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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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Catching up with ‘Rainbow Milk’ author Paul Mendez

Widely praised novel began as memoir

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‘Rainbow Milk’ by Paul Mendez is being adapted into a TV series.

In 2004, Black, gay writer Paul Mendez, then 22, was in London, studying acting. To pay for the acting classes, he was a sex worker.

Today, Mendez, now 39, is one of the hottest authors on the literary scene. His debut novel “Rainbow Milk,” published in the United Kingdom last year and released this month in the United States, has received wide praise.

The BBC, the Observer and other U.K. outlets put “Rainbow Milk” on their best books of 2020 lists.

Recently, Mendez spoke with the Blade on FaceTime about a range of topics.

Mendez grew up in a working class family as a Jehovah’s Witness in Dudley, a town in an industrial region called the Black Country in the West Midlands, a county in central England.

His grandparents came to the U.K. from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation.

The term “Windrush generation” refers to people from Caribbean countries who emigrated to the U.K. between 1948 and 1971. They were encouraged to come to the United Kingdom because of labor shortages after World War II. Yet, they encountered racism and hostility to immigration when they arrived in the U.K.  

Because of his sexual orientation, Mendez was “disfellowshipped” by his Jehovah’s Witness family and church. 

Now, Mendez lives in London with his partner Alan Hollinghurst. Hollinghurst, a novelist, was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire, England in 1954. He was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his novel “The Line of Beauty.”

“Rainbow Milk” begins in the 1950s. Norman and Claudette, middle-class newlyweds in Jamaica emigrate to England. They’re part of the Windrush generation. They hope their future will be better in the U.K.  But, on arriving there, they encounter racism and have trouble finding suitable work. When Norman starts to lose his eyesight, the family’s survival is at risk. Norman narrates this part of the novel in the first person. 

The rest of “Rainbow Milk” takes place 50 years later. Here, we meet the protagonist of the novel: Jesse McCarthy, a young Black, gay British man. Jesse is Norman’s grandson.

Jesse’s mother is Black and his stepfather is white. He’s never known his father who left the family when he was a baby. He and his working-class family, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, live in the industrial region of the Black Country.

Nineteen-year-old Jesse is bright and a devout Jehovah’s Witness. He is considered to be a potential leader by members of the church. But Jesse begins to think he might be queer. He knows he needs to keep this a secret.

His attempt at secrecy fails. Jesse is disfellowshipped by Jehovah’s Witnesses after a church member outs him.

In 2002, Jesse escapes to London to create a life for himself as a queer, Black working-class man. Jesse becomes a sex worker to stay afloat and explores his sexuality. He reckons with race, class, sexuality, and spirituality in his search for self-discovery, freedom and the stability of a chosen family.

 “You’ve lost your center of gravity,” a friend says to Jesse, “so to survive, you’ll need to take steps to create another.”

In “Rainbow Milk,” Jesse evolves from a young man (not yet out of his teens) trying to navigate life in a strange city into an adult who’s a writer in a stable queer relationship.

There are some similarities between Jesse and Mendez. Both are Black, queer and were disfellowshipped by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re British with a Jamaican heritage, they both moved to London and became sex workers as well as writers.

“Rainbow Milk” is both “autobiographical and fictional,” Mendez said. Yet, though it has elements of autobiography, “It’s a work of fiction,” he said. “I’ve created unique scenes that I didn’t go through personally, but I went through, maybe, something similar, with other people.”

He created characters “with interiors,” Mendez added. One difference: Jesse moved to London at a different age and year (at 19 in 2002) than when Mendez moved to London (at age 22 in 2004).

Mendez researched what London was like then and created characters who didn’t share his story.

Jesse, for instance, has a white father. Mendez’s dad is Black and married to his mother.

“It became interesting for me to examine what it’s like to be raised as a Black person without any sense of [Black] heritage,” Mendez said.

It’s hard to answer the question of whether a novel is autobiographical, Mendez said.  Hollinghurst, for instance, went to boarding school, studied at Oxford, became an editor at a literary journal and then a novelist.

“That’s the kind of world, he writes about,” Mendez said, “but they’re not him.”

People should be able to tell the difference between a memoir and a work of fiction, he added.

“Rainbow Milk” began as a memoir but his publisher challenged Mendez. “She recognized that I wasn’t going all the way,” Mendez said, “I was protecting people. I was reticent when it came to discussing some of the most difficult moments that I’d been through.”

The novel began to flow when he switched to fiction and began writing in the third person. “I wasn’t reopening old wounds,” Mendez said.

Mendez has been a performing member of two theater companies and worked as a voice actor, appearing on audio books by Andrea Levy, Paul Theroux and Ben Okri. He narrates the audio version of “Rainbow Milk.” Mendez has contributed to “Esquire,” “Vogue” and other publications. He is studying for an M.A. in Black British Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Because he’s so busy, Mendez is taking a year off from his studies. He’s thinking about his second novel and working with a production company to adapt “Rainbow Milk” into a TV series.

Adapting “Rainbow Milk” for TV has been different for Mendez from working on “Rainbow Milk” first as a memoir, then as a novel.

“In picking apart ‘Rainbow Milk’ to construct 10 episodes,” Mendez said, “you do see where the narrative thread could have been worked out a little bit better.” 

“It will be wonderful to see a visual Jesse,” Mendez added.

“Rainbow Milk” came out in the U.K. soon after George Floyd was murdered. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, voices like his and other Black writers in the U.K. have been more sought after, Mendez said.

“It’s felt at times that I’m the name on everyone’s lips,” Mendez said. “We need a Black person. Let’s call Paul Mendez. We’ve heard of him.”

“I think only five books by five Black British men have been published over the last five years,” Mendez said.

There is hope that this will change. Mendez is a member of the Black Writers Guild, which was formed last June. “We’ve come together to hold the mainstream publishing industry to account,” he said.

The Guild wrote an open letter to the “big five” publishers in the U.K. calling upon the overwhelming white publishing industry to become more inclusive.

“They all vowed to work closely with me to help effect change,” Mendez said, “it’s what are we going to do in the long term to systematically include Black voices in the publishing industry?”

Books are the way to change people’s lives, he added.

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Books

Two new books celebrate Old Hollywood glory

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Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, who was gay, had a long, close friendship. (Photo courtesy Kensington)
‘Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship’
By Charles Casillo
c.2021, Kensington
$27.00/389 pages

‘The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock’
By Edward White
c.2021, W. W. Norton & Company
$28.95/379 pages

If you’re queer, especially if you’re of a certain age, old Hollywood is embedded in your DNA.

For those of us besotted by classic movies — there can never be too many books about Tinseltown.

Two new books — “Elizabeth and Monty” by Charles Casillo and “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” by Edward White — will satisfy your old Hollywood jones.

“Elizabeth and Monty” is the riveting story of the intimate friendship of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

Few people are loved more by the LGBTQ community than Elizabeth Taylor. Who will ever forget Taylor as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?”

Taylor raised millions for AIDS research long before any celeb or politico even said the word “AIDS.” People with AIDS weren’t objects of charity to Taylor. She had many queer friends and hung out at gay bars.

Montgomery Clift, who lived from 1920 to 1966, was a talented actor. Because of the time in which he lived, he had to be closeted about his sexuality. Because of the homophobia in the society and Hollywood then, the support of friends was crucial to Clift and other LGBTQ people of that era.

For much of his life, Clift had health problems that caused him pain. Partly as a result of pain, he had issues with drinking and drug addiction. His behavior could be erratic and uncouth.  (He had a penchant for eating food off of other people’s plates.)

Despite Clift’s troubles, you become transfixed by his brooding intensity – whether you’re watching him in “The Heiress,” “From Here to Eternity” or “Red River.”  

If you have a heartbeat, you’ll feel the chemistry between Clift and Taylor when they’re on screen together in “A Place in the Sun.”

Though Clift was queer and Taylor was hetero, they were the closest of friends.

From the prologue onward, Casillo draws you into their friendship. The book opens on the evening when Clift, driving home from a party, was in a terrible car accident. He’d crashed into a telephone pole. 

Taylor went to Clift who was lying bleeding on the road. “Realizing he was choking on his teeth,” Casillo adds, “she instinctively stuck her fingers down his throat and pulled out two broken teeth, clearing the passageway.”

Taylor stuck by Clift when many of his friends distanced themselves from him.  

Taylor insisted that Clift be cast in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” She put up her own salary as insurance for Clift when no one would insure him (because of his health and substance abuse issues).

It’s clear from “Elizabeth and Monty” that Clift was as important to Taylor as she was to him. Their relationship wasn’t sexual, writes Casillo, author of “Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon” and “Outlaw The Lives and Careers of John Rechy.” Yet, there was an emotional intensity – a romantic quality – in their friendship.

Clift nurtured Taylor. He coached Taylor, who he called Bessie Mae, on her acting. He thought Taylor was beautiful, yet understood what it was like for Taylor when people only saw her for her beauty.

“Monty, Elizabeth likes me, but she loves you,” Richard Burton is reported to have said to Clift.

There are good biographies of Taylor – such as William Mann’s “How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood” and of Clift – most notably Patricia Bosworth’s “Montgomery Clift: A Biography.”

Even so, “Elizabeth and Monty” sheds new light on the intense friendship of two queer icons. Check it out. It will imbue you with renewed love and respect not only for Taylor and Clift but for your own friends.

Without Alfred Hitchcock, I’d never make it through the pandemic.

The COVID vaccines are wonderful! But, I’d never get out of my sweatpants without the suspense and glam of Hitchcock’s movies.

Nothing is more comforting than watching serial killer Uncle Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” or, with Grace Kelly, James Stewart and Thelma Ritter, observing the murderer in “Rear Window.”

What is more pleasurable than ogling the gorgeous mid-century apartment where a murder has been committed in “Rope?”

Of course, I’m far from alone in loving Hitchcock. Hetero and queer viewers are Hitchcock fans.

Everyone from your straight, straitlaced granny to your bar-hopping queer grandson has had nightmares about the shower scene in “Psycho.” Or had a crush on Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest.”

From the glam in “Rear Window” to Bruno and Guy in “Strangers on a Train,” it’s clear that Hitchcock’s movies have a queer quotient and a special appeal to LGBTQ viewers.

There are more biographies and studies of Hitchcock’s life and work than you could count. Or would want to read.

Yet, “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock” by Edward White is a good read.

In elegant, precise writing, White illuminates Hitchcock’s life and work by examining 12 aspects of his complex personality. As with all of us, the whole of Hitchcock’s self was more than the components of his personality. Any life, despite the most assiduous biographer’s investigations, remains somewhat of a mystery.

White explores how “Hitchcock” the phenomenon was invented as well as what made Hitchcock the person tick. He carries out this exploration by writing about Hitchcock as everything from “The Fat Man” to “The Murderer” to “The Dandy” to “The Voyeur” to “The Londoner” to “The Family Man” to “The Man of God.”

Hitchcock was a family man who loved his wife, yet, at times, gazed in, to put it mildly an unsavory manner, at some of the actresses such as Tippi Hedren, in his films.  

Impeccably dressed in a Victorian-era suite, he plotted films about murder and rape with his wife (and frequent uncredited collaborator) Alma at his side.

For a half century, “Hitchcock’s persona was the active ingredient in the most celebrated of his 53 films,” White writes, “the way Oscar Wilde’s was in his plays, and Andy Warhol’s was in his art.”

Hitchcock stands alone in the Hollywood canon, White writes, “a director whose mythology eclipses the brilliance of his myriad classic movies.”

The span of Hitchcock’s career was immense — from the time of silent films to the 3-D era. His work, White, a “Paris Review” contributor, writes, runs the gamut from thrillers to screwball comedy to horror to film noir to social realism.

Read “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock.”  It’ll take you inside the mosaic of the fab filmmaker’s life and work. Then, break out the popcorn and “Dial M for Murder.”  

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Books

Author recalls beatings, discrimination in memoir

‘Punch Me Up to the Gods’ an emotional, rewarding journey

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‘Punch Me Up to the Gods: A Memoir’
By Brian Broome
c.2021, HMH Books
$26/272 pages

Little kids have it so easy.

Somebody feeds them when they’re hungry, does their laundry, buys them toys, and plays with them. Somebody escorts them everywhere and sometimes, they even get carried. Yep, life is good when you’re a little kid except, as in the new memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome, when it’s not.

He called Corey his “best friend,” but Corey was no friend to 10-year-old Brian Broome. Sure, things were simpatico at first but it didn’t take long for Corey to sense Broome’s insecurities, or to start pummeling Broome, or to humiliate him. Broome’s father hoped that Corey might act as “a form of therapy” for a boy who played with girls too much; Broome endured the abuse and didn’t complain to the adults because he was a little in love with Corey.

As if Corey’s thrashings weren’t harsh enough, Broome’s dad beat Broome for a multitude of reasons, from a pink shirt to frustration over unemployment to racism: he said he’d rather kill his children himself than to let a white person do it. Broome, in fact, often wished that he was white like the people on TV, so he’d have the benefits of it. White parents really seemed to love their kids.

Broome dreamed of moving far away from the tiny working-class Ohio town of his birth, to a larger city where he believed he could avoid the bullying and teasing, leave his life behind, and escape the embarrassment of his parents’ ramshackle existence. He did leave once, for college, but he was deeply humiliated by the racism and homophobia of his roommates. He called his mother then, and she came to get him.

She was one of a handful of Black women who saved him.

Being a man isn’t easy. Being a Black man in America is harder. Being a gay Black man led Broome to drugs, alcohol, and away from his family – although, he says, “… yes, I was loved. Just not in ways that I could understand.”

Be prepared to be messed with here. Your emotions may never be the same.

There’s a tightly coiled, ready-to-strike fist wrapped in melancholy and a miles-long people-watching incident in this book, both giving aptness to its title. “Punch Me Up to the Gods” refers to author Brian Broome’s father’s second-favorite words before the beatings began, and they’ll hit you hard, too. You’re not embarrassed, in fact, to be seen carrying a book around, are you? Because you will, this one.

Happily, there are moments of humor, too, as Broome recalls things that occurred in his youth, or maybe just a few years ago. He surprises readers with similes that are sobering, in the middle of laughter. He steps back sometimes, to pick at something else, turns it over twice to examine it, and pulls it into his tale.

For this, you won’t regret picking this wonderfully companionable, startlingly gracious and compelling memoir. “Punch Me Up to the Gods” is a don’t-miss, devouring it is so easy.

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