Reckoning With—and Rewriting—Beat History

I’ve spent much of October marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month with stories of my own history with it—my diagnosis, my grief, and how the play I wrote about the experience, “club termina,” would change the rest of my life

But October is a busy month that also marks the collision of LGBTQ History Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And this year, they both arrive as I’m reckoning with the history of homophobia and intimate partner violence in my new writing project.

“The history of LGBTQ+ communities is a history of pain and violence – state violence, hate violence, gender-based violence, and yes, domestic violence,” Jimmy Meagher wrote to mark DV Awareness Month in 2019. “But it is also a history of pride, beauty, and resilience. A lot has changed over the decades, but the LGBTQ+ family continues to fight for equality, safety, and security for all. Our transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary siblings, especially trans folks of color, face violence from outside the community and from within.”

Indeed—and that history, especially the commonality of DV in and beyond the LGBTQ community, persists. The original Violence Against Women Act was the first to acknowledge domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes —whether the acts were committed by strangers, relatives or spouses—and it took until 1994 for that to happen. Now, in 2021, we’re still fighting to see it re-authorized, despite knowing that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced physical violence in a relationship, and three women are killed each day by a male partner. 

I’m frustrated by this slow march to progress. This is an issue I’ve seen folks organizing and working around throughout my years as feminist—but we still live in a culture that normalizes and even celebrates violent and abusive behavior.

Lately, we’ve seen many overdue reckonings, especially in Hollywood—where long-lionized men are being exposed as abusers, perpetrators, and creeps. My next book is part of these corrections to the pop culture record—a fictional exploration of the very real ways in which anti-gay and domestic violence shaped the beat movement.

My next novel is a semi-autobiographical piece that includes four members of the Beat poet community: Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, Williams Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Two were LGBTQ. Two were confessed murderers. Carr killed his mentor and sometimes sexual partner, David Kammerer. Burroughs killed his wife. 

And the penalties? Carr got off with “Honor Killing”—because it was in the 1940’s, and the law said anybody who felt a gay person was coming on to them could use whatever force necessary to stop the attack. Burroughs shot his wife Ann Vollmer dead in a bar playing a drunken game of “William Tell,” which she agreed to, and after his defense attorney committed a felony and disappeared, no further charges were ever brought against him.

I was shocked when I came to recognize, only in the last few years, how this history was woven into my own life as someone who lived in proximity to one of these men in her younger years. (To find out more of those details, you’ll have to buy the book!) It is truly jarring to recognize the ways in which these acts of violence can be swept under the rug, and how little attention we pay to them in the moment or in the years after.

It is on all of us to do everything we can to call out and end this violence. We know that storytelling can be an incredible tool for accountability and justice—if nothing else, the #MeToo movement showed us that. And so here I go again, writing what needs to be said—and hoping it speeds up that march toward a better future.

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