By Rod Hensel
The Gayging Advocate
I remember during the ‘70’s and 80’s having several fold-up back packs that were permanently stored in my travel luggage. Their sole purpose was to carry home the usual seven or eight gay books I picked up when going to another city, be it for business or pleasure.
Gay bookstores — by which I mean literary book stores — were an important part of the culture but found only in cities with larger populations. In Buffalo, where I lived, there was a progressive Independent bookstore and a feminist bookstore, but no real gay bookstore.
You had to go to places like San Francisco, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto and of course New York to find these independently owned gay and lesbian stores with shelves and shelves of books and magazines. There you could hear author talks by the likes of Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Sarah Schulman, Audre Lord, Michael Cunningham and the authors you read about in the pages of The Advocate, then just a newspaper.
Those stores are almost all gone now. The world of LGBT literature can now be delivered instantly to your tablet, Kindle or phone with a real book copy arriving on your doorstep within two days. Harder to replace is the venue the LGBT bookstore offered for discussing our issues and life problems in an environment free of porn or booze.
What we do have still, and thriving, are LGBT book clubs where a book is picked for reading each month and members gather to discuss it. The clubs seem to divide along gender lines and our local Pride Center sponsors both men’s and women’s book groups. There are also some semi-private book groups that meet in people’s homes and organized online through social media like Goodreads and Meet-Up.
I joined the local Gay Men’s Book Club about two years ago. Participation in the group fluctuates — sometimes living your life interferes with reading about others — but it’s been an overall good mix that includes people of varied colors, incomes and ages, which is not always the norm in this city.
The group occasionally takes on a book that is a literary challenge or a gay classic, and we recently did an intersex work of fiction, but for the most part people are looking for just a good story they can relate to. That means a heavy mix of gay mysteries and male-to-male romance novels. We have had a scattering of author talks but Buffalo is not a major stop on any author’s book tour, except for authors living in a 100-mile radius. If I had my wish, there would be a channel like C-SPAN’s Book TV where authors would give talks about LGBT books and field questions from readers, but I suppose we can’t expect laid back LGBT authors to compete in ratings with Rupaul’s Drag Race.
Generally our book group meets at a Panera’s, not because we are partial to restaurant chains but because they welcome book groups and many of us arrive early to have a quick meal before the book talk, which almost never exceeds an hour. The Panera venues allow the group to meet in the suburbs as well as the city, and that’s a plus too in this day and age when the gay neighborhoods have gone the way of the gay bookstores..
I have discovered some interesting books through the group. One memorable one was “Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade” by Justin Spring. It’s the story of Phil Sparrow “an intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder, (who) maintained a secret sex life from childhood on, and documented these experiences in brilliantly vivid (and often very funny) detail.” Besides being fascinating, it is also true story and one of those alley ways of gay history that almost went forgotten.
There were also some stinkers I would like to forget, like Ricky Martin’s autobiography “Me” in which he actually makes being a gay member of a boy band seem dull (details, Ricky, we’re reading this for the dirt!).
It doesn’t really matter though. Even a bad book will generate discussions where people tell interesting stories of their own lives. Even more interesting is the interplay between age and culture that creates a diversity of viewpoints.
We have people in our group who will only read “real” books and others who prefer e-books. By far the majority of books I now read are audio books because they allow me to do other things while reading. Not so long ago, an LGBT themed audio book was a rarity. You can download them now in abundance, and some even sync with your Kindle reader so you can follow the text.
As an LGBT senior my peers seem to prefer ink while those younger use electronic books for convenience, although some say they still prefer a “real” book for leisure reading. I have found the Millennials to be a bit prudish about sex though. In one book a sexual situation between two guys involved some fresh pitted fruit that I thought was tame but they thought was “yukky” (what do young gays do in the bedroom nowadays?) But I have been delighted when the younger folks want to hear the baby boomers talk about the old days in the context of a book we are reading. How strange that what was so common to us then is so very different to them today.
But it is through books we have all discovered that the experience of being gay unites us more than age and time divides us.
Despite the disappearance of the LGBT book stores, it is the shared experience, the unanswered questions, the need to belong and to be loved coupled with the thrill of a good story and the magic of words that continues to bring us together month to month.
Books still have the power to melt away the differences and unite us in that indefinable commonality that is part of being gay.
Rod Hensel is based in Buffalo, NY where he was a gay activist and Mattachine Society chapter president in the ’70’s and ’80’s. He later co-founded Stonewall Democrats of Western New York. He is currently helping to organize the SIlver Pride Project of the Pride Center of Western New York to address issues of concern to LGBT seniors, and writes on LGBT senior issues for Buffalo’s Loop Magazine. You can find him at facebook.com/rodney.hensel.