Kevin Sessums is dot429’s new editorial director, and is blogging about his experiences while traveling in Eastern Europe on behalf of the US State Department this month as part of an LGBT human rights/cultural exhcange mission. _______________________________________________
By Kevin Sessums
I just finished spending my first full day here in Bucharest on an LGBT human rights/cultural exchange mission for the US State Department.
Last year I gave the keynote address at the first LGBT human rights conference ever sponsored by the US government on foreign soil, which was held in Tirana, Albania. That went so well I was asked to return this year to Romania and Slovenia to continue reaching out to young LGBT political activists in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I am so inspired by the young brave activists I am meeting in this part of the world where it is not as safe to be out as it is in other areas.
This morning after meeting with Charge d’Affaire Duane Butler at the American Embassy here I delivered a lecture at Bucharest University to an American Studies class. I was surprised to see copies of my memoir “Mississippi Sissy” on a shelf in the giant bookcase in the lecture hall. The copies were nestled in a nook next to Mark Twain and John Steinbeck and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Indeed, I was more than surprised; I was touched to be included on such a shelf.
I was also impressed by the knowledge and intellect and curiosity of the students. During my lecture I made a point to mention Ionesco, who was born in Romania, as well as the country’s leading literary figure, the 19th century poet Mihai Eminescu, and to tie them into American literary figures. I also did a reading from my next book, “I Left It On the Mountain,” which will be published in 2014.
Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan, is prominently mentioned in the excerpt of the book I read. After the reading the students informed me that Weissmuller was himself a Romanian émigré to the United States. Somehow that fact had escaped me. I love it when the students school the lecturer.
Later I had lunch with a group of the country’s leading young LGBT activists. I’m looking forward to marching with them in their upcoming gay pride parade here in Bucharest, although they told me that the city has also approved a “March for Normalcy” that same day in the same area. I suggested that we crash that march since we too are “normal” and could march under their mantle as well.
The suggestion was met with raised eyebrows and nervous laughter since such an uninvited incursion into the other march, which will be filled with right-wing fascistic religious types, might be interpreted as inciting violence. It should be an interesting afternoon that day.
This evening at the Carturesti bookstore here in Bucharest before my reading and book signing to inaugurate the store’s first ever LGBT section, I had a couple of interviews with two of Romania’s leading weekly magazines. The first was with Rivesta 22’s (Weekly 22’s) Dragos Ghitulete, who is also a novelist in the Milan Kundera mode. The 22 refers to the date – December 22, 1989 – when Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest. The second was with Andreea Molocea who works for Dilema veche (Old dilemma).
Both of these journalists were so informed about my memoir “Mississippi Sissy” and asked pertinent and probing questions. I really enjoyed my time with them. The only common question they asked me was “Do you consider writing a political act?”
My answer was that I could perhaps raise a reader’s consciousness with my writing but it was up to the reader to then translate that into a political act. “I guess being completely honest could be interpreted as a political act,” I said, “since certainly subterfuge has often been one.”
I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout for my reading from “Mississippi Sissy” that followed these interviews and was honored that copies of the book were so prominently displayed on the shelves of the store’s new LGBT section along with works by Michael Cunningham and Armistead Maupin and Truman Capote and Jeffrey Eugenides (who is very popular here in Romania) and even Harper Lee.
During the question and answer period after my reading, I turned the tables on the audience and asked why “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in the LGBT section. “Are you outing Harper Lee over here by including her in this section?” I asked.
I was told instead the book is considered part of LGBT literature in Romania because of its narrative of difference within a society and standing up to prejudice. And then it dawned on me, “Well, there is a little Alabama sissy named Dill in that book who is based on Lee’s best friend in childhood Truman Capote,” I said. “So if you can put a book about a Mississippi sissy up there I guess you can put one up there which contains such a loving portrait of an Alabama one.”
Right outside the room in which I read were four burly plainclothes policeman to protect us all from any demonstrators who might show up to protest the reading and inaugurating such a section in the store. There had been an ugly demonstration and incident here a few weeks ago against the screening of the film “The Kids Are All Right” at a museum in conjunction with an LGBT event and the screening had to be cancelled after it was violently disrupted. So the bookstore was prepared tonight.
Luckily, nothing happened. I was asked, however, during the question and answer period what it was like to be “such an agent of provocation since this event had to have police protection.” I told them I didn’t see simply being who I am a provocative act. The responsibility lies with those who are provoked by my presence and not with me.
When I began to sign copies of my book for those who wanted me to, a stylish and lovely young woman who had an image of Virginia Woolf’s face silkscreened on her t-shirt asked me to sign the book to The Feminist Reading Circle to which she belongs. I signed it “in solidarity” and then told her about The Sewing Circle in Hollywood, which was the coded name the group of famous lesbians in show business back during the first half of the 20th Century gave themselves.
The young woman was fascinated and began to smile at the little history lesson I was giving her. I could have sworn that even Virginia Woolf gave me a demur little smile there atop the woman’s chest.
It’s been a long day. Tomorrow I set off at 6 a.m. for the city of Cluj.
Stay tuned …