where the writers are
Swish by Joel Derfner
Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

Joel gives an overview of the book:

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-...
Read full overview »

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 man'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. The Maine Edge


I have never, to the best of my knowledge, dated Joel Derfner, but after reading "Swish," I could have sworn I had. And it was one of those pressure-free dates where I didn't have to worry about what I was wearing or remember to clip my nose hairs or figure out the check. I didn't even have to make conversation. Derfner handled everything, and the evening was over before I knew it.

The book's subtitle is "My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever," which makes the whole business sound far more systematic than it is. Derfner only takes up knitting because "my boyfriend just broke up with me and I need something to do with my hands other than Google him obsessively." He has sex with lots of guys because, well, sex is fun (except for group sex, which features too many elbows). And he attends a conference of ex-gays because he can't believe a group of human beings could be so dumb. Except that he is taken aback by the kindness he encounters there and, after a complicated dance of seduction and betrayal, ends up offering a silent prayer of his own for two conferees he has befriended. All of Derfner's well-crafted essays follow this same trajectory from flirtation to haunted engagement. Like most humorists, he trails a painful history -- a seriously ill mother, an absent father, blighted hopes of a singing career -- and he has come to the unsurprising conclusion that "everybody alive is a lost and disastrous mess."

Which may be true, but how many are so amusingly lost and disastrous? David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs are his obvious inspirations, but Derfner has his own way of braiding high and low. He can make antic hay with an ex-gay ministry musical that turns "They Call the Wind Maria" into "They Call My Sin Desire." But he can also toss off words like "chthonic" and "ouroboros" with aplomb (he is, as he will remind you more than once, Harvard summa cum laude). And he can begin a footnote in the following breezy fashion: "I recently started studying Middle Egyptian in earnest."

He is also extremely intelligent on the correct way to make a cocktail, which is "to fill the glass to overflowing with spirits and then wave the mixer somewhere vaguely near the rim." Derfner has a similar habit of capping off his spirited reportage by waving vague epiphanies at us: little bows of pathos that speak to the sentimental strain in gay bravado. If that's not your cup of tea, then tread with care. And if you think narcissism is what's wrong with the world today, then, for pity's sake, stay away. Derfner rarely leaves the shelter of his own cranium, but at least it's fairly roomy there. You might even want to put up your feet and stay a while. Salon.com

Advance Praise for Swish:

"Derfner writes what we all feel but aren't brave enough to say. Swish is the best book about gay sexuality I've ever read."

--Elton John


"Reading Swish is like having a marathon phone call with your gay best friend-assuming your friend is hilarious, brilliant, and completely honest. Which he probably isn't, so you should read this book."

-Marc Acito, author of Attack of the Theater People

Praise for Gay Haiku:



"Just the author's foreword in this little pink book is the funniest three pages I've read in ages."


"A world of hilarious juxtapositions, melancholy reflections, and stingingly smart observations."

-In Los Angeles

"Go out and buy five copies; it will never be returned if you lend it to friends."


Read an excerpt »


The two Englishmen were staring at the half-finished glove in my hands, aghast. "What is that?" the short one asked.

"I know it's a mess," I rushed to apologize. I was lying. It was not a mess; it was perfect. But I had just arrived from the airport and I didn't want to offend them, as they were my hosts while I was in town for a small theater's presentation of a show to which I had composed the score. The couple continued to stare in reproving silence at the work in my lap. "I've never done a glove before," I continued desperately, "and the fingers are trickier than I expected, and they-"

"No!" the tall one interrupted, his voice quick with dismay. "It's not that. It's that you're knitting. Men don't knit, young people don't knit. Knitting is . . . something your grandmother does!"

My mother's mother was a raging alcoholic who had been married seven or nine times (depending on whether you counted the annulment and the common-law bigamy), including once to a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee and once to a French royalist arms smuggler, so I felt I could safely assert that knitting was not a pastime she had ever enjoyed. "Besides," I said defensively, "knitting is very fashionable in New York these days."

"Well, this isn't New York," the short one retorted, but something in my face must have inspired pity.

"All right," said the tall one grudgingly. "Just as long as nobody sees you doing it in public."

But it was already too late, as the tube ride from the airport had been a long one. To mollify them, I put the knitting away, and then we had sex. It was more than satisfactory, as far as that sort of thing goes, but I still didn't trust them. What kind of people would disapprove of the manufacture of a pair of beautiful cable-stitch gloves, no matter by whose hand?

My friend Cynthia tried to teach me to knit in college. She was a good instructor, but no matter how relentlessly supportive she was I always ended up feeling as if Tomás de Torquemada had taken an especial interest in my hands. It became clear to me very soon that I would never create a garment. I was destined to buy my clothes forever from The Gap. In fact, I thought as I massaged my cramped, searing palms, I would never create anything; I would only be a squamous barnacle on the seedy consumerist underbelly of humanity, sucking up resources and contributing nothing but the occasional second-rate witticism.

But years later, after my boyfriend Tom broke up with me, I thought, Why not try again? In the last two years, twenty-nine weeks, and four days not that I was counting or anything, I had mastered utterly the legerdemain required for the illusion that I was in a healthy relationship. What difficulty could winding pieces of string around each other pose my nimble fingers now?

So I signed up for a course at a yarn store called Gotta Knit. There were six students in the class: five women between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five and me. On the first night the teacher, a young woman named Mindy, put six balls of acrylic yarn on the table and told each of us to pick one. Five of the balls were pink and one was purple; I wanted the purple ball of yarn more than I had ever wanted anything in my life, including the time I was at a charity auction and lost a bidding war for an autographed photo of Ralph Macchio and snuck in during dinner and stole it and left cash on the table to match the winning bid. But in Gotta Knit I held back out of politeness and somebody else swooped in and pounced on the purple ball, leaving me with one of the dumb pink ones just like everybody else. My immediate impulse was to push my rival out the window, but I did not want to go to prison-the uniform would almost certainly not be in my colors-so instead I seethed with rage and imagined clawing her eyes out or sending her anthrax in the mail.

Mindy explained the basics and before long we were all knitting miniature sweaters furiously. Or at least I was knitting furiously; I have no idea what emotional state suffused the others, but I wanted to win. I wanted to crush the yarn. I wanted to beat it into submission.

Soon enough, however, my hands began to feel that familiar, excruciating tightness and I knew I would be unable to continue if I didn't find a way to relieve it. When I asked Mindy for help, she bent over, performed a piece of prestidigitation I couldn't follow at all, and lo and behold! the yarn was wrapped around my fingers in a different direction.

"Your hands should stop hurting now," she said, "and your stitches will also be a lot looser." The agony spiking through my palms subsided almost right away, and the piece became much easier to work with, weaving effortlessly around itself.

Mindy asked us why we were taking the class. I opened my mouth to speak, but "My boyfriend just broke up with me and I need something to do with my hands other than Google him obsessively" seemed too revealing, so instead I muttered something about always having wanted to learn but never having had the opportunity.

"My mother taught me how, forty years ago, but I forgot," said one of the other class members.

"My mother wouldn't teach me," replied another. "She said there were more useful things for a girl to learn."

"Yours, too? Mine said she was going to teach me but she never got around to it."

"My mother didn't knit at all, and I was so jealous of Sally Pierce next door, because her mother taught her how. So I finally decided to do something about it."

We all turned to the last woman, the bitch who had stolen my purple yarn, to see what she would tell us about her mother. "My boyfriend just broke up with me," she said, "and I need something to do with my hands other than Google him obsessively." I dropped my next five stitches and it took Mindy twenty minutes to show me how to pick them up again.

My mother did not knit. She did not quilt, or crochet, or needlepoint; crafts of all kinds were anathema to her. I took a different attitude, at least in my formative years. At some point in my childhood I came home from school with a birthday present I'd made for her, a mobile from which I had hung stuffed misshapen felt hearts in every color of the rainbow. I would have stitched her a sampler that said YOUR SON WILL GROW UP TO KNOW ALL THE WORDS TO "IT'S RAINING MEN" but I had yet to discover disco, so the stuffed hearts were the best I could do. If she was unsettled by the gift she didn't show it; it dangled brightly in an upstairs window for months.

However, though she disdained handiwork, my mother was nevertheless a whiz, when circumstances required, with the more consistent sewing machine. At the age of eight I was cast as Helios, the sun, in my school's musical retelling of the myth of Persephone. I got home from practice one day to find my mother smoking, her brow wrinkled in concern as she read the sheet of paper upon which were written the school's costume instructions. She did not show me the instructions but they doubtless called for bedsheets and flip-flops. "I don't know exactly what they mean by this," she said, which meant "These people are morons and should be put down like dogs; I'd shoot them myself but I have more important things to do with my time." Then she threw the instructions away, went to her Singer, and actually made me a costume out of gold lamé.

It was in this costume, complete with laurels of gold tinsel-what was she thinking?-that I sang to Demeter, played by our music teacher, about her daughter's dark and chthonic fate. After the curtain call my mother hugged me and my little brother (who had played Hades' gardener) and told us how proud she was and took us out for ice cream. In between spoonfuls of Rocky Road I asked her the question that had stumped me at school during recess earlier in the day. "Would you rather," I said, "go blind or deaf?"

After a few moments' thought she said, "It would be really hard not to be able to see anything, but I'd rather go blind because if I went deaf I would never be able to hear my children's voices again."

Would that I had understood the gift I was being given.

At the end of the first class at Gotta Knit, we had all made good progress on our miniature sweaters. I went home and by the next afternoon I had finished all the pieces, including the front with the difficult low-cut neck. The following morning I waited outside the store until it opened and then I bought needles and yarn to knit my friend Rob a scarf in a reverse rib pattern with a deliciously soft blue-green alpaca.

The class lasted for another three weeks. There are essentially only two stitches in knitting, however-knit and purl, each of which is more or less the reverse of the other-and so the remaining class sessions were devoted to the myriad ways in which these two stitches can be manipulated. I learned increasing, decreasing, ribbing, and cabling. I also learned to say things like "a deliciously soft blue-green alpaca." I began to shop for yarn as if I were at a wine tasting. "This yarn has supercilious undertones, masked by a patina of enthusiasm," I would say to the woman behind the counter. "This yarn is $10.95 a ball," she would reply.

Rob's scarf reached its full six-foot length in a matter of days, and I was hooked. I started knitting everywhere. I knitted on the subway. I knitted at my job. I knitted during the sermon in church.

It is not, of course, Jewish custom to attend church, but I needed the money. In New York, as in many other large metropolitan areas, church choirs tend to be made up not of parishioners but of professional singers, irrespective of faith, so as to ensure the high quality of the sound. I've worked at a number of churches around New York; at the time I learned to knit I was singing at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, located in Times Square and known around town as Smoky Mary's because of all the incense. I was thrilled to get a job there, not just because Smoky Mary's has no acoustic peer in the Western Hemisphere, but also because the congregation has historically been composed almost exclusively of men who know the difference between beige and taupe. This was the church at which Tallulah Bankhead is reputed to have caught the attention of the thurifer as he walked down the aisle swinging the censer and said, "Darling, I love your dress, but your purse is on fire."

The most exciting thing about singing at St. Mary's, however, was that the choir sat above and behind the congregation, which meant that nobody could see us. And so, when we weren't singing, we were doing the crossword, flirting shamelessly with one another-at least the tenors and basses were-and, now, knitting. Whoever invented the phrase "preaching to the choir" clearly had no idea what goes on when the antiphon is over and the music folders come down. The choristers at Smoky Mary's were abetted in our delinquency by the sound system, which consisted essentially of tin cans connected by dental floss, so that we could never hear anything the priests down below were saying. It's certainly possible that the sermons preached at St. Mary's would have uplifted my spirit and saved my soul had I been able to hear them, but after five minutes of intense, strained focus at my first Sunday-morning service there, I decided that blissful ignorance was preferable to an inner ear injury, and (since I had not yet learned to knit) opened Mansfield Park.

The music was a different matter. The walls of Smoky Mary's are made of stone instead of concrete, so sound bounces off them and comes back twice as rich and clear-and then hits the opposite walls and reaches the congregation's ears quadruply refined. Singing in that room is as effortless as breathing; you open your mouth and your voice pours out like water from a jar. Even the worst music becomes beautiful in that space, and the best can fill you with the desire for what is known in Hebrew as tikkun olam, the healing of the world. "As truly as God is our Father," we sang one Sunday in a gorgeous setting of a text by a fourteenth-century mystic, "so just as truly is He our Mother. In our Father, God Almighty, we have our being; in our merciful Mother we are remade and restored. Our fragmented lives are knit together, and by giving and yielding ourselves, through grace, to the Holy Spirit, we are made whole." And then the echo died, and the priest started muttering "Umpho flumpish klizmar," and I picked up my size-eight needles.

In our merciful Mother we are remade and restored?
I thought as I went back to my first attempt at working in two colors. Our fragmented lives are knit together? Their god may be a lie, but if he's a cross-dresser with good hobbies he can't be all bad.

joel-derfner's picture

Note from the author coming soon...

About Joel

Joel is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After fleeing the south as soon as he possibly could, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be...

Read full bio »