Arts

In Brief

‘Bullies: A Friendship,’ ‘Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation,’ ‘Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work’

BULLIES: A Friendship

By Alex Abramovich

Henry Holt, 224 pp., $26

In Alex Abramovich’s memory, Trevor Latham was “simply a bully,” the rough boy at their Long Island elementary school who picked on him, threatened him, beat him up. But when they meet again, decades later, Latham remembers things differently; he recalls two boys whose violence masked their sensitivity, friends who fought and got in trouble together. Whatever their roles in childhood, by the time Abramovich finds Latham, now the heavily tattooed president of a motorcycle club, their paths seem to have decisively diverged — until Abramovich moves to Oakland and embeds with Latham’s club, the East Bay Rats, immersing himself in the history of biker culture, watching fight nights and drunken brawls, and meditating on violence and love.

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It makes for a terrific book: fast and furious, if a little ugly at times (boxing matches pitting Jews against Gentiles, random acts of mayhem against seemingly indestructible crackheads). Abramovich listens to the Rats as they gossip and feud; as they get older, he notes when they marry, have kids, and drift away from the club. Oakland is both backdrop and character, a city whose booms and busts, racism and violence mirror anything the Rats could dream up. The book moves a bit more slowly toward the end, losing focus as the Occupy Movement takes over an Oakland park, but at his best Abramovich writes gorgeously of the “exhilarating, . . . idiotic” pull of the cycles and the men who ride them.

STAND BY ME: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation

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By Jim Downs

Basic, 272 pp., $27.99

After the political intensity of the 1969 Stonewall riots, gay life in the 1970s has largely been written off as an era represented by discos, bathhouses, and hedonism. Partly to account for the subsequent AIDS crisis, argues historian Jim Downs, too many “latched on to a narrative of the 1970s as a period of unfettered sex in order to rationalize the spread of an epidemic.” As a result, Downs writes, the extraordinary community building and cultural production that took place in gay America during the decade has been largely overlooked.

“Sex was only part of what mattered to gay men as they began to make gay liberation meaningful in their lives,” Downs writes. After 32 people died in a 1973 fire at a New Orleans gay bar, he notes, the mainstream press either ignored the tragedy or focused on snickering details and bigoted jokes; they missed the fact that the Up Stairs Lounge also hosted religious services — among the dead that night was a minister who had been leading the congregation in a song before the fire broke out. The Metropolitan Community Church (whose founder announced, “The Lord is my Shepherd and he knows that I’m gay”), the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, and the network of gay newspapers attest to a gay culture grounded in spirit and words, not merely bodies and sex. Downs, a professor at Connecticut College, capably blends authority and warmth in this thoughtful reexamination of an era.

BECAUSE OF SEX: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work

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By Gillian Thomas

St. Martins, 304 pp., $26.99

As Congress debated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, an elderly representative from Virginia made a small, last-minute revision to its section on employment — adding the word “sex” to the list of characteristics (race, color, religion, and national origin were already there) employers would soon be prohibited from using in job discrimination. In her elegantly written outline of the law’s subsequent history, author Gillian Thomas points out that working women today “would probably be surprised to know that they have an unrepentantly racist, male octogenarian to thank for outlawing sex bias on the job.” Whatever the source, that little change had enormous consequences.

A lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, Thomas writes with precision and grace (and a lovely lack of jargon) about 10 cases that established the full reach and scope of Title VII. The plaintiffs and attorneys she profiles here — some of whose courage and determination render them truly heroic — helped build the precedents that enable women to seek formerly male-only jobs, to work through marriage and parenthood, to be free from sexual harassment. More work remains, the author points out, especially in protecting women of color, LGBT individuals, and aging female workers; still, she writes, “there is some benefit to being reminded that it used to be so much worse.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.