A Deep 'Swish'
Gay author talks about the underpinnings of a stereotypical life
The Washington Blade, May 30, 2008 — If you've ever found enlightenment on the dance floor, at a Broadway musical or knitting in public, then Joel Derfner's new book, "Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever," just might be your manifesto.
In 2005, Derfner came out with the delightfully acerbic "Gay Haiku" ("The salmon's divine,/But I'm afraid we can't stay —/ I fucked our waiter" being one of many observations on gay adult life expressed through the Japanese poetic form), but this is his first foray into a longer work.
While "Swish" might sound like a playful romp through one queen's attempt to embody every stereotype possible — gay cheerleader, musical theater composer, whore of Babylon — beneath the showers of gay glitter lie the author's insightful discoveries about himself, suggesting that all experiences, when lived with authenticity, lead to a possibility for greater self-actualization.
"Those connections are there for everybody who does anything, and it's just a matter of whether somebody chooses to explore the connections," Derfner tells the Blade.
A searing self-analysis is one of the memoir's hallmarks. No experience remains unexamined, but that awareness comes at the price of not having some inner peace.
"It can be very difficult for me to just enjoy something," Derfner says, adding that he wishes sometimes his brain "would just shut the fuck up."
BENEATH THE BOOK'S wit — which is plentiful and often laugh-out-loud funny — are deep emotional struggles (one passage deftly takes the comic wind out of any blustery jokes about mental illness). Self-loathing — the bugaboo of many a gay man — takes on almost epic proportions in Derfner's life, leading the reader, at times, to wonder how he makes it through the day.
"I think that wounds don't completely heal, they can't completely heal, because if you expected to be completely whole and unscarred, then you would be a mess all the time."
Only in rare moments does the Derfner of "Swish" seem to find some sense of contentedness with where he is in life (surprisingly, one of these times is after he finishes a stint as a go-go dancer, an episode that seemingly allows him to extend a kind of compassionate magnanimity to others and by extension to himself). But on the heels of every even keel comes a fresh bout of anxiety about not achieving personal perfection.
"My therapist says, 'I don't understand why you need to be perfect.' It's not that I need to be perfect — it's just that I need to be better than everyone else," Derfner says. "Part of me believes that perfection is possible, and I think that's a very insidious, dangerous thing to believe . . . I'm waiting to stop believing in it."
Throughout the book, Derfner sees perfection in others (usually the younger, supposedly cuter and not necessarily more talented), but by writing the book, he says he was able to view various segments of his life in a broader context.
"A couple people have said, 'Oh, it's so amazing how much you reveal,' . . . it's not like I'm saying I killed babies, it's not like I'm saying I pushed old ladies into the path of oncoming traffic. The feelings I'm talking about are the feelings everybody has. . . . I don't have any friends who haven't felt deeply envious and deeply insecure. To me, it's a universalizing kind of thing."
— Greg Marzullo
The Maine Edge, May 27, 2008 — One man has chosen to document his personal attempts to achieve the top of the homosexual heap.
Joel Derfner's "Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever (Broadway Books; $23.95) began, according to the author, as an attempt to, well, become the gayest person ever. The stories he relates, while not necessarily earning the title he is striving for, nevertheless represent a first-rate attempt, not to mention a wonderfully poignant and funny cross-section of the gay experience in the 21st century.
The book is broken into sections titled "On . . ." followed by some gay endeavor or another. Some of the sections are almost sweet in the innocence of their subject matter; "On Knitting" immediately leaps to mind. Others, however, are more graphic. "On Casual Sex" in particular has the potential to be offensive, or at least off-putting, to an unsuspecting reader.
These treatises bounce back and forth from tender and touching to wildly funny, sometimes in the space of a paragraph, or even a single sentence.
In my opinion, two particular sections taken together serve to encapsulate both the author's personal experience and the vast social chasm inherent to homosexuality.
On the one hand, we have "On Camp Camp." Camp Camp is an adult sleep away camp in Maine with a GLBT-friendly theme. The cabins are all named after famous homosexuals, and Derfner spends his nights in "Barney Frank." The activities tend toward traditional summer camp fare; the author discovered the existence of the camp through a friend's proud display of stained glass she had made the previous summer. Despite his various social phobias, he manages to connect with his fellow campers and have a gay old time.
At the other end of the spectrum is "On Exodus." Exodus is also a retreat of sorts, only for "ex-gays." Essentially, it is an evangelical Christian support system for people who for whatever reason want to free themselves from their homosexual inclinations. Derfner's experience here leaps around from a desire to understand the mindset involved in leaving behind "the lifestyle," shame with regards to his deception of people that he generally found to be perfectly nice, and anger at the idea that sexuality is something that can be changed in such a fashion.
At its (very large) heart, "Swish" is the story of one manâ€™s life as illustrated by his experiences. We learn many valuable lessons about the trials and triumphs inherent to "the lifestyle."
The basic honesty displayed in these pages results in wild humor, tenderness, joy and sadness. Joel Derfner certainly acknowledges that his attempt to assume a seat at the top of Mount Homolympus fell a bit short, but his readers are the richer for it.
— Allen Adams
Bitch Magazine, winter 2008 — Short of medaling in ribbon gymnastics at the Gay Games or daisy-chaining with David Gest and Christian Siriano, Joel Derfner couldn't be any gayer if he tried. And he has. The man's been an aerobics instructor, a cheerleader, a go-go boy, and a musical theater composerr, as well as a lifelong knitter. If we're judging by how often the term "fierce" appears on the back cover of SWISH, Derfner's "quest to become the gayest person ever" has been a stunning success. Fortunately, the subtitle is merely a charming conceit. Derfner's real triumph is that instead of a glib tour through stereotypes, he's written an endearing memoir that chronicles the fleeting emotions of daily life—the insecurities, jealousies, insights, and petty triumphs--with acuity and self-deprecating humor. Just when the wry observations seem a touch too clever, he offers an insight so naked, so yearning, it's nearly impossible not to be won over. After teaching his first aerobics class at an assisted-living home for people with severe mental illness, for instance, Derfner writes: "It would be simple to say that, having thought of the mentally ill as a joke, I had been forced to confront our shared humanity. But that wasn't what was going on. . . . I had cracked jokes about my students-to-be, yes, but I had done so recognizing at the back of my mind that laughter is a powerful defense against the threat posed by the hideous deterioration of personhood." Sure, Derfner's bitchier-than-thou attitude is what makes SWISH fun, but with these and other reflections, it's his compassion that makes the book not just a humorous read but a thoughtful one. — Elina Shatkin
Booklist, May 1, 2008 — The subtitle says it all—almost. First, there's exclusion from summer-camp needlepoint class at age six—the impetus for Derfner's crusade. Then knitting, a pastime in which he got hooked on "deliciously soft blue-green alpaca"; casual sex while seeking for Mr. Right but happily, repeatedly settling for "Mr. Right Away"; cheerleading clinic: "Go, New York, let's go!"; go-go dancing, despite no go-go classes at the Learning Annex; and oh, yes, Derfner's a musical-theater composer. The ultimate swish-quest, indeed, though it makes for more than a delightfully breezy, campy read, for the humorous anecdotes morph into movingly evocative memoirs when, for instance, he recalls his liberal, civil-rights-activist parents' response to his teenage coming out: Not At All Good. His mother never accepted it, and he and she never achieved more than an uneasy détente. Thus this superficially facile book becomes more than the sum of its parts, as Derfner indicates when he observes, "Writing about my quest to become the gayest person ever led me to realize I was actually on a quest to become myself." — Whitney Scott
Instinct, May 2008 — These witty, fun and poignant essays knocked me on my ass more than once. I desperately want to hang out with him. — Sean McGrath and Jonathan Riggs
Insight Out Book Club, May 2008 — They don't get any gayer than Joel Derfner. (Trust us—we've looked!) Ever since that fateful day at summer camp where, as a six-year-old, he was told only girls could sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging, Derfner has dedicated his life to painting the town pink. He's become a musical theater composer, a go-go dancer, a step aerobics instructor, a knitter par excellence, a connosieur of casual sex and the poet behind the book Gay Haiku. And now, as the author of the fabulously fierce new memoir Swish, he's telling all about his lifelong quest to become the gayest person ever.
With complete candor and side-splitting wit, Derfner recounts his long hard road to gay godhood, from GLBT summer-camp trauma to more Internet-facilitated hook-ups than you can fit on a hundred-gig hard drive. But it's not all glitter, glamour and gorgeous men. Derfner also explores the question of identity, examines gay culture and explains how infiltrating a Christian Right conference for "curing" homosexuality gave him poignant new insights into gays and straights alike. And in the end, this hilarious, insightful book reveals how in setting out to be the Lord of the Gays, what Derfner really became was himself.
Gayest. Interview. Ever.
Joel Derfner's hilarious, poignant autobiography sheds light on his quest for identity
Metromix New York, May 11, 2008 — "Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever" is a very funny new memoir by Joel Derfner, who has done it all—being a go-go boy, a cheerleader and a knitter (hence the book title). But "Swish" is also Derfner's coming-of-age tale as a gay man. Writing with the nervous, breathless style of a David Sedaris, but with more self-empathy, Derfner, who teaches musical theater at NYU and leads aerobics classes for a living, includes on a chapter on going undercover at Exodus International, the organization that claims to cure homosexuality through Jesus Christ. We spoke with the author about all the highs and lows in his "Quest."
"On Knitting," "On Teaching Aerobics," "On Musical Theater"—are all great chapter titles. Are there chapters, though, that you didn't write? Twelve inches! Um, make it nine—I don't want to be unrealistic. What were you asking?
Chapter titles. Right! Well, the criteria for the book were it was either something I was doing or something I was interested in doing. I could do an exegesis of "Dynasty" and that would be a lot of fun, but it would be less interesting since I'm not a diehard "Dynasty" fan. I came up with seven or eight ideas, then I was stuck. I thought I could do a chapter about drag—I'd done drag a few times—but it's not a particular interest of mine. I did an afternoon class at Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls, a cross-dressing academy. They gave me a ballet class and I was in a tutu.
I'd have loved to have read about that. They had a Hasidic man come in once and they were like, he has a beard he can't shave off, what are we going to do? So they gave him a veil. I also thought about becoming a flight attendant, but [then] I'd have to deal with people's babies. I wasn't sure whether I could train, do it once and quit or not.
So you turned to being go-go boy. Was the experience validating? The end of the go-go chapter was about how, when you're naked on a bar, there's nothing to hide behind. It felt like there was no way I could protect myself from being approved of or not approved of. For once, I wasn't being manipulated by me.
You write that whenever you'd go to a gay bar, you'd be 'immobilized.' So how could you be a go-go boy? Oh, because people aren't actually interested in the go-go boy—they're interested in the idea of him. If you have a decent body, you become in people's eyes a completely different creature. They're interested in the fantasy they project. Walking into a bar and having to talk to people—that's terrifying. But as a go-go boy, ironically, your character isn't at stake. It's not you they're interacting with. You can be thinking about the Muppets or chocolate or whatever.
Do you have any regrets about going to Exodus International? The whole time I was there, I thought, I don't know if I should be doing this. There's a scene in the chapter when I burst into tears—that was basically how I spent my time there. For storytelling, that wouldn't make sense, but there was a lot of that. I didn't mean them ill. But still, I'd lied; I'd practiced a deception upon them.
Do you really think it's possible to be an ex-gay? I think sexuality is immutable—and I now do believe there can be bisexual men. I was reading about a study that talked about how psychological bisexuality is more common that physical bisexuality. Men can be bi and have their attraction to women come more from a psychological than a physical-pheromone place. I don't think it's common. And through genetic or molecular manipulation, they will probably be able to change it. But I don't think you can change it by force of will.
Heavy stuff for a funny gay writer. Pain and humor are two sides of the same coin, right? The world can be such an awful place, so either you laugh or you kill yourself—so why not laugh? There's something about the gay sensibility that lends itself to a particular humor. I think there's a template there. You walked down the hall in school and someone called you a name and you didn't really know how to understand or relate to it in an emotionally honest way. But eventually you can learn to, with lots and lots and lots of therapy. Humor's a defense mechanism and not always a bad one. We need to be funny.
— Leonard Jacobs
Swish and Swagger
an über-gay memoir finds mirth in life's little defeats
Out.com, May 15, 2008— If you ask author Joel Derfner why his spot-on accounts of modern gay life resonate with barflies and bookworms alike, he's ready with the simplest explanation: "It's because I'm so attractive."
Facetiousness aside, Derfner's omnivorous literary diet and his capacity for self-examination give his writing an incisive edge over run-of-the-mill blogger bitchfests. In his new memoir, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever, Derfner unpacks the tightly packed Prada bags of Manhattanite wit offered in his debut, Gay Haiku.
Whether recounting his stint at New York's cheerleading squad or the eye-opening week he spent undercover at a North Carolina "ex-gay" ministry, his inner terrain of hope and devastation is recognizable to anyone who has felt the scrutiny of peers. In one typically sidesplitting passage Derfner leads his step aerobics class, seemingly with unflappable confidence, while harboring private fantasies of boosting student morale with a tray of homemade brownies.
"I have these moments of insecurity quite often," Derfner admits. "If you can point to your flaws in a way that reveals them to be universal, then your flaws are not unattractive — just human." Whether he's the next Noël Coward or a male Bridget Jones, one thing is clear: Queer America needs Derfner. In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit.
— Jerome Murphy
San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2008 — Joel Derfner is not the gayest person ever.
He really, really tried. He knitted, taught step aerobics and composed musical theater, all in an effort to become the best gay man he could be.
But it wasn't that easy.
In his latest book, "Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever," Derfner, 35, writes: "I would start writing about some stereotypically gay pursuit in which I was involved and learn along the way that my interest in it came not just from my being gay but also from some deeper need it met."
So the author's "flamboyant adventure along the glitter-strewn road from fabulous to divine" isn't the fluffy, sparkly how-to guide that one might assume it is. It's more of a humorous, heartfelt memoir, with the author trying to figure out who he is and who he wants to be.
"I'm obviously not the gayest person ever, stereotypically," Derfner says via phone from his home in New York. "I don't have a Carmen Miranda hat. But I did write a show with somebody with a Carmen Miranda hat."
So the chapters about knitting, casual sex and his trip to Camp Camp—a weeklong summer camp in Maine for gays and lesbians—start prettily enough, but they evolve into stories about his mother, growing up, finding love and trying to overcome childhood trauma.
The switch in focus, Derfner says, started with his chapter about sex. He writes about how he turned to meeting guys online for casual sex after a breakup, hooking up (for better and worse) and eventually growing tired of the scene.
He was shooting for a David Sedaris-type story, not meaningless fluff, but something that would make people laugh.
That's where the trouble started. "I wrote the last three sentences (of the chapter) and started crying," Derfner says. "I had no idea that was there, what I think of as the depth."
And the swishy, stylish stories began to get more substantial. Derfner weighs in on ex-gays—people who "have joined with God in a struggle to purify themselves" of homosexuality—after attending an Exodus International convention. He addresses prejudice and the struggle to fit in amid stories about panty raids and go-go dancing.
So what does it mean to be "the gayest person ever"? Is it all about listening to the Weather Girls and dancing like the figures illustrated on "Swish's" book jacket? Not exactly.
"I thought of the title as not exactly a lie, but a hook to get people interested in reading it," Derfner says. "As I wrote, it became clearer and clearer to me that the way to become the gayest person ever was to become the most yourself person ever."