Posts tagged “LGBT

Groundbreaking Gay Mystery Series Finally Comes to E-Book

Michael NavaIn 1986, the United States looked very different than it does today.  Ronald Reagan was president.  It was the year of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and the blockbuster film Top Gun.  LGBT people were largely marginalized.  Latinos hadn’t yet become a surging political force.  And while AIDS had begun claiming countless in the gay community, it was only in 1985 that the larger public became more fully aware, due to the sensationalized death of star Rock Hudson.

It was in this era of the so-called “Moral Majority”, a largely white, conservative, Christian view of America, that author Michael Nava crafted one of the most unlikely of literary heroes: Henry Rios, a gay, Latino criminal attorney with a passion for justice.  Himself an outsider, Rios acted on behalf of those without a voice, often wrongly accused of crimes.  While introduced in The Little Death, Rios would go on to solve mysteries in a series of seven books, culminating with Rag and Bone in 2001.

The Rios series would win five Lambda Literary Awards, and Nava was honored by The Publishing Triangle with the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for Gay and Lesbian literature.

As the revolutionary Henry Rios series finally comes to e-book, Michael Nava took time to share more with me about the development of the character, his thoughts on bringing an end to the Rios series, and his forthcoming novel, The City of Palaces.

Kergan Edwards-Stout:  You first gained literary acclaim for your Henry Rios mystery series.  How did the tales originate?

Michael Nava:  I started writing the first novel almost as a lark in my last year at law school.  I was working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at the Palo Alto jail, where I interviewed men who had been arrested to determine if they were eligible for immediate release on their own recognizance or would have to post bail the next day.  Palo Alto didn’t have that much crime so I spent many nights just waiting around or trying to study.  At some point, I started writing what became The Little Death; indeed the very first scene has Rios walking into a jail which was the Palo Alto jail.

The Little DeathEdwards-Stout:  Your lead character, a gay Latino criminal attorney involved in solving mysteries, broke many barriers.  Were you conscious of how groundbreaking he might be? (more…)


Legendary Author Patricia Nell Warren: Ever the Front Runner

The Front RunnerI recall it as if it were yesterday: stepping inside the sprawling bookstore, which smelled faintly of dust; walking past the periodicals, where gay porn titles peeked at me ever-so-discretely from the uppermost row; crossing to the back of the store, reaching “my” row, and nervously looking about before finally stepping up to the shelves, above which hung a large sign, “Gay Studies.”  I felt uncomfortable standing beneath it, as it labeled not just the shelves, but my own burgeoning identity, and committing to this unfamiliar label so publicly felt entirely premature.  While the “Gay” part I understood, it was only years later that I realized the second part of the sign was equally true, as I was studying the world I would soon fully inhabit.

Coming out has changed greatly in the years since, but what I found through the books on that shelf provided for me the same reassurance as those emerging today seek;  through the stories, I learned I was not alone.  Novels by such authors as Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Andrew Holleran, and Felice Picano filled me in on this mysterious world, where other men openly searched for love, but one book from that time stands out to me as unique, and resonated with me deeply.  Patricia Nell Warren’s groundbreaking novel The Front Runner follows coach Harlan Brown and his protégé Billy Sive as they discover love against the backdrop of the Olympics and a changing world.  As a young man myself, I had yet to find a book which spoke to my generation, and identified both with Brown, as he emerged from his more rigid, conservative environment, as well as Sive, who embodied the new, free spirited era, exploding on the horizon in front of me.

Prior to The Front Runner’s publication in 1974, Warren authored her first novel, The Last Centennial, published in 1971.  She had also published three volumes of Ukrainian poetry independently, as well as amassing a large body of unpublished work.  While the debut of The Front Runner introduced Warren to a new legion of fans, she was surprised to find that the book rankled some in the literary establishment, who were uncomfortable that such a seminal gay male romance had been written by a woman.  It didn’t seem to matter to them that she had come out in 1974 as a lesbian.  In the years following, however, Warren solidified her reputation in both the gay and literary worlds with continuations of The Front Runner saga (Harlan’s Race and Billy’s Boy), as well as novels The Fancy Dancer, The Wild Man, and The Beauty Queen, and non-fiction (including Lavender Locker Room and My West.)

The Fancy DancerWhether as an American writing Ukrainian poetry, a runner helping to usher women into the sport, a woman writing gay male fiction, or as a writer, taking control over her own work as publisher with Wildcat Press, Warren has long been a game changer, moving into uncharted waters and navigating them for others.  She graciously agreed to take time out from her busy schedule to talk with me about her body of work, issues facing the LGBT community, and the rewards and challenges of having written a literary classic.  As a bonus, she also reveals more about the prospects for the long-awaited The Front Runner movie, as well as the continuation of that tale in a fourth book.

Kergan Edwards-Stout:  Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.  In reviewing your work, I became very curious as to the key, pivotal moments in your life.  What most shaped you and your journey?

Patricia Nell Warren:  It wasn’t so much a moment, but an experience, of being raised on a ranch in the West, at a very particular time.  So much of what we think of as LGBT literature is based on an urban worldview, but growing up in a rural setting, as I did, is very much a part of who I am today.  Looking back, now that I’m 76, that life gave me a very different viewpoint, as you’re living in a situation where, any day, there could be a storm that wipes out the wheat crop.  That kind of day-to-day existence is challenging, and in many ways, at heart, I’m still a ranch kid. In fact, I’m co-writing a book on that with my brother, called Kids on a Ranch.

Edwards-Stout:  Did you find it difficult, making connections with people in that kind of environment?

Warren:  Our ranch wasn’t that far from town.  We were close enough that we could walk, bicycle, or ride our horses into town, so we had lots of friends.  It wasn’t an isolating kind of life, but it was definitely a different life, with different jobs at home than the town kids, who may not have known one end of a horse from the other!

You had to take a very practical approach on how to handle things, which today has led me to have political impatience.  My dad used to say, “When your horse is caught in barbed wire, you don’t sit around making speeches.  You grab the wire cutters and get to work!”

Edwards-Stout:  Look at what has happened recently, with the Sandy Hook shooting(more…)


To the Reader Who Saved My Life…

Dear Bob,

As we enter this new year, full of promise and possibility, I realized that I could not in all fairness properly close out the old without first repaying a major debt.  One that I owe to you, dear reader, for quite literally saving my life.

To begin, I have no idea when we first connected, or how you stumbled upon my novel…  Maybe it was the cover, peaking coyly at you from a stack in a bookshop.  Perhaps you saw one of the online advertisements, or heard about it from a friend, or read one of the “illuminating” promotional interviews with yours truly.  Whichever the route, you likely had no idea, when you reached for the book, that the very act of reading it could so profoundly affect me, and all for the better.  How could you know, after all, that while I’d long envisioned a life for myself as a writer, until you contacted me, I’d begun to consider stopping altogether? (more…)


The Best LGBTQ Literature of 2012: “Songs for the New Depression”

Best LGBTQ Books 2012I’m so grateful that my novel Songs for the New Depression has been mentioned on another Best Books of 2012 list!  Indie Reviews names their favorite reads of the year, and my book is mentioned, along with others by my pals Drake Braxton (Missing) and Arthur Wooten (Arthur Wooten’s Shorts), and many deserving others.

Add this nod to the other Best Books of 2012 mentions at Out in Print, Alfred Lives Here, and Butterfly-O-Meter Books, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Award for LGBTQ fiction, and I’m slowly realizing that 2012 was a really incredible year.

Things like this only happen when we follow our dreams!

Here’s wishing everyone a 2013 filled with love, happiness, and joy.

My best,

Kergan


“Songs for the New Depression” lands on another Top Books of 2012 list!

Best LGBT BooksMy sincere thanks to Butterfly-O-Meter Books for including Songs for the New Depression on their Top 10 Books of 2012 list. I’m overwhelmed with the response to my novel, and truly appreciate the mention! Also, thanks to Out in Print, Alfred Lives Here, and QueerMeUp for inclusion on their lists as well.  It has been a wonderful year, and I appreciate all of the notes from readers about how the novel has touched you.

The holidays encapsulate all of the bittersweet, subtle emotion I hoped to convey in the book.  At times joyous, others sad, and still others sexy and raucous…  Life is a wonderful mix, and I am grateful every day that I’m alive and able to experience and be moved by it.

I hope that you each have a wonderful holiday season!

Kergan


Out Indie Artist Matt Gold Learns He Must “Drown” Before He Can “Swim”

Matt GoldIn the not-so-distant past, gay musicians hid in the closet or played coy about their sexuality, but today’s artists are an entirely different breed.  For up and coming singer-songwriter Matt Gold, being gay may be a given, but is simply one more piece to his overall puzzle.  For Gold, inspiration is found in key moments from his life’s journey; they tell of growing up in a small town as an only child, of being adopted, the search for identity, and the experience of being abandoned, due to being gay.

Such themes and more are explored in Gold’s debut album, Drown Before You Swim.  Tellingly, in its CD format, the album is broken into two discs, “Drown” and “Swim,” balancing his darker and lighter elements within.  Gold recently took time to share more about his life, art, and the passions that fuel him.

Kergan Edwards-Stout:  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Matt.  To begin, as your songwriting is so tied to your piano, how did you first come to play it?

Matt Gold:  Originally, I wanted to play the saxophone, but my mother was concerned that it could affect my mouth, especially as I needed braces.  So instruments in your mouth were out!  I tried the bass drum, bells, xylophone, and finally settled on the piano–but only took a month’s worth of lessons before I quit.

What made you quit?

I was really frustrated at my inability to learn it as quickly as I wanted, but, more importantly, I realized that improvisation was really my style.  I love taking music out of the expected and making it my own.  I played piano in church for a long time, and those are very structured, by nature.  But with hymns and ballads, particularly, you can do so much more than what is written on the page.

Was religion important to you, or was playing in church just what was expected? (more…)


“Songs for the New Depression” named one of the “Top 5 Books of 2012”

I’m so grateful to having “Alfred Lives Here” name Songs for the New Depression as one of their Top 5 Books of 2012!  What a thrill to be recognized.  Here’s what it said:

Songs for the New Depression

A realistic touching beautiful story of a man battling AIDS, his life and friends and loves.  The story goes from clever and funny to really hard to read because it is so sad and so real. I wrote a post about this one here. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now.

Add this to the wonderful inclusion on Out in Print’s Best Books of 2012 list, and I can easily say that I’ll always remember 2012.  How wonderful to have had my book resonate with so many.  I appreciate your emails, notes, and support, and look forward to introducing you to a new book in 2013!

Happy holidays,
Kergan


2012 Holiday Gift Guide recommends “Songs for the New Depression”!

What a thrill to have Songs for the New Depression land on Queer Me Up’s 2012 Holiday Gift GuideQueer Me Up Come to think of it, a red ribbon around this book might be just the ticket!

Happy holidays!


Legendary Author Michael Nava praises “Songs for the New Depression”

Michael NavaComing out in the 1980’s, I eagerly devoured every LGBT book I could lay my hands on.  Novels from such authors as Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer, and Patricia Nell Warren filled my crate shelves.  But given my even-earlier leanings toward the mysteries of such stalwarts as the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Agatha Christie, the books of Michael Nava held particular appeal.  An attorney, Nava created one of the most indelible and groundbreaking of characters in Henry Rios, a gay Latino criminal defense attorney, and his books were more than mere mysteries.  He has been honored with five Lambda Literary Awards, and was also awarded the Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award for Gay and Lesbian literature.

I recently met Nava at Palm Springs Pride, where we were both signing our books, and was absolutely floored when he bought mine.  (I was such a fan, I would’ve given it to him for free!)  Still, even knowing he had it, I never expected him to read it, let alone contact me.  Color me shocked when I received a lovely note from him on the novel.  After a brief exchange, he sent me the following quote, which I’m so happy to share with all of you!

Songs for the New Depression is an affecting novel, written with great literary flair. I particularly enjoyed its portrait of Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s, as well as the author’s brave willingness to write about the AIDS epidemic at a time when so many of us seem to want to forget that terrifying era. At times laugh aloud funny, and at other times intensely moving, it is the first of what I hope will be many books to come from Kergan Edwards-Stout. I recommend it.”

Such moments as this make all of the challenges of writing well worth it!


Popular Gay Author Morphs into Female Broadway Legend in His New Fictional Memoir

When I began my journey to author-hood, one of the first and most generous writers with whom I connected was the prolific and witty Arthur Wooten.  Offering advice and willing to share tales of his own publishing adventures, Wooten quickly became a favorite.  While his books range from the très gay On Picking Fruit and its sequel, Fruit Cocktail, to family dramedies, including Birthday Pie andLeftovers, to even children’s books, such as Wise Bear William, it’s safe to say that his latest novel, Dizzy, will surprise even his most ardent fans.  A “fictional memoir,” Dizzy transplants Wooten’s own battle with an unusual disease onto his fictitious heroine, Broadway star Angie Styles, with all of the pluck and wit his readers have come to expect.

I recently caught up with Wooten, fresh off having two of his titles land on the acclaimed Band of Thebes’ Best LGBT Books of 2012 list, and we chatted about his body of work, the accolades he’s received, and his new “fictional memoir,” Dizzy.

Arthur, thanks so much for taking the time to meet!

It’s always a pleasure, Kergan.

Given that your new book is a “fictional memoir,” the obvious first question is, what do you and your lead character have in common? 

Angie Styles, my lead character in Dizzy, and I have so much in common. We both have bilateral vestibular disease with oscillopsia. That means that we have no sense of balance and that our brain’s ability to detect where we are in space is compromised. Unless my brain can lock my eyes onto something, it has no idea where I am. In darkness, I don’t know if I’m upright or upside down. And every step I take is like bouncing on a trampoline–It never goes away.

That sounds so challenging…

And it really messes up your vision, too! Another thing I have in common with the character is that for fifteen years I was in show business: acting, singing and dancing. We both live on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, have been forced to reinvent ourselves, and we’ve had to retrain our brains, literally, in order to keep functioning in the world. (more…)


An Acclaimed Gay Author Surprises with Two New Novels

I first met fellow writer Trebor Healey at Palm Springs Pride, where we were both signing copies of our novels at the Authors’ Village.  Given that the title of my first novel includes the word “depression” and his recent title contains the word “sorrow,” we quickly bonded over a shared lament of others trying to convince us to change our titles into something “more happy.”  Feeling that our work embodies both joy and heartache, we each chose to stick with our original vision, and I’m happy to say that Healey’s new work, A Horse Named Sorrow, is as wonderful and nuanced as its title.

Healey’s debut novel, Through It Came Bright Colors, was awarded both the Violet Quill Award and the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for Fiction, making his new work highly anticipated.  Entirely by happenstance, Healey found himself with his next two works both released on the same day.  While A Horse Named Sorrow is a meditative tale set in San Francisco, Faun focuses on an adolescent boy discovering that his body is quickly morphing, but not into the expected stage of puberty.

Having just named A Horse Named Sorrow as my favorite LGBT read of 2012, I was pleased that Healey was able to take some time with me to discuss his work and inspirations.

Trebor, when we first met, we talked about the use of “sad” words in our novel titles.  Why did you feel so strongly about your title for A Horse Named Sorrow?

Well, first of all, it’s a line from a Nick Cave song, and it’s a song I really love—the Carny Song—and it’s very much evocative of what San Francisco was to me at that time…a carnival, a circus, but a macabre one haunted by an enormous overarching sorrow. And when you think of how a horse plods along when it’s tired, it’s just such a perfect metaphor for the weight we feel when we carry sorrow. And we carry it. Grief is a profound experience, it’s one of the cardinal experiences if you will. But my book is not really a sad book; in many ways, it’s very comic and full of youthful enthusiasm, but it’s about something real, and one of the things the characters have to do—that we all have to do—is carry the sorrow of life with us until we are able to set it down or transform it into something else. I also think sorrow is a beautiful word—the symmetry of it, with the two r’s and two o’s, and the sound of it is wonderful. There is a lot to every word and we can experience it fully, and I think words in titles of artworks are important that way. They have a lot of work to do and they need to be good, full words.

In A Horse Named Sorrow, you vividly recreate San Francisco in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  What is your impression/recollection of that period?

It was a very intense time—terrifying and urgent and enormously alive as only a place under siege can be. I came out into the AIDS crisis and the city was on fire in a million ways. There was anger and activism, art, conflict, love and sex, and the feeling that you were at the center of history on some level. Maybe we all feel that way when we are 21, but there was a vitality during that time that I’ve never experienced anywhere or anytime since. It was a time that demanded things of people. My brother was fighting cancer, I was working at an AIDS hospice and active in ACT UP and Queer Nation, I was meeting my first boyfriends, reading my first poems out loud to strangers in smoky cafes. It was a time of birth for me, I suppose, in all the pain and blood and wonder that birth entails. It was exciting, and yet that overarching sorrow was there, like the fog rolling in every night.

How did that then lead to this novel?

Well, the things that make you feel, in all the rawness of feeling, are what you write about, I suppose. I worked on this book for 15 years. I knew it was a book I had to write. And I had to get it right. And oddly, or maybe not, it wasn’t until I was in a place where I felt that intensely again—in Argentina where I lived for a year—that I was able to finally get it right.

One of the key images in the book is a bicycle, wrapped in different strings.  How did that come to you?

I actually rode a bicycle across the country in the summer of 1986. It was an amazing way to travel, and felt to me like traveling by horse, which is how the whole horse/bike/sorrow metaphor first came together. The speed, the human scale, the way you had to maintain your vehicle and plot your trip. It’s very meditative and seemed a perfect style of journey for a person in need of retreat and reflection. As for the strings, I think that came from how kids used to tie strings around each other’s ankles and wrists, and the idea was that you’d make a wish, and when the string came off, the wish you’d made would come true. There is a lot about wishing in the book, both the good and the bad of it.

You have a very diverse body of work, having written everything from poetry, to erotica, to fantasy, to both non-fiction and fiction…  As a writer, do you follow your muse, or do certain influences impact your decision of what to write next?

(more…)


Out in Print names “Songs for the New Depression” one of their “Best Books of 2012”

I’m so grateful for Out in Print Reviews including Songs for the New Depression in their wrap up of the top books of the year; it is a career highlight for me.  Not only does it affirm my instinct to write, but it also means that others may eventually discover my tale, and hopefully it will inspire and resonate.

Out in Print wrote, in part:  “Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written… You’ll read this once for its emotional impact and again to see how the author achieves it. But no matter how many times you dive in, you’ll be impressed.”

My Christmas gift came early this year!


Band of Thebes’ Best LGBT Books of 2012

With LGBT bookstores shuttering and the consolidation of gay media resulting in reduced promotional opportunities for publishers and authors, few venues remain for discovering literature reflecting the gay experience.  Happily, Stephen Bottum continues to provide one of the best sources for LGBT publishing news on his blog, Band of Thebes, which he began five years ago.

His site has garnered a devoted following of authors, publishers, and readers, with Band of Thebes providing a wonderful mix of book reviews, posts on LGBT authors, and the latest in literary news.

In 2009, he began asking authors to share their favorite LGBT reads of the year, in all genres — fiction, non-fiction, poetry, comics —  leading to the creation of an annual author survey of the Best LGBT Books of the Year.  His eagerly-awaited list for 2012 has just been released, and Stephen graciously took time to share with me more about his inspiration for starting the website, his love for literature, and his annual list of the year’s best.
Stephen, Sacred Band of Thebes refers to an army of 300 men in ancient Greece, which was comprised of 150 male couples.  The theory was that by fighting alongside one’s partner, the desire to succeed would be stronger.  What was it about that story which inspired you to select it as the name for your website?

As far as I can remember, the first men I understood to be gay were of an old school, Paul Lynde-ilk, who at the time frightened me with their snideness. My coming out was prolonged in part by not wanting to join the bitchfest. So the idea of gay warriors fighting for each other was very appealing, minus the mayhem and slaughter. My aim was to create a site to highlight queer writers and filmmakers and artists, and enrich an eager audience who might miss them in the mainstream media.

Where did your love for literature begin?

I terrorized my parents by giving up on books around nine or ten and refusing to read anything other than movie ads and TV listings. Then, at fourteen, I quit tennis, my friends started pursuing girls, and suddenly I discovered those gray blocks surrounding the cartoons in The New Yorker held words. After a few stories by Ann Beattie and Peter Cameron, I was hooked.

What prompted you to start your blog?  Was there a void you saw that you wanted to fill?

Much as I’d like to take credit for reversing the mainstream’s shortfall of gay coverage, I’m sure it was my partner’s idea. Desperate for a way to shut me up, he kept saying, “Hey, you have all these opinions about books and movies, you should blog.”

You’ve been compiling your “Best Books” lists for a few years now.  When you begin the process, do you have a strategy?  A certain mix of authors to approach?

Maligned as she is, Tina Brown is absolutely right that a great magazine should be like a really good party, and the survey is the same: poets rubbing against porn stars, with the added challenge of balancing the L, G, B, and T, and fair representation of ethnicities. Beginning each spring, I keep a wish list of authors to approach, and I was very, very thrilled this year to have about 24 new participants, including  Lisa Cohen, Ellis Avery, Rick Whitaker, Tendai Huchu, Ivan Coyote, Farzana Doctor, the cartoonist Justin Hall, Nick Krieger, whose memoir deserved all the attention Chaz Bono’s received, and young Scottish novelist Kerry Hudson, who is going to be the next Jeanette Winterson.

How do you feel about the mix of the contributing authors?

(more…)


The Best LGBT Books of 2012

One of my favorite websites, Stephen Bottum’s Band of Thebes, just released its list of authors’ top picks for the best in 2012 gay and lesbian literature. I was honored to have been asked to submit my favorite, and was thrilled to see two of my friends, Arthur Wooten and David G. Hallman, on the list. Congratulations, guys!

If you’re looking for interesting reads, check out this list!


The Rainbow Hour: An Interview with Kergan Edwards-Stout

I’m so thankful to GSHRadio’s Rainbow Hour for including me on yesterday’s show, in honor of World AIDS Day.  What fun, to follow the hysterical “America’s #1 Tupperware salesgal” Dixie Longate!  The hosts, Victor, Otto, Gregory, Steve, and I chat about HIV/AIDS, my novel, as well as my piece on Huffington Post, “Please Defriend Me,” which has had almost 130,000 facebook likes.

My section starts at 48:28! 🙂

Thank you all!


It’s World AIDS Day. Does Anyone Care?

On March 5, 1995, the day I turned 30, I admitted my then-partner Shane Sawick into the hospital.  He would not come out alive, dying just two weeks later, on March 22.  While AIDS was the war he battled, he was ultimately done in by a skirmish with PML (Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy), a rare but usually fatal disease, which quickly took away Shane’s ability to speak, move, or even blink at will, though his brain continued to think, and process, and feel.  It was devastating to watch a loved one undergo such a debilitating experience, and yet that act, of being both lover and caregiver, thoroughly transformed me as a human being.  Indeed, I would not be the husband, father, writer, or person that I am were it not for that period of crisis during which my partner and friends died.  As we head towards World AIDS Day, I find it perplexing that few seem willing to embrace, or even mention, the epidemic which so greatly impacted and altered the LGBT community.  What is it about that era that frightens us so?

The easy answer might be that disease and death make people uncomfortable, which, to some degree, is understandable.  Prior to Shane’s death, my best friend of eight years and I were inseparable (I’ll call him Pete.)  At the time, I couldn’t have imagined a better friend.  Pete made me laugh, kept me company, and ushered me through my West Hollywood “coming out.”  Once Shane got sick, however, Pete disappeared.  He never called, or came to visit us in the hospital, despite knowing that I was there 24/7.  Whenever queried by friends as to his absence, Pete would say, “Oh, you know–me and hospitals.  I just don’t like the idea of sickness.”

It wasn’t until the day of Shane’s memorial that I next saw Pete.  He came up, noting “Great service!,” before the next words came out of his mouth: “Wanna hit Happy Hour later?”  Needless to say, I chose to end that friendship, as well as others in which people could not grasp the emotional magnitude of what had happened to me, and others like me.  The depth of my experiences caused a change within, which required a new support system willing and able to tackle the “hard stuff,” no matter how unpleasant.

For some, the era of losing friends and loved ones has been difficult to revisit, due to the emotional toll taken.  Many have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from the pain, moving from the most-hit urban centers to smaller, more rural towns.  Others have gone into emotional hiding, losing themselves in drug or drink, or in simply shutting down, so as not to feel the ache of such loss.  And some have, by necessity, focused on rebuilding their broken circle of friends.

New causes, such as marriage equality, have replaced AIDS as our community’s priority, and it is hard to argue that rallying for wedding cake isn’t more fun that protesting for HIV drugs.  Still, we should not have to choose between the two.

These days, activism for many means little more than clicking “like” on a Facebook post.  While thousands stepped into the streets in the aftermath of Prop 8, we’ve not seen anything on that scale for HIV/AIDS in years.  At what point did we become complacent?  Is having a drug that makes the disease “manageable” really all we want?  What happened to a cure–or a vaccine?

Today, people still die from AIDS.  While drug advancements have substantially decreased that number, it has also created the false-belief that contracting the disease is essentially meaningless.  To some, taking one pill a day is an easy trade-off to having to wear condoms.

Most disturbing, however, is the sheer number to whom AIDS just doesn’t matter, having relegated it to a page in history.  When I mention having lost a partner or friends, I’m most often met with a blank stare or a cursory nod, with no real emotional acknowledgement of what that time meant, and continues to mean.

During the AIDS crisis, the LGBT community rose to the occasion, stepping in to take care of our own when the government, pharmaceutical companies, and other organizations couldn’t–or wouldn’t.  LGBT people exhibited incredible bravery, tackling huge monoliths with acts of daring creativity and passion.  Were it not for our take-no-prisoners approach, we would not have the HIV drugs we do today.

The crisis temporarily brought together both genders, as women stepped into vacant leadership roles and helped those stricken by acting as caregivers.  Today, that gender divide has returned, with little reciprocity from gay men for the causes dear to lesbians, such as breast or cervical cancer.  In many ways, we’ve gone back to being strangers, with a debt left unpaid.

Other communities, devastated by tragedy, have managed to turn such markers into rallying cries, and the LGBT community must find a way to do the same with AIDS.  Just as the Jewish people dealt with the Holocaust, and the African American community responded to slavery and the civil rights struggle, so too must our community find a way to embrace that era, fully honoring both those we lost and what we gained.

For we did gain much.  We learned that, far from being the weak and passive individuals many of us had been stereotyped, we actually had strength, passion, and guts, and we fully demonstrated that to the world.  We took on “the powers that be” and created real, tangible change.  We literally bloodied ourselves for the cause, and yet today, speaking of AIDS feels almost taboo.

Does that have anything to do with the disease being sexually transmitted?  Having worked so hard to combat the myth that being gay is to be “sick,” did the emergence of a sexually transmitted disease take us back to a place of shame?  Does that shame still linger?

To be clear, I am not remotely nostalgic for the days of the AIDS crisis.  I lost too many, and it hurt too much.  But at the same time, I’m thankful that I was able to play a part in helping to educate others about HIV, through my work at AIDS Project Los Angeles.  I’m grateful to my dear friends who allowed me to be with them during their final days.  I’m profoundly changed, for the better, for having ushered my partner Shane to his death.  And I’m forever in awe of the efforts our community took to respond to the crisis in unimaginably creative and lasting, impactful ways.

I just wished others cared as well.

Kergan Edwards-Stout’s debut novel, Songs for the New Depression, was loosely inspired by his partner, Shane Sawick, and his experiences during the AIDS crisis.  It won the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Award in the LGBTQ category, and was shortlisted for the Independent Literary Awards in the same category.

Cross-Posted on Huffington Post and LGBTQ Nation.


Author Xavier Axelson Makes the Leap from Erotica

Following success as a writer of erotica and as columnist for Examiner.com, author Xavier Axelson has surprised readers with his debut novel, Velvet, a work of historical fiction which tells the tale of a royal tailor.  While still containing the potent mix of love & longing for which he is known, the novel format allows Axelson to explore other elements which the short story format didn’t allow.

Prior to Velvet, Axelson had cultivated a devoted following of readers for his shorter, more steamy work, leading venerable critic Amos Lassen to anoint Axelson “a master of the erotic.”  Now, however, with a new and different tale to tell, I was eager to learn more about Axelson’s journey between genres and formats, and the inspirations behind his work.

Kergan Edwards-Stout:  Xavier, you were so gracious in interviewing me for Examiner, it is great to be returning the favor!  With Velvet, you’re finally releasing your first novel.  I guess the obvious question, given your success with erotica, is what made you decide to write a work of historical fiction?

Xavier Axelson:  It was a complete surprise.  I didn’t start out with the intention to write a historically-based novel.  Then again, I never thought I would write erotica!  I just go where the story and characters tell me.  They are driving, so I simply follow behind and trust they know what to do and how to steer.

What can you tell us about Velvet?

It is the story of Virago, the royal tailor, and is set against a backdrop of decadence, privilege, and intrigue.

When you begin a new work such as this, especially when it contains historical elements, how deeply do you delve into research of the period?

Velvet is based on historical ideas, but the world and its characters within are completely fictitious.   I love research.  I find it is a great way to take the fear out of the unknown.  In this case, Velvet was a pleasure to research because I love the Elizabethan, Medieval and Shakespearean periods.  This story opened my eyes to so many unique details involving the coronation of Elizabeth I, the interior structures of castles, and even how the blind learn to sew and cut patterns.

Prior to this, most of your work has been with short stories and novellas.  What prompted this leap to the novel form?

I didn’t set out to write a novel!  I initially assumed that Velvet would be a novella, but, as the story progressed, the characters became more generous with their voices and stories.  I felt it was my duty to return the favor and ensure their voices were heard.

While other authors pick one genre to focus on, it seems that you write what you want, regardless of genre. 

It’s true.  I don’t stick with any one genre.  In between Earthly Concerns and Velvet, I wrote a short story called Cravings that was published as part of a zombie/horror collection.  I’d never thought about writing a zombie story–and that’s exactly what intrigued me.  I refuse to believe in genre imprisonment.

Where does your desire to write come from?

It comes from a need to write.  I feel compelled to do it, as writing is an extension of my physical self.  It speaks to my truest, most authentic self.

Most of your earliest literary success has been with the erotic.  What is the most common misperception of erotica writing?

That it has little literary merit.  However, I find the works of Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade, Anaïs Nin, and The Sleeping Beauty books by Anne Rice to be worthy defenders against such misconceptions.  Erotica does not automatically equal pornography.

In addition to being described as a writer of erotica, I’ve also seen you labeled as a writer of psychological horror.  Given all these different labels, how would you describe yourself?

Well, erotic, exotic, and a little psychotic!

In your work, is there a fine line between the three?

I think many people feel intimacy, whether sexual or otherwise, is terrifying.  Psychosexual elements fascinate me, and while there is a fine line between the erotic and horrific, it is this line that is the most appealing to walk along.  The idea of the beautiful grotesque and the terror found in the mundane are both subjects I enjoy exploring.  Lines were meant to be crossed, as long as you’re brave enough to face whatever it is you may encounter on the other side.

With your background, is there a concern on your part that your work might not be taken seriously?

I don’t think what I do is serious.  My writing is incredibly personal to me and while I may be attached to what I do and view it as important, I am not curing cancer or stopping global warming.  That being said, what people may or may not think is beyond my control.  My writing speaks for itself and there are many works of erotic fiction that are masterpieces.

Who would you name as the top three people that inspire you, and why?

Tennessee Williams, because his writing awes me, his ability to dig into the darkness frightens and inspires me to follow after his characters… Lars Von Trier, because his visions are startling, eye opening, and undeniable.  And Georgia O’Keefe, because I believe in the power of the natural world she conveyed in her art.

Given that list, with all of their unique viewpoints and themes, when you look at your own work, is there one overarching theme or message you want to communicate? 

Hope, and the belief in oneself to find the light in the dark.

Xavier Axelson can be found on facebook, twitter, his website, and on Examiner.com.

Cross-posted on Kergan Edwards-Stout and Huffington Post.

 


Obama’s Victory and the Aftermath of “Please De-Friend Me”

This election was close–much closer than it should have been.  For those of us committed to progressive causes, it was a reminder that we need to work even harder to ensure future such races contain a message which is clear, relevant, and compelling, connecting the dots between the issues we care about and fiscal responsibility.  Our margin of victory should have been greater, and even in the election’s wake, I find myself contemplating the cost of lost friendships, as well as our best path forward.

Just two weeks ago, after several intense political exchanges on Facebook, I awoke one morning, unable to sleep, and typed up a status update, a manifesto of sorts, which quickly took on a life of its own.  In it, I asked those voting for Romney to de-friend me, given that much of what he advocated was a direct attack on me as an LGBT person, as well as the progressive causes in which I believe.  The reaction to this was swift, emotional, and tumultuous.

In the ensuing days, my post was shared and spread, with over 128,000 facebook “likes” at last count.  People I hadn’t heard from in years contacted me to debate the merits of said post, arguing passionately for and against.  I was de-friended by a handful of acquaintances, only to find myself friended by hundreds more.

What most people failed to grasp, though, was that I wasn’t personally planning to de-friend anyone.  Instead, I wanted others to take responsibility for their actions and views, and de-friend me.  I felt it was important that people examine their vote, its real world impact, and take ownership.  As I told those unwilling to de-friend me, if Romney won and followed through on his pledge to restrict my rights, I wanted them to be reminded, each and every time they saw me post, that they’d had a direct hand in my undoing.

While the article was provocative and created dialogue, and led to many other writers offering variations or alternatives to my de-friend stance, some of that discussion brought up attitudes I hadn’t anticipated.  Despite clearly noting that I was voting for Obama because I care about the environment, the poor, veterans, the elderly, equality for women, the freedom of choice, healthcare as a right, our rights as a family with two gay dads, and the economy, one newspaper editorial reduced me to being a “single-issue” voter.  While that may bring into question the writer’s math skills, the larger point, that my progressive voting position was inherently less important than their fiscal one, is one which we need to actively counter.

Progressive causes should not break the bank.  There is a way to achieve human rights in a fiscally responsible way, and yet our detractors have successfully labeled us as “tax-and-spend, bleeding heart liberals,” implying that our love for such causes compels us to open our wallet at every turn, regardless of cost.  As made clear in this election, many people vote solely from their pocketbooks, and we have work to do in articulating a vision which not only upholds dignity and respect for all human life and the planet, but communicates that such advances can actually help stimulate our economy and, in turn, heal our deficit.  Being committed to social causes and financial security are not mutually exclusive;  we must clarify how they can work together if we are to ensure a greater margin of victory in the future.

On a personal level, I’m struggling this morning on how to best move forward, given my friends who say they support me, yet vote for policies and people which work to deny me my equality, as well as the subsequent tax benefits and protections conveyed under the law.  I find myself questioning who I want in my life, and who I don’t…

Years ago, I made the difficult decision to cut my parents out of my life, due to what I perceived as anti-gay behavior.  I told myself then that my self-respect meant more, in the long haul, than their bigotry.  Upon the birth of our children, I allowed that stance to soften, as I wanted my parents to be in our children’s lives, and for our kids to experience what it was like to have grandparents.  The night before the election, however, I got a call from my mother, telling me that she is joining a church this Sunday which I’d previously told her is anti-gay, preaching that homosexuality is a sin.  The church is so well-known in our area that I actually once attempted to meet with the pastor, in an attempt to discuss and expand his views, but was denied.

My mother asked us to come to this new member event to support her, and it pained me to tell her that I could not knowingly step into a church which views me as evil.  She doesn’t understand why we can’t make a “one-time” exception, to support her personally.  And this strikes to the heart of my “Please De-Friend Me” post.  Both my mother and I are seeking support for who we are and what we believe, but our two stances are entirely contradictory.  So what do we do?

Is it better to form tentative truces, knowing we are not being supported?  Is it better to take hard-line stances and clear boundaries, to ensure we retain our self-respect?  And what effect does it have on us to have people in our lives who do not respect or support who we are at our very core?

I’ve tried for years to get my parents to expand their worldview, but find that it will never change.  I’ve tried mightily, during this election, to get others to see that their votes have real-world consequences, only to watch as they cast votes supporting my second-class status.  In both cases, I am conflicted as to the best course forward.

It is one thing to educate and build bridges of understanding, but if my basic right to equality isn’t respected, is that even a bridge I want to build???

Cross-posted on Kergan Edwards-Stout and Huffington Post.


Thank You to My Readers!

I wanted to express my sincere gratitude to all who’ve taken the time to read either my articles on Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, and Bilerico Project, or my novel, Songs for the New Depression.  Since the book’s release just over a year ago, I’ve met many wonderful people, including one terrific man who’s read my novel four times and came to the West Hollywood Book Fair, just so we could meet.  I’m humbled that anything I’ve written could so impact another, and cherish the inherent responsibility which accompanies it.

From beginning to end, my novel took 12 years to write and publish, and it is gratifying to have people discover it.  Conversely, my “Please De-Friend Me” article was written early one morning, in less than an hour, when I couldn’t sleep, and at this writing has over 124,000 facebook likes!  The power of social media is simply staggering…

In the past months, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting readers at the West Hollywood Book Fair, Homo-Centric, and Palm Springs Pride, and these interactions have touched me deeply.  I value “connection”, and believe that our common humanity has the power to enlighten us and lift up our souls.

I’ve been working on a new book, a collection of short stories called Gifts Not Yet Given, which will be published next year, and as we head toward the holiday season, I can’t think of any better gift for an author than the responses of readers.  Your feedback and support mean more than you’ll ever know, so please keep it coming!

Thank you,

Kergan


A U.S. President’s Great-Great-Grandson’s Big Gay Vampire Novel

While it may come as a surprise to learn that Ulysses S. Grant’s great-great-grandson, Ulysses Grant Dietz, serves as Chief Curator for New Jersey’s Newark Museum, it might come as a bigger surprise that he is also an author, with two gay vampire titles under his belt.  Dietz is one of the few people I know who has managed to incorporate his many disparate passions into unified whole: he is a father, with two teenage children; he has a job he loves, overseeing the museum’s impressive decorative arts collection; he reads voraciously, reviewing most everything he reads; he is the author of two novels and five non-fiction titles; and he is an out gay man, proudly advocating on behalf of the LGBT community.

In 1998, Alyson Books released his first book, Desmond: A Novel About Love and the Modern Vampire, which went on to be nominated for a Lambda Literary award in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. Now, after a 14-year wait, his fans finally have their hands on his much-anticipated sequel, Vampire in Suburbia, which has finally hit the stores.

Thank you so much for sharing some of your time, Ulysses.  The obvious first question is, why so long between novels?

In a word: children.  I was polishing up Desmond during the kids’ naps while on parental leave back in 1997, and once it was published, the rest of my life distracted me from writing fiction. I’ve been thinking about it for a long, long time.

What inspired your first novel, Desmond?

In part, every vampire novel I’d read, from Dracula (which I read in middle school, the first time) to Anne Rice’s novels. Specifically, when I wrote the first draft of Desmond back in 1988, Rice’s Queen of the Damned had just appeared. Desmond as a character is my direct response to Rice’s Louis, as well as Lestat.  In fact, as my book opens, Desmond has just finished reading Queen of the Damned.

What was it about this character, Desmond Beckwith, that compelled you to continue his story?

In the first book, Desmond is surprised by love. He has resigned himself to a life alone over the course of two centuries. Yet he lives in the world. He has secrets he has to keep from the world. It’s a delicate balance he maintains; and then the carefully constructed life he’s made for himself is shattered by the appearance of Tony Chapman.  Desmond is a romantic; although he’s a vampire, he loves life. In the second book, Desmond gradually realizes that he doesn’t really like living in isolation, without friends.  It’s this quest for connection that drives him. At the end of the first book his story was, in a sense, only beginning. I had to write the second book to bring Desmond’s personal search to some sort of closure.

In the blurb for Vampire in Suburbia, it notes that Desmond is handsome, rich, gay, a vampire, and he’s looking for a house in Jersey.  So, I gotta ask, is he related to Snooki? 

Actually, I confess that, after a martini with a friend, I’ve joked about a third book called Vampire Down the Shore; but I haven’t figured out how I might work Snooki into the plot.

But seriously, the setting for the second book is something I’d thought about for years. It literally takes place where I live, in suburban Essex County, including within the museum where I have been a curator for thirty-two years.  Desmond ends up in New Jersey in the wake of 9/11. His New York office is near Ground Zero, and Desmond, quite simply, is afraid. So he moves his company to Newark, to one of the many office towers near Newark’s great art deco Penn Station – just ten miles from Manhattan.  I’ve set the book in 2009, just after he regenerates (as my vampires do) back to the age he was created: twenty one. He realizes that, this time around, he doesn’t want to start all over again and simply leave behind the people who became his friends over the past 44 years.  He also finds himself yearning for two things he gave up in the eighteenth century: land, and a family. It’s not your usual vampire story, but I’m as much a romantic as Desmond is.

Given your lineage, did you ever have any pushback?  You know, a descendant of one of our nation’s presidents, publishing a novel about gay vampires?

Not yet. I’m on the board of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, but I don’t think any other board members have read it, or are likely to.  I’m a little more anxious about my professional world, because the book has a whole curator theme going and my colleagues in the field are buying it to be supportive.  I’ve talked it up on my Facebook page and people are intrigued. I keep telling them that it’s not really for them – but what can I do?  They’ll figure it out.  I’m imaging lots of embarrassed silence.  I don’t think the Civil War buffs are going to even notice it exists.

Do you ever feel any added pressure that comes from your heritage?  A responsibility to be a role model?

Oh, sure.  But being a role model, living up to my name, is the whole reason behind my determination to live my life out and proud. It’s the reason I’ve refused to use a pseudonym on these books, as if I have something to hide in writing them. I’ve had to instill that pride in my kids, and that pride includes being gay as much as it includes being a great-great-grandson of a president.  Living my life with integrity – as Ulysses S. Grant did  – without regard to what people say, is my way of being a role model.

How did your decision to speak out on marriage equality come about?  You wrote a piece for one of the New Jersey papers about same gender marriage…

I’d forgotten I actually wrote that! I’m remembering it as an interview. It was for the Newark Star-Ledger back in 2009, and I was actually photographed in the Ballantine House – my main gallery space in the Museum, which is featured in Vampire in Suburbia. I can’t remember who contacted me or why – but marriage equality was and is a big issue here, and the fight for marriage, not just civil union, is something I’ve been interested in for years.  My partner Gary and I have been involved in gay politics in New Jersey for thirty years. We know a lot of people.

You and Gary have been together for 37 years now.  How did you first meet?

We met at Yale, specifically at the Gay Alliance at Yale.  I remember the day vividly.  I was a junior, and Gary had just graduated and was working for the Yale Computer Center.  He’s a software engineer. It was October 1975 and I had just turned twenty.  He was my first date ever.

That is amazing!  Long before my partner and I adopted, you and Gary became parents.  That must have been trailblazing…  What was that experience like?

I guess we were pioneers. We had lesbian friends who had started families; and our brothers each had children who were very much in our lives; so we were primed for a while before it dawned on us that we could have our own children.  Surrogacy was not legally possible in New Jersey then, so we decided to go with adoption. We tried domestic adoptions, but after one particularly heartbreaking failure, we decided to look into international adoptions. At that time international adoptions were possible for gay couples – but one of the two partners had to essentially disappear, and the other one had to adopt as a single person.

That must have been challenging…

I kept a detailed journal for four years once this process started. It reads like a Tolstoy tragedy. It was a very rough four years.  Several failures, including a disastrous venture in Russia where Gary spent a month in Siberia with our baby – only to have the child taken away from him and the adoption canceled by someone somewhere in the bureaucracy who felt that no man could have a good reason to want to raise a child alone.

But eventually we succeeded – and succeeded on two separate adoptions within a month of each other.  So our son, Alex, and our daughter, Grace, arrived and changed our lives in 1996.  I adopted them through a second-parent adoption a year or so later.  We didn’t even have a domestic partnership, but we were legally bound together by our children – our names are on their US birth certificates. It was amazing.  And once you have your children, all the bad memories fade away.

I know reading is one of your main passions.  Have you read anything recently that you couldn’t put down?

Reading is an addiction with me. I always have my Kindle with me. I love young adult novels, written for teenagers, that have gay themes.  I just finished Benjamin Alire Saenz’s beautiful book Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It’s about a Mexican-American teenager in El Paso who finds a best friend one summer. The friendship between the boys is beautiful; but what I loved most was the importance of the parents.  Many young adult novels marginalize the parental figures – as teenagers themselves try to do.  But Saenz makes the parents important, and makes their love for their sons crucial in the narrative.  It’s a wonderful book.

With your unique worldview, as an out gay dad, partner, author, reader, curator, etc., what do you see as the biggest issues facing the LGBT community?

What I see as the biggest issue facing our community is our complacence in the face of the upwelling of right-wing religiosity in this country, in the secular world and especially in politics.  I came out in the 1970s, before AIDS, and things have improved so much since then it’s hard to believe.  But, for all the acceptance my family and I have experienced in our little bubble of diversity in Maplewood, New Jersey, there is a significant anti-gay world out there trying to figure out how to undo all the progress we’ve made. I’m a devout Episcopalian, by the way, and church is important to me; but I feel somewhat like an assimilated Jew in Germany in the early 1930s, who felt that they were safe and beyond harm.  There are young gay folk who talk about the world being “post-gay,” and it’s just not true. Not yet.

Hopefully, that day will come soon.  Lastly, you are so entrenched in arts and culture.  What impact do you think those have on us as people, and as a society?

That’s a loaded question.  Look, I’ve given my life to the Newark Museum. I believe in art and the power of art to transform lives.  My entire career has been dedicated to connecting people with objects; to telling stories that help people see the world in a slightly different way. I help people fall in love with the things I love. My non-fiction books have been part of my curatorial life; my novels are just another aspect of that story-telling instinct.

The books of Ulysses Grant Dietz can be found on Amazon, with more information on his publisher’s website.

Author photo courtesy of the Newark Museum. 

Cross-posted on Huffington Post and LGBTQ Nation.


Please De-Friend Me

PLEASE DE-FRIEND ME.

If you plan to vote for Mitt Romney, you are putting a nail into my civil rights coffin, and I’d rather not have friends who think I deserve anything less than equal treatment under the law. Romney supports DOMA (which directly and negatively impacts me, restricting my partner Russ, our kids, and my federal protections and tax benefits under the law), and has noted his support for an anti-marriage equality amendment as well. While you may see your vote for him as one about the economy (and we can debate who’d be better for that until the cows come home), what you INTEND by your vote really doesn’t matter. Your vote means that you are supporting someone who not only thinks I’m not equal to you, but who works vigorously to ensure my “less-than” legal status. Your vote for him means that you are totally fine with me being treated with disrespect.

Now, you may see this as an indication that I am being too “single minded”, and I’ll admit that when you’re denied even the simplest of human considerations, it makes it difficult to look beyond that. But this is about much more than my treatment under the law. Who I am and what I believe passionately in are also things which Romney discounts. I believe in full and fair treatment of ALL people, but Romney believes that women should not receive equal pay for equal work. I believe we need to take care of our earth, even if it means tightening our belts, but Romney favors further deregulation over environmental concerns. I think it is our duty to support things like art and culture (I view them as essential), but Romney disparages the role these play in enriching our lives; he sees them as extraneous and will cut public funding. I believe, just as education is a right, healthcare is as well, but Romney wants to abolish the Affordable Care Act. I care about those less fortunate and the elderly, and think it is our collective responsibility to ensure their well-being, but in Romney’s eyes, these people are victims and moochers. In short, who I am isn’t just who I love, it is the things I feel passionately about. And Romney stands against almost all of them.

BOTTOM LINE: I don’t care who you are–whether you are my relation by blood or a longtime acquaintance, I don’t want “friends” who don’t think I’m as good as they are. I want friends who value me, who see my worth as a human being, and who fully support my equal protections under the law. So, if you’re voting for Romney, whether you follow me on twitter or facebook, please de-friend me. You won’t hurt my feelings. I won’t cause a big stink. In fact, you’ll be creating space in my life for others to come in who do feel that my being here on the planet matters.

I’M NOT INTERESTED IN DEBATING THIS. PLEASE RESPECT MY WISHES.

– Kergan

Cross-posted on Bilerico Project and Huffington Post.  Photography by Sara + Ryan.


The Making of an Anti-Equality Politician: Elizabeth Emken

The vision stays with me, even after all these years.  I’m in junior high, and I’ve just looked into the eyes of an overweight girl, having just delivered a devastatingly cruel blow.  Her bright blue eyes, haunted and broken, serve as lingering reminders of how destructive words can be, and I’ve often wished I could take that moment back.  Little did I know that girl, Elizabeth Emken, would years later run for public office, in an attempt to unseat California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Today, she campaigns on an anti-gay platform, forcing me to wonder if my cutting remarks played any role in influencing the person she would become, and how she could come to take such a stance, given the many gay friends she once had.

Despite our rocky start, once we arrived at Los Alamitos High School, Elizabeth and I would go on to become friends, and she introduced me to what I called the “choir gang.”  This rag-tag band would never be the popular folks, but instead was united by both talent and outsider status.   As Cheryl Bhence, now a married mother of two, notes, “We were all misfits, so we all kind of fit together like a puzzle.”  While all members of the group were equals, Emken, in many ways, was the wheel’s center spoke.

“I remember that Elizabeth was kind and had the capacity to be vulnerable, a quality I still admire in people,” says Neil Fischer, who now lives in the Bay Area.  “There was also something steely and resourceful about her.  She laughed easily and seemed utterly accepting of who I was, at the time.”

While Fischer wasn’t yet out to himself, in the years following high school, almost all of the male members of this group would come out as gay, myself included.  This long list included Emken’s best friend, David Alexander Diaz, making Emken’s current anti-marriage equality views more than a bit puzzling.  David and Elizabeth attended proms and winter formals together, and were so close that Elizabeth even named her son Alex, in his honor.

Diaz first met Elizabeth as a freshman, when he auditioned for the school play, on which she was the student director. “We very quickly connected and bonded, becoming best friends,” Diaz recalls.  At that time, Diaz had not yet come out as gay.  “While I was aware that I had feelings towards men, I couldn’t imagine that being gay was even an option for me.”

When Emken introduced Diaz to this group of choir folks, he felt immediately welcomed.  He wasn’t yet aware that most of the men in the group were gay, but “I knew they were like me on some level.  These were guys who loved theater and music, and didn’t much care for sports.  We were aware of our commonalities, but our sexuality was never acknowledged.”

“I remember all their smiles,” notes Fisher.  “All those guys had such easy, generous smiles.”

There were times when the group’s outsider status led to name-calling.  Cheryl Bhence recalls that the men in the group were often teased about being gay.  “At the time, none of them had yet come out, so I remember spending effort to defend their sexuality, which I had assumed was hetero.  Knowing they were gay wouldn’t have changed my perspective of any of them; I just wouldn’t have had to stand up for them to the hecklers.”

For most of the men, sexuality was not yet on their radar.  “I was not entirely aware of what it meant to have a gay identity, nor that such an identity was developing in me,” says Fischer.  “At the time, I had no idea how to explore whatever gay stirrings I allowed to come to the surface of my consciousness.  In high school, I had crushes on other boys that did not involve sexual fantasies, because I wouldn’t let my mind go there.”

“I was still pretty innocent back then,” Diaz recalls.  “Most of the guys were dating the girls, escorting them to prom and other functions, and I guess I pretty much took things at face value.  They were dating girls, so must have been straight, right?”

Part of what allowed such assumptions to continue was that, by and large, the group was both close-knit and wholesome.  “I have so many wonderful memories,” says Bhence.  “I remember the volleyball-a-thon: we played for 24 hours straight to raise money to pay for our choir tour up the California coast.  But probably the weekend nights were the best, when we would hang out at one of our houses, eat M&Ms and chips with onion dip, and play silly kid games like Hide & Seek and Red Rover.”

This was not a party or gossip crowd, where the absence of actual sexual activity might have been noticed, which made it a safe place for the gay men still finding their way.  “While other kids might have been out on weekends, getting drunk, we were all at someone’s house, playing Risk all night,” Diaz remembers.  “All of our activities were silly, fun-filled, and wholesome.”

“We shared the ability to have fun without substances, like alcohol or drugs,” Bhence notes, going on to elaborate that she “had a terrible crush on [one of the boys], but I never told him in high school, as he always seemed interested in other girls; he took various girls to each of the formal dances.”

This focus on friendship and innocent fun helped give cover to the men, struggling to understand their sexuality, while their attendance with the women at events allowed the women to believe that the men were indeed straight.

“I hoped and wanted to be straight, and just assumed that, at some point, it would happen,” Diaz relates.  “I had an ideal woman in my mind, and just felt that I’d meet her and everything would fall into place.”

While that may have been his goal, Diaz found himself confused when Emken expressed her love for him, thinking that the two should be a couple.  He elaborates that when he told Emken that he didn’t feel the same, they found their friendship challenged.  “Elizabeth is an aggressive and assertive woman, and she was then as well.  She couldn’t understand how we could have such a strong bond, and yet me not feel the same desires she did.”

Even with this new challenge, Emken and Diaz didn’t sever ties. Caught between friendship and the question of something deeper, the two pushed through an intense season of figuring out who they were – talking constantly, writing letters, and sharing hopes and dreams.

“I cared deeply for her and would have liked to be what she saw me as,” Diaz said. “But there was a part of me that I compartmentalized, which was the experience of attraction to men.”

Prior to her friendship with Diaz, Emken had a similarly intense friendship with Tim Radi, a fellow member of the group, not realizing that he too would later come out as gay.  “It was the same pattern as with me,” Diaz states.  “She had intense feelings for him, but he didn’t want to date her.  It was as if history were repeating itself.”

While some of their issues were about the degrees of friendship each desired, other obstacles for Emken and Diaz’ friendship included her mother.  “Elizabeth’s parents were divorced,” he notes, “and her mother was very difficult.  To be perfectly blunt, she was prejudiced, and the fact that I am of Cuban heritage was looked down on in her family.  That was the first time in my life I was discriminated against for being Hispanic.”

At the time, Emken was furious with her mother’s treatment of Diaz, and he notes the irony that today Emken herself views him, politically, as a second-class citizen.  “She’s become a lot more like her mother than even she’d admit.”

Not only were Emken’s two high school sweethearts unable to return her love, but one of them later died, with Radi’s death from AIDS being the first such death many in the group had experienced.  “A bunch of us had a personal memorial for him at his graveside,” Bhence remembers.  “At the time, his family didn’t seem ready to accept his diagnosis, so we didn’t pressure them to explain things to us.”

Still, Emken was always supportive of Diaz’s sexual journey.  After high school, Diaz began to “act out” sexually through anonymous encounters, leaving Diaz frightened, ashamed and confused, and he sought Emken’s advice.  She seemed to believe, as many do, that being gay was something Diaz could control.  “She wasn’t judgmental,” Diaz said.  “She just saw my actions as something I could simply stop, if I really tried.”

The next year, Diaz came out to Emken, acknowledging his orientation in full.  “She was very loving and accepting, which makes her stance today hurt all the more,” Diaz said.

Years later, when he became HIV-positive at age 30, Diaz again confided in Emken.  Her support never wavered, but their friendship began to wane.

“During that brief window in the Prop 8 battle when gay marriages in California were legal, my partner and I got married.  Elizabeth was entirely supportive, treating us as equals.”

Prior to her political debut, Emken was mainly a stay-at-home mom, who both worked with an autism agency, because her son Alex is autistic, and sold Tupperware.  “The drive you see in Elizabeth today has always been there.  In typical Elizabeth-fashion, she became one of the state’s best Tupperware salespeople.  And we ended up having a big gay Tupperware party at our house, including Elizabeth’s college roommate, who is lesbian, and her wife, with Elizabeth presiding over the entire event.”

Given their close relationship and the many life moments they experienced together, it came as a shock to Diaz when he learned of Emken’s candidacy platform.  “I got a very timid email from Elizabeth, where she shared, almost apologetically, that she was running for public office.  While I normally would have been thrilled, I was thoroughly confused when I went to her website and saw where she stood on the issues.  Among her many policy points, she noted that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.  I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach.”

While Diaz had long known of her conservative roots, Emken’s public stance confused him.  “I’d always known that she was a Republican,” he acknowledges.  “I knew of her mother’s more staunch views, and that Elizabeth was fiscally conservative, but somehow I’d allowed myself to believe that Elizabeth would be a different kind of Republican.”

“I kept thinking, ‘but we’re friends, Elizabeth,’” Diaz recalls.  “I couldn’t rationalize how she could have taken that position.”

Diaz reached out, via email, in an attempt to understand her actual belief, only to be met with silence.  “I told her I was thrilled for her, seeking a political office, as I’d always known she was meant for great things.  Still, I also told her how hurt I was, as part of her platform was designed to deny me my basic rights, and asked her to explain how she’d come to this anti-gay stance.  Realizing that she may not want to put such thoughts in writing, I asked her to call me, so we could talk it over, but that phone call never came.”

Given her friendship with those in the group, Diaz was not the only one upset by her viewpoint.  “It’s sad to me that she has decided to side with those who want to deny gays the right to legally marry,” says Fischer.  “There is the usual cynical assumption: she has taken this position for political expediency; she believes she cannot represent the Republican base of her party without touting one of its most visible platforms; she cannot win the November election unless she shows herself to be as contrary to Feinstein as possible.”

“The list of people she betrayed with this stance is a long one.  It includes me, her best friend, as well as every guy in our high school group, and her college roommate.  It makes no sense,” Diaz notes.  “Still, there was a part of me that held out hope; that I’d misunderstood her, and that there was a more subtle, nuanced approach to her belief that hadn’t been properly expressed.”

“I lost such sleep over this,” he confides.  “I cried, late at night, feeling so betrayed.”

It would be over a year until Diaz received a response.  “I got an email, with a link to an article titled something like ‘Republicans Finally Coming Around to Gay Marriage,’ with a very short note that said ‘Look–there is progress being made!’”

While Diaz appreciated her support, he wasn’t interested in how other Republicans viewed same-gender marriage; it was her view which mattered, and he again reached out for clarification.

It was only then that Diaz got a more lengthy response.  Emken sent an email, saying that she couldn’t understand how her policy points had become an issue between them.  “’No matter what your political beliefs,’ she said, ‘I will always be your friend,’” Diaz remembers.  “But as I replied to her, ‘Imagine, for a moment, if I were a black person, and you were running on a racist platform.  Can you see how that might be an issue?’  No matter what our relationship had been, there are certain things in life that are deal-breakers.  As I wrote to her, ‘If you are using a wedge issue like this simply to gain power, I can’t support that.  I have more self-esteem than that.’ And that was the end of our communication.”

When asked to describe Emken, as she was when they first met, Diaz uses words such as driven and ambitious.  “Her running for office today is not a surprise to me.”  In fact, Diaz recounts the moment he first introduced Emken to his mother.  “I distinctly recall my mom saying, ‘That girl could be President, if she wants to be.’”

Despite similar upbringings and experiences the “choir gang” has grown into adulthood with varying worldviews and splintered friendships.  As one of the women noted, who wishes to remain anonymous, “I think it has a whole lot less to do with being middle class and one’s religious affiliation, as it has to do with early influences, models, experiences and inclinations. In my case, I was raised in a Catholic home by parents who were passionate and active in issues having to do with social justice, and had an embracing attitude towards learning about and welcoming all walks of life.  It’s carried me throughout my life.”

Despite the contrary teachings of her faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bhence says she supports marriage equality.  “I’m a member of a church that does not support marriage equality, and yet I still love my church.  I think about myself being divorced and remarried, and I’m allowed to do that, but my friend, Bill, who has been with his partner since we graduated high school, isn’t.  His relationship is a better tribute to marriage than I am.”

Following the passage of California’s anti-marriage equality measure, Prop 8, Bhence shares, “I remember being in church the Sunday after it passed.  I was so discouraged, but I was trying to understand.  In my church, we sing a hymn prior to partaking of the Sacrament that represents Christ’s body and blood.  On this particular Sunday, the hymn’s scripture was Hebrews 13:4.  It says ‘Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.’  The message I got from this is that now may not be the time, but take courage, continue the fight, it will happen.”

“A lesbian couple living together devotedly for the 40 years cannot legally marry, though two drunken straight people can meet in Vegas and hours later walk off with a legitimate marriage license,” Fischer notes.  “This kind of absurdity appalls me still.”

In Diaz’ view, Emken should understand the importance marriage holds, given the battle Emken herself fought with her mother when it came time for her own nuptials.  “When Elizabeth got married, she actually wanted me to be her ‘best man,’ rather than have a maid of honor, as I was her best friend.  But her mother refused, saying it would be ridiculous for a man to be part of the bride’s wedding party,” he recalls.  “She had to fight her family to get me into her wedding party, where, as a compromise, I ended up on the groom’s side.  Instead of me as her ‘best man,’ Elizabeth had a cousin she wasn’t as close to stand in as maid of honor.”

The girl I first met in junior high is very different from the woman that now stands on California’s political stage. Then she was the victim to my thoughtless taunts because of her weight. She was victim to abandonment from her father and to romantic rejection from gay men.  She was resilient and a loving friend, supportive of her gay friend’s journey through life and sexuality. But now, she stands publicly against his right to a legitimate marriage with the man he loves.

While Emken won’t comment on how she became the woman she is today, her friends, although angry and confused, still hold kind thoughts of her.

“I don’t demonize her. Mostly, I feel sad for her,” Fischer said. “I’d like to know what happened to that competent, compassionate thinker that I knew. She must still hold within her that high school self, the one that befriended so many gay men.”
Group photo and photo of David Diaz and Elizabeth Emken (1981 Senior Prom) provided by David Diaz.  Group photo, top row: Elizabeth Emken, Maria Simeone, David Diaz, Cheryl Bhence, Diana Gregory, Scott Maher.  Bottom row: Felicia Weisbrot Berschauer, Bill Boyson, Craig Swartz (now Emken’s husband), Kathy Pierce.

Senate candidacy photo from Elizabeth Emken’s website.

Cross-posted on Huffington Post and Bilerico Project.

 

 


Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Photographing LGBT Families, But Were Afraid to Ask

Accompanying a recent Huffington Post article I wrote was a photo of my family, taken by Sara + Ryan Photography.  That one photo resulted in so many terrific comments and queries from readers about the duo’s work, which is primarily focused on LGBT families, that I thought it would be fun to learn more about them and their journey to their photographic specialty.  Both were happy to share how they became straight allies for LGBT equality and to specialize in photographing our unique community.

Given that you are both straight, how did you come to specialize in photographing LGBT families?

Sara: My sister is gay, as well as my best friend, and both have long term partners, but we didn’t necessarily intend to specialize in LGBT families and couples, though we always knew we would be open to it.  With both of these couples, however, we found that neither had ever had professional photos taken, until our sessions with them, as they felt it might be awkward to get pictures taken at a portrait studio.

So they felt more comfortable, given your relationship?

Sara: Yes, because they knew that we were completely comfortable with them being themselves.  After that, we started getting a lot of referrals.  Of course, we still photograph straight families as well, but most of our clientele is now in the LGBT community.

Ryan: We talked to a lot of same-sex couples who’d had previous experiences, where photographers had assured that they had experience photographing same-sex couples, only to feel that the photographer was a bit uneasy during the shoot, whether being uncomfortable personally, or in attempting to pose the couple as a traditional straight couple might be. (more…)


Win a Copy of “Songs for the New Depression”!

Chapters and Chats, a great site for readers, is offering a giveaway, with your chance to win one of two autographed copies of my novel, now through October 13th!  Jodi, who is the force behind the site, wrote a glowing review of Songs for the New Depression, and conducted a fun interview with me as well.  I love what she does, connecting readers and authors, and urge you to check out her site.

And, who knows, you just might win my book!