by Jeff Graubart, CreateSpace; 732 pages
REVIEW BY Amos Lassen
Dave Rosen descends into a world of meaninglessness and drug addiction in this new book by Chicagoan Jeff Graubart, a longtime activist in the Windy City. This fictional story uses the gay-liberation movement as a backdrop. We learn a good deal about the movement that we have not read before. Graubart has undertaken a major product and he gives us the story in a big book of more than 700 pages.
Dave has his eyes on Brianso much so that it becomes an obsession for him. Brian is comfortable living in the closet and he does not want the kind of life that David has. David, on the other hand, loves causes and he is totally upset over the way gay people are treated both socially and politically ( ah, the idealism of youth ) . He advocates a radical path to end the oppression of the GLBT community and this was at a time when discretion ruled and being out was rare. This was the 1970s, when gays mostly stayed in the places that society dictated. David began to fight this discrimination while still not having resolved his own personal issues. His struggle was our struggle.
The 1970s were not a time for personal resistance. Or were they. David Rosen had to fight his Goliath and beat him and as he geared up how to do so, he learned a lot and lost a lot. Goliath, here, is an American society that refused to give gay people the right to be who they are and along came David with a slingshot filled with truth and equality. Before he could fire that slingshot he had to help build a movement, make alliances and convince others that this was the way.
Graubart uses fiction ( based upon fact ) to tell the story and in the preface I learned that to some degree this is the author's autobiography: he has had quite a life. In fact everything here is so interesting that I read all 700-plus pages in two days. What is fiction here are the names of the characters and the words they spoke and the facts are the building of the movement that began the process of gaining our freedom. Graubart changed the sequence of events as well and while this story may sound like fiction, everything in it is based on facts. What I am saying is that Jeff Graubart is David Rosen, and Rosen looks at the world as good against evil. Others disagree with him and he is not only the hero of the book but the bad guy as well. David Rosen is a total dichotomy that eventually manages to rise above himself and in doing so tells us all about what he has done, where he has been and who he has met.
There is so much in this book but to tell any of it is not fair. This is a book that must be read especially by those of us who lived through and experienced some of it, and by the younger generations who must get a sense of our history and who we are.
David Rosen is very real and for those of us who lived through this period, he is familiar. There were David Rosens everywhere. I cannot recommend this book highly enough and I must say that even with its tremendous length, I did not want it to end. Some of the characters in the book are my friends now. We don't get an experience like The Quest for Brian very often and when we do we must cherish it. Those of us who lived through the '60s and '70s are decreasing in number. Those who were not causalities of the AIDS epidemic are not so young anymore and in another 20 years we will probably almost all be gone. When that happens, we will still have this book to remind us and to teach us as to how it was.
Excerpts from The Quest for Brian
Book excerpt, by Jeff Graubart
From author Jeff Grabuart: The Quest for Brian is a memoir, a history and a novel. Some consider this overreaching a major flaw, but I find the combination has unmasked a level of truth that exceeds what I could have achieved from a purely fictional or non-fictional work. I wrote the novel as a catharsis, an apology and a statement of personal pride. A way to achieve closure from the angst I still felt from those 1970s battles, an apology to those in the community I dragged down in my obsessive quest, and a homage to all that was achieved, despite everything.
It is my story of gay activism in Champaign-Urbana and Chicago in the 1970s. I try to present the characters without judgment, but thanks to the power of a novel, they do a good job of exposing their own flaws. It is a raw tableau of the way we were, written with the hope that the reader, whether seeking gay liberation or personal liberation, will be rewarded with nuggets of wisdom from our mistakes and failingsand our victories.
The historical accounts are all true, or they are supposed to be. Recollecting 35 years in the past is fraught with false memories and ever-expanding legends. Truth too, is more subjective than we expect it to be. Where documentation existed, I usually went with what was written over my memories, but in a few cases, the memories were more compelling and I followed them into the story.
Here is a small sampling of some of that history, excerpts from The Quest for Brian. It is October, 1975:
The County was prepared when the Triumvirate arrived. The Marriage License Bureau was located on the first floor of the Cook County Building. The old marble and musty odor gave the bureau the feeling of one of those early Twentieth Century banks; even the clerks sat at windows, protected by something resembling iron bars. Samantha and Ellen were led by sheriff's deputies to the queue furthest from the door. Waiting behind the window was a suited official, not your typical clerk. His face was very Irish and flattened top-to-bottom giving him a punk look. His grooming was impeccable. As we approached, he did a last minute check of his tie and felt his hair to ensure it was in place: show time! The place was packed with press, sheriff's deputies, and several county officials.
"We are here for a marriage license," said Samantha, calmly. This set reporters to scribble wildly.
He responded professionally, "I'll need to see some identification."
The two women each took out their driver's license. They placed them on the counter. The ersatz clerk examined them carefully. "According to these IDs, both of you are female."
"That is correct," said Samantha.
Reporters were squeezing in every corner, snapping off pictures, and scribbling down the conversation on their pads. The clerk handed mimeographed copies of the Illinois State Statute to Samantha, Ellen, and several members of the press who were at the front of the pack.
"As you can see," said the clerk, "Illinois law indicates that marriage is a contract between a man and a woman." There was a pause as people took time out to read the statute. I looked over Ellen's shoulder, and we both read together.
Samantha was the first to protest. "This law mentions a man and a woman, but nowhere does it say that only a man and woman can be married."
"It is the policy of this office, to interpret the law to mean only a man and woman can get married. Under the laws of the State of Illinois you have the right to find a judge who will mandate us to interpret the law differently. Until that time, we will continue with our policy. Now, I'm asking you to please leave the bureau."
"This is a violation of our constitutional rights!" yelled Samantha. "There are hundreds of rights given heterosexual couples and we are denied every one of them." The official who acted as clerk placed a 'closed' sign in front of the glass. Samantha moved to the next window, press in tow, with Ellen having to fight her way through the reporters.
"We're here for a marriage license," she told the middle-aged clerk, who became flustered and stared speechless into the hovering cameras. She was rescued by the well-groomed, flat-headed bureaucrat, still preening for the cameras. "Why don't you get a cup of coffee, Lillian," he said, as he took her place at the window.
"I told you," the official said, "that it is not the policy of this office to issue licenses to people of the same sex. That policy applies to all three windows." His stern look gave way to a smile. "There are people who came for marriage licenses that are out in the hall, waiting patiently, while you made your statement. Now that you've said your piece, please go home and let us do the work the taxpayers are paying us to do."
I shouted to all of the reporters. "The second-class citizens are being told to leave so the first-class citizens can get their marriage licenses!"
The guy waiting for a license at the front of the line held his fiancé tightly and shook his head like a disapproving parent. "Sick faggots," he said.
I should have raged, but without thinking, I instead fell to my knees in front of the offending couple. "I am so honored to be in front of first-class citizens like you. The state thinks it's so wonderful when you two are together. A huge wedding is held, and people cry with joy. When we get together in some states, they throw us into prison." I glared up at the two of them. He was no longer so cocky. In fact, he was panic-stricken, and they both were sweating.
The deputies came to their rescue. One of them held a club with rage in his eyes. The other, played the good cop. "We understand your frustration. But if you feel the need to remain in this office, you will have to do it without harassing the other citizens. They have just as much right as you do to be here."
The asshole getting married had no right to live. "Okay," I agreed.
"Now go back to where the two girls applied for the license from the Deputy County Clerk," continued the officer, referring to the well-groomed official. "That spot has been made available for your protest."
A truce, of sorts, was reached. Samantha and Ellen sat down in front of the far window, holding signs across their laps: Marriage is a constitutional right and Stop the discrimination against gay couples. I joined them, and the other windows were opened for business. The harassed couple, at the start of the line, moved to the window farthest from the protest. They glanced nervously over their shoulders at me, and I happily returned a scowl.
A few moments later, a woman with long brown hair and carrying some flyers, rushed, harried-looking, into the marriage license bureau. "Those damn trains," she said, for the benefit of anyone who might care to listen. She seemed relieved, when she noticed the protest was still in progress.
To each member of the press and other interested parties, she introduced herself. "Hi, I'm Cathy Nixon from the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago." She handed out the flyers. "This statement represents the position of the vast majority of Chicago's gay community, regarding this…event."
The reporters read her pamphlet, looked shocked and clustered around Cathy. When she had their attention and the cameras were rolling, she gave a short prepared speech, from a note card.
"I represent the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Metropolitan Chicago. It is comprised of over twenty organizations and businesses. All the major gay and lesbian organizations in the City of Chicago are members. Unanimously, we condemn the actions of Samantha Darwin, Ellen Schrader, and other members of the Gay Rights Action Coalition. We consider them to be nothing more than a headline-seeking group of a few irresponsible people who consistently come down on the wrong side of issues, with the express purpose of embarrassing the gay and lesbian community in Chicago.
"Almost all members of our community feel it is inappropriate to modify the institution of marriage. Most of us agree that it is a heterosexual institution. But don't be fooled. These people aren't here to support same-sex marriage. They are here to promote a book written by Samantha Darwin and Dave Rosen. But we feel there are far more insidious implications. As you know, the Equal Rights Amendment is before the Illinois State Legislature. That the ERA will lead to same-sex marriage is one of the chief arguments against it. Many people have spent countless hours showing the legislature that this argument is sheer nonsense. Now, by behaving irresponsibly, these GRAC people scare the legislators and place the Equal Rights Amendment in serious jeopardy." With that, she concluded her speech.
Members of the press, gathered around Cathy Nixon, were peppering her with questions. "Why doesn't your group feel marriage should be extended to the gay community?"
Although Cathy had clearly rehearsed the response, it was obvious she was at great pains to answer. "Some members of our community feel that marriage is a patriarchal institution that oppresses women. As gays and lesbians, of course, we are against oppression of any kind. Others want people to know that respecting gay people will not lead to a trampling of society's institutions."
"Just because she hates herself," yelled Ellen, causing the reporters to turn and face the three of us, "is not a reason I should live with second-class citizenship. I demand the same rights as everyone else."
"It's a piece of paper called the Constitution," added Samantha.
We began a chant and repeated the slogans four times. "Gay rights, Gay power, Gay marriage now!"
Cathy Nixon shook her head back and forth, pursing her lips as if to convey the message, "How tragic and pathetic."
A sheriff's deputy looked down at Samantha and Ellen and said softly. "Who'd a figured, your own people coming out against you? That's really got to hurt."
Samantha looked up at the cop. "It's very common in oppressed populations. They internalize all the hatred and take it out on each other."
The deputy continued to speak in a quiet voice. "We figured we'd be down here against a whole army of gay lib people. I mean, hell, we can get married. Why can't you? Why should us heterosexuals be stuck with all the misery?"
And now move forward to June 14th, 1977; a few brief minutes from that amazing day:
At the corner of Wabash and Ohio, several Coalition marshals were passing out song sheets for the marchers. I ran over, grabbed one and brought it back to the Wabash, Ontario corner. It was titled The Gay and Lesbian Community of Chicago's reception for Mrs. Robert Green. Using Anita Bryant's married name, made a poignant statement.
"Oh fuck," I grimaced. "Look at these songs."
Maura glanced over. "God Bless America?"
Worse, I pointed to the upper right of the page. "Jesus Loves Me! How dare the Coalition ask gay people to sing these songs?" And just like that the peace within me was shattered.
"At least they have We Shall Overcome and If I Had a Hammer."
Maura's and my reaction to the song sheets was disgust, but when the RSL got hold of them, all hell broke loose.
"You are degrading gay and lesbian people by telling them to sing these songs," Joe Valentine shouted into a megaphone. Several members of the RSL tried to grab the song sheets. Four or five cops moved in, separating those passing out the song sheets from the RSL. The song sheet passers moved into the gap to get away from the ruckus. The RSL broke from the march and followed them in to the gap. The police followed, and kept the two groups apart. Suddenly, the RSL changed objectives. Instead of going after the songsters, they ran to the west side of the Wabash sidewalk, blocking the entrance to the Medinah Temple.
The march came to a halt as everyone watched the police move against the RSL. "Keep marching; ignore the troublemakers," came from the megaphones of the Coalition marshals.
I ran out into the gap. With no megaphone, I screamed at the RSL, "Go back to the march. This is not the time or place." Police and RSL members ignored me, lining up in two lines, facing each other, ready to do battle. Television cameras pushed through the marchers. News helicopters appeared out of nowhere. The gap was being filled with reporters, cops, and members of the RSL.
"Keep marching; ignore the violence," was repeated from several megaphones. Marchers remained frozen in place, the crowd trying to see what would happen next. Most of the demonstrators were on out-of-view sidewalks surrounding the Temple and had no idea what was going on.
The RSL and police squared off for a fight. So perfect in form, it looked choreographed, a scene from West Side Story. Billy club met picket sign and both sides appeared skilled in swordsmanship.
The altercation was being televised in real time. The new mini-cam made this possible. Later, we learned that all local channels cut into their regularly scheduled programming. Everyone in Chicagoland was watching the fight at the Medinah Temple.
Joe, fighting a cop who matched him in height and weight, had a megaphone attached to his belt. "If you're going to fight," I yelled. "Give me the megaphone." Joe tossed it towards me. It bounced off the leg of a cop and rolled backwards into the melee. I decided to rescue the megaphone. Crawling on the ground, between the legs of cops and socialists, I went for the bullhorn. I looked up and saw a nightstick bloody the nose of a demonstrator and a picket sign bloody the ear of a cop. For those few moments, I was invisible to both sides. I grabbed the megaphone and got the hell out of there.
As fascinating as it was for the other demonstrators and television audiences, the street fighting did not last longhardly the style of the Chicago Police. After a few minutes, enough reinforcements arrived to change the scene from mano-a-mano to arrests. But even that wasn't easy. It took four or five cops per demonstrator. Cuffed or not, the kicking and fighting went on until those arrested were thrown into the paddy wagon.
"Keep marching; ignore the violence," shouted Coalition marshals. As the paddy wagon left the area, the Coalition marshals took this as an opportunity to start a rousing rendition of God Bless America.
"Make me barf," said Maura, who never left her post during the whole brouhaha.
Grabart writes: I hope you enjoyed these excerpts from the book. After you read the novel, I invite you to enter the essay contest with over $3,000 in prizes to be given away. The deadline for entry is December, 31, 2011. Full details can be found on TheQuestForBrian.com . The Quest for Brian can be purchased in paperback or Kindle from Amazon.com, in Nook book format from Barnes & Noble. Locally, it can be purchased in paperback at Unabridged Bookstore and Women and Children First.
On Thursday, April 28, at 7 p.m., Jeff Graubart will read from his novel/memoir The Quest For Brian at Gerber/Hart Library, 1127 W. Granville. Books will be available for purchase at both events.