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    The Power of Telling Our Stories

    By Joanie Juster–

    Themes sometimes emerge as I write this column. This time the theme was clear: the power of telling our stories, and the importance of making sure those stories are heard. Here’s to everyone with the courage to share their stories in print, in films, on stage, or anywhere else. And here’s to the librarians, teachers, booksellers, lawyers, parents, and others who are fighting to make sure everyone who wants and needs to hear those stories can have access to them.

    I Read Banned Books

    The past year has seen a disturbing increase in attempts by legislatures, school districts, and parents’ groups across the country to ban specific topics from school libraries and curricula. Overwhelmingly, the books they seek to ban are about LGBTQ+ people, as well as about race and racism. These attempts often go hand in hand with anti-LGBTQ+ policy bills: bills that range from proposing the banning of LGBTQ+-themed books from school districts, to banning books about race that are deemed to potentially make students “uncomfortable,” to banning trans athletes from competing in school sports, to even banning the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in class (see Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill).

    Teachers and librarians are being threatened with lawsuits, job loss, or even physically threatened for carrying such books on their shelves, or even for discussing these topics with students. And the number of these incidents has increased rapidly in the past few months.

    These attempts at censorship are a serious assault on crucial freedoms, and can do serious harm to students, whose rights to read about subjects important to them, and that reflect the reality of their lives, are being threatened. Two recent articles, one by Mary Emily O’Hara of GLAAD, and one by Mike Hixenbaugh of NBC News, take deep dives into this situation, and are well worth taking the time to read. The GLAAD blog post includes links to organizations that are fighting back; they deserve our support. Here are the links:

    The Stories of Our Lives

    A journalist once asked legendary singer Rosemary Clooney what it was like performing in the Big Band era. The plainspoken Clooney replied, “If I’d known I was living through an era I would have paid more attention.”

    Clooney’s answer struck a chord, for as I get older it has become increasingly clear that all of us are always living through an era. And it’s also clear that I should have paid more attention, or at least kept better notes. Many of my contemporaries are now writing memoirs or making films about events that I lived through, and I find myself awed by their powers of recollection. They must have kept really good notes.

    Lately I’ve been reading memoirs of the AIDS years, from people with very different, and important, stories to tell. Peter Staley’s memoir Never Silent (2021) is a compelling story of the birth of an activist, as Peter went from a closeted gay man with a privileged career on Wall Street to an out and proud gay man on the front lines of AIDS activism in ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group). His work continues to inspire new generations of activists.

    Ruth Coker Burns was a single mother in Arkansas in the 1980s. Her life was transformed when she encountered the discrimination and neglect suffered by people with AIDS in her community. Shocked by this cruelty, she stepped up in extraordinary ways to care for hundreds of people who had been discarded by their families and society first because they were gay, then because they had AIDS. She fed them, housed them, fought for their rights, provided them with love and security, and buried them with dignity when they died. Her memoir is All the Young Men (2020).

    Activist and educator Martina Clark’s memoir, My Unexpected Life, features a unique global perspective. As a straight woman living with HIV in the 1990s and 2000s, she traveled the world to teach HIV awareness, prevention, and care through her decades-long career with the UNAIDS. Her courage in fighting ignorance, indifference, cultural roadblocks, and mind-numbing bureaucracy in her effort to save lives—all while fighting her own battles against discrimination—is eye-opening, refreshing, and inspiring. It is also, often, hilarious, as Clark has a refreshingly straight-from-the-hip style. My Unexpected Life is an important addition to the growing canon of AIDS memoirs, especially since she brings her story into the present with her battle with COVID-19.

    April Ashley – Trans Trailblazer

    I was raised to read the newspaper every day, which, even as a kid, included the obituaries. A recent one stopped me in my tracks: an obituary for April Ashley, whose obit reads like a plot from a fantastic Hollywood movie that hasn’t been made yet. Vogue model, performer, darling of the swinging ’60s jet set, and transgender activist, Ashley was not only the second Briton to undergo male to female transition surgery, but also later fought for and won the right to be legally recognized as female thanks to the Gender Recognition Act of 2005. Ashley was awarded the honor of MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2012 in recognition of her services to transgender equality.

    April Ashley died in London on December 26 at the age of 86. What a life. Read all about it here:

    What Is Amy Up to Now?

    The very nature of a column that comes out twice a month is that by publication time, some items will be old news. Sure enough, the night before my interview with Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider came out in the San Francisco Bay Times, saying how much she loved her day job—she quit her day job. Amy is on such a fast-moving trajectory right now that it will be a challenge to keep up with her news, but I just want to wish her the best and say go for it! She has hinted that she will be writing a book soon, and I can’t wait to read it.

    Don’t Miss It: Coronation is Coming

    My first experience with Coronation was 1996, when Donna Sachet herself was crowned Empress XXX. In the February 10 issue of this publication, Donna shared the rich history of the Imperial Council, its activist roots, its philanthropic work, and why it remains a vital and vibrant part of our community. Coronation is an extraordinary event, where our community is on full, dazzling display. If you’re feeling ready to return to in-person events, Coronation would be a fabulous place to start. Get tickets here:

    Bare Chest Calendar Time

    One of San Francisco’s favorite annual traditions is underway: tryouts for the 2023 Bare Chest Calendar are being held Thursday nights through February and March. Begun almost 40 years ago, Bare Chest Calendar has raised over $3 million to help those affected by HIV/AIDS, substance use, or mental health issues, by providing the support and services they need to reclaim their lives. Funds raised through the Bare Chest Calendar support PRC (which includes the former AIDS Emergency Fund and Baker Places, Inc.), whose interconnected services help over 5,000 clients per year.

    To try out, or to cheer on the contestants and support their fundraising efforts:

    Joanie Juster is a long-time community volunteer, activist, and ally.

    Published on February 24, 2022