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Trans lives, startling photos

New York-based coffeetable book captures biographical shots

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On Christopher Street, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo courtesy Rizzoli)

‘On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories’ 
 
Photographs by Mark Seliger, foreword by Janet Mock
 
Rizzoli International Publications
 
$55
 
160 pages

Everybody, as they say, has a story to tell.

An ancestor was captured in an early war. Parents overcame adversity in a new country. A health scare, a welcome blessing, a lucky streak, a chance meeting, we all have our tales to share. And in “On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories,” photographs by Mark Seliger, you’ll read a few.

Where would you go if you just wanted to be yourself?

If you’re transgender and living in or near Manhattan, you’d go to Christopher Street in the West Village. There, you could find support, advice, community or family, if you needed it. Recently, you might have also run into photographer Seliger, who says in a brief statement that he noticed the “freedom of expression and gender identity” that was once abundant is “vanishing” from the area. High-end condos, cafes and restaurants are moving in and the trans community is being pushed aside; here, Seliger put a marker on it before it’s gone.

“I realize that everybody has a trans story, that being trans is something that affects all of us,” he says, using his camera as storyteller.

Being in prison as a trans woman, says one photo subject, is like being “caged.” You don’t belong with the men. They won’t put you in the women’s lock-down. Everybody knows what’s going on and sometimes, the guards have one more slap-down in store for you just before you’re released.

Many stories begin with “I was 4” or 5 or 8 when the teller realized that they were in the “wrong body.” Families were supportive or not, transitioning “is not easy,” and the decision for or against surgery is deeply personal but ultimately, it’s the “inner peace” that matters. Still, lying about being trans can backfire and even if nobody knows, there’s a “constant state of paranoia and fear” that may yet linger.

And then there’s the place itself: Christopher Street has “a dark side,” with drugs, prostitution and harassment. That means that for LGBT youth, which comprise 40 percent of the nation’s street kids, it isn’t always safe.

And so there I was, quietly reading “On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories,” when it suddenly ended. The surprise was not that it did so, but that I was so wrapped up in this book that I didn’t notice the last pages looming.

Yes, it’s that kind of thing, filled with photographical portraits that are worth the clichéd thousand words, and then some. Photographer Mark Seliger’s subjects seem mostly at ease in snapshots that feel random but natural; some people are identified, some are not, and not all of them weigh in verbally. Those who do tell tales that hit hard, in part because they leave readers with the sense that there’s more, but that it’s too difficult to speak.

This large-size, elegantly presented coffee table book is one you’ll return to again and again because what’s inside is so compelling. If it’s true what they say about everyone having a story, “On Christopher Street” is filled with good ones.

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A balanced look at whether to have children

New book, ‘So When are You Having Kids?’ makes no judgments

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(Book cover image courtesy of Macmillan)

So When are You Having Kids?
By Jordan Davidson
c.2022, Sounds True, Macmillan
$28.99/356 pages

Your mother lingers way too long in the children’s department.

She sighs over tiny suits and little sneakers, running her fingers along soft blankets, hugging plush animals. You know what she wants but you’re not ready; she might be sure but you’re not. Maybe baby for you or, with the new book “So When are You Having Kids?” by Jordan Davidson, maybe not.

It’s the thorniest of decisions, “one of the biggest you’ll ever make.” It’s personal, but even strangers want to know; the questions start in your 20s and end when you’ve acquiesced or aged, although having kids is not a given or a thing-by-committee. So how do you quiet the busybodies and make the right decision for yourself?

First, says Davidson, ask yourself if you even want children, and after you’ve looked inward, “it’s worth looking outward” at expectations, culture, and things that “shape our understanding of parenthood.” Ask around, to see why others had children but don’t be surprised if you get cliches. Throw out the idea that children fulfill you or that they’ll take care of you when you’re old. Know that genetics, religion, and your parents’ parenting styles will affect you; and that if you’re queer or Black, there’ll be other factors involved in having and raising a child.

Should you decide to the positive, you may still have reservations.

Don’t give in to the romance of having kids; it’s hard work, and expensive in both money and time. Remember that perceptions of good parenting have “shifted over time” and that having a childhood exactly like yours probably won’t be an option for your kids. If you have a partner, communicate your thoughts, hopes, and divisions of household labor and childcare.

Finally, decide how you’re going to become a parent. Will you give birth, choose IVF, adopt, foster, or kick the decision down the road?

Says Davidson, the mere ability to ask these questions and decide “is in many ways a privilege.”

Chances are that if you hear a screaming baby, you have one of two reactions: you cringe and look for an exit, or you notice and shrug. Either way, “So When are You Having Kids?” is a book for you.

There are many, many parenting books on miles of shelves, and a number of books on being childless, but author Jordan Davidson pulls the two subjects together here with thoughtfulness, candor, inclusiveness, and a refreshing lack of judgment. This is a book that doesn’t promise answers, though: it’s meant to give readers – whether they want kids, don’t, or are ambivalent – an in-one-place, balanced look at myths, truths, pros, cons, and rarely-considered points for an informed decision. It also, perhaps most importantly, offers comforting reminders that there is no right or wrong, no matter what Mom says.

“So When are You Having Kids?” is like having a big sister to bounce ideas with, or a break-out session in your living room. It’s like asking Baby Maybe questions you didn’t know you had. It’s help when you need it in that department.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

Hoover is a conflicted, flawed human in new biography

‘G-Man’ explores how he created an unrivaled personal fiefdom

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century’
By Beverly Gage
c.2022, Viking
$45/837 pages

“We’re sorry we can’t be in the front row to hiss — no kiss you,” two fans wrote in a telegram to Ethel Merman in the 1930s when they couldn’t make the opening of one of her shows.

The Merman friends were J. Edgar Hoover and his “right-hand man” Clyde Tolson.

“G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” by Yale historian Beverly Gage is the first biography of Hoover to appear in 30 years. Gage has done the unimaginable. She makes you want to read about J. Edgar Hoover. “G-Man” won’t make you wish you were one of Hoover’s BFFs. It’ll compel you to see Hoover, not as a villainous caricature, but as a conflicted, flawed human being.

“G-Man” is not only a fascinating bio of Hoover, who directed the FBI from 1924 until the day he died on May 2, 1972 at age 77. It’s a page-turning history of the United States in the 20th century.

Hoover, who played a key role in the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, hated and harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. and engaged in an anti-Communist crusade, has “emerged,” Gage writes, “as one of history’s great villains, perhaps the most universally reviled American political figure of the twentieth century.”

In “G-Man,” Gates, drawing on recently released files, tells the story of how Hoover came to power and used the tools of the “administrative state,” to, as Gage writes, “create a personal fiefdom unrivaled in U.S. history.”

But, Gage makes clear, it’s a misreading of American history to think that Hoover was a lone, evil rouge.

During his time as FBI director, Hoover had the support of eight presidents (four Democrats and four Republicans) and of Congress. Gage documents how much of the American public, for most of Hoover’s 48 years as FBI director, shared his racist, homophobic and rabidly anti-Communist views. 

Hoover, a life-long D.C. resident, “embodied conservative values ranging from anti-Communism to white supremacy to a crusading and politicized interpretation of Christianity,” Gage writes.

“Far from making him a public scourge,” she adds, “these two aspects of his life garnered him the admiration of millions of Americans, including many of the country’s leading politicians, for most of his career.”

Hoover never openly identified as gay. He sent FBI agents out to warn anyone gossiping that he was gay to stop spreading rumors. Once, Hoover learned a D.C. bakery employee  had said he’d “heard the director is a queer,’” Gage reports. Hoover dispatched FBI agents, Gage writes, “to threaten and intimidate him into silence.”

There’s no evidence of Hoover having sex with another man. A story (told in an earlier bio) of Hoover wearing a dress at a gathering lacks credibility, Gage says. Because the woman who told the anecdote had been arrested for perjury.

But, using sources that weren’t available to previous biographers, Gage argues persuasively that Hoover and Tolson were for decades what we would call, today, a same-sex couple.

Beginning in 1935, Hoover and Tolson plunged into a whirl of nightlife – going to nightclubs and hanging with celebrities, Gage reports. 

Hoover kept some things about his relationship with Tolson private, Gage writes, “yet what is most striking about their budding relationship is not its furtive quality but its openness, vitality, and broad social acceptance.”

Hoover and Tolson vacationed together yearly in Florida and California.

Officially, their friends and colleagues, said the couple was “too masculine” to be queer, Gage writes, “reflecting a mid-century view of male homosexuality as something for ‘sissies’ and outliers.”

But, “Everybody knew about J. Edgar Hoover,” Gage reports Ethel Merman recalled decades later of Hoover in the 1930s. “A lot of people have always been homosexual. To each his own.” 

Neither Tolson or Hoover married or thought about marrying a woman. When Hoover died, he left most of his estate to Tolson. We don’t know what they did in the bedroom, Gage says, but Hoover and Tolson behaved like spouses.

Unfortunately, Hoover’s feelings for Tolson didn’t stop him from playing a crucial part in the “lavender scare” or from having the FBI monitor the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society.

“G-Man” documents Hoover’s racism in sobering detail. Gates doesn’t downplay Hoover’s racism, role in the 1919 or 1950s red scare; lavender scare; or  harassment of Vietnam war protesters.

In “G-Man,” Gage helps us understand how Hoover’s views were formed: from his shame at having a mentally ill father to the “muscular, masculine” Christianity of his childhood to his life-long connection to Kappa Alpha, a racist George Washington University fraternity that believed in the “Lost Cause” of the South.

“G-Man”is an illuminating and engrossing read – with movie stars, history, gangsters and a humanized villain. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

New book ‘Mad Honey’ packed full of surprises

Teen relationships, family secrets explode in story you will savor

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(Book cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books)

‘Mad Honey’
By Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan
c.2022, Ballantine Books 
$29.99/464 pages

You’ve never been one to follow all the buzz.

Gossip is not very reliable anyhow, and you have better things to do than celebrity watch. This star does that, and that star’s embroiled in scandal, nobody has any privacy anymore. Nah, that ho-hum has never been your thing. As in the new novel “Mad Honey” by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, the hive is rarely right.

If you move slow enough and don’t make any sudden moves, honeybees are generally peaceful creatures. Olivia McAfee knows this, and that’s why she often visits her hives without a protective suit: she’s relatively sure she won’t get stung.

That’s not the case when it comes to her son, Asher. A senior in high school, her 18 year old can be prickly sometimes, and sometimes, stings are part of parenting a teenager. This, Liv knows, is one of those times: Asher’s in love, and it’s not going well.

Nineteen-year-old Lily Campanello arrived in town with her mother at the end of the summer and she and Asher have had a stormy relationship since they started going out. Liv hates to see Asher so upset, but she knows that love is complicated. She loved Asher’s father, despite that she spent too much time hiding the bruises she got from him.

Asher knew he’d messed up.

When he found Lily’s father, a man she hadn’t seen in years, he’d meant to surprise her but the surprise was on Asher: Lily was angry and she wouldn’t exactly say why. She just walked, almost ran, away and she wouldn’t talk about it. She wouldn’t even answer Asher’s texts and now he was getting angry. Should he worry about her, or just go to her house?

He chose the latter.

It was the middle of the night when the police came for him. They handcuffed Asher before they gave him his shoes, and hauled him away without a coat on a freezing night.

Olivia McAfee knows that mad honey is the result of bad foraging. It should be sweet, but it’s deadly. By the time you realize that, there’s no going back.

You know how your mind tries to figure out the ending of a book long before you’re even a third of the way there? Curiously, that doesn’t happen with “Mad Honey.” The story is too enjoyable not to savor and besides, you know what’s going to happen anyway, right?

Or not.

Nope, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan sneak a two-fer surprise inside this book: the first one explodes with the force of a beehive full of nitroglycerin. The second is that you’ll still be left feeling smug enough to think you know how this culminates. Or not, but still: more distractions, more mini-explosions unspool with the right frequency to keep you happily eager to see how wrong you were.

This is one of those novels that’s done before you’re ready for it, leaving you slack-jawed when you close the back cover. “Mad Honey” is pretty sweet. Read it, and you’ll bee very happy.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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