by Richard Labonte
“A Queer History of the United States,” by Michael Bronski. Beacon Press, 287 pages, $27.95 hardcover.
From the Puritan imposition of intolerant sexual mores on the land that was to become America, to angry activism in the face of the nation’s initial neglect of AIDS, Bronski’s cerebral hop, skip and jump assessment of LGBT presence across the centuries is an astute, succinct depiction of the truth that queers have always been everywhere – and everywhen. Starting from the defensible position that gay people are intrinsically different from straight people – something, says the author, that Native Americans accepted in the days before Christopher Columbus – Bronski weaves gay, from the poems of Walt Whitman to the letter pages of physique magazines, into his eclectic narrative. Most intriguing: the anti-Puritan community of Merrymount, where settlers celebrated sexuality with an 80-foot phallus. Bronski’s invaluable history of queers, concluding formally in the 1990s, is a fine blend of passionate and informed, and blessedly free of Judy Garland – though that particular icon is cited, insightfully, on a single page: “Men could often find one another at Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland concerts.”
“Trick of the Dark,” by Val McDermid. Bywater Books, 396 pages, $14.95 paper.
McDermid returns to her lesbian-sleuth roots (the six-novel Lindsay Gordon series) in this standalone novel, as much a rumination on marital and sexual fidelity as it is a body-littered mystery set at Oxford University. Clinical psychiatrist Charlie Flint, suspended from her job while facing charges of professional impropriety, is moping around the home she shares with her wife of seven years – until she’s drawn into off-the-books sleuthing with roots in her university past. Imperious Oxford don Corinna, her one-time teacher, wants Charlie to investigate the wedding-day death of the man who had just married her daughter, now smitten by a ball-busting businesswoman and memoirist with several suspicious deaths in her own past. And, as if her professional life were not conflicted enough, Charlie must confront emotional and sexual confusion – she is being wooed, too tantalizingly, by another woman. McDermid brings her hallmark complex plot to this accomplished thriller, which is a switch from recent police procedurals in that it is dominated by mostly female and several lesbian characters, rather than by the actual crime.
“From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth,” edited by Victoria A. Brownworth. Tiny Satchel Press, 336 pages, $16.95 paper.
Editor Brownworth slots this anthology into the Young Adult genre, and, sure, teen characters are the focus of the stories. But there’s an elder sensibility in several that ought to entice older readers as well. That’s certainly the case with Jewelle Gomez’s “Caramelle 1864,” a spin-off from her celebrated 1991 novel, “The Gilda Stories.” Two young girls are at the story’s heart, but the theme of African-Americans defying repression – one that suffuses the collection – touches all ages. Craig Laurance Gidney’s “Bereft,” in which a black scholarship student at a Catholic school defies white bullies, is more youth-focused, as is Becky Birtha’s “Johnnieruth,” in which a tomboy’s sensed sexuality is stirred when she glimpses the shared affection of two women. Each of the 20 stories deals with what it means to be African-American, but the most searing is Lowell Boston’s “Ten to One,” in which a schoolboy, after defending himself from a white boy’s attack, is singled out by his redneck principal as the troublemaker. Asked to write an apology to the school, he scrawls, “I am not a nigger.”
“a + e 4EVER,” by Ilike Merey. Lethe Press, 214 pages, $18 paper.
Girl is attracted mostly to girls. Boy is attracted primarily to boys. But girl is falling in love with boy. That’s the genderqueer essence of this remarkable graphic novel, the engrossing story of two high school outcasts who find solace and strength in each other’s company. Eulalie – she prefers Eu – is a survivor in the school’s mean hallways. Asher, blessed (and cursed) with an androgynous beauty, is every bully’s victim. And every beating comes with a double terror – the stick-thin boy has an intense fear of being touched. A shared passion for art at first connects the odd couple, and their friendship deepens as Ash, urged along by Eu, comes out of his loner shell and into his queer sexual sell – a self, to Eu’s dismay and despair, that doesn’t, after all, include her. Merey’s dazzling style, combined with an intricate narrative, results in work that is both an ebulliently graphic story and a powerful young adult novel, a narrative about the ambiguity of love and the shadings of queer.
-I should just be a full-blown dyke and take advantage of all this free advertising. Get myself a badass girlfriend. -So . . . why don’t you? -Hmm . . . I had this girlfriend for a while, but it felt kinda weird. Trent feels weird too though so . . . who knows? Maybe I’m more an Eddie Izzard reversed. -An Eddie who? -Oh, he’s this Brit comedian dude who’s like . . . a lesbo trapped in a man’s body. -So that would make you a gay guy trapped in a girl’s body? -Something like that. -Sounds confusing. -Haha. Says you. -Hey, I’m not confused!! -OK. So what do you call yourself? Gay? – . . . -Homo-flexible? Bi, mayhap? A guy who likes sex with guys? A girlfag? -I don’t know. Why do I have to call it anything?
– from “a + e 4EVER,” by I. Merey
Playwright Robert Patrick, a pioneering gay writer whose 80 or so plays have been produced on thousands of stages since 1964, will receive the 2011 Artistic Achievement Award from The New York Innovative Theatre Awards for his “significant artistic” contribution to the Off-Off-Broadway theater community. Actress Shirley Knight, who won a Tony in 1976 for her performance in Patrick’s play, “Kennedy’s Children,” will accept on his behalf in New York on Sept. 19; Patrick is now retired in Los Angeles. “The freedoms which Off-Off-Broadway helped win for performing arts have changed theater, movies and television worldwide,” said Patrick. “To know that my work is remembered is a staggering and humbling experience.” Patrick’s “The Haunted Host” premiered at the first Off-Off-Broadway theater, the Caffe Cino, and three separate productions featured Harvey Fierstein of “Torch Song Trilogy” fame. Patrick’s other work includes “Blue is for Boys,” the first play about gay teenagers; “The Trial of Socrates,” the first play presented by the City of New York; “T-Shirts,” which starred then-porn star Jack Wrangler; “Untold Decades,” a gay history of America; and “My Cup Runneth Over,” commissioned by Marlo Thomas as a vehicle for her and Lily Tomlin. Patrick’s 1998 novel, “Temple Slave,” is a fictionalized autobiography rooted in the early years of gay theater and the Caffe Cino; his more overt and expansive memoir, “Film Moi: Narcissus in the Dark,” was published online in 2009.