My Activist Fantasy

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DemoJune2014I posted this photo on Facebook recently after attending a rally in support of a national campaign to end LGBTQ youth homelessness.  It was a great demo with impressive speakers like Edie Windsor (pictured above with my synagogue’s contingent).  Windsor and others, so important to the fight for marriage equality, are actively encouraging the community not to declare victory and go home but instead to turn its attention to issues of poverty and economic justice, chief among them the plight of our homeless kids.  

My friends RoseAnn and George Hermann helped put this event together.  You won’t find more tireless and dedicated advocates than those two.  The parents of gay and lesbian kids, they are active in so many LGBT struggles (more than most gay people I know!), that I have no idea how they have any time to work and enjoy their grandkids.  They are exceptional, unsung heroes of our movement and I would go anywhere and do anything they ask of me, the least of which is attending a rally on an issue I care deeply about to begin with.

I don’t know exactly who attended this rally, though I saw a lot of youth who may be or may have been at one time homeless.  Among the adults were people like me who came to the park directly from our work places.  So as the bright sun began to descend over Washington Square Park, I listened to the many speakers and was once again inspired as I’m sure the scores of people around me were.  

But inspired to do what?  Care, for sure.  We wouldn’t have been standing there if we didn’t care.  But what else should we be doing?  

Unfortunately no one asked us to do anything.  So as I stood there listening to so many well-spoken words, I began to fantasize about filling that gap.  And my thoughts turned to my main characters, Robin Greene and Tracy Patterson, from Exception to the Rule.  If you’ve read the book, you know that Robin spent her teenage years hanging out in the West Village with a group of homeless queer kids and, as an aspiring writer, she refashioned the stories she’d heard from those kids into her first book of short fiction called The Streets and The Pier.  That book catapulted her career and soon she became nationally known both as a writer and as an advocate.

So what would Robin and her girlfriend Tracy have done at a demonstration in Washington Square Park on a beautiful June evening?  Likely it would go something like this….

*******

Robin was excited to have been asked to speak.  She’d thought long and hard about what she would say, especially since she would be the final speaker following movement legends like Edie Windsor and David Mixner as well as a young poet who’d written eloquently about his own experience as a homeless youth and an impressive gay preacher from Washington Heights who’d begun his own House as part of the vibrant Ball culture in New York.  What could she add that wouldn’t have already been said?

She didn’t want to read her work.  It would dilute the impact of the poet.  Plus why showcase a fictional story–as realistic as she tried to make it–when there would be so many real stories standing right in front of her.  No, her time on the stage needed to be about action not words.  And then it hit her.  It had to be her job to get the people to do something.  But what?

As she and Tracy sat over dinner a week before the rally, a plan took shape.  And now, as they stood to the side of the makeshift stage waiting for Robin to be called up to speak, they watched as two young people they knew went through the crowd distributing half-sheets of paper to the adults.  She heard one of the kids tell a guy as she handed him the paper, “Hold onto this.  Robin will tell you what to do with it.”

She smiled and bent over to ask Tracy if she’d heard the kid.  A nod of the blonde head next to her and a reassuring hand on her shoulder helped bolster her courage.  She could do this.

At last she was introduced and she bounded up to the stage to speak.  

“Great to see you all here tonight. I know you’re here because you already understand how important this issue is and how important these kids are to our community and our future.  You’ve heard amazing words from amazing people tonight.  So now I hope you’re ready to be asked to do something to help.  

“Many of you are holding a piece of paper that looks like this.”  She raised her arm showing the crowd the paper that had been distributed.

“So you already know that we want you to give money.  But here’s what you don’t know.  My partner Tracy and I have already started things off by donating $5,000 to this campaign.”

There was applause.

“And we will donate up to another $5,000 if you will match it dollar for dollar.”  More applause.

“That’s $15,000 toward the day when no young person will have to sleep on the street or be at the mercy of someone who will provide a couch or a bed in exchange for exploitation.  So here’s what you folks with the papers need to do.  Write your names, contact info and payment info on the paper and I’ll be on the side of the stage waiting for you.  I have pens if you need them.  I know some of you came here right from your jobs because I see the ties and the skirts.”  There was a bit of laughter.

“So you’ve got jobs and you can stretch a bit and make it so one day soon these kids will have jobs.  Good jobs that pay well.  That let you afford to pay your rent and feed yourself and go on a date.  Just like you all get to do.  So start filling those papers out.

“And while you’re doing that, I’ll talk to the youth who are here.  You guys, you see the cute blonde on the side of the stage?”  Robin pointed and Tracy looked up and smiled at the same time rolling her eyes and pointing back to Robin.  

“That’s my girl, Tracy, and she’s got something for you.  Metrocards good for 10 rides on the bus and subway.  That’s 10 rides where you don’t have to stand at the turnstile wondering if anyone will see you jump it.  10 rides to get to a shelter or a job interview or a class.  10 rides to meet a friend at the pier or the drop-in center.  I know it’s not enough and it’ll be gone before you know it, but you can at least take a breath and relax the next 10 times you have to get somewhere.  So line up and get yours.  I think there’s enough for everyone here.

“And as for the rest of you, your job is raise $5,000 because five’ll get you fifteen.”

****

Yeah, that’s exactly what they would have done.  Now it’s up to the rest of us.

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Watching The Butler with Tracy Patterson

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It is with great pleasure that I present my interview with Tracy Patterson, one of the main characters from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Everything From You.  Tracy recently went to see the movie, The Butler, and had a very emotional reaction to the film.  She agreed to be interviewed for this blog to share how the film affected her as someone who grew up in North Carolina subsequent to the most tumultuous years of the Civil Rights struggle.

butler1

CR:  Tracy, thank you for agreeing to have this discussion with me.  I know we’ll be talking with you about your reaction to The Butler and your experience growing up in the South, but just one request – no spoilers from the book.

TP:  No worries.  I don’t want to spoil it for anyone either.  But I have to confess, I don’t have much practice doing interviews.  That’s more Angie and Robin’s thing.

CR:  I understand, but I have a feeling you’re going to rise to the occasion.  So what made you want to see the film in the first place?

TP:  Well initially, it was two things.  First, the cast is amazing.  I mean, it’s easier to say who’s NOT in this movie than who is in it.  And I’m a big Oprah fan.  I know her touchy feely stuff can be a bit much and I don’t always agree with her perspectives, but I admire her as a woman who created this amazing business empire and who so many people love.  So I wanted to see her in this kind of role.

Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels

And, you know, I was interested to see how Lee Daniels, the filmmaker, who’s an African American gay man, would handle this subject of a Black White House butler.

Oprah and Forest Whitaker

Oprah and Forest Whitaker

CR:  So what did you think?

TP:  Overall, it was a great film.  Very moving.  What surprised me was that the film was really about the Civil Rights era in the South.  I wasn’t prepared for that.  I thought it was going to just be about the White House.  So when I started to realize this during the movie, I just broke down and had a very strong reaction.  My partner (I guess you don’t want me to say her name, right?) went with me and I was so glad to have her there.

CR:  So what was the emotional reaction about?  Was it just because you grew up in the South?

TP:  Partially.  But it was mostly about my parents.   They were teenagers during those years and although they didn’t participate in sit-ins, they were on the right side of things and they both suffered a lot for their views during that time.

CR:  So your parents met as teenagers?

TP:  Yes, in high school and my father hid some civil rights workers, both Black and white, in his parents’ old barn building.  These were people who were being hunted down by vigilantes and by the authorities.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Robin said it was like Christians who hid Jews during the Holocaust.

CR:  Your father really put himself on the line doing that.

TP:  Yes and he and my mom were vocal about their views during that time.  They went to local demonstrations and had to run away from police with batons and water hoses.  Just like they showed in the film.

White and Black pro-Civil Rights teenage demonstrators in the 1960s

White and Black pro-Civil Rights teenage demonstrators in the 1960s

So when I saw all these scenes from the South, the way the college students were assaulted during the sit-ins and how the Freedom Riders were attacked, I just broke down and sobbed.

CR:  Why do you think you reacted so strongly?

TP:  Because this didn’t happen in some mystical place that was far away.  This happened where I grew up and only a few years before I was born, during my parents’ lifetimes–and they were part of it.

CR:  Do you have any shame associated with it?

TP:  No, I don’t.  I’m sad that it happened and I’m angry that so many people had to suffer for their freedom and some had to die.  But I know that there were people like my parents who did the right thing and stood up when it was dangerous to do so.  I take great pride in that.  And besides, even though we had horrible things like segregation in the South, the North wasn’t some kind of paradise either.  There were also separate schools and neighborhoods.  Did you ever see that photo from Boston where the white man attacked a Black man with an American flag of all things?  That picture wasn’t taken in Raleigh, it was taken in the same city where I went away to college.

CR:  Anything else you wanted to say about the film?

TP:  It was amazing to see the span of history that this man, the butler, Cyrus Gaines, witnessed in his lifetime.  From the cotton fields of the South to the election of Barack Obama.  It’s hard not to be amazed by that.  By the end of the movie, my girlfriend and I were both sobbing, but not so much from sadness but from the intensity of this man’s experience and how he finally witnessed something he never thought he’d see.

CR:  Tracy, this has been a great conversation and I really appreciate that you took the time to talk to me.  One last question.  Since your parents from a young age were able to understand the need for equal rights, were they just as understanding about you coming out as a lesbian?

TP:  Wow, you really save the zinger for last, don’t you?  Well, there’s way too many spoilers in that question for me to fully answer it.  So I’m gonna have to leave it by saying that I love my parents and I have great faith in them.  I’m not sure I can say much more.

For those who think young

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Image

So Why Am I Writing About Girls in College?

I’ve asked myself this question a lot as I worked on my first novel, tentatively titled, Everything From You.  I mean, it’s been a while since I dragged a book bag down a long, academic corridor or paid attention to a schedule measured in 50-minute increments (not counting therapy of course).  In fact it’s been over 35 years.

If I’m going to be completely honest, then I have to admit that it’s not just the novel.  I’ve always adored teen movies of the John Hughes variety.  You know, all those films with Molly Ringwald.  And recently, my partner Jenny and I watched one of our all time favorites of this genre–Valley Girl–with a very young Nicholas Cage and an actress named Deborah Foreman, who has been long forgotten.  It has a killer soundtrack with songs like “I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You.”  Great film.  Oh, and the photo at the top of this entry.  That’s Emily and Paige from Pretty Little Liars, a show I just started watching on Netflix to help me get through the 40-minute stationary bike ride I take almost every day.  Emily is the lesbian character on the show and Paige is her girlfriend.

Is my interest in high school and college age characters more acceptable because it’s focused on lesbian characters?  Or does that just make it worse?

Valley Girl (film)

Valley Girl (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess it’s fair game to ask if I have a thing for younger women, especially since  Jenny is 17 years younger than me.  But she’s 40, not 20.  And believe me, I wouldn’t want to get involved with someone who’s in the midst of all that growing up drama.  I’m happy at home, with me and Jenny on opposite ends of the living room on our computers or sitting at the dining room table playing Scrabble as we split a bottle of mid-priced champagne on our anniversary.

So why write about three young lesbians in college?

I’ve always been drawn to the kind of interior changes a person undergoes  in their formative years, and how those changes can be set into motion when they are captivated by someone who, on the surface, seems like their polar opposite.  This is in essence the plot of Valley Girl.  The pretty, popular Valley Girl falls for the rough-edged, punky boy from the other side of the tracks (well, actually, Hollywood), and after the requisite rounds of push-pull, like any romance novel, they live happily ever after.  Because, you see, underneath their stereotyped exteriors, there is a similar, truer essence.  The things that really matter to each of them are the same things.  The thing that makes one roll on the floor laughing that they think no one else would find funny, well, the other one also finds funny.  It’s the unexpected connection.  The one nobody could have predicted least of all the two people involved.

While it’s true that this can happen at any age, there’s something about the quality of self-discovery involved when it occurs in young adulthood.  This is a time when you think you’ve got it all figured out when, in reality,  you know next to nothing and cover up that fact with lots of bravado.  The unexpected romance cuts through all of that and forces you to take stock of yourself and what and who you truly want in life.  That’s the coming of age arc that draws me in as a reader, a watcher and now as a writer.

The blurb for my novel is an attempt to provide a peek into this theme.  Here it is:

Stifled by her suburban Long Island home town, Robin Greene, a young lesbian, regularly escapes to the city to hang out with a group of homeless gay youth whose easy interchange of sex and friendship influences her as a developing writer.

By contrast, in Durham, North Carolina, Tracy Patterson has successfully managed her teenage life in the closet. With a fake boyfriend and perfect feminine appearance, she flies under the radar while seducing a series of older women, including her mother’s best friend.

As the summer after high school comes to a close, Robin and Tracy find themselves in the last place either wants to be–at college right outside of Boston, a new and strange environment where each is sure she will never meet anyone like herself.

As these young lesbians navigate their college years, it becomes clear that Robin and Tracy share much more than their outward differences would suggest and that each has a lot to teach the other about becoming the person she was meant to be.  Can they overcome their outer differences and find happiness together?  Or will their natural inclination to run away from love and commitment win out?

I’ll write later about where I am in the process of moving forward with the book, but I wanted the first entry on this blog to explore why I decided to look back at an age when so much can happen that can veer you off the track on which you’ve been set and onto the one where you know you need to be.

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