Being Gay Together is an Act of Resistance with James Darville

Welcome to our LGBT podcast This Queer Book Saved My Life! This episode is the recording of our first-ever live event at Lush Lounge and Theater. We talk with James Darville (he/him) about the LGBT book The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s by Ricardo J. Brown. This memoir invites us into Kirmser’s, which was the first and only queer gay bar in St. Paul, MN in the 1940s. When the book came to James, he was in college in North Dakota and on his own coming out journey as a gay black man. He shares, “It was the right book for the right time for what I was experiencing in my life.”

Episode transcript below!

Buy the LGBT books on this LGBT podcast at our Bookshop page! (bookshop.org/thisqueerbook)

Join us on November 10th at Lush Lounge and Theater for our second-ever recording in front a live audience. We’re calling the episode, “From Unseen to Seen.” We’ll be chatting with William Burleson, author and Founder of Flexible Press. The event is free, but we encourage RSVPs: https://bit.ly/liveatlush

Shout out time to Natalie Cruz, Bill Shay, Paul Kaefer, Archie Arnold., and Stephen D., for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Can you join them in helping to keep our podcast accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audience? Your sponsorship will directly support transcription services as well as website technical maintenance and all other behind the scenes tech stuff to keep us running and accessible. There are three monthly membership options you can choose from, starting at $5/month. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook.

TRANSCRIPT

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J.P. Der Boghossian: On today’s episode, we have something very special for you. This is the recording of our first-ever live event at Lush Lounge and Theater in Minneapolis. I’m talking with James Darville James Darville about the book that saved his life: The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s by Ricardo Jay Brown. The book is about the first-ever Queer bar in St. Paul Minnesota, and for James Darville, it provided, the visibility he needed in his coming-out journey.

James Darville:  “It was the right book for the right time, for what I was experiencing in my life, at that moment”.

J.P. Der Boghossian: My name is JP Der Bognossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life live from Lush Lounge and Theater. We are coming to you in front of a live studio audience broadcasting right now from Lush lounge and Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. There is a great audience here in front of us. Good to hear you! We are talking here today with James Darville from Out Front Minnesota about the memoir, The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s  by Ricardo. Jay Brown. It is a memoir of the first Queer bar at that time, the only bar where Queer could gather in the Twin Cities. James Darville, would you like to introduce yourself?

James Darville:  Yes. Hi. My name is James Darville. I use he/ him pronouns. I am the Political Director at Out Front Minnesota. Before that I worked at Planned Parenthood. And before that, I was just a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo. I grew up in North Carolina in a small town called Ballston, population 600. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: I do want to know about you in North Dakota from North Carolina to Africa but first, I always love to know what was your favorite book growing up as a kid. 

James Darville: My favorite book growing up was probably James Darville and the Giant Peach and it’s maybe a little vain of me because my name is James Darville but it was the first chapter book I remember reading. I thought this is a world that I can envision. I can see myself in that. It feels like me and it is just a kid, who feels like an outcast and runs away with a myriad of bugs, which is not me because I hate bugs!  It was just such a fine adventure story. That’s all I wanted to do when I was younger. We should like to go on adventures. I really love that. But that was probably a book I revisit once a year at this point in my life.


J.P. Der Boghossian: I haven’t seen the movie. 

James Darville: The animation is beautiful. The part where he’s with his aunt is like live action and then when he’s on his adventure in the Giant Peach is probably claymation and then jumps back to live action. It’s beautiful. I love it so much. I think it’s such a gorgeous story.
J.P. Der Boghossian: What are you into reading these days, any recommendations? 

James Darville: These days, I read a lot of legislative bills!   The last book I’ve been reading is this book we’re about to talk about. It is the only thing that’s on the top of my mind. I’m trying to even think about the last book I read for fun, that wasn’t connected to my work. I can’t even give you a recommendation. 

JP: Well, you do have a recommendation. James Darville, what is the book that saved your life? 

James Darville: The book that saved my life is The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s. I’ve been reading this book for years and never knew how to pronounce that last name. So, whenever I would tell folks about it, I’d say  it’s The Evening Crowd, figure it out from there!
It came to me in just this kind of random way. I was working at an independent bookstore in Fargo called Zambros, which is a beautiful store. They have more than just books. They also sell beautiful plates and amazing tea. It’s great. I love it. I miss working there but it was just on the shelf in their lgbtq + section. I just picked it up. I was like, I need something new to read, so I grabbed it and it was such a right book for the right time for what I was experiencing in my life. At that moment, especially as someone who is living in Fargo, North Dakota thinking about moving to the Twin Cities and thus that connection of  Queer history that I really wanted to dive into. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: Take me to that moment when you got the book. First of all, how did you get to North Dakota from North Carolina? It’s a great question and it’s kind of a wild story. I went to a school locally and I hated it in North Carolina and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do because I was like, I can’t be here anymore. 

James Darville: I was taking a media class and one of the things we had to do was watch the news and write a paper on it and dive deeper into whatever was happening in the news. So I graduated high school in 2012 and then went to college in the fall of 2012 and NDSU had a bomb threat. I saw that and I was like, that’s so interesting that a college could have a bomb threat.  Also, what the F is North Dakota? I’ve never been there. I’m interested. This, seems so wild that someone would pick North Dakota of all places to send out a bomb threat. I looked into it and then I was looking into the politics of
NDSU and  the environment. It looks beautiful. Fargo looks cool. I wanted to kind of run away anyway. I was like this closeted little kid in North Carolina., What if I just run away which is almost a reference back to James Darville and the Giant Peach. What would that look like? I applied. I got a scholarship and I said,  Mom, Dad, we’re going to Fargo North Dakota.  My mom said the hell you are and I said it’s already paid for. She said, okay, pack your bags, you’re going to North Dakota. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: I see you’re getting it randomly, on a bookshelf. What drew you in about the story when you were first getting started? 

James Darville:What drew me in was this Queer history that I knew nothing about. I did study Sociology in college, but my focus was on race and religion. There’s a lot of Queer, overlap in that, but I didn’t really know what Queer life was like, pre-2000, whenever Will, and Grace came out. That was my first look at Queer culture, cuz my mom thought it was such a great show. That was the first time I really learned about Queer people, and I just thought Queer people just came about in like 2000. We said, everyone’s gay! We’ll figure it out and turns out that is not true. 

As I read the back of the book, I thought this seems really interesting to  learn this history. As I was reading it, I realized what Ricardo and his friends had to go through, was not all that unfamiliar to me as a Queer person living in Fargo North Dakota in 2015. It seemed. like we still had to find our little places, our little nooks and crannies, that we could hang out in together. 

Dating was still really weird. To go even further back into my backstory, I thought for a long time, I was going to be a youth minister. I was a part of this organization that I really love where I worked with youth and I was fairly really religious. I grew up fairly religious. I got fired when I came out. We are still not safe. We still have to fly under the radar to figure out who can I say, I’m gay to or this is my boyfriend. I lived in a house full of gay men. we called ourselves, KVV-Kappa Vega Vodka.. It was seven of us who all went to NDSU with different backgrounds and it was just a mess but also one of the best times of my life and really helped me become the Queer person I am today. But I couldn’t just say that to anyone because I would get fired and it happened and it was such a wild time.


J.P. Der Boghossian: Every guest has a different interpretation of what saved means for them and how their book saved them. Would you share with us how The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s saved you? 

James Darville: I think it’s saved me multiple times. I think the first time I read it being just graduated from college, trying to figure myself out and finding this connection of the story. Then revisiting it, when I was going through a really terrible break up. We were living in Moorhead and it was this person who I thought I’m going to like. We bought a house together like we were going to get married. Then I realized how depressed I was and how  this is not actually the life I want to live. I don’t want a picket fence. I want to party. I want to try cocaine once.  I like to go out and I want to be out. I want to do the things that young Gay men do when they’re 24. I don’t want to be married. Fuck that. That was just too much for me. I remember being so depressed and not knowing what I was going to do about it. I just picked up the book again. I was reading it. I was like, I’m going to move to Minneapolis. I’m going to move to the Twin Cities. This makes sense. There’s a Queer culture there. This author has set it up for me. Ricardo’s entire friend group and what they did set up this life. I can just insert myself into that life.  We broke up.  I packed everything into my 2016 Sonata and said, I’m moving to the big city, mom. and I did.  It really did save me multiple times and I really appreciate it for that. 

J.P. Der Boghossian:  You broke up because of this book?

James Darville: Yeah. There was….

J.P. Der Boghossian.: That’s a first! There were other things? When you got to the Cities, what was it like then?  I can’t imagine that it reflected the experience of Kirmser’s so what was it like when you got here?  

James Darville: When I got here, I just realized and obviously living in Fargo it was a 4 hour drive away for folks who don’t know.  I had been to Minneapolis and I knew  what Queer culture could be and what it was like, especially here in the Twin Cities. 

When I got here I was like I’m just going to insert  myself into this. I created this friend group just from  going out. I would go out by myself and talk to people at bars and be like:  Hi. I’m new! I would just sit on Tinder and just go on date after date after date with nothing other than like, show me your favorite restaurant and pay: thank you so much! I just want to meet people and I still have so many friends who I went on dates with from Tinder who, we just hang out and I see them and it’s so great. One of them is my dentist which is really great! So

J.P. Der Boghossian : Where did you meet? How does that work?

James Darville: I met my dentist on Tinder

J.P. Der Boghossian: Was he your dentist beforehand and you realized, I need a dentist.

James Darville: No. I met him. I had been driving 4 hours to my dentist because I love her so much. Dentistry is really hard. I hate people in my mouth but I was like, I can’t drive four hours anymore.  I was looking for a new dentist.  I went on a date with someone who I think was a dentist. I remembered his first name and then I went into the portal and typed in his first name. I sent him a text and I said, hey, don’t think it’s weird but I need a dentist; you’re Gay; you’re in my network; you’re looking for patients. Party! That’s what happened. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: Are they still your dentist? 
James Darville: They’re still my dentist and they are the best dentist, He’s so great. If anyone is looking for a dentist in the Twin Cities, find me after this..

J.P. Der Boghossian: Did Kirmser’s influence how you wanted a bar to be? Growing up, I did not have the bar experience either at a Kirmser’s or  a stereotypical bar, experience: walk in, and it’s  disco lights and glitter. You find your first boyfriend and, boom! That didn’t happen to me. I was like, where’s the magic? That was set up primarily by Queer As Folk,, right? Unreasonable expectation for Gay, Armenian kids and kids from rural parts of the United States. I’m curious then, did Kirmser’s, because you read it in North Dakota,  it made you break up with your boyfriend and you came here. How did it affect, how you navigated the bar culture and the nightclub culture here in the Twin Cities?

James Darville: In Fargo, we actually had a bar that felt Queer. We did not have a Queer bar, but it felt Queer to us. Every Tuesday night, we would go to a bar called Dempsey’s, which is in downtown Fargo. It’s still such a wonderful, wonderful place. It was the first time, I remember being able to be Gay in public and felt like the bartenders were really nice. Some of them were Queer. All my friends were there. We would sing karaoke, usually really terribly, but it wasn’t a Queer bar, it just had a Queer night. It informed so much for me. When I moved to the Twin Cities to have that transition of having this dive bar esque, kind of like  Kirmser’s where like we would  just come, sit in booths and talk and drink Coors Lights and pickles and just eat popcorn. Now I’m going to go to the Saloon every night and it is a dance party every night; or there’s drag shows; there is just like an event happening; there is someone in the shower,  which is always… I will never get used to it. A side note, I took my mom to the Saloon not that long ago and forgot about the shower and my mom was like, sitting there having a drink and she looked over and was like, what is going on? I was like, oh, and she was like, “no, no, no, let’s stay.  Let’s see what’s gonna happen!” I was like, I know what is going to happen and we need to exit the situation!

*But it was kind of hard because it’s not a space. that’s easy to meet folks. It’s loud and it’s like a thousand people just in rotation constantly and you don’t have that intimacy. But I think there’s beauty in both of those areas. There’s beauty at Dempsey’s where I’m just sitting having a conversation with people that I love and we can have deep conversations usually by like the eighth beer,  the conversations a little blurry but it’s still a really great conversation with some of your best friends. Then there’s something great about going to the Saloon and feeling like you are the only person on the dance floor. I’m like three vodka sodas in and I am the queen of disco. There’s beauty in both of those things that I really thought I needed something like dancing when I moved to the Twin Cities but I’m so glad that there’s a place that’s so different from that. 

J.P,: At bookshop.org, you can buy all the books that we feature here on This Queer Book, Save My Life. We have a link to a bookshop page in the show notes. On our website, you’ll find season 1 books and season 2 as we release new episodes. We receive a 10% commission on every book you purchase through our bookshop.org page. So not only  are you getting a life-giving read and supporting the authors on the show you’re also supporting us directly. So happy book buying! It’s shoutout, time to Natalie Cruise, Bill Shay, Paul Kaefer Archie, A and Stephen D for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first-ever patreon supporters. Thank you. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services. that make our podcast accessible to our deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. You can join them to help us. Keep this podcast accessible and equitable. There are three monthly membership options, starting at $5 a month. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook.

Lucious news; we will have our second ever live recording of this podcast at Lush Lounge and Theater on November 10th. Our guest is William Burleson who is an author and founder of Flexible Press in Minnesota Flexible Press supports publishing underrepresented voices in the belief that at its best, literature is often a catalyst for change which is  super in line with this podcast. The event starts at 6 p.m. and tickets are free, but we do recommend that you RSVP. The link is in the show notes and on our website.

J.P. Der Boghossian: I think a lot of folks would look at The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s as a memoir. by an amazing writer. It reads really easy, really engaging but it’s from the 40s. I’m kind of hearing right now that there were a lot of the experiences that you were feeling in the aughts, right? The 22nd century. Given your professional role at Out Front, could you speak a little bit more to that about how we’re past this and yet we’re not past this in parts of the state of Minnesota and the Midwest 

James Darville: Around the country and around the world. There are people that still navigate life. the same way that Queer people navigated life in the 40s in the US and other parts of the world. Even in America, it is still not such a safe place for us to be out and proud.. I think we have the luxury of living in a fairly Queer, open city here in Minneapolis and other places like Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Portland, all those aeas. Even when I was living in Fargo, we were still in the shadows, are you’e still trying to navigate that space. Even now we’re fighting against folks who still think that we should not exist. and who still think we should be killed and die and put to death. I would go back to researching about World War 2, and what it was like to live through that. Queer folks who were in concentration camps when liberation happened the Americans and British came in to  free everyone in the concentration camps but  sent the Gay men back to prison: not allowing them to have freedom. Some folks think that everything is Gay and everything is rainbows. Evangelicals like to talk about the Queering of America. It’s still not safe for us to be. I was just in Northern Wisconsin and there is still this thing that I revert back to when I’m in small towns. Even when I go home to North Carolina, I’m like, deepen your voice, butch it up. Don’t let anyone think that you may possibly be Gay, which is hard for me. I’m 6’ 2” but there is a switch to my hips and I flip my nonexistent hair a lot.  It’s the little things that we think about as Queer people of I so cannot exist fully.  One of those things were working on is banning conversion therapy in the state which is still a practice that happens pretty frequently. Bloomington passed a  conversion therapy ban earlier this year. And with that ban, three clinics were shut down. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: There were three in Bloomington? 

James Darville: There are so many more that we don’t know about and it’s hard to track them. and a lot of them operate under the ruse of christianity centers or christian summer camps. Those are things that we can’t touch. Everyone has freedom of religion, but I also have the freedom to be Gay and I should be afforded that and you should not get in the way of that because what am I doing, other than trying to pay taxes, live with my partner, go out, maybe try cocaine once in awhile, I don’t know! I will say don’t try cocaine right now. There’s a lot of fentanyl. It’s very dangerous unless you have test strips, be safe. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: As you’re thinking about freedom and not being able to be free, fully free to be Queer. How did Riccardo’s book inform your sense of freedom? Did it give you a sense that this is what freedom should look like for me: what I want it to look like in my life?

James Darville:Yes I When you read the book  they talk a lot about what they had to do in order to mask themselves. I think there’s a a great paragraph about one of the bar owners, Mrs. Kirsmer who, when they would be in the bar talking if they said something too loud, she would shush them and say there’s a straight person here that we don’t know so don’t talk too loud. One Ally:  We love that of her.  There’s also this  freedom of being on this podcast in front of all these people talking about Queer history and being Gay and talking about  what that means to us. That would have never happened there: being shushed in the Queer bar about being Gay. Freedom for me, is the opportunity to talk openly about myself  whether that be here in this format; on social media or on a stage whenever I do public speaking. Being almost grateful because sometimes you forget what other folks really had to fight  in order for us to have those platforms. One of the great things about this book is to refocus us that this is not how life has always been. We have to remind ourselves of that or we’ll never remember to fight for what we need as we move forward. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: The reason why we called the event, Toasting Historic Twin Cities, lgbtq Night Life is and I hope you all got a Kirmser’s drink ordered so we can raise a toast that we’re able to do this. Hopefully we get to keep doing this in the state of Minnesota, but also to Kirmser’s which is amazing when you read about them in the book, The husband doesn’t talk at all. He never looked up from his newspaper, but the wife is very much like an ally and would chat with people. Cheers to her.  and I’m curious. It was a straight bar. A working person’s bar during the day and then at night it became Queer bar. When you were talking about being in North Dakota, I think there’s still a lot of people that are only have access to places that become Queer: temporarily and then they go away again. Folks outside of  the Twin Cities are having to go through that now. Ricardo uses a lot of fun nicknames for folks to protect their anonymity. He just deals in the kind of tropes like the one guy that comes in, that’s, you know, like an Adonis and he calls him the All-American boy! He also calls someone Lulu and Betty Boop. But he had to know:  here’s the hierarchy of where folks fit in the bars. Does any of that  resonate for you as in who am I as a Queer person? Am I Adonis, am I the one next door? 

James Darville: As a white, black gay, man, I am biracial, My mother is white. Sometimes, you don’t feel like you have access to Queer culture in a way. You are used as a fetish tool at times.

Categories, have always been really interesting to me because I go back to the Queer house I lived at in college. It was mainly all white gay men, myself! Even at that time, I was in  another category. I was 130 lbs. I was very thin and very tall. I was like, I’m at wink! Then I discovered that I had an eating disorder. I was not a twink,  I was not eating.  It shifted how I was viewed in our community to go from  this really thin black man to this linebacker of a black man. I am now  240 lbs. I’m a lot stouter. I look bigger. How did I navigate that change of myself? The category part of. It was so resonant to me because we still do that as a Queer community, pretty heavily. We always talk about twinks. We always talk about bears, otters, whatever, it has an out, like it always goes until like, daddies and goes into, like a, well, I’m pups or Daddies. We are just categorizing ourselves. There are four categories in the book; Hyper Fem,  All American, old and not white. We still do that in a much broader span. I grew up in spaces that were predominately white. When I went into those spaces I felt like, I don’t know where I fit in. I don’t know what category would put me in because there is still like this underlying racism in the Queer community. I want to share a story that  I still think about a lot. I was dating this guy. We met on Grindr, as one does. I remember him  meeting me for the first time in person and I don’t know what about my photo of me hiking the Appalachian Trail or my interests made him think this. We met in person and he was like you’re not as aggressive or and he said this word, thuggish as I thought you would be! I was like, let’s unpack this.  Let’s talk about it. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: There is nothing to talk about. 

James Darville: I need you to tell me what that means to you. I need you to tell me when you look at me, what that means to you and how you think I should present to you as a gay white man as a black gay man. What does that mean? Because I don’t know. My dad is a chemical engineer. I grew up going to private school. I grew up going to country clubs. That was my life. I remember one time taking the bus and I didn’t take the bus often but this was the new year and they were dropping me off and one of the kids was not impressed. It was a split story with  a pool and he was saying do you live here and I was like, yeah. I live in a house like everyone else and I remember the rumor going around that James Darville’s dad is a drug dealer because he had such a nice house. That was the rumor for years. It kind of has carried into  my young adolescent childhood. Being categorized as the other: the black kid. What is it about you? Then, to being like Gay and  that continuously happening and it still  happens. But I’m much better at skirting it or saying let’s  actually talk about it. We’re in the middle of the Saloon. I may be like four vodka crans in, but you’re going to have to explain this to me because I want to know, I want to know what made you think this and what made you follow me enough to  approach me in that manner because I don’t know you and you  don’t know me. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: The book reads as white. Is there anything that you took away from Ricardo’s story of navigating spaces like that? Were there tools that you got or other perspectives that you got out of there for saying here’s how I’m going to handle ambiguous situations. 

James Darville :I don’t think it was tools as much as the perspective of it was the 40s and 50s post World War 2. How is this Italian man from St. Paul, going to talk about Queer black people in Saint Paul. He’s not, They were not in the same spaces. The view of the black people he does talk about is just a one off person in the area. and even in the Forward,  they  say, you know, there were Gay men and then there were black people and those are two different minorities without even my talking about the fact that  there were Queer black people as well who were living in that time and  living in that space. What it did for me was offered me a lot of Grace of we do have to remember that people are just products of where they were and products of how they were raised. When someone comes to you, and they don’t actually have that perspective, that is not always their fault. It is truly just where they were and how do you meet someone with that? How do you talk to them about that? At my previous position at Planned Parenthood, I was the Grassroots organizer in North Dakota, and I was the only one. How was I, as a Gay black man, talking to white folks in North Dakota about reproductive access going to facilitate those conversations?

J.P. Der Boghossian: And you were the only one.  

James Darville:  I was the only one. 

J.P. Der Boghossian: My brain is breaking right now. How did you navigate that? That is a wild experience.

James Darville: I’ve always navigated white people. People of  color always have to navigate white spaces. I know how to talk. I know that , when I’m at an event table, , because I’m so tall, I don’t stand up, I stay seated, not out of disrespect but because I don’t want to tower over someone because they would find that intimidating. I have to take all these things, and when someone approaches me, I have to think about it. I have to think about all the steps I have to go through to make this person comfortable in order to talk to me. That was what I got out of, not hearing the black perspective of Queer culture in Saint. Paul. How would he know? How would he be in that space? He would not be there. There’s a lot of Grace for it and then there’s also so much dead history we just do not have. about Queer people.

J.P. Der Boghossian: Something that has really come into focus for me in running this podcast is how as Queer people we have to be storytellers immediately, right? Whenever we understand ourselves to be Queer: whatever age that is. What I mean by that is that we’re immediately telling stories with how we present. We’re immediately telling stories in terms of point-of-view. What verbs we are going to use, what adjectives we’re going to use.  Are we going to use a passive voice vs. an active voice?  Is something happening TO me or do I have agency in the situation? What then do you find from The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s that is still informing your story today and how you’re telling your story of who you are, living and loving in this world?

James Darville: I think one of the biggest things I really get from this book is just that existing is political and existing is power. What they did was find their space and find their community and find their people and make that for them and push forward. They weren’t given the space to be out and Gay. There’s multiple stories of people being fired in the book and getting outed at their job. There’s even speculation, and they get fired. Going back to this bar, going back to their friends and just being Gay together was just an act of resistance. What I take from that is that my existence and our existence as Queer people Is that like an act of defiance and an act of resistance. How are we going to continuously push forward to make change? That doesn’t always have to be marching in the street or that doesn’t always have to be action. Sometimes it truly is just existing.

J.P. Der Boghossian: Since our recording of this episode, James has left his position at Outfront Minnesota, but you can still follow him on Instagram, he is @james Edward Darville.

I hope James’ words will stick with you, like it did for me. Being gay together is an act of resistance. Being gay together is an act of resistance.

[theme music]

Thank you so much for joining us on this special episode. If you enjoyed it, we will be back at Lush Lounge and Theater on November 10th. We’ll be talking with author and founder of Flexible Press William Burleson. We’re calling the episode: From Unseen to Seen.

Links in the show notes!

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Next Tuesday is our premiere episode of 7 Minutes in Book Heaven, and then we’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode of This Queer Book Saved My Life.

Until then, see you queers and allies in the bookstores!