I like surprises. And (almost) nothing is better than a good book that takes me to an unexpected place. I recently picked up Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit (2014) by Kim Chernin and Renate Stendhal, and then I picked up Active Duty: Gay Military Erotic Romance, edited by Neil Placky, and Rookies: Gay Erotic Fiction, edited by Shane Allison. The latter two books were both published in 2014 by Cleis Press. I like to mix it up a little. What the books have in common is that none of them was what I expected.
When I first heard of Lesbian Marriage: A Sex Survival Kit, I expected a book about, well, sex. But the book is written by a lesbian couple in a committed relationship who in 2013 celebrated the anniversary of 28 years together by getting married. The book is about relationships and is told from the first-person perspectives of the authors as well as other coupled lesbians. Its 12 chapters -- each starting with a story that presents a relationship challenge -- are followed by a "Dos and Don'ts" section following up on the relationship challenge.
I shouldn't have been surprised that the book is so well-written and useful, given that I was familiar with the work of one of the authors, Kim Chernin, who in 1982 published In My Mother's House, which, although I didn't know it at the time, was probably one of the major inspirations for my book Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters.
When my partner of 30 years and I married this past year, we did so to claim our equality for legal rights. We were also caught up in the mad rush of history. But the fact is that there are many pros and cons of marriage -- even when claiming your equality. As Chernin and Stendhal point out in Lesbian Marriage, "half the people who get involved in it for the first time get back out again. The second time they try, sixty percent leave it behind."
When I was younger, I never wanted to join the rest of the population in what is, basically, a failed institution. But then my partner and I got older. Suddenly we had to face the inequalities of being a same-sex couple -- including a lack of hospital visitation rights. Considering that many, if not most, of the lesbian couples who marry are younger, the question posed by Chernin and Stendhal is a valid one:
We are obviously not intending to make gay marriage a replica of conventional marriage ... so what do we want? It's probably a good idea to have the discussion before we, and as we, and after we rush down to stand in line all night at City Hall.
The authors address the issue of "lesbian bed death" -- the dwindling of sex in a long-term relationship. They put it in context by stating that "all the couples we know, and I mean all the heteros and a lot of the boys, too, are complaining about not having sex," and by concluding that "marriage is not the remedy for couple trouble."
Some highlights include sex after menopause (don't think you are defined by your hormones), arguing fairly (don't berate your lover), issues around monogamy, listening to each other, and scheduling time for play ("time is like freedom; no one gives it to you, you have to take it").
Thinking about marriage left me thinking about gays in the military, another mainstream institution that I have had a change of heart about. While I once had the viewpoint that no one, including the LGBTQ community, perhaps especially the LGBTQ community, should have anything do with the military, I came to the conclusion that having equality is far better than not having it.
After I read Active Duty: Gay Military Erotic Romance, I scanned the bios in the back of the book and did not see anything that led me to believe that the writers were actually in the military. Many of the writers in this anthology must have talked to friends in the military, however. In addition to being well-written, most of the stories got to the heart of the matter of what it means to be openly gay in an hostile institution. The editor of the anthology, Neil Placky, explores the experiences of two prisoners of war, both of whom happen to be gay, in Afghanistan. The two men manage to escape -- but, of course, not before a tryst. In this story, which is remarkably written with a strong sense of place, as in many of the others, there is a sense that the two men want to get together again after they return to their respective units.
There is overlap with the other anthology from Cleis Press, Rookies: Gay Erotic Fiction, particularly in the story "Busted" by Johnny Murdoc, when the cop character talks about his brother being a soldier in Afghanistan: "I miss Bobby. Then I think about him shooting at people in cars and I hate this whole fucking country."
So the cops in this anthology have moral compasses, and they have fully developed characters. They cross the line, as in "Busted," from arresting a man for smoking a joint to smoking one with him (and having sex with him). In another piece a rookie cop and his partner find themselves in the position of having to investigate a park where men meet for sex. The ending of this piece, by Eric Del Carlo, is perhaps predictable, but it's touching, as the partner satisfies his rookie partner's long-suppressed longing.
There is something appealing about cops stepping over the line, but as I read these two books I began thinking about something else. The characters in these anthologies are young -- as the writers most likely are. They are from a post 9/11 era. Some of the men have husbands. And some are planning to have families. There is little to nothing written about the horrors of war or the perils of a police state. At first I was concerned for them -- that they may be more conservative, despite the gains that the LGBT movement has made. Then I let the thought pass. They are of their time; they'll figure things out just like we did.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters here.
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