When Activism Hurts Victims

Sep 3rd, 2014
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She looked soignée on the red carpet at the August 25 Emmy Awards in a white column gown cut away at the cleavage, a long train behind her. She bantered and joked with reporters that she didn’t need to tape up her breasts. What Laverne Cox, Emmy-nominated trans woman guest star of the Netflix hit series Orange Is the New Black didn’t say was the name of Ebony Nicole Williams or the name of Williams’ convicted rapist/torturer/murderer, Luis Morales aka Synthia China Blast.

Three days before the Emmys, a Twitter storm erupted led by feminists and black activists over a controversial video Cox made for the New York-based Sylvia Rivera Law Project. In the video–removed at Cox’s request after she received thousands of irate tweets and a change.org petition to have her fired from Orange Is the New Black went up–Cox read a letter from Blast.

In the letter Cox read, Blast states, “I am a political transgender woman ‘slash’ prisoner. I strongly support the rights of LGBT brothers and sisters in the community who are imprisoned also.”

Part of that may be true, but Blast is no political prisoner. Blast is a convicted murderer and former Latin Kings gang member who murdered Williams after a torture spree with a fellow gang member. Then-Morales was accused of repeatedly slashing Williams body with a box cutter as he raped her. When Morales and co-defendant Carlos Franco were done with Williams, they slit her throat. When they realized she was still alive, Franco stomped on her throat till she died, nearly severing her head.

The 13-year-old Williams’ thin 4 foot 2 inch body was then stuffed in a box by the two and dumped under an overpass a 165th Street. Later Morales returned to the scene and set the box with Williams inside on fire.

“The suffering that this poor child went through is beyond belief and puts this crime in the category of monstrous and barbarous,” Bronx Prosecutor Hrabsky told the New York Daily News at the time of the conviction in November 1996.

Morales, who had a long-time girlfriend, Destiny Gonzales, at the time of the murder, said at the trial, “Whatever happens here today, I’ll take it like a man.”

It wasn’t until after Morales was in prison that Morales changed names and gender identity and began an affair with serial killer Heriberto “Eddie” Seda at Attica Prison. The two “married” and their affair was depicted in a New York magazine article by Esther Haynes called “Kiss of the Scorpion Woman.”

In the article Morales/Blast tells Haynes, “It seems that my only attractions are to society’s sickest and most twisted lowlifes. I’m actually hoping to be incarcerated with the Son of Sam so I can sleep with him while awaiting my sex-change outcome in the courts.”

Morales/Blast had been acquitted in the arson killings of six people two years before the arrest in Ebony Williams’ rape and murder after a witness recanted after possibly being threatened by the Latin Kings gang. But there were never any other suspects in that crime. The New York Times reported that Morales had asked reporters to “take my picture” on the night of the fire. Morales was charged with 12 counts of second-degree murder, first-degree arson and reckless endangerment.

This is the person Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Laverne Cox chose to champion, not the non-violent Chelsea Manning, about whom I reported for The Advocate for three years during her brutal incarceration prior to trial, nor Whitney Lee, another non-violent trans woman serving a three-year sentence at Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio on forgery and theft charges nor many other non-violent trans offenders.

Those of us who have long campaigned for better treatment of LGBT prisoners (I’ve been writing about this issue in Curve and other publications since 1993) certainly agree with the premise of SRLP’s campaign for better treatment of gender non-conforming prisoners. And Cox, guest-starring as a trans woman prisoner on the Netflix prison series, seems tailor-made to jump onto that particular activist bandwagon. The choice of prisoner, however, wasn’t just a public relations misstep, it was an assault on female victims of violent crime.

In dismissing the true victim–the murdered black girl–and focusing on a violent murderer, SRLP and Cox pitted feminists and black activists championing Black Lives Matter against non-violent LGBT prisoners who are in desperate need of help.

Among those outraged by the support for Ebony Williams killer was Ebony Williams’ mother, Yvonne Hill, who had been distraught over the behavior of then-Morales in the courtroom during the trial for her daughter’s brutal murder. After the conviction, Hill said, “Ever since the trial was going on, all I see is Luis Morales grinning and Carlos Franco, too. You ain’t smiling today. I hope you both rot in hell.”

Cox posted a statement on her Tumblr page which read in part, “When I agreed to participate in a recent Sylvia Rivera Law Project campaign, which involved me reading a letter from a member of their Prisoner Advisory Committee, I was not aware of the charges for which she was convicted. If I had been aware of those charges, I would have never agreed to read the letter.”
SRLP seemed unmoved by the victim or her family, or even the position Cox had been put in, saying in a statement, “Laverne Cox partnered with us on our End Solitary campaign by reading a letter from SRLP member Synthia China Blast in a video, but has since requested that we remove the video from our site because of her concerns about Synthia’s convictions. We understand her decision is based on concerns about violence against children.” SRLP added, “We reaffirm our support for Synthia China Blast, and our position on prison abolition and transformative justice.”

LGBT prisoners face very real problems in prison which certainly need addressing and Cox said she wanted to address those problems. But violent crimes against women and girls are vastly under-prosecuted. It is really only the heinous nature of Williams’ murder that got a conviction for a young, poor, black female victim.

By Morales/Blast’s own admission, violence is still very much an “interest” of theirs and has been for decades. In 2004 it was reported that Blast wrote a letter to the New York Daily News stating, “If I was a real woman I could bring about little future serial killers to terrorize NYC like my husband [Seda] did. How [New Yorkers] would of loathed the Zodiac Children.”

At the end of the letter Cox read from Blast, Blast wrote, “I want people to know who I am because tomorrow is not promised.”

Cox and others now know who Blast is–a violent, brutal killer of a vulnerable child and possibly of the six people burned alive in the arson murders with which Blast was originally charged.

The person we will never know is Ebony Nicole Williams, who would be 34 years old today–if she hadn’t been raped, tortured, savagely murdered and had her body burned in a box like trash. Because of Morales/Blast, Williams never got a chance at her life.



This article originally appeared in Curve magazine, digital edition August 28, 2014

additional links:

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/30/nyregion/two-held-in-death-of-girl-found-on-fire-by-highway.html

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/03/nyregion/slain-girl-is-identified-as-runaway-from-harlem.html

New York Magazine: Kiss of the Scorpion Woman http://shar.es/11bp1S


Sep 3rd, 2014
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There is no other story in America right now except Ferguson.

Even the gruesome beheading of an American journalist by ISIS couldn’t knock what’s been happening in Ferguson, Missouri since the Aug. 9 killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson out of the headline spot.

It didn’t take long for Philadelphia to link itself in solidarity with the people of Ferguson who have been protesting daily since Brown was killed. “Hands up, don’t shoot” was the chant going up in LOVE Park last week as hundreds of Philadelphians rallied in solidarity with Ferguson. Other rallies are scheduled in the coming days.

Many white people would like to avoid discussion of Ferguson, as if it were some isolated incident that isn’t linked to America’s long tendentious history of racism. Avoid it as if the pattern of police violence against black Americans–men, boys and even women–isn’t disturbingly common.

We can’t avoid it.

Three weeks before Michael Brown was shot to death, Eric Garner was choked to death by police in New York City. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide. Like Brown, he was unarmed. Armand Bennett was shot in the head by police in New Orleans a day before Brown was killed. He was unarmed. John Crawford was killed by police in Ohio on Aug. 5. He was unarmed. Ezell Ford was killed by police in Los Angeles on Aug. 11. He was unarmed. Dante Parker was killed by police on Aug. 12 in Victorville, California. He was unarmed. Rekia Boyd was shot to death by police in Chicago. She was unarmed. Sean Bell was shot 50 times by police in New York City the morning before his wedding. He was unarmed.

There’s a long list of unarmed blacks in America being shot to death by police. Two years ago a naked black man was shot to death at Independence Mall. Obviously unarmed.

As a majority black city, Philadelphia can’t ignore Ferguson and can’t ignore the decades-long tensions between police departments and black Americans. Philadelphia was once in the national spotlight for police brutality, notable for its focus on black citizens. When I was in college, I was the star witness in the first federal police brutality case in Philadelphia, having witnessed police pull over a black driver, William Cradle, and beat him for no reason other than that he was black.

On Aug. 19, Philadelphia police shot a black suspect to death. In 2012, as the Inquirer reported, Philadelphia police shot 52 people. The Philadelphia Police Department lists 43 police shootings in 2013 and 16 between January and June of this year.

No one would dispute that police officers have the right and even the obligation to protect themselves and other citizens from violent criminals.

Michael Brown was not a violent criminal. And that is why there have been protests every day and night in Ferguson.

But that isn’t all that has happened in Ferguson. The story there is about much more than the tragic killing of a teenager two days before he was scheduled to start college. The story is even much more than the fact that a black teen was killed by a white cop.

The story is about what the majority of white Americans don’t see, don’t experience and refuse to acknowledge: that black men and boys in America are viewed through the lens of thuggery. They are perceived as criminals before they ever utter a word or complete an action. When they walk into stores, they are eyed as potential shoplifters.

Michael Brown may have been a shoplifter. Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson released store surveillance video of a young man who looked a lot like Brown shoplifting a box of cigarillos on the afternoon of the shooting. Jackson has been unable to confirm whether the person in the video was in fact Brown. Nor has he arrested or charged the friend Brown was with that afternoon.

Shoplifting is a misdemeanor crime. According to the FBI, there are approximately 27 million shoplifters in the U.S. today, making one in every 11 Americans a shoplifter. More than 10 million people have been caught shoplifting in the past five years in the U.S.

The only one shot to death was Michael Brown.

Why Brown was shot to death harkens back to that issue of race and police and perception of black thuggery. Ferguson, like Philadelphia, is majority black. But unlike Philadelphia which has majority black leadership, Ferguson’s leadership is all white. Of the 58 members of the police force, only three are black. In a stunning pie-chart in the New York Times last week, the pattern of white police abuse of black citizens in Ferguson was laid out: blacks were 66 percent more likely to be stopped by police.

Since Aug. 9 when I joined millions of Americans venting their frustrations and anger over Brown’s shooting on Twitter, I have heard from many white men that Darren Wilson deserves due process.

As if Michael Brown isn’t dead.

One local white politician who recently ran for public office here said to me that “Brown learned nothing from Trayvon Martin.” Yet that wasn’t even the most shocking statement I’ve heard. Another man said to me, “Do you know what they do to women who look like you [blonde, blue-eyed]?” And still more called me a “race-traitor,” a term that harkens back to the darkest times of American segregation.

But it’s not just extremists who don’t get what’s happened since Brown was shot to death–six times, including through his right eye, according to the autopsy, which also stated there were 11 entry and exit wounds on Brown’s body.

Ferguson was a flashpoint, a line in the sand, a we-won’t-take-it-anymore stand. The plethora of cell-phone videos and eye-witness accounts of Brown kneeling in the street with his hands in the air  when he was shot, point inexorably to an execution. The autopsy report that the shots were not fired at close range add to that picture of an execution.

How many executions of black men by white police can the black community take?

Michael Brown, unarmed teenager, was one too many. Demonizing him after his death was one too many insults to his family, to black America and to black men in particular.

What’s happened in Ferguson is a refusal of the leadership to hold Wilson accountable for shooting an unarmed teenager about to start college in two days. What’s happened in Ferguson is the militarization by white police of a black community. What’s happened in Ferguson is reporters being arrested for the crime of journalism and members of the state legislature as well as ordinary citizens being tear-gassed every single day, including State Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal as she spoke to constituents. What’s happened in Ferguson is (as CBS News reported Aug. 19) 28 people, mostly women, shot by police with rubber bullets, hundreds tear-gassed and 178 arrested, including reporters from the Washington Post, Getty Images and Huffington Post.

There has not been a scene like Ferguson in America since civil rights protests in the 1960s. The silence of politicians has been deafening. Even President Obama, who was on vacation when Brown was killed, didn’t speak about Ferguson until several days after the killing. Award-winning African-American writer Elon James White, editor in chief of This Week in Blackness and featured commentator on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry Show, has been reporting from Ferguson since the protests began. As he tweeted on Aug. 20, after yet another night of being tear-gassed by police, “My job is to tell the story of what’s happening on the ground. I will continue to do that job. But we aren’t humans to them. We are vermin.” He also said, “Understand that many of us can’t stand loud sounds now. Flashing lights give me anxiety attacks. We showed y’all the truth & we paid for it.”

White’s tweets are both literal and metaphoric: Black Americans live with anxiety and fear and outrage every day. Because they are always under threat. Not just from police who might pull them over for driving while black. Not just from store security guards who will ask to look in their bags. But from everyone, all the time.

Last month white NRA members were going into Targets and other big box stores that sell guns with weapons slung over their shoulders or carrying rifles. Photos of these events were posted all over social media and discussed on the national news. None were arrested. But John Crawford was shot and killed by police in Ohio two weeks ago for picking up a BB gun in a store that sells BB guns. Because he was black.

We need to look closely at Ferguson and see what has happened there and what is happening there. The silencing of protests with tear gas, rubber bullets and curfews. The refusal of police to arrest Darren Wilson. The militarization of police with tanks, tear gas, riot gear, high-powered guns.

There has been no clearer evidence of the war on blacks by police than these disturbing scenes out of Ferguson.

We can’t allow this to become a new normal.

We also have to change the narrative about black men in America. The demonization of boys and men of color, the presumption of guilt and the implications of that are impacting millions of boys every year.

Elon James White posed a question that is perhaps the most germane for all of white America: “The question is: When it’s not our bodies and minds being abused every night will many of you still care? Will you support the work?”

The protests in Ferguson will end. But what happens when they do? Will Progressive whites pat themselves on the back and declare a job well-done and finished, while black Americans continue to face the same levels of discrimination they have always faced? Or will something come out of this series of tragedies that will open the eyes of white Americans to the discrimination and marginalization all of black America, including our president, faces every day at our hands?

Ferguson has been and continues to be a watershed. But until Wilson stands trial and the inequities in the Ferguson leadership are changed, there will be no justice in Ferguson. And without justice there can be no peace.



This column originally appeared in The Independent Voice on August 20, 2014

Ferguson, Stonewall and Us

Aug 20th, 2014
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The live-stream scenes out of Ferguson, Missouri even as I write this are so shocking, they could be news feed from the Middle East. Tanks in the streets, SWAT teams pointing assault rifles from them, yet more police in the streets in riot gear, tear gas being lobbed at the news team from Al Jazeera America just minutes ago.

This is America 2014, but it harkens back to America in the summers of the 1960s when my parents were civil rights workers and this was how they and other protestors were treated, it didn’t matter that they had two small children in tow, one not much more than a baby.

All over Twitter, people are posting pictures of police with civil rights protesters in the 1960s juxtaposed with scenes out of Ferguson. The only difference between them is the photos from the 1960s are in black and white.

How did this happen?

Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American teen due to start college on Aug. 11, was shot to death–possibly as many as ten times–on the afternoon of Aug. 9 by an as-yet unnamed police officer. Brown was unarmed. His body was left in the street in broiling Missouri heat for more than four hours while police cordoned off the area and protesters began to gather, including Brown’s distraught mother, grandmother (Brown had been on his way to visit her) and stepfather.

Since the killing, there have been protests every day in Ferguson, a suburb outside St. Louis. Every day, protestors have become more calm and police have become more restrictive, shouting at peaceful protestors to go home–even though some have been seen on TV and Internet live stream video standing in their own yards.

Ferguson is small–22,000 people at last census–and majority African-American. Police Chief Tom Jackson, who is white, was previously commander of the SWAT team on the St. Louis police force. Many think his past experience has made him heavy-handed in Ferguson.

In the afternoon and evening of Aug. 13, the situation in Ferguson escalated when police arrested two reporters, Wesley Lowery, who has been covering the story for the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly, covering it for Huffington Post. Lowery tweeted about his arrest and the Washington Post posted video he took with his cell phone late Wednesday night.

If Ferguson looks like a local story, it most definitely is not. It may very well be a flashpoint for a new series of civil rights actions. How far can police go to stifle dissent? How

accountable are police to the citizenry? How free is a free press?

The modern LGBT civil rights movement began outside the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village over a series of days that were very similar to the scenes from Ferguson, although with more police violence and more arrests. StorméDeLarverie, a biracial butch lesbian activist who died May 24 at the age of 93, was the person whose altercation with police spurred the crowd to action and set the protests in motion. She has been called the “gay community’s Rosa Parks.”

What has been happening in Ferguson since Saturday is what happened at Stonewall–a marginalized community, regularly threatened, harassed and abused by police, fighting back.

No one died to spark Stonewall. There wasn’t the precipitating tragedy of a young life snuffed out. But what had been happening for years to gay men and lesbians who patronized gay bars was systemic abuse. It was not just the constant harassment and arrests, It was also the subsequent sexual assaults of lesbians and gay men by police and the regular blackmailing of closeted gay men and lesbians, who were threatened with losing their jobs and families.

Marginalized communities–blacks and LGBT people among them–and the police have mostly had a contentious relationship. Our experience has more often been one of harassment and abuse than protection and safety.

And that is what we see in Ferguson–African Americans targeted and marginalized by the police, by the systemic attitude of othering that has long been a tenet of militarizing police in America.

Ferguson is a story that should resonate for everyone. This is a story about race. It is also a story about marginalization and militarization. Are tanks and tear gas needed in a small community that just wants answers about a dead, unarmed teenager? Do reporters have to be arrested and silenced?

When LGBT people look at the legacy of our own abuse by police–which has not ended, either–how can we not feel solidarity with the people of Ferguson, who are fighting for justice, for answers, for the knowledge that the people who are meant to protect them are not, instead, the people they must fear the most.



This article originally appeared in Curve magazine


Desolation Row: Lesbians, Depression and Suicide

Aug 20th, 2014
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News of Robin Williams’ shocking suicide on August 11, is still reverberating. Details of Williams’ death are gruesome: he tried to slit his wrists and when his penknife, and when it didn’t work, he hanged himself with his belt.

Anyone who has suffered from depression understands why Williams killed himself, even if we wish he hadn’t. Depression is overwhelming and the pain crushing, suicide often feels like the only cure.

Nearly 40,000 Americans killed themselves last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A May 2013 CDC report noted that the number of suicides has been rising dramatically among the key demographic for suicide, which is not teenagers or the elderly, even though media focus is on them. Middle-aged people–40 to 64–are the most likely to commit suicide, like Williams.

The CDC reports nearly a third of all suicides in the U.S. are among people in that age group and that the suicide rate among Americans aged 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent over the past decade.

The CDC notes that suicide now outranks car accidents as a leading cause of death. Suffocation by hanging, Williams’ method of suicide, is now the most common choice among women, edging out poisoning, and second most common after guns among men. Suicide by hanging has risen more than 80 percent in the past ten years.

These details are grim, but the statistics for women are even grimmer. More than 100 people a day kill themselves in the U.S., and among those suicides, lesbians and bisexual women are more likely to kill themselves than heterosexual women. More women attempt suicide than men, but men are more often successful–perhaps because they are more likely to use guns.

Depression is the leading cause of suicide, yet if you Google lesbians and depression, the Office of Women’s Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services–the nation’s largest health website, paid for with your tax dollars–offers only two brief paragraphs on depression and anxiety in lesbians and bisexual women. Yet that’s approximately 20 million women in the U.S.

This is what it says: “Many factors cause depression and anxiety among all women. However, lesbian and bisexual women report higher rates of depression and anxiety than other women do. Depression and anxiety in lesbian and bisexual women may be due to: Social stigma, rejection by family members, abuse and violence, unfair treatment in the legal system, stress from hiding some or all parts of one’s life, lack of health insurance.

“Lesbians and bisexuals often feel they have to hide their sexual orientation from family, friends and employers. Bisexual women may feel even more alone because they don’t feel included in either the heterosexual community or the gay and lesbian community. Lesbians and bisexuals can also be victims of hate crimes and violence. Discrimination against these groups does exist, and can lead to depression and anxiety. Women can reach out to their doctors, mental health professionals and area support groups for help dealing with depression or anxiety. These conditions are treatable, and with help, women can overcome them.”

So: We experience more depression and anxiety, but “with help women can overcome them.”

This sounds a little like “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, ladies, and get a grip.”

Seek help, even though “lack of health insurance,”"unfair treatment by the legal system” and “isolation and stigma” are listed as reasons for both depression and anxiety among lesbians and bisexual women.

But we can’t just snap ourselves out of depression and certainly not out of the kind of depression Williams was experiencing where suicide seems like a viable answer–or worse, the only viable answer. That kind of suffering requires outside help, but many lesbians don’t know how to find it or have been told–like on that website–that it’s easy-peasy. Also, because lesbians have often been medicalized and their lesbianism treated like a disease in itself, many women are wary of talking to mental health professionals or their doctors, for fear of being told their lesbianism is the cause of their depression.

Except it sort of is. The extreme pressures of a homophobic society cannot be minimized. This is just not something heterosexual women have to deal with. No one has to come out as straight to family, friends or employers and that stress alone can be crushing.

Now toss in these facts: A 2012 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) detailed a 49 percent increase in ER visits for drug-related suicide attempts for women aged 40 and older.

In addition, women aged 40-64 are more at risk of killing themselves than other women, according to new data on suicide rates over the past 15 years. According to the CDC, 60 percent of suicides among women were among women in that 40-64 age group.

What is making us kill ourselves?


One in five Americans has or will suffer from depression. Among them, women 35-60 represent the fastest growing group of people being treated for depression in the country.

Dr. Esther Rothblum has written extensively on women and depression and is one of the few people writing at all about lesbians and depression. In Depression Among Lesbians: An Invisible and Unresearched Phenomenon, Rothblum states, “Despite the research emphasis on depression among women, there has been virtually no focus on depression among lesbians.” She also says that lesbians “experience hostility and invisibility from the macro-culture.”

Rothblum cites the National Lesbian Health Survey from the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) which showed that depression was the primary reason lesbians sought mental health help.

The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine program for LGBTI health notes, “Women who have sex with women have higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to others. These problems are often worse for women who are closeted or don’t have adequate social support.” This puts lesbians and bisexual women at greater risk of suicide, according to the program.

So: we’re officially depressed, we need help, we can’t access it and no one is paying attention to the emotional and psychological danger we are in, which can make us suicidal.

Not good.

Consider that 8 million Americans reported having suicidal thoughts last year and another 3 million made a suicide plan. There is one suicide for every 25 attempted suicides and more than a million Americans reported attempting suicide last year. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide. Lesbians and bisexual women are more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual women.

But some of these numbers skyrocket in particular demographics. Lesbians and bisexual women have the highest rate of attempted suicide among adults and LGBT teenagers have the highest rate of attempted suicides among teens. Teens attempt suicide five times as often as adults, but are rarely successful. For every teen suicide there are more than 100 attempted suicides.

In 2007, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) began a “broad initiative to increase knowledge about suicide and suicide risk in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons, and take steps to reduce that risk.”

But we are still at risk. Since Phyllis Chesler wrote her groundbreaking book Women and Madness in 1972 and lesbian feminist Kate Millett wrote The Loony-Bin Trip in 1990, there has been almost no mention of lesbians and depression or lesbians and suicide. Some lesbians have written about their personal struggles with mental illness, depression and suicide attempts, but there are no current books on lesbians and depression. Queer Blues: The Lesbian and Gay Guide to Overcoming Depression bills itself as the only book on the topic and it is. The only problem? It was published in 2001.

How is it possible that we have so few resources for our own community when every study says lesbians and bisexual women are in desperate need of help?

In his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, gay writer Andrew Solomon writes about the perils of depression and the role being gay played in his own experience. Solomon explains, “I was overpowered by being in the world, by other people and their lives I couldn’t lead, their jobs I couldn’t do–overpowered even by jobs I would never want or need to do.”

That sense of being overpowered is described by many people who have experienced depression. But Solomon explains that it can be survived. “The people who succeed despite depression do three things. First, they seek an understanding of what’s happening. Then they accept that this is a permanent situation. And then they have to transcend their experience and grow from it and put themselves out into the world of real people.”

Recognizing you are depressed is an essential first step. As Solomon says, “Depressed people cannot lead a revolution because depressed people can barely manage to get out of bed and put on their shoes and socks.”

Getting help is vital. Despite the blithe comments of the HHS website, it is difficult for lesbians to seek help for depression. Coming out to doctors and mental health professionals, fear of being stigmatized–either as a lesbian or as someone with mental illness, is daunting. But it must be done.

The idea that you can snap yourself out of depression is simply wrong. Therapy, medication, even hospitalization is the only way out. If we have learned anything from Williams’ suicide it’s that even highly successful, highly motivated, seemingly highly functional people can also be so deeply depressed that the only way out for them seems to be suicide.

Seek help–it’s somewhere. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) asserts that LGBT people must come out to their health care providers in order to get appropriate care. This includes mental health care. GLMA points out that talking to your health care provider will help to put your depression in context.

Depression resources for LGBT people include Promises Treatment Centers, 1-866-829-4052, which takes most health insurance but can also refer you.

If you are feeling suicidal, or even are just having suicidal thoughts, call the National Hopeline Network 1-800-SUICIDE or 1800-273-TALK. There is also 1-866-4-U-TREVOR for LGBT teens and young adults. Suicide.org also has a survivors forums for LGBT people who have attempted suicide or lost someone to suicide. If you don’t know where/how to find a mental health care provider who is either LGBT or LGBT-friendly, contact the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists or the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling.

Know what depression is. It’s not just a bad day. It’s only bad days. These are the signs:

Depressed mood.

Inability to feel pleasure.

Changes in sleeping and eating patterns

Weight change


Sense of worthlessness

Difficulty in concentrating or making decisions

Recurrent thoughts of death; suicidal

Many LGBT people are dealing with depression. If you are one of them, get help before it’s at a crisis point. Depression is an illness. And while it often cannot be cured, it can be managed. Don’t become a statistic.

Bad Romance: Writers, Depression and Suicide

Aug 20th, 2014
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It goes against the grain of our very DNA. We are hard-wired to survive. Our autonomic reflexes tell us, live, breathe, run, live. For God’s sake, live.

Sometimes our brains rewire themselves. Sometimes pain outdistances DNA. Sometimes we want to die. Sometimes dying is not the threat, but the promise.

Whenever someone famous kills themselves, my emotions jangle. How tragic. What a loss. Then: If they were forced to killed themselves, then who could blame them?

Depressed people think this way. And suicide is as much in my DNA as that hard-wiring to survive. It could be inherited–depression runs in my family on both sides and there have been, sadly, a few suicides and even more attempted suicides. Or it could be just my own brain.

But for anyone–writer or not–who has battled depression, suicide is always both the thing one tries to avoid and the promise one makes to one’s self. You can drive your car into the river in the middle of the night when no one else will be around once you finish this book.

Suicide is the opt-out clause for crushing, irrevocable, unacceptable pain, be that pain physical or emotional or, as it is for most people suffering from depression, both.

I was lying in bed at 4 pm in a Xanax-induced stupor when I first heard about Robin Williams’ suicide on NPR. I’d been awake for maybe 36 hours, possibly more. (Insomnia and depression are partners, their friend suicide lives nearby.) I was tired beyond imagining, as I hadn’t slept more than ten hours, total, in the past week. I’d been trying to sleep. Now I lay there, listening to the radio, tears seeping from my closed eyes. Poor bastard, I thought. I hope it stopped the pain. I wondered fleetingly how someone so relentlessly entertaining could commit suicide. But only fleetingly. Because really, I knew.

As I listened to the news report–sketchy, as he’d only been found an hour or so earlier, Los Angeles time–a poem began to recite itself in my head.

Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.

‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath, everybody’s go-to suicide poet. Did she feature in Robin Williams’ iconic Dead Poet’s Society? I couldn’t recall.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

Later, I would see the tweets and posts on social media about suicide. All the people who never had a day of depression in their lives. All those people who think when they say, “I’m so depressed–I really wanted to [go to that concert, meet so-and-so for dinner, whatever mundane thing that got missed]” that is actual depression. All those people tweeting about how it’s always the people who don’t talk about suicide who kill themselves. All those people blaming the family for not paying attention. All those people saying how selfish it is.

Oh my god–you have no idea what you’re talking about. No. Idea.

In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, his 1990 memoir of his own catastrophic depression, Pulitzer Prize winner William Styron wrote, “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self –to the mediating intellect–as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.”

Robin Williams experienced it in its extreme mode.

Tuesday it was revealed that Williams had tried to slice his wrists with a pocket knife which was found near his body, but it didn’t work. He hanged himself with his belt. Hanged himself with his belt.

Like a prisoner in a cell.

Like Plath suggests in the next lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’:

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell. It’s easy enough to do it and stay put. It’s the theatrical Comeback in broad day To the same place, the same face, the same brute Amused shout:

“A miracle!” That knocks me out.

Plath, like most people who kill themselves, had attempted suicide several times before she was successful. Waking up when you expect to be dead is not the relief non-suicidal people imagine.

In his award-winning book, The Noonday Sun: An Atlas of Depression, gay writer Andrew Solomon describes this: “When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely by the present moment, as in the world of a three-year-old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly; and you certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will.”


Williams talked about suicide all the time, apparently, just like many people who never ultimately do kill themselves, which is why the myth that people who do talk about suicide a lot are just being emotionally manipulative of the people around them and won’t actually do it. (Which is not to say those people aren’t out there, too, of course.)

There are no rules for suicide or attempted suicide. Depression over-rides rules–any and every. There’s no one too rich or too poor, too young or too old to commit suicide. We talk all the time about teen suicide but in reality, as the Centers for Disease Control statistics on suicide reveal, teenagers have the lowest rate of suicide. Williams fell into the key demographic–45 to 64 years old–where nearly a third of all suicides fall. Startlingly, the next most common age group for suicide is 85 and older.

At 45, Anne Sexton was in that top demographic. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet had lunch with poet Maxine Kumin, her best friend of twenty years, went over galleys of her next book of poems with Kumin, drove home and gassed herself in the garage, the engine running in her car.

Plath wrote about suicide and the presumed release of dying non-stop. She was 30 when she stuck her head in the oven. Her youthful suicide became a dark romance for depressed young women everywhere, especially writers. When I discovered Plath’s poetry in high school, it became a romance for me as well. I had already tried to kill myself twice by then, the first time when I was eight. Plath wasn’t my mentor, she was my muse.

I was–am–hardly the only writer to suffer from life-long depression, which I was first diagnosed with at the age of nine after my first failed suicide attempt, failed only because I was found in time.

Writers have had a long, contentious, volatile romance with suicide. I searched them out in high school and then college, when my first book of poetry–grim and suicidal–was published. Like many depressed adolescents, I sought out fellow travelers: I needed validation that there were others who felt, as Anne Sexton described it, the “unnameable lust.” I needed to know others might have a packet of fresh razor blades, blue with the shiny silver edges, nestled in tissue paper in a purse or pocket.

It wasn’t difficult to find suicidal writers, failed or successful. Writers have been killing themselves since Seneca drank poison and slit open his veins in 65 AD.

The young gay poet Thomas Chatterton, was only 17 in 1770 when he poisoned himself with arsenic–the same age as I was when I watched the skin open like a liquid flower on my wrist and then my inner arm and the blood course out onto the same bathroom floor where my grandfather had taken a butcher knife and sliced both his arms and his throat when I was 12.

Other writers sustained me as well: the French poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud, with their relentless love affair with each other and death. By 14 I could recite Verlaine in English and French. His poetry, his gay longings, still flood back,

Les sanglots longs Des violons   De l’automne

Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur Monotone

Exquisitely, succinctly representative of depression, even in its perfect rhyme and scan.

Rilke’s waves of depression manifested in quotes like this, waiting for new generations of depressed writers to discover: “The only sadness that are dangerous and unhealthy are the ones that we carry around in public in order to drown them out with the noise; like diseases that are treated superficially and foolishly, they just withdraw and after a short interval break out again all, the more terribly; and gather inside us and are life, are life that is unlived, rejected, lost, life that we can die of.”

Life that we can die of.

And then there was Anne Sexton.

In her poem ‘Wanting to Die,’ Sexton speaks frankly of the dailiness of crushing depression and the love affair with death:”Since you ask, most days I cannot remember./I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage./Then the almost unnameable lust returns.”

Where Plath had been provocative and taunting, daring the reader to challenge her perspective on life and death with vivid, almost violent imagery, Sexton was matter of fact:

Even then I have nothing against life.

I know well the grass blades you mention, the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language. Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.

Sexton, like Plath, talked incessantly about suicide and had won the Pulitzer for her book of poems on the topic, Live and Die. The pain of her depression was as terrible as it was exacting. She was 45 when she killed herself. It was her ninth attempt. She left that lunch with Kumin, went home, put on her mother’s old fur coat, took off  her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage and turned on the car.

Did she get the idea of gassing herself from Plath? Or had she just run through all the other choices and been unsuccessful, like Williams discarded the knife and took off his belt? Sexton had finally, as she had written in “Wanting to Die,” managed “to empty my breath from its bad prison.”

Like Sexton, Plath, myself and many other women writers, Virginia Woolf had suffered from depression since childhood. Her magnificent volumes of letters and diaries detail not just the fabulous intellectual world in which she was a major player during the Bloomsbury era, but her severe migraines and her spiraling depressions that often sent her to bed for long stretches. Woolf was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, so one can only imagine her prolificity had she not suffered from depression.

On March 28, 1941, Woolf put on her coat, filled the pockets with stones, and walked into the Ouse River near her house. Her body was not recovered until April 18, 1941. She had drowned. She was 59.

In her suicide note, left for her husband Leonard Woolf, she wrote, in part, “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”

It’s a theme repeated in many suicide notes–that it is the best choice, that it is the only way out, that there are no other options. Robin Williams’ note has not been released by police, but it was mentioned at the press conference on August 12. We can intuit what it said.

As William Styron writes in Visible Darkness, “The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.”

It is often very hard to write because it is often very hard to function at all. And for people driven to write, as most writers are, that derailment can be as painful as if one were actually in a train tossed from the tracks. Suicide proffers a welcome respite from that pain.

Styron describes it: “The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come–not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.”

In her 2009 book Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, lesbian journalist Norah Vincent takes an immersion journey to three different mental health facilities. She goes in on the verge of a breakdown after having spent a year living as a man for her book Self-Made Man, due to the stress of having to reject her femaleness for a year.

She comes out at the end of Voluntary Madness, healed, but not after a roller-coaster of disturbing experiences, including going off her meds and considering suicide. Vincent writes, “I thought I was on my game. And then there I was thinking about where I could buy a gun. A gun seems best. I am a maimed animal. Perhaps I can hire a hit man. I will tip him very well to take a clean shot.”

It’s not hyperbole. It’s not journalist effect. It’s the compelling surety one has when depression floods in, that the only way out is to accept the consequence of drowning and allow yourself to go under. And the gun? It is by far the weapon of choice for suicides; 55 percent of suicides use a gun.

In October 2012, Lindsay Abrams reported for The Atlantic that writers were twice as likely to commit suicide as other people.

Leading with a quote from E.L. Doctorow in the Paris Review, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” Abrams detailed a Swedish study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

Conducted at the Karolinska Institute of 1.2 million patients with schizo-affective disorder, depression, anxiety syndrome, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia and suicide, the study linked these mental illnesses with employment in “creative” occupations.

Abrams wrote, “When the researchers looked specifically at authors, they found that they are over-represented among people with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, and substance abuse problems. Authors were also almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.”

So it’s official: writers kill themselves more than other people.

There are many to note–actually far too many to note. Wikipedia lists over 100. Among them are the very famous and those famous for their suicides. There are also, unsurprisingly, gay and lesbian writers for whom their sexual orientation was in painful tandem with their depression.

Like Woolf, Ernest Hemingway was among the most influential writers of the 20th century. The Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner was 61 when he shot himself to death with his favorite shotgun. Two of his siblings, Ursula and Leicester, also committed suicide. Like Styron, who was on his way to Paris to receive the prestigious Prix mondial Cino Del Duca (Cino Del Duca World Prize) when he had his catastrophic bout of depression, Hemingway’s career  was still in full flower. Only a few months earlier he had written to a friend how well his writing was going.

The same was true for MacArthur Fellow and 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist (posthumous) David Foster Wallace, who was 46 when he hanged himself in 2008 after battling depression for decades. Wallace had undergone electroconvulsive therapy. His suicide was after his anti-depressants ceased to work. Yet he never ceased to write.

Conversely, John Kennedy Toole, 31, despondent over his inability to get his novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published, ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into his car and gassed himself to death.

Two of the most important chroniclers of World War II, Jerzy Kosinski and Primo Levi,  survived the Holocaust only to commit suicide decades later due to decades of crushing depression.

Karin Boye, the Swedish lesbian editor, poet and translator of T.S. Eliot and other poets, killed herself three days after Virginia Woolf’s body was found. One of her novels, Crisis, details a woman’s religious conflicts with her lesbianism.

The suicide of Yukio Mishima in 1970 catapulted his work to popular international fame. The wildly prolific Mishima had been short-listed for the Nobel Prize twice prior to his suicide by ritual seppuku (evisceration with a sword).

Mishima is one of many literary male suicides who had conflicts with their sexual orientation. Although married, Mishima was known to frequent gay bars. After his death, another Japanese writer, Jiro Fukoshima, published letters between the two charting their affair. Mishima’s children sued Fukoshima, citing violation of their father’s privacy.

There were eras that would have seemed to embrace the gayness of writers. Paris in the 1920s had been a hub of myriad gay and lesbian writers and artists. Hart Crane was a leading light of American modernist poetry, a frequent contributor to Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin round table and a not-so-closeted gay man. Crane was close friends with Harry and Caresse Crosby, owners of  Black Sun Press, which published many of the major poets of the era. The Crosbys spent most of their time in Paris and environs and Crane was a frequent visitor.

In 1929, the Crosbys invited Crane to work on his next book at their home in the South of France. When Crane returned from there to Paris, Crosby wrote in his journal, “Hart C. back from Marseilles where he slept with his thirty sailors and he began again to drink Cutty Sark.”

Conflicts with police, a beating and an arrest sent Crane into a depression and Crosby paid his legal fees and for his passage home to the U.S. Back in the U.S., Crane was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, yet his depression continued to deepen. He went to Mexico where he attempted a heterosexual relationship with Peggy Cowley, wife of his friend and writer Malcolm Cowley (who was himself bisexual). It was Crane’s one foray into heterosexuality, but he couldn’t sustain it, drawn back to men almost immediately.

On his way home to New York from Mexico, Crane was beaten by one of the ship’s crew after suggesting they have sex. The next morning, Crane threw himself overboard, into the Gulf of Mexico. His body was never recovered.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright William Inge was one of the most popular American dramatists of the 1950s. At his centenniary in 2013, four of his previously unproduced gay-themed plays The Boys in the Basement, The Tiny Closet, The Killing and The Love Death were produced in Kansas, where he lived the majority of his life.

It’s difficult to imagine why Inge, who had written some of the more provocative plays, like Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba and Bus Stop, about the claustrophobic nature of Midwestern life and how it stifled sexuality, could not find a way out of his own conflicts with his gayness other than to kill himself the same way Sexton and Toole did–gassing in the car. Yet at 59, despite vast success as a playwright and screenwriter when his plays went on to become award-winning films, depression hounded him–to death.

It’s hard to imagine that by 1996, when May Ayim, the Afro-German lesbian poet threw herself off the roof of a building in Berlin, that the impact of homophobia could be as harsh as it was when Crane and Inge killed themselves. And yet Ayim, whose name had been noted with that of Audre Lorde, was in that space that Solomon describes: “It is not pleasant to experience decay, to find yourself exposed to the ravages of an almost daily rain, and to know that you are turning into something feeble, that more and more of you will blow off with the first strong wind, making you less and less.”

Ayim got out of the hospital and killed herself.

Sarah Kane, a spectacular, cutting-edge, incredibly successful British playwright known for her utilization of violence, gay couples and war imagery, couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital to kill herself. She hanged herself by her shoelaces in the bathroom while she was committed to London’s King’s College Hospital in 1999. She was 28.

Not long before she killed herself–having attempted suicide several times–she said in an interview,“Many people feel depression is about emptiness, but actually it’s about being so full that everything cancels itself out. You can’t have faith without doubt, and what are you left with when you can’t have love without hate?”

One colleague said Kane “talked about suicide all the time–so much so that it became a joke.”

Not a joke.

What would be her final play, Crave, ends with a suicide. In an interview about the play Kane said, “Some people seem to find release at the end of it, but I think it’s only the release of death. In my other plays it was the release of deciding to go on living despite the fact that it’s terrible.”

One suicide that stunned me more than any was that of Iris Chang. I remember hearing the news early one morning and just being incredibly shocked. I thought she was one of the most together journalists in my lifetime. Traveling and speaking about her work constantly. Driven, focused, compelling.

Then Chang, who had written three very pivotal histories of the Chinese in less than a decade, shot herself through the mouth with a revolver. It was a decade ago. She’d pulled her car over to the side of the road while traveling for her most recent book.

Chang’s suicide affected me deeply. Though she was a decade younger than I, our journalistic careers had followed similar paths until she turned to writing history full-time. Her New York Times best-selling book The Rape of Nanking remains one of the most affecting histories I have ever read. Her final book, The Chinese in America, is masterful and damning. In it she wrote, “The America of today would not be the same America without the achievements of its ethnic Chinese. Scratch the surface of every American celebrity of Chinese heritage and you will find that, no matter how stellar their achievements, no matter how great their contribution to U.S. society, virtually all of them have had their identities questioned at one point or another.”

We use the term “triggering” now to describe the kind of violence she (and I and to a degree, Vincent) wrote about. It’s difficult work to do–covering the stories of mayhem. It proved too hard for Chang. She’d suffered from depression for some time and was taking two very strong psychotropic drugs at the time of her suicide. She also was suffering from severe insomnia, which I can attest, having been hospitalized for it in the past, can drive you insane.

It drove her insane. Styron writes that the disruptions in the brain caused by depression also cause metabolic disruptions–hence the insomnia.

Chang wrote a series of notes before she shot herself to death, which are declarative of just how violent depression can be for the depressed person.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported after her death (she lived in the Bay Area), the notes were revelatory. Dated November 8, 2004, each was titled, “Statement of Iris Chang.”

The first read: “I promise to get up and get out of the house every morning. I will stop by to visit my parents then go for a long walk. I will follow the doctor’s orders for medications. I promise not to hurt myself. I promise not to visit Web sites that talk about suicide.”

Another note read,

When you believe you have a future, you think in terms of generations and years. When you do not, you live not just by the day, but by the minute. It is far better that you remember me as I was, in my heyday as a best-selling author, than the wild-eyed wreck who returned from Louisville… Each breath is becoming difficult for me to take–the anxiety can be compared to drowning in an open sea. I know that my actions will transfer some of this pain to others, indeed those who love me the most. Please forgive me.

Solomon writes that forgiveness may be hard-won. “People forgive, but it is best not to stir things up to the point at which forgiveness is required. When you are depressed, you need the love of other people, and yet depression fosters actions that destroy that love. Depressed people often stick pins into their own life rafts.”

Dorothy Parker, who attempted suicide several times and spoke about it often, wrote out her frustration with her own depression in her darkly ironic poem ‘Resumé’:

Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live. 

You might as well live.

In the end it is the survivors one must listen to. Solomon, who has an excellent TED talk on depression, advises“Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.”

And hang onto whatever feels permanent and real. Jeanette Winterson said that “Art saved me. It got me through my depression and self-loathing, back to a place of innocence.” But she also suggests a way out that is not suicide: “If you continually write and read yourself as a fiction, you can change what’s crushing you.”

What I do know, all these years away from adolescence, but still treading the deep waters of depression, is to steer clear of those who have a romance with death. I can still love Plath and Sexton, Rimbaud and Verlaine, but from afar. I have to keep them at a distance. The lure of that “unnameable lust” Sexton captured so perfectly never goes away. And as Solomon writes, “The people who succeed despite depression do three things. First, they seek an understanding of what’s happening. They accept that this is a permanent situation. And then they have to transcend their experience and grow from it and put themselves out into the world of real people.”

I would add that they–we–can’t flirt with the oven or the locked garage, the one-more-sleeping-pill-should-do-it or the websites with instructions. We must focus on the things that bring us closer to life, not further away.

Poetry could lure me to the edge of the abyss I was already far too close to; so too can it pull me back to life. It’s not enough, of course–one can’t avoid treatment and self-awareness–but beauty and message remain sustaining and when we can reach for them, as Solomon suggests we do, they can prop us up, if only for a moment or two or twenty.

Mark Doty, one of my favorite gay poets, perfectly describes how we must associate ourselves with others, keep ourselves on an even keel, don’t isolate–all the things the mental health people are warning us to be wary of, now, in the wake of Williams’ suicide.

In his poem, ‘A Display of Mackerel,’ (reprinted here from the Poetry Foundation), Doty describes how to keep one’s head above water:

They lie in parallel rows, on ice, head to tail, each a foot of luminosity barred with black bands, which divide the scales’ radiant sections

like seams of lead in a Tiffany window. Iridescent, watery

prismatics: think abalone, the wildly rainbowed mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

think sun on gasoline. Splendor, and splendor, and not a one in any way

distinguished from the other  —nothing about them of individuality. Instead

they’re all exact expressions of the one soul, each a perfect fulfilment

of heaven’s template, mackerel essence. As if, after a lifetime arriving

at this enameling, the jeweler’s made uncountable examples, each as intricate

in its oily fabulation as the one before Suppose we could iridesce,

like these, and lose ourselves entirely in the universe of shimmer—would you want

to be yourself only, unduplicatable, doomed to be lost? They’d prefer, plainly, to be flashing participants, multitudinous. Even now they seem to be bolting

forward, heedless of stasis. They don’t care they’re dead and nearly frozen,

 just as, presumably, they didn’t care that they were living: all, all for all,

the rainbowed school and its acres of brilliant classrooms, in which no verb is singular,

or every one is. How happy they seem, even on ice, to be together, selfless, which is the price of gleaming.

There is a place, between the gleaming and the razor’s edge. That is the place we seek, as Solomon illumines in The Noonday Demon:

The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality and my life, as I write this, is vital even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over…I hate these feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living, I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?

Alive. Rare. Joy. The price of gleaming.




This article originally appeared in Lambda Literary Review

Posted on 13. Aug, 2014 by  in Features, Opinion

Photo: Sylvia Plath via Poetry Foundationt: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/08/13/bad-romance-writers-and-suicide/#sthash.vbpJS7dM.dpuf

Lost In Translation: How Lesbians Are (Mis)Represented in Str8 Media

Aug 20th, 2014
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As a lesbian, I was excited by the headline in the Daily MailNHS to Fund Sperm Bank for Lesbians. Sure it was in the UK and I haven’t lived there in years, but so what? Any progress for lesbians is good news, right?

But it wasn’t progress. It was fear-mongering. The subtitle screamed: New Generation of Fatherless Families…Paid for by YOU.

The article was pure, unadulterated lesbophobia. “For as little as £300 [about $450USD], women will be able to search a database for donors. This will mainly benefit those who want children without a relationship with a man. There is an increasing demand from lesbian couples and single women. Critics called it ‘dangerous’ and warned against creating fatherless families.”

If the article didn’t ram home the alarming idea of thousands of lesbians rushing to have the NHS pay for their homosexual babies, there was also a long sidebar commentary–as long as the article itself–from (notoriously anti-gay) Pakistani Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, titled Designer Babies Are a Disaster for Society. Nazir-Ali argued that not having a father was a devastating and tragic experience for a child.

Yet these single women and lesbians choosing to have babies are in no way “designing” babies–they are just choosing to give birth without male partners.

A few days before the Daily Mail article, Cosmopolitan magazine proffered their contribution to misrepresentation of lesbians with the stunning 28 Lesbian Sex Positions to Blow Your Mind.

Cosmopolitan is known for its many articles on how women can please a man sexually, which have included eating a doughnut off his penis. This was the magazine’s first piece on lesbian sex. Unfortunately, the magazine didn’t consult any lesbians before writing it.

“Cosmopolitan.com now has sex positions for the lesbians, bisexuals, pansexuals, queers — all the lady-loving ladies in the crowd! You’ll never sex the same!”

All I can say to the “lady-loving ladies in the crowd” is–don’t try these at home. Not only will you not have an orgasm, but you may end up seriously injured, and possibly paralyzed for life.

The 28 sexual positions were represented by cartoon figures that looked like Barbie dolls, with the same elongated body shapes more appropriate to Avatar than to real women. The butch and femme were signaled by their hair length and who was wearing the bustier and garter belt. And despite that alluring “28,” there really were only three sexual acts represented: fingering of the clitoris, licking of the clitoris and anus, and a strap-on from behind.

While those are three very serviceable sex acts that could please most women having sex together, these were presented the way lesbian sexuality has always been represented by str8 people. The male-driven pornographic nature of the 28 “positions,” especially as represented by cartoon characterizations without any semblance of passion or sensuality, let alone love, was flat-out offensive. Is “The Kinky Jockey,” where one woman “rides” the other while pulling her hair and allegedly orgasming by rubbing her clitoris on the woman’s tailbone an actual sexual position outside of male porn depictions of lesbians? The total lack of feasibility and actual physical danger of most of these positions was disturbing and signaled a total lack of input from real lesbians in the writing of the article. Most of these “positions” involved sex on chairs, on the floor or standing up in configurations that might work for cartoon characters, but not for real women–especially not real women who might not be paper thin like the Barbie dolls of these pictures. (Do NOT try the one where one woman balances her weight on her neck while her body is in the air, her knees balanced on her partner’s thighs, who is sitting in a chair.)

The objectifying of lesbians is nothing new. Nor is the misrepresentation of lesbians. But the increased invisibility and erasure of lesbians even within the ever-expanding LGBTQQIAetc community have allowed this objectification and misrepresentation to be perpetuated–in these instances headlining a daily newspaper and a best-selling women’s magazine in the U.S.

Articles like these go beyond misrepresentation to str8 society–they also misrepresent lesbians to themselves and each other. How many lesbians will feel fearful to approach the NHS to be inseminated? How many young lesbians will see the Cosmopolitan article and think neither their sexuality nor their bodies are being represented there–and that they might be doing lesbianism wrong?

It may be 2014, but when it comes to representations of lesbians in mainstream media by str8 people, it’s often as if Stonewall never happened.


This article originally appeared in Curve magazine



Death of an Activist: Nadine Gordimer

Aug 20th, 2014
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Conscience is a word we hear very little in the 21st century. We hear unconscionable a lot. The unconscionable global conflicts where innocent civilians are at continual risk. The unconscionable abuse of women and girls worldwide. The unconscionable lack of concern for the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram on April 14, still unrecovered after months, despite thousands of Bring Back Our Girls messages on social media and dozens of rallies worldwide, those girls still lost to unknown horrors.
Unconscionable is a commonplace, but its obverse, conscience, is rarely spoken of.
Nadine Gordimer–Nobel laureate, world-renowned author and political activist–was a voice of conscience throughout her entire life, which came to a peaceful end July 13 at her home in Johannesburg, her family announced July 14. Gordimer was 90.
As a young writer–her first adult fiction was published when she was just 16–Gordimer said she didn’t intend to write about apartheid, but said that as she dug deep into relationships in South Africa and into South African life, she continued to come up against the same thing: repression caused by apartheid rule, relationships subverted and contravened by the racial schism in South African society, a world riven by the very concept of two separate and unequal societies.
New York Times interview quoted Gordimer explaining,”I am not a political person by nature. I don’t suppose if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”
But she was born in and lived in South Africa her entire life, and in 1948, when she was only 25 and apartheid was the law of the land under the Afrikaner regime, she began her long journey into political and literary activism. Her first book of stories, Face to Face, was published the following year.
Gordimer’s books were banned by the apartheid government because she consistently and provocatively wrote about all aspects of South African society, white and black, in the poor black townships and in the rich white enclaves. Whether in a lesbian and gay shebeen (illegal bar) in the townships or an all-white country club in the gated suburbs, Gordimer’s characters–like everyone she knew–were dramatically impacted by the perilous oppression of apartheid, no matter what their race.
Early in her career Gordimer told of seeing a black worker at her parents’ home having his belongings searched by security forces. It was something she would later experience herself. Gordimer was always on the radar of the apartheid regime. She had joined the banned African National Congress (ANC), which was verboten for anyone, but especially for whites. She supported black writers and activists. She was forbidden by the government from meeting with any persons of color, but she did so anyway, regularly defying the regime. She also provided meeting spaces, passed messages and performed other covert acts that were later attributed to characters in her novels and stories, but for which she never took credit herself.
Over the years of her involvement with the ANC, Gordimer was also involved with Nelson Mandela, both politically and personally. In 1962, she helped edit Nelson Mandela’s famous I am prepared to die speech. As she wrote later in The New Yorker, “I knew the privilege of becoming one of his friends.”
It was a friendship that would last until his death in December 2013.
Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela requested to meet her and they stayed in touch for the rest of his life. After his death Gordimer wrote about that meeting and about more of their relationship together and their relationship to South Africa and their fight against apartheid in a personal tribute piece for The New Yorker. She began, “To have lived one’s life at the same time, and in the same natal country, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a guidance and a privilege we South Africans shared.”
She also said of Mandela that even when he was imprisoned at Robben Island–where her books were smuggled in to him–”For a spirit like his, ‘walls do not a prison make’; his spirit could not be in the custody of apartheid. We could still feel his political intellect.”
She had previously described Mandela as being “at the epicenter of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are.”
The same could now be said of Gordimer herself–that we can still feel the political intellect she repeatedly professed not to have, but which the breadth and content of her books and essays contravene. She was to the core of her literary and personal being a fighter for justice and truth. And while she may have perceived herself as removed from overt political struggle, the details of her life contradict that perception.
In an interview with Al Jazeera conducted two years ago, Gordimer said, “One of the key things is that those of us who were in the struggle at the peak of it all, were totally concentrating on getting rid of the apartheid, on defeating the regime. We did not have the time to think about what we would have to face afterwards.”
In 1991, when Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the Nobel Committee noted that Gordimer “through her magnificent epic writing has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, been of very great benefit to humanity.”
That is the very definition of activism–having benefitted humanity.
In an era of “social justice warriors” and hashtag activism, we would do well to remember what real, life-altering, world-changing activism looks like: It is taking real risks beyond the keyboard to make the world–even one’s small corner of it–a better, more humane place. Nadine Gordimer did that: she illumined and exposed the world of apartheid, of injustice, of racial hatred in her writing and in her life. She put herself and her life at risk every day. South Africa in specific and we as a global society are better for those risks she took. She was a shining example of what a truly activist life can achieve. Gordimer said, “Time is change; we measure its passing by how much things alter.”
Gordimer helped alter one of the most repressive regimes in recent history. Gordimer’s is an example we would all do well to emulate as best we can–particularly when it comes to that elusive conscience. For as Gordimer said, “The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.”
This article was originally published in Curve magazine

Remembering Assotto Saint: A Fierce and Fatal Vision

Aug 20th, 2014
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Assotto Saint and I were both finalists for a Lambda Literary Award in 1997. He was up for Gay Biography, I was up for both Lesbian Studies and Fiction Anthologies. Neither of us would win that year, but I would have other chances. Assotto and I had both won before, but in those days, when everything seemed so temporal, the moment was everything. I wanted the win for my political offerings and I wanted it for him for history. I was very ill that year, bedridden and almost unable to move, and Assotto was on my mind a lot–all of them were, the gay men I had loved, who I had lost.

Assotto would never win another award because Assotto had died June 29, 1994. His work was over. The book that was a finalist, an autobiographical collection, Spells of a Voodoo Doll: The Poems, Fiction, Essays and Plays of Assotto Saint had been published by Richard Kasak at Masquerade Books, who I would later work for as an editor in the six years before his death.

Spells of a Voodoo Doll was collected by Assotto’s friend and literary executor, Michele Karlsberg, who wrote a brief, yet loving introduction to the book that pulsed with him and his work. It’s 500 pages of Assotto. Five hundred burning, painful, lyric, raw, visceral pages.

The pages of my copy have that reddish tinge of aging paper that looks like it’s on fire. And the words? The words still sear. The words take me back a quarter century and I can see Assotto vividly in my mind’s eye, with his long graceful dancer’s arms and his languid, lilting speech which belied the anger and urgency that pulsed always just below the surface in the years I knew him.

In “Evidence” he writes:

gay boys stricken again then again & again black men broken again then again & again best friends taken again then again & again


I guess Joseph Beam was the first black gay man I knew to die of AIDS. There was a coterie of writers–black gay men, mostly poets, vivid and handsome and provocative. Two of them lived here in Philadelphia, Joe and Essex Hemphill. I knew Joe well, saw him every week, if not more. Joe’s death came early, 1988. We were revving into funeral mode in that year. The deaths were coming fast. But the others–Assotto, Essex, more–they would all die in a rush, together, as if they had all been infected on the same day, as if  none of them could bear to live without the others, all in 1994 to 1995. I counted the death of a generation of black gay male writers in the span of three years at most. And then it was over.

They were gone. Every one of them. And for those of us who knew them, the devastation was almost more than we could bear. At some point I stopped going to funerals. Because I had become that woman, the one who keens and wails in the back of the church or synagogue or memorial hall, the one who everyone thinks might throw herself into the open pit of grave or onto the coffin or urn. I had become that woman because there was that much dying in those days.

Assotto was always prepared to die. If that makes him sound like a fatalist or a Zen master, he was neither. He was just clear about what was going to happen. And he knew the work had to be done and quickly, urgently, before time ran out.

And yet in 1993, in an interview I did with him for then–Lambda Book Report, in the March-April issue, I titled the piece, “The Road Before Him: Zen and the Art of Assotto Saint.”

So perhaps he was Zen. And I only see the realist in him from behind the two-decades long scrim of memory where I have reached that contemplative middle age, which he did not.


Of Assotto Saint I can say quite simply, that I loved him. In that heightened, urgent, angry and devastating time that was the deadly wave of the AIDS epidemic, those of us who were on the front lines of the struggle had a connection forged by death and dying that other people around us were oblivious to and ignorant of and it wedded us together. We were like cells in a resistance to a war that had no clear villains and no seeming end.

That fight was our gay Normandy and it consumed all our time, all our conversations. Like whispered messages from a foxhole, staccato shots over the bow of life, we spoke to each other like it might be our last time, like we must register that voice, those words, that tone and take its historical measure, because if we did not, it would be lost forever, because that person might be dead. Every conversation mentioned death and dying. It was, ironically, as natural as breath.

But you have to understand, we were all young. We were in our 20s and 30s–the oldest among us were still only 40-something, maybe just cresting 50–an age we’d think too young to die, now. Then, our days were like a science fiction horror tale where the old are left while the young drop like flies, their flaming youth unable to forestall the sudden and oh-so-wrong end.

You have to see, we loved them, these men who were dying right in front of us. We loved them, we were desperate to save them and we were powerless. All we had in our AIDS-war foxholes was each other. And the bodies kept piling up around us.

I thought, somehow, he’d best it, death. I thought his beauty, his quiet rage, his drive, his passion–all of it,I thought it would save him, somehow. Because, you see, I loved him.

When my collection From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth was published in 2011, I dedicated it to Assotto–“poet, activist, friend: These voices carry on for you.”

It was a statement to him across the divide, but it would not be my last. Because I can never forget how he imprinted my life.

This is who he was. He was this poem, “Life-Partners,” which he wrote for his life-partner, Jan Holmgren, a big, gorgeous Swedish bear of a man, when Jan was dying of AIDS:

between solitudes of illness & beatitudes our lips utter

evening settles in this exile of senses for our surrender one more friend’s death has clocked the day like a tolling bell biding time we are shadows also shrinking early into destiny let us gather our pills & swallow all regrets with a kiss cover each other then weave dreams of another day to come

Then there was this, the final poem, excruciatingly raw, almost unbearably intimate, as we witness the death of the beloved, Assotto’s true love of 13 years, in his final throes as the disease they both share overtakes him. You can smell the hospital room, intuit the final labored breaths. There is no relief that the agony is over. Only an open chasm of grief:

A Lover’s Diary

monday, march 29, 1993


vigil on two chairs iwhisper “hey, good morning” he doesn’t respond iwatch his labored breathings the head nurse suctions him up


“he’s turned for the worse” dr mcmeeking mumbles weeks, days, just can’t tell “hours” insists my mother furious iescort her out


the oscars come on the crying game stars don’t win hoping he can hear iremind him he’s my light death rattles my scream for help


the nurse rushes in mother returns with prayers icradle him close pleading “stay, one more day, stay” eleven twenty, he’s gone


bathe him with my tears parched lips thirst for a wet kiss istick my tongue deep bitter taste of bloody phlegm moans spat out ishut his eyes

The poem goes on for several more pages, three dozen more quintets of the more quotidian aspects of the death–the casket, the newspaper announcement in the New York Times, the banner across the spray of 53 red roses “one for each year of your life” which reads “sweetheart, see you soon.” And in that final stanza, the lover left alone, looks out over “a city in crisis,” asking, “why am ialive”?

And finally, after Jan is gone, in a poem titled “The Language of Dust,” with an epigraph from Essex Hemphill, Assotto is reminded of their final discussions over burial versus cremation. He demands that Jan be buried with him, eschews cremation. They watch a news story one night of how ashes are commingled in a crematorium and it shocks them both. Jan agrees to burial, to them together in “animal spirit,”

jan my jan even blindfolded iwould find my way to you around this evergreen cemetery


I don’t remember now, exactly, 20 years having passed, how it was I came to be speaking with Marie Lubin, Assotto’s mother, but it was right after his death. I can’t remember who called whom, but she told me she had a note from Assotto that she wanted to read to me.

It was a brief conversation, laden with both sadness and shared loss. Her son, only 36, dead. My friend, yet another gay man I knew and loved, dead, only 36. We were nearly the same age, I was less than a year older. And he was gone.

I know my grief was a tiny fraction of hers, but you could feel the intensity of it between us as we spoke–the piece that was missing: her son, my friend. I heard him in her voice. The island lilt. The hint of patois. It made me miss him more, yet it also brought me to a place of unquiet peace. Assotto was not suffering. Assotto had gone home. Assotto was still alive in our shared memories, our shared memorializing. “He loved you,” she said. “I loved him, too,” I told her, my voice choked with tears that never seemed to end. “I always will.”


I’ve written about the gay war poets of the first World War–Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and of course, Wilfred Owen–the men who died brutally young in that war that killed nine million, brief though it was. This is the centenary of that war. In Britain especially, with a whole generation lost, there have been stories and TV programs, videos and archival photos nearly every day in BBC online.

Assotto Saint was, first and foremost, a war poet. He was a poet of the AIDS war and more than that, he was a poet of the black voices of the AIDS war, the unheard, unmentioned voices that he was desperate to keep alive in any way he could.

Because he was beautiful–strikingly, dramatically, diva-ish beautiful–and had a quiet, almost subdued way of transmitting his rage at the AIDS epidemic, it was easy for people to presume about him. Beauty gets confused by many as lack of substance. But Assotto was both beautiful and bold–a bold dresser with a bold walk and bold gestures. He was also a bold thinker. He knew he had to chronicle the black gay voices of AIDS or they would be lost. He had to collect the bits and pieces that would create a different kind of names quilt–the angry verses, the embittered stanzas, the breathy last couplets of the dying.

In his introduction to The Road Before Us, Assotto talks about the importance of outing one’s HIV status. “There is nothing that those of us in this predicament could reveal in our bios that is more urgent and deserving of mention than our seropositivity or diagnosis.”

In his essay “Why I Write,” paralleling the similarly named essays of  George Orwell and Joan Didion, both of which, Assotto and I had discussed at one point, had impacted us dramatically as both writers and activists, Assotto writes, “Most revolutions–be they political, social, spiritual or economic–are usually complemented by one in literature.”

Assotto was, without the trumpeting fanfare, bringing that about on a small but visceral level. The revolution of the dying cannot be ignored, even if it will not be televised, as Gil-Scot Heron had proclaimed. What Assotto was doing, as we discussed a few years before he died, was something in the oral tradition of the Caribbean from whence he came and the oral tradition of the slaves who were kept illiterate in America. These were the iterations white America, straight America, the America not touched by AIDS intended to keep hidden and silenced.

Just as those poets of the WWI foxholes, of the battles of the Somme, the Marne, the Verdun, were never meant to tell what it was like there, what it was like to be one of those on the front lines who queried daily, as Owen wrote in “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstrous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle/Can patter out their hasty orisons.”

Black gay men, with or without AIDS, from Assotto’s perspective at that time, were both being silenced and silencing themselves in the closet. No one was meant to hear their voices, but Assotto was determined, with a fearsome intensity of will, to break that silence, smash it into bits.

Douglas Steward, in his 1999 essay in African American Review “Saint’s Progeny: Assotto Saint, Gay Black Poets, and Poetic Agency in the Field of the Queer Symbolic,” pivots off Assotto’s revolution reference. And while the essay is deep post-modernist Lacan-meets-Butler academicizing of Assotto’s work, the points of clarity are there.

Steward writes,

What Saint points us toward is the strong sense of complementary: literature as social force, without which revolution would remain incomplete, if not impossible. Under this model, map and territory are drawn and constructed simultaneously; the map is projected onto the territory, which only becomes visible as “the territory” as it stands in support of the phantasmatic projection of a particular social cartography.

Steward refers to Assotto as a “phallic mother” who has gathered together the voices of black gay male poets under the rubric of Assotto’s own declarative, and as Steward writes, “unified” voice, ostensibly giving them a purview from which to be viewed both individually and of a piece by Steward and other academics.

In short, Assotto had done what he set out to do: He created the comparable literature of revolution that was missing from the literary AIDS canon. He raised the black gay male voices from the shadow spaces, he raised them from within the recesses of the closet, he pulled them back from looming brink of death.


I have written extensively about the importance of memorializing our dead. Not just as a process of mourning–although certainly that has a central and fundamental purpose–but as a testament to history, to our collective gay history, a history that is fast being revised and re-written even from within our own ranks by those who weren’t there, but who are determined to reinvent our lives in their own image.

As an historian, I take the chronicling of our lived experience both seriously and personally. Next week will mark the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Assotto Saint (we were only a year apart in age) and I were among the first generation of post-Stonewall gays and lesbians. What we lived, what we experienced in that time between our national coming out and his death in the midst of the AIDS crisis was pivotal.

He knew this. Even then he had the prescience to know he had to get it all down. He also knew he had a responsibility to raise his voice in the hope of stanching the hemorrhage that was all that dying.

As he wrote in “Curse”:

i shake off the nightmare’s sweat to cleanse my soul i shake it off to cleanse history cold sweat this water is no blessing & the rage in me climbs out to free the sun in our sky of clouds


Who was Assotto Saint? He was one of the first black gay male activists to disclose his positive HIV status. He was also, with Essex Hemphill, Steven Corbin, Marlon Riggs, all of whom were the same age, all of whom died within six months of each other, one of the first black gay male voices of the AIDS literary movement.

Born Yves Francois Lubin in Les Cayes, Haiti October 2, 1957, the same week the infamous dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president, Assotto had come to the U.S. at 13. Assotto was a poet, a performance artist, an essayist, a playwright, a dramaturg, a singer, a dancer. He had danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company. He had briefly attended college as a pre-med student but moved on to performance art and writing.

According to the Encyclopedia of African American Literature, he chose he pseudonym Assotto Saint as he began performing. Assotto is the Haitian Creole patois pronunciation of one of the drums used in Vodun or Voodoo rituals and ceremonies. Assotto took the name Saint from one of his heroes, Toussaint Louverture.

According to the EAAL, although he  initially spelled Assotto with only one t, he added the second t when his CD4 T-cell count fell to only nine.

The balance of Assotto’s work, beyond his activism and his own writing, was as an editor. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of this work of Assotto’s. Black lesbian voices were being collected by the feminist presses acutely attuned to racism. But white gay male publishing had not made much room for the voices of black gay men.

Assotto made them make room. The books flowed. Here to Dare: 10 Gay Black Poets. New York: Galiens, 1992. Milking Black Bull: 11 Gay Black Poets. Sicklerville, N.J.: Vega, 1995. The Road before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets. New York: Galiens, 1991.

And then his own work–Stations. New York: Galiens Press, 1989. Wishing for Wings. New York: Galiens Press, 1994  Spells of a Voodoo Doll: The Poems, Fiction, Essays and Plays of Assotto Saint. New York: Richard Kasak, 1996.

Even now, 20 years since his death, Assotto’s collected works of all those black gay men stands as a testament not just to his power, but it gives voice to men who we may never have heard from otherwise.

Assotto brought explicitly black gay sexuality and sensuality into the gay literary canon. He refused to whitewash his work or the work of the black gay men he published. These were voices that were long suppressed–sometimes even by the writers themselves–he wanted them heard and heard in their full, unbleached blackness.

He also refused to reject his effeminate nature. He referred to himself as a “tall black queen” and that’s what he was–both regal and flaming. He loved being gay and he wanted other black gay men to revel in being gay. He believed fully in the axiom that silence=death.

Because when you discover you are dying in your mid-30s, everything changes, and you have no patience for timidity.

That may be why, in one of Assotto’s more dramatic moments–and he did drama so well, theater maven that he was–he disrupted poet Donald Wood’s funeral. He asserted that to let him be buried in secrecy and shame would be a travesty and a rejection of the life Wood’s had lived.

But saying the word AIDS was still as anathema within the black community as it was in Washington.

In “Going Home Celebration,”a poem dedicated to Donald Woods he writes: “donald/the spectacle of your funeral/was a wake-up call from the dead/but history religiously repeats its travesty/in lunatic denial of an epidemic that decimates us/gay black men”

And later in the poem: “anguish in the blood iarrive/skeptical after the obituary stated you died/of a heart attack which almost gave me one”

Toward the end of the poem he says: “isoar like an archangel summoning those wishing/to avenge your censored queer legacy”

Thomas Glave’s wrote about the dramatic event in his short story “The Final Inning,” which received the O. Henry Award for Fiction in 1997.

Assotto also talks about the incident in Emmy and Peabody Award–winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs’s film Non, je ne regrette rien, in which five black gay men with AIDS talk about how they came to terms with the disease. As he told me personally and in the interviews we did, “truth at all costs” was his mantra.


Beyond the poetry were the essays and plays and songs. Assotto was founder and artistic director of Metamorphosis Theater. With Jan he “created and staged theatrical works that focused on the complexity of the lives of black gay men.”

His works include Risin’ to the Love We Need, his first play, which was awarded second prize in the 1980 Jane Chambers Award for gay and lesbian playwriting; New Love Song; Black Fag; and Nuclear Lovers. Assotto was a part of New York’s Blackheart Collective, formed in 1981 by a group of artists and writers.

According to the Encyclopedia of African American Literature, Assotto was “a charter member of Other Countries: Black Gay Expression, the New York-based black gay writers’ collective, which, when it was founded in 1985, helped mark the beginning of what many scholars and critics now consider a renaissance in black gay writing and literature. Lubin served as the poetry editor of the distinguished journal Other Countries: Black Gay Voices (Other Countries Press, 1988); he later independently edited and published two anthologies through Galiens Press, which he founded in 1989: the Lambda Literary Award–winning The Road before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets (1991) and Here to Dare (1992). A third anthology, Milking Black Bull, which he conceived and edited, was ultimately published posthumously by Vega Press (1995), one of the few black gay presses in existence at the time.”

The EAAL also notes Assotto’s chapbook Triple Trouble was published in Tongues Untied (GMP, 1987) and that in 1990 he was awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and received the James Baldwin Award from the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum.


In a 2001 interview, poet and radical faery Franklin Abbott spoke briefly about his relationship with Assotto Saint. Abbott said, “Assotto was one of the most intense, complex people I ever knew. Our attraction was in some ways about how utterly different we were on all kinds of levels. What I most appreciated about him was our long talks on the phone as everyone around us was getting diagnosed and dying. Our sexual dialogue was like the language of twins that no one else can understand.” (Abbott has digitized letters Assotto sent him, which can be viewed online here)

Of the interracial nature of his relationship with Assotto, Franklin said, “There is a moment in the communion of souls where all differences vanish. And when a black hand holds a white hand in public history can change in an instant.”

Assotto himself changed history. If not in an instant, over a feverish period of a very few years that were packed with writing, editing, activism, friendship and love.

This quote from Spells of a Voodoo Doll is explication of his life, his life with Jan, his work, his legacy: “Anytime one tries to take fragments of one’s personal mythology and make them understandable to the whole world, one reaches back to the past. It must be dreamed again.”

Occasionally, I dream of Assotto, and some of our other friends. In the dreams they are all as they were before AIDS took over their lives, and we are almost always sitting around with coffee and poetry. Assotto, so beautiful, those dancer’s arms in constant gesture. So young, so vibrant. A vivid dream. This is the counterpoint, his legacy: At the end of his essay “Sacred Life,” Assotto writes, “Art is a way of telling the truth.”

Assotto’s art was truth–so real and honest and unflinching at times it was difficult to read. But legacies aren’t always neat and tidy and unbloodied. Assotto tore at the guts of a community–the black gay community–that still struggles with the specter of AIDS to this day. Yet still, he gave voice.

In his work that voice resonates through the two decades since his passing. It leaves us a history, not just of Assotto’s own life, but of a place in time, a field of battle, from which few returned, but within which there were correspondents from the front lines, of which Assotto was one.

As he wrote at the end of “Heart & Soul,” a poem for Essex Hemphill:

glory that becomes me in tribal rituals & battle against bigots ihave honored with my blood everywhere igo every time ileave my house every day

We were honored with his blood, his words, his work. He is part of our history, now. And the voices that carry on, in his name and those of all our valiant dead.



This piece originally appeared in Lambda Literary Review

Posted on 19. Jun, 2014 by  in Features, Opinion


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Nadine Gordimer: The Writer as Conscience of a Nation

Aug 20th, 2014
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There are few writers in the world to equal the breadth of Nadine Gordimer. The valiant fighter against apartheid and against the oppression of women and gays in South Africa died July 13 in Johannesburg, South Africa, her family announced. She was 90.

“She cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people and its ongoing struggle to realize its new democracy,” a statement from her son Hugo and daughter Oriane said.

Gordimer was, in a word, a giant. Not just of letters, but of conscience, of conviction, of truth and of justice. Her stature is immense–not just because she was a Nobel laureate and a winner of all the biggest and best literary accolades, but because she wrote out history in a way few have dared to. That she survived to 90 is a testament to her will and to her determination to see wrongs righted in the world in which she lived. As she wrote recently, “Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” She wrote to make sense of South Africa and her place in her country.

It was mere hours after the news of her death that the world stopped to take notice and send out its emotional, heartfelt sadness at her passing. But it was the ANC–the African National Congress of South Africa, the ruling party that was a banned and renegade group when Gordimer was working within its rank and file in the desperate years of the 1960s through the 1990s–whose comment might mean the most in historical context. The ANC said, “Our country has lost an unmatched literary giant whose life’s work was our mirror and an unending quest for humanity.”

An unending quest for humanity. That was Gordimer’s singular quest and one she continued to seek until her death. She showed this through her work and her life–they were never separate from each other as is often the case with writers. Her work details the peril of place as prison: South Africa was at once her homeland and the homeland of her friends and colleagues and at the same time it was also a repressive, totalitarian state.

It was this that Gordimer wrote about most often: the confluence of love for a country and outrage at what it was capable of. “I am not a political person by nature,” she would say after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. “I don’t suppose, if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”

That’s difficult to believe, since politics infuses all of her writing, fiction and non-fiction alike. But perhaps she imagined a time and place in which she would not have had to write about such things. Nevertheless, she wrote, “To be a writer is to enter into public life. I look upon our process as writers as discovery of life.”

Gordimer addressed myriad “life” issues in her writing–race, gender, sexual identity. She devoted equal intensity to each of her themes, but it was interpersonal relationships and how people interacted with each other that was the bedrock of her fiction. Love and hate were always on the page together, just as they are in life.

And the political as personal.

Over the years of her involvement with the ANC, Gordimer was also involved with Nelson Mandela, both politically and personally. In 1962, she helped edit Nelson Mandela’s famous I am prepared to die speech. As she wrote later in The New Yorker, “I knew the privilege of becoming one of his friends.”

It was a friendship that would last until his death in December 2013. There were myriad photos of the two of them together–the tiny, slender white woman and the towering, majestic black man. In one photo they stand side-by-side, both dressed in black, their right arms raised in a fist. In a photo just a few years before his death, Mandela is seated and she is awarding him a plaque. The smiles on their faces are those of old, dear friends.

Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela requested to meet her and they stayed in touch for the rest of his life. After his death Gordimer wrote about that meeting and about more of their relationship, about their relationship to South Africa and about their fight against apartheid in a personal tribute piece for The New Yorker. She began, “To have lived one’s life at the same time, and in the same natal country, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a guidance and a privilege we South Africans shared.”

She also said of Mandela that even when he was imprisoned at Robben Island–where her books were smuggled in to him–”For a spirit like his, ‘walls do not a prison make’; his spirit could not be in the custody of apartheid. We could still feel his political intellect.”

She had previously described Mandela as being “at the epicenter of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are.”

But while she was not a head of state nor a political leader, it was Gordimer’s own political intellect that propelled her forward as a writer. She captured all the nuances and minutae that are themselves the sum of history in her books–over a dozen novels, over 20 collections of short stories, as well as many books of essays and a number of plays.

The consummate short-story writer, a form she deemed “the literary form of our time,” it was nevertheless her novels that made her famous and which the Nobel committee cited. She was awarded two dozen literary accolades, including the Booker Prize and the Nobel, the highest literary honors.

The novels–notably the award-winning The Conservationist, Burgher’s Daughter and The Pickup–were superb tales of South African life and the conflicts shattering both the nation and individual lives under the brutality of apartheid. There is terror in her tales–the horror is real, not an artist’s projection. The Kafkaesque politics, the torture, the imprisonments, the deaths: These are not the heightened imaginings of a fantasist: Everything she writes about happened, if not to her, to others.

Gordimer’s collections of stories hold many gems, with their pitch-perfect stylization and surprising depth, given their brevity. In her 2007 collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, there is a deeply moving tale, “Allesverloren” (it means “everything lost” in Afrikaans). In the story a widow is recalling her life with her husband, and how much it meant to her. It was a second marriage for each and it was a deep love for each.

But as she sorts through the effluvia of her husband’s life, the widow becomes fixated on a confession–he had an affair with another man between his first marriage and his marriage to her.

The reader follows her two-fold journey. There is the emotional one in which we learn, from Gordimer, a woman who was herself a widow and also in her mid-80s when she wrote the story, what death means in the context of loss: “The beloved hasn’t gone anywhere. He is dead. He is nowhere except in the possibility of recall, a calling-up of all the times, phases, places, emotions and actions of what he was, how he lived while he was.”

And then there is the quest the widow sets herself on–to find the man who may have been her husband’s lover.

It’s a breathtaking story of how we talk to ourselves about love, about the meaning of memory, about the solitary suffering that is mourning. And yet the widow has discovered this gay man, this lover of her dead husband, and she seeks him out, taking with her a bottle of South African wine, the Allesverloren of the title. Finding this other man who shared her husband’s body and being is the pilgrimage set forth at the beginning of the story where she queries of her loss: “Whom to talk to? Grief is boring after a while, burdensome even to close confidants. After a very short while, for them. The long whole continues. A cord that won’t come full circle, doesn’t know how to tie a knot in a resolution. So whom to talk to. Speak.”


There was so much Gordimer said, so much she wrote about and explored. And despite her decrying the importance of her own activism, it never wavered. In the post-apartheid years other activist issues commanded her attention. From the mid-1990s on, Gordimer was active in the HIV/AIDS movement. According to UNAIDS, South Africa has more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world, with more than 6 million infected people. Among those, fewer than five percent are receiving anti-retroviral drugs.

In 2004, Gordimer organized major writers to contribute short fiction for Telling Tales, a fundraising book for South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign. TAC lobbies for government funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and care to provide medications to South Africans with HIV/AIDS.

For Telling Tales, Gordimer enlisted Salman Rushdie, John Updike and Gunter Grass among others. All proceeds from the book, published in 11 languages, went to Treatment Action Campaign. Of the book, Gordimer said, “I wanted these to be beautiful stories celebrating life, which is what people suffering with HIV and AIDS are deprived of, the fullness of life.”

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer

Gordimer had few public criticisms for the new South African government of the ANC, but this was one–the ignoring of AIDS and the pretense that it was not caused by HIV. She said that as a longstanding member of the African National Congress, she “approved” of everything President Mbeki had been doing as president except his stance on AIDS.

“I cannot understand how someone with Thabo Mbeki’s high intelligence, someone who is so well read and obviously has thought about the origins and prognosis of AIDS, how he can turn away from it,” Gordimer said while promoting Telling Tales. The book was released on World AIDS Day 2004.

Gordimer’s activism continued almost to her death. Last month she spoke out against censorship–her own books had been banned under apartheid–as President Jacob Zuma has recently proposed a law which limits the publication of information deemed sensitive by the government.

“The reintroduction of censorship is unthinkable when you think how people suffered to get rid of censorship in all its forms,” she said. “Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.”

Gordimer’s was a full, prodigious and productive life, the work of which happened to change history. She noted, “Time is change. We measure its passing by how much things alter.”

It’s difficult to imagine how much changed in Gordimer’s lifetime, over the forty or more years she battled apartheid and often her own people, but she left a lasting legacy in all those books and in her own work.

She said, “Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.” Gordimer left us hungry for that elusive truth of humanity and the messages in her work about how we find it in ourselves and each other.


This piece originally appeared in Lambda Literary Review:

Posted on 16. Jul, 2014 by  in Remembrances


In Remembrance: Nancy Garden

Aug 20th, 2014
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She wrote the book all lesbians wanted to have as teenagers. She wrote the books kids of lesbian and gay parents needed to read. She was an icon and a treasure and every other over-used cliché about writers who are larger than life–except of course in her case it was all true.

Her heart was so big, so full of love for women and for kids who needed books about their own lives, it’s not surprising that her heart finally gave out. Nancy Garden, author, editor, LGBT activist, former theater maven and teacher, died suddenly on the morning of June 23 of a massive heart attack. She was 76.

Garden was that rarity: the consummate children’s book author. It was her metier and she had refined it to a soaring art. There was no sub-genre of the children’s book Garden hadn’t mastered. She did picture books, middle-grade books and books for teens and the work ranged from humorous picture books, serious literary fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction to non-fiction.

Her work had been translated into many different languages, including Chinese, Korean and Italian and even as far-reaching as Slovenian, Swedish and Danish.

Some of her books had been turned into TV and radio programs, like What Happened in Marston, which was an ABC After-school Special in 1981 and 1982 and which was also shown later on HBO and Showtime. She wrote several series and even published a novel that was serialized in newspapers across the country.

Garden’s books were published by many of the top publishers–Knopf, Houghton-Mifflin, Holt, Harcourt, Lippincott, Scholastic, HarperCollins, Putnam, Random House, Dell, Farrar, Straus, Giroux and Bantam. But she was also published by smaller independent publishers including Bella Books.

She won dozens of awards, major and minor, and if the American Library Association (ALA), the New York Public Library and the Children’s Book Council each had a “watch for the latest from this children’s author” list, Garden would have been at the top–nearly all her books received awards and/or listing from all of them. Over a ten year span, Garden was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award every year.

Look again at that list of publishers and awards and remember that Garden was an out lesbian writing solely for the children’s market (her one adult romance novel was published by Bella in 2002). That made her an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind trailblazer for LGBT writing. From the time she published her first book in 1971 when she was 43, she wrote at least a book a year, but usually several. Her most recent book was published in 2012.

In a 2001 interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith for Children’s & Y/A Lit Resources, Leitich Smith asked Garden why she chose to write for children and teens. Garden said, “Because I like children and teens so much and feel they’re important, special people. There’s something very exciting about a person who’s in the process of becoming, of forming his or her identity. I think another reason is simply my love of children’s books–and Y/A books, although there were no Y/As as such when I was growing up. Some of the best, most exciting, and most innovative writing, I think, has always been in the children’s and Y/A field.”

Garden was right, of course. And in 2014, as she passes on, young adult fiction has become the most popular genre after romance, due in part to a coterie of top-selling women writers, notably J.K.Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins. So popular, in fact, that in the past month several major articles have been published about why it’s okay for adults to read young adult books.

In her own literary biography Garden writes of her childhood filled with being read to by her parents and having her father tell her tall tales of fishing excursions and anthropomorphized animals, some of which he wrote down for her.

This charming and winsome backdrop propels Garden into writing, but while she began at eight and never stopped, as an adult she struggled to find a career path, spending years working in the drama field, teaching and editorial work.

Garden writes, “In 1971, my first two published books, What Happened in Marston and a nonfiction book called Berlin: City Split in Two, came out. I was working as an editor in New York then, but soon afterward, my partner, Sandy, and I moved to Massachusetts, and I got a job as an editor in Boston. By then I was very serious about writing.”

At the end of her autobiographical sketch Garden says, “Now I write as close to full time as possible, and visit schools and conferences to talk about books, writing, censorship, bullying, and other topics.”

Before her untimely death, she and Sandy, their two cats and dog divided their time between “small town Massachusetts” and “coastal Maine.”


News of our literary losses spreads quickly via social media. Within an hour of receiving the first email about Garden’s sudden death, I had heard from a dozen other writers who had seen messages on Facebook and Twitter and wanted to know if I had heard, was it true.

It was. Nancy Garden, that institution of LGBT kids books was unexpectedly gone, leaving a hole where her vibrancy and acuity and prolificity had been.

I thought immediately of her partner of 45 years, Sandy. How empty and broken is the world after you’ve spent that many years with the same person? And one with a spirit like Nancy Garden had?

Garden’s birthday was just last month. Next month she would have received the 2014 Lee Lynch Classic Award from the Golden Crown Literary Society at the GCLS conference in Portland for her 1982 novel of teenage lesbian love, Annie on My Mind. GCLS cited Annie on My Mind as “one of the most important classics in lesbian literature.”

Liz Gibson, associate executive director of GCLS, expressed her own personal sense of loss to me at Garden’s passing. She said Nancy hadn’t yet written her speech for the award ceremony. Because Nancy wasn’t planning on dying. Nancy was going to live forever.

Didn’t we all know that? Her first generation of readers now have children–and grandchildren–of their own. Her work had spanned that much time and touched that many people.

Gibson submitted this statement on behalf of GCLS: “The Golden Crown Literary Society is devastated to hear the news of Nancy Garden’s death. Annie On My Mind is a novel that many of us grew up treasuring, and a book that even saved a few lives at a time when we could not be ourselves. Our Trailblazers selected Annie On My Mind to receive the 2014 Lee Lynch Classic Award, which will now be awarded posthumously. The lesbian community has lost a valuable treasure, and our hearts and prayers go out to Nancy’s partner, Sandy.”

There are many beloved books in our literary canon, but within the young adult category I personally cannot think of another novel that resonated with so many lesbians of every age as Garden’s charming teen romance has over the past 30 years. If you read it as a teen, it was your story. If you read it as an adult, it sent you back to reminisce over your own complicated gay adolescence.

As Katherine Forrest said to me after she heard the news, “Annie on My Mind is an all-time classic young adult novel that all these years later remains as essential and relevant to young LGBT lives as it ever has. Nancy Garden leaves us her great and wonderful spirit, a spirit reflected in the life-saving affirmation in her pioneering book. I join all our LGBT nation in mourning her.”

Gay mystery novelist and editor, Greg Herren, who has won the Moonbeam Award twice in three years for his own trailblazing gay Y/A novels, said simply, “Oh it’s not true, is it? Nancy Garden is dead?” Herren had long been a champion of Garden’s work, particularly when he was editor of Lambda Book Report. In 2007 Garden was inducted into the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival Hall of Fame. An international literary festival celebrating lesbian and gay authors, S&S was co-founded in 2003 by Herren and his partner Paul Willis.

Later, after the reality of her death had set in, Herren told me, “I loved Nancy and her work. She was such a comfort and help when I went through my own banning in Virginia. I read from Annie on my Mind at Banned Books readings all the time. My heart is broken.”

Garden’s death brought the same responses again and again because she was such a mainstay in the LGBT literary community, no one could imagine her gone. The shock at Garden’s passing, obviously, resounds throughout the LGBT writing community.


I was an adult when I first read Annie on My Mind, but it catapulted me back to my lesbian girlhood as it did so many other women, right down to the expulsion of one of the girls from her high school. The tale of Annie and Liza, two 17 year olds who meet by happenstance at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and become lovers is only slightly dated now, but that’s mostly due to the lack of electronics and the device of letter-writing Garden uses. The thematic structure is timeless–as when Liza discovers her true feelings for Annie, “The first day, I stood in the kitchen leaning against the counter watching Annie feed the cats, and I knew I wanted to do that forever.”

Pitch perfect.

Liza and Annie’s friendship turns romantic and eventually sexual. The story delves into the issues of coming to terms with sexual orientation, coming out and the general adolescent angst that plagues every teen regardless of sexual orientation. It also addresses the role older gay people, in this case, teachers, play in providing both role models and safe space supports for LGBT youth to come out.

Garden wrote dozens of books, some gay-themed, some not, but it was this book, Annie on My Mind, which was a first of its kind, before Y/A was even a sub-genre within the catch-all children’s books genre, that was Garden’s best-known work. Farrar Straus Giroux had taken a chance on the novel and it paid off–the book has remained in print throughout the past three decades.

The 25th Anniversary Edition features a full-length interview with the author by Kathleen T. Horning, Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. In it Garden talks about why she wrote the book, how and when she knew she was a lesbian, censorship of books and what kind of impact the book has had on readers, both when it was first published and at the 25th anniversary.

As a landmark book, Annie on My Mind garnered numerous accolades beyond the scope of GCLS. Garden received the 2003 Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association recognizing her lifetime contribution in writing for teens, citing Annie on My Mind. Of Garden and the book, the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee said, “Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending. Using a fluid, readable style, Garden opens a window through which readers can find courage to be true to themselves.”

The American Library Association designated the book a “Best of the Best Books for Young Adults.” The School Library Journal included the book in its list of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century. It was selected to the 1982 Booklist Reviewer’s Choice, the 1982 American Library Association Best Books, and the ALA Best of the Best lists (1970–1983).

An avid opponent of censorship, Garden was also the recipient of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award in 2000 in recognition of her work speaking out on “how to quietly, strongly, and successfully defend intellectual freedom on behalf of young readers.” Garden believed strongly in the right of young readers–especially teens–to choose their own books.

Annie on My Mind has had its own battles with censorship, although it’s difficult to imagine a book so charming as this story of first love ending up on lists of banned books. The book is 48 on the top 100 most frequently challenged books during the period 1990 to 2010, according to the American Library Association, despite–or perhaps because of–its classic status.

The National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union have both addressed controversies with Garden’s classic novel, the most dramatic of which occurred in 1993, more than a decade after Annie on My Mind was first published.

An LGBT organization, Project 21, had donated both Garden’s book and Frank Mosca’s All American Boys to 42 high schools throughout the Kansas City, Kansas metropolitan area. But parents objected to the books’ gay themes. Some parents were so angry about the books they burned them.

The book-burning incident turned Garden into an activist against censorship. She was stunned by the news her book had been burned, replying to a reporter who asked her what she thought about her books being burned–it was the first she had heard of it–she said, “Burned? I didn’t think people burned books anymore. Only Nazis do that.”

She would repeat the Nazi line again and again over the next two years as a long, complex and shocking series of court cases played out over her sweet teen romance. Garden had been captivated by the obscenity trials for Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and found it hard to imagine that 70 years later her own book was on trial as unfit for the very audience for whom it was written.

As described in a series of articles written for the School Library Journal, the ALA and the National Coalition Against Censorship, the story seems incredible in 1993.

On December 13, 1993 Olathe school district superintendent Ron Wimmer said Annie on My Mind must be removed from the high school library. His decision followed the book burning. Wimmer said the controversy was disruptive and the best way to deal with it was to remove student access to Garden’s novel.

This included copies of the book which had been on the shelves for a decade–long before the gift from Project 21.

This incited more controversy. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union–founded by lesbian activist Jane Addams) sued the school district for censorship. A teacher and several families were part of the lawsuit.

It took two years for the case to go to trail and two months for it to play out. Then in November 1995 U.S. District Court Justice Thomas Van Bebber ruled on the case.

Van Bebber found that no school district could be forced to purchase any specific book, but at the same time it did not have the authority to remove a book from library shelves unless that book was “deemed educationally unsuitable.”

Van Bebber asserted that Garden’s novel was indeed “educationally suitable.” He determined that removing Annie on My Mind from the school libraries was “an unconstitutional attempt to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

The school district decided not to appeal the court’s decision and Annie on My Mind went back on the library shelves. The total cost to the school district for the court case was nearly $200,000.

Nancy Garden

Nancy Garden

After the ordeal was over, Garden–mild mannered, jocular and generally soft-spoken–gave as many speeches and talks on the First Amendment as she did on writing books for children. She asserted that children–especially teens–had the same constitutional rights to read as adults.

Garden spoke about these issues often, but not in a rabid, angry way. Despite the disruption of those years during the Kansas event, Garden continued to write and publish. Her tone about censorship was always the same: respectful. It was important to engage people in dialogue, she said.

She told Leitich Smith, “Many attempts at banning books that are about homosexual characters and issues are also motivated by sincere beliefs that such books are harmful–that they will encourage young people to ‘become’ homosexual, and that homosexuality itself is evil, dangerous, sick, etc. Nothing is served, I think, by demeaning those who truly believe that books should be banned, or by arguing against them in a hotheaded way.”

But there is an obligation for writers and thinkers, Garden argued, to maintain the pristine nature of the First Amendment. “Everything is served by reasonable dialogue when that’s possible, and by making the point that although parents have every right to control what their own children read, they have no right to control what other people’s children read. Everything is also served, I think, by pointing out the importance of the First Amendment and the danger of eroding it. In a society without the protection the First Amendment gives us, sure, you’d be able to ban books that I like but you don’t, but there’d be nothing to stop me from turning around and banning the ones you like. It’s important to remember that, and also that one of the first steps toward Nazi control of Germany was book burning.”

Toward the end of her interview with Leitich Smith, Garden explained why it was she wanted to write for LGBT youth. She said, “When I was growing up as a young lesbian in the 1950s, I looked in vain for books about my people. There were none for kids, and the few I knew about for adults were always out of the library, which I later realized was probably a subtle–maybe backhanded would be a better word!–form of censorship.”

Like all of us who searched for lesbian books before the birth of LGBT presses in the late 1970s, either as teens like I was or adults like Garden was, she found “some paperbacks with lurid covers in the local bus station, but they ended with the gay characters committing suicide, dying in a car crash, being sent to a mental hospital, or ‘turning’ heterosexual.”

It was, of course, as it was for thousands of lesbians, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, written in England in the 1920s and banned everywhere that was the book that changed her life. “I read that book many times as a teenager, and I vowed that someday I’d write a book for my people that would end happily.”

Why did Garden write for LGBT kids and their families, despite the censoring? Why did she feel stories for “her people” were so important to young readers? Garden said, “I think kids in every minority need to see people like themselves in books–that’s an acknowledgment of their existence on this planet and in this society.”

Garden brought so much truth and honesty and dailiness of being gay and lesbian to her books. She changed the landscape with Annie on My Mind and all the books she wrote after it. She wrote because she loved writing and she wrote for us–for her people–because she didn’t want any LGBT kid growing up alone, without the books that have been and continue to be lifelines for so many.

As she wrote in Annie on My Mind, “Don’t punish yourselves for people’s ignorant reactions to what we all are. Don’t let ignorance win. Let love.”

Nancy Garden’s legacy will forever be that: She never let ignorance win. She always, always let love.



This article originally appeared in Lambda Literary Review

Posted on 24. Jun, 2014 by  in Remembrances