Queer Muppets: Representation Matters

Every few years, it seems, rumors swirl around about Bert and Ernie. Are they roommates, just good friends, or something more? Whenever such rumors come around, the Sesame Workshop, producers of Sesame Street, quickly issues a statement: they are just good friends.

In the latest round of this “controversy,” Mark Saltzman, who wrote for Sesame Street in the 80s and 90s, stated that he always thought of the pair as a loving couple. Without an agenda, no pink triangles or rainbow flags, not even so much as a show tune soundtrack in their apartment. Just a couple living their lives.

NOPE!

Once again, Sesame Workshop issued a statement saying that they were just “best friends.”

Let’s study this statement. “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics…they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.” (Emphasis added.) So they have gender, but no sexual orientation. I fail to see how they can present gender and “many human traits and characteristics,” except the one, the unspeakable one.

I grew up watching Sesame Street. It premiered when I was four. I remember other couples on the show, some human, some muppets. They all presented as heterosexual without a qualm. But sadly, as always, non-heterosexual orientations need not apply. This, despite the fact that Mr. Saltzman is not the only gay person to have worked on the show. Others have. At least one has died of AIDS.

It all comes from a failure to have intelligent, age appropriate conversations with kids about other sexualities and genders and other coupling possibilities. I did not wake up on my 18th birthday and “decide” BOING! I’m GAY! No. That’s not how it works. I had my first gay impulses when I was six or seven. These were the same sort of yearnings that many kids have at that age. But when a boy longs for Patrick instead of Patricia, the so-called adults in the room have a fit. That’s where the problems begin.

Representation matters. Ernie presents as black while Bert presents as white. And they live together in peace. Seeing as the show is a child of the 60s, it makes sense that it would portray racial harmony among the muppets. I’m sure Sesame Workshop would have no problem with this interpretation. So it saddens me greatly that they continue to put up a barrier when it comes to non-heterosexual identities and couplings. Pretending that Bert and Ernie have no sexual orientation, just because the subject is “taboo,” is silly and wrong. It’s time to lift this taboo once and for all.

Imagine all the good it would do for a show like Sesame Street to have a gay couple or lesbian couple or  a transgender character. I could hear one of the kids on the show saying offhandedly something like “That’s Bert and Ernie. They’re married.” Or, “That’s Joe. He likes to play with trucks.” One need not go into anything deep about sex lives or the like. After all, do we know what Susan and Gordon do behind closed doors? No. But we know that they are married.

I wrote a few years ago how Grover was one of my queer icons. A part of me identified with him on that level, as a child, because it felt comfortable and natural for me to do so. I’m sure the then-Children’s Television Workshop would have poo-poohed me. But as Grover himself would say, with a bitchy cadence, “I do not care!”

One day, I hope Sesame Workshop will care, and will stop hiding behind societal pressure to maintain a straight face. Let a character “come out.” Let one have an innocent relationship, the way children do at that age. All kids do. I had plenty of crushes when I was six or seven. And they were all boys. And that’s OK. Just do it. It would have done me a world of good to have seen positive role models at so young an age. Representation matters.

Wild Fires and Asthma

Red skies over Oakland.

Just over a week ago, my weather app reported an air quality index reading of 158: Unhealthy. A pit formed in my stomach fed by flashbacks of last year. Once again, California was on fire. I looked out the window and the sun took on familiar colors as it moved toward the west. It began as an orangish yellow, turning more orange as it descended. Finally, as it parsed though a thick swath of smokey atmosphere, its hues tinted red.

Here we go again, I moan.

October 2017 saw the worst fire season on record at that time for much of the west coast, including California. Harsh winds blew the night the Napa fire ignited. The smell of smoke alarmed me, got me out of bed. I wondered if we had a fire in our bucolic neighborhood, lovely trees that would make good fuel. Noticing nothing unusual outside, I searched online. Twitter revealed that the smoke I smelled came from Napa, 46 miles away. It had a rancid smell, like someone burning garbage. Turns out, the fire started in a dump. The wild winds that night transmitted those noxious fumes with the speed of an electric current traveling down a wire.

Last year was the year of the N95 respirator. Regular dust masks do not keep out the particles created by wild fires. By the time we learned we needed N95s, the hardware stores had already sold out. Friends gave me some that they had. I also kept my asthma inhaler handy.

As a kid, I had asthma really badly. Attacks lasted not hours or days but weeks. I can remember staying out of school for at least 2 weeks behind an attack. I simply couldn’t breath. The proverbial elephant sat on my chest and stayed there. My little, 8-year-old lungs could not get enough air inside of me. I had to take medication, a sickly yellow syrup that tasted horrible. They tried to mask the taste of the medication with sweetness, but no amount of sugar made that medicine go down without a grimace on my face. Still, I took it. I gulped the nasty mess dutifully every four hours, hoping, praying that it would liberate my lungs, get them to function properly again, so that I didn’t have to think about breathing anymore. 

That was the thing. I felt like I had to consciously think about breathing in order to make it happen. After several days, that became very exhausting. Sometimes I wondered if I would just stop breathing. I spent many hours staring at the ceiling wondering about that what if.

As I got older, my lungs growing to adult size, the bad attacks ended. Only occasional flare ups come and go, brought on by such things as cat dander or smoke. 

My husband and I went camping once at Lassen Volcanic National Park. For some god-unknown reason, the park was doing a controlled burn not too far from the campsite. Yes, it was smoky. Very smoky. At night, I could not sleep. Whenever I nodded off, I’d wake up almost instantly, gasping for air. The elephant had returned. I felt as if I had regressed and my lungs returned to their former, diminutive, vulnerable state. My husband didn’t like the sound of my gasping. At the break of dawn, he packed us up, threw me in the car and barreled us out of there. Once we cleared the smoke, and got to a lower elevation, my breathing returned to normal. Back home I slept well that night.

This year’s fire in Mendocino was declared the largest in California’s history. Families lost homes. Some lost their lives. Scientists tell us that this is the new normal, due to climate change. Hotter, drier weather feeds the fire storms. Last year the bad fire season came in October. This year it came in August. We have longer, deadlier seasons to look forward to as our climate changes. I remember Santa Ana winds as a kid growing up in LA. Now Northern California has an equivalent. They whip through fast, carrying dry danger with them.

I look at the red sunsets and worry. I don’t want to gasp anymore, forced to think about my breathing in order to make it happen. I don’t want to suffocate on someone else’s misery, the fine particles that used to be their homes.

When I became a teenager, I no longer had to take the sickly yellow syrup for asthma flare ups. I “graduated” to inhalers and flavorless pills. But for years, I couldn’t look at a tablespoon and not have the taste of the nasty yellow syrup return to my tastebuds.

A Reading at Laurel Books

I’ll be reading with Perfectly Queer at their last event at Laurel Books, Oakland this coming Wednesday, August 22 at 7pm. Laurel Books will be closing at the end of August, a great loss for the East Bay’s literary community. However, we’ll be celebrating the Oakland landmark in the event “Queer Authors read other Queer Authors.”

I’ll be reading from Joe Okonkwo’s award winning first novel Jazz Moon. Info below and click here for more details. Come join us raise a glass to queer lit and Laurel Books!

 

gar does DC: OutWrite 2018

Excited! I’m attending my first #OutWriteDC conference this year…and I’ll be kept quite busy!

I will co-facilitate a panel with legendary poet Philip Robinson entitled The Road Before Us: Black Queer Lit in the Post-Obama Era. Joining us on the panel will be La Toya Hankins, Larry Benjamin, and Cheryl Head.

Please join us! Our panel happens at 6pm on Saturday, August 4 at The DC Center for the LGBT Community: 2000 14th Street NW, #105. I can’t wait for our conversation!

Additionally, I will read from my novel Sin Against the Race also on Saturday, August 4 at 1pm in the Downstairs Reading Room.

I have a long history with OutWrite. OutWrite ’90 in San Francisco was the first queer writers’ conference in the US. And I was there. I saw Allen Ginsberg bounce on his feet excitedly as he read poetry and Judy Grahn talk about our histories. Her book, the legendary Another Mother Tongue, was among the first queer books I bought after coming out.

I attended two OutWrites in San Francisco, and then it moved back east. I went to one of those in Boston in 1998.

My thanks to Dave Ring, OutWriteDC organizer, for allowing me to join the party. In addition to attending this legendary event, I’ll get to see DC for the first time. Please come join us for the many lively, provocative, and fun events!

The One-Two Punch Against Democracy

The one-two punch.

The first punch came when Mitch McConnell refused to consider President Obama’s final Supreme Court choice, Judge Merrick Garland. In spite of everything, McConnell held his ground and won. Judge Garland did not receive so much as a hearing.

The second punch came on November 8, 2016, a day that will live in infamy. Trump got elected. I don’t buy the bit about folks flocking to Trump as a protest vote, to shake up the system. No. Trump got elected because a lot of people who likely would have voted against him didn’t vote. In some states, particularly in Wisconsin, many who wanted to vote couldn’t because of restrictive voter registration laws.

And now we see the results. The Supreme Court upheld Trumps’s anti-Muslim travel ban, even after lower court after lower court ruled against it. Additionally, the Court also ruled in favor of fake abortion clinics set up by anti-abortion zealots. These storefronts posing as medical offices try to talk shame women out of having abortions. They have no medical staff and are not medically certified. Their operation has nothing to do with medicine or healthcare. It has everything to do with manipulation and anti-woman animus.

In a day or two, the Supreme Court will likely deal a major blow against unions. They will rule that unions cannot collect “fair share” payments from people who are covered by a union contract, but are not union members. “Fair share” works on the principle that everyone who works under a union contract benefits from collective bargaining, therefore they should pay their fair share to the union. “Fair share” payments are often less than union dues. If the Court decides against “fair share,” unions will lose a great deal of money, weakening them further.

The right has relentlessly gone after unions for the last 50-60 years with dire consequences for workers. Look at wage inequity. It’s out of control. Furthermore, look at public sector jobs. The right has vilified them nearly out of existence. Indeed, the Trump administration has recently put forth a plan that would in effect eliminate the public sector entirely. If Congress enacts his radical ideas, the measures will likely face judicial challenges. Guess what will happen.

McConnell’s unprecedented behavior precipitated the first punch. But the second punch was a self-inflicted wound. And that’s why I’m livid. We don’t have to live in this world. We live in it because folks do not take their power seriously. Why do Republicans move heaven and earth to dissuade folks from voting? Why do they gerrymander everything from congressional districts to the Supreme Court? Because they know that they’ll lose if they don’t.

Republicans represent the interests of too few people: people with shit loads of money. So they (punch one–POW!) convince folks without shit loads of money that they should vote against their interests by lying to them. And (punch two–POW!) they rig the election system to make it hard for non-Republicans (particularly people of color) to vote. Furthermore, they set up congressional and state legislative districts in such a way that Democratic votes do not carry as much weight.

Their actions are criminal. But the biggest crime is that we allow Republicans to get away with it. While Democrats worry about procedure and being “nice,” Republicans are remaking the world in their image. And it’s a butt-ugly world.

The Music of Sin Against the Race: A Spotify Playlist

I created a Spotify playlist of the music associated with my novel Sin Against the Race. As I’ve written previously, and as those who have read the novel can attest, I reference a lot of music. It became, in effect, a character in the book. Tunes I listened to while writing and editing ended up becoming a part of the story. Most of the music in the book takes place in Sammy Turner’s corner grocery store, the neighborhood hangout for the book’s LGBTQ denizens. Indeed, Sammy is a semi-retired jazz musician. Thus, most of the music is jazz, though there are some variations on the theme.

In most cases, I reference songs by title in the book and these appear on the list. In a few cases, I just mention an artist by name–for the playlist, I added a representative tune. I found nearly everything. However, there are some unfortunate omissions, tunes not available on Spotify. These include “Alleybird” by Anton Schwartz and “Watching You Watching Me” by Mary Stallings. But you’ll still be able to get a feel for the music that went through my head as I wrote the novel by listening to this extensive playlist.

Warning: a few tracks (Miles Davis) go long!

 

 

Black Gay Bookstagram for Pride Month

This month, I’m curating a series of photos of books by and about black gay men on Instagram. We have a long, rich history of telling our stories. Sadly, much of it remains hidden just beneath the surface. Even today, one learns about these jewels by word of mouth.

Sometimes, folks ask me if I’ll continue writing stories involving black queer folks. My answer: yes. I won’t rest until black queers of all genders and orientations are part of the tapestry we call America, until our stories stand next to other literary giants. Because our stories are an integral part of America’s story.

I started this Bookstagram campaign with a classic: In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. Edited by Joseph Beam and published by Alyson Publications in 1986, it quickly became the standard bearer for black queer righteousness. From the back cover:

Editor Joseph Beam, who died of AIDS-related causes on December 27, 1988, began collecting this material after years of frustration with gay literature that had no message for–and little mention of–Black gay men.

Joseph Beam

We lost many literary heroes to AIDS. How many from the anthology fell to that disease? (Answer: Too Many.) But today, we continue to pay homage to their voices by shouting and screaming with our own righteousness.

To paraphrase the classic line from Joe Beam, we continue to come home with our head held up high.

In the Life holds a special place in my heart. I came out 30 years ago, just a few years after this book dropped. Filled with wonder about my newly acknowledged identity, I traveled to A Different Light Bookstore in Silver Lake. I found the anthology and quickly purchased it. Coincidentally, my friend Carolyn also gave me a copy after she learned of my coming out. The book helped me to find my voice. And it proved to me that no, I’m not alone. Its importance to my own, personal history made it the obvious choice for me to start my Bookstagram series with.

Follow me on Instagram as I Bookstagram classics from yesterday and today all month.

Happy Pride! 🏳️‍🌈

Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm by Hans M. Hirschi

Cover design by Natasha Snow

My friend Hans M. Hirschi’s 12th novel will drop on May 21, 2018: Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm. Here is a synopsis:

Martin is eighty-four years old, a Korean War veteran, living quietly in a retirement home in upstate New York. His days are ruled by the routine of the staff. In his thoughts and dreams, Martin often returns to the Seoul of his youth, and the lost true love of his life.

Two close friends urge him to travel back to search for that love. What awaits Martin in Korea, more than six decades after he left the country on a troop transport back to the U.S.?

Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is a story of friendship, love, and family, in all its many shapes, across time, generations and cultures.

It is already receiving interest in the writing community:

I can reassure those who know Mr. Hirschi as the Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings. He’s done it again.
This book, perhaps the most romantic of the books I’ve read so far by this author, in my opinion, is about a love story that has survived incredible odds and lasted almost a whole lifetime.

Although the story of elderly men or women trying to find a lost love is not new, I enjoyed Martin’s process of discovery and his coming into his own. I love the comradery and the way the three men helped each other, with Eugene playing the fairy godmother and facilitating the trip, Kevin providing the technical and hands-on know-how, and Martin confronting his fears to become the hero he was meant to be. This is a novel about friendship, about history, about love, and about hope. We should never lose our hope and dreams.

A gorgeous cover, for a truly romantic book that goes beyond the standard love story and includes an ensemble of characters you’ll feel sorry to say goodbye to.
Olga Núñez Miret
Author & Reviewer

Author photo by Alina Oswald

Hans M Hirschi has been writing stories ever since he was a child. Adulthood and the demands of corporate life put an end to his fictional writing for over twenty years. A global executive in training and channel development, Hans has traveled the world extensively and published a couple of non- fictional titles on learning and management.

The birth of his son and the subsequent parental leave provided him with the opportunity to once again unleash his creative writing, writing feel-good stories you’ll remember.

Having little influence over his brain’s creative workings, he simply indulges it and goes with the flow. However, the deep passion for a better world, for love and tolerance are a red thread throughout both his creative and non-fictional work.

Hans lives with his husband, son, and pets on a small island off the west coast of Sweden.

Click on the banner below for more info, including a book video.

Banner by Natasha Snow

 

Tiffany Austin Birthday Concert: A Review

Tiffany Austin and her band at the Sound Room, Oakland.

I’ve heard Bay Area-based singer Tiffany Austin several times. She frequently returns to her alma mater, Berkeley Law, to perform at the commencement day after party. My work often keeps me from hanging out and listening to her and her band perform.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hearing her perform in a more natural setting, at the Sound Room in Uptown Oakland. A nice intimate venue, I heard Tiffany perform without interruptions or work distractions. As always, she had a top-notch band accompanying her: Adam Shulman on piano, David Ewell on bass, and Leon Joyce, Jr. on drums. Tiffany had just celebrated a birthday a few days before, and like most musicians, she celebrated by doing what she loves best, getting on stage. What a wonderful present for the audience.

Tiffany Austin.

One word characterizes Tiffany’s singing and stage persona: ease. She appeared naturally comfortable with the audience, interacting as if in a room with friends. Then she seamlessly slips into performance mode, demonstrating intimacy with the songs she performs, interpreting them with care, and with great control of her voice.

She started with Abbey Lincoln’s “The Music is the Magic.” It crossed my mind that she sounded a bit like Ella Fitzgerald. She also reminded me of the late, great Minnie Riperton on some of the high notes. The next tune confirmed her Ella state of mind, as she launched into “Night in Tunisia,” basing her interpretation to Ella’s famous version. The scatting was hot, on point.

Tiffany gave generous space to her band, often leaning on the piano and listening to them do their thing. Each brought their own considerable gifts to the show. Mr. Joyce in particularly presented one hot solo after another on the drums. (I couldn’t resist playing “knee tabla” along with him.)

Her Law School performances typically stick to standards, so it was a real treat to hear one of her original compositions. Born from a new relationship that came on the heels of one that ended badly, she sang the appropriately titled “Lost” with freeness in her soul. The lyrics provocatively and joyfully celebrated her ability to fall in love again.

Tai-ge Min.

Another surprise came in the form of a very talented protege who she brought on stage. Tai-ge Min studies singing and drums. At age 14, she demonstrated talent at both, singing another Ella transcription, this time for “In A Mellow Tone.” Then later in the show, she played drums on “Body and Soul.” I particularly admired Tai’s scatting, not an easy art form. But like all good scat-singers, she made it look easy.

Tiffany and her band performed a generous set that covered much territory. It made for a very pleasant late Sunday afternoon. Unbroken, her latest album comes out June 1 and then she goes on tour to support it. Stops include Birdland in New York and SF Jazz. Her star is rising, as well it should. I’m happy to have had a chance to see her in so intimate a space as the Sound Room.