Rare piece of queer history found with a simple Google search

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Researchers at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University made the experience that sometimes a small treasure can be hidden in plain sight when a simple Google search led them to a rare document credited with helping to lay the foundation for the gay rights movement.

English writer John Addington Symonds (1840-1893)

Written in 1873 by English poet and historian John Addington Symonds, A Problem in Greek Ethics was an essay questioning why Western culture, which had modeled itself on that of classical Greece, did not embrace and accept homosexuality as the ancient Greeks had supposedly done. Fearing that a work promoting the morality of same-sex relations – which were deemed a criminal offense in 19th century England – might potentially lead to his imprisonment, Symonds had only 10 copies printed in an effort to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Of these, five had been thought to have survived, now in the collections of libraries in the UK and US.

According to the Baltimore Sun, that assumption was abruptly proven wrong when Gabrielle Dean, a curator at Johns Hopkins, was doing research for an upcoming exhibit called “Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds.”

“I was trying to verify the authenticity of Symonds’ handwriting by comparing the example we had to samples of his handwriting in other books,” she said. “I googled ‘John Addington Symonds’ handwriting’ and one of the hits was a brand-new listing for ‘A Problem in Greek Ethics’ from a rare book dealer.”

She shared the information with Shane Butler, director of the university’s Classics Research Lab, and the two obtained approval to purchase the book for an undisclosed price. Butler said, “I was blown away when Gabrielle showed me the listing… The odds of coming across something so incredibly rare are practically zero.”

Symonds was himself attracted to men, but like most gay men of his era lived a closeted life, with a wife and four children – though his sexual orientation was, at least late in his life, something of an “open secret.” While his name is mostly familiar today only with literary scholars, he was well-known in his time, counting such literary figures as Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson in his circle of acquaintances, and his writings in A Problem in Greek Ethics seem to have influenced Oscar Wilde in his defense while on trial for “gross indecency.”

Butler says, “Even if Symonds was forgotten after he died, his essay wasn’t. Pirated copies were passed hand to hand and read throughout the 20th century. The essay has been enormously influential in the struggle for gay rights.”

“There’s something sacred about a book like this,” he adds, “especially for queer students and gay faculty like myself. Just knowing that it’s there and being able to hold it and turn its pages is incredibly moving.”

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Author charged with child porn over one paragraph in fairy tale

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Books are a fairly free medium. They can get away with things that films or shows can’t. In books dark themes can be explored that no one would dare to put on screen. Rape, incest and sexual fantasies can be described in a way that wouldn’t be possible in any other context.

It’s unlikely that George R.R. Martin ever considered showing certain scenes from his books in which naked teenage boys get drowned or underage strippers have sex in front of one of the main protagonists on TV when he wrote the script for Game of Thrones.

While this freedom books enjoy isn’t always used responsibly (rape as a plot device is an incredibly tired trope), these dark themes don’t only appear for entertainment purposes. Writing about them can be a way to process trauma both for the author and the reader.

But for a while now there seems to be an increasing effort to sweep everything uncomfortable under the carpet as if bad things stop happening if we just turn a blind eye and pretend they’re not a part of our reality.

Art dealing with any kind of dark theme is being pushed out of online spaces and it looks like books aren’t safe anymore either as a recent case from Canada indicates.

Last April, Quebec author Yvan Godbout and his publisher Nycolas Doucet were charged with producing and distributing child pornography. The charges against them stem from a single paragraph in one of Godbout’s novels, a dark retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which a father sexually assaults his daughter.

Godbout and Doucet were arrested in March 2019, after a reader came upon the passage and called the authorities. The work was not marketed to children, contains no explicit visual images, a content warning was printed on the back, and the scene is meant to be horrifying, not erotic.

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The Wishing Game

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The Wishing Game, written by Patrick Redmond is a psychological horror story about shy 14-year-old Jonathan Palmer becoming friends with the fearless Richard Rokeby in the systematically oppressive boarding school of Kirkston Abbey, realising too late how dangerous his new friend might be. As Jonathan falls further under Richard’s possessive control, the two boys find a Ouija board and begin a game that reaps deadly results.

The framing of the story helps to set up the plot. First there is a letter directed to a newspaper deriding the insinuation that the public school system was to blame for the events at Kirkston Abbey. This leads into the prologue where a man meets with a journalist to tell him the truth about the mysterious events of December 9, 1954 and the circumstances that led up to the final tragedy.

So begins the friendship of Jonathan and Richard, and the isolated codependency that the relationship turns into. Many characters become involved as Richard identifies those who he believes pose a threat to his connection with Jonathan, and the wishing game that they have started makes all of them victims of his rage.

As the book takes place in the ’50s at a Norfolk public school for rich, young boys, there is quite a bit of casual prejudice against any exhibiting the non-hegemonic race and sexuality of the time and location, as well as certain gender roles that were expected to be fulfilled.

Redmond depicts his characters as very flawed individuals, not just in Richard’s madness, but in Jonathan’s insecurities, the relationship between the Perriman twins (strained due to familial expectations, but still extremely loving and close), the unhappy marriage of the Latin professor and his wife who loves him but blackmails him into staying with her, etc. In these flaws he makes them unhappy, but believable. None of the characters are really able to fit into a black and white setting of “good” or “evil” after their complete stories are told.

The most eerie thing about this book is that the reader is never really 100% sure that there is anything supernatural going on for the first few parts of the novel. There are heavy insinuations of it, but information to blackmail and psychologically torture people can be found in many different ways beyond summoning dark spirits. It is only at the climax of the book that there is a confirmation, and what a confirmation it is. The scares in this book are as good and subtle as its homoerotic undertones.

The rise of young adult books with LGBTQ characters

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When Amy Rose Capetta started writing her young adult novel “Echo After Echo,” she wasn’t sure if it would be embraced by the publishing industry.

Though she had already published two books, “Echo After Echo” was different: The mystery, set on Broadway in New York, features a romance between two teenage girls. As she searched for a publisher, Capetta, 34, said she was never explicitly told to tone down her characters’ sexuality, but she did wonder if editors who said they were “not able to connect” with the characters were really saying that the same-sex relationship might not appeal to straight readers.

“I wrote ‘Echo After Echo’ in breathless fear that I was tanking the career I’d been dreaming of and working toward,” she said. “That story took three years, which is a long time to be breathless.”

Yet instead of diminishing her career, “Echo After Echo,” which was published in 2017, did the opposite. It was a Junior Library Guild selection and established Capetta, who identifies as queer, as an LGBTQ young adult author. She’s scheduled to have three books published in 2019.

The market for YA books featuring protagonists who identify as LGBTQ is growing, as publishers and authors tap a rising demand among young readers for a broader diversity of characters and storylines.

Publishers including Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf said they do not track the number of YA books with LGBTQ protagonists, but they have observed an increase in the genre over the last few years.

“In years past, you would see a concentration of distribution in the institutional and education markets, as well as independent stores,” Justin Chanda, vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, wrote in an emailed statement. “Today, there are many, many books featuring LGBTQ+ characters being published in various genres that are being carried in large numbers by all accounts.”

Some of those books — including works by Amber Smith, Christina Lauren and Tim Federle — have become best-sellers. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 2012 book “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” — a story about two Mexican-American boys navigating family relationships, race and sexuality — has been one of the Simon & Schuster’s best-selling backlist titles for the past several years, Chanda said.

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In a land of lost wonders, the past is stirring once more… Gene’s life resembles a debutante’s dream. Yet she hides a secret that would see her shunned by the nobility. Gene is both male and female. Then she displays unwanted magical abilities – last seen in mysterious beings from an almost-forgotten age.

Pantomime  by Laura Lam starts as the tale of two apparently unlinked young people: the young would-be trapeze artist Micah Grey, and the noblewoman who calls herself Gene who’s about to be married off, should her parents get their way.

These boy-girl dual storylines are increasingly common in YA so I assumed something along the lines of a love story, albeit an unusual one. But Laura Lam weaves her first surprise of many into the opening chapters, and we realise that Micah and Gene are the same person.

Micah is intersex, and this was exceptionally well demonstrated throughout the novel. The alternating stories got closer and closer to each other as the narrative continued. It also felt very natural to me: the fact that Micah is intersex didn’t stick out to me, and although it was obvious from things he said, it didn’t feel forced by the author.

Instead, Micah’s character simply unfolded: rather than seeming like Laura Lam just fancied writing about an intersex character, Pantomime had the rare yet wonderful concept of a protagonist that has been discovered instead of being created. As someone who is cisgender, it still felt extremely relatable, which can sometimes put people off reading queer books but needn’t do so.

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The History of Living Forever

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Jake Wolff’s debut novel The History of Living Forever is a science fiction story, a gay romance, and a Hardy Boys mystery all rolled into one. But the ultimate moral dilemma of its teenaged protagonist almost lifts the book above any specific genre.

At the centre of the story is Conrad, a high school student whose life is upended by the sudden death of his chemistry teacher and lover, Sammy, “the kind of guy who uses semicolons in text messages.”

Conrad was having an illicit affair with Sammy and his passing leaves the sensitive student reeling. After Sammy’s death, Conrad discovers his notebooks, which are filled with disjointed pieces of information about his search for an elixir of life. It is left to Conrad to pull these pieces together and complete Sammy’s work.

What could have been just a page-turning mystery is given poignancy by the stakes Conrad and his friend RJ have in discovering the elixir: each is out to save a family member from dying. The personal stories of Conrad and RJ encourage the reader to consider the ethical side of medicine we struggle with today. Who deserves to live? How much should we sacrifice of our own lives to advance medicine for the benefit of others? How long do we want to live?

Wolff consistently grounds the book in the science of the boys’ quest. He even presents us with case histories of real people, starting with Ge Hong, fourth-century scholar and first practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. Especially in its second half, the novel is immersed in the experimental details of the potion. For those whose interest in science is limited to the broad strokes of political discourse, these descriptions may seem to bog the story down somewhat, but they’re essential to give credibility to Wolff’s fantastical plot.

Emphasizing science allows Wolff to wrestle with some weighty questions about how we live our lives: Do we follow the hard data of science? Our hearts? We ignore either at our peril, Wolff seems to tell us. Conrad reveals that his mother died when he was ten years old in a house fire caused by a burning cigarette. The fire inspector told the family that she “did everything wrong: she went up when you’re supposed to go down, she traveled toward the heat and not away from it.” The message is that she might have been spared if she had only obeyed the laws of science. And in a witty Author’s Note, Wolff reminds us not to play with science: “Every recipe in this book, if ingested, will kill you. Every single one.” He ends with the cliché, “Do not try this at home.”

In one of Sammy’s journals, we discover that he believes science might well serve the needs of our emotional well-being:

There is some way to treat everything at once…what the Greeks called panakeia, the all healing. My goal is not to live forever but to live happily—to figure out what happiness means.

Luckily most of the time the book manages to address the lofty issues it deals with without losing its ability to entertain.

Review via Lambda Literary

Yay! You’re gay! Now what?

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The light beneath the door of the closet is just a sliver. It’s enticing, though, and you’re eager to see what’s on the other side, finally ready to open that door and come out. In Yay! You’re Gay! Now What? a book for queer boys by Riyadh Khalaf, you’ll find some advice for doing it.

For awhile, months, maybe years, you’ve been “feeling different.” You think you might be gay and that’s “OK, it’s normal, and it’s not something you need to change.” Or you may be bi or pan or non-binary, “it simply comes down to how you feel” and it may have everything or nothing to do with the anatomy you got at birth. The thing to remember is that, “You cannot change who you are.”

This may cause a lot of worry, for yourself and for people you love. Recognize that anxiety before it goes wild and know how to break the cycle. Being gay, Khalaf says, is actually a “gift,” as you’ll eventually begin to see.

That’s a gift you can share or not, says Khalaf, because “you can come out whenever and however you want,” it’s your call. Yes, family members might freak out at first and your friends might retreat but you’ll find advice on how to cope with that and a reminder that “almost every relationship is salvageable.”

So let’s say you’re out, comfortable with it and you’re ready to find your first true love. It’s OK to go online and look but Khalaf says to be wary: you know how easy it is to pretend you’re someone you’re not when you’re on a computer, so be safe. Also be safe when you go to clubs or parties and remember that protecting your heart is important, too. Relationships can be different, your first kiss can be amazing and your body may respond in embarrassing ways to all of the above.

Here’s the first thing you’ll need to know about Yay! You’re Gay! Now What?: absolutely anyone can read it, including parents and allies, but it’s really geared toward gay teen boys and young men. Indeed, author Riyadh Khalaf includes pages expressly for those allies and parents, but later parts of the book are filled with valid information that may be more graphic than they’ll want.

Still, that info will speak directly to the heart and the health of young men just coming out in a way that’s not stuffy or clinical, but that’s more lightheartedly factual. Khalaf is gay and he uses his own personal anecdotes as tools to teach, but he’s not pious or pushy. Instead, there’s a whole lot of care and camaraderie in these pages, and the words “you are not alone” are not just written, they leap from each page.

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This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story

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This is Kind of an Epic Love Story by author Kheryn Callender focuses on the messy complexities of romance, friend-love and parental love in all of its frustrating, confusing forms.

Seattle-raised sixteen-year-old high school junior Nathan Bird, stuck mending a broken arm in the middle of the school year, is trying to navigate the world around him with the help of his best friend and ex-girlfriend Florence.

An aspiring filmmaker who’s afraid he has no real talent and who’s realistic about happy endings, Nate’s been avoiding anything approaching romance since Flo cheated on him with her current girlfriend, Lydia – a relationship that’s currently on the rocks.

Out of guilt, at least in part, for the end romantic relationship, Flo decides it’s her mission to help Nate lose his virginity before he turns seventeen, to his great embarrassment. Flo’s mission might come to fruition, for Nate is hiding a slowly developing crush on Oliver James Hernandez, a budding photographer and his former childhood best friend.

This is Kind of an Epic Love Story is true to its title. It’s definitely an epic love story with ups and downs and many trials, both internal and external, for is main character Nathan.

The book is unabashedly queer and intersectional. It explores diversity as it relates to race, sex, socioeconomic status, deaf culture, and more.  If you love stories with a focus on relationships and all kinds of romance this book is for you. If you’re not into that kind of drama, it may not be completely your cup of tea.

Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities

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After becoming blind in his late 20s, Belo Miguel Cipriani found himself in search of disability stories. “As a gay teen,” he writes in his introduction:

I found great comfort in the writings of Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, and Edmund White. So, it felt pretty natural to seek comfort in literature once I learned the rest of my life would be spent in darkness.

After countless hours of audiobooks, though, he was struck by “how little discussion there is of the rites of passage of people with disabilities.” This was the genesis for Firsts, his anthology of coming-of-age stories by writers with disabilities, published in October by Oleb Books. But Cipriani’s book does not simply tell the stories of how these writers’ disabilities happened, it tells about the firsts in their lives. Their firsts in independence, first jobs, schooling. Love. Sex. This review will focus on essays by three LGBTQ contributors to the anthology: Caitlin Hernandez, David-Elijah Nahmod, and Andrew Gurza.

“Star Words,” by David-Elijah Nahmod, begins with Nahmod’s early, relatively happy childhood in an Arab/Jewish family. “We were Jews but we were also Arabs,” he writes. “We were hardly the All-American, Caucasian family my parents fervently believed themselves to be.” Upsetting this life is Nahmod’s enthusiasm for a movie musical, which leads his parents to believe (correctly) that he’s gay. As Nahmod puts it, “I was branded for life.” In 1964, at the age of eight, he was committed to a Children’s Psychiatric Ward at the advice of a rabbi. During three months in the hospital, he was treated with Thorazine (now banned for use on children) and received electroconvulsive therapy. This left Nahmod, in his words, “an emotional wreck.”

A fascination with TV and movies just may have saved him. It motivated him to interview a disabled cast member of the TV show Passions, who became a big inspiration to Nahmod. And in spite of a discomfort with crowds, Nahmod has carved out a career as a writer and interviewer.

Caitlin Hernandez’ essay, “Landmines,” follows her efforts to find love and sex despite her blindness. Much of her essay is also about a male friend, to whom she becomes close. As they are both gay, the relationship is, to say the least, complicated:

The hopelessness of the situation was, to my mind, absolute. We’d each loved both men and women but I’d been with more women and he’d been with more men. He was excited and carefree about love; I was frightened and cautious.

Nonetheless, there are touching, loving, and funny moments between them, such as going to a concert where she sits behind a pillar (“I figured you wouldn’t mind taking one for the team,” her friend says), walking and talking together, and eventually, making love. “I’d taken a chance,” she writes, “a wild, graceless leap off a long-feared precipice—and not only was I intact, I was better for having leapt.”

Andrew Gurza’s essay, “Baring It All,” is at times funny and at times brutal in its story of Gurza leaving home for college and his quest for sex. This is another difference in Firsts: most books do not talk about people with disabilities having sex lives. This one does. Gurza opens the essay describing the routines his caregivers would go through to bathe and dress him daily, and how being naked in front of other people was something he had become used to living with cerebral palsy.

“I wanted so badly to be touched in a way that was different than I had ever been before,” he writes. “In my head I had fantastical daydreams of being swept up out of my wheelchair feverishly and undressed by a beautiful man who wanted me just as much as I wanted him.”

He makes contact online with someone, laying bare his desires and his disability. The resulting encounter is everything Gurza wished for, but it comes to a shattering conclusion, one that eventually changes him. “Ultimately, though, being naked for the first time with a man was a stepping stone for me as a queer, disabled man,” he says.

Cipriani’s anthology is at times entertaining, but it is moments like these that make it truly inspirational. The essays in Firsts are a well-written blend of funny, sad, informative, and ultimately life-affirming personal stories, and the collection is recommended highly.

via Lambda Literary

Many banned books in the U.S. challenged for queer content

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More than half of the top 11 most frequently challenged and banned books of 2018 include LGBTQ content, according to a report released Monday by the American Library Association.

“Books for youth with LGBTIQ+ content are consistently on our list of most challenged books; this trend goes back to the mid-1990’s, when Nancy Garden’s ‘Annie on my Mind’ was banned by a school board in Texas,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, interim director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in a statement. “That said, we are noticing a greater number of challenges to books with LGBTIQ+ content, especially those that have transgender characters and themes.”

In 2017, four of the top 10 banned books were challenged for LGBTQ content, and in 2016, five were challenged for this reason.

George,” a coming-of-age story by Alex Gino, topped this year’s list. The award-winning, young-adult novel is about a transgender girl coming to terms with her gender identity. This is the third consecutive year “George” made the ALA’s “Most Challenged Books” list, which is part of the association’s annual “State of America’s Libraries Report.”

According to the report, “George” has been repeatedly “banned, challenged, and relocated” because it’s “believed to encourage children to clear browser history and change their bodies using hormones.” The ALA also noted there were complaints about the book for “mentioning ‘dirty magazines,’ describing male anatomy, ‘creating confusion,’ and including a transgender character.”

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