The Jim Toy Community Center’s Lesbian Book Club LezRead provides more than just an opportunity to read and discuss queer literature. Over the past 16 years, the club has offered queer women of all life stages an alternative gathering space to the dance clubs, pride parades and local bars to find connection within their community. For people like Kerene Moore — the current leader of LezRead — she said the club played an important part in her coming out story. After divorcing from her husband in 2008, Moore joined the book club in an effort to learn more about her community.
“For me that was kind of how I learned about LGBT culture,” Moore said. “I didn’t know anything about it – I knew that it was something that was calling to me, that I wanted to learn more about. I’m not a person who goes to bars. LezRead was niche as far as something I’d be comfortable going to, and that’s the way I went out and I got to know people.”
Held on the fourth Saturday of every month at the Jim Toy Community Center, LezRead invites all queer women – lesbian or not – for a lively discussion on the chosen book of the month.
“A lot of queer women ask me if they’re welcome, and the answer is yes,” Moore said. “I realized people felt they were excluded. When I first joined, I wasn’t big on classification, as I was just coming out of a hetero relationship.”
Every meeting is capped off with a casual group visit to Aut Bar, a local gay bar located just steps away from the center.
Former club leader Max Biwer held the position from 2007 to 2014. While the goal of the group was to discuss books, Biwer said the visits to the Aut Bar were also a crucial component.
“I always found that was an important part of our meetings,” Biwer said. “It was fun to simply hang out after the often very serious discussions. And I know that for some women it was their first time going to a gay bar, or not something they could easily do by themselves. It’s so much easier to do things like that with a group of people you know.”
She added that the club drew both “bookworms” like herself and women like Moore who needed a safe space to feel comfortable after coming out.
And though LezRead strictly promotes work with LGBT themes, members are given room to stretch the rules. The group has discussed novels with subversive queer themes the average reader may not even notice, she said, while other meetings ventured into poetry and even graphic novels.
The group most recently sat down to discuss “Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1,” which tells a queer love story not featured in the 2018 “Black Panther” film adaptation.
“‘World of Wakanda’ is about two lesbian soldiers – that was crazy to me,” Moore said. “I was shocked I hadn’t heard of it. I didn’t know what box I’d been living in!”
Other queer work discussed at past LezRead meetings include Cheryl A. Head’s “Wake Me When It’s Over,” Nicole Dennis-Benn’s “Here Comes the Sun,” as well as the coming-of-age novel “Girl Mans Up” by M-E Girard. The last LezRead meeting focused on “The Spanish Pearl” by Catherine Friend, “an epic adventure” spiced with humor, lust, danger and lesbian romance.”
Moore added, too, that casual readers are just as welcome as avid ones.
“Sometimes a book is not as good as we thought it’d be, and it’s OK not to finish,” Moore said. “We totally tell people to come even if they haven’t finished the book, or they just want to hear what the book is about. We aren’t going to criticize you … it’s just intended to be leisurely fun and a great place to find new reading material.”
LezRead will continue to meet on the fourth Saturday of every month from 4 to 6 p.m. Future meetings may be relocated, however, as the future of the Jim Toy Community Center’s location is still up in the air.
The owners of Jim Toy Community Center building, husbands Keith Orr and Martin Contreras, who also own the Common Language Bookstore and Aut Bar located on Braun Court, confirmed they intend to sell the buildings. Jim Toy Community Center President Travis Radina told MLive the center is now evaluating its options.
“We aren’t sure how much longer we’ll be able to be in the court, which has its own history of being LGBT,” Moore said. “All these small groups that have persisted for a long time may temporarily be without a home unless we can make sure how to transition seamlessly into a new space.”
Current and prospective members should still expect a meeting in January. Those interested in joining LezRead can email [email protected] or visit the group’s public Facebook page.