Trans History, Black Homophobia, Love Stories, ‘Act Up’ for Protest Leaders

Prism & Pen Weekly Digest — May 19, 2024

James Finn
Prism & Pen
16 min readMay 19, 2024


by James Finn

This week in Prism & Pen, critical trans history from the Middle Ages to the 1936 Olympics, lessons from Act Up’s past for student protest leaders today, and moving queer love stories — from New York’s Adirondacks theater scene to rural China. We’ve got fiction to entertain and make you think, and we welcome our newest writer, Elwood Watson, Ph.D., a professor of Black Studies and Gender Studies who’s “keepin’ it real” about Black homophobia.

All that, plus perspectives on the struggle for equality for women and queer people in Iran and Egypt.

Ready? Let’s get started! 👇

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— Editor’s Picks —

What Student Protesters Can Learn from ACT UP

Matthew Frye Castillo

You may have heard of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) but relatively little has been written about its visual arm, Gran Fury, whose eleven members created some of ACT UP’s most powerful images, including the Silence = Death poster…

Through dozens of posters, pins, and demonstrations, Gran Fury and ACT UP demonstrated that the “crisis” could be fixed with intelligent federal directives and a modicum of human compassion.

As we face more and more injustices — a global climate crisis, state assaults on bodily autonomy, wars in Sudan, Palestine, Ukraine — young activists can tap into the history of Gran Fury to learn from others whose situation felt similarly hopeless.

Read in P&P

The Historical Realities/Complexities of Black Homophobia!

Elwood Watson, Ph.D.

The truth is that the issue of homophobia has been an ongoing source of contention within the Black community for decades, arguably centuries. In fact, when former CNN anchor Don Lemon came out over a decade ago, he conceded that his reluctance to do so was due to the reality that support from the larger White community was often not forthcoming — coupled with the fact that the Black community was hardly welcoming of LGBTQIA+ individuals. “It’s quite different for an African American male, it’s about the worst thing you can be in Black culture.”

The fact is that many Black Americans have always been socially and culturally conservative, especially when it comes to issues of reproductive rights and sexuality in general. It has been due to the intense religious focus that has left its deep imprint within much of the Black community from the days of slavery to the present.

Read in P&P

As Berlin Held the 1936 Olympics, These Athletes Changed Their Sex

Tucker Lieberman

I’ve just read The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports by Michael Waters…

Here’s what I learned: The moral panic about trans people in sports wasn’t originally about trans women. It was about trans men. It was about intersex people who were assigned female at birth.

The central characters are already known to history — I found their photos online — but somehow I’d never heard of any of them before I read this book.

At the time, sports fans and followers of celebrity gossip seemed surprised that female-to-male transition should be so common in sports. Their sense of surprise was often rooted in a hostile skepticism, one that challenged whether sports are healthy for women or whether individuals have the right to live in any gender they wish.

Read in P&P

These 3 Historical Figures Show Us Why Trans+ History Is So Important

Kaylin Hamilton

Transgender and gender-diverse people are increasingly demonised as the subject of a toxic moral panic in the UK…

As Munroe Bergdorf points out, often ‘when we see progress from a marginalised community at speed, there will be pushback’. Though disheartening, the UK’s transphobia is a sign that, despite many setbacks, we are making progress…

Trans people have even been referred to as an ‘epidemic’ by the UK’s Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, and the UK’s Cass Review into healthcare for trans youth promotes the idea that trans identity is a ‘social contagion’…

Thankfully, trans scholars have been re-examining the claims of cisgender historians and wider society in earnest.

Three cases that shed light on the history of Trans+ and gender-diverse erasure are that of Eleanor Rykener, Amelio Robles Ávila, and Joan of Arc.

Read in P&P

What the Waffle House Index Says about Target Removing Pride Displays

Piddling Piddles

… when I buy anything Pride related, I tend to stick to local/online stores that A.) are clearly run by people who are part of the community, or are genuinely supportive and B.) actually excite my tastes beyond slapping a rainbow on something before calling it a day.

If you’re capable, please do the same. It is more important to support the unique and singular over the mass-produced.

Still, there’s one good reason not to be entirely dismissive of the effect larger corporations fueled by infinite growth can have. An effect notably highlighted by FEMA’s Waffle House Index.

On the surface, it appears a joke; a rough measurement of the destructiveness of a natural disaster based on whether the local Waffle Houses are open…

Read in P&P

My Early Gay Life as a Small Town Boy in China


Gay — it was the first time I directly encountered this word with another layer of meaning, although it wasn’t the first time I had seen it. (In Chinese, the word ‘gay’ also refers to communism and friendship.)

There were no Jack’d, Blued, or Grindr back then. In abandoned buildings by the roadside, in the restroom cubicles of supermarkets and stations, even in public urinals, as long as it was a particularly secluded place, I often saw people writing down their phone numbers with a marker, followed by the word “Gay.”

I didn’t understand what it meant at the time, I just thought it was some strange advertisement. But when I finally figured it out, tasted the feeling of being transported to another world, my heart felt empty, afraid that my future will be the same as theirs…

In my senior year, I encountered a situation similar to Kang’s dilemma in Eternal Summer.

I developed feelings for my deskmate, but his affections were directed towards a girl in our class, which caused me immense pain.

Read in P&P

My Beautiful Gay Romance at a Summer Theater in the Mountains

James Patrick Nelson

I didn’t know what was going to happen next — whether this man would be the great love of my life, or if we’d never speak of that night again.

But either way, I couldn’t help adoring the way the sun rose out of the water and burst through the window like an operatic spotlight as we lay in that cabin in each other’s arms, the lake lapping outside, rocking us to sleep.

When we woke up, we agreed we wanted to keep things casual. I needed to focus on the play. We only had two weeks before the opening night, and I was already going to arrive at day-two of rehearsal on a half-hour of sleep.

And the whole contract was only going to last four weeks — then I’d go back to the city, while Tony had to stay up there the rest of the season…

Read in P&P

Queen Boat Incident: The Checkmate That Started a Pride in Egypt

Hazem Taha

Every time the Queen Boat incident is mentioned, Mary Hopkins starts singing (Those Were the Days) in my head…

“Once upon a time, there was a tavern… Where we used to raise a glass or two”

Queen Boat, also named Nariman Queen, was a floating nightclub in the middle of the Nile. The nightclub was a destination for Egyptian queer people in Cairo, in addition to those of wealthy families. Everything was alright, the club was LGBT-friendly, and the police did not even think of a crackdown.

However, a related battle between the government and one wealthy maybe-gay person, Sherif Farhat, was happening at the time, similar to a chess game…

Read in P&P

An Iranian Activist Faces the Death Penalty. Can Global Solidarity Help Again?

Clay Hand

The world’s eye fixed on Iran in September 2022 when 20-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran for incorrectly wearing a hijab. When news broke that she had been beaten to death in police custody, Salehi expressed his outrage and publicly supported the resulting Jin, Jiyan, Azadî (Women Life Freedom) uprising.

The movement started at Amini’s funeral in Iran’s Kurdistan province. Women took off their headscarves and took to the streets. They were joined by men and women from all ethnic groups and walks of life across the country. Then, by solidarity groups in Turkey and Australia, Canada and Germany.

Iran was brought to a standstill: 20,000 were arrested and over 500 killed as citizens tried to take off the tightening noose imposed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his troop of Shi’a clerics, the nation’s guarantors and supervisors of Islamic values.

Read in P&P

— Essays & Creative Nonfiction —

This Cool Pokemon Metaphor Expresses My Trans Life So Well

Sieran Lane

I feel like an ice pokemon…

I’m out as trans online, got hormones, surgery, and ID changes. And I requested that people call me by a different name and pronouns.

So, I’ve made myself more vulnerable and exposed to danger. Though usually emotional rather than physical. I’ve been harassed by transphobic trolls online, and not everyone in person is kind, either.

However, I’ve also gotten a lot of wins and satisfaction.

Read in P&P

Gov. Kim Reynolds: Iowa Will Remain Our Home Despite Your Anti-LGBTQ Views

Jackie Duden

You made the news when you were elected as the first woman to serve in such a high government position.

But have you thought about how the choices you have made have affected other Iowans and their families?

Your legend, in my eyes, is that you don’t care about that. I know you claim the opposite ... But all your choices show a lack of understanding of what will truly bring value to others’ lives.

Despite that, we teachers and social workers, parents, and citizens come together to maintain value in one another’s lives. We push forward through your degrading efforts, we hold one another up when you would like to see us pushed down.

Read in P&P

The Technology Of Life — Michael’s Thoughts on His Husband’s Death

Michael Horvich (he, him)

Humor helped over twelve years walking the Dementia/Alzheimer’s path with my late husband Gregory and helps me now looking back. The humor here shares a number of “sound bites” that I have developed to describe transitions, experiences, attitudes.

After Gregory died and I said goodbye to the beautiful temple that was his body and home for 68 years, I have developed these five technological sound bites that helps me deal with his passing.

Read in P&P

The 10 Aspirations: Rewritten for Today’s Diverse & LGBTQ+ World

Alison McBain

I. I am one truth of many. Thou shalt respect all gods and religions that respect others, not only one.

II. Thou shalt not eschew those who make a carved image of faith, for I am a loving God and show mercy to those who profess their love to everyone.

III. Thou shalt not take the name of any god or religion or nationality or gender or race or identity in vain…

Read in P&P

Is Tom Brady Gay?

Rand Bishop

I hadn’t planned to watch the Netflix Roast of Tom Brady. But, I happened across something online about Kim Kardashian getting booed by the crowd at the Kia Forum. So, morbid curiosity won the day. I had to see what that was all about.

The roasters and their writers plumbed for every possible angle to joke about the suspect sexual orientation of the dreamiest and most accomplished quarterback of all time.

…to my shock and disappointment, these stale, sophomoric pokes at a sports hero’s masculinity scored, winning big laughs.

Read in P&P

My Favorite Virtues as a Queer Person Are Authenticity and Kindness

Jennifer Nelson

Now that I am finally comfortable with who I am, authenticity is my most prized value. It’s what I strive to be and what I seek out in others. Incidentally, that hasn’t gone unnoticed. I recently asked my best friend how she would describe me in three words, and one of the words she chose was “authentic”…

I’ve always striven to be a kind person, even back when I was masking my autism and queerness. My younger sibling hit me for most of our childhood, and I didn’t have the heart to hit them back, despite our mother insisting that would be the best way to get them to stop.

Read in P&P

Struggling Parents of LGBTQ+ People: What We Wish You Knew

Natalie S. Ohio

Dear Parents of Newly-Out LGBTQ+ People,

It’s ok.

It’s ok if you don’t understand what’s going on, or what each letter of the acronym stands for. It’s ok to feel clumsy and trip up over pronouns and deadnames and contemporary terminology if there’s no malice behind it. It’s ok to feel like an out-of-touch fossil because you were unaware that “Vogue” is now a verb.

It’s ok to feel like you’re floundering.

Read in P&P

Being Selflessly Present with My Gay Friend in Need

Richard Zeikowitz (Bhikkhu Nyanadhammika)

During that surprise phone call I received in New York in the late 1990s, Joep told me that he was HIV positive and not doing very well. He had recently moved back to his home city, Maastricht. Needless to say, I was shocked when he told me and really didn’t know what to say to him. The ideal me would have immediately generated inquisitive compassion, wanting to know everything about how he discovered it, what he was doing about it, his treatment, the prognosis, etc.

But the me of that time didn’t want to know. I offered unfounded optimism only to protect myself from addressing the seriousness of Joep’s condition.

Read in P&P

When a Friend Comes Out, to the Surprise and Distress of Other Friends

Terry Barr

The Europa Club, below street level (aptly, the street it was below was named Gay Street, I swear), billed itself on its side entrance as “Knoxville’s Most Unique Disco.”

So, if you had encountered such a sign, what would you think the word “unique” meant?

And it wasn’t that Tom outed himself to me right then and there, but his eyes shone with excitement as he described dancing to the best music and with the wildest people.

“Oh what a night we had,” he said.

Read in P&P

Have You Danced at Virginia’s Oldest LGBTQ+ Bar?

Clay Hand

How many lesbian bars are there in Virginia? One, and Babe’s is large enough to hold every Sapphic in the tri-state area.

“Well, it’s a lesbian bar, a lesbian-owned bar, run by Vicky Hester,” says Diana, who’s been working at Babe’s since it opened 33 years ago. “Just, over the years, it’s become everyone’s bar.”

Perched on a stool checking IDs at the door, she adds, “It’s kind of cool in today’s world to have everybody here, in one place, getting along. It seems like there’s so much strife on the streets, at least in here you’ve got boys, girls, gays, straights … who what, who whatever can come in, have a good time, and be themselves.”

Read in P&P

Almost a Woman: A Transgender Woman’s Constant Doubt …

Emma Holiday

Grappling with the concept of gender is like intellectually trying to get hold of a greasy pig.

It is hard to grasp.

If you are cisgender then gender is not complicated for you. Your gender and your biological sex are in alignment. There is no confusion.

If you doubt your gender, then there is a good chance that you could be transgender.

You can be gay, straight, or a lesbian and still be cisgender. If you are insulted by the term cisgender then you need to understand that …

Read in P&P

A Gay Flashback — Funny Where Stories Come From

Michael Horvich (he, him)

I had a “flash” about Gregory (RIP) and my early relationship. On the way to visit my older Aunt Dolores for Mother’s Day in Lake Zurich, Illinois, the route took me past Portwine Road in the town of Riverwoods, Illinois. When we first met, my husband Gregory lived just up the road at the Ryerson Conservation Area.

In the few seconds that it took to cross the intersection, I flashed a fond remembering of my early time with Gregory, when we first met in the 1970s. The brief vision, overwhelming arrived with a lifetime of memories, details, and love.

Read in P&P

Trans Women and Autogynephilia: Transitioning from Sexualized Shame …

Piddling Piddles

Shame: a powerful five-letter word if you’re queer, trans, or both. A trap we cage ourselves in, bars typically crafted by outside influences first.

If we’re not careful, it’s likely to swallow us whole, devouring our identity in favour of an ill-fitting image we craft for others. Family, friends, school, church, work — every inch of every mile in modern living can upturn another rock to reveal or embolden shame like a wriggly bug.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even need to be direct. It can be as mundane as seeing nothing but heterosexual couples no matter where you look.

Read in P&P

— Short Fiction —

Maren’s Wish: Can a Merman Find a Another Just as Magical To Love?

J.J Ems

Oh, how I wish I were a mermaid. They are adored by both land and sea and considered truly magical, but not me. I’m just Maren, the fish man.

“Not sulking, Mira, I’m dreaming.”

“I’m free to dream, right?” I reply as I continue to stare into my crystal ball, hoping it will soon activate for my entertainment.

“Let me guess, dreaming of love and becoming a star on the crystal ball?” she asks mockingly, and my face flushes with anger, or maybe it’s embarrassment. I really can’t tell.

Read in P&P

The Gay Detective: Death and the Daredevil Diva

Elle Fredine

A bloodcurdling shriek echoed down the darkened hallway. I was halfway to the living room, service weapon in hand, before I was awake enough to realize I’d opened the gun safe. Or to register my partner, Ian, was nowhere to be seen.

I scanned the empty room. Flickering blue light from the TV reflected off his coffee mug, abandoned on the end table. A rumpled blanket on the leather sofa showed where he’d been. I felt the dent his head had left in the cushion. Still warm. He hadn’t been gone long.

Read in P&P

Editor’s note: Elle’s gay detective appears in other stand-alone stories. If you enjoy the characters, you’ll find links inside. And check P&P for new stories!

— Fiction Series —

The Medellan Conspiracy

Click here for an intro and chapter links

By Grayson Bell

After a kidnapping and yet another murder attempt, Ardyn and Jevan are determined to learn why members of a secret society are trying to stop them from uncovering the history of Jevan’s people. But first, they have to catch the kidnapper…

Looking to his left, Ardyn spotted Aerys and silently crept over to him. “Do you see him?” he asked Aerys in a low whisper.

“Yes, and now I know why we couldn’t beam the girls out,” Aerys replied, holding up a small scanner. “He’s found a way to erect a forcefield around the airlock, and he’s pacing just inside of it. So we can’t attempt to stun him from a distance.”

Ardyn frowned. That put the children in more danger. “He could harm the girls before we can get close enough to subdue him.”

“I planned for this eventuality,” Aerys said, giving Ardyn a sly smile before tapping his communicator. “Aron is outside of the airlock. Move in.”

Read Episode 65: Aron
Read Episode 66: Interrogation

That’s all for Prism & Pen this week, folks, so happy reading!

Writers, have you seen our “virtue” prompt? Queer Folks, Do You Have Favorite Virtues?

And we’ll see y’all next Sunday for another Digest. ❤️

— Jim



James Finn
Prism & Pen

James Finn is an LGBTQ columnist, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Act Up NY, and an agented but unpublished novelist.