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January 5, 2000

A Woman Like That: Lesbian and Bisexual Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories
Edited by Joan Larkin

A Woman Like That is a welcome addition to coming out and coming of age literature, as it provides a space for talented writers to tell their stories of growing up, exploring their sexuality, and explaining it to themselves and those around them in compelling tales. With most anthologies, I skip around to read my favorite writers first, and then reluctantly move onto the ones who are new to me. I'm pleased to say that even with my random reading pattern, every essay I read in this anthology thrilled me. Stunned at the telling or turn of events in one story, I would then turn to another mindblowing tale like Heather Lewis's entry recalling her father's involvement in Nixon's escapades and how his legal woes related to her coming out.

Part of the success of this anthology is the authors' nonideological viewpoints: they are there to tell their own unique story, not advance a cause or convince anyone of their right to exist. This collection is about the art of storytelling and remembering, dissecting the nuances of childhood and adolescence and taking the reader back: to the '40s, '50s, '60s and forward, as well as to distant locales and environments. From Tristan Taormino's tale of her queer father and her first girlfriend to Cecilia Tan's uproarious account of her mother proudly buying copies of Penthouse with Tan's fiction in it, these authors broaden our understanding of what it means to be lesbian or bisexual by taking us into the memories of their families. In fact, these women are not "like" anything: they are all real, true, honest, and funny. It's clear that the writers did some soul searching before going to write these stories, and that for some, they evoke painful and confusing memories. Yet all convey something vital to the reader: the sense that no matter how weird, awkward, angry, endangered or delighted your burgeoning sexual awareness makes you feel, you will survive.

Diversity in terms of age, race, and geography further enrich the anthology. And these memoirs are about coming out to oneself as much as they are coming out to others, which is quite refreshing because it takes the reader back to a time when these noted and accomplished women were not only not a part of any lesbian community, they were just starting to figure out that being lesbian was a possibility. For me it
was heartening to find that even some of the women I most admire were also awkward, geeky, confused and enthused teenagers at one point. A Woman Like That is commendable for its historical accounts as well as its literary merit: had I not known better, I would have
said these tales were fiction, grade A.

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Boy Meets Boy
Edited by Lawrence Schimel
(St. Martin's Griffin)

Lawrence Schimel's, wunderkind of gay publishing, offers us a delightfully fun romp through the world of boy/boy dating, where authors offer up true and made-up tales of the occupational hazards of finding a love match. Almost all of these are wickedly funny, as they chronicle dating mishaps, detailed plans for finding the man of one's dreams, and just plain wacky happenings. What's nice is that even after winding up on some of the most insane and poorly ending dates, these writers can laugh about it and share the humor with others. Included are ugly dates, sex dates, scary dates and even non dates. The book is divided into three sections: Looking for Mr. Right, Strange Lovers and Loving Strangers and Odd Counters, which should give you a taste of the tone of the book. These stories take place in different countries and show the many ways that a date can go awry.

"Missing Paul," my favorite of the collection, is a humorous tale of cyberdating, and the vagaries of figuring out who your online partner is when you meet for the first time. "Romantic/Sexual Agenda" takes us back to our first explorations of dating and how one character boldly schemes and details every minute moment in his plot to catch Mr. Right.

The last section features some of the more outlandish and amusing stories, like "Bridge-and-Tunnel Tony" (how could a story with that title not be funny?). In "Looking for a Hot Time," the protagonist gets a little more than he bargained for when he agrees to partake in some interesting S/M with his date. Schimel's own true tale, "Tom, Dick or Harry," which closes the book, is also an amusing tale of forgetting the name of a one night stand when he runs into him again.

This would be a delightful holiday gift for any gay man, single or coupled, and anyone who's ever had to suffer through a bad, boring, or bewildering date can laugh along with these writers. This collection is quick, funny and well-written - perfect reading when your next date ends much too early.

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Monica's Story
by Andrew Morton
(St. Martin's Press)

Monica's story, both the tale we've heard ad nauseum from the media, and the bestseller by Andrew Morton, is captivating. In Morton's telling, we get a glimpse into a world of privilege and loneliness, and a sense of what makes Monica Lewinsky tick, how she thinks and how the scandal has affected her. It also gives frightening details about her treatment by the FBI as well as by the President, and altogether brings much more clarity to the story of Monica than brief, often predatory media glimpses have given.

In Morton's biography, he quotes a baffled President Clinton questioning Lewinsky about how the two came to see their relationship in such different lights. He said to Monica, a girl who is quite frank about her sexuality and does not apologize for it, that "this has become your everything." Monica's neediness and relationships with the President and Andy Bleiler show that she manages to get herself hooked up with married men who don't really treat her right, but she also displays streaks of independence and fierce loyalty to those she loves.

Her preoccupation with her weight is also a theme woven throughout the story, and one which Morton perhaps overemphasizes in an effort to show just how oppressed Monica was and is. Although I do agree that overweight women do face extreme pressures in our society, Monica seems like she uses the weight issue as a crutch to feel bad about herself, when through her personality she is able to attract people, as both friends and lovers, to her.

Though at times painting too stark of a picture of Monica's ordeal, Morton's biography highlights many facts that were left out, or did not stand out starkly enough, from the average media coverage. Some of the more pertinent revelations include seeming gaps in the tapes offered by Linda Tripp, the rough manner in which the FBI treated and interrogated Monica, some overtly sexual comments made by Monica's first lawyer, Ginsburg, and the fact that she was kept isolated for over six months from her closest friends, only able to communicate through attorneys, after she cooperated with Starr's office, lest her friends be forced to testify against her based on their knowledge. Taken as a whole, these facts paint a stark picture for Monica, her family and friends, and for the future of privacy in this country.

What also stood out for me and made Monica seem a lot more real and human, is her ambivalence towards the President, even to this day. While she feels extremely betrayed, hurt and angry with his behavior, she still seems to love, or at least hold lots of tenderness, towards the man she once adored. Indeed, she must have to have lived through months of secrecy, sneaking around, and late-night phone calls.

Monica emerges from the tale not as a perfect example of womanhood (who is, anyway?), but as a troubled and yet strong-willed young woman who does not back down from her beliefs, hopes and dreams. After reading the biography, I stand firm in my conviction that I would rather have Monica's honesty and integrity than the President's Janus-faced turns of phrase any day. This book is worth reading not just for the sensationalism or the historical value, but for the glimpse into many issues, problems and emotions that many young women have gone through. It's the more universal aspects of Monica's story that make it compelling, not just the specifics of her highly extraordinary case. Though its very extraordinariness are what caused the world to know about it, underneath is the story of a girl in love, betrayed friendship, a family bonding together, and a young woman figuring out who she is in the midst of immense criticism. At the very least, readers of this biography should come away with a respect for Monica's perseverence; at most, an admiration for her courage and willingness to take an honest look at her own actions, something we could probably all do a bit more of.

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Run Catch Kiss
by Amy Sohn
(Simon & Schuster)

If I had to pick one word to describe Amy Sohn's debut novel Run Catch Kiss, it would have to be "romp." This is a fast-paced, sexy tale of a sex columnist named Ariel Steiner, which often parallels the story of real-life former sex columnist (for the NY Press ) and the novel's author Amy Sohn. Embedded into the story is the subplot of what-is-fact versus what-is-fiction, but either way it's a fun and enlightening read.

Ariel Steiner, an aspiring actress, doesn't really know what to do with her life - she's just graduated from college, moved into her own apartment, and is exploring men, sex and New York City. Steiner lands a gig writing a sex column called "Run Catch Kiss," in which she details her many amorous adventures. The problem is, she doesn't have all that many adventures and has to embellish her past and seek out people specifically so she'll have something hot to write about.

Sohn is at her witty best when she describes what it's like to be a girl and like sex, and some of profound truths manage to creep into the humor. Sohn describes Areil's first postcollege sexual experience as "pretty disappointing. Sex is often that way for me. I'm much more entranced by the idea of it than the act itself." She manages to pinpoint certain truths about dating and sex all wrapped up in the tale of a girl who is definitely narcissistic, but she has such a lively enthusiasm that the reader is sucked into her drama, needing to keep reading to find out what will happen next. And a lot does happen: Ariel gets some action in a porno house, almost has a lesbian fling, and gallivants around town looking for love under the guise of looking for sex. This contradiction, Ariel's outward sexual sophistication combined with her inner sexual fears and romantic soul, make her compelling and more than a little real.

The Bridget Jones comparison only goes so far, but it is accurate on a few points: both are seeking a mate while also being trendy, hip, independent '90s girls. I referred to it as a contradiction above, but really the contradiction is only if you think life is black and white. There are plenty of women who are looking for adventure and hot sex as well as stable, loving relationships. Ariel's travails are engaging, witty, fun, and yes, x-rated. Sohn deftly combines the drama of Ariel's columnist career with her dramatic love life, making us root for Ariel even when we are sick of her whining. I think part of the reason she's so endearing is that she's human, and therefore fallible, and we see Ariel struggle to overcome her mistakes and stand up for herself, and figure out what is right for her as a person separate from her editors, family, friends, and even boyfriends.

Rachel Kramer Bussel

The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life
by Lisa Palac
(Little Brown and Company)

Lisa Palac's memoir The Edge of the Bed is humorous as well as educational. Palac does not seek to lecture, but she does want to educate people about the joys of pornography and sex, while at the same time being true to herself. Her story begins with her rather typical Catholic girlhood and her curiosity about sex and pop culture. During college, she became a film major and a feminist, and was exposed to gay people and feminism for the first time. Influenced by close friends, she started out believing that in order to be a feminist she had to be anti-pornography, until, well, dirty movies did indeed change her life.

In a typically frank as well as humorous passage, Palac describes finding "a stockpile" of pornography in her boyfriend's closet, and his plea that she watch just one video with him to make sure that she really believed what she was fighting against. Her initial reaction was not so much horror at the objectification of women in them, but boredom at their poor quality and lack of imagination, as well as feelings of guilt for possibly liking them. Palac writes: "Watching X-rated movies became cool and fun - as long as I ultimately condemned them. . . but admitting to myself that some of it was, finally, beginning to turn me on was not easy. . . All I knew was that some of the very images I once defined as "male-oriented" and "inherently degrading" were now sexually exciting to me." And therein lies the crux of Palac's story: her zeal to create arousing pornography that was exciting to her and explore sexual possibilities that have traditionally been thought of as inappropriate for both women and feminists.

One thing that leaps out from the pages of her book is that Palac is a go-getter. After seeing her first porn film, she explored the genre on her own, and started a 'zine called Magnet School, to explore what she called "sexography." She wrote her own erotica story after finding the fare she was reading too tame, and got it published. She went on to befriend Susie Bright and and got a job at On Our Backs, the path-breaking lesbian sex magazine. At the same time, Palac was exploring various sexual interests of her own, from getting her labia pierced to playing a role in a porn film.

Although she worked at On Our Backs, Palac is not a lesbian. However, her outlook on identity politics comes from a broad perspective: "People who are interested in sex and who choose to pursue their interest professionally tend to appreciate sexual expression in all of its forms. Sexuality itself is what's fascinating and sexual preference is, in many cases, less relevant." This willingness to try new things, and most of all, to not judge those whose practices are different from her own, inform Palac's book and lifestyle.

Later, she became the editor of Future Sex magazine, which focused on merging sex and technology, at a time when there was great interest in the possibilities of "virtual reality" sex. Palac also produced Cyborgasm, a virtual audio CD of erotic talking and music. Palac describes her struggles to illuminate "cybersex" and also to support the realm of opportunities inherent in non-cyber sex, as well as battles with printers who, upon discovering the nature of her publication, would refuse to print the magazine.

Equally as fascinating as her career moves are her personal quest to find love and companionship. From the college friend who ostracized her for liking pornography, to the potential dates who winced at her chosen profession, Palac suffered many personal slights for pursuing the courage of her convictions. Yet she manages to tell these tales without self-pity, and make them seem like an adventure. One such example was her foray into cybersex, where she met a man, Stephen, online and soon after met him in real life. Palac fills the tale with the rush of excitement of meeting someone you click with as well as with her apprehensions that it wouldn't work out between them. Ultimately, it didn't work out between them, and on the way to wedded bliss, Palac details a few more adventures - hiring male masseuses with Susie Bright, exploring her identity as a submissive, etc.

Ultimately, Palac's story has a happy ending - she meets Andrew Rice and marries him. (Incidentally, his wedding vows to her are viewable at However, she does not ride off into the safe, comfortable land of marriage without forethought, and does not do so in an attempt to disown her past; she simply fell in love and realized that this was the right thing for her to do at that time.

Palac's book is inspirational in that it does not read like a pro-pornography tract, or a tract of any sort - it is a personal story that does contain political ideas, but Palac doesn't knock you over the head with her politics. Rather, she seduces you into laughing along with her, into sharing her eagerness to explore and create an emerging sexual world.

This is an inspirational book with an engaging, humorous and honest style. A winning combination that conveys a sense of optimism about sex and its possibilities. An optimism that is often missing from other books in the same genre. This book is as an example of someone living her dream, stumbling, learning and having fun along the way.

For those interested in reading more about Lisa Palac, she has a website at

Rachel Kramer Bussel