Every month, five to ten people gather at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center to talk about books. More specifically, we meet to discuss LGBT memoirs, as one small part of the organization’s arts and culture initiatives. The Bradbury-Sullivan Center, as the only such LGBT-focused organization in the region, provides crucial support for LGBT members of the South Side community. This support is material, social, and cultural. Bradbury-Sullivan offers STI testing, meeting the wellness needs of an often overlooked and vulnerable community, as well as legal clinics and computer literacy classes. In addition, they offer social support groups for all ages. Finally, Bradbury-Sullivan boasts a dynamic range of arts and culture offerings, including gallery space, film series, and an LGBT lending library. It is through this library that the LGBT memoir reading group meets. In short, Bradbury Sullivan is a beacon for the local LGBT community–not only providing a much needed safety net but celebrating the joyful cultural aspects of LGBT identity.
The reading group, which is facilitated by Dr. Mary Foltz, Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University, reads memoirs by LGBT authors from all over the world. During past few months, the selections have included Richard Blanco’s The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, Staceyann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise, and, most recently, Darnell Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire.
People come to this reading group from different neighborhoods in the area, different backgrounds, life experiences, and understandings of sexuality. Though I am usually the youngest person in the room, I feel that my voice and perspective are welcome in this place.
At the end of each meeting, we go around and say one thing from the memoir or the discussion that made an impression on us. Despite the reading group’s diversity, there is usually a unifying thread to these end-of-meeting reflections. Almost always, we focus on what we’ve learned, and how we’ve grown as people, over the last hour and a half.
Even people who already consider themselves to be socially conscious can learn from reading about lives different from their own. Most members of the reading group had childhoods which were very different from Blanco’s, Chin’s, and Moore’s. But they were also similar in crucial ways. Regardless of other factors, we all struggle with and are shaped by family, culture, and identity. Learning how others have grown, loved, and overcome helps us to think more deeply about gender and sexuality, and also race, class, and social identity.
Moore’s memoir, for example, gave us the opportunity to reflect on how love can be a part of resistance. This book was some group members’ first exposure to the concept of “radical black love,” and we talked at length about what that term means and how it is powerful. Moore describes his hometown of Camden, NJ as a segregated community deeply impacted by racist urban policy. He links the experience of growing up in Camden to that of black communities across the United States, powerfully demonstrating how the personal is political.
Yet despite the institutional structures of oppression designed to target the black community, Moore gives credit to his family, and the unconditional love they showed him, for making him who he is. His memoir shows how love and community can be the basis for resistance against hate and oppression.
Moore demonstrates this ethos of love in an anecdote near the end of his narration. In the story, Moore, now an activist black man who openly loves other men, is homophobically heckled by a black man in the crowd while he’s giving a speech. Rather than respond in a way that will further divisiveness and hate, Moore chooses to inwardly forgive the man, whose life, Moore recognizes, has been shaped by institutional racism. In other words, Moore finds empathy and love for a man whose own hatred results from white supremacist and homophobic forces acting on him his whole life.
This moment struck the reading group. We all were moved not only by Moore’s narrative of sexual awakening and identity, but also by his powerful capacity for forgiveness and love. Many of us came away from this discussion with a better understanding of how race, class, sexuality, and politics shape our lives. Many of us also felt reaffirmed in our commitments to demonstrating love and forgiveness at a radical level.
Reading LGBT memoir encourages us to think deeply about our own lives and identities while opening our eyes to the diversity of LGBT lives in the world. At Bradbury-Sullivan, literature fuels a conversation that permeates the broader Lehigh Valley community as readers take their new perspectives home with them.