Dennis Altman changed my life.

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Having just finished Dennis Altman’s 1997 memoir, Defying Gravity: A Political Life, I was reminded of one of the very first books I read as I was coming out.

I was twenty years old, working at Books, Inc. at Town and Country Village, a suburban shopping mall in San Jose. I was excited to be working directly across the street from the Winchester Mystery House, which had completely intrigued me when I first visited with my family around 1960. Today, not only the bookstore but the entire shopping center is gone, replaced by ubiquitous high rises. The Mystery House has not only endured, but is likely to get yet another lease on life with a forthcoming biopic with Helen Mirren portraying the enigmatic Sarah Winchester.

But I digress. Barely out and trying to find my way as a gay man, I was not even 21 so couldn’t (legally) get into bars. I somehow found Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, published in 1971. I temporarily “borrowed” it, surreptitiously sliding it off the shelf and into my backpack. I wasn’t ready to come out to my colleagues by actually buying it. I read it gingerly, then a few days later slipped it back into place. The book changed my life, my way of thinking, gave me a road map. Led me to other books, including the 1972 anthology Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay Allen Young. Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. Impressed upon me the power of literature, fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps even steered me to my career as a queer librarian, reviewing books for Library Journal, perhaps influencing library acquisitions across the country. I’d like to think Altman would approve: “Activism takes many forms and since my apprenticeship in underground politics I have come to enjoy certain forms of political activity ‘within the system’.”

Now, 45 years later, I am again communing with Altman. The San Francisco Public Library didn’t hold a copy of the 20-year-old book, nor was it available through Link+, so I requested it through Interlibrary Loan. Who was in charge of acquisitions for gay and lesbian titles in 1997, I’d like to know! Oh, wait, it was me! Apparently, as an Australian imprint, it was not on my radar.

I was surprised to learn that Altman, nine years my senior, is Jewish and grew up in Tasmania. Who knew? I also didn’t know in 1972 that I could claim a Jewish identity, a fact that remained unrevealed until ten years ago. Altman’s sojourns in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Paris parallel some of the people and places I myself visited, perhaps at the same time. How is it that a man who doesn’t know of my existence has so greatly influenced my life? Such is the power of books. Thank you, Dennis.

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Alphabet Pride

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When I began working on the San Francisco Public Library’s project in the early 1990s, it was called the Gay & Lesbian Center, then the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, and recently renamed the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center.

I am often asked what the alphabet soup of initials represent. There’s even a new anthology entitled ALPHABET: The LGBTQAIU Creators from Prism Comics, edited by Jon Macy and Tara Madison Avery.

As I understand it today (correct me if I’m wrong, it might change by this afternoon):
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex (the umbrella category formerly known as “Hermaphrodite”), Asexual, Agender, Allies, Assholes (my facetious favorite), Unidentified. I’ve now seen the string written as “LGBTQIAU+ ” just to make sure no one feels left out. And of course, they can be reordered as necessary, for example in a nod to history the GLBT Historical Society maintains the G before the L, and I recall the heated internal debates before adding the B and later the T. Where will it all end? Who is feeling included and/or excluded?

I am reminded, on the 21st anniversary of Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, of a conversation with Armistead Maupin, who wrote the book’s foreword. “You’re not going to trot out that tired litany, are you?” I remember him saying. “Just use queer”. Armistead’s words, only a couple of years after the backlash against the San Francisco Pride Celebration for choosing “Year of the Queer” as the 1993 tagline, were music to my ears.

I am so exasperated by the ever-expanding acronym that I’ve started tacking on “LMNOP” and my dear friend (and GBTB co-author) Susan Stryker adds her own “MOUSE”. So, let’s all sing together:
“A B C D / E F G / Come and sing along with me / H I J K / L M N O P / Tell me what you want to be / Q R S / T U V / W X / Y and Z / Now I know my ABCs / Won’t you sing along with me?”

“(N)evermore”

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After a long, wonderful afternoon eating, drinking, and talking with a friend, Darlene and I returned to her new home in Burlingame. The two of us were in good spirits, having shared a bottle of champagne as well as a Manhattan for me.

I was in my car, already pulling away when Dar rushed up, agitated. I didn’t quite understand what had happened until she showed me: a raven lay stiff and still on her front porch. I had never seen a dead bird so close. Lucy, Dar’s rambunctious terrier (?), watched from the window.

What do we do now? Was it really, completely dead, not just dazed? We went to get a broom and dustpan. I tentatively poked at its body, simultaneously sorry/grateful that there was no sign of life. I didn’t want to get too close to it, and its large stone cold form didn’t fit into the small dustpan.

Unceremoniously I scooped it up with the broom and deposited it with a thud into the trash bin Dar had brought over. The unpleasant task was over instantly, but it seemed like there should have a moment of silence or that one of us should say a few words. Our relief felt tinged with unfinished business.

I learned afterward that what we should have done was to put the corpse in a plastic bag that could be twisted shut or sealed, or wrapped the cadaver in newspaper or rags. Though that seemed more respectful than merely tossing its naked form into the trash barrel, it would have entailed getting closer to the deceased. We surmised that it had been the victim of a window strike. Lucy offered no explanation.

It seemed redundant that a raven, a symbol of death, had died. What did this depressing dispatch symbolize? An ill omen in some cultures, good luck in others. Did it represent Bev, Dar’s soul mate, who had recently departed? Was it about our friend, in good spirits but facing the inevitable after his cancer diagnosis a few years ago. Was it yet one more message of memento mori, a morbid reminder on a waning Monday afternoon?