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Ferlinghetti turned poetry haters into poetry lovers

Celebrating a long life of passion and provocation

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Mia Henderson, gay news, Washington Blade
Dan White, Remembrance, Black Caucus, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

I thought poets were stuffy bards on Mount Olympus with no connection to the passions, provocations or language of earthly mortals. Until, in the 1970s, I came home from college for the winter holidays. Like many, I was appalled by the commercialization of not only the Christmas season but of society at large, and furious at the ongoing Vietnam War. One evening, I found a poetry book, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in my parents’ bookcase.

“Christ climbed down/from His bare tree/this year,” Ferlinghetti wrote in the poem from the collection “Christ Climbed Down,” “and ran away to where/no intrepid Bible salesmen/covered the territory/in two-tone cadillacs.”

From that moment on, I knew that good poets, like rock stars, are practitioners of provocation: great poems speak directly to our hearts and minds, and infiltrate our DNA.

Ferlinghetti, a renowned poet, died on Feb. 22 at 101 at his San Francisco home. For decades, he was the proprietor of City Lights, the San Francisco bookstore and publishing house. Ferlinghetti wrote dozens of books from his first collection “Pictures of the Gone World” published in 1955 to the novel “Little Boy” published in 2019.

“A Coney Island of the Mind” has been carried in backpacks and read aloud accompanied by jazz by generations of queer and hetero students and still-hip elders. It has been translated into nine languages and is one of the best-selling poetry books in history.

City Lights, as a bookstore and publisher, from the get-go has nurtured writers and readers. It’s been a place where authors could meet, talk, and find community. Since the 1950s, it has published writers and poets who would receive little or no attention from mainstream publishers. It fostered the work of the authors and artists who became known as the Beat Generation. Like millions of acolytes, I visited City Lights when I was in San Francisco. It felt like being on holy ground.

Long before people talked about being an ally or hetero grandmas marched in gay pride parades, City Lights published queer writers. Ferlinghetti became famous after he published gay poet Allen Ginsberg’s poetry collection “Howl and other Poems” in 1956.

In “Howl,” a political manifesto, Ginsberg writes explicitly of gay sex “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists” and of “who were burned alive in their innocent flannel shirts of Madison Avenue.” In 1957, Ferlinghetti was arrested. He was charged with “willfully and lewdly” printing “indecent writings.” In a significant victory for the First Amendment, Ferlinghetti was acquitted. The judge ruled that “Howl” wasn’t obscene because it “had redeeming social importance.”

City Lights also published “Lunch Poems,” the acclaimed and beloved poetry collection by gay poet Frank O’Hara. His poem “The Day Lady Died” (written after the death of Billie Holiday) will move you to tears. His poem called “Poem,” an outpouring of love to Lana Turner, will sweep you off your feet with joy. Yet, O’Hara, as his friend queer poet John Ashberry said were dashed off “at odd moments.” Without Ferlinghetti’s careful attention and nurturing, we might not have “Lunch Poems.”

In 1979, Maryland’s tenth Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri traveled to San Francisco. There, she interviewed Ferlinghetti in his loft above City Lights for Radio Paris. He was “sitting cross-legged,” Cavalieri, producer of the public radio show (recorded at the Library of Congress), emailed the Blade. He “was so connected to his Italian heritage that he was writing a book on Italian women feminists,” Cavalieri said. “At 60 years of age, he was immersed in social action and making significant change.”

Ferlinghetti turned poetry haters into poetry lovers, Clarinda Harriss, who taught English for decades at Towson University, told me. He transformed the “reading-resistant” into “‘give us more poetry people,” she said.

Sarah Browning is the former executive director of Split This Rock, a poetry organization that works for justice. “We built Split This Rock on his shoulders,” Browning told me.

The group was modeled on City Lights as being “a gathering place – for writers, thinkers and activists,” she said, “and one that was welcoming of queer people from the outset.”

Thank you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for your passion, provocation, and poetry! R.I.P.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Calm down about over-the-counter birth control

Oral contraceptives do not constitute abortion

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(Photo by IhorBulyhin/Bigstock)

The first over-the-counter (OTC) oral contraceptive pill in the U.S., known as Opill, will become available in drugstores, convenience stores, and online retail stores in the coming weeks. The pill has been available by prescription for years, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved it for purchase without a prescription. Researchers, advocates, and the pill’s manufacturer, Perrigo, have been working for many years to make this pill more accessible to the general public in the U.S., and it is finally becoming a reality. 

It has taken a very long time to approve this form of birth control, and many people are upset that it is being available at all to purchase OTC because contraception has become equated with abortion. This bizarre notion has arisen from anti-abortion groups, who would like the general public to believe that contraceptives, such as the pill, may act as abortifacients (any drug or chemical preparation that induces abortion), and not only as contraceptives. Besides the fact that expanding access to safe and affordable birth control improves women’s healthcare, it also reduces unplanned pregnancies and abortions. Everyone should realize that birth control is not abortion.

Opill is a progestin only pill (POP), which means that it contains progestin instead of the estrogen-progestin combination found in other birth control pills. Progestin is a form of progestogen, which is the hormone that plays a role in pregnancy and menstrual cycles. The POP works by changing the mucus at the entrance to the womb (uterus) so that sperm cannot pass through the fertilized egg. POPs are also sometimes referred to as mini pills and are taken as a form of birth control by mouth every day to prevent pregnancy. 

Some patients are unable to take birth control with both estrogen and progestin because they may have certain medical problems that prevent them from ingesting the combination of the hormones. Many people who cannot take estrogen-progestin pills can safely use Opill, and POPs are safe for those with high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, among other conditions. Side effects reported by users are mild and include irregular spotting.

Approximately 9 percent of women become pregnant in the first year of use with POPs with typical use (when usage is not consistent or always correct), in comparison to less than 1 percent of women become pregnant with perfectuse (consistent and always correct usage). This makes Opill an incredibly effective form of reversible birth control that is now becoming easily accessible both online and in retail stores in the U.S. Not only is it an extremely effective form of accessible birth control, but it is in demand. The nationally representative 2022 KFF Women’s Health Survey found that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of female respondents ages 18-64 favored making birth control pills available over the counter without a prescription.

Despite the strong effectiveness of the mini pill, easy accessibility, minimal side effects, cost-effectiveness, and safe consumption of the pill without a prescription, some people are still upset about Opill becoming approved. Why is that? 

Antiabortion groups have undertaken a strategic campaign to convince the public that birth control is synonymous with abortion, when it is not. The OTC availability of Opill will mean that the birth control pill will become more accessible to people who may not be able to visit a provider for a prescription, as well as help someone decide if they would like to have children and when that timeline would be. People need to do more research on this subject before they condemn life-changing products such as Opill, which will benefit many people, especially women, in a positive way.

Catalina Desouza is a Public Health graduate student at George Washington University.

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Netanyahu must go!

We should stand with Israelis calling for an immediate election

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo by palinchak/Bigstock)

I stand with the thousands of Israelis who are demonstrating in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, calling for an immediate election in Israel. The current conduct of the war is counter-productive to achieving peace, and is earning Israel animosity around the world. 

The killing of the aid workers serving with José Andrés, World Central Kitchen, may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There must be an immediate pause in the fighting, with food and medicine flowing into Gaza for the innocent women and children.

While I call on Israel to act unilaterally, to do this now, let no one forget who began this current war on Oct. 7 by massacring Israeli women and children, and taking more than 200 hostages. Again, while I call on Israel to act unilaterally, let no one forget, there could be an immediate ceasefire if Hamas would release the rest of the hostages, whether they are alive or dead. The health of the hostages is something no one knows, because Hamas has refused to allow any human rights groups in to see them. Let no one forget, Hamas, a terrorist organization, hides behind the civilians they claim they fight for, using them as human shields. They share responsibility for the deaths of the women and children in Gaza.

Again, I call on Israel to act now, to show the world they are not terrorists. They are a country trying to protect themselves against a terrorist organization whose stated mission is to wipe them off the face of the earth; from the river to the sea. But, despite this, Israel must now show the world its compassion, and its ability to continue to defend itself, while not starving women and children, and cutting off their medical care. Israel has the power to do both. If they do, the world will support them. If they continue to go on as they have, the world will not.

I have for years called for the Israelis to get rid of Netanyahu and his government. He is as much of a disaster for Israel as Trump is for the United States. They both believe they are above the law, and both believe only by clinging to power can they escape the law. A very sad state of affairs for both nations. 

I am the child of Jewish immigrants who escaped the Nazis. My mother as a child from Austria, and my father from Germany. My father’s parents were killed in Auschwitz. I am a first generation American. I am, and will continue to be, a strong supporter of Israel. Calling for Netanyahu’s removal doesn’t change that. But it has become clear that his right-wing government will never be willing to do what is necessary to have a real peace, and both the Israeli and Palestinian people will suffer. A new Israeli government must take action to stop any new settlements, and be prepared to remove some that are there now. Some of those lands would become part of a new Palestinian state, if we are ever to move to a two-state solution. If Israel is willing to do this, then we must convince Arab countries like Jordan and Egypt to condemn Hamas. They must work to convince the Palestinian people they will support them in getting their own state, if they rid themselves of Hamas. They cannot continue to be represented by a terrorist organization, and expect to live in peace. 

The Palestinians turned down their own state in 1947, and missed maybe the last best chance to come to an agreement at the summit President Bill Clinton convened at Camp David, Maryland with Yasir Arafat, and Ehud Barak. It was an ambitious attempt to reach a sweeping settlement on questions such as the shape of a new Palestinian state, and the future of Palestinian refugees, that have kept the two sides in a state of conflict for 77 years. It is generally felt it was Arafat who couldn’t bring himself to move to a final agreement. 

There is no ‘right’ in this war at this time. Israel is wrong in some of what they are doing, and Hamas is wrong in what they are doing. This isn’t a one-sided situation. But after six months of war, Israel must be the bigger party at this time, and show the world they are ready to move on in their tactics, and give peace a chance.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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The beauty in queer relationships

Our love is more inclusive and beautiful than straight love

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Recent exposure to social circles of queer men — predominantly gay men — has led me to appreciate how queer people often lead romantic and sex lives. In general, I’ve found that queer love supersedes straight love: in many prior and current interactions, queer people, in my opinion, are more open to flirting with polyamory, varied sexual experiences, and a more general openness to experimenting with romance. 

I am someone who generally prides myself on being against stereotypes. I don’t like to stereotype transmen as aggressive, violent abusers, because that is far from true, as my experience with transness has found that transmen can take on all types of dimensions, ranging from feminine, gay types to traditionally straight people interested in women. I also don’t like stereotyping queer women, as many types of queer women abound, ranging from lipstick lesbians to butch girls and all in between. 

But I can’t help observe that the men I interact with who identify as gay often are in partnerships where they allow the other spouse or boyfriend to experiment with other people. This doesn’t happen all the time, and monogamy still certainly abounds, but in many cases, relationships are made open, with steady agreements in place. 

When I first read the book “The Ethical Slut,” authored by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, I was against their theory of polyamory and open sex. I still am a monogamous person in relationships, but when single, I am now more open to sexual encounters with others in open relationships. The premise of “The Ethical Slut” is that non-monogamy can be practiced on moral terms, and safely, and consensually, and respectfully. The book even argues that non-monogamy is a favorable act sometimes, and that couples who practice non-monogamy can still lead healthy lives. 

I both agree and disagree with the thesis of “The Ethical Slut.” But once again, as a single person, the book captures my attention. This is all to say that, when socializing with queer men, I greatly appreciate their openness to sleeping with others–even when maintaining a spouse or boyfriend. 

I first came out as transgender in 2015, but have since felt a mini-revolution in the way society perceives trans people. We still have a long ways to go, repealing awful bathroom bills and ensuring that gender nonconforming teenagers have access to affirming healthcare. We need to push back against transphobia, particularly in regions like the South and rural areas of the Midwest. 

In the year 2024, though, I’ve found more cisgender gay men to be open to sleeping with transmen, and some even do extensive research on how to fulfill our romantic and sexual needs. The relationships between cisgender queer men and transmen should improve over time, and develop through organic interactions at parties, at conferences, and on queer-specific dating apps. There are still plenty of cisgender gay men who openly reject sex with transmen, but that number is shrinking as the years progress. At the very least, cisgender gay men are more and more able to understand the trans struggle on a platonic, friendship-based level. This decency gives me great hope for the future. 

All in all, queer love, to me, is more beautiful than straight love. Queer people are more accommodating of differences in sexual preferences, and fulfilling divergent needs in bed. I hope this kind of unfettered and unbound love continues.

Isaac Amend is a writer based in the D.C. area. With two poetry books out, he writes for the Blade and the Yale Daily News. He is a transgender man and was featured in National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution” documentary. He serves on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia and in his free time, runs a chess club in Fairfax. Contact him at [email protected] or on Instagram at: @literatipapi. 

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