Review: Lawfully Wedded Husband: How My Gay Marriage Will Save the American Family by Joel Derfner

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Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

Lalwfully Wedded Husband coverIn 2007, Joel Derfner’s boyfriend stuns him with a Christmas time proposal.  It was a time when gay marriage was struggling for equality and there were few places where Joel and Mike could legally wed.   As the couple sets out on the path to a legal marriage, Joel and Mike encounter a multitude of obstacles, including ones that Joel creates himself, before they can say “I do”  legally before family and friends.  It includes ailing parents that move in, a reality show that has little to do with reality, wedding planning nightmares to make Bridezilla cringe, arguments, Ouija boards, and the very definition of marriage itself.

When I picked up Lawfully Wedded Husband, I realized I was already familiar with Joel Derfner.  No, it wasn’t from his previous books (Gay Haiku and Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever) but from the cringe inducing reality show he mentions in his story, starting with the Introduction.  Yes, I watched that show he and his best friend were a part of, Girls Who LIke Boys Who Like Boys, filmed in 2010 for the Sundance Channel.  The author had, along with his best friend Sarah, and his then fiance Mike, appeared on the show which filmed their marriage in Iowa. It had that stilted, painful feel to it that low budget reality shows can have.  And I ended up feeling bad for everyone who appeared on it, including Joel, Mike and Sarah, who later bore the brunt of vicious comments due to the editing by the director who seemed to have her own agenda.

I  admit I like Joel Derfner’s version far better than the scripted, awkward one that managed to make its way to cable.  And its not just because the behind the scenes manipulations and headache pounding repetition that Derfner reveals as standard operating procedure but the unique, dramatic, hilarious voice that Joel Derfner brings to the proceedings and beyond.

Joel Derfner muses, rants, and hilariously relates his path to the alter and wedded bliss with his husband Mike in Lawfully Wedded Husband.  He is alternately introspective, musing upon the institution of marriage, its history and redefining it in today’s cultural reality.  He takes on his colorful, and somewhat alarming ancestry and stacks it along side Mike’s in order to make observations about the differences in upbringing and their ideas of family.  But while he is doing that, there are momentary asides into gay shopping venues,  couple counseling, and Joel’s past sex life.  Lawfully Wedded Husband is a veritable explosion of clever quips, thoughtful introspection, and hilarious soliloquies on living in Brooklyn mixed with meaningful forays into gay history and the meaning of marriage.  And I suspect how you relate to Joel Derfner and his outlook on life will temper your feelings about this book and its author.

High maintenance.  Those are just two of the words I would use to describe the narrator.  I would also throw in clever, intelligent, manipulative and at times throughly exhausting.  I really came away feeling for Mike at times, especially when Joel is blind siding him with his participation in this reality show or decreeing that morning clothes with the de rigueur gray top hat (of which the clothier only has one and it’s the wrong size) is the way to go for their wedding apparel or even at the beginning, stopping Mike’s proposal to run and check on his (Joel’s) horoscope for the day before saying “yes”.  But there is also a balance here, each side, warts and all, is revealed.  Joel Derfner doesn’t hide the bad times, the lack of communication that almost derails the couple, its there too.  In fact the whole relationship sink is thrown into this story, along with gay history, wedding planning, Jewish marriage rituals and the search for the perfect Ketubah.  Talk about the proverbial box busting at the seams!

I suspect that the author has no inner editor, no real gates between the brain and the mouth. I kind of appreciate that.  This books sounds like the way I imagine he talks in real life.  If he thinks it, out it comes, whether in person or on the page, except of course when he is deciding not to tell Mike about the portable dishwasher he just bought or something similar.  The pages are full of Z Gallerie, the “gayest online store ever”, as well as the fact that Joel decides that he is going to win their new home via the HGTV’s Urban Oasis Giveaway for that ultimate condo in Manhattan. OK, I admit to doing that too but definitely not on the scale Derfner did. I am talking about 5000 handwritten entries!  I am not sure anyone does anything on the scale Derfner does. That is both part of his charm and part of his annoyance factor.

It’s this “overstuffed” aspect that kept Lawfully Wedded Husband from a perfect five, there is just too much here to take in.  But take it in you should, as it’s marvelous in so many ways.  It flows with the rhythm of a man who loves words and knows how to use them.  The history lessons that go along with the histrionic scenes, the quiet reflection to go along with the manic maneuverings of a man intent on getting married his way, the legal way and making it feel as it should for both him and Mike.  A right that should have been theirs all along.

Consider Lawfully Wedded Husband highly recommended.  And now I am off to find Gay Haiku, and Swish to see how the romance started.  Don’t let this author and his book get away!

This is how the Introduction starts:

What are you guys wearing tomorrow?” asked the assistant director of Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, the reality show my fiancé, Mike, and I were being filmed for in May of 2010.

“I’m wearing jeans and a nice vest,” I said, “and Mike will be in shorts and a T-shirt.”

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. “Joel,” the assistant director said, “this Iowa wedding is the culmination of your story arc.”

“Right.”

“If you’re not dressed up, people will think you’re not taking it seriously.”

“Look,” I said. “I promised Mike that this would be as low-key an event as we could possibly manage, and I’ve already broken that promise in more ways than I can count. Not dressing up is the one shred of evidence left that I actually care about his feelings.”

“This is bad,” the assistant director said, and waited.

“Okay,” I said finally. “I’ll talk to him about it.”

“Great,” said the assistant director. “It’ll really help the audience understand what a special thing you’re doing.”

I put my cell phone in my pocket, went back to the table at the restaurant where Mike and I were having lunch with his cousin DJ and DJ’s boyfriend, Kevin, and promptly did not talk to him about it, because Mike’s fury was already just shy of the boiling point, and the last thing I needed was for it to get any hotter less than twenty-four hours before our nuptials.

Book Details:

Hardcover, 248 pages
Published September 19th 2013 by University of Wisconsin Press (first published January 1st 2013)
ISBN 0299294900 (ISBN13: 9780299294908)

edition language English
Buy Links  Amazon,
Other Books by Joel Derfner:
Cat Daddy: What the World’s Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love, and Coming Clean
Gay Haiku
Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever

Review: Stonewall by Martin Duberman

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Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5

Stonewall2 new coverIt’s June 28, 1969. At a gay bar called Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village, NY City’s finest, the NYPD carried out a raid on the bar that should have been routine.  After all the police had been raiding and harassing gay bars and establishments for years, so one more raid should have been nothing out of the ordinary.  But in the early morning hours at Stonewall Inn, all of the intimidation, the constant harassment, was finally too much and in response to this raid the gay customers rioted.  As the size and power of the demonstration grew, word that gays were fighting back spread throughout the city.  Soon more men and women came and joined in the demonstration.  Rocks were thrown at the police and shouts of “gay power” could be heard.   Eventually, the NY Police Department sent enough reinforcements to quell the riot for the evening.  But the next night brought a new uprising with the crowds swelling to well over 1,000 people.  NYCPD Riot Squads were called in to stop the demonstrations but over the next four days, more protests continued throughout the city sparking intense discussions on gay civil rights and, the formation of gay activist groups determined to change the laws and societal outlook that looked at homosexuality as something to be outlawed and perverted in nature.

On the first anniversary of Stonewall, the first gay pride parade was held in throughout the U.S. in New York City near Stonewall Inn, Los Angeles, Chicago,  and San Francisco.  Stonewall cemented itself as the spark that set off a gay revolution, the effects of which are still being felt today when the Supreme Court’s decisions on the issue of DOMA and Prop 8 made history.

Martin Duberman uses 6 people whose lives began prior to Stonewall to chart the affect of the Stonewall riots on their lives and the community around them. The six key LGBT activists (Craig Rodwell, Yvonne Flowers, Karla Jay, Sylvia Ray Rivera, Jim Fouratt, and Foster Gunnison, Jr) are followed from their childhoods through their adult participation in the riots and the resulting  civil rights actions.

On June 28, 2013, we mark the 44th anniversary of Stonewall Inn riots and the beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, and yestrerday the Supreme Court of the United States struck down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and Proposition 8 in California declaring it unconstitutional.  So it is fitting that today’s review is Martin Duberman’s Stonewall, a history of the riot that set off the gay civil rights movement.

Martin Duberman is the professor emeritus of history at the Graduate Center of the City University (CUNY), where he founded the Center for  Lesbian and Gay Studies, the first university in the United States to have a LGBT university based research center.  An author of over 20 books and an politically active gay man, I would expect a detailed and revelatory account  from Duberman of the events leading up to Stonewall. And that is what we were given in Stonewall.  Martin Duberman states that he wanted to place Stonewall along a timeline of events instead of the Stonewall Inn demonstrations being the launching point of gay civil rights history.  According to the blurb from the publisher:

Duberman does all this within a narrative framework of novelistic immediacy. Stonewall unfolds through the stories of six lives, and those individual lives broaden out into the larger historical canvas.

However, in trying to place the events at Stonewall within the context of GLBTQ history, Martin Duberman strays too far from the actual historic event and its ramifications, especially in a book titled Stonewall.  Instead the author starts off with a cast of 6 individuals: Craig Rodwell who figured largely in the Mattachine Society and opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, Yvonne Flowers who started the Salsa Soul Sisters, Karla Jay who was a member of the feminist collective the Redstockings and the Gay Liberation Front, Sylvia (Ray)  Rivera the founder of STAR, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, Jim Fouratt a hipster and major spokesperson for the Yippie Movement, and Foster Gunnison, Jr, who helped plan the first Christopher Street Liberation March along with Craig Rodwell.

Given this cast of remarkable men and women, I was expecting a narrative equal in intensity and emotion to the lives of the people it was following.  Unfortunately, Duberman’s years as a history professor prove to be the guiding touch of the narrative rather than a moving account of the events revealed.  Divided into seven parts, each section relates a chapter in the lives of the people chosen.  Part One Growing Up is exactly that, the early years of each person.  And while I appreciated their struggles, the dry tone and “as told to” narrative dampens any emotion the reader might feel when coming across such events as Craig Rodwell’s abandonment by his mother or Ray’s abusive upbringing after his mother tried to poison him and then committed suicide.  Each one of these individuals lives are made up of startling and often dramatic occurrences that breaking them up into sections succeeds in only removing  some of the intensity. Also the interrupted flow of their backstory makes it hard to follow their lives in a fluid manner, something I would have preferred.

What makes this  book fascinating and worth the price is the last three chapters.  The first sections make interesting reading but the last sections bring vividly home the tumultuous times. That would be Part Six 1969 Part Seven Post-Stonewall 1969-1970 and Epilogue 1992.  As the book heads into the 60’s, the emotions and political upheaval of the times arrives in the narrative and the reader starts to really feel the events that came together that sparks off the riots of Stonewall rather than just understand them intellectually.  I was especially enthralled by the early accounts of the people (the Mob) behind the operations at Stonewall Inn, the crime boss characters, the Drag Queens, just a remarkable group of people to gather under one roof.  I wish I could quote the opening sections here but the DRM prevents me from doing so.  But this is where Martin Duberman shines as a author as he walks you through the front door of Stonewall Inn. Here you learn about Fat Tony and Maggie Jiggs, the famous queen who worked the bar along with her lover Tommy Long, Maggie was the main supplier of the drugs her customers were so fond of. blonde, outspoken, and gregarious. Here is a short passage:

If you got the okay at the door–and for underage kids that was always problematic–you moved a few steps to a table, usually covered by members of what one wag called the Junior Achievement Mafia team.  That could mean, on different nights, Zucchi,; Mario; Ernie Sgroi who always wore a suit and tie and whose father started the famed Bon Soir on Eighth Street; “Vito” , who was on salary directly from Fat Tony, was hughly proud of his personal collection of S.S. uniforms and Nazi flags, and made bombs on the side; or “Tony the sniff” Verra who had a legendary nose for no-goods and kept a baseball bat behind the door to deal with them. At the table you had to plunk down three dollars (one dollar on weekdays), for which you got two tickets that could be exchanged for two watered-down drinks. (According to Chuck Shaheen. all drinks were watered, even those carrying the fanciest labels.)  You then signed your name in a book kept to prove, should the question arise in court, that Stonewall was indeed a private “bottle club”.  People rarely signed their real names. “Judy Garland”, “Donald Duck”, and “Elizabeth Taylor” were popular favorites.

And that is just the beginning of the real heart of the book, Stonewall Inn and its many and varied denizens.  I found myself going back and rereading portions of these chapters where the people became real and the emotions behind the political activity felt as alive and new as those I saw on the steps of the Supreme Court yesterday as the decisions were announced that saw the end of DOMA and Prop 8.

For those born after Stonewall, this is an important window into the beginnings of the gay civil rights movement and the people who helped ignite it.  For those children of the 60’s and 70’s, this will bring back memories of a time in our lives where everything was possible, and the times were “a changing”.   I found this to be a timely and compelling read and highly  recommend it.  Pick up your copy now.

Book Details:

Paperback, 352 pages
Published May 1st 1994 by Plume (first published 1993)
ISBN 0452272068 (ISBN13: 9780452272064)
edition languageEnglish
original titleStonewall