Queers complain of censorship at SF event
by Heather Cassell
Members of the LGBT literary community were in a fluster after they learned that disabled queer author Peggy Munson was omitted from a Lambda Literary Foundation finalist reading program sponsored by the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library.
Munson, a Lambda Literary "lesbian debut fiction" finalist, was scheduled to read on April 12 from her book Origami Striptease. The reading was to be done via DVD, as Munson has disabilities that limit her ability to travel. Munson, 38, lives with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome and has multiple chemical sensitivities.
But her reading wasn't presented even though a television and DVD player were set up and advance publicity listed Munson as a featured reader, according to Greg Wharton and Ian Philips of Suspect Thoughts Press, Munson's publishers in San Francisco.
According to Wharton, founder and publisher, and Philips, editor-in-chief, when they inquired about Munson's missing reading and the lack of mention of Munson's performance they were met with a mix of claims from the event organizers.
Katherine Forrest, president of the board of trustees of the Lambda Literary Foundation, and one the emcees, told Wharton her decision not to show Munson's reading was based on the recommendation of Jim Van Buskirk, program manager of the library's Hormel Center. Van Buskirk, who was hosting the event, reportedly said that Munson's reading was "straight sex," according to Wharton, Phillips, and Forrest.
Wharton told the Bay Area Reporter that Van Buskirk denied Forrest's accusation the next day during a phone conversation. During the course of that same conversation, Wharton said that Van Buskirk took responsibility for censoring Munson because of the erotic content of her reading and because the reading contained words that were supposedly on a library list of words that couldn't be mentioned. Wharton and Phillips said that Van Buskirk said he viewed only a portion of the five-minute-long DVD 45 minutes prior to the event. He received the material four days in advance, said Wharton.
Munson told the B.A.R. that the only guideline she was provided with was that the DVD could only be seven minutes long.
Forrest said that she regrets her decision.
"It was a purely personal reaction and I deeply regret it," said Forrest. "It was a hideously horrible, awful mistake."
Forrest told the B.A.R. that the incident has been particularly painful because she supports writers like Munson. Since the incident Forrest sent an apology to Munson and Suspect Thoughts.
Munson said that she has accepted Forrest's apology.
"My alleged 'straightness' â€“ on the one hand it's sort of hilarious that Lambda would put me in the 'lesbian debut fiction' category and then call me 'straight.' It's so absurd it's funny," said Munson, a queer femme, in a telephone interview from Northampton, Massachusetts on April 22. "It's just sort of symbolic how bent the world of queerness is becoming."
Max Wolf Valerio, author of The Testosterone Files, which is a Lambda finalist in the transgender category, read that night. He was surprised to find out about what happened to Munson.
"This provides an explosive vista from which to view gender, eroticism, and sexual orientation," wrote Valerio in a e-mail to the B.A.R. "The relationship between a femme and a transman appears so unfamiliar."
He added that he always anticipates issues with reading his own work in front of any queer-identified audience since he identifies as a heterosexual transman, but that he has never had a problem at the library and that Van Buskirk has been supportive of his work.
Shhh at the library
Neither the library nor the Hormel Center has issued an apology regarding the incident and Van Buskirk did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Multiple attempts to contact Van Buskirk were met with silence and apparent avoidance. During one attempt on April 23, a research assistant told the B.A.R. that he was on his way back to his desk and transferred the call. The B.A.R. got his voicemail.
Moments later Sherri Eng, library public relations officer, returned a separate call seeking comment. The B.A.R. asked if she had spoken with Van Buskirk and she said "No, I was not able to speak with Jim at all. I was told that he was out sick."
Eng told the B.A.R. that the library doesn't have a specific policy for people who present at the library except to be aware of the various audiences, including the presence of children, even at adult events. She said that the library does not provide a list of prohibited words.
Michelle Tea, who runs the Radar Reading series, a queer event for writers and readers at the library, wrote in an e-mail to the B.A.R. that she has never had any problems with sexually explicit material or performances at the main library. But at the Harvey Milk branch of the SFPL, where she hosts the Radar Salon, she has been "provided with a request ï¿½ that the writers be mindful of their language," but not a list of specific words that couldn't be spoken. Tea sends a notice to her salon guests for each event.
Tea speculated that the difference between the Radar Reading series and the Radar Salon is due to the fact that the reading series is conducted in a private room as opposed to the salon, which is held in an open room of the Harvey Milk branch.
The Lambda event was hosted in the Latino/Hispanic community meeting room, a private room at the main library.
Munson mentioned the possibility of legal action against the library based on her disabilities, but hasn't committed to pursuing it.
"I haven't thought it through at this point," said Munson.
Wharton and Philips said that they have severed their relationship with Van Buskirk as a result of the incident.
"We are very frustrated because there just has never been a peep from the library," said Philips. "It's just very sad and it's led to the end of our personal friendship with Jim, which is very sad as well."
Lambda Literary Foundation responded to the incident immediately.
"Censorship is not what we are about," said Charles Flowers, executive director. "If anything, gay and lesbian writers are facing incredible obstacles to be heard and seen. It was not our intention and it was a horrible mistake which we regret."
Flowers told the B.A.R. that he is working with Munson to correct the error. The incident has also raised concerns about differently-abled queer authors and accessibility issues.
"We are using this as an opportunity toï¿½ educate ourselves," said Flowers. "[To] bring up these issues within the literary community about the challenges writers with disabilities face and how they can participate in events such as readings."
Munson's DVD reading of Origami Striptease was shown in New York City on April 17 and is scheduled to be presented at the Boston Lambda finalist event May 4. Flowers also arranged for the first time in Lambda's history to have a sign language interpreter at its May 31 Lambda Literary Awards ceremony in New York City and is making sure that the event is wheelchair accessible. He is also in the process of planning to have an event or panel discussion "around disabilities and writers" at the West Hollywood Book Fair later this year.
"I'm actually feeling really galvanized to action," said Munson. "I've had an incredible response from the literary community, the queer community, and my publisher, who has been amazing."
To view Munson's DVD reading, visit http://www.blip.tv and search for origami striptease, then click on the video marked "lambda reading." To read Munson's response to the incident, visit www.myspace.com/peggymunson. To read Wharton's response, visit www.myspace.com/gregwharton.