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Strange Fruit: Garth Greenwell Finds Dignity in 'Despised' Queer Spaces

Garth Greenwell
Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell got out of Louisville as soon as he could, at age 16. "I really felt like this place was killing me," he says.

His family didn't accept his gay identity, and few other adults took took any interest in supporting him — with the life-changing exception of his high school choir teacher, who he credits with saving his life.

"David Brown at the Youth Performing Arts School was the first adult in my life to suggest my life had value," he says.

Greenwell's path took him from performing arts to poetry, and now to prose. His first novel, "What Belongs to You," was published last month, and has been met with almost universal praise from critics, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and Publishers Weekly.

"What Belongs to You," which Greenwell says is largely autobiographical, is about the relationship between an American teacher in Bulgaria, and a hustler he meets in a public men's room. It's a scenario not unfamiliar to many gay men, but one that no one seems to want to talk about: anonymous sex in semi-public places.

Greenwell says it was important to him to imbue dignity into a setting that often gets sanitized when LGBT stories are told.

"Those places which have been so despised by both straight and queer authorities are places of extraordinary human richness," he says.

"I don't want to romanticize these places, but they are places where I've experienced intimacy as great as any intimacy I've known in my life. I think they deserve that value and that dignity that art bestows."

We loved our conversation with Garth and the way his novel finds the beauty in authentic gay narratives that haven't been toned down for a mainstream straight audience (unlike many queer couples on TV, for example, who seem stripped of all sexuality to make them more palatable in prime time).

Greenwell recently came back to his hometown to read from the book. While he was here, he stopped by to talk with us about his work, his life, and what it was like to come home. "I expected the bad feelings, the hard feelings," he said. "But I didn't expect all the wonderful feelings."

In our Juicy Fruit segment this week, we meet Molly Shah, the reproductive rights activist behind the hashtag #AskBevinAboutMyVag. Shah gives us the rundown of how she believes Gov. Matt Bevin's proposed abortion restrictions seem more interested in controlling women's bodies than meeting their medical needs.

Shah says the measures — like requiring women to consult with a doctor 24 hours in advance of an abortion, and a proposal to require women to have a transvaginal ultrasound even if it's not medically necessary — are counterproductive. "If you don't respect women and their healthcare, then they make poor healthcare decisions in the future, which leads to the need for more abortions," she says.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.