I’m part of a community that’s always existed with Paul Kaefer

In this episode, we talk with Paul Kaefer (he/him) about the book Quatrefoil: A Modern Novel by James Barr. Paul told us, “it’s not just realizing that there are other people like me, but it’s the realizing that I’m part of a community that has always existed and will always exist. ” We discuss how Quatrefoil: A Modern Novel helped Paul learn that he has the power to decide when and how to share his LGBTQ story. We also learn about Paul’s plan to read a book from every country in the world!

A big thank you to Archie A., Bill S., and Paul K. for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure the podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. They receive a variety of benefits, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Episode Title: I’m part of a community that’s always existed

J.P. Der Boghossian: Hey everyone. This is J.P. and before we get started I want to thank our promotional sponsor Quatrefoil Library for their work in spreading the word about this podcast.

Quatrefoil Library is a community center that cultivates the free exchange of ideas and makes accessible LGBTQ+ materials for education and inspiration. Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visit them at qlibrary.org

That’s q library.org

I’m proud to say that our podcast is in the top 25% of all podcasts on our hosting platform Buzzsprout. That’s all thanks to you. And if you haven’t clicked like or given us five stars, please do! It’s life-giving for us! 

We also have a bonus episode for you this week! I read an essay from the manuscript of my essay collection. The essay is about the power and history of our names and how we choose to name ourselves. I hope you enjoy it.

J.P.: On today’s episode

[theme music]

Paul Kaefer: You know it’s not just realizing that there are other people like me, but it’s the realizing that I’m part of a community that has always existed and will always exist.

J.P.: I’m talking with Paul Kaefer about the book Quatrefoil by James Barr. This novel is considered one of the first books that empathetically and positively portrays queer life. For Paul it provided the language to describe and take back control of his own story.

Paul: But I think that something I’ve learned is that I often do have the power to decide when and how to share those aspects of my life.

J.P. My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!

J.P. Let’s meet Paul Kaefer.

[plucky pizzicato music]

His pronouns are he/him. He was a big reader as a kid. One of his favorite book growing up was Eragon by Christopher Paolini, which is part of the Inheritance Cycle. It’s a fantasy series Paul read multiple times.

He was born in Illinois and his parents read to him a lot as a kid and had him participate in reading programs at his local library.

Paul got his Bachelors degree and graduate degree from Marquette University.

He is a Data Scientist. Over the course of his career he has engaged in Machine Learning and data engineering, which he describes as preparing data for other people to use. He also does Data Sleuthing. Which is diving into data to figure out why it looks the way it does and why you’re seeing what you’re seeing.

Obviously, there is a ton of math in all of this.

He is the co-vice president of the Board of Quatrefoil Library. He started as a volunteer and then quickly joined the board after that.

And it’s a big Quatrefoil episode, because we’re talking about the novel Quatrefoil, by James Barr which is the Library’s namesake.

James Barr is actually a pen name for James W. Fugaté. James was an author and activist. After serving in the navy during World War II, he wrote Quatrefoil. After he voluntarily returned to the Navy, the Navy discovered he was the book’s author and they honorably discharged him.

The novel breaks a lot of the gay stereotypes from its time. Set in 1946, it follows 23 year old naval officer Phillip. He is engaged to be married, plans on raising a big family, and taking over his own family’s bank.

But then, he meets Tim. They’re both navigating relationships with fiancées and wives. But through his blossoming relationship with Tim, Phillip slowly begins to come into his own, letting go of a lot of toxic behaviors he had, and the loving relationship he has with Tim deepens when Phillip travels to Oklahoma to meet Tim’s family. It’s both a novel of its time (i.e no sex scenes, not even a kiss), but one that transcends. You can become a better person through a queer relationship.

Here is my conversation with Paul.

J.P: So tell me, what is the book that saved your life?

Paul: That was an interesting question to be asked. As somebody who was closeted until college I first thought I wouldn’t have an answer because I thought for many people it would probably be a book that they read as a teenager. Maybe even in college. But I realized and you know we had a good conversation about this. I realized that I actually had a really good answer for myself and that is the novel called Quatrefoil a modern novel which I learned about. Due to Quatrefoil Library which is named for the novel and it’s a one fifty book that was written and is believed to be the first or of the first novels involving gay characters that had a positive ending for them. Unfortunately for a lot of people in the real-world and in novels, the story ends with something tragic like death or sickness or punishment or loss of a partner. So it was a really cool novel because it’s historic and did have a very positive storyline.

J.P.: When we say saved what does that mean for you while you were reading it?

Paul: Reading this novel saved me in more of a healing way I think, Being closeted for a very long time and not being exposed to literature with l g b t q plus characters, this was part of my journey for kind of that personal healing. For finding my community. For figuring out that I can read content that I do relate to. Important aspects of a character rather than for example, enjoying a story but the characters are all straight and something just never clicked with me. So for me, it’s more of that getting to know that there’s actually a lot of. literature with gay characters out there and more and more every year.

J.P.: When you say healing what does that mean for you? That could mean a lot of things for different people. So for you, what was that healing journey like when you got the book?

Paul: Good question. For me, the healing journey connected to other things. Connected to me learning about this library that has all this lgbtq plus material.. For me this was getting more and more comfortable with my identity and my life. This was also at a time that still is true for my life but was much more overt. I had moved to a city following a guy that I was in a relationship with. So when people asked me why I was living in this city, it was  maybe unbeknownst to them. It was an invitation to come out and it’s a place that for the most part has been very accepting so it’s been different than what I’ve experienced at some other times in my life. I would say with reading Quatrefoil it was for me the healing was it’s not just realizing that there are other people like me, but it’s the realizing that I’m part of a community that has always existed and will always exist. There have been a lot of people before us who have done certainly a lot more work than I have to make things safe for people like me. So this novel was great because. it was also just really like eloquently written the way the characters interact and speak is I would say different than people are today.  Part of that is how they communicated and what what life was like but it was amazing to read it and have a relatable storyline and also to be very obvious to me that the life was simply different in the 50s.  I think I have a better answer about how it saved me. It was something that took me a while to figure out. The importance of language and vocabulary and so for me I would say that I was closeted for my whole life. But also I didn’t have that vocabulary.

Paul: At some point I kind of had this terminology. Homosexuality is wrong or is unethical or sinful. I never had the terminology that somebody could be gay or could be bisexual. Just simply not having people that I knew personally who identified for a long time. I think something really evident with reading Quatrefoil was also seeing and recognizing that there was less of that language and so seeing people struggle in the past number one because there weren’t as many out people. But also because they didn’t have the same vocabulary I think it’s easier today to meet somebody and hear you know if they share with you how they identify and if you’ve never heard of that identity, it can be really eye-opening. That’s actually something that is relatable to me or that’s something that I have felt. I think that saved is maybe a bit more nuanced in me learning about the history of the community and how people interact with each other.

J.P.: As you were reading it for the first time, what were you relating to? What was resonating for you as you were getting through the book?

Paul: As I read Quatrefoil for the first time, I think it resonated with me how articulate and thoughtful the characters were. I won’t say I’m always that way, but I. aspire to be like that. I also found relatable some of the conflict. Although some of it was very different than what I’ve ever experienced. There was definitely a storyline involving military service something that I’ve not experienced. I think the novel is really good at having realistic characters that have internal and external conflicts so something neat was, it’s not a spoiler to share that there were men who are  in love in the story. There’s a storyline involving one of the characters family going back to visit them and they think highly of him and what he’s done for himself and his life. But you know then you know how will he share about this partner that he has? You know if somebody’s figured out that he’s gay, how will he respond to that? I thought it was really neat because I’m somebody who often is thinking you perhaps overthinking how I might interact with somebody. Playing in my head what they might say and how I might respond. I think the author did a really good job of capturing that in a way that I’m not sure I’ve actually read in other novels. So that’s something I really liked.

J.P.: Did you ever find yourself using language either from the novel or the character said in your own life?

Paul: As I was preparing for this interview I was thinking I should go back and see if there were quotes that I liked. I don’t know if I have specific cases of that. I think for me, it’s more of the. high-level of thinking about how that character was having these internal conversations and thinking about these scenarios. I guess I think more about how the story impacted me overall than specific language.

J.P: Did you feel that you were connecting more to Paul: the character or to Tim or both?

Paul: I might need to remind myself which character was which! Relating more to Phillip. I don’t think it was necessarily written in first person. But I think he was more of the main character. It was maybe third person focusing on him. My answer is that I definitely focused on him. And he was the one who had the family and he was going back to this more rural town and so he was kind of the  person whose internal story I found that resonated with me because similarly, my parents live in suburbia. So I’m not really from a rural area but I can definitely relate to the living more in a city going and visiting family which is generally in a different environment and thinking about and preparing myself mentally for conversations that I either was expecting or was going to initiate myself or conversations that simply might happen just due to you never know who might be around and who might ask about your life.

J.P.: What were those early conversations like with your family?

Paul: That’s a good question. I definitely had some awkward conversations that I could characterize with kind of confusion. It’s been interesting because as I mature and as I learn more and get more comfortable with myself I realized that there’s definitely a big component of that. I was feeling that I kind of knew that this coming out Journey was deeply personal. And also has impacts to everybody that I care about and over time I realized that it’s the kind of thing that I wouldn’t change how a lot of things have gone for me. But I think something I’ve learned is that. I actually do often have the power to decide when and how to share those aspects of my life. Sometimes somebody finds out because they see a picture of you with somebody or you know you’re at a wedding and you haven’t talked to them about it. But you brought a date who happens to also be a guy. I think something I’ve learned is that some of the coming out conversations I had were fueled by strong, new emotions I was feeling. I definitely don’t regret it because it was very therapeutic to have an outlet for those conversations but I’ve definitely learned more and more as life has gone on that you don’t necessarily have to tell everybody right away! Even everybody in your family right? You could tell specific people that you identify as an ally.You could tell as I did, you can tell friends first because you can get their advice on how you might have other conversations.

J.P.: Oh no, totally People ask me when did you come out and I’m like, I’m still coming out. It never ends.  You’re constantly in a state of coming out. I can’t say, oh well April first!

Paul: For sure and it’s like it will surprise me when you have a conversation or you might be filling out a form for an organization and it’s like list, an emergency contact or list your spouse and obviously you don’t have to but it can be in a context that you never expected to come out to those people. Actually I had one related to Quatrefoil where I went to a brunch event and it’s so important to my life and I don’t live near where the event was. I was like well no, but I’m always in the area due to this group I volunteer with. They’re like well who do you volunteer with and it’s just like there’s no way for me to share this without you know you can sometimes kind of abridge the story and be like well I’ve volunteered with a small library. To tell this whole story, you got to give at least the name and then they say I’ve never heard of it and then you know as you tell them about it, it’s pretty clear that you’re coming out. Even if I’m not saying anything directly about my own identity.

J.P.: What was different? I know we’ve been talking about the fact that you had language but because you read the book all at once like binged it…

Paul: I’m somebody who tracks everything. I read at least starting seven or eight years ago I definitely don’t I mean I kind of summarize. I don’t put everything in there. But okay I do. I’m on my computer. It’s always open. Definitely a data person. Um, let’s see so all right.

J.P.: Do you have a spreadsheet of this? I love that.

Paul: You know, usually I would have some detail about when I finished it. Sometimes about when I started or if I read it while traveling because I want to say I read a good chunk of it while traveling and either on like a train or on a plane. You know where I was kind of forced to sit down for a long time so more binged. I definitely remember really wanting to finish it and it’s really good.

After the break, I’ll talk more with Paul about reading Quatrefoil, as well as his plan to read a book from every country in the world.

[music]

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J.P.: A big thank you to Archie, Bill, and Paul for being This Queer Book Saved My Life’s first Patreon supporters. Their sponsorship level directly supports transcription services that ensure the podcast is accessible to our deaf and hard of hearing audiences. Patreon supporters help keep us on the air and promote accessibility. Patreon supporters receive a variety of benefits from this podcast, including shout outs in our episodes, social media mentions, access to live-streaming events, virtual lunch with me, or even better, bring me to work day where I can do a talk and Q&A around queer diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can subscribe at patreon.com/thisqueerbook

[music]

When a book opens up a whole new world of queer language it can lead us to on a journey to read the world itself. Here’s more of my conversation with Paul.

J.P.: What was the experience when you finished it? What were you feeling?

Paul: I almost always feel a sense of pride and accomplishment finishing a book. I think it’s like a journey, especially if it’s a book that I was meaning to read or had any level of expectation or emotional significance. I finish it and it’s like I finish that book I can now tell people I read that book. I think that’s really important to me. That’s definitely something with Quatrefoil that I was very excited. I read this book. I read this book that was also almost seventy years old at the time I read it. I think about things like that. I read something that maybe people aren’t talking about these days but I read something that definitely a lot of people talked about the year it came out and the years following. I usually think about when I finish a book like wow who can I now tell this to? Who can I talk to about this book? I read it and I also think a lot about, okay, what else did this author write?  I’m going to have to read other things that he wrote.

J.P.: so what is next in life for Paul Kafer

Paul: Ah, what is next in life for Paul Kafer. I’ve got a couple trips planned.

J.P.: You travel a lot. You travel a lot.

Paul: I do enjoy traveling It’s definitely been changed with a pandemic but I will be visiting San Diego in a few weeks and really looking forward to Michigan in a few months for a good friend’s wedding nothing international set in stone Although we’re thinking about visiting either toronto or Vancouver pride so that’ll be cool to be our first international pride.

J.P.: Nice. Today What books are you into reading.

Paul: So today my reading is all over the place which I think it’s it’s kind of always been um, a big thing I’ve been doing is working to read a book from every country in the world. So that’s something that I’m perpetually working on.

J.P.: Wow. I Love, so how many countries so far have you read books from.

Paul: Let me give you the exact answer. So I only started keeping track starting a year or two ago I have read 53 countries and you know some duplicates I definitely I just read a book from Rwanda and realized I had already read 1 so.

J.P.: Is there a type of like, how do you pick the book from the country?

Paul: Yeah, so I learned about this idea of reading the world when I was in Tanzania and there was a friend from England who she had started on her journey and the rules she had were number 1 she won’t Google it at all. She has to hear a recommendation from somebody else and ideally they’re from that country and then her second one was that you know the best books are the kind of book that like everybody has to read in you know junior high or high school. So I’m not quite the same way. I’ve definitely googled and I’ve seen recommendations from you know people on Twitter people on Tiktok for me. It’s kind of more something that piques my interest and I really like reading graphic novels. So lately I’m often looking for graphic novels from other countries which of course that varies a lot because you know some countries. It’s enough to just have an english translated novel but it’s been a fun. It’s been fun trying to find things like that.

J.P.: Wow! What were you doing in Tanzania?

Paul: I was there for five months um I met two Tanzanian guys in grad school and you know one of whom came to the us like in January in Wisconsin winter. While I was getting my masters and so we bonded pretty quickly just because um, you know I was already kind of interested. We all had the same like thesis advisor who is ah an American and he would go for like roughly a month every summer and really just like sit with researchers and help them with statistics because it turns out people from all over the world tend to run away from math and programming. But I am somebody who loves those things so I went for kind of an extended time just to yeah help with statistical learning. And then also just be a resource for reviewing documents. So like technical english communication which you know as a a native speaker I was happy to help with yeah.

J.P.: What’s happening with the Library?

Paul: Yeah, a lot of good things happening with the library. Um, free membership as of last summer. Um, we did away with fines a couple years ago but I still feel like that’s a big deal just because I had never I always used to turn in books you know on time. And now I’m the opposite now I’m always you know past the renewal limit I’m you know, bringing things in that are late. They’re asking me about you know oh what about this one. But yeah things in the near future are more in-person events I am really looking forward to. I believe we’re calling it a semi-staged play reading in June which I think will be 1 of our first I think it’ll be kind of our first in-person event. You know we’ve had we’ve had like regular board game events but that’s a little bit different. That’s more like a club you know regular events are. You know draw kind of at the same crowd. Um, well not always, but but yeah, so we have the stage reading coming up and it’s 2 transmask guys who are at least touring the state if not wider the country and so they’re doing this reading of a play called jerker. Which looks really interesting. It came out in the 80 s and it’s you know right in the middle of the um aids epidemic and I think it’ll be really really good and it’s it’s a really interesting play I mean I’m going to read it soon just to prepare. Um, the play has like a really long title That’s you know more commonly known as just jerker but I guess you know based on the title. It’s a play that involves you know I think it’s 2 roles and it sounds like it’s telephone conversations some of which. Might be more risk a so I’m really excited I’m sure it’ll be really cool to see live and that’s in early june.

J.P.: And you’ll be at Twin Cities Pride?

Paul: Yeah, be in our community space and hopefully we can pack it I’m sure we can. Yes, we yes Yes, we love Twin cities pride. It’s always fun to have.

You know the big book sale that you know some people like you are targeting and then some people like stop dead on their tracks and like wait wait. First of all I can buy books at pride Second of all, there’re this many and so we we always love being there. It’s always a fun, always get a fun crowd of volunteers. We always. You know its it gives me a chill still to be able to like tell people about the library you know because we’re still despite you know a growing social media presence despite being being in the twin cities for 35 years we still sometimes feel like a hidden gem that people in the community. Don’t know about and I think. You know that could be a longer conversation I think there’s a lot of unsurprising fasts of that that you know people obviously come out in their own ways and to their own community and sometimes you know you might have a small close knit group or you might be very specific. You know you might be somebody who more goes to bars. And quatrefoil doesn’t necessarily have a presence at the bars by nature. We’re different than that you know you might be somebody who went to one of the colleges here and it seems like a lot of the colleges in the area have you know their own resource center and so that’s. Perfect, you know you you have what you need you don’t necessarily need to go and seek out what we are um, you know, especially because we’re all volunteer and so we’re not open during the weekdays you know we get good weekend crowds. But you know because we’re all volunteer. We’re also. You know we don’t we don’t have a full-time marketing person or you know we’re not, we’re not sending people to. We’re not necessarily sending people to events that other full-time nonprofit workers can go to so.

J.P.:

I remember the the first time my partners took me to twin cities pride and you know you were doing the big loop around loring park and they were like oh you’ll like this. It’s quattrafoil and I’m like okay and then we got there and I was like. I’m just gonna spend the rest of my time here like so now I save it like quatrafoils tent is always the last one I go to like I’m like I’m gonna build to like I don’t want to do it first and then everything’s gonna seem like blah afterwards. So the walk always ends at quattrafoil’s tent.

Paul: Ah, yes, love that. Yes. I I can relate I’m somebody who always likes the feel of you know those kinds of festivals and I don’t just mean prides but like any summer festival that has you know a plethora of pride excuse me a ton of like fried foods and you know. Sugary drinks and sugary snacks. But you know pride is not without faults. You know that there’s a lot of corporatization which isn’t what I’m there for and can be really tiring to you know, get you know yet another frisbee or pen or whatever from. Companies. So yeah, it’s nice to have like a range of things and and quatrefoil is always fun because we’re next to red door clinic which is another one that you can stop by and like you know, get to learn about sexual health and you can it can get tested for free and anonymously so I do like how you can find. Those um like those niches there. Not even niches. Those are those are important. Yeah, yeah, thank you.

J.P.: They are. They are well thank you for your time today!

Paul: Thank you!

J.P.: You can find out more about the upcoming events Quatrefoil is hosting, as volunteer and scholarship opportunities on their website q library.org. Also, if you’re looking for a type of book, send them a message and they will help out. I know this from personal experience.

My discussion with Paul reminded me of the novel One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva. It’s YA novel and for me it was the first time I read a positive queer relationship for a gay Armenian-American teenager. It’s a book that I wish I had had when I was a teenager. One I needed. But, to be honest, I’m not sure what my 15-year-old self would have done with One Man Guy. He was so wrapped up in his faith and his fear. I’m not sure if he would have relished it, or rejected it as fantasy. Something that would never, could never, happen in real life.

I have to admit for a very long time I’ve been very jealous of today’s teenagers. They get to have One Many Guy, and Heartstopper, and queer superhero teams like the Young Avengers and the Runaways. But, now I’m scared for them. They’re living through a time when they have queer visibility and representation in books, TV, and film. More so than any other teenagers in the history of the U.S. And it’s being taken away. They’re being erased. Queer books banned by their schools, because their parents are demanding it at school board meetings. Don’t say gay bills banning the words gay and queer from the classroom – even rainbow stickers are being ripped off the classroom walls. Their parents are banning trans and nonbinary kids from participating in sports.

Talking with Paul about Quatrefoil, we’re talking about a book that brought a positive queer relationship into a world that had all the bans in place. A world where books with two queer people kissing wouldn’t be published. Today, kids and teenagers are starting to live in that world again.     

It’s not enough to say that they have the internet and can find all the queer content they like on there. Or that it’s only some teenagers living in some states who are affected by this and they can just move to a better state when they’re 18 or get what they need when they go to college.

Our queer rallying cry in the 1980s was Silence Equals Death. Words equal life. We can’t have spaces systematically silenced. We have free speech too.

Thanks everyone for listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life! Our new episodes drop every Tuesday. For all the updates follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Transcripts of this episode are available on our website. Please don’t forget to support our sponsors Best Advantage Mortgage, Park Tavern, and Quatrefoil Library. And most importantly, keep writing, and keep reading!