Sam Worley

Elements of the current crisis­­ will ring familiar to folks of a certain age: the mysterious infection, the incompetent government response, the pernicious effects on the vulnerable, the marginalized, the isolated. The HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities in the U.S. starting in the 1980s; only unrelenting pressure from queer activists would make the Reagan administration take notice. The first known report of AIDS was recorded in Los Angeles in 1981—just a dozen years after the 1969 uprising at New York’s Stonewall Inn, the days-long melee between queer and trans people and their police antagonists that marked a turning point in the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

In 2016 that site became a national monument. What an eventful half-century it’s been! These milestones and others are the subject of The Gay Agenda: A Modern Queer History and Handbook. Authors Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham, or Ash + Chess, as they’re known, are prolific illustrators and the proprietors of a stationery company in Richmond, Virginia. This colorful little volume starts around 1900 and offers a brisk romp through recent queer history, with a heavy dose of the arts and popular culture. Think Alison Bechdel, Paris Is Burning and—yep—“RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The authors take care, too, to restore some less well-known figures to their rightful places in the movement, such as Kathy Kozachenko, a lesbian elected to the city council of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1974, three years before Harvey Milk joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

If you’re a parent, this could be something to share with your queer teen to help them understand the history they’re inheriting—or with any teen to help them be a more informed ally. But as the subtitle mentions, the last few dozen pages of The Gay Agenda form a “handbook,” offered “with the purpose of navigating your queerness or understanding someone elses’s”—so if you’re a queer kid, maybe this is a book you give your parents if they have questions about nonbinary pronouns, pansexuality or the concept of “chosen family.” Something for all; this history is America’s.

Elements of the current crisis­­ will ring familiar to folks of a certain age: the mysterious infection, the incompetent government response, the pernicious effects on the vulnerable, the marginalized, the isolated. The HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities in the U.S. starting in the 1980s; only unrelenting pressure from queer activists would make the Reagan administration […]

Queer history is both old and new. We have been gay since the dawn of time, but only recently have queer people really started to speak our own stories into the historical record. The novelty of this—as well as the precarious lives many LGBTQ people still live—raises its own questions: Which stories do we tell? Relative to established narrative forms, where and how do they fit? What about the bad parts?

“I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this,” Carmen Maria Machado writes at the beginning of her stunning new memoir, In the Dream House. “I speak into the silence.” The book describes the arc of a romantic relationship turned sour, controlling and claustrophobic, the house of its title becoming a place where Machado locks herself in the bathroom while her girlfriend tries to break down the door. 

To call it a memoir, though, is to give short shrift to the exquisite strangeness and formal innovation that Machado achieves. The author of Her Body and Other Parties—a National Book Award-nominated collection of stories combining elements of fable, fantasy, noir, erotic thriller, science fiction and fairy tale—Machado imports her fascination with genre into In the Dream House. Each of the book’s short chapters nods to some trope or narrative tradition that Machado is playing with—“American Gothic” or “Lesbian Pulp Novel.” This is a clever device, but it’s also a propulsive one, and occasionally leavening. One chapter is precisely one sentence long: “‘We can fuck,’ she says, ‘but we can’t fall in love.’” Its title is “Dream House as Famous Last Words.”

If this all sounds very metatextual, know that Machado has pulled off an amazing feat: a book that comments on its own existence and the silences it endeavors to fill; a work deeply informed by a sense of identity and community; and page after page of flawless, flaying, addictive prose. In the Dream House is astonishingly good.

Queer history is both old and new. We have been gay since the dawn of time, but only recently have queer people really started to speak our own stories into the historical record. The novelty of this—as well as the precarious lives many LGBTQ people still live—raises its own questions: Which stories do we tell? […]

Two new tomes of nonfiction grapple with the South’s racist history while rustling up hope that this complex region can lead a better way forward.


Recent years have seen the massacre of black worshippers at a South Carolina church, fierce debates over the memorialization of white-supremacist American leaders and the ascendancy of a president who admires Andrew Jackson, a slaveholding Tennessee “populist.” As progress toward racial equality seems ever in danger of being erased, Americans have sought to make sense of the present by looking to the past—and looking south.

Two decades after Confederates in the Attic, Massachusetts-based journalist Tony Horwitz dips back below the Mason-Dixon Line and into an ongoing national conflict in Spying on the South. The book retraces an antebellum journey undertaken by Frederick Law Olmsted, who explored the southern U.S. as the country careered toward civil war. Olmsted wrote dispatches for northern newspapers that were later collected into The Cotton Kingdom, a window into a society structured around slavery. Horwitz similarly seeks to shed light on the region. Pondering the “inescapable echoes of the 1850s” in today’s politics, he travels down the Ohio River on a coal barge, finds the remnants of a massive cotton and sugar plantation in Louisiana and even embarks on an uncomfortable mule ride through Texas. Horwitz is an amiable narrator who marries a journalist’s knack for scene-setting and chatting folks up with the ability to tell a good historical tale. Back up north, he concludes with a walk through New York’s Central Park, the crowning jewel in Olmsted’s subsequent career as a landscape architect.

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s Sisters and Rebels is a master class in how to write history. The founding director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hall tells the story of three sisters from the Lumpkin family, whose father was a violent Reconstruction-era Klan member. While one daughter followed her father’s Lost Cause ideology, more compelling are the two who struck further out. Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin became involved in interracial organizing with the YWCA, enjoyed a prolific career as a sociologist and authored The Making of a Southerner, which explores the roots of racism and sexism in her own childhood. Grace Lumpkin moved to New York, joined the labor movement and wrote the influential proletarian novel To Make My Bread. Hall deftly situates each moment of these women’s lives within its historical context, producing a vital, timely narrative about how attitudes are formed and how they can be reshaped. This triple biography is also a corrective to histories of the South that emphasize its white male bigots, as Hall places women’s progressive political and intellectual work at the book’s heart. Despite being about a single family, Sisters and Rebels is breathtaking in its historical scope and flawlessly executed. The arc of the Lumpkin women raises at least the possibility of redemption—that the sins of the father need not be repeated by the daughters.

Two new tomes of nonfiction grapple with the South’s racist history while rustling up hope that this complex region can lead a better way forward.

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