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Author Kenny Fries on being queer, disabled, and Jewish

How the three identities formed his rather irreverent take on life

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Kenny Fries is the author of several books, including ‘The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.’

(Editor’s Note: One in four people in America has a disability, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Queer and disabled people have long been a vital part of the LGBTQ community. Take two of the many queer history icons who were disabled:  Michelangelo is believed to have been autistic. Marsha P. Johnson, who played a heroic role in the Stonewall Uprising, had physical and psychiatric disabilities. Today, Deaf/Blind fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, actor and bilateral amputee Eric Graise — Marvin in the “Queer as Folk” reboot — and Kathy Martinez, a blind, Latinx lesbian, who was Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy for the Obama administration, are only a few of the numerous queer and disabled people in the LGBTQ community. Yet, the stories of this vital segment of the queer community have rarely been told. In its monthly, year-long series, “Queer, Crip and Here,” the Blade will tell some of these long un-heard stories.)

In 1991, when he was living in Provincetown, he agreed to be a model for a guide to “gay sex,” gay, disabled and Jewish author and poet Kenny Fries writes in his memoir “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory.”

Fries, 62, who’s just been awarded a Disability Futures Fellowship by the Ford Foundation, has been disabled since birth.

His medical records say that he has “congenital deformities of the lower extremities,” Fries said in an email interview with the Blade, “Basically, I was missing bones in my legs when born.”

Sometime later, Fries learned that the medical term for his disability is “fibular hemimelia.” “There is no known cause,” he added, “and it is nothing a pregnant mother does or doesn’t do that causes this.”

Back in 1991 in Provincetown, the local artist who was working on the gay sex guide wanted to make sure that it would correctly portray a disabled man having sex.

Fries was pleased when the artist showed him the pictures he’d taken of him and his partner in the modeling session. “I recognize the images of myself in both the photos and the drawing as very beautiful,” Fries writes.

But a week later, Fries’s feelings of pride were dissed. The guide’s art director didn’t like how the drawing turned out, Fries recalled the artist telling him. “‘He said that in the drawing the disability didn’t read. He wants me to cut off one of your legs,’” Fries writes.

Coming out wasn’t that difficult for Fries. Though, “I’m sure at times it felt difficult,” he said. “I think it was the combination of being both gay and disabled that posed the most challenges.”

If you’re disabled, you’re likely to run into ableism in the form of inaccessibility, pity, employment discrimination, discomfort, and fear. Perhaps, most hurtful, especially if you’re queer and disabled, is what Fries calls the myth of “the ideal body.” (This reporter is queer and disabled.)

Anyone with a body that is perceived as different is up against this myth, Fries said. “Everyone is affected by this myth, even straight white men. They just don’t know it as much as we do.”

Though he’s been disabled since he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his disability is quite noticeable, Fries didn’t “come out” as disabled until he was in college.

Fries saw a psychologist after he began having panic attacks. “He did something not quite kosher,” Fries said, “making a deal with me that he’d come see the musical I was directing if I went to talk with Irv Zola, a disabled professor who taught at Brandeis, where I was an undergraduate.”

In those days, Zola was one of the very few disabled faculty at any college. “It was sheer luck that he was at mine,” Fries said.

At Zola’s suggestion, Fries got in touch with the Boston Self-Help Center, and, for a time, joined their peer support group. After grad school, Fries moved to San Francisco. There, he met Marilyn Golden, a disability rights movement leader. Meeting Golden, his first mentor, launched Fries’s disability rights journey.

Another important step for Fries in his “coming out” as disabled was when he took part in the Contemporary Chautauqua on Performance and Disability that was organized by Vicki Lewis at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1994. There, Fries met creative nonfiction and fiction writer Anne Finger, playwright Susan R. Nussbaum and other disabled writers. These writers became his “comrades in arms,” he said.

Golden and Nussbaum died earlier this year. It was “a great personal and community loss,” Fries said.

The apartment building where he grew up was like a “vertical high rise shtetl,” Fries said, when asked how being Jewish fit into his queer and disabled identity.

“An ex called me ‘the Nazi Trifecta,’” Fries said, “as Jews, the disabled and queers were persecuted and killed during the Nazi regime.”

Being queer, disabled, and Jewish – being triply “othered” has emphasized his “questioning,” Fries said, “especially of societal structures and institutions.”

Somehow, he believes, these three identities combined to form his rather irreverent take on things.

The writing bug bit Fries early on. “As a child, I was always thinking of plays,” Fries said, “and wrote some silly ones.”

Fries is one of our time’s most distinguished and important queer and disabled writers. He is the author of “Province of the Gods,” “The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory” and “Body, Remember: A Memoir.” His books of poetry include “In the Gardens of Japan,” “Desert Walking” and “Anesthesia.”

If you’re visibly disabled, you’re stared at often by nondisabled people. 

Fries has helped disabled people, queer and non-queer, to reclaim the stare. He edited the groundbreaking anthology “Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out,” in which writers, including queer icon Adrienne Rich, reflect on their lived experience of being disabled.

“I didn’t realize Rich was disabled (she had rheumatoid arthritis) until I saw her using a cane at a reading in the Bay Area,” Fries said.

Fries lives with his husband, who is Canadian, in Berlin. They met when Fries was in Japan in 2005 and married in 2007.

“Living in cultures other than my own, as well as travel, has always been a foundation of my work,” Fries said.

Occasionally, Fries has encountered “direct” ableism in the queer community. Such as the time decades ago when he wasn’t allowed into a gay bar in Florence, Italy. Or the “very rare” sexual rejection by a nondisabled person. “This harkens back to the ideal body myth,” Fries said.

More insidious to Fries is the ableism of inaccessible queer spaces and events and the lack of inclusion of disabled people on queer-related panels at readings and events.

Then, there are the apps, Fries said. “How many disabled guys does one encounter on Grindr?” he said. “Even the profile questions asked show the default is not to think of physical difference.”

Fries came to Berlin to do research for the book he’s working on “Stumbling Over History: Disability and the Holocaust” and his video series “What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940?”

“The disabled were the first group to be mass murdered in gas chambers in Aktion T4, the Nazi program that killed 70,000 disabled persons,” Fries said.

“After T4 officially ended, 230,000 more disabled people were killed by gas,” Fries added, “as well as by other means, such as starvation, medication overdose and neglect.”

This is still a relatively unknown history to most people, even in Germany, Fries said.

Fries’s supply of energy is boundless. He has curated “Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer,” the first international exhibit on queer/disability history, activism, and culture. It opened at the Schwules Museum Berlin on Sept. 1 and runs through the end of January 2023.

The exhibit includes the work of more than 20 contemporary queer/disabled artists.

A major theme of the exhibit is “‘the ideal body’,” Fries said, “how this fantasy has pervaded both queer and disability history and lives, and how queer/disabled artists have counteracted this.”

Many people know Audre Lorde as a queer, Black icon. But most don’t think of her as having a disability. Yet, Lorde, who had cancer, was disabled. She is included in the exhibit.

“Lorde was a very important figure for the Afro-German women’s movement,” Fries said. 

Lorde wrote about having cancer in “The Cancer Journals.” She had an ahead-of-her- times view of disability, Fries said. “In an interview featured in the exhibit, she talks about a feminist book fair in London in 1984, which was held in an inaccessible space.”

It is important for all of us that such events be made available to disabled women, Lorde said in the interview, “and we should make sure they are announced in black women’s magazines.”

Lorde understood intersectionality before it became popular, Fries said.

For more information go to: kennyfries.com

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Photos

PHOTOS: Pride Reveal

‘Totally Radical’ announced as this year’s theme

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Miss Capital Pride 2024 performs at the Pride Reveal party on Thursday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Capital Pride Alliance held its annual Pride Reveal party at Penn Social on Feb. 29. “Totally Radical” was announced as this year’s theme for Pride.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

Gay author takes us on his journey to fatherhood in ‘Safe’

One man’s truth about the frustrations and rewards of fostering

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(Book cover image courtesy of Atria Books)

‘Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family’
By Mark Daley
c.2024, Atria Books
$28.99/304 pages

The closet is full of miniature hangers.

The mattress bumpers match the drapes and the rug beneath the tiny bed. There’s a rocker for late-night fusses, a tall giraffe in the corner, and wind-up elephants march in a circle over the crib. Now you just need someone to occupy that space and in the new book, “Safe” by Mark Daley, there’s more than one way to accomplish that dream.

Jason was a natural-born father.

Mark Daley knew that when they were dating, when he watched Jason with his nephew, with infants, and the look on Jason’s face when he had one in his arms. As a gay man, Daley never thought much having a family but he knew Jason did – and so, shortly after their wedding, they began exploring surrogacy and foster-to-adopt programs.

Daley knew how important it was to get the latter right: his mother had a less-than-optimal childhood, and she protected her own children fiercely for it. When Daley came out to her, and to his father, he was instantly supported and that’s what he wanted to give: support and loving comfort to a child in a hard situation.

Or children, as it happened. Just weeks after competing foster parenting classes and after telling the social worker they’d take siblings if there was a need, the prospective dads were offered two small brothers to foster.

It was love at first sight but euphoria was somewhat tempered by courts, laws, and rules. Their social worker warned several times that reunification of the boys with their parents was “Plan A,” but Daley couldn’t imagine it. The parents seemed unreliable; they rarely kept appointments, and they didn’t seem to want to learn better parenting skills. The mother all but ignored the baby, and the child noticed.

So did Daley, but the courts held all the power, and predicting an outcome was impossible.

“All we had was the present,” he said. “If I didn’t stay in it, I was going to lose everything I had.” So was there a Happily-Ever-After?

Ah, you won’t find an answer to that question here. You’ll need to read “Safe” and wear your heart outside your chest for an hour or so, to find out. Bring tissues.

Bring a sense of humor, too, because author and founder of One Iowa Mark Daley takes readers along on his journey to being someone’s daddy, and he does it with the sweetest open-minded open-heartedness. He’s also Mama Bear here, too, which is just what you want to see, although there can sometimes be a lot of tiresome drama and over-fretting in that.

And yet, this isn’t just a sweet, but angst-riddled, tale of family. If you’re looking to foster, here’s one man’s truth about the frustrations, the stratospheric-highs, and the deep lows. Will your foster experiences be similar? Maybe, but reading this book about it is its own reward.

“Safe” soars and it dives. It plays with your emotions and it wallows in anxiety. If you’re a parent, though, you’ll hang on to every word.

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Television

Lesbian road movie returns with campy ‘Dolls’

A retro-inspired, neon-lit road trip/neo-noir thriller

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Geraldine Viswanathan, Margaret Qualley, and Beanie Feldstein in ‘Drive-Away Dolls.’ (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Let’s admit it: by the time Hollywood’s awards season draws to a close, most of us are more than ready for a good mindless “B movie” to cleanse our palettes. After the glut of “serious” and “important” films dominating the public conversation, it’s just incredibly freeing to watch something that feels — at some level, at least — more like entertainment than it does like doing homework.

That’s one of the biggest reasons why the timing of “Drive-Away Dolls,” which hit screens on Feb. 23, feels like a really savvy move, especially since it comes from a major Hollywood studio and boasts a multi-Oscar-winning director – Ethan Coen, who alongside brother Joel is half of one of Hollywood’s most prodigious filmmaking teams – at its helm. A retro-inspired and neon-lit road trip/chick flick/neo-noir thriller featuring lesbian leading characters and leaning hard into the visual palette of the ‘70s-era exploitation drive-in movie fodder it aims to both emulate and reinvent, it lays no claim to lofty purpose or intellectual conceit; instead, it takes its audience on an unabashedly raunchy 1999-set wild ride in which a pair of mismatched adventurers find themselves unwittingly entangled in a caper involving a mysterious briefcase and the eccentric trio of thugs tasked with tracking it down. It tells the kind of story we expect to be able to check our brains at the door for, and just sit back to enjoy the mindless thrills.

In this case, that story centers on two young queer Philadelphia women – free-spirited sexual adventurer Jamie (Margaret Qualley), whose infidelity has tanked her relationship with girlfriend Suki (Beanie Feldstein), and square peg Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), whose discomfort with the hedonistic social scene of big city lesbian life has her longing for the simpler pleasures of her childhood home in Tallahassee – who embark on a road trip together to Florida in search of new beginnings. It’s clear from the start that they’re at cross purposes; Jamie sees the trip as an opportunity to “loosen up” her uptight friend, while Marian just wants to get back to where she once belonged. Unbeknownst to either, however, a shady cadre of operatives (Colman Domingo, Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson) is on their trail, thanks to something hidden in the trunk of their rental car, and their journey is about to take a detour into unexpectedly dangerous territory.

As a premise, it’s not hard to see close parallels to many of the themes one often finds running throughout the Coen Brothers’ films; the quirky trappings of its crime story plot, the granular focus on the behavioral oddities of its characters, the whimsical (if often pointed) irony it deploys for narrative effect – all these and more give Ethan’s first “solo flight” without collaboration from his brother the kind of familiarity for audiences one can only get from four decades of previous exposure. Yet while “Drive-Away Dolls” might bear a lot of the trademark Coen touches, it’s also distinctively its own creature, with a more radical stylistic approach that one might glimpse in more flamboyant outliers to their joint filmography like “The Hudsucker Proxy” or cult-favorite “The Big Lebowski,” but which here brings its heightened sense of absurdity to the forefront in service of a story which is about, as much as it is anything, the role of causality in determining the circumstances and outcomes of our lives. In other words, it’s a movie which drives home (no pun intended) the point that – at least sometimes – our paths are determined by fate, no matter how much control we think we exert.

If you’re thinking that all this analysis doesn’t quite fit for a movie that presents itself as a madcap escapist romp, you’re not wrong; in spite of its ostensible B movie appeal, Coen’s movie – co-written with his wife, Tricia Cook – evokes some pretty weighty reflections, and while that might lend a more elevated layer to the film’s proceedings than we expect, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can be entertained and enlightened at the same time, after all.

Perhaps more detrimental to the movie’s effect, unfortunately, is its intricately-conceived plotting. Weaving together seemingly coincidental or irrelevant details into a chain of events that propels the story at every juncture, Coen and Cooke’s screenplay feels more devoted to cleverness than authenticity; outlandish plot twists pile up, under the guise of some esoteric cosmic significance, until they threaten to collapse in on themselves; in the end, for many viewers, it might all seem just a little too forced to be believable.

Fortunately, there are things to counterbalance that sense of overthinking that seems to permeate the script, most vital of which is the movie’s unambivalent embrace of its queer narrative. While it may borrow the familiar lesbians-on-the-run road tropes queer audiences have known for decades, it presents them in a story refreshingly devoid of shame or stigma; the sexuality of its heroines is something to be explored with nuance rather than subjected to the fetishized bias of the so-called “male gaze,” and it succeeds in giving us “tastefully” explicit scenes of same sex love that celebrate the joy of human connection rather than turning it into a voyeuristic spectacle. Even more important, perhaps, “Drive-Away Dolls” omits one particularly toxic cliché of queer stories on film by refuising to make its queer heroines into victims; they’re way too smart for that, and it makes us like them all the more, even if we don’t quite find ourselves absorbed in their story.

For this, full credit must go to Qualley and Viswanathan, who individually build fully relatable and multi-dimensional characters while also finding a sweet and believable chemistry within the awkwardness of finding a romantic love story between two friends – a complex species of relationship that surely deserves a more extensive and nuanced treatment than it gets space for in Coen’s film. As good as they are, though, it’s Feldstein’s relatively small supporting turn that steals the movie, with an unflinching-yet-hilarious tough-as-nails performance as Qualley’s ex that both acknowledges and undercuts the stereotype of the “angry lesbian” while striking an immensely satisfying blow for queer female empowerment. The always-stellar Domingo underplays his way through an effectively civilized supporting performance as the chief “heavy”, and Matt Damon makes a sly cameo as a conservative politician, while daddy-of-the-decade Pedro Pascal shows up for a brief but key role that gives winking service to fans who remember him from his “Game of Thrones” days – though to say more about any of those appearances would constitute a spoiler.

“Drive-Away Dolls” has been met with mixed reviews, and this one is no exception. There’s an unmistakable good intention behind it, and much to be appreciated in its sex-positive outlook and commitment to an unapologetically queer story and characters, but while its stylistic embellishments provide for campy enjoyment, it’s ultimately diffused by its own cleverness. Still, the queer joy that frequently peeks through it is more than enough reason to say that it’s a good choice for a fun date night at the movies.

At the end of the day, what more can you ask?

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