Friday, August 29, 2014

Baltimore, Baseball and Gay Love—'Queen Henry' Touches all the Bases

Begin with a straight, homophobic, narcissistic, womanizer who happens to play for the Baltimore Orioles.  Add to that his out-of-the-blue discovery he is gay, which is followed by his falling head over spikes for a man.  Toss in the swirling rumors of a gay player on the Orioles and the inherent clubhouse homophobia from his manager, some of his teammates, and his father, and you have the recipe for a glorious, deliciously written work of fiction, Queen Henry, by local author Linda Fausnet, a lifetime Orioles fan.

A successful screenwriter and a professed ally for LGBT rights, Fausnet announced that all proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the Harvey Milk Foundation. 
Set in Baltimore, Henry Vaughn, Jr., who has a thing for Peach Schnapps, is a rather fun-loving outfielder who is immensely popular with the fans mainly because, as a self-described “attention whore,” he leads them in the seventh inning sing-along to Y-M-C-A while standing atop the dugout.  After a game, Henry carouses with his teammates, and since he is attractive, famous and single, he effortlessly finds a different woman to take home each night.

Despite his macho image, Henry secretly longs to be a Broadway performer.  His homophobic father, manager and teammates instill the anti-gay dogma in him, and he frequently uses the f-word primarily because this is the environment in which it is expected and accepted. 

Weakness or the perception of same is one of the greatest fears of a male athlete.  That is why Henry hides the use of an inhaler to deal with his asthma and instead decides to participate in a clinical drug trial at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  After taking the drug, administered by a medical technician named Sam, a gay man, Henry finds out shockingly while jogging the next morning he is attracted to men and lost his desires for women.  Just like that.
Panicky and confused, Henry tries to explain the situation to Sam who vehemently denies the drug had anything to do with this condition and that Henry must have been suppressing his true sexuality all along.  They don’t hit it off well as Henry’s homophobia comes through loud and clear; the tension between the two remains throughout a good portion of the book.

Nonetheless, Sam introduces Henry to a close friend and colleague at Hopkins, Thomas, who has helped people come to grips with their sexuality.  They experience a deep attraction to one another and ultimately fall in love. 
Like any good author, Fausnet seductively draws the reader into the romance and sexual steaminess with great skill, describing the relationship between Henry and Thomas with sensitivity and emotion. To her credit, the passionate sexual scenes are tastefully conveyed—full of affection and heat without seeming tawdry.

The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along and the career and family choices he will be confronted with or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
Without proceeding further to reveal the outcome, I can say that some readers may be disappointed with the ending (as I was initially) but others may like the ending (as I did eventually). 

Fausnet’s writing is extraordinary in this fluid, fast-paced tale.  Narrated in the first person by Henry, the story reads like his own journal as he reflects upon each conversation he has and reveals his inner thoughts.  We get to delve into Henry’s psyche enabling us to not only understand the challenges and quandaries he faces, but also to enthusiastically root for him.  He wins us over.
Fausnet demonstrates an uncanny understanding of gay male emotions and sexual desires (she is a happily married heterosexual mother of two) and will keep you absorbed as Henry and the other characters in the novel navigate through the events shaping their lives.

Her character development is splendid.  You feel that you know each one intimately, and most of the characters are endearing and sweet.  This is especially true of Alice, an attractive bartender at a bar Henry frequented to pick up women, sidestepping Alice by not recognizing her myriad appealing qualities.    
The underlying question is: was Henry gay all along ... or will the drug wear off and he returns to being straight?
I suspect Fausnet purposely left out specific physical descriptions of the characters other than vague images such as beautiful eyes, muscular arms, etc. so as not to distract the reader from the underlying messages in the novel.  But I think it would have been fun and would have added context to be able to visualize each person as we turn the pages.

Fausnet’s references to Baltimore provided additional enjoyment to the storyline especially for us locals.  Besides Hopkins and Camden Yards, the Hippo is frequently mentioned throughout.  The Pride parade is a turning point scene.  The Baltimore Sun plays a vital role, and even Baltimore OUTloud is mentioned albeit as a support group marching in the Pride parade, not the wildly popular LGBT newspaper that it is!
Though there are many cleverly written light moments throughout Queen Henry—one that is particularly hilarious is when the Orioles players were speculating as to whom the gay player may be—Fausnet touches upon key social messages that are in play today. 

Despite the revelations by Jason Collins, Michael Sam and other athletes that they are gay, there is still great concern by gay male athletes to come out and face the potential hostilities.  Fausnet effectively describes the homophobia that exists in the locker room and the pressures that result. 

She began writing the novel a few years back when the environment for gays and lesbians was not as favorable as today. Therefore, I don’t think the current local media would be in the “gotcha mode” as portrayed in Queen Henry.  The same is true for the teammates who now would be wise not to publicly utter the f-word in dealing with the subject.  Moreover, the real Orioles today would not be inclined to openly express any anti-gay epithets as owner Peter Angelos, who was a substantial contributor in the fight for marriage equality in Maryland, would put the kibosh on that.
The other main theme is how Henry recognized his own homophobia, and once he learned he was gay understood how other gays and lesbians can be easily hurt and their lives wrecked by this bigotry and hatred.  He transformed his attitude once he saw himself as a victim.  It is a powerful message.

Queen Henry is a truly well-written novel with potent drama with campy humor laced throughout.  Though it contains important messages to LGBT folks and others, it is also a gorgeous love story and one that should not be missed.  Fausnet swung and hit a home run.
Queen Henry, Linda Fausnet, published by Wannabe Pride; July 2014; 360 pages; paperback (ISBN: 978-0-9916525-0-1); $10.62 on or, her website to promote writers and books; $2.99 on Kindle.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Next Big Thing

Photo: Brion McCarthy Photography
There was an abundance of symbolism on the day the report from the Youth Equality Alliance (YEA) was released, which revealed that many LGBTQ youth in Maryland are facing difficult challenges including homelessness.  The unveiling of the report Living in the Margins  took place in Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Central Library where homeless individuals frequently enter to gain shelter.  It also occurred during the record-breaking deluge, which reminded people of the deplorable conditions the homeless must endure on days like that.
On that waterlogged August 12 morning, ten YEA coalition members and LGBTQ youth spoke passionately about the experiences of bullying, harassment, and discrimination that tend to lead to negative outcomes.

Most of us are aware that LGBTQ youth are bullied and tormented in school or online.  We have a sense that some parents kick their kids out of their homes when they find out their child is LGBTQ.   We realize that homeless children (as well as adults) are at great risk on numerous levels.  We recognize, too, that foster care is not a good solution to homelessness when the child is constantly discriminated against, bullied or abused. 
We know these problems exist; therefore, it’s time to finally turn our attention to the plight of our LGBTQ youth.  Aaron Merki, the executive director for the FreeState Legal Project, which is one of the founding members of the YEA coalition, agreed. “Although the Maryland LGBTQ community has recently secured several new rights, including marriage equality and the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, there is much work to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth.”

Indeed, we’ve achieved goals in equality and transgender nondiscrimination that were seemingly unimaginable five years ago, and we are proud of that.  Those have been powerful, sexy issues that attracted generous contributions, volunteers and the work by elected officials to make it happen.  These matters were the subject of conversations from dinner parties in Bolton Hill and Silver Spring to the pews in Baltimore’s churches to the sands of Rehoboth Beach. 

Are we ready to tackle the gritty, less glamorous task of helping our youth?  I hope so.”
They were historic, monumental achievements.  Are we ready to tackle the gritty, less glamorous task of helping our youth?  I hope so.  It’s time, and it’s the next big thing, although much work is still needed to ensure our safety, combat HIV/AIDS, address the needs of the burgeoning aging population and deal with other concerns. 

The YEA coalition, consisting of a number of advocacy groups and individuals, is searching for additional members to join in and participate in workgroups formed to implement the recommendations outlined in the report.  Many of these initiatives require policy, regulatory or legislative changes to help LGBTQ youth, and the process is expected to take several years. 
As YEA constructs the coalition, hopefully those joining will not simply lend their name as we have seen at times before, but rather they should roll up their sleeves and work.  And YEA should ensure accountability in that regard.

In the coming weeks, YEA will assign tasks to those best equipped to carry them out.  Much of the changes are political and enlisting the support of top elected officials is paramount to implementing the recommendations.  Our LGBT caucus in Annapolis, fresh off of the previous two big victories, would be helpful in championing this cause as well.
Photo: Brion McCarthy Photography
One recommendation, however, is a non-starter, in my judgment.  Under the section for Education, there is this: “Teach students about LGBTQ rights, issues and history in a K-12 curriculum.”

While that would be great, it will unlikely fly politically.  Those who opposed marriage equality will get on their soap boxes and say, “We told you that if gays were allowed to marry, the next step is teaching homosexuality in the schools.”  That’s how it would be painted no matter how noble and desirable the goal is.  I’m concerned that the whole effort to make changes in the Education piece could be derailed if this recommendation is included in the package.
Nonetheless, the other recommendations are ambitious and solid and could go a long way towards alleviating the misery experienced by LGBTQ youth.  The rest of us should get behind the effort by lobbying legislators and other officials, and at a minimum, raise awareness about problems facing our youth.  Moreover, the YEA needs to keep our communities informed through the LGBT press of any progress so that their efforts could gain momentum by enlisting additional support.

“Maryland LGBTQ communities are called upon to take notice of their youth,” said Diana Philip, Policy Director for FreeState Legal Project. “We are asking adults and youth to read the report and select the recommendations that they feel they can best contribute knowledge, contacts, and resources to influence administrators, policy makers, and legislators in their home counties.  I am hopeful that we will have youth in the room to help inform discussion and decision-making.”
To that end, Philip pointed out that YEA has begun reaching out to Gay Straight Alliances and LGBTQ youth community groups throughout the state to see if they can partner to hold Speak Up, Speak Out events—public discussions where LGBTQ youth can share their experiences in schools, foster care, and juvenile services.  “We want to capture information about the parts of these three systems that are supportive of these youth as well as the parts which undermine their wellbeing - what works, what doesn’t, what we should fix,” she said.

This is going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach from our communities. Rev. Olu-Moses Moise from the Apostolic Catholic Church said as much at the Pratt Library event, “I’m glad we are saying ‘enough is enough.’  This is a call to LGBTQ communities to come out to support LGBTQ children.”
While other work is needed and should not be brushed aside, helping solve the challenges facing our LGBTQ youth is the next big thing.  They are the future; we must join in.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Laugh a Lot at Beth Tfiloh's 'Spamalot'

Cast of BTCT's 'Spamalot'  Photo: Dave Stuck/Baltimore Jewish Times

For a musical to be successful, all the components must jell.  Of course, there must be a good a score and lyrics as the starting point.  But then you need a solid ensemble, good technical elements and staging and proficient direction to put it all together.  The Beth Tflioh Community Theatre’s (BTCT) professional-caliber production of Spamalot (“A new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) under the direction of Diane M. Smith succeeded on all fronts.
The book and lyrics were by Eric Idle who also composed the music with John Du Prez.  Mike Nichols directed the original Broadway production of Spamalot in 2005 garnering three Tony Awards including Best Musical among 14 nominations.   It ran for over 1,500 performances, and the show has been seen in over a dozen countries.

For full review, visit MD Theatre Guide: