by Richard Labonte
“My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family,” by Zach Wahls with Bruce Littlefield. Gotham Books, 234 pages, $26 hardcover.
In his acknowledgments, Wahls – whose Iowa state legislature speech opposing a ban on gay marriage became a YouTube sensation – thanks both the homophobic Boy Scouts (“for underscoring…the values my mothers taught me”) and the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Ashton Kutcher, Rachel Maddow and Neil Patrick Harris. The lad, 19 and an Eagle Scout when he spoke on behalf of his two moms, contains multitudes! This inspiring memoir – each chapter headed by Boy Scout pledges to be obedient, thrifty, brave and so on – is an engaging blend of youthful passion and eyes-wide-open frankness. In high school, Wahls at first dissembled when asked about his parents, endured some bullying about having two mothers, and eventually “came out” in a student newspaper article. The book’s core message – that marriage equality is overdue for queer couples – is underscored by Wahl’s account of how, when his biological mom, Terry, was hospitalized, his non-biological mom, Jackie, had no spousal status; it’s core lesson is that a kid raised by lesbians in love is as normal as normal can be.
“Basement of Wolves,” by Daniel Allen Cox. Arsenal Pulp Press, 154 pages, $15.95 paper.
A past-his-prime actor who’s a nervous-tic bundle of all-consuming paranoia, a skater boi with a penchant for concocting blends of toxic chemicals and a volatile, nicotine-addicted film director scribbling a screenplay as his movie is being shot: Cox has a masterful way of building his novels around characters who are more arch archetype than banal stereotype. The actor is one-time superstar Michael-David, mired in the messed-up movie and losing his Hollywood mojo to more bankable performers; the kid is sexy young Tim, dipping into Michael-David’s wallet to fund his scientific forays; the director is Scientology-connected Chris Culpepper, whose ill-fated movie has something to do with wolves, a trombone and killing Daddy. Their stories, set in the skanky world of Hollywood fame and misfortune, are recounted through Cox’s stylistically risky but scintillatingly successful shift between first-person narration and a free-floating omniscient overview, with prose that is sleek and concise, richly descriptive and lusciously layered. The New York hustler of “Shuck” and the Polish pyromaniac of “Krakow Melt” were queer outsiders; Michael-David is a man who has folded himself inward.
“Twelve O’Clock Tales,” by Felice Picano. Bold Strokes Books/Liberty Editions. 236 pages, $16.95 paper.
Think of Picano as a queer literary renaissance man. He writes plays and screenplays, poetry and memoirs, sex manuals and sexy thrillers, historical novels and – this is his fourth collection – short stories. These 13, he notes in a preface, pay homage to writers he savored as a young man (and still reads), the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Saki, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare and others of their dark, ghostly, eerie and sometimes downright weird ilk. In that sense, Picano is also something of a literary chameleon – there are echoes of each of these writers, and all of those sentiments, in this solid collection. The first, “Synapse,” is a creepily science-fictional account of how an elderly man has come to inhabit a boy’s body; the last, “The Perfect Setting,” is a masterpiece of detection, wherein an obsessive narrator solves the mystery of a landscape painter’s murder. Not a one of the stories is like another, such is Picano’s wide-ranging imagination; what they have in common is their power and their polish.
“Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children,” edited by Rachel Pepper. Cleis Press, 208 pages, $16.95 paper.
One of the contributors to this sometimes wrenching, often inspirational, always instructive collection of transgender-acceptance vignettes is an 80-year-old mother, happy to finally be connecting with her son; another is a middle-aged Latina lesbian unsure how her Catholic family will react to her child’s transition. Some of the stories are recounted with a non-writer’s awkwardness, others are polished mini-essays. But what blazes brightly in each of the 32 pieces is how fiercely even the most initially reluctant or unsure of mothers comes to want what’s best for the daughter becoming a son or the son becoming a daughter – even as many confess they feel a sense of loss. Pepper has collated an invaluable resource for families confronted with the reality of a trans child; what can possibly be more supportive for mothers than the testimony of their peers? But this collection deserves a wider audience than just parents, educators and health-care professionals – its message that family love matters is universal, and its layperson insights into the spectrum of gender variant lives are eye-opening.
I’m sure this will be taken out of context, but whenever I wished for a dad, it wasn’t because I actually wanted or needed a dad, it was just so I could fit in. Sometimes in awkward situations I’d lie and tell people that my dad occasionally took me skiing, not because I was ashamed of my parents or had this fantasy where he’d swoop in and save the day, but because, given the situation, a lie was simply less complicated than the truth. This wasn’t a rejection of my parents at all. My dishonesty simply flowed from my desire not to be teased or bullied because of how my family was composed. I’m not gay, but I know how it feels to be in the closet.
– from “My Two Moms,” by Zach Wahls
Two novels from each of Bold Strokes Books and Bywater Books are among six titles nominated in the Gay & Lesbian category – one of 55 – for “ForeWord” magazine’s annual awards, which focus solely on smaller, independent presses. The Bold Strokes titles are “Franky Gets Real,” by Mel Bossa, and “Sarah, Son of God,” by Justine Saracen; the Bywater titles are “96 Hours,” by Georgia Beers, and “Shaken & Stirred,” by Joan Opyr. Paul Russell’s “The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov,” is from another queer press, Cleis; the sixth finalist is the “fictional memoir” “Singing Her Alive,” by Diane K. Perkins, from FriesenPress, a self-publishing outlet. Gay-interest books also cropped up in four of the more general categories: “Firestorm,” by Radclyffe (another Bold Strokes title) is one of a dozen finalists in the Romance category; “Mystery of the Tempest: A Fisher Key Adventure,” by Sam Cameron (yet another Bold Strokes title) is one of 14 finalists in the Young Adult Fiction category; “Sovereign Erotics: A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature,” edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Daniel Heath Justice, Deborah Miranda, and Lisa Tatonetti, is one of nine finalists in the Anthology category; and Christopher T. Leland’s collection “Love/Imperfect” is one of 13 finalists in the Short Story category. The winners will be announced on June 23 at the American Library Association’s annual meeting.