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Richard Labonte | July 17, 2006

Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son, by Kevin Jennings. Beacon Press, 288 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

There are pages in this memoir that will make readers cry. Jennings, founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), grew up white Southern trash, the sissy son of an itinerant Baptist preacher and a woman with a sixth-grade education. The first half of Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son is standard, though certainly lamentable, coming-out stuff – Jennings was a fat kid, bullied in the many schools he attended and beset by frustrated attractions to buff blond boys. By his late teens he was yo-yoing between bulimia and bodybuilding. He was also smart enough to earn a scholarship to Harvard – where he had crushes on, and eventually sex with, buff blond men. But activist seeds blossomed during and soon after those Harvard years. That's when this engrossing story really takes off, particularly as a still-professionally closeted Jennings experiences profoundly moving emotional interactions with students in his early years as a teacher – encounters that led to the first-ever Gay-Straight Alliance, formed in 1990 by the straight daughter of lesbian parents.



Of Drag Kings and the Wheel of Fate, by Susan Smith. Bold Strokes Books, 288 pages, $15.95 paper.

Rosalind is a divorced professor of Shakespearean plays and 19th-century poetry, settling into a teaching job, unprepared for passion, particularly of the dyke variety. Taryn is a fierce-tempered young drag king, muscular and tattooed, with the bearing of a boy, who flirts with every girl in town. They meet on a Friday night at Buffalo's one drag bar, fall madly in love over a weekend, and by book's end...well, this steamy story doesn't exactly end; a sequel is already scheduled for December, promising more of Smith's intricate and intelligent exploration of intense intimacy, sexual fluidity, and gender experimentation. The sequel presumably expands on issues hinted at but otherwise ignored in Of Drag Kings, particularly a departmental dean unsettled by hearing that his new professor is dallying with a dyke young enough to be her student. This disparate duo's lush rush of a romance – which incorporates reincarnation, a grounded transman and his peppy daughter, and the dark moods of a troubled witch – pays wonderful homage to Leslie Feinberg's classic gender-bending novel, Stone Butch Blues.



A Scarecrow's Bible, by Martin Hyatt. Suspect Thoughts Press, 208 pages, $16.95 paper.

When wounded souls connect, the miracle can be explosive. So it is in this rapturous debut novel, a tragic love story set in the hardscrabble working-class Deep South. Gary is an emotional wreck of a Vietnam vet whose daily existence – in a ramshackle trailer-park home shared with a distant wife he wants to love, but can't – is tethered to hard drinking and prescription drugs. Zachary is a defiant waif of a young man – skinny as sin, ethereally handsome, and bedeviled by his own traumatic past – who flirts foolishly with bigotry and hate by flaunting his queerness in the unwelcoming rural Mississippi town they both call home. Their pairing is certainly unlikely; one is a closeted older man not even sure he's queer, the other a flamboyant younger man forever on the edge of flaming out. But both of them are brutally scarred by life, and that's their bond. Their romance is something haunting and precious, even though it's doomed and desperate from the start. In Hyatt's skilled hand, it's also truly lyrical.



Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, by Robert McRuer. New York University Press, 284 pages, $22.

Gays deal with homophobia. The disabled deal with "stigmaphobia." That's the crux of the parallels constructed between two outsider cultures in this thoughtful study, where McRuer embraces the term "crips" with the same in-your-face attitude that gays have brought to "queer." The crip theory chapters, drawing on the literature of queer studies, can be tough slogging for those not steeped in academic-speak. But several sections are reader-friendly enough – accessible, if you will – to open this book up to a wider audience. A discussion of the Sharon Kowalski case is the starkest example of where crip and queer intertwine; it involved the partner of a lesbian disabled in a car accident who had to fight the woman's parents in the courts to gain custody. A critique of how the five Queer Eye for the Straight Guy guys toss off "he's so retarded" is hilarious and illuminating. And McRuer invests his treatise with real emotion when he discusses the plight of his Brazilian partner, whose life is disabled by the triple whammy of immigration laws, being queer, and the onset of blindness and multiple sclerosis.



Featured Excerpt:
I realized that these kids, whom I was being paid to teach, had been teaching me all along, teaching me the lesson of my life – that, yes, the truth will set you free, that yes, you are a good person, that yes, the fact that you are gay doesn't change that. By accepting me, they had helped me finally accept myself. I was overcome. Fortunately, the 8:35 bell rang to indicate chapel was over, and all I had to do was gesture for them to leave. But hundreds of them didn't. Instead, they rushed the pulpit of the creaky old chapel, hugging me, crying, a display of adoration that I would later joke was the only time in my life I felt like Madonna. –from Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son, by Kevin Jennings



Footnotes:
ERIC ROFES, 51, an educator and AIDS activist whose 1983 book I Thought People Like That Killed Themselves was among the first to address the issue of gay teen suicide, died of an apparent heart attack June 26 while spending the summer in Provincetown. He was there working on a new book, chronicling the lives of gay men in America in the decade preceding the AIDS epidemic, before resuming his teaching at Humboldt State University this fall. He was the author of a dozen titles, most recently A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality & Schooling: Status Quo or Status Queer, and Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures, as well as a founding member of www.perfectunion.net, a collective of activists supporting the movement to democratize gay marriage. In 2005, he organized and led sell-out historical walking tours of San Francisco's now-gentrified South of Market Folsom district, once one of the most densely populated leather and fetish neighborhoods in the world. He is survived by his mother, his brother, and his partner of 16 years, Crispin Hollings...
ALAN HOLLINGHURST, who won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for his last novel, The Line of Beauty (recently adapted as a film for BBC TV), has a new book coming from Bloomsbury, though fans of his stylish prose and sweeping storytelling will have to wait until its publication in August 2008 – and it doesn't even have a title yet. It's an epoch-spanning tale about several generations, queers included, of an affluent English family.

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s.


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