Queers in History – Keith Stern (BenBella Books)

Buy it Now at Amazon through Dreamweaver Group.


Queer men and women have been passed over and marginalized by history even though they have fundamentally changed its course countless times. It’s time to set the record straight (so to speak), but this “comprehensive encyclopedia” isn’t the book to do it. It’s a shoddy, superficial, ill-researched and poorly written mess.


Of five entries picked totally at random, three had substantial factual errors (Janis Ian – p. 233, Richard Deacon – p. 134 and Jackie “Moms” Mabley – p. 295). Let’s just look at the first one. The entry for singer/songwriter Janis Ian begins, “At the tender age of seventeen, Janis Ian wrote the song she’s been identified with ever since: ‘At Seventeen.’” Ian was born in 1951 and “At Seventeen” was written in 1973 (in her mother’s house, according to Wikipedia – hardly an obscure source), making her 22 at the time but I guess the sentence was too catchy for Stern to let facts stand in the way.


“Twenty five years later,” the entry continues, “the singer/songwriter recorded a beautiful new album and began her publicity campaign with an announcement of her long-term committed relationship with criminal defense attorney Patricia Snyder. Ian and Snyder were married in Toronto, Canada, on August 27, 2003.” End of entry. 62 lousy words. This last part is factually correct, but would have it been too much bother to mention the name of the beautiful new album? And what about “Society’s Child,” the hit that launched her career (and nearly killed it) when Ian was only 14? Her autobiography? I want to know what she did, not where and when she got married.


Consider the palty 100-word entry on Tennessee Williams (p. 493) that spends half of those words listing Williams’ plays and the other half gossiping about his longtime companion Frank Merlo. Stern doesn’t bother to tell us which of Williams’ works won Pulitzer Prizes, but confides that Merlo’s nickname was “Little Horse” (wink, wink) and tells an amusing anecdote about Merlo at a party.


Armistead Maupin (p. 308) gets a whopping 138 words, but at least Stern mentions Tales of the City, his “novelistic series” (wouldn’t it have been easier to say ‘series of novels?’) Two gay icons, Tennessee Williams and Armistead Maupin, get a shade over 200 words combined while the Lindsay Lohan entry (p. 284) runs just shy of 400. Sooooo, Lohan’s Disney remakes, singing career and rehab drama merit twice the space devoted to Williams’ and Maupin’s contributions to gay – and straight – culture.


Yeah. Right.


Not all the entries are uninteresting or inequitable, but Stern misses the mark far more often than he hits it, relying on gossip, unsubstantiated rumor and smarmy stories rather than celebrating the achievements of gay men and women with dignity and grace. He does not empower our culture so much as he embalms it within the narrow parameters of sex, substance abuse and misery usually allowed queer people. That alone is reason enough to give this a pass.


Because if we don’t care enough to take ourselves seriously, no one will either.


Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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