Finally Out by Dr. Loren A. Olson

October 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm (ARC, book review, books, memoir, nonfiction, psychology, queer interest, queer studies, reading)

With Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, Dr. Loren Olson delivers an all-in-one memoir, psychology, and self-help text about coming out of the closet in later life. Through discussion of key psychological concepts and personal stories Olson, who came out at forty, explains why the coming out process can be delayed for some men, and in doing so attempts to submarine the misconception that gay men who marry women and raise families are only using their wives and children to hide their sexuality. From deeply held religious beliefs and traditional gender norms to social expectations and fear of rejection Olson examines the numerous factors that contribute to the denial and repression of sexual identity. He also discusses the challenges unique to this particular demographic such as helping children understand and cope with their father’s sexuality, and reconciling the desire for a traditional family dynamic in a country that, by and large, does not allow gay couples the benefits of marriage.

Though it is good to see this largely ignored aspect of the gay experience given a thorough examination, Finally Out tries to be so many things at once that the text never really coalesces into cohesive narrative. The history lessons, psychological concepts, personal stories and advice contained in each chapter do not feel like parts of a larger whole, but a jumble of ideas thrown together at random. Transitions from one paragraph to the next are abrupt. When using personal stories to illustrate psychological concepts Olson often fails to explain exactly how the story relates to the concept or the overarching theme of the chapter. For example, in chapter four which focuses largely on the coming out process, Olson writes about the dissolution of his marriage. Though, yes, the break-up of Olson’s marriage certainly played a key role in his coming out process he does not actually write about how it did. He goes into detail about how and when everything went sour, and theorizes about how his wife and children felt during the divorce, but he does not frame the story within a context of coming out and that left me wondering why he chose to include this story in this particular chapter. This disconnect occurs throughout the book whenever Olson introduces a personal anecdote, and it made me feel like I was reading two separate and distinct books, not a unified text.

Finally Out contains a lot of useful information, but it is trying to do too much. Olson should have written a psychology book or a memoir, not both at the same time.

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Transparent by Cris Beam

April 4, 2007 at 8:23 pm (cultural studies, education, memoir, nonfiction, parenting, queer interest, queer studies, sociology)

Though we often think of sexual orientation as being all about the type of people we are attracted to, who we are in relation to the people we are attracted to is just as important. Not everyone who is attracted to women is a Lesbian, only women who are attracted to other women exclusively. In order to define our sexuality in a socially understood way first we must possess a stable gender identity.

The process of identity building that takes place during the teenage years is hard for everyone and twice as difficult for individuals coming into a socially unacceptable sexual identity. But the struggle to build identity is harder still when a teen figures out he or she is actually a different gender than the one they were brought up as.

In Transparent, journalist Cris Beam tells the stories of Transparent by Cris Beamseveral male to female transgendered and transsexual teens living on the streets of Los Angeles. The book is divided into two parts, each written in a slightly different tone. The first part is pure social science. Beam explains how she came up with the idea of writing the book while teaching at Eagles, a high school for gay and trans kids. She follows the lives of some of her favorite students, each chapter focusing on a particular aspect of their lives: school, family, body image, and love. Part two turns into a memoir when Beam and her girlfriend agree to become the legal guardians of one of her former students from Eagles. She explores the many unique challenges presented to parents of trans teenagers.

This was another one of those awesome books that made me feel as though my brain were physically expanding as I read. One aspect of trans life that Beam highlights throughout the book is the astounding amount of sexism and trans-phobia her subjects deal with not just from friends and strangers, but from public institutions like schools, hospitals, and courts. She notes there are currently no laws protecting trans workers leaving them vulnerable to discriminatory hiring and firing practices, not to mention on the job harassment, sexual and otherwise. One woman tells of being forced to use the bathroom on a floor of her office building that was being remodelled when the men and women she worked with told management they were uncomfortable with a trans woman using either the men’s or women’s bathrooms on the populated floors.

When one of Beam’s former students, Domenique, is incarcerated she looks at the many ways the penal system short changes trans folk. Transgendered individuals are housed according to genitalia and male to female transsexuals placed in all male wards are often harassed and assaulted.  Domenique is housed in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a unit for inmates who require special protection. But even there she isn’t safe, reporting instances of harassment by other inmates as well as guards. She fears for her safety so much that she avoids socializing or engaging in any recreational activities. The only way to protect herself is to stay isolated. Domenique’s story depicts a truth that Beam highlights early on, that the system simply hasn’t been set up to deal with people whose gender identity falls outside the binary.

Beam is a deft storyteller who effortlessly weaves queer and gender theory, history, and sociology into her personal recollections. The memoir aspect is what gives the narrative real bite. Without it the book would be purely informative, providing statistics and ruminations on people and situations far removed from the reader’s safety zone. But by including her own trials and tribulations as the parent of a transgendered teenager she engages the reader through the ever relatable experience of motherhood. Beam’s daughter is a typical teenager in so many ways,  from her stubborness to her rebellious streak. But the normal butting of heads that occurs during those years is magnified by the unique challenges of trying to raise a healthy and happy trans child.

Transparent is a beautifully constructed introduction to the social and emotional hurdles of growing up trans in America. By exploring the world of ambiguities that exist between male and female, Beam highlights the one thing we all know but are often unable to accept, that we’re all human.

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Take This Bread by Sara Miles

February 28, 2007 at 7:34 pm (activism, memoir, nonfiction, queer interest, queer studies, religion/spirituality)

One Sunday, out lesbian, social activist, and life long atheist Sara Miles went for a walk in her neighborhood and ended up in a nearby Episcopal church taking communion for the first time in her life. Take This Bread is the story of Sara’s conversion to Christianity and how her faith inspired her to open several food pantries for the hungry in the San Francisco area.

Food and community are the two central themes Miles uses to frame the narrative. She Take This Bread by Sara Milesbegins by writing about her experience as a cook in the early eighties, and how the act of serving meals to others is so intimate; one that connects the chef to the customer by way of a shared reverence for the meal. She goes on to describe her years as a journalist in war ridden Central America, constantly hiding from vigilantes and running from gun fire. She recalls the strangers who housed and fed her all through those years, people whose generosity in the face of danger taught Sara about the power of community. When Sara finds herself taking communion she sees how food and community often intersect through the common denominator of hunger. Miles manages to sustain this frame throughout the book, marking each step of her journey to faith with incidents involving food and community. This is no small task. Not every author is capable of setting a frame and keeping it up throughout the story. Miles’ clarity of intention keeps the entire story firmly rooted.

Even though the book does not explicitly explore what it means to be both Christian and gay (for the most part Miles only mentions her sexuality in passing,) it is an underlying thread that runs through the narrative. Having come out early on in the story, the reader is very conscious of Miles’ sexuality as she becomes more involved in church activities. But the congregation and pantry volunteers often prove to be the very embodiment of Christian love and acceptance. When, persuaded by her teenage daughter, Miles and her long time partner decide to go to the court house and get married shortly after San Francisco starts offering civil marriages to gay couples, the following Sunday at church the entire congregation gathers to bless and affirm their partnership. Even after all the gay marriages performed in California are annuled a month later, thanks to the support of her church Miles knows that her union, regardless of legality, is blessed by God.

Though there were a couple things that bothered me about this book (Miles’ obsessive and often distacting overuse of colons and semicolons for one,) overall I found Take This Bread a highly satisfying read. It’s message of unity, compassion, and love is one all of us could benefit from absorbing.

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Unspeakable Love by Brian Whittaker

February 5, 2007 at 2:03 pm (cultural studies, middle eastern studies, nonfiction, queer studies, religion/spirituality, sociology)

unspeakable LoveWith Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Love in the Middle East Brian Whittaker has given us a highly readable and informative book devoted to an aspect of queer and middle eastern studies that is often ignored.

Whittaker explores the many ways nationality effects the formation of gay and lesbian identity and culture. One of the first things he points out is how similar the Arab-Islamist view of homosexuality is to that of Britain or America. In Arab nations, homosexuality is thought to be associated, and at times confused with, pedophilia, transvestitism, transsexualism, moral corruption, prostitution, devil worship, and treason. It is often described as a western illness that is passed from person to person like a virus, and can be cured through psychiatric care and treatments like electro-shock. At the same time it is also considered a choice, one brought to the Arab world through western imperialism. Along these lines, many believe same sex attraction does not occur naturally in Muslim nations, and is nothing but a corruption imported by the west.

All these assumptions add up to a life of fear, hiding, and isolation for queer people in the Middle East. Each chapter of Unspeakable Love tackles one aspect of queer life in the region. For example, chapter one explores how strong familial and social ties keep many men and women “in the closet” for fear of dishonoring their entire family. Chapter two looks at how gay people create community in a land where homosexual acts are illegal, through the throwing of private parties (often raided as gay clubs were once raided in the USA,) internet outreach, and by adorning specific clothing that serve to signal particular desires to those who know how to recognize them. Gays in the media and literature, in history, and in religion are also discussed at length.

One thing I was surprised to learn about was the quiet acceptance of same gender sexual relations between young women in some Arab nations. With so much of Arab social interaction segregated by gender it is not unusual for women, allowed no other outlet, to develop close sexual relationships with one other. Since the segregation is a way of policing heterosexuality, as long as a young woman’s sexual feelings are not aimed at an inappropriate man, I.E . a man other than her husband, Arab society does not find the behavior threatening. Given the obligatory nature of marriage in the Arab world, lesbian activities are viewed as a temporary substitute for hetero-sex, assuming her sexual desires will be transferred to her husband upon marrying. By no means is this universal across the Arab world. Lesbians often face as much persecution as gay males. But if you are gay and male you have a far better chance of being tortured, blackmailed, or executed for the transgression.

For all the information Whittaker manages to pack into Unspeakable Love‘s 224 pages, the book rarely drags. For each fact that is explored, Whittaker provides a person and a story to illustrate it. It keeps this research piece alive and popping.

Probably hardest of all, Whittaker manages to be optimistic in writing his conclusion, theorizing that in a global economy which requires extended exposure to new countries and cultures in order to maintain a buoyant national economy, Arab nations will be unable to prevent citizens from absorbing foreign attitudes, ways of life, and ideas of justice. His hope is that international campaigns for human rights will take up gay and lesbian rights as a cause, and fight for the liberation of all homosexuals who live in countries that persecute them.

I walked away from this work feeling as though my brain had physically expanded, and in my opinion, that’s the single best feeling you can have at the end of a book.

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