Something to Declare
Good Lesbian Travel Writing
Gillian Kendall, Editor
(Terrace/Wisconsin)Gays are, it is reported, universal in celebrating the new law ... the one passed in the waning days of 2010, permitting them to serve in the military.
A strange twist indeed, for, in my day, we were reluctant to be shipped off to Viet Nam, so we routinely told the local draft boards that we were gay. The retired Marine Corps fifty-year-olds would grill us, looking all the while like they were going to throw up.
They would ask things like "How long have you known you were a homo?" and "Have you done it with another (pause) man?" We would persist, because we knew that the 4-F classification would exempt us from grueling training, being taught how to kill "gooks" with our bare hands, and finding ourselves in the booby-trapped, jungles there in the Far East.
How things change. Now the young gays, not satisfied with the opprobrium of growing up minority in a straight world, are begging to be trained in the arts of war so they can be shipped off to one of the 167 American military bases around the globe ... to the Antarctic, say, or the sandy wastelands of Iraq ... the barren plains of Afghanistan.
If nothing else, these new and eager inductees will be having a chance to travel, and let us hope that their travels are as interesting and adventure-filled as the nineteen writers we find in Something to Declare: although some don't seem to be having all that much fun.
Suzanne Parker finds herself in the city of Oaxaca during a teachers' strike. The protesters "looked wilted," and she found herself in a maze "winding our way out [of the Zôcalo] to get to our coffee or, if it was afternoon, beers." Such is the crappy luck of being in a city where the underpaid, overworked teachers are trying to make their plight known to the government.
Then there's Kate Lynn Hibbard in Las Vegas, "the loudest place I've been ... bells, bells, bells dinging machines, coins sliding into metal trays, ice clinking in glass... a thousand matches roaring up to light a thousand cigarettes."
Or, saints preserve us, Rebecca Chekouras in Palm Springs, in the summer, working with her old friend Gypsy. Gypsy bought a run-down motel; they are going to paint it pink; at Starbucks, waiting in line before they start, they find themselves behind two FTM ... female-to-males ... who are comparing their operations.
Friend Gypsy, being Gypsy, butts in, saying, "Hey, hi. I'm Gypsy Bailey and I just bought the Bubble Up Hideaway over on Tamer Land. And," introducing Rebecca, "this corporate stick-up-the-butt is my assistant."
Gypsy has a not-so-subtle question --- don't we all? --- key to the operation: "Where does the dick come from?"
"Aicjeewajwaj!" thinks Rebecca: "Isn't that what the Internet is for." It must be. I just looked up FTM. I thought it had something to do with ATMs. Or FM. Or S/M.
One of the new FTMs replies that it is taken from a "a roll of skin and tissue drawn from the stomach area." Gypsy grabs a "sizable roll of her own midriff" and says, "You mean I could be a penis donor?"
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Well, it's not all heat and sweat and teachers' strikes and loud gypsies there in Something to Declare. Lucy Jane Bledsoe finds herself in Patagonia, not with Bruce Chatwin but with lover Pat, and they choose to cross back and forth between Chile and Argentina ... both places, she points out, "not particularly dyke-friendly." Still, despite the border terrors that all of us feel crossing the border, she suggests that "Travel is all about calculating risk. Was this red bell pepper worth lying about to a Chilean guard with a big gun?"
The book costs $19.95, so figure you are spending $9.97-1/2 for two stories that are over the top. Patty Smith takes us to Senegal where, in the middle of a book of lesbian writing, mind you, she falls in with (and more or less in love with) a fire-eater, Lamine ... dancing, his thin and wiry body, his blue-black skin. C'est bien, Pa-tee, he tells her as he admires her. "Wide hips and strong thighs are sensual here," she thinks. "I discover this is a place where I can feel beautiful."
Smith offers us an appropriate quip about traveling: "People want to adopt other cultures because there's something in their own that doesn't name them." She says that away from home, "I can see myself as a man."
In English, I am someone else entirely. Someone I felt sure of before I left the states ... the feminist, the activist, the lesbian.
In Senegal she's "a dancer, a drummer, a conjurer of fiery ancestral spirits."
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Finally, there's Hannah Tennant-Moore's terrific tale of going back and forth between her love Ashley and her love in India, Bodh Gaya ... the place of Buddha's enlightenment. With Ashley it's "joints and cheap beer and Grey Goose vodka stolen from her mother and shrieking orgasms and drunken dancing and loud music in fast cars and milkshakes and french fries at all-night diners." In India, it is her master who shouts, "Do not cling to the sound! Sound is gone! How can you cling to the sound?" Then it's back to new England, fighting with Ashley, dipping in Walden Pond, swallowing "pond water as we kissed ... we stayed under water as long as we could."
We would chase each other into the shallows and spread our arms out wide, twirl until we collapsed, laughing. We opened our mouths to drink raindrops.
Then back to India, with a sense of relief: "because the deeper I fell in love with Bodh Gaya, the more terrified I became of going home."
It is the back-and-forth that turns this from a simple travel tale to the tale of a split going deep into and out of the soul, from passion to purity of thought, mind, and action ... then back to mindless lust once again.
It is an exquisite split, one that all of us have felt from time to time, one that turns us from lust to luster, from passion to passive, from craving and craziness into the silence of our own silent mind. It is the split that must enfold all of us.--- Ralph Sargent