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D.C. couple’s new book is spin-off of popular LGBT Instagram page

Project took on a life of its own since launching two-and-a-half years ago

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Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Matthew Riemer is shocked how many people think the Stonewall Riots were the beginning of the LGBT liberation movement. 

“We are teaching kids from the get-go that their history started in 1969. It’s ridiculous,” Riemer says. “As queer people, we’re this group who have been denied our history.”

He and his partner Leighton Brown, both attorneys and Washington residents, run the popular @lgbt_history Instagram account and are now coming out with a book on the history of LGBT activism. “We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation” (Ten Speed Press) will be released on Tuesday, May 7 and its two authors sat down with the Blade for an interview. They’ll be at Solid State Books (600 H St., N.E.) on Wednesday, May 8. It’s free and starts at 7 p.m.

The men created the account as a personal project after realizing they didn’t know much about their own history themselves.

Riemer does the text-based research and Brown finds photos for the account.

“We were just on a personal quest to learn, and we had gotten a little bit obsessive about it,” Brown says.

“A little bit obsessive” probably doesn’t do justice to the account or the research the two men have conducted.

Brown and Riemer first posted on Jan. 17, 2016. Just over three years later, they have nearly 5,000 posts and about 380,000 followers.

Each post is an image of an event in LGBT history or simply a historical photograph of LGBT people. These photos are accompanied by anywhere from a few lines to multiple paragraphs of descriptive text. 

Recent posts include a picture of the “How Gay is Gay” cover from TIME in 1979. Under it is a description of the article, which discussed the rise of gays and lesbians choosing to live openly.

Another features an image of trans activist Marsha P. Johnson in Hoboken, N.J., on Easter Sunday. 

Both men say the account has seen gradual growth to where it is today.

“It’s been just steady progress,” Brown says, while also noting that Laverne Cox regrammed a couple of their photos in the early stages. 

Riemer wants to emphasize that the account is more than just another social media page. It’s become a well-research archive for LGBT history.

“We hope we are taken seriously and we believe we deserve to be taken seriously,” Riemer says. “We don’t write anything that can’t be backed up with primary, or at least secondary, sources.”

They cite those sources, too. 

“We’ve been very serious about crediting and, when it’s possible, tagging photographers, archivists and activists or whoever is in the picture,” Riemer says. 

Brown and Riemer love the platform Instagram provides them. But they also realize it comes with restrictions.

“The account is limiting not only in that it’s 2,200 characters but also in that queer history is really all connected,” Riemer says. “We weren’t able to show that on the account. There’s no hyperlinking. We don’t know if people are reading the captions. And we don’t know when people started following.”

That’s how the idea of a book emerged. “We Are Everywhere” comes out in a few days, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

But its content stretches back long before Stonewall and details LGBT history up until the early 2000s in a near-chronological manner. Chapters include large glossy images, curated by Brown, and accompanying narrative, written by Riemer. 

And it doesn’t focus on the events one might expect to see.

“You don’t read that much about gays in the military or gay marriage,” Riemer says of the book. “We want to talk about queer history, our history, not our story of how we related to the straight people.”

Reimer remembers that when he first came out as gay, he “tried to be the straight-gay.” “A lot of us did that and still do, especially gay, cis white men,” he says. 

His research into LGBT history changed his mind on how he had to act and who he had to be. 

“We don’t fit into the broader society,” Brown says. “And that’s great,” Riemer chimes in.

“The book isn’t just about a few moments where we have had some clear advancement with respect to the larger society,” Brown says. “It’s about all the good and bad that got us to that advancement and the setbacks in between.”

And it took hours of archival research to put the book together. Riemer left his job as an attorney to work on the book full time when he and Brown signed the deal with Ten Speed Press.

He started writing the text over a year ago and visited more than 10 archives across the country as well as a bunch more online to weave the book together.

“We just wanted to get it right, and it’s been absolutely exhausting,” Riemer says.

The book has already received praise from giants within the LGBT community. 

Anderson Cooper, who also follows the @LGBT_History Instagram account, wrote: “Our history hasn’t been taught in schools; it’s been passed from person to person, whispered through the ages, often in the dark of night between lovers. But whisper no more. Here we are, in these pages — our pride and power, our blood and tears, our love and laughter. This is our fight, our history, and we must learn it.”

Now that the book is finished and its release is around the corner, Riemer and Brown are focusing on promoting it. They have events at college campuses across the country and in June, they’re slated to speak at the LGBT Center in New York.

“We Are Everywhere,” the two men hope, brings to life the stories of the radicals of the LGBT liberation movement.

“What we’ve found is it’s always been the craziest, the most outlandish, the loudest — the ones who the mainstreamers say, ‘We’re not all like that’ — those were the ones who create the space for the rest of us,” Riemer says.

Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)


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Books

New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list

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(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

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

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Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

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

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

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

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