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BookMen DC: Still going strong at 25

Celebrating the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the area

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On May 11, 1999, what was originally known as the Potomac Gay Men’s Book Group convened for its first meeting. A lot has changed over the ensuing quarter-century, starting with our name. But our identity remains true to the description on our blog: “an informal group of men who are interested in gay literature (both fiction and non-fiction).”

Our founder, Bill Malone, worked at the Whitman-Walker Clinic and started the group using donations of remainder books from a wholesaler in New York. Soon after that, members decided to get their own books, and began purchasing them through Lambda Rising, which offered a discount for such orders until it closed in 2010. The group later renamed itself BoysnBooks, and then became BookMen DC in 2007, which is also when we started our blog

Following Bill’s tenure, Tom Wischer, Greg Farber and Tim Walton (who set up our blog) have served as our facilitators. I succeeded Tim in that role in 2009, and am grateful to him and all my predecessors for laying such a solid foundation for our group. 

Twenty-five years after our founding, we are the longest-running LGBTQ literary group in the DMV. So far, we have discussed nearly 400 books, ranging from classics like Plato’s Symposium to graphic novels, gay history and memoirs, and novels by James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, E.M. Forster and Edmund White—to name just a few of the many authors and genres we’ve explored.

Currently, we have more than 120 names on our mailing list, of whom about a quarter attend meetings at least occasionally. (Average attendance at our meetings is about 10.) Our members variously consider themselves gay, queer, bisexual, or transgender, and those varying perspectives enhance our discussions. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, like many LGBTQ organizations, we are not nearly as diverse as I wish we were. Although we do have young members and people of color within our ranks, we are predominantly white and middle-aged or older. We have tried various forms of outreach to further diversify our membership, and will keep working on that.

How has BookMen DC not just survived, but thrived, when so many other book clubs and LGBTQ groups have foundered? I would identify several factors.

First and foremost, we are welcoming. We have no minimum attendance requirements and charge no dues. And we expressly encourage members to join us at meetings even if they haven’t finished the selection we’re discussing.

We are also collaborative. Each fall, members nominate titles for the next year’s reading list; I then compile those suggestions into a list for members to weigh in on, and the results of that vote determine what we will read. 

Finally, we are flexible and adaptable. Over the years, we have met in locations all over the District. Currently, we meet on the first Wednesday of each month at the Cleveland Park Library (3310 Connecticut Ave. NW) from 6:30-7:30 p.m. to discuss entire books; afterward, those interested go to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant.

When the pandemic struck four years ago, we took a break for a couple of months before moving operations online. (Thank God for Zoom!) Even after the venues where we’d been meeting reopened, we have continued to meet virtually on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7-8 p.m. During those Zoom sessions, we discuss sections of anthologies of poetry and short stories, as well as short standalone works (e.g.,  plays and novellas).

If you enjoy LGBTQ literature and would like to try us out, visit our blog: https://bookmendc.blogspot.com/ and click the link to email me. We’d love to meet you!

Steven Alan Honley, a semi-retired musician, editor, and writer, has been a member of BookMen DC since 2000 and its facilitator since 2009.

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Celebrating 15th anniversary of Harvey Milk Day

A powerful reminder that one person can make a difference

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The Harvey Milk Forever Stamp was unveiled at a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 22, 2014. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22, is officially a Day of Special Significance in California. Other states also honor Milk.

Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in U.S. history. In 1977, he was elected to a seat on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. His term began in January 1978 and ended in November when disgruntled former Supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk and Mayor George Moscone at City Hall.

In his 1982 book “Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” Randy Shilts wrote a moving account of San Francisco’s 1978 memorial for Milk. A “massive crowd stretched the entire distance from City Hall to Castro Street, some 40,000 strong utterly silent,” Shilts wrote. The crowd “ostensibly memorialized both George Moscone and Harvey, but few speakers quarreled that the crowd had amassed chiefly to remember the gangly ward politician [Milk] who had once called himself the mayor of Castro Street.”

Shilts quoted Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein, at the time acting mayor, telling the mourners that Milk “was a leader who represented your voices.” Another speaker said Milk “was to us what Dr. King was to his people. Harvey was a prophet [who] lived by a vision.” Equality was Milk’s vision.

Shilts presciently titled the last section in his book “The Legend Begins.” In 1979, after a jury gave assassin White a light seven-year sentence, LGBT rioters rocked San Francisco in what is called “The White Night Riots.” During the riots, Shilts wrote that “a lesbian university professor yelled into a feeble bullhorn: ‘Harvey Milk lives.’” Since 1978, Harvey Milk’s courageous leadership has been celebrated globally.

Over four years, 2006-2010, San Francisco reminded the country that Milk was a gay man worthy of great honors. The 2008 movie “Milk,” filmed partly in San Francisco, with Sean Penn as Milk, ignited greater public interest in the legendary gay activist. Gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and Penn won Academy Awards in 2009.

The film led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign legislation making Milk’s birthday a Day of Special Significance. Also, President Barack Obama awarded Milk with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Milk’s 84th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Forever stamp in his honor.

California’s Harvey Milk Day recognizes Milk for his contributions to the state. It also encourages public schools to conduct “suitable commemorative exercises” to honor Milk.

“To me, [Milk] was a man who was a capitalist, and an entrepreneur who happened to be gay,” said Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado, the only Republican to vote for the bill to create Harvey Milk Day.

The newer scholarship about Milk provided additional insight into his activism. “An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings” edited by James Edward Black, Charles Morris, and Frank Robinson, published in 2013 by the Univ. of California Press, is an excellent example.

The book’s title is drawn from Milk’s 1978 speech called “The Hope Speech.” He spoke about people [gays, seniors, Black Americans, disabled, Latinos, Asians] “who’ve lost hope.” He proceeds to talk about inspiring hope in others who are struggling when the “pressures at home are too great.” It is a passionate speech, based largely on Milk’s conversations with people in the Castro. In a review of the book for The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, I wrote it is: “An important contribution to the corpus of work on Harvey Milk as a writer and orator.”

Milk believed that it was important for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to come out. If more people were aware of their LGBTQIA+ associates who were their friends, family, and loved ones, then discrimination would end. To Milk, coming out would lead to ensuring LGBTQIA+ civil rights.

In 2007, during Pride in San Francisco I worked at a nonprofit’s booth in Civic Center Plaza. A man stopped to talk. I mostly listened. He was a veterinarian from a small town in Arkansas. He was gay and closeted. He regularly visited San Francisco for Pride. Afterward, he regularly returned to his closeted life in Arkansas. I felt sorry for him. Though I was a stranger to him, he needed to come out to me. I was reminded of Milk’s wisdom about the freedom of coming out.    

Harvey Milk Day is for all people who need hope. Milk’s life is a lesson that one person can make a difference. A strong, united community inspired by Milk and others has changed and continues to change the world.  

Milk’s short political career led to long-term LGBTQIA+ political leadership from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C. to Miami to Seattle. To paraphrase a Woody Guthrie song: This LGBTQIA+ Land is Our Land. Happy Milk Day 2024!

James Patterson is a lifetime member of the American Foreign Service Association.

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World ‘isn’t much different today’

The Nazis murdered nearly 1 million Jewish people at Auschwitz

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The entrance to the Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

OŚWIȨCIM, Poland — Łukasz, a Polish man who was our group’s English-speaking tour guide at Auschwitz, on April 7 asked us while we were standing outside one of Auschwitz I’s barracks why the Nazis systematically murdered more than 6 million Jewish people.

“Once they are gone, Germany will be great again,” he said, referring to the Nazis’s depraved justification.

There were other Americans in our group of about 40 people. I would like to think they are familiar with the dehumanizing MAGA rhetoric to which our country has become accustomed since President Joe Biden’s predecessor announced his White House bid in 2015. The fact that I was at a Nazi concentration camp was simply overwhelming, and I didn’t feel like speaking with them or to anyone else at that moment.

The unspeakable horrors that happened at Auschwitz are on full display. Łukasz’s comment was a stark warning to us all amid the backdrop of the current socio-political realities in which we in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere around the world currently live.

• Suitcases, glasses, shoes, kitchen utensils, prosthetic limbs, baskets, Jewish prayer shawls, and toothbrushes that were taken from people upon their arrival at Auschwitz were on display in Auschwitz I’s Block 5. One exhibit also contains children’s clothes.

• Auschwitz I’s Blocks 6 and 7 had pictures of male and female prisoners along the corridors. They contained their birthdays, the day they arrived at the camp and when they died. Block 7 also had mattresses and bunk beds on which prisoners slept and the sinks and latrines they used.

• The basement of Auschwitz I’s Block 11 had cells in which prisoners were placed in the dark and starved to death. The basement also had cells in which prisoners were forced to stand for long periods of time. Executions took place at the “Death Wall” in the courtyard between Block 10 and 11. Guards also tortured prisoners in this area.

• Medical experiments took place in Block 10.

• A gas chamber is located near Auschwitz I’s entrance with the gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work sets you free.” The adjacent crematorium contains a replica of the furnaces used to burn human bodies.

• An urn with human ashes is in Auschwitz I’s Block 4. Hair cut from people who were killed in the gas chamber was also there.

The entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks, is one of 40 camps and subcamps around Oświęcim, a town that is roughly 30 miles west of Kraków, Poland’s second-largest city, that became known to the world as Auschwitz. Upwards of 90 percent of the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz died at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is roughly 1 1/2 miles northwest of Auschwitz I in the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau in German), and more than 90 percent of those murdered upon their arrival were Jewish.

The ruins of two crematoria the Nazis blew up before the Soviets liberated the camp in January 1945 are there. (A group of Israelis were praying in front of them while our group was there.) A train car used to bring people to the camp was also there, along with some of the barracks in which those who were not immediately killed in the gas chambers lived.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s sheer size is incomprehensible.

A train car used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Brzezinka, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Nazis killed 6 million Jewish people in the Holocaust. They also murdered gay men, Poles, Roma, Sinti and millions of other people from across Europe.

The day I visited Auschwitz marked six months since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel. 

More than 1,400 people — including 260 people who Hamas militants murdered at the Nova music festival in Re’im, a kibbutz that is a few miles from the Gaza Strip — have died in Israel since Oct. 7, 2023. The subsequent war has left more than 30,000 Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled enclave dead, and millions more struggling to survive. Oct. 7 was the deadliest attack against Jewish people since the Holocaust. That unfortunate coincidence of dates — Oct. 7 and April 7 — was not lost on me while I was at Auschwitz. 

Another striking thing is the area in which the camps are located.

The train from Kraków to Oświęcim passes through idyllic countryside with green meadows, flowering trees and freshly tilled fields. Purple lilacs — like those that bloom each spring on the trees in my mother’s backyard in New Hampshire — were in full bloom inside Auschwitz I. Grass and dandelions were growing amid the remains of Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s barracks. Birds were chirping. The weather was also unseasonably warm with temperatures well over 80 degrees and a cloudless sky.

All of it was beyond surreal.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau on april 7, 2024. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

I visited Auschwitz while on assignment for the Washington Blade in Poland. I interviewed gay Deputy Polish Justice Minister Krzysztof Śmiszek in Warsaw and sat down with activists in the Polish capital and Kraków to talk about the country’s new government and the continued plight of LGBTQ refugees from Ukraine and other countries. My trip began in Budapest, Hungary, and ended in Berlin. I did not write this piece until I on my flight back to D.C. on Tuesday because I could not properly articulate my thoughts about what I saw at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Brzezinka, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Governments, politicians, political candidates, and parties in the U.S. and around the world have used specific groups of people to advance a particular agenda, to blame them for what is wrong in their particular country and/or to deflect blame from their own failures. The Nazis and what they did to Jewish people and anyone else they deemed inferior is the most grotesque example of what can happen if such actions are not stopped.

Łukasz told us outside of one of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau barracks at the end of our tour that the world “isn’t that much different today.” He also said that we are “witnesses.”

“It’s up to you how you react to it,” said Łukasz.

Let’s hope we all do our part to make sure the atrocities that happened at Auschwitz never happen again.

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Preserving our tapestry: Navigating European elections, empowering queer women and the imperative of safe spaces

EU elections will take place in June 9

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The German Reichstag in Berlin in 2022. EU elections will take place on June 9, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

As the European Union anticipates the upcoming elections in June, a disconcerting wave of transphobic rhetoric has swept across the continent, notably in 21 EU member states, according to a recent report by ILGA-Europe. The 13th Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of LGBTQ People in Europe and Central Asia stresses the alarming rise in hate speech targeting the LGBTQ and intersex community. This growth in negativity — which particularly is directed at transgender people — raises profound concerns about the state of inclusivity, human rights and democracy within the EU. 

The alarming surge of transphobia in European politics

According to the report, there is a trend of hate speech coming  from politicians across 32 European countries of which 21 being EU member states. Painting a stark picture of the challenges faced by the LGBTQ community. In a staggering list that includes Austria, Germany, Spain and others, politicians have increasingly weaponized anti-trans rhetoric. Exploiting children is a tactic often used as part of scare strategies to create opposition to trans minors’ access to healthcare and educational facilities, extending this divisive approach to a broader trend where politicians argue that restricting information about LGBTQ people is a necessity to protect minors.

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government over the last decade has cracked down on LGBTQ rights in the country. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The rise in transphobic rhetoric is not only confined to politics but it has other tangible consequences. The report highlights a concerning escalation in suicide rates and mental health issues, particularly in LGBTQ youth. Violent protests outside schools and libraries have created unsafe environments, adding to the growing list of challenges faced by the community.

The far-reaching impact of demonization by politicians and the introduction of restrictive legislation underscores the need for urgent action. Hate speech is not merely an affront to people’s rights, it is an assault on the very core values upon which the EU was founded. As ILGA-Europe Advocacy Director Katrin Hugendubel notes, human rights, especially those of LGBTQ people, are facing a significant challenge from far-right forces. The exploitation of LGBTQ rights to undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law highlights the divisive nature of the current political landscape. 

As ILGA-Europe prepares to launch the “Come Out 4 Europe” campaign in response to these alarming trends, the need for visible and supportive queer female spaces is more apparent than ever. The campaign, seeking commitments from European Parliament candidates to protect the rights of LGBTQ people, underscores the urgency of safeguarding human rights, democracy and freedom. 

The crucial role of queer women in European elections

Belgium, amid this backdrop of rising transphobia, is preparing for the European elections on June 9, 2024. The importance of this electoral process cannot be overstated, especially for queer women. With citizens aged 16 and above casting their votes to elect 22 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), it’s a pivotal moment for the LGBTQ community.

The voting process in Belgium follows EU law, utilizing a proportional representation system. Voters choose one party, either by marking the box above the party list or selecting individual candidates on the list. The total ballot forms for each party determine seat distribution, and preferential votes then decide which candidates secure a seat in the European Parliament.

Educated voting in the European elections is essential to queer women and the importance cannot be stressed enough. Throughout history they have faced unique battles, but this community holds the power to shape policies that directly influence their lives. By engaging in the democratic process, queer women can actively challenge the current surge in hate speech towards trans people by voting for electing representatives who actively advocate for LGBTQ rights. 

Representation is more than a mere buzzword. It matters. Understanding candidates’ positions on LGBTQ issues is key and requires educating oneself on candidates’ stances as to allow queer women to vote for representatives who genuinely champion LGBTQ rights. A diverse and inclusive representation ensures that the concerns and voices of the queer community are not just heard but which are acted upon. Decisions within the European Parliament influence policies ranging from anti-discrimination laws to access to healthcare. An informed vote makes sure that legislation promotes equality, acceptance and the protection of LGBTQ rights.

By being educated on the European elections and its candidates, queer women embark on a journey of self-empowerment. By supporting candidates who prioritize inclusive curricula, they contribute to addressing LGBTQ history, health and rights, encouraging a more accepting future.

The undeniable need for physical queer women spaces

Since the European elections are nearing, the importance of physical spaces for queer women to gather and discuss voting and the candidates becomes increasingly evident. While online spaces offer the chance to connect and discuss, they come with their own unique challenges, including the spread of misinformation and miscommunication. In navigating the democratic landscape, the value of in-person gatherings for education and discussion cannot be stressed enough.

The world is saturated with digital information, and misinformation can easily infiltrate online spaces. Physical gatherings allow for a more controlled environment with direct feedback from peers, where queer women can share accurate and reliable information, ensuring a more nuanced understanding of candidates, policies and the electoral process. 

In the lead-up to the European elections, we have to recognize that physical spaces for queer women are crucial. They do not only combat misinformation, disinformation and miscommunication but also serve as a vital space for shared learning. In-person gatherings create the foundation for an informed and engaged electorate, promoting a collective voice that resonates in the democratic process. The power of change lies not just in our votes but in the shared wisdom and unity forged in the physical spaces we create together.

The plight of the Crazy Circle and the call for investment in queer women spaces

After the closing of Brussels’ iconic Crazy Circle, a feminist queer space that has served as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, it becomes increasingly evident that the struggle for queer women-only spaces in Belgium is a critical issue demanding our attention.

For the past five years, Crazy Circle has been a testament to the resilience of the LGBTQ community, creating a safe and celebratory space for queer women and their allies. However, its closure after the previous management leaving for unknown reasons and current fundraising attempt by the new owners to reopen highlight the challenges faced by such spaces in Belgium. These establishments play a vital role not only as social hubs but as catalysts for education, empowerment and advocacy. Fortunately for the new owners they recently reached their fundraising goals and raised over 50,000 euros to reopen Crazy Circle. 

The loss of a space like this underscores the broader struggle faced by queer women-only spaces in Belgium. Beyond being social hubs, these spaces are vital agents of change, providing a haven for education, empowerment and advocacy. We must recognize that our commitment to the LGBTQ community extends beyond words.

The “Come Out 4 Europe” campaign by ILGA-Europe serves as a proactive response to the alarming trends in hate speech. It calls for clear political commitments on safeguarding human rights, democracy and freedom from candidates in the upcoming European Parliament elections in June. Belgium, with its own elections on the horizon, stands at a crossroads where the choices made will resonate far beyond its borders.

If we want to inform queer females about campaigns like “Come Out 4 Europe” we need spaces like the Crazy Circle. Its closure is a stark reminder of the fragility of these vital spaces. It’s a call to action, urging us to invest more in preserving and expanding queer women-only spaces. The struggle faced by Crazy Circle is not an isolated incident; it reflects a broader challenge that demands a collective response all over the world. 

By fighting to preserve and expand queer women-only spaces, we are not merely safeguarding physical venues. We are investing in the education, empowerment and advocacy of the LGBTQ community. These spaces are not mere bars or gathering spots; they are crucial agents of change and empowerment.

Building a future of inclusivity

As we see what happened to Crazy Circle in Belgium, let us use this moment as a catalyst for change. It is time to rally together behind existing queer women spaces, ensuring their survival and actively working towards expanding and creating new ones. By doing so we empower individuals to educate, advocate, and, most importantly, vote for a future where safety, equality and acceptance prevail for all members of the LGBTQ community. It’s not only a matter of choice to preserve these spaces; it is a commitment to a world where everyone has the right to be safe, heard and celebrated. 

In navigating the complex tapestry of the European elections, the empowerment of queer women spaces through informed voting and the preservation of physical queer women spaces become integral threads. As we stand on the precipice of change, our choices today will shape the inclusive and accepting future we envision. Together, let us weave a tapestry that celebrates diversity, protects human rights and builds a future where every voice, especially those of queer women, is not just heard but cherished.

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