Dear Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center,
I had an appointment at your radiology department this afternoon to follow up on a potential irregularity in my left breast (thankfully all is well!). Overall I had an exceptional experience: your reception staff, mammography and ultrasound technicians, and doctor were all courteous and professional. The decor was a little overwhelmingly floral, and was it really necessary to have that much pink in the color scheme — right down to the pink floral sticker they affixed to the relevant spot on my boob? But I can roll my eyes at those design decisions and get on with my day.
What I am uninterested in rolling my eyes at and moving on from is this:
Several years ago, when my wife had an appointment in your radiology department we happened to notice this sign in passing and found it troubling. I had hoped, upon my return today, to find that your policies and signage had changed — but had my phone ready to hand for snapping this picture if they had not. And here we are.
My problem with this sign and policy is quite simple: Male people (assigned and/or identified) can get breast cancer or experience other physical issues needing breast imaging services. Whether or not you provide those services to male individuals elsewhere, or make exceptions to the stated policy on a case-by-case basis, the sign is alienating. It is unwelcoming not just to men but to women (like me and my wife) who find spaces that are women-only by policy to be unwelcoming, uncomfortable spaces. To put it another way, I am more comfortable accessing healthcare in a place welcome to people of all combinations of sex, gender, and sexuality than I am seeking care in a place that explicitly states that it only welcomes certain types of bodies and/or identities to pass through its doors.
Given that our family’s health center, Fenway Health — a leading provider of respectful, holistic care to trans and genderqueer individuals — refers patients regularly to your institution for necessary clinical care, I would have expected better from you. I am disappointed that in 2015 you continue to use signage (and presumably enforce policies) that are so exclusionary.
I hope the next time I have reason to visit your radiology department I won’t have cause to pull my camera out of my messenger bag.
Today I am hosting another Cleis Press virtual book tour, this time for their new anthology Best Lesbian Erotica 2015, edited by Laura Antoniou. A collection of twenty short stories by twenty-one different authors, this volume contains a refreshing variety of stories. Among my favorites were a tale of sexual flirtation told through an exchange of emails; the story of USO performer who seduces a WASP in the dressing room; a weaver who’s seduced by a Goddess; a lesbian elder narrating the beginnings of a long-term relationship to her lover; an arranged marriage to a queen; and a tattoo sitting that ends up entangled with sex. Having enjoyed the finished product, I was pleased to have the opportunity to interview the editor who had curated the collection. Without further ado, here is Laura Antoniou.
One of the things that really impressed me about Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 was the variety of stories. Too often, in my experience, erotica collections end up feeling very one-note. I think, often, it’s assumed that erotica readers are not very adventurous — that they’ll only read stories around sexual themes they themselves enjoy. But this volume has many different flavors and settings — including historical and fantastical. What was your thinking in bringing such disparate tales together?
Antoniou: Sometimes I do see a sad sort of sameness in genre entertainment, and lesbian erotica is nothing if not a very niche field. And publishing is a very conservative industry. Editors and publishers want exactly what sold well before – even as they wait for the next big hit to change the game. Add this to the fact that readers of erotica have a narrowly defined goal – to get aroused – and you have a formula for…formula. Two ladies meet. They engage in one sex act from column A and two from column B, leading to a sweet and wry ending after the explosive climax. Or multiple climax.
But in reality, lesbians aren’t this monolithic cookie-cutter production line of similarities. Gather ten of us in a room and you’ll have ten sets of turn-ons, turn-offs, experiences and desires and a range of fantasies that would make Nancy Friday blush. (I’m SO dating myself.) Our erotic literature should reflect that. And an anthology is the best way to do so; it allows for some stories to get immediately dog-eared (or bookmarked on a reading device?) and some to elicit fond or different kinds of thoughts and some that will be skipped over every time the reader pulls that book out. That’s freedom to me.
You write in your introduction that “one of the things I love about a sexy tale is an unmooring from reality.” That got me thinking about the pressure from some quarters that depictions of human sexuality be “realistic.” I get where that impulse is coming from, pushing back against performance anxieties around sexual intimacy and public health concerns. But we don’t demand that other genres — high fantasy, horror, poetry, fiction — be realistic. What do you think is lost with this demand that sexual fictions aspire to realism?
Antoniou: I never wanted my erotic fiction to have to stick to reality, whether in depictions of safer sex or physical capabilities for the same reason why I don’t demand my swords and sorcery or stalwart detective mysteries to adhere to objective reality. Fiction was not designed for truth. It is, in fact, more designed for what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” – a feeling that something could, or should be true, or is close enough to accept for your purposes. Erotica features characters who are super-model gorgeous, with the stamina of an Olympic athlete and responses a porn star would envy – and sure, that could be intimidating to we common humans. But erotica also contains sexy vampires and werewolves, impossible coincidences and magical things like the mind reading required for two strangers to get each other off exactly according to their desires. Or, despite them. If readers can accept magically perfect sex, then they can accept magically perfect sex with a goddess. A don’t know how different a Greek or African goddess is from that track-star, super-model, sexual dynamo, any way.
As someone who enjoys writing and reading erotic stories involving established relationships, I appreciated that you included some of those tales in 2015 and acknowledged them explicitly in your introduction. Why do you think erotica as a genre is so wedded to early relationship, “first time,” or hook-up encounter narratives?
Antoniou: First time narratives are awesome! They include joys we treasure. The mystery of this amazing person you’re going to be intimate with. The discovery process of flirtation or negotiation. Being surprised is wonderful. First time or stranger stories can include an element of doubt or danger, and the invention of a new connection. Of course they’re standard stories, especially in short form.
But to rely ONLY on first timers, or those elusive one-nighters means we ignore the steady and passionate strength of people who DO know each other well. Stories using characters who have already gone though the awkward or the sex-all-the-time honeymoon stages are more deliberate, and to me, more romantic. They show how knowing someone really does give one a sense of magical connection, that mind reading so unbelievable in a first time story. And I love how they show the scars and the ribbons from past experience. Sex with a long time lover isn’t as frantic or frightening as with a new one…unless, of course, that relationship came with more scars than ribbons. That’s how I could include the sweetest of stories about sexuality when your love is weak and ill, versus the hate-sex of people who really shouldn’t ever talk to each other because they just make things worse.
As an editor, what are one or two tropes in erotica you think have run their course?
Antoniou: I think we should have been over vampires even before Twilight, but whatevs, as they say. I’m also kind of over the expectations of butch = neanderthal and femme = fatale or selfish. I love me a good butch/femme dynamic, but some things are just old, not to mention hackneyed.
What are one or two things you’d like to see more of in the erotica you read?
Antoniou: Oh…gosh. Well. My personal taste differs from my editorial taste a great deal. Personally, I read the trashiest sort of things, and have no care for literary quality. But in general, I really would like to see more variety in setting. I love how I am seeing more queer romance set outside of the usual A) Big gay friendly city/gay neighborhood enclave of mostly white girls ready for a Netflix adaptation or B) small town girls getting it on in a setting that seems like it came out of a tourist brochure rather than genuine experience in such a setting. I’d like to see more than contemporary stories with contemporary language and mores. Different periods is a great place to hang out, especially if the author can evoke a time and place with just enough detail to let a reader feel like they could be there, too. I’d like to see some more fantastic settings, as in unreal, or completely alien, to challenge our own tropes and expectations. And I’d like to see more darkness, too. Erotic horror and dark fantasy, with edginess that makes a reader feel a little guilty for enjoying it? Oh, yeah, baby. That’s my kind of tale.
June has sped by with a lot of activity for our household: We successfully launched the Boston Summer Seminar, Hanna traveled to London for a meeting at the Wellcome Library (and to play tourist in London!), I spent a weekend in Maine with my in-laws, and of course we’ve been busy gardening.
In April we were assigned a garden plot at the nearby Roundhill St./Day St. Community Garden — one of several Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) community gardens in the neighborhood. Above is what our plot looked like upon assignment.
This past week, I snapped a picture of the green things growing on what used to be barren dirt: nasturtiums, pumpkins, English peas, fennel, leeks, radishes, basil, sage, and wildflowers.
Today, when we picked up our CSA share from Stillman’s Farm — the first of the 2015 season! — and bought three heirloom tomato plants for $10.00 to grow on the back porch.
On my trip to Maine, while Hanna was in London, I picked up a Little Free Library built by my father-in-law Kevin to our specifications (Hanna particularly requested the TARDIS blue). Our neighbor, Matt, offered to help install it with his electric drill. Thank you, Matt!
Hanna and I were both involved in designing and running the Boston Summer Seminar, which ended up overlapping with Hanna’s travel abroad. We had three research teams of faculty and undergraduates from Hope College, Kenyon College, and College of Wooster, converge on Boston to do amazing work on food and national identity, women and education, and nineteenth century ballet.
This month marks the sixth anniversary of our coupledom. I snapped this photograph of our wedding tattoos while we were waiting at Fresh Hair salon a few weeks ago waiting for an appointment. I’m starting to hanker for another tattoo. My most recent ink was done in honor of my grandmother’s passing in 2013 and the two-year itch has definitely arrived. Not just because I wrote a piece of Haven fanfic involving wedding tattoos.
My #365feministselfie project continues, and in addition to posting them daily on Facebook and Twitter, I am gathering the images in an album on the feminist librarian Facebook page.
What’s up for the rest of this summer? My work at the Massachusetts Historical Society will pick up in July and August as our 2015-2016 cohort of research fellows begins flooding in. Hanna, meanwhile, is taking a six week summer class at Harvard on Celtic literature. We typically don’t plan vacation time during the summer months for that reason — that’s a treat we save for Septembers, around the time of our wedding anniversary. We haven’t made plans for that time yet, this year, but we’ll probably spend a long weekend in Maine and maybe take another long weekend in Vermont or on Cape Cod, just for ourselves (finances willing).
Other than that, it’s gardening, books, and maybe I’ll make some time to finish that mosaic table-top project I started. And set up the sewing machine my mother-in-law handed off to me. And finishing my Haven fanfic. And all those other side projects that happen in the magic hours between midnight and midnight…
I recently finished a review of Lillian Faderman’s forthcoming The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (Simon & Schuster, 2015) for Library Journal. In that review, I observed that “if Revolution has a weakness it is a by-product of Faderman’s laudable ambition: big-picture narratives inevitably short-change individual stories.” The day after submitting my review, The Right Side of History: 100 Years if LGBTQI Activism, an anthology curated by Adrian Brooks (Cleis Press, 2015) arrived in the mail to address this shortcoming.
A “willfully cacophonous” collection of essays and interviews (as the forward by Jonathan Katz observes), The Right Side seeks the opposite of a coherent historical narrative. Instead, it offers us windows through which we can peer into queer lives past and consider under what circumstances our forebears lived. From Isadora Duncan and The Cradle Will Rock to an interview with Matthew Shephard’s mother and Sultan Shakir’s reflections on being “Black, Gay, and Muslim,” this anthology resists presenting us with a march toward a near future gay liberation. Instead, we are asked to consider the freedoms and constraints of individual lives; instead, we are confronted with LGBTQI individuals who may, or may not, be poster children of queer equality achieved. I appreciate the authors’s divergent voices, some first-person reflection and some more scholarly in tone — and I appreciate that queer activism is not always the primary focus of each piece. Instead, we see queer individuals involved in the struggle for racial justice or better labor conditions as well as their rights as specifically non-straight citizens.
The Right Side of History is not an original work of historical scholarship. The essays, when they aren’t first-person pieces or interviews, rely on secondary sources for most of their historical claims. However, as I was reading it I thought of myself as a twelve-year-old, and how I likely would have benefited enormously from having a copy of The Right Side pressed into my hands as a birthday or Christmas gift. I was the sort of child who voraciously read young peoples’ biographical sketches of inspiring women of history (some of whom I now know were decidedly queer). This collection would have helped me see possibilities for myself in a similar way as those women-of-history collections did — helped me find language and historical context for longings I was just beginning to form. I suggest you consider this book for the queer, questioning, and just plain historically interested teenagers in your life; it’s never too early to start peering through the windows of the past and considering how and where you might fit yourself.
Cleis Press has generously offered one free copy of The Right Side of History to readers of this review. If you would like to put your name in the hat, please comment (here on this review) or Tweet (to me @feministlib) sharing the name of an individual or an event that you feel is under-recognized in queer history. If you had been tasked with writing a chapter for Brooks’ anthology, whom or what would you have chosen to write about? Deadline for entries is 5pm Friday 6/12 and I will contact the winner* on Monday 6/15 to obtain a mailing address.**
*I will use an online randomizer to select one out of all valid entries.
**Cleis Press will only mail to a U.S. address.