Saturday, June 27, 2009

The State of Common Language

Common Language Needs Your Support

There is no easy way to say this. Common Language is not making enough sales to support itself. Its very existence is in peril.

Shaman Drum Bookshop Has Announced They Will Close June 30th

Karl Pohrt and Shaman Drum have been an important part of the book community for 30 years. They have always been supportive of the rest of the community. Their voice as an independent bookseller will be sorely missed.
Independent bookstores, and especially LGBT Bookstores, have been closing with increasing and alarming frequency. With the closing of Oscar Wilde the LGBT community has lost the world’s oldest (and perhaps coolest) LGBT bookstore. A Different Light in West Hollywood recently closed. New York City and Los Angeles are without an LGBT bookstore. And these are just a few.

Common Language Could Be Next

Common Language Bookstore has been serving the LGBT Community since 1991. We have “taken the show on the road” to LGBT conferences, Michigan Womyn’s Festival, Rainbow Families-Great Lakes, and more. We are the last remaining comprehensive feminist/LGBT Bookstore in the State of Michigan. We believe Common Language is too important a community resource to lose.

Without an independent LGBT bookstore such as Common Language:
  • We lose a safe space to explore our sexuality and culture. While Ann Arbor may seem like a nice safe bubble for the LGBT community, folks who are coming out have a hard time checking out books from the library or buying books from Borders. I know a professor who had her psychology students play out various scenarios at Common Language and Barnes and Noble. The scenarios were as simple as buying a gift or card for an old High School Friend who had invited them to their (same-sex) commitment ceremony, to as complex as dealing with a father who was coming out as Transgender. Many of the students simply COULD NOT play out their scenarios at Barnes and Noble. And these were largely straight folks pretending to be in an LGBT situation.
  • Authors and publishers lose an outlet for their work. Borders has perhaps 100 books in their LGBT section. We have 7500. may have lots of books available, but they don’t have whole sections you can browse, and they do not have a staff who can direct you to what you are looking for, whether it is the latest gay fiction, help on coming out, or what to do after your HIV diagnosis.
  • There are several publishers that would probably cease to exist without independent, and especially LGBT Bookstores to distribute their books, for example Bella Books, Bywater Books, Firebrand Books, Lethe Press, and Alyson.
  • Many of your favorite authors might never have been published. Augusten Burroughs may be a huge author now, but it is because independent booksellers read Running With Scissors, and recommended it to their customers. 95% of the authors on our shelves might never have been published without the outlet of independent bookstores.
What Have We Done Already?

We have trimmed costs. We have subsidized the store with personal savings. The \aut\ BAR has subsidized the store. We have run promotions and sales. We bring in authors. We have worked hard to have an up-to-date website.

One of the things we can NOT do is raise prices. Books have a published price and an established markup. Publishers dictate to us what our “cost of doing business” must be.

You Can Be A Hero

All we need are customers. You can be one of them and become a Common Language Hero.
You can be a customer by buying books from our shelves, or special ordering books not on our shelves (at no additional charge), buying gifts, buying lube, buying toys and erotica, and by buying cards.

You can also become an advocate. If you are already a regular customer, encourage your friends to come in. Bring them in with you. Buy them a Gift Certificate to try and get them as hooked as you are. Send far-flung friends to the website.

Just by stopping in you help us out. The sense of community is so important to this store. When you come by, even if just to browse, you help the store become more viable.

You can also tell us what it would take for you to become a customer. Do we need to stock a different brand of lube? Do we need to do something different with our website? Should sections be moved around or reorganized?

And to give us an idea of how much community support we can count on I have set up a (non-binding) pledge form online. Give us some idea of how often you'll stop in, and how much you think you can spend, as well as any suggestions you may have. Click through to the "I want to be a Common Language Hero" pledge form.

An article about the closing of Oscar Wilde interviewed a fellow who lived less than two blocks away from the store. He had no idea that the store was in jeopardy and said if he had known he would have shopped there more regularly. It sounds like he wanted to be an Oscar Wilde Hero.

No one wants to be a Hero-Wannabe with regrets. That’s why we are going public with the store’s situation now. Your opportunity to be a hero is now.

Thanks for your support.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rites of Passage

Martin and I are in Corpus Christi during the big Spring Break. We are not here for that reason, however. We are here to visit Martin’s Dad. Actually his dad doesn’t live in Corpus Christi. He lives in a little town called Orange Grove. It is a town that lives for Friday Night Football. Go Bulldogs. The team colors are orange and white. There is no gay bar. We choose to stay in Corpus or San Antonio when we visit. It just feels safer.

Witnessing this Spring Break has me thinking about Rites of Passage.

Back in college days I never did a spring break trip. I was working my way through school. The symphony did not take a spring break, plus I could always pick up extra shifts at my other job at the old Ann Arbor Inn.

In other words, all I know about spring break is what I have learned from the movies. And that is that Spring Break is the chance for slightly post-pubescent boys to try and get laid, but will probably just get drunk and arrested.

My research of the last few days seems to confirm that for once Hollywood got it right. I watched an amazing interaction:

  • (drunk) boy meets (drunk) girl
  • The parties seem very interested in each other
  • Drunken friend of boy pulls him aside for more shots. He goes willingly
  • By the time shots are consumed girl has disappeared into the crowd.

In spite of all protests to the contrary, the drinking seems more important than getting laid.

Martin did take Spring Break trips…with fifteen of his closest friends. He reported the other day after some hot vacation sex that it was the first time he had gotten laid on Spring Break. Apparently way-back-when he would stay in one hotel room with all of those fifteen friends, so there was never the requisite privacy. Besides, what he really wanted to do was find a MAN…but those fifteen close friends were not yet aware of Martin’s proclivity for same-sex activity.

In fact, there would be occasional warnings about going down to the beach late at night, since that was where men were cruising. Martin was trying to figure out how he could lose those fifteen friends and get down to the beach late at night.

I do not recall anyone I know going on gay spring breaks in the late 70s. There was very little organized gay activity at the college level. And where would a bunch of gay boys go. Instead, most gay boys were doing what Martin did…pretended to be straight and went with all of his straight buddies on a mission to get (heterosexually) laid and sloppy drunk.

Gay men and women of my generation did not generally have socially recognized way of learning about sex and relationships. We did not go to school dances with our boyfriends, and have a nervous first kiss. Our boyfriend’s dad did not take us aside and tell us that if we did anything to harm his son he would have our neck.

Our fathers’ did not tell us about the birds and the birds…or would it be the bees and the bees. In fact, most of us did not have boyfriends. At most we had buddies that we would tentatively “fool around with”…with the understanding that what we were doing was completely wrong.

We did not have our first loves at 14, 15 or 16. We may have had crushes but they were unrequited either emotionally or sexually. We did not give them out class rings or letter jackets. We did not agonize over what boy might ask us to the senior prom.

When we did get laid for the first time it was probably NOT something we bragged about or excitedly shared with our brother or best friend. We did not go on Spring Break to get laid.

And, of course most of us still have not had the straight rite of passage called marriage.

There were good and bad things about that state of affairs. When you had no rules you got to make up your own. And given the poor track record of heterosexual relationships, re-invention is not necessarily a bad thing. I know there are folks that believe the only difference between gay people and straight people is the gender of our sexual partners. I subscribe to the belief that we are different than straight people (regardless of the nature vs. nurture debate).

However, I can’t help but think that some of us (and I include myself here) would be much less fucked up if we had had some societal guideposts.

I am amazed by the socialization of many gay youth today. I’m not a Pollyanna. Gay kids still have at best a hard time and at worst a dangerous time growing up. However, in more and more places they have gay dances and proms. There are social clubs and networks for them. I am still floored every time I hear a high school kid refer to his boyfriend or her girlfriend.

Rites of Passage for gay people of my generation (I am 51) differed somewhat from person to person, largely because we did not have society giving us any direction. Many people passages might look like this:

  • Realization that we are attracted to the same sex. This often occurred astonishingly early. I remember starting to understand this about myself as early as five years of age.
  • Our first sex. It was nearly always exciting, and then shameful. And in spite of the shame, the yearning to do it again. Our first kiss often was at some point after our first sex.
  • Our first gay bar. Amazing how important this is. Straight people just don’t have the same attachment to their first bar. They might remember (fondly or otherwise) the first time they got drunk…but stepping into a room ful of people like yourself is an astonishing moment for gay folks.
  • Our first date. Yup…so often our first real date is long after sexual experience.
  • Coming Out. Because of all of those negative messages from our families, friends, and peers we did not come out until we REALLY knew we had to do this, after our first sex, first gay bar, first date, and maybe even our first lover.
  • Deaths of friends and lovers. Yes, my generation was the plague generation. And it was a rite of passage that both scarred us and created a generation of activists.

Notice that marriage is not a part of this list. None of us really expected to get married in our lifetime.

I’m sure the youngest queer generation has a very different set of rites of passage. I know many kids who figure out they are gay, come out to their parents, get boyfriends and go on dates, engage in heavy petting, but abstain from sex until later.

I know others who do not have the parental and societal support to come out so early, whose rites look a bit more like mine.

I am curious about the current state of gay rites of passage. And I am even more curious about the future. Are our rites becoming more aligned with straight America? Will gay marriage, if it ever arrives on a national level, create a parallel track for young gays and straights.

And most important, are gay kids going to somewhere in Florida thinking they will get laid, only to get shitfaced drunk and arrested? Or unlike their straight counterparts are they actually getting laid?

Postscript: I use the terms gay and queer to refer to all men and women of the gay community in this article. I do not address transgender and bisexual people. I firmly believe that their struggle is our struggle. However, their Rites of Passage are very different from ours. I invite others to make that examination.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Closing of Oscar Wilde Bookshop

When Martin and I travel we love to check out the local LGBT bookstores. One of our favorites has always been the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York City. Oscar Wilde is an amazing store filled with history, and has been influential to several generations of LGBT people. This last summer longtime manager and current owner Kim Brinster stopped in our bookstore, Common Language in Ann Arbor. She was very impressed. I was weak-kneed to hear her praise.

Here's a newsflash: Oscar Wilde Bookshop is closing.

This is alarming news for at least two reasons:

Gay Businesses Support Gay Causes

A separate African-American economy began in the late 18th and early 19th century and flourished in the early 20th century. Though invisible to white America, it was a thriving retail and service economy. However, all that economic activity was slowly absorbed into the greater economy from the 1950s to the present. On the one hand, that is a victory. Economic activity, like schools and marriage, should not suffer from a "separate but equal" status. On the other hand, it was that alternate economy that helped to fund traditionally black colleges, the NAACP, Freedom Rides, and more. Unless you believe we are in a post-racial world the loss of those businesses is the loss of funding for change.

An LGBT economy is a much more recent phenomenon. Public admission of homosexuality meant certain ruin for businesses as well as individuals. It was only as the LGBT movement made it possible for people to venture out of the closet that such a thing as "Gay-Owned Gay-Operated” was created. But it has become integral to our social change movement.

Check out sponsors of national LGBT events and organizations and you'll see names like PlanetOut, Inc., the Advocate, Arcus Foundation, and the Gill Foundation. Even when you see the Ford Foundation as a sponsor (for example) that funding has been the result of lobbying by LGBT workplace organizations and other funders and activists. Without that support, those "non-gay" funders would melt into the woodwork.

Check out local organizations and you will see a similar pattern. WRAP, Affirmations, Triangle, HARC and more are funded by Pride Source (publishers of Between the Lines), Pronto, the \aut\ BAR, and more. And again, what about those Ford or Paramount Bank sponsorships? That funding exists because of strong LGBT advocacy within the organization.

Unless you believe we live in a post-gay world, the loss of LGBT businesses will mean the loss of funding for OUR change.

LGBT Bookstores Provide Information and Culture to our Community

LGBT and independent bookstores are the primary advocates for LGBT fiction and non-fiction literature. Think how often you hear about a Library Board banning books like “Heather Has Two Mommies”, “The Sissy Duckling”, and most recently the incredible “10,000 Dresses”. The big chains focus on Best Sellers, not LGBT literature. The last bastion of diverse free speech is the independent bookstore.

This weekend I was talking with author Sal Sapienza who described how important Oscar Wilde had been to him when he was a college student in New York and struggling with his identity.

When the last independent bookstore disappears the only voice you will be able to read will be the voice that corporate America wants you to hear. It may not be the voice that you want to hear.

As Christopher Rice pointed out a couple of years ago, if you liked “Brokeback Mountain” and want more like it, head to your LGBT bookstore, because it is the health of those bookstores that will allow the next story to be presented to the public.

What can you do?

I have already heard many people meet the news of Oscar Wilde’s closing with sadness and nostalgia. It is not a time for sadness. It is a time for resolution.

Resolve to buy your books at LGBT bookstores. Even if you do not buy books, you can support them with your purchase of lube, magazines, and DVDs.

Resolve to do as much business as you can with LGBT businesses. When you use an LGBT lawyer, realtor, doctor, therapist, auto dealer, or any other business you are “Buying Gay” in a profound way.

The LGBT community was recently reminded that it is within the power of the larger community to limit and take away our rights. The Change WE believe in must be supported within our communities.