Cottonmouth simply made Cleis Press nervous. But why?
In June of this year I sent out a story to be considered for Best Lesbian Erotica 2014, a popular anthology put out by Cleis Press. The largest independent queer publisher in the US, Cleis has established itself as the de facto clearinghouse for lesbian erotica. BLE’s call for work had no content constraints, no limits on subject matter, and so I assumed the bottom line was simply whether or not the words on the page had the power to make the clit jump. I could not have imagined the tangled internal politics that would ensue, nor could I have imagined that those politics would culminate in the censorship of my work. The fight with Cleis is emblematic of a broader schism in the queer community, one that calls up all the old questions of assimilation versus liberation.
Editor’s Note: Yesterday Gay City News reported that the LGBT Center of New York City would bar lesbian author Sarah Schulman from reading and discussing her new book, the subject of this review. Hundreds of people from around the world have already signed a petition urging the LGBT Center of New York City to end their policy of censorship and allow Ms. Schulman, a veteran activist, decorated scholar and author of 18 books, to appear there.
Schulman believes in queers to solve the world’s problems.
Israel/Palestine and the Queer International is a queer memoir from Sarah Schulman in which she uses her journey as a lesbian American Jew overcoming ignorance to illuminate the most “encouraging progressive development in grassroots global politics of our day”: the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. What excites her about the campaign—which aims to end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the “Apartheid Wall”; to recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and to respect, protect, and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194—is the playing, and need to play:
It has been many years since I have become aware of a political movement with so much potential for progressive change. Not since ACT UP in the 1980s—also a movement of severely oppressed people facing hugely distorting mythologies with no right. And just as ACT UP was able ultimately, to change the world, I see that kind of radical potential in the Palestinian queer movement today.
It seems trans people only get a real audience within the publishing industry to tell that one story which fascinates cisgender audiences as spectacle.
When I got my Advance Reader Copy of The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, the inaugural release from Topside Press, a new independent press devoted to publishing much-needed literary fiction with trans protagonists, the only way I can begin to describe my excitement is to liken it to the excitement I would have felt at receiving an Advance Reader Copy of the much anticipated final Harry Potter book. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Topside Press’s inaugural publication, The Collection since the call for submissions was posted back in 2011. And in my world, it’s not an exaggeration to say that The Collection is the most anticipated literary release since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
If this sounds a little extreme, you probably haven’t been paying close attention to the world of trans literature so let me explain: Up to this point, trans literature has consisted largely of academic gender theory, tell-all autobiographies and heart-wrenching memoir thinly disguised as fiction. Trans characters show up in literature as plot devices, examples of a truly enlightened (or truly disturbed, depending upon the author) state of living, or as heroic gender warriors who have accomplished nothing in our lives as important as bravely making it through transition. Although so many of the trans people with whom I am lucky enough to be acquainted are talented artists, writers, activists, storytellers, comedians and people of the world, it seems we only get a real audience within the publishing industry to tell that one story which fascinates cisgender audiences as spectacle or example but speaks little to the diversity of our experiences in the world.
In the flood of writing in praise of Maurice Sendak (ztz”l) since his death earlier this month, he’s been hailed for his creativity as an illustrator and writer, his challenges to the marketing category of “children’s books”, his cantankerous honesty, his distinctly New York Yiddish humor.
In interviews, Sendak never backed down from the queer challenge his work posed to ‘mainstream’ conventions.
The major newspaper obituaries have been careful to mention that Sendak came out in 2008, shortly after the death of his lover, Eugene Glynn, but none have taken Sendak’s queerness as seriously as they have, say, his teenage stint as a background artist on Mutt & Jeff. They’ve tended to mention nothing beyond the length of his relationship with Glynn (an impressive five decades), using that duration to imply the impeccable, conservative respectability that gay publicists for marriage prescribe for any out public figure. Beyond its apparent rejection of state or religious recognition, the actual shape of that relationship is in no way clear: no one seems to have ever asked.
What is clear, however, is that Sendak’s work has at its heart an uncompromising, complicated queerness, which is the source of its radicalness, and in many ways of its strength. He is emphatically not a gay writer – one whose work focuses on same-gender romantic pairings and sees such relationships as ‘equal to’ and similar in shape to conventional cross-gender pairings. Sendak’s liberatory vision is quite definitely queer – challenging the privilege given to the biological/sacramental family, from its compulsory heterosexuality to its exaltation of the couple to its foundation in parental property rights over children.
“You know, not every trans woman is a perv, slinging around a pole and butt-clapping,” says Ceyenne Doroshow, elegant lady chef and author of the new memoir cookbook Cooking in Heels, set to be released this August. “I’m happy being who I am. I have a full life. At the pantry where I volunteer, I hand out condoms to senior citizens. On the 19th of May I’m trying to get a mobile testing unit there for World AIDS Day. I do a lot.”
Doroshow, a trans woman, activist, educator, and, of course, chef, has always been an avid lover of all things culinary. She’s also keen on storytelling and the intersection of cooking and healing. “If it wasn’t for the kitchen, I don’t know where I’d be today.”
She took some time to speak to PrettyQueer contributor Katie Liederman about glamour, mentorship, pig parts, and her new book.
Katie Liederman: What’s the most glamorous outfit you have ever cooked in?
Ceyenne Doroshow: I once cooked in a Dolce and Gabbana wrap gown. When you walk in it, your leg comes out. It looks like Morticia Adams’ gown– basic black. All you need are earrings – not even a necklace. I made tempura in it.
PQ: How do you cook in those nails?
CD: Well, normally my nails aren’t that long. I wore them that long for the video we taped for our kickstarter. But I’ve been cooking for so long. I can burn myself and keep going. I can cook anywhere in nails– even at a fireside by a campsite. I get so much enjoyment out of cooking. Even if I’m upset, I can just tune out everybody and hum.
Kate Bornstein is my favorite aunt. Of course, she’s probably yours, too, if you’re reading this. I haven’t read much of her work (yet) because I am a lazy reader, and what I pick up almost only comes from the shelf of free review copies that lives near my desk at work. So you can imagine my delight to see her new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, tucked neatly among the stacks of bad first novels and exposés of the Bush administration (yes, people are still writing those).
It was not at all what I was expecting. Kate starts with a dedication to her daughter and two grandchildren, whom I did not know existed. Of course, it turns out that I didn’t know a damned thing about her life before she became my aunt. And it was a delight to read about her journey to becoming the person she is today.
Prior to reading Almost Perfect, by Brian Katcher, I really didn’t know what to expect, having heard really mixed reviews—anything from “this is the best representation of a teen trans girl in literature ever!” to “this book actually made my life worse.” Granted, the people who I am actually friends with IRL who gave me any feedback about it tended toward the latter sentiment, so I knew to brace myself for disaster, but the positive feedback I’d read came from sources I kind of trust too (including the ALA’s Stonewall Children’s & YA Lit Award committee, who gave it a frickin award) and was all very convincing. After having read the book (actually, I listened to the audiobook on this one—more about that later), I will say that I am probably right to trust my friends’ literary criticism on this one.
The story is actually well written and very gripping—I definitely stayed up way too late trying to find out what happened next several nights, although this was mostly because I was on the edge of my seat waiting for something good to happen.
Last week, I reviewed a totally rad non-fiction book geared towards trans teens, but both trans teen novels I’ve reviewed so far were pretty disappointing. So I’ve been feeling pretty grim about trans teen novels in general. When I read I Am J by Cris Beam, however, that all changed.
I didn’t know what to think in the beginning of the book. I was feeling pretty pessimistic after the last two novels and the main character, J, starts off as kind of misogynistic and douchey. I was immediately drawn in, however, by the fact that the characters are all from working class families, most are people of color, and many come from immigrant families. Since this happens in queer teen novels basically never, I decided to reserve judgement for awhile—and I’m glad I did!
I loved Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks & Other Outlaws! The alternatives it gives are dangerous and subversive. Bornstein talks unapologetically about gender, sex, religion, desire, bullying, oppression, breaking rules, running away from home, sex work and other tough and sometimes taboo subjects. She talks about these things in a way that is intentionally accessible to all types of people, but clearly intended for queer teens. Who talks about stuff like sex work or BDSM or Satan worshiping to teens? Kate Bornstein does. She offers some more conventional suggestions, like calling a suicide hotline or taking a deep breath or making long-term plans too, of course. But many of her suggestions are dangerous, unconventional and subversive. She only has one rule, which is that you are not allowed to be mean.
If you liked the “It Gets Better Project,” you should read this book. If you hated the “It Gets Better Project” you should probably read this book too.
In her creative, off the wall, gender outlaw way, Bornstein draws wisdom from a variety of world religions, including (but not limited to) Judaism, Buddhism, Wicca, Christianity, 12 Step Programs and Scientology (yep), which is rad because I always hate the way queer culture tends to respond to the bad things that religion does to us by trashing religion. Even as someone who is not the slightest bit religious, I always feel let down when I hear queer people trash-talking any type of religion—not only does it mirror the ignorance of our oppressors and lump a lot of bad stuff into the same category as good stuff, but it alienates queers and allies who could be rad members of our communities. But Bornstein borrows the good from various world religions and cultures and leaves the bad, while urging readers to do the same.
Luna, by Julie Anne Peters, is a story about a codependent relationship between two sisters, one of whom, Regan, has been trusted to keep a major secret for the other, Luna. That secret happens to be that Luna, a senior in high school, is a trans woman on the verge of making the decision to transition. It struck me early on that Luna’s trans status could have easily been swapped out for basically any other secret of similar magnitude and the story would have read the same.
While I’m a huge advocate of incidentally trans characters in teen literature (or any literature for that matter), I was still a little bothered by this story.
When Luna was published in 2004, it was one of the first—if not the first—Young Adult novels featuring a trans character. Julie Anne Peters is an author who writes primarily YA novels with LGBTQ characters and families and I have no doubt that Luna was meant as a nod to her young trans readers. While I commend her for blazing a trail and likely fighting for this story with her publishers, I didn’t really relate to Luna all that much and as far as representations of trans teens, it kind of failed for me.
A few months ago, I was observing a librarian at the teen reference desk (I’m in library school, so it’s not like I was just standing there being creepy), when I got my dream reference question. A kid walked up, kinda nervous, looked at the librarian, looked at me and said,
“Can you help me find this book, I mean, it’s not in this section but I think you have it.”
“It’s called, Just Add Hormones.”
I’d heard of that book and knew enough to know this kid was searching for information about trans stuff.
The librarian looked it up, but it was checked out. I wanted to spring to action, offer to show the teen the section where it would be found only after slipping the perfect teen book into their hand—without missing a beat—and say something subtle like, “you’ll love this, it’s one of my favorites,” something to indicate that I was a safe adult who knew about trans stuff without calling attention to this teen or their reference question.
Liza Minnelli is humiliating. She humiliates. She endures.
In his new book on the subject, Wayne Koestenbaum uses dear Liza in an ongoing meditation to explore humiliation. We see Minnelli as abusing wife, victim of fame, and witness to Michael Jackson. But of course Minnelli’s humiliation began at birth,
Imagine … being Judy’s daughter, and imagine our humiliation , as we watch Liza and imagine ourselves to be the third generation of foot bound stars. As we watch her sing New York New York again and again (even as we cheer, even as we shiver with uncanny pleasure), Liza passes on to us the bodily message of what it means to be a star. It might mean grandeur and money and luxury and ease, but it might also mean showing your buttocks to the Santa Barbara County sheriff and then going on TV to tell the world about the experience [referring to the Michael Jackson child molestation case].
Koestenbaum includes us, the queer reader, bringing up the shudder of kinship, the flinch of recognition. He illustrates not only can humiliation be passed down through blood lines, it can inherited through intergenerational chosen families, transmitted through art. Any friend of Dorthy is a sibling in humiliation.