Minnesota podcast features “life-saving” books for LGBT guests

Minnesota podcast features “life-saving” books for LGBT guests

Gary Nygaard was already out by the time he read James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, about a man’s ill-fated affair with a man he met at a gay bar.

So, Nygaard told listeners on the local podcast “This Queer Book Saved My Life,” the book didn’t literally save his life. But he was deeply affected by the book, and viewed it as a cautionary tale confirming that he had made the right decision.

“It showed me how destructive it is to try to pretend, how awful you can be and how harmful it can be to others,” said Nygaard, 71, who lives in Vadnais Heights.

This Queer Book Saved My Life launched in June — Nygaard was in its second episode — and is now in its second season, with nearly 20 episodes.

The podcast asks “What story did I read and say, ‘Wow, I have a new way to live and love in this world because I read this,'” said JB Der Bogosian, the show’s creator and host.

In each episode, a guest who identifies as gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, or queer discusses a book that has helped them understand themselves, points out life choices, or offers support in a culture where LGBT people still face prejudice and intolerance.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a book that comes into your life and becomes a part of you, and that gives you the feeling that you’re being seen for the first time on a page,” Der Boghossian said in an interview.

Guests named novels, memoirs, essay collections, self-help, and young adult novels. Authors occasionally join the discussion, including Alison Bechdel, whose 2006 graphic memoir Fun House was adapted as a musical that won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical.

In that episode, Cleveland’s Lara Lillibridge said Bechdel’s book showed her that you can “tell your story the way you want, and you don’t need to be quiet or act or listen to other people’s ideas about what’s appropriate.”

In another episode, James Darvill of Minneapolis called “Evening Crowd in Kirmser: Gay Life in the ’40s” by Ricardo J. Brown, a memoir of gays who congregate at a St. Paul’s bar. At 24, Darvill was preparing to marry another man, but reading the book helped him realize he wasn’t ready to settle down. He canceled it and moved from Fargo to Minneapolis to become part of the LGBTQ community in the Twin Cities.

“One of the biggest things I really get from this book is that just being political and standing is power,” Darvill said on the programme. In the era described in the book, a time when being gay was cause for fire, the characters “going back to that bar, going back to their friends and just being gay together was an act of resistance, almost”.

Rachel Cady, a former Minnesota woman who now lives in Kansas City, said she found in Julia Serrano’s book Skin Girl: A Transgender Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoat of Femininity an author whose feelings matched her own.

Cady told Der Bogosian. “She made it seem like it was okay to be a trans woman and being a trans woman and being out there was such a powerful thing.”

Don’t erase our stories

Der Boghossian started the program as a change of pace from his day job as Equity Manager at Normandale Community College. He has broadcaster experience and loves books.

“The idea for the podcast came about as a lark — ha ha ha,” said Der Boghossian, 41, who lives in St. Anthony. “And then I said, wait a minute, I have that skill set and the load is fairly low.”

While he muses, the American Library Association reported a record number of banned or challenged books in 2021. The association tracked 729 challenged library, school and college items last year, including 1,597 individual books. This record is likely to be broken in 2022; Missouri alone has banned nearly 300 books in at least 11 school districts since August.

Five of the ten most targeted books, including the top three, have been LGBTQ topics. According to PEN America, books containing major LGBTQ characters account for 41% of attempted bans.

“They are trying to erase our stories,” Der Boghossian said.

The podcast was on.

Boghossian Monastery lets guests define what “Save My Life” means to them.

“I think some people just don’t use that kind of big language,” he said. But as discussions develop, “it becomes very clear that writers and subjects or whatever they’re walking away from really had this profound impact.”

He said the show made the Amazon top 200 charts, and was heard in 43 states and 572 cities, including 45 in Minnesota.

So what book saved Der Boghossian’s life? “House at the End of the World” by Michael Cunningham, he said without hesitation. Like Der Boghossian, the three main characters in the book are bound by a polygamous relationship. But he was also struck by the lack of tragedy in its tone and plot that is often found in traditional LGBTQ narratives.

“It was the first time I was seeing gay people on the page, living their lives, and the main conflict wasn’t about coming out, and there was no violence against them,” he said. “It was really pivotal and life-changing.”

Despite the political threats, LGBTQ literature has become more visible and has gained wider acceptance, as – and because of – the LGBTQ themselves.

“I grew up at a time when gay people were invisible except to be ridiculed or terrorized,” said Gary Nygaard in an interview.

He said the culture has changed. “I like to think I helped with that. I think homophobia has subsided a lot just because people have come out and because so many people now know someone gay in their life.”

When Jennifer Vinnie Boylan wrote She’s Not There: A Life in Heterosexuals in 2003, she saw herself as addressing readers who “never thought about transgender issues before,” she said on a podcast episode.

She told Der Boghossian newspaper that the book had a “smell of apology” of “trying to win people over”. If she were to write it now, she said, “I wouldn’t ask for anyone’s understanding. The movement has progressed to the point where people feel confident and brave to be themselves.”

But Der Boghossian cannot forget the surge in book banning efforts.

“I’ve always been kind of skeptical about all this change because I feel like it can come back so quickly,” he said.

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