Totempole by Sanford Friedman: An Unashamed Gay Story And Why It Is Still Relevant In Today's Straight World

"Totempole" is one of the few books that fall into the LGBT+ genre but doesn't fall into the usual tropes of: coming out, a hopeless love story, or the negative effects of being openly queer. Instead "Totempole" is an unashamed gay story that deals with coming of age in a heterosexual society. It all begins when Stephen is mere three years old and tells a corner stone moment of his development. The book progresses along those lines, offering an important moment at different stages in his life that effects Stephen until the present day.

Totempole by Sanford Friedman
I have to admit that when I started "Totempole" I was not quite sure what to expect. I had known that it was going to be a gay book since I had bought it in a LGBT+ bookstore but I hadn't touched it because I was a bit weary of a coming to age story. My biggest fear was that it would pick the negative spiral trope when you have to come to terms with your queerness: being kicked out by your parents, alcoholism, even drugs, AIDS and having to be saved by a pure supporter. Or that it might be overly political, similar to the movie Pride (2014) and thus not really enjoyable unless it's exactly what you want.

Those fears are unfounded. What "Totempole" does really well is that it has a descriptive style and the narrator does not add his political comments or views. Rarely Stephen is confronted with homophobia and all of those insistentes are limited to unimportant and stupid side-characters using "gay" or "f*ggot".

Personally, I felt that Stephen's story to learn to accept himself and his homosexuality was very, very relatable for my gay butt. Especially when you grew up in a more conservative community or didn't have any access to any information regarding LGBT+, you might see similar behaviour or lines of thought. Stephen realising that he's good and gay is not a big "AHA!" moment - or one that causes him to out-right panic. Instead, there are little steps and even relapses in old behaviour and beliefs.

Despite this "Totempole" has a satisfying happy ending which is not a cliché either. Instead Stephen leaves his lover and returns to the States but finally, after years, hes's truly comfortable with who he is.

Overall, "Totempole" is an unashamed homosexual book that tells the most realistic and down to Earth story of growing up being queer in a straight world that I had ever held in my hands. It deserves an extra amount of kudos because it had been published in 1965.

This raises the question if the coming of age story is still relevant more than 50 years later ...


One could argue that with today's open-minded and tolerant society and all those "Gutmenschen" that coming to the realization that you're gay should be an easy thing. Let me tell you, it is not. What makes Totempole still relevant in today's time is that it deals with the inner struggles of coming to terms with being different and society's expectations on you.

Despite all good deeds, you still get the feeling that you are expected to marry someone of the opposite sex, and have children - maybe just one, but two would be much nicer, right? It already starts with the idea that you have to fall in love in the first place. Weither this comes from seeing all your class-mates act so or watching one too many cheap soaps on television.

There are two points that I have come to notice almost every queer in modern society shares:

When you realise that maybe you too should act like most people - no matter if you truly feel it, and to prove to the others that you aren't too different. Since there is little to no exposure to LGBT+ in everyday life, you guess that's what you are meant to do as well - even if it doesn't feel quite right.

And a moment when you realise what had lead you to being discouraged from indulging in those "different" emotions. Maybe it was your mother who responded with a disgusted "ew, I wouldn't want to do that!" when you suggested an interest in your own gender or it was talked about in school in a negative way. Nobody in my school openly bullied someone who was gay - not that anyone was out - but the stupid book we had to read was "gay" and the idiot from the other class was "gay" too. Clearly making that gay is not what you should be.

Thus, it is almost always the little nagging things one deals with, often the voice in your head that had been put there.

This is exactly what Totempole deals with. It's not a brutal story but a slow coming to terms with yourself. Once Stephen is away from society's expectations, he has an easier way to deal and accept not only his body but also his sexuality - and all in soft and comforting "this is much better and makes more sense" moments.

Photo by Peter Hershey
It's a delightful story to read, no matter where you are in your personal "gay story". I also feel that "Totempole" could help Straight People to understand the more sneaky struggle of accepting yourself. At the same time I am not sure if they could relate because they are never going to have to face even a portion of it.

Totempole by Sanford Friedman
Published2014 by NYRB Classics (first published 1965)
Pages: 432
ISBN-13:9781590177617
Goodreads:Add to shelf
Buy on ... amazon.deamazon.com


21 comments :

  1. I have a friend who is in his 50's and is in a relationship with his partner for well over 35 years now. He is white and his hubby is black. They have dealt with some awful homophobic behaviour over the years (as well as racial slurs) so he kind of showed me how being with his true love has meant being verbally and physically attacked. I hate that he went through that but am pleased that he does not generally encounter such ignorance now. On the flip side o this I have family that are gay and bisexual and I am thankful to say that they have not encountered such hideous behaviour. I feel that for me, this highlights the changing attitudes. Still not enough progress, and still too much ignorance, but while I hate the treatment that my friend has endured over the years, I am relieved that my family have not dealt with such attacks. To highlight my thoughts, when my daughter very nervously asked to talk to me, she was shaking and nervous. (it was the first time that she had voiced being bisexual) I was nervous about what I was about to hear. She told me she was bisexual and my reaction was thank f**k, I thought you were pregnant. She cried and I told her that I didn't care whether her relationship was with a man or a woman. If they treated her well and made her happy then I was fine with that. I wish that for every person that wants to tell someone about their sexuality. My daughter is nervous to tell people but she does if someone comments on something using the word gay as a negative. It makes me sad that she is nervous to tell people but proud that she is strong enough to pull people up on their use of even unknowing homophobic slurs.

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    1. It's annoying that after so many years there is still a lot of ignorance and that they don't know how the influence LGBT+ people with it.

      I really liked reading your comment, it means a lot that you are so open to talk about this topic and I am very proud of your daughter, your friend and his partner ♥

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  2. Lovely review. I've never heard of the book before. You would of thought in 2019 that everyone could live as equals.

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    1. Thank you! I - more or less - stumbled over it but it's a pearl.

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  3. Fantastic post, really interesting. Sounds like a very important book.

    www.tbrandbeyond.com

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    1. Thank you! Totempole got a spot in my all time favourites now

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  4. wonderful review and this looks like such an intriguing read! One I definitely love to read in the future
    Melissa
    http://melissasfandomworld.com

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  5. This is a wonderful review. I had never heard of this book before but I will certainly be looking into it.

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  6. Superb reviewing, I've not heard of this book before but sounds like something I should have read.

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  7. Thanks for sharing this. I haven’t heard of it before and now it’s on my radar. I think I would truly enjoy this!

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    1. When you read it feel free to share your thoughts with me :)

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  8. This is a new one to me. Wonderful review!

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  9. Great review and post this book looks and sounds like an amazing and great book. I'm really glad you fully enjoyed reading this book. Thank you so much for sharing your awesome post.

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    1. Aww, thank you for the sweet comment. Totempole shot up to my best reads quite quickly

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