Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color

Society itself has come a long way with the representation of queer peoples in the everyday culture, but there are still a few gaps. Last year, the Lambda Literary Foundation recognized these missing narratives and created Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. Their mission is to “nurture, celebrate, and preserve diversity within the queer poetry community.” They celebrate the multiple voices and experiences within the community, while keeping the content specific enough that it can be a safe space. They emphasize that this journal is not a place for any type of prejudice, oppressive language, or fetishization of the lives of queer people of color. It invites the reader to contact them if they ever feel discriminated against by the language used. Along with the literary journal, this past summer they also put on a reading series where some of the Nepantla poets visited various US cities to share some of their poetry aloud.

In Joseph Epstein’s Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity, he makes it very clear that he is not a fan of the queer community. He throws around words such as cursed and appalling, as well as claims there is nothing that would make him sadder than if one of his son’s came out to be gay. He states, “If I has the power to do so I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, I would do so because I think that it bring infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it.” I selected three poems from the first two issues of Nepantla that I see as responses to the previous statement.

Danez Smith’s On Grace speaks on the beauty of the black, male body. He uses metaphor to compare their physique to religious concepts, such as gospels and miracles,
and their sex to Danez Smithworship. He loves both his blackness and his queerness to the point where he calls out God’s name. Considering that to religious peoples God is perfect and all that is good, the comparisons used in this poem make it pretty clear that Smith does not believe queerness causes widespread pain and anguish, but that it is beautiful and something to be praised.

Mariah L. Richardson’s Butter Cream is more abstract when it comes to describing the love of queerness. In this poem she is speaking on one specific partner, rather than a group of people. In the first stanza she describes her as “soft cake / butter sweet / and light,” and what is more pleasurable than cake? I would argue nothing. She uses various beautiful, intricate language to emphasize the pleasantness of their surroundings, which can also be read as the pleasantness of their intimacy. “Bouquets of / myrrh sandalwood / wafts and billows”, “faux ming vase / bursting of cattails / and pussy willow / tease in the corner”, “the big, big bed / royal purple / gold sheets / satin raw silk /  gregorian chants / whisper lusty devotions”. The most obvious depiction of pleasure is in the last stanzs: “I hear the color red.” Their sex is so wonderful that it is making the impossible Danez Smithpossible. Once again, I do not see any form of pain.

The third poem I selected is by far the simplest of the three. Nashon Cook’s Imagine explains what an orgasm feels like for him. While this does not comment on queerness specifically, given the nature of the literary journal we know that he is a member of the queer community. Once again there are references to churches and preachers as to show the purity of intimacy. The feelings he describes in this poem most definitely can be seen as powerful, but none painful.

Many of the pieces we have covered in this class are fairly old and clinical; while I do think it is important to know the history and theory, there is a need for more contemporary representations of queerness, especially regarding QPOC. In the 16th century when the Spanish were colonizing Aztec land, the indigenous people described their experience and culture as nepantla, a state of in between. In between two identities, two cultures. In between the person you are and the person you wish to be. Nepantla celebrates the in between, and I think we should too.

Alone (Maya Angelou)

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Maya Angelou is a poet and also a Grammy honored author known for her famous novel titled ” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. A book that goes into discussing Angelou’s life from when she was younger up until she was about 17 years old. For those of you who may not already know, Angelou is also a civil rights activist. Maya Angelou became a writer and poet only after failing at a number of other jobs such as, Prostitution, nightclub dancer, and many other jobs. Maya is also known for her poetry. Some of which many people may know already like ” Phenomenal Woman” by the tone of the poem by saying “pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size. But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies. I say, It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally ,Phenomenal woman, That’s me”. which to me is basically saying just because she isn’t what most people consider beautiful doesn’t mean she isn’t attractive an unwanted. When she says. ” but when I start to tell them they think I’m telling lies it’s in the reach of my arms the span of my hips”. that alone shows that she doesn’t care what other people think or believe because she can prove them wrong.

Throughout many of Maya Angelou poems. You’ll go on to see that she uses a lot of imagery and metaphors. Angelou’s poems touches on her life, family, racism. The poem that I chose to discuss by Angelou is a poem called “Alone” which goes on to discuss how nobody should be alone which I feel relates to queer culture and an article by Adrienne Rich Titled Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. In this article Adrienne discusses how women dreams of being with other women has been crushed due to the fact that a lot feminist haven’t discussed it. But does that mean that women that like woman show be alone or just settle because it isn’t what society perceives as the normal no. I feel as though if your happy then that’s all that matters, because if your living trying to make other people happy an not yourself than you are alone. If your somewhere where you aren’t happy than you are alone. To be alone doesn’t mean to be by yourself. But to me it’s also a feeling that society has made a lot of people feel.

Real Man Adventures

Real Man Adventures, shown below, is a novel by a transgender man named T Cooper. It was published in 2012 making it a pretty recent book. This book is essentially a transgender memoir. Although the word memoir is never actually used to in the book, that’s basically what it is. Cooper talks about many different things throughout the novel ranging from sex to violence to transgender violence to when he “knew”.

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My favorite chapter in this book is called “A Few Words About Pronouns”. This chapter starts out with “what’s the first thing people ask when a woman is going to have a baby? Is it a boy or a girl?” Everybody cares about a baby’s sex and nothing more. The main concern of people is what’s in someone’s pants. The question second to that is, as T Cooper says, “is it healthy?”, but that isn’t the main concern. This links in to queer culture because as we all know sex does not necessarily correlate with gender. Within the chapter Cooper goes on to talk about how when he first started using male pronouns people would screw up, and he would be like no it’s okay, it’s probably hard for you. He then said “I stopped being so goddamn accommodating and started gently correcting people”. That’s a big deal. The point in which you stop letting people screw up because they don’t feel like getting it right is a big step. It is an uncomfortable thing but as he said “…you know what’s mildly uncomfortable? Not being seen for who you are, especially by people who are supposed to know and love you”.

This chapter of the book as well as the entire book relates back to our class very well. I think it connects very much with Susan Stryker’s transgender rage. The novel itself is all transgender rage filled. Throughout the book, Cooper words things in a somewhat bitter and cynical way with a hint of some “dark” humor. In the chapter I spoke about, when he wrote “…you know what’s mildly uncomfortable? Not being seen for who you are, especially by people who are supposed to know and love you”, I believe it channeled the anger and bitterness of how he felt when people screwed his pronouns up without really trying. I personally understand that feeling of anger and bitterness about things like that. It’s easily equated with Stryker’s description of transgender rage.

Lesbian Love and Sex in Afterglow

Afterglow: More stories of lesbian desire, sequel to Bushfire: Stories of lesbian desire, is a collection of seventeen stories edited by Karen Barber. The stories offer much diversity, covering love and sex that is long distance, unconventional, for pay, for life, or simply in the moment spontaneity. The stories take the reader all over the country, even as far as Hawaii, and span lifetimes, all the way from tales of teenage awakenings to end-of-life memories. While the stories do generally focus on sex and passion, the stories are about more than that. The stories express the search for lesbian community, history, and belonging. As works of fiction, the stories are real and raw, without relying on characters who are confused or ashamed of being lesbians.

The stories touch on these themes in many ways; where one story might only allude to something, another spans the gap. Starting in the first story in the collection, titled “What is the goal & how will we know when we get there?”, issues of belonging, closure, and certainty (or uncertainty) start to be asked and answered. In this particular story, conflict arises when two women’s life circumstances – living in different states, having families and jobs – generate doubt that any type of long-term relationship is possible, and the story ends with only a slight sense of closure. Two other stories, “Carol’s garden” and “Streak of blue” deal with uncertainty, but here they end in comfort and possibility. All three of these stories represent the struggles of life, and it is important that they come from different angles. Variety is abundant in this collection, and many sides of lesbian existence are shown, even ones that are rarely acknowledged such as prostitution and female masturbation.

Surprisingly, history and legend also factor into a number of stories. The search for history is most notable in “Gardenias,” in which two young lesbians vacationing in Hawaii discover, with the help of an old lady named Eva, the belongings of a performer known as the great Wah Ta Ta. The great Wah Ta Ta was a remarkable woman who, as legend goes, was able to suck whole beer bottles into her vagina. Eva shows the two women some of the items she performed with, such as the emperor’s teacup and ivory and leather dildos. The two women end up using some of her items to have sex while Eva watches from afar. This account is reminiscent of Cheryl Dunye’s quest to find the Watermelon Woman since most of Dunye’s research is gathered from talking to other women and by finding historical artifacts. In both cases, fact and fiction are likely mixed, but the importance of the Watermelon Woman and the great Wah Ta Ta rests on the search for history and identity rather than truth. History and the handing down of knowledge is also important in another story, aptly named “Cunt cult.” Here, a community of lesbians exist to pass their knowledge of love-making down to younger lesbians. Initiation into the cunt cult community means acceptance into the community, but members are expected to spread knowledge rather than keep it amongst themselves.

Of course, “Cunt cult” isn’t the only story centered on sex; to some extent, all of these stories are. Despite this, even the smuttiest ones serve a purpose. None of them feel like filler stories, even though many are very pornograpic. This does not mean that they lack substance; in fact, the focus on pleasure is important because it is a portrayal of lesbian pleasure authored by lesbians for lesbians. “Siesta” and “Telefon” are two good examples of how pleasure is used not only to satisfy the reader but also to emphasize the joys of giving and receiving pleasure. “Siesta” is perhaps the closest to “classic” porn on levels of fantasy and submissiveness, but the narrator is still able to assert the importance of her own pleasure. On the other side, “Telefon” is about the joy of giving rather than receiving pleasure. Additionally, three stories in this collection are stories of sex on the job, titled “Cinema scope,” “Filth,” and “A working dyke’s dream.”

This emphasis on pleasure becomes an emphasis on sharing throughout the entire collection, whether it’s sharing of sex, love, knowledge, history, community, or a sense of belonging. So instead of watching the newest lesbian tragedy on Netflix, check out these and other stories in Afterglow, written by lesbians for lesbians.

Tomboy

Tomboy is a graphic novel authored by Liz Prince, and published in 2015. It humorously, and very simply, illustrates the many struggles gender-nonconforming females experience growing up. While specific to Prince’s own life, it is a fantastic representation of youth (and typical youth struggles – parents/family, developing friendships, romantic attraction, ideas surrounding sex) intertwined with the struggles of being a masculine presenting girl/young woman in a culture that is largely unaccepting of this type (“tomboys”).

The novel opens with a scene of four year old Liz Prince in emotional disarray from the thought of having to wear a dress that her grandmother bought for her and ends with a humorous layout of her preferred display of masculinity. As she explains the recurrent theme of her own masculinity throughout childhood and young teenage years, along with the resulting emotional turmoil she experienced because of bullying and the general lack of acceptance from her peers, she continually breaks down her own evolving gender display with humorous commentary.

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A particular struggle for Liz Prince was trying to date boys. A boy she admired and fell for was a boy every girl in her school dreamed of dating; he was a school heart-throb. She was not the typical feminine presenting girl – she presented as more masculine, wore men’s clothes – and he rejected her because of it. This seemed to contribute to her struggle of general acceptance, understanding, and good-feelings of herself.

In An Introduction to Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam asserts that displays/modes of female masculinity are perceived to be the rejected scraps of heroic and legitimate masculinity, in order to make legitimate masculinity legitimate – the right way to be masculine. It instead, according to Halberstam, is a window through which we can see how masculinity is constructed. When Liz Prince began realizing that she embodied a gender display that is not in line with traditional display for females (being feminine), she captures the emotion perfectly in a single page:

The second image on the page shows the pervasive idea that female masculinity does not equal legitimate masculinity because legitimate masculinity can be found only in males and this is the only way to have a legitimate masculine identity. In the first image, female masculinity also means not being legitimately female (female = co-occuring femininity under this logic), and the last illustration shows utter confusion – a sort of, “what am I?” crisis. If not considered – looking through the lens of the binary – to be truly feminine or truly masculine, where does that leave the gender non-conforming female/woman? It leaves them with no legitimate identity. Judith Halberstam points out that tomboyism is harshly punished (including attempts to “reorient” the individual) and seen as a real problem only when it continues into adolescence and adulthood. As Liz Prince grows up, her continuing tomboyism is more harshly punished by peers, and I believe that the partial results of this punishment of the tomboy individual is the emotion that can be seen in the image above. To quote Judith Halberstam, “Female adolescence represents the crisis of coming of age as a girl in a male-dominated society.” Living within this male dominated society, it is possible to assert that whatever most legitimately masculine males perceive as attractive is the rule, and legitimately masculine males are not attracted to displays of masculinity – so not attracted to Liz Prince; I consider this to be one of the many forms of punishment. She felt this strongly and couldn’t seem to figure out why she was never fully accepted throughout her childhood and young teenage years.

I like Tomboy because it illustrates in pictures, as well as words, the struggles of gender non-conforming females, but with the comfort of humor. Thinking of my own childhood, teenage, and adult experience as a tomboy, I can relate strongly to the experiences of Liz Prince, which made this a very enjoyable read for me.

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-Towards the end of Tomboy, Liz Prince illustrates a time when she discovered the works of Ariel Schrag – another graphic novelist. I highly recommend reading Awkward and Definition, Potential, and Likewise if interested in a story about a masculine presenting woman’s struggle with discovering her sexuality throughout high school…and if you’re as enthralled with graphic novels as me.

Here is a pretty great illustration from Potential –

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan is a young adult novel released in April 2010. The novel surrounds two main characters, both with the same name, Will Grayson. The novel is different from many other novels we see today because it has two alternating points of view, both written by different authors.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson was the first ever LGBT novel to make The New York Times children’s best seller list.

Will Grayson , written by John Green, narrates the odd numbered chapters. All of his chapters are written in proper grammar and punctuation. However, will grayson, written by David Levithan, narrates the even numbered chapters. His words are all lowercase with no proper punctuation.

Will Grayson , who goes to a high school in Chicago, Illinois, tries to live his life without being noticed. His best friend is named Tiny Cooper, a very large homosexual boy. Will Grayson  is the only straight member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at his school. He lusts after a girl named Jane Turner who goes to his school.

will grayson, a homosexual high school boy from Naperville, Illinois, crushes on a boy named Isaac who he only knows from the internet. They communicate secretly through instant messaging online.

When will grayson  tries to set up a meeting with his online love, Isaac, the two boys accidentally meet at a porn shop and their lives intertwine.  Isaac turns out to be completely made up by one of will garyson’s female friends from school, Maura. Maura has always had a thing for will grayson, but he obviously never liked her in the same way. Acting as Isaac allowed her to get closer to him.

This was John Green and David Levithan’s first time writing a book with homosexual protagonists. A lot of readers questioned why the two authors decided to take this route.

On johngreenbooks.com, Green answers questions about the novel. Some of the more relevant and important ones to this course include:

“Q.  What was it like for you to write about gay characters and gay issues?
A. I didn’t think much about it, to be honest.”

This response really caught my attention, and it began to make me question whether John Green and David Levithan really knew what they were talking about at all when they wrote this book. Neither of them are homosexuals themselves, and probably do not have much experience with homosexual teenagers. Saying “I didn’t think much about it,” leaves me pretty disappointed in John Green as an author. He is one of my favorites, and I thought he would have gone beyond that.

It’s offensive and sad that he didn’t think much about it because there are so many teens out there today that do have very real issues that they deal with, and Green and Levithan didn’t even bother to do any kind of research.

“Q. Will Grayson seemed to have asexual qualities. Why wasn’t he?
A. He’s physically attracted to Jane from the very beginning of the book—or at least he drawn to describing her physicality more observantly than any of the other characters.
I certainly wouldn’t think it’s “too much” to have an asexual protagonist in one of my novels. I just wanted sexual love to be one of the kinds of love—but only one—that was celebrated in the book.
Thematically, I suppose this was important to me because I think both David and I wanted to normalize gay sexual encounters by equalizing them with straight sexual encounters.
But mostly I just saw Will’s reluctance to seek romantic entanglements as reflective not as asexuality but by his wrongheaded belief that pain is something avoidable/to be avoided.”

That, thankfully, is one thing they did accomplish in this novel. Although Will Grayson is completely straight, and to some, kind of asexual, he loves Tiny and doesn’t care that he is gay.

Merle Miller, author of “What It Means To Be a Homosexual,” states, “Nobody says, or at least I have never heard anyone say, ‘Some of my best friends are homosexual.’ People do say- I say- ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ without hesitation- and these words, no matter who is uttering them, are put- down words, in intent every bit as vicious as ‘kike’ or ‘nigger”” (1).

Will Grayson hangs around with Tiny and regards him as one of his best friends. He helps him through all of his troubles as he would any straight person. Words like ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ are not used throughout this novel. Tiny is also very proud to be gay, and he doesn’t hide it from anyone, as some homosexuals may.

Green even claims that having the two boys meet at a porn shop is an attempt to normalize heterosexual and homosexual engagement:

“Q. Why did the Will Graysons meet in a porn shop?
A. I guess I kind of wanted to force David’s hand here, because I really wanted to write a story that celebrated all different kinds of love, that talked about love between friends and between kids and parents, and that wasn’t just another love story in which the only kind of love was romantic.
And it seemed to me that part of our weird obsession with romantic love is a weird attraction/repulsion to our sexuality, which is inevitably going to be at play any time you write about young homosexual men and women, because there is still so much prejudice against them. (I knew I wanted to write about a friendship between a straight male and a gay male.)
So I thought it would be interesting and resonant to have these two guys have this aggressively unsexual and unromantic encounter in a place (a porn store) we associate so closely with sexuality.” 

When I personally think of a porn shop, I do very closely associate it with sexuality and even kinkiness. Having these two boys, both who do not have a lot of experience with sex in general, meet here, is kind of comedic.

Although the title is based off of the Will Graysons, Tiny Cooper becomes a very large part of the story, literally. Throughout the book, he is writing an autobiographical musical that surrounds his many past boyfriends. After both Graysons meet, will grayson gets in a relationship with Tiny. However, he ends it too soon due to his depression and lack of trust in others.

will grayson and Tiny Cooper reflect different types of stereotypes that society holds about homosexual men.

will grayson  is the goth, depressed, and angry gay teen who wants nothing to do with anyone. In the first line of his first chapter, he quotes, “i am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me” (Green and Levithan 22).  (Yes, it’s all lowercase. It makes me cringe, trust me.) Great first impression, right?

He’s rude to his mother, and he’s rude to pretty much everyone else around him, even people who he calls friends. The only person he truly adores is his online love, Isaac, who turns out to be completely fake.

He represents the whole ‘teen angst’ thing pretty well, rocking the whole goth look and acting like no one could possibly ever understand him. He hides the fact he is gay to everyone.

His chapters are written completely in lower case and with no proper punctuation besides periods between sentences. While it drove me crazy reading it, I don’t think it was done solely to help readers distinguish between the two boys.

Constantly throughout the novel, will talks about how he is not good enough and has nothing special about him. Writing in all lower case with no punctuation may very well be a reflection of these feelings. will feels like he is a lower case person who is not worthy of upper case letters, which usually start a sentence and indicate important words like nouns. Readers pay attention to upper case letters when reading. will feels that he isn’t worthy of anyone’s attention, hence why everything he says is written in lowercase.

Tiny, though also homosexual, is the complete opposite.

Tiny is loud and proud about who he is. He is flamboyant and very into musical theater, which is stereotypical of many gay men.

Green even addresses this on his website:

“Q. Tiny seemed to be almost a caricature of a stereotypical gay person. Did you do this on purpose?
A. I wanted Tiny to be entirely agnostic toward the stereotypes. I liked the idea that he really, deep down didn’t care if it happened to be “gay” to like musical theater. He just likes musical theater.
After all, he also doesn’t care that it’s “straight” to play football, and he’s the best player on his school’s football team. He just likes football…”

Though Green claims Tiny is “agnostic” towards the stereotypes, he still completely portrays and perpetuates them.

However, he does play football, which is not very typical of a gay man.

Lastly, when I originally read this novel, I was very hesitant to do so. I read all of John Green’s novels before this one, and I wasn’t too sure if I liked the idea of an unknown author taking up half of the book.

However, afterwards, I was so glad that I decided to give this book a chance. It’s now one of my favorites. In fiction today, especially YA, we rarely see books written with more than one author. Readers, including myself, worry that the novel won’t flow, and the characters won’t be able to fully develop or create a connection with the reader.

However, none of this was a problem in Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Both authors have extremely powerful and distinct voices, but they mixed well together. I was able to easily tell which boy I was reading about, and I also cared about them both equally even though they each had to share narration time.

Overall, this novel is unique for its time. It aims to normalize interaction between heterosexual and homosexual people, but at the same time, it perpetuates stereotypes of homosexual men.

Sub- Saharan African Culture and Homosexuality

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The book African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization by Neville Hoad, was created in 2007. Hoad is an associate professor for English and women’s studies at Columbia University. Some of his research interests are queer theory, psychoanalysis, and lesbian and gay studies. The book gives a history of sexuality in Africa.  The book goes through about 100 years of African history specifically dealing with colonialism, how “homosexuality” came about through change in African politics. He explains what sexuality is and how we can’t apply the terms that we use in our culture in the United Stated to Sub-Saharan African culture. Hoad, does an overview of time in Africa starting from the blossoming of a Christian nation in the late 19th century, into the current 21st century Africa views on sexuality.

The book discussed Africa in 1886 (before Christianity became their main religion) the last indigenous leader killed men for refusing to have sex with him. This indicates that men having sex with men was not viewed as a negative homosexual experience but instead as a masculine thing to do. If you fast forward to the 1990’s, leaders from Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia expressed how unnatural it is for anyone other than a man and a woman to get married. HIV had become an important reason for why homosexuality is looked down upon but they don’t acknowledge how HIV is mostly transferred through heterosexual contact in Sub-Saharan Africa. The book then begins to delve into what the term “homosexual” truly means. Hoad states that homosexuality is imaginary because he studied its discourse. This came about in their history and “homosexuality is a small and not obvious thread in this wider tapestry of space, desire, and identity. Race is the big one.” Sometimes it is seen as a negative thing where other times it is not.

This book relates to queer culture because it talks about how homosexuality can be viewed differently depending on the culture you are immersed in. Quoted in the book, (Will Roscoe and Stephen O. Murray) Murray and Roscoe argue that telling people to use caution when using the word homosexuality because that word doesn’t always fit into people’s practices.. In the 1980’s, when lesbian and gay studies became a field, there was a controversy over the idea of homosexuality being socially constructed. In America we tend to throw around the words “homosexual” and “gay” but fail to realize what amount of power that word has or does not have. In the case of Africa culture, before Christianity, men having sex with other men was not forbidden or looked at as odd. After Christianity appeared, rules came in place and relationships were viewed about differently. This is important because it points out how cultural change affected the outlook of the people within African communities. Christianity is that something that was projected onto a large group of people and it ultimately changed aspects of societal views on sexuality which once was not an issue.

In class we discussed Freudian and Foucault views on sexuality. Freud identified inverts as people that are lesbian or gay. He believed that inversion could be observed in childhood so it must be a result of unconscious drives common to all people. Foucault on the other hand did not like Freud at all and had views of his own about homosexuality. He believes that your sexuality becomes your identity through understanding who you are based off of a concept that was created by a medical, psychiatric discourse. This discourse is part of the colonial project, transforming Sub-Saharan Africa to a Christian nation. For example, a person identifies as gay or lesbian because we put a bunch of terms together that go under the category of the terms “gay” or “lesbian” and then we take the term and apply it to ourselves. Race is also participating in the same discursive system in Africa because race once did not matter but now it has come to the people’s consciousness partially due to this colonial project.

I believe that points made by Freud and Foucault can be comparable to the book. Freud believes that homosexuality is something in people’s unconscious and anyone is capable of it. This goes along with the idea that homosexuality is innate but it is only expressed through the culture we are in. If our environment is accepting of the behavior then it is acted upon and in Freud’s time period, homosexuality was viewed as disgust. Foucault offered a socially constructed view which the book also tried to make a point of since the term homosexuality only exists due to our society. Just as Hoad mentioned, we can’t use that term everywhere because it may lack meaning depending on the culture a person is in.

Boy Wonder- James Robert Baker

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James Robert Baker was a transgressional gay themed fiction writer and filmmaker. He was raised in a conservative family in southern California and explored his sexuality when in high school and realized he was gay. However, he was afraid to come out as his dad was abusive and conservative. He committed suicide at the age of 50. His interactions with his family and society can be seen in most of his novel and film, but most extensively in Boy Wonder, written in 1988. Baker is best known for his novel, “Tim and Pete”, “Adrenaline”- about two gay fugitives’ lovers. Baker has a very strong voice in gay literature both in the mainstream literary culture as well as the gay community itself.

Boy Wonder was set in Orange County, California about a boy, Gale Shark Trager and how he led his life due to his different way of viewing life and feeling confined by the norms and expectations of the society and how he broke free of the confined. Shark’s father Mac Trager, was a racist bully and his mother, Winnie Trager was a hypochondriac. In both cases, Paul and Shark’s father’s had a conservative mindset. He always had a hard time fitting into the society and adjusting to his school peers similar to the writer Baker. He became friends with his gay neighbor, Kenny Roberts and fell in love with a blonde teen, Kathy Petro. Obsessed with Kathy he filmed her masturbating and while he went to develop the film, Kathy’s father pressed charges against him and Mac learns how perverted Shark was. Mac took Shark for a VD “drip check” and Shark accused Mac of being a homosexual. This can be related to “Paul’s Case” by Cather, where Paul had a hard time adjusting to his school where everyone bullied him. Later Shark moved out of his house and moved with his friend. Throughout his life he randomly hooked up with all kinds of people in his life to make movies and moved from place to place and never settled with anyone. Shark threw out Kathy (who was his girlfriend at that time) out of the car after a fight, the cops shot him afterwards. Even though there are queer people throughout the century, very few people have the strength to come out of the closet and most people either commit suicide or do something stupid that end up destroying their career or sometimes their life. Eventually Shark moved to a bigger city in Los Angeles where he attended UCLA, this can be related to Paul’s moving to New York. This represents that bigger cities have more opportunities and are more open towards LGBT people. He never got any support from his family or peers as he never fit in the traditional norms of society. Both the writer and the character, Shark suffered mental disturbance through their life.

Baker’s suicide can be related to Paul’s suicide for being gay. Even though Paul killed himself for being gay and afraid of the society, Baker’s suicide can be related somewhat for the same reason. Baker killed himself because several critics called his novel “Tim and Pete”-“The Last Angry Man”. He faced difficulty maintaining his financial position and publishing his last novel “Right Wing” primarily for its advocacy of political assassination in combating AIDS discrimination after the AIDS pandemic began to take a huge turn in the gay community.

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Slam Poetry, Walt Whitman, and the LGBTQ+ Community

Slam poetry first arose in the 1980’s in small cafes in big cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Its creator is believed to be Chicago construction worker and poet Marc Smith (known as Slam papi) who started a poetry reading series in a Chicago jazz club looking for a way to refresh the open mic poetry scene and let off steam. The purpose of slam poetry was originally to discuss social and political issues that aggravated the performer; it was a way to release aggression and address those who exasperated the performer. Today slam poetry has become a means of self-expression and emotional ventilation for the majority of the population especially the LGBTQ+ community worldwide.

As slam poetry has been historically tied to proclamation of social and political wrong doings, it has become one of the leading forms of emotional outlet for the LGBTQ+ community.  The current slam poetry scene has seen many breakout LGBTQ+ poets such as Elliot Darrow, Karen Grace, Denice Frohman, and Steven Boyle. The content of their poetry becomes very impactful as it is obvious that the words they are saying have come from personal experience and from a place of fear, or anger, or sadness that lies somewhere within them. The topics they discuss in their poetry covers a very wide spectrum. In Elliot Darrow’s God is Gay and Karen Grace’s Push: A Holy Thursday religion becomes a starting point of emotional turmoil in their rage filled free verse. Others such as Denice Frohman’s Dear Straight People angrily calls for justice and acceptance for the gay community from straight people; while Steven Boyle’s Modern Meltdown (I Hit Send) discusses the stresses that come with finding love in the gay community. All of these are  examples of how the LGBTQ+ community has found solace in slam poetry.

Walt_Whitman_by_Mathew_Brady

 

Slam poetry as a whole can be related to the works of Walt Whitman. As one of the pioneers of free verse poetry, Walt Whitman did the same thing that Marc Smith did. Tired of the classical structure of poetry (rhyming, classical rhyme scheme, etc.) he created poetry that did not require rhyme but still carried a rhythm. In his collection of works Leaves of Grass many of his pieces are seen as homoerotic, specifically his most popular piece In Paths Untrodden. With lines such as “From all the standards hitherto publish’d, from the pleasures, profits, conformities; Which too long I was offering to feed my soul; Clear to me now standards not yet publish’d, clear to me that my soul; That the soul of the man I speak for rejoices in comrades…” Here Whitman is saying that he has been pushing away from the life he knows he wants and finds solace in the presence of homosexuality within himself and his comrades. This poem was viewed as his coming out poem by the majority of the population and also broke boundaries with its lack of rhyme and rhyme scheme just like the origins of slam poetry.

Randy Shilts: And the Band Played On

“By October 2, 1985, the morning Rock Hudson died, the word was familiar to almost every household in the Western world.

AIDS.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome had seemed a comfortably distant threat to most of those who had heard of it before, the misfortune of people who fit into rather distinct classes of outcasts and social pariahs.”

Randy Shilts graduated an openly gay man from the University of Oregon in 1975. In 1981 he was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was also in this year that AIDS was becoming more prominent in the US. Committing himself to the disease he wrote on it years before he decided to write a book about it in 1983. The book was published in 1987 and Shilts died from complications of AIDS in 1994.

Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On is one of Shilts’ major works. Over the course of his journalism career he published 3 books. In 1982 he published The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. The biography of Milk was published about 4 years after Milk was assassinated with Mayor George Moscone by Dan White. White was about to finish his four year sentence for the murders when the book was published. His final book Conduct Unbecoming was about discrimination of gays and lesbians from the military. It was published in 1993 and he had performed thousands of interviews for the book. He dictated the final chapter from a hospital bed.

And the Band Played On stands out as an extensive and critical view of the AIDS crisis, covering all aspects of the disease, beginning with Danish doctor Grethe Rask in 1976 dying of Pneumocystis carinii in her lungs, and concluding with the death of AIDS activist Bill Kraus in January of 1986, when the amount of infected from AIDS in the US had reached over 30,000.

The work also stands out as a critique of the inaction during the crisis. Reagan first held a conference on the disease in May of 1987 and before that had not spoken the word AIDS at all. Several of his staff had consistently listed AIDS as a top priority for the administration, but in reality there were cuts to the funding given to AIDS over the years. On its budget of billions, the National Institute of Health gave only a few million each year to the disease. This was at a time when requests for AIDS research were reaching upwards of 55 million dollars. Shilts is frank in his critiques of the government and its apathy and inaction towards AIDS, and he points out homophobia as a primary cause of the apathy. It certainly seems to be the case, as certain incidents like Legionnaire’s Disease brought about quick action. It was estimated that $34,841 was spent for every death brought by that disease, yet only $3,225 was spent for every death of AIDS by the NIH in 1981.

Shilts also calls out the gay community in its inaction to prevent the disease. It was recommended early on that gay men should refrain from sex until the disease was better understood, but refraining from sex caught many as an anti-gay act. Some argued that telling gay men to stop having sex at a time when they were just starting to feel good about themselves would have dire consequences for the gay community. There was also the matter of the bathhouses, which Shilts advocated to shut down, despite harsh resistance against such an action in the gay community. Shilts noted that what little that was achieved in the bathhouses was small signs in corners warning about AIDS and condoms that were provided to those who asked. Nobody did. Shilts was harshly critiqued for his stance at the time.

New York activist Larry Kramer, who was part of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and was featured heavily in And the Band Played On

And why was the public so seemingly disinterested in the crisis? Perhaps their opinion closely mirrored that of Epstein. Gays were something one could tolerate, but only at a distance. Epstein believed that gays were akin to pedophiles and at best perverts. With this mindset one could understand a public sentiment that would allow the deaths to continue to occur. And perhaps this was a just end for the gay community. Because, after all, Epstein would wish away gays if he could. There was simply too much pain for them in this world. If only Epstein could wish them away then perhaps the AIDS crisis in the US would not have occurred. At this time in the US such thoughts were still prevalent, and notable in actions, or inactions could be the product of this. Like the mayor of New York Ed Koch and President Reagan, who both seemed to avoid AIDS at all costs.

And the Band Played On stands out as an essential text for understanding the people and the politics of the AIDS crisis. And even though it is a book full of answers one is left with even more questions after finishing. Perhaps the most prominent being “Why did it seem like nobody cared?” To Shilts and activists like Larry Kramer, the answer was clear: because those suffering were gay.