writer Chris Adrian (“A Better Angel”) and historian Robert Beachy (the forthcoming “Long Knives: Homosexuality in Nazi Germany”) are among the 34 writing recipients of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, which comes with an average stipend of $43,000… THE LESBIAN YA graphic novel “Skim,” created by Canadian cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, is nominated for four Eisner Awards for best graphic books, including Best Teen Publication; it was a finalist for a Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature in Canada last year… DAVID LEAVITT’S NOVEL “The Indian Clerk,” drawn from the life of a sexually repressed British mathematician, is a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Award, said – at almost $150,000 – to be the richest honor in the world for a writer. Gay author Colm Toibin won in 2006 for his novel about Henry James, “The Master.”.. GREEK-AUSTRALIAN novelist Christos Tsiolkas, whose 1998 book “Loaded” was the basis for the popular gay film “Head On,” is winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Southeast Asia, for his 2008 novel “The Slap”; one of eight central characters is 12-year-old Richie, clearly destined to grow up gay.