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Deaf, gay poet explores loss of a twin in new book

‘Once Upon a Twin’ ponders how life would differ if sibling had survived

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Raymond Luczak’s latest book is ‘Once Upon a Twin.’ (Photo courtesy the author)

“Asshole/battybat/big baby/blundering boob/…deaf & dumb/dick/dumbdumb/fag,” Deaf, gay poet and playwright Raymond Luczak writes in his poem “the easiest words to lipread in a schoolyard (even if you’re not deaf).

The poem appears in Luczak’s new book “Once Upon a Twin,” released this year by Gallaudet University Press.

Luczak, 55, who lives in Minneapolis, graduated from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1988. He has written and edited more than 20 books, including “QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology,” the award-winning Deaf, gay novel “Men with Their Hands,” “The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips” and the drama “Snooty: a Comedy.”

Growing up wasn’t easy for Luczak. He grew up in Ironwood, a small mining town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

At eight months old, he lost his hearing due to double pneumonia and a high fever. This wasn’t detected until he was two-and-and-a-half years old. He was one of nine siblings in a hearing family.

At that time, many Deaf people weren’t permitted to communicate with their language – American Sign Language. Forbidden to sign, he was outfitted with a rechargeable hearing aid. There was no program for deaf children in Ironwood. For nine years, he stayed with foster families during the week in Houghton, a town two hours away. In Houghton he was in a speech therapy program.

Life opened up for Luczak when he enrolled at Gallaudet where he could communicate with American Sign Language.

In interviews conducted by email, Luczak talked with the Blade about a wide range of topics from coming out to what inspired him to write “Once Upon a Twin” to why Whitman would take selfies today.

Growing up as the only Deaf person in a hearing family was frustrating and infuriating for Luczak. “A classic situation: I’m sitting at the big kitchen table with all 11 of us, and everyone is talking at once,” Luczak said, “Where do I focus for lipreading? Why is my sister laughing? What was so funny?”

Luczak wants you to imagine what going through this for every meal would be like. It’s one thing if you endure this with strangers who know nothing about deafness, he said. But, it’s quite another thing if you’re with a family who should know better about your deafness.

“It’s as if they wanted to believe that my lipreading skills are so superior I didn’t need further assistance. Not true,” Luczak said. “I don’t have the ability to geolocate a sound so this explains why I cannot catch who is speaking and turn my attention in order to lipread that person.”

Language is a powerful bond for a community. In Milan, Italy in 1880, there was a conference on the education of the Deaf, Luczak said. There it was decreed that the use of sign language would be banned as a teaching method.

Up until then, “the Deaf community had a real Golden Age in which they came together through the establishment of Deaf residential schools, Deaf clubs and whatnot,” Luczak said.

It was devastating to the Deaf community when Alexander Graham Bell and his ilk made every effort they could to eradicate sign language, Luczak said. Luczak likens the attempt to eradicate sign language to the attempts made throughout history to force LGBTQ people to change their sexual orientation.

Luczak always knew that he was interested in men. Though, it didn’t have a name or specific feeling, and it had nothing to do with sex. He gradually came out, slowly, when he was in his teens.

Luczak came to Gallaudet University in the summer of 1984 and came out publicly a month later.

“What gave me the strength to come out were the first batch of books I’d bought from Lambda Rising [the LGBTQ bookstore that closed in 2010],” Luczak said. “That place was really my second home away from Gallaudet…And the fact that I was allowed to use ASL really gave me the self-confidence I had sorely needed all my life.”

Luczak in poetry, non-fiction, and plays has written in various styles from formal poetry to free verse about many topics from love to Thomas Edison to Walt Whitman to being queer. If Walt Whitman had a love child with a photographer’s eye, it would be Luczak.

In “Once Upon a Twin,” Luczak imagines what his life would have been like if he had a twin. Growing up, he knew that his mother had had three miscarriages, but he never asked her about them. When he was 16 “she mentioned that her third miscarriage happened in the same year I was born,” Luczak said, “and that it happened while she was sitting on the toilet. The fetus had apparently popped out.”

“I couldn’t get that image out of my head,” Luczak added.

Over the years, his mother told Luczak conflicting stories about the miscarriage. About 10 years ago, he looked into whether it was possible for a twin to miscarry and to have the other twin undetected in the womb. “It turns out that the ultrasound technology during the 1960s wasn’t advanced enough so the possibility was quite real,” Luczak said.

Luczak had long wondered how different his life would have been if his twin had survived. In 2018, he wrote a collection of formal verse. After that, he was eager to write in a different style. “Once I realized how I should write my next book (no formal poetry, almost no punctuation, etc.), it hit me that I really should explore the idea of my lost twin,” Luczak said.

“Would I feel as left out at family gatherings if my twin helped include me?” he said, “…Would my twin speak up for me?…I hadn’t dared to examine the possible changes in our family’s dynamics, and how it would’ve affected my self-confidence.”

Luczak was surprised by how easily the book wrote itself. It had been waiting a long time to be written.

Like queer poet Walt Whitman, Luczak’s creativity contains multitudes. In 2016, Luczak’s volume of poetry “The Kiss of Walt Whitman Still on My Lips” was released by Squares & Rebels. Because Whitman wasn’t taught to him when he was in high school or college, Luczak had few preconceptions about Whitman. Other than, he said, that Whitman was a poet with a boyfriend who was a streetcar conductor. But when he read the opening of the “Song of my Self,” Luczak said “Whoa!”

“The poet had conjured a palpable vision of what America could be,” he said, “if Walt were alive today, he’d be sharing selfies and Tweeting away.”

“He loved having his picture taken; he had 127 photographs taken when Abraham Lincoln scored 128 photographs,” Luczak said, “in fact, Whitman was probably America’s first celebrity nude model!”

How does Luczak feel about being a Deaf, gay writer? It’s complicated. On one level, he doesn’t think of himself as a Deaf, gay writer at all. “I do mention this fact but that’s only because I need to stand out a bit more in a country that brings out thousands and thousands of new books each year. It’s a marketing angle,” Luczak said.

He hopes readers will recognize that he’s much more than just a Deaf, gay writer and accept his work as beyond those labels.

Yet, “I still feel proud of being a Deaf gay man,” Luczak said. “It’s enriched my life in ways that I don’t think anyone would’ve anticipated. It’s certainly led me to meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. For that I’m grateful.”

Once Upon a Twin, gay news, Washington Blade

Raymond Luczak (Photo courtesy of Luczak)

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Books

A bisexual coming-of-age tale with heart

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’ offers pleasant surprises

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(Book cover image courtesy of Scholastic)

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’
By Jay Coles
c.2021, Scholastic $18.99/320 pages

You’d like an explanation, please.

Why something is done or not, why permission is denied, you’d like to hear a simple reason. You’ve been asking “Why?” since you were two years old but now the older you get, the more urgent is the need to know – although, in the new book “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Jay Coles, there could be a dozen becauses.

Sometimes, mostly when he didn’t need it to happen, Giovanni Zucker’s birth mother took over his thoughts.

It wasn’t as though she was the only thing he had to think about. Gio was an important part of the basketball team at Ben Davis High School; in fact, when he thought about college, he hoped for a basketball scholarship. He had classes to study for, two best friends he wanted to hang out with, a little brother who was his reason to get up in the morning, and a father who was always pushing for help at the church he ran. As for his romantic life, there wasn’t much to report: Gio dated girls and he’d dated guys and he was kinda feeling like he liked guys more.

So no, he didn’t want to think about his birth mother. The woman who walked out on the family when Gio was a little kid didn’t deserve his consideration at all. There was just no time for the first woman who broke his heart.

It was nice to have distractions from his thoughts. Gio’s best friends had his back. He knew pretty much everybody in his Indianapolis neighborhood. And the guy who moved across the street, a fellow b-baller named David, was becoming a good friend.

A very good friend. David was bisexual, too.

But just as their relationship was beginning, the unthinkable happened: Gio’s birth mother reached out, emailed him, wanted to meet with him, and he was torn. She said she had “reasons” for abandoning him all those years ago, and her truth was not what he’d imagined.

There are a lot of pleasant surprises inside “Things We Couldn’t Say.”

From the start, author Jay Coles gives his main character a great support system, and that’s a uniquely good thing. Gio enjoys the company of people who want the best for him, and it’s refreshing that even the ones who are villains do heroic things.

Everyone in this book, in fact, has heart, and that softens the drama that Coles adds – which leads to another nice surprise: there’s no overload of screeching drama here. Overwrought teen conflict is all but absent; even potential angsts that Gio might notice in his urban neighborhood are mentioned but not belabored. This helps keep readers focused on a fine, relatable, and very realistic coming-of-age story line.

This book is aimed at readers ages 12-and-up, but beware that there are a few gently explicit, but responsibly written, pages that might not be appropriate for kids in the lower target range. For older kids and adults, though, “Things We Couldn’t Say” offers plenty of reasons to love it.

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Books

Six books not to miss this fall

Memoirs, love stories, and ballroom await

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‘Unprotected: A Memoir’ by Billy Porter is out next month. (Book cover image courtesy Abrams Press)

Staying inside and curling up always seems like a great idea but in the fall, it almost feels urgent, doesn’t it? The great news is that there are a lot of good reads slated this fall for the LGBTQ reader.

Not your normal coming-of-age tale, “A Tale of Two Omars” by Omar Sharif, Jr. is the story of the author’s youth during the Arab Spring in 2010. But that’s only the launching point for the rest of the story: Sharif, the grandson of the great actor Omar Sharif, writes of his grandfather and the rest of his scattered family, and visiting them on various continents. He also writes of danger: a job he took that wasn’t the kind of work he thought it was, and the threats he received for speaking out about his homosexuality in homophobic Egypt. It’s a thrilling book, salted with memoir and you’ll love it. (October)

If you’re obsessed with the most recent incarnation of “Cinderella,” then you’ll likewise want to have “Unprotected: A Memoir” by Billy Porter on your shelf. This is a story in the author’s own words, about growing up Black and gay, raised by parents who hope to change the latter, and seizing the strength to stay use your talents and stay the course. (October)

Who doesn’t want it all?  In the memoir “Greedy: Notes from a Bi-Sexual Who Wants Too Much” by Jen Winston, the author humorously examines what it means to be bisexual, why coming out as bi is fraught with landmines; dating, pronouns, sex, and more. Yes, you can have it (almost) all. (October)

Nightlife in Seoul is the backdrop for “Love in the Big City” by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur. It’s the story of a young gay man and his best female friend, and the fun they have exploring the clubs and bars in Seoul. As with many friendships, they both change and he is left to look for the love of his life alone. Fun, sassy, and poignant, this was a big best-selling debut novel in Korea. (November)

If something on the light side appeals to you, look for “The Coldest Touch” by Isabel Sterling. It’s a novel about a young woman who knows how someone will die, just by touching them. Understandably, she’d love to lose that power, until a young vampire is sent to help her, and they fall in love. Can the two thwart the danger in their town that’s coming from another, more sinister, paranormal figure? This is a book for young adults, but grown-up readers who love vampire stories will love biting into it.  (December)

And finally, for the reader with creativity and movement in their bones, “And the Category Is…: Inside New York’s Vogue, House, and Ballroom Community” by Ricky Tucker is what you’ll want this fall. Go into an “underground subculture” for Black and Latinx trans and queer people, where marginalized LGBTQ individuals find acceptance, family, and help. With its roots in Harlem more than a century ago, you might not think you know much about ballroom, but you’ll be surprised… (December). Season’s readings!

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Books

Sullivan’s new book a cornucopia of wit, provocation

‘Out on a Limb’ offers queer cultural history with a point of view

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(Cover image courtesy of Avid Reader Press)

‘Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021′
By Andrew Sullivan
c.2021, Avid Reader Press
$35/576 pages

Gay writer and political commentator Andrew Sullivan’s first day in journalism began on a Sunday afternoon in 1984 in London at the Daily Telegraph.  The paper was housed on the “original Fleet Street,” Sullivan writes, “the place Evelyn Waugh had made eternal in his satirical novel Scoop.”

The editor that day, “a high Tory intellectual,” was completely blind, chain-smoked and “wore a patch over one eye, like a pirate,” Sullivan writes.

He was told to write an editorial on a topic he knew nothing about. Using, “all the skills my Oxford training in extemporaneous bullshitting had given me,” Sullivan writes, he wrote the piece.

Sullivan, who was instrumental in bolstering support for mainstream equality and for dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, hasn’t stopped writing since.

Sullivan’s writing is as colorful as the Fleet Street editor with the eye patch.

I’m a blind lesbian. Reading “Out on a Limb” (on Audible and Kindle), there were times when I rolled my blind eyes.

At other moments, I marveled at Sullivan’s bravery and compassion.

But, whether I disagreed with or applauded Sullivan, I couldn’t stop reading him.

I’m betting this will be the case with you.

An Irish Catholic gay man, Sullivan is one of our most provocative and fascinating writers.

The essays in “Out on a Limb” cover everything from the death of Princess Diana to AIDS to “Brokeback Mountain” to Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality.

Sullivan, a self-described small-c conservative who was one of the first to bring Barack Obama to the attention of the mainstream press, has angered many.

“I have been criticized for abandoning the right,” he writes, “and for criticizing the left.”

Sullivan’s voted for, among others, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain, and Ronald Reagan, Obama and Joe Biden in America.

The causes he has supported over 40 years include: marriage equality, the legalization of recreational drugs, welfare reform and, as he writes, “a very expansive concept of free speech.”

If you didn’t disagree with Sullivan on anything, you wouldn’t be human.

But, if you didn’t agree with him on some things, you wouldn’t have a heart or a brain.

The essays in “Out on a Limb,” are a time capsule of Sullivan’s career from his time with The New Republic (where he was the youngest editor in the magazine’s history) to his current perch with “The Weekly Dish.”

The collection shows how Sullivan’s views have evolved over the years. Sullivan, who with “The Dish,” was a blogging pioneer, is a refreshingly honest writer.

Some writers never want to cop to a mistake. This isn’t true with Sullivan, who says he was wrong about supporting the Iraq war.

It’s hard to remember how brave it was for Sullivan in 1989 to pen the essay “Here Comes the Groom: A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” for The New Republic.

Then, when sodomy laws were on the books in many states, it was courageous to be out as Sullivan was.

Marriage equality wasn’t on the horizon – let alone on a magazine cover.

Sullivan writes movingly about seeing the AIDS quilt in 1992 on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

The collection includes some controversial pieces such as “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic.”

It’s true that for many AIDS is no longer a deadly plague.

But AIDS is still a death sentence for many who don’t have health insurance or access to care.

Sullivan’s essays on gender and campus life such as “The He Hormone” or “We All Live on Campus Now” made me want to throw the book across the room.

I wish Sullivan hadn’t published a symposium on Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book “The Bell Curve” in The New Republic. (The book says there is a connection between race and intelligence.)

But I was moved by the essay “Dear Ta-Nehisi,” in which Sullivan explains why he felt compelled to air writing of, as he writes, “sometimes painful topics.”

“Out on a Limb” is a cornucopia of wit, queer cultural history and provocation. Enjoy the feast.  

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