In commemoration of October’s celebrations of Filipino American History Month, Canadian Islamic History Month, and LGBTQ History Month, the following reviews highlight autobiographical-informed writings by authors who dwell on a myriad of aspects pertaining to rich Filipino and Islamic cultural and religious traditions respectively. A history book celebrates a queer U.S. activist whose long legal battles constitute the basis for today’s LGBTQ rights.
– Rafael Ocasio, Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish
Filipinos are, according to the Filipino American National Society, the second largest Asian American group in the United States, tracing back their presence to 1587 as inhabitants in the territory known today as California. Indeed, as Grace Talusan traces in The Body Papers: A Memoir, the historical connection between the Philippines and the United States is paramount to understanding the current socio-political conditions of modern Philippines, as well as the circumstances that brought Filipinos as immigrants to the United States. But writing about one’s country of birth and one’s immigrant family’s history can be a daunting chore, as Talusan succinctly notes: “My story is not only my story. While everyone has the right to report their lives, I know that telling my secrets impacts other people” (xi). Talusan is not referring, however, to the actual mechanics of writing but to the cultural limits she had to endure as a writer disclosing intimate details about her life as an individual of Filipino descent. Talusan’s diary takes its reader through a full immersion of native Filipino cultural traditions, both in the Philippines and among U.S. Filipino communities (if you enjoy homemade yogurt, you are in for a treat). Yet the dramatic emphasis of this thrilling autobiography is her heartfelt account of getting over sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. Telling that horrible story was certainly a brave act that went against the grain of “[v]ast kinship networks,” connections that historically had been “crucial to survival during brutal times of poverty, wars, and colonization” (152).
On October 1, 2020 in an official statement in celebration of Canada’s Islamic History Month, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth Bardish Chagger challenged Canadians to continue “learning about Muslim communities and sharing truth across our country and by tackling the misinformation that far too often leads to discrimination.” According to World Population Review, “[t]here are approximately 1.9 billion Muslims globally, making Islam the second-largest religion in the world behind Christianity.” Perhaps the most iconic symbol of a Muslim practice is the burqa, the total covering of a woman’s face and body, a marker of their religious devotion, and, controversially, part of a debated narrative that places Muslim women as submissive to a patriarchal religion. But, as the authors of It’s Not About the Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality and Race underscore, the wearing of clothing items with a religious value by Muslim women goes beyond its actual religious significance. It is often a daring decision, which is the connection subject of this all-women anthology about “gendered Islamophobia.” In the words of Afia Ahmed, one of the writers, “Viewed as a symbol and marker of Islam, the hijab and veil are now increasingly worn by Muslim women to assert their socio-political and cultural identities and act as an affirmation of their ethno-religious selves” (66). The writers gathered represent a diverse group of Muslim women, some of whom have an international notoriety as activists in pro-women rights associations, writing from the vintage points as immigrant Muslims or native-born practitioners in European countries, cisgender straight and lesbian-identified women, and, above all, individuals who disclose varying degrees of devotion to prescribed Islamic practices. This collection is highly recommended as in-depth personal inquiries, as one of the writers underscores, of their “daring to exist outside my traditional Muslim woman box” (37).
Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America traces the celebrated case of Dr. Franklin Edward Kameny, who in August 28, 1956 was arrested for indecent exposure, a legal charge that led the following year to his dismissal from his federal post at the Army Map Service. Unlike hundreds of gay men before him, arrested under similar charges (often as part of a police entrapment in public restrooms), Kameny challenged in court these criminal charges, or deviancy, as unconstitutional. As Cervini carefully documents, it would be a long process for Kameny. After World War II, gay men had been illegally arrested at an alarming rate of “one every ten minutes, each hour, each day, for fifteen years” (4). Their names were published in newspapers as violators of moral codes of proper behavior: “sodomy, dancing, kissing, or holding hands” (4). Like Kameny, many of these men lost their jobs, and worse, saw themselves abandoned by their families. Cervini offers an in-depth biographical portrait of Kameny, beginning with his birth in 1925 in Richmond Hill, a German and Irish neighborhood in southeastern Queens. For a modern LGBTQ generation Cervini effectively draws a realistic portrait of life for young people growing up in a highly homophobic era, socially and politically. His career path includes serving the Army in 1943 and a doctorate from Harvard University, instances lived in the proverbial “down low.” The core of the book takes the reader through Kameny’s long activist fight. Along the way, his path intersected with budding queer activist groups, such as Mattachine Society (founded in 1950 as among the first queer associations), and he was witness to remarkable pro-gay policies (in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder). On June 24, 2009, as Cervini writes, Kameny stood in front of John Berry, President Obama’s director of the Office of Personnel Management, who was the highest-ranking gay official in U.S. history. Berry formally extended to Kameny “our apology for the consequences of the previous policy of the United States government” (383). Kameny simply uttered a rather stern answer, “Apology accepted” (383).
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