Rita Mae Brown: A Rebel With Plenty Cause

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday April 23, 2009

Rita Mae Brown has never been one for playing by the rules, and this is perhaps her most endearing quality. The celebrated author and activist is a legend of the gay liberation movement, also playing an instrumental role within the feminist and anti-war movements and eventually jumpstarting the lesbian fiction genre with her razor-sharp writing ability.

As an activist, Brown co-founded a number of ground-breaking organizations including the Student Homophile League and the Furies Collective, also working with the National Organization for Women at one point, though she resigned from her position when the organization began distancing itself from lesbian groups. She was also present on the nights that forever changed the route of the LGBT rights - the riots at Stonewall.

Today, the 64-year-old Brown lives in Virginia and continues to write, most notably focusing on a mystery series "coauthored" with her cat Sneaky Pie. She also maintains an avid passion for wildlife, including horses and the American fox.

EDGE recently had the privilege to speak with Brown for an exclusive interview, leading up to her appearance Saturday at the Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theatre, sponsored by the Gerber/Hart Library, at 4 p.m.

EDGE: How is life? Tell me a bit about your current projects and explorations.

Rita Mae Brown: Life on the farm is lush, busy, beautiful. The dogwoods and redbuds are in bloom and as spring is high here at 800 feet, I can watch it crawl up the Blue Ridge Mountains. I face Humpback Mountain which, I think, is somewhere around 4000 ft. elevation. Spring is still a third of the way from the top where it is still winter with occasional dustings of snow.

Working on the next Sneaky Pie mystery. Project: overseeing my pastures, fixing fences, painting some, etc.

EDGE: Are you excited to be coming to Chicago? How long will you be in town for?

RMB: Chicago's resources and that incredible lake should excite anyone. If not, take their pulse. I like Midwesterners very much although someone from Kansas isn't like someone from Illinois. It's the same with the South. People assume we're the same but trust me, a Virginian can peg someone from Alabama in a heartbeat and vice versa. (Love those Alabama folks). What I like best about the Midwest is, for the most part, what you see is what you get.

I'll be in town for about a day and a half which does not count the airport where I, and a great part of the flying nation, languish. You know, it's just too damn big.

EDGE: Gay marriage has been on the tip of the tongues of many since its legalization in Iowa and Vermont in the past weeks. What are your thoughts on this?

RMB: When people are losing jobs by the hundreds of thousands and the unemployment statistics only count those on the payroll, so to speak, but do not count those whose benefits have run out, I deem it highly unwise to push the issue.

However, I do not see, if we actually believe the Constitution, how [marriage] can be denied. And I add, the only way I will tie the noose is around somebody's neck. I don't mate in captivity.

EDGE: So do you feel that marriage should not be the queer movement's highest priority now? What would you conversely like to see more activism around?

RMB: Political involvement needs to center on those issues that benefit all Americans. Identity politics have done as much harm as good, and I count myself responsible for some of this, but in 1964, there was no way to know what the unintended consequences could be.

In a way, identity politics foster political narcissism. However, when no one will fight for your issues, you have to do it and that leaves our political enemies and some political friends with their hands on the levers of power. You are still in your place, fighting for better treatment. We aren't challenging them in Iraq, Iran, Korea, Argentina. (Our entire policy toward Latin America is duplicitous and interesting and when have you read about that in the newspapers?) In short, we don't rock the political boat, we might rock the cultural boat but that's a long, long way from power.

An example, the Christian Right, who have clearly read a different Bible than I have, fought hard to make these issues hot-button issues. They matter a great deal to them but divurt us, or at least me, who knows better, from he central issues of power, resources and responsibility. They managed to get legislation passed and enjoyed success on certain issues. by turning to secular authority they have undermined canon authority. This will come back to haunt them. They've shot their own foot. I'm enjoying the one-legged dance.

EDGE: What do you think of the phrase "LGBT community"

RMB: It's complicated. For instance, I don't see transgendered people. I see people. If someone cares to tell me of their journey, I'll listen but I don't feel distant from them. We're all in the same boat no matter how we got there. Pick up an oar and row!

EDGE: What, do you feel, are the qualities of a good activist?

RMB: Compassion. Willingness to recognize your limitations. Putting your ego in the service of others instead of vice versa or maybe making your vice is her versa. Flexibility on everything but the Ten Commandments. Remember they aren't Ten Suggestions. Maybe I'm a rare bird, but I think good ethics are sexy. And the most important quality of all: a sense of humor. You're going to need it.

EDGE: How do you feel your writing has evolved since "Rubyfruit Jungle?"

RMB: I have no idea, I just do it. Given that I have Latin and Attic Greek under my belt I started a ways down the track from people who did not study the rockbed of our culture as well as half our language (Latin).

EDGE: What is the last good book that you read?

RMB: I read three or four at the same time. I'm finishing "Tesio: In His Own Words." As this is about one of the great Thoroughbred breeders of the 20th century, don't buy it. For me, it's mother's milk, literally. I still have my mother's breeding notes, some of the information being passed down from our family since before George Washington rode and hunted Blueskin, his gray.

I like Karin Slaughter and am sure many of you have read her, same with Laura Lippman and I will next get to "The Shakespeare Wars." Tomorrow is [Shakespeare's] birthday. It's almost a lascivious pleasure to read or attend a play, I don't understand people who don't like him. That's okay, they probably don't understand me.

Tickets to "An Afternoon With Rita Mae Brown: Making History Telling Her Story" cost $25 and are available online at www.gerberhart.org or by calling 773-381-8030.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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