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Mississippi: A March Resurrects a Movement

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Overcoming disunity, out-of-fashionableness, poverty, and aching feet, the civil rights movement was reborn Sunday on the grounds of the Mississippi state capitol, before the executioners’ eyes of 700 Mississippi troopers and police, armed with M-1s, live ammunition, and tear gas.

The ragged band that had begun as one mystical prophet in Memphis, that became 100 in Hernando, that became 1000 after the baptism of spit in Philadelphia and tear gas in Canton, had become 15,000 Sunday afternoon. And they were 15,000 Mississippi Negroes, their biographies etched in their bent spines and gnarled hands. There were a few clergymen, 100 New Left types, a small group of 1930s liberals like Paul O’Dwyer, and a handful of dreamy Dylanesque kids, but mostly they were the porters, maids, and high school students of Jackson, giving a great movement the rare gift of a second chance to redeem its country’s greatest sinner.

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The anemia of the civil rights movement, inflicted by ghetto riots, integration next door, and the rhetoric of LeRoi Jones, has been cured — at least for a moment — by a cathartic wave of blackness and bitterness. One senses that the obscenely banal comments of the President and the Attorney General after the tear-gassing in Canton were too much for even the generous, ecumenical soul of Martin King. They helped the paralyzed move­ment turn a difficult corner; ex­cept for the student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, this is still a reformist rather than revolutionary movement, but its opposition is now total and its energy renewed. Next week the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will have 35 organizers in the 15 rural counties the march passed through, and SNCC will have a dozen. Mississippi II is about to begin.

The mood of the march redirected the too many dreams deferred since the hike from Selma 14 months ago. The unseating of Julian Bond, the failure of the war on poverty, the triumph in Alabama of Mrs. Wallace, the gerrymandering of the Mississippi congressional districts, and the tear-gassing in Canton, they have all driven the ambrosia of liber­als — love — out of the Movement. The spirit of Gandhian agape that hung like a halo over Selma, with its nuns and angelic-faced students, was gone, replaced by a clenched militancy fueled by a despair expressed by Martin King’s admission that his dream of Washington 1963 has turned into a “nightmare.”

The march created its share ot small, memorable moments. Singing, Sunday-dressed kids on unpainted porches waving Amer­ican flags. Marlon Brando limp­ing along anonymously between a 66-year-old cotton picker and a 16-year-old student from a segregated Jackson high school. The shame in the eyes of the old Negroes when they turned away from pleas that they join the pilgrimage. Bob Parris, who started this particular arc of his­tory in 1961, hovering unnoticed and sad on the edges of the crowd. (He is now quietly organizing in Bolivar County.)

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But more enduring than such vignettes is the hard political significance of the 21-day journey down sunbaked U.S. 51. The confirmation of Martin King as the soul and pivot of this movement; now even the kamikazes of SNCC admit “King’s got balls,” after the trials of Philadephia and Canton. The barring of the NAACP from the climactic rally program at the capitol because “they are part of the Administration, not the Movement,” as a militant minister put it. The new path SNCC has charted for itself, as it begins to march to the sound of a different drummer. Every SNCC worker explains the slogan Black Power differently, and so does every journalist. (In Canton, when Stokely Carmich­ael screamed, “This will separate the men from the mice,” the AP wire quoted him as saying, “This will separate the men from the whites.”)

Cleansed of its tumescence of hate, Black Power is an obviously effective strategy for about 40 rural counties in the Black Belt. Explained intelligently, it is perfect psychotherapy for Negroes ashamed of their blackness. As a stance, it is certain to capture the loyalty of many young ghetto Negroes who have felt themselves orphans since the assassination of Malcolm X. But as a program for a movement, it is the fantasy of victims.

Saturday night, about 2000 marchers, plus about another 9000 Jackson teenagers, filled the grassy athletic field of all-Negro Tougaloo College for what Car­michael called “a party.” Sammy Davis sang show tunes and then flew out on a private jet to Las Vegas after march leaders tried to shame him into staying for the procession to the capitol the next day James Brown, who makes Elvis Presley look like a paraplegic, re-created the am­bience of the Apollo with his blues. Marlon Brando told them, “You are the heroes of America … I should be out there and you should be up here.” Carmi­chael, addressing their buried pride, said, “I know you’re out there. Smile so I can see you.” Dick Gregory said he “wished LBJ was the Pope, so that way folks would only have to kiss his ring.” Then the rally ended about 10 p.m., and the leaders retired to continue their public debate that has gone on since Memphis, when Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young went home, and Bayard Rustin rejected  King’s plea that he come to Mississippi to handle the logistics of the 220-mile procession. To the fury of much of the Movement, Rustin claimed he had to finish an ar­ticle for Commentary. SNCC was dissuaded from the civil disobedience, the NAACP barred from the platform because of Wilkins’ antagonistic remarks, King’s most gifted aide, Andrew Young, chosen to emcee the capitol rally, and the divinely inspired Meredith granted the longest speaking time along with King.

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Toward Capitol

At 11.30 Sunday, the procession, 3000 strong, began to file out of Tougaloo toward the capitol, nine miles away. An FBI agent rode in the first car and an integrated SNCC couple in the second, a Black Panther bumper sticker was flapping on the rear. They were singing, “We’ve got the light of freedom …”

The conflict between SCLC and SNCC was played out all along the march. When SCLC arganizers distributed American flags, SNCC’s Willie Ricks took them away, and the Reverend John Morris gave them out again. The SNCC kids chanted “Black Power” and the SCLC staffers chanted, “Freedom,” and usually carried the marchers with them.

What two weeks ago had seemed a meaningless contrivance for the media was slowly transformed into a moving spectacle as the column inched through the unpaved Negro slums of Jackson. Wave after after of Jackson Negroes poured into the column, dressed for Sunday church, badly concealing their pride, and many clutching American flags, that were waved like magic wands every time whites on the sidelines showed their Confederate flags.

It was hot, about 95 degrees, and on almost every block a Negro family was waiting to offer ice water to the marchers. They threw kisses, smiled, prayed, and many joined the swelling, uneven line.

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At a shopping center there was the surrealistic scene of 30 whites, their faces looking like they were recruited from central casting, shouting epithets and taking pic­tures of the marchers. They were guarded by a cluster of 10 Negro highway patrolmen. A little kid with the words “Give me free­dom or give me death” crudely painted on his CORE tee shirt tried to give one of the whites a Black Panther bumper sticker and a Negro patrolman pushed him back into the march.

When the column passed the next large clump of whites, the pilgrims broke into a rendition of “Dixie” and the whites looked like they were watching Robert E. Lee’s tomb being vandalized.

By the time the exhausted, sweat-drenched marcher’s reached the capitol it was almost 4 p.m. Sullen whites, about 1500, ringed the appointed rally area. Shoulder to shoulder, encircling  the stained-glass capitol, stood 700 state troopers, city police, and guardsmen, defending the government of Mississippi from its own unarmed citizens. On the platform sat the unique leadership of the Freedom Movement, and one could not help but measure men like Martin King, Reverend Ed King and Larry Guyot of the MFDP, CORE’s Floyd McKissick, and even emotional, visionary Carmichael, against the leadership of white America. Martin King or LBJ, Reverend Andy Young or Cardinal Spellman, Guyot or Ronald Reagan: who are better qualified to lead this nation?

Inscrutable James Meredith spoke first and was honored by a standing ovation from the platform as well as the multitude.

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They Larry Guyot, the panda-like chairman of the MFDP, rose to talk, unspeakable memories of white violence charging his voice and sending tremors through his body. He said, “Black people must learn three phrases starting at birth: white supremacy, neo-colonialism, and black power.” With that, Carmichael, perched on the edge of the platform, leaped up screaming like a teeny bopper at a Rolling Stones concert. Guyot closed with the prophetic words: “This is not the end; this is the beginning.”

Then is was Carmichael’s turn in the subtle contest for the heart of the resurrected Mississippi Movement. Lean, lithe, with bulging eyes like James Baldwin, he took off his shades as he began his talk with the words, “I want to talk to black people across the this country …”

In private, Carmichael’s description of the ideas behind his slogan of black power is persuasive. But excited by 15,000 black faces, network cameras, and a five-minute deadline, the 25-year-old leader of SNCC was reduced to slogans to explain a slogan. He transposed his words, spoke in a false Southern accent, and at the end the rehearsed chant of black power organized by the SNCC staff failed to engulf the rally.

Then it was time for King, the 37-year-old preacher who holds the unity of this amoeba-like movement in his healing hands. The speech he offered was merely a variation of his inspirational sermon delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument in 1963. He told of his growing nightmares and his enduring dreams in the rolling, hypnotic cadences of the rural preacher. But it was the humane, incorruptible mystique of the man that won the crowd, his crescendo phrases winning affirmations of “amen” and “Say it, brother” again and again.

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Then it was 6 p.m. and it was ending. Meredith still had the shotgun pellets lodged in his body, a beaten marcher was still in a Canton hospital with a collapsed lung, 5000 newly registered voters were in the rolls in 15 counties. The crowd reached out to grab strong but unfamiliar black hands and sing the holy song of the movement:

“God is on our side. We are not afraid …”

SNCC’s Willie Ricks, who has the look of a Times Square evangelist, began to scream, “Black power, black power, black power …”

But he was drowned out by the rising voices of 15,000 Negroes singing, “We shall brothers be — black and white together — we shall overcome — someday.” ❖

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

In Praise of Pulps

Bannon’s Lusty Lesbian’s

“Ann Bannon” — a pseudonym — now teaches college English somewhere in Cali­fornia, but from 1957 to 1962 she wrote and published six interconnecting potboiler nov­els about contemporary capital-L Lesbian life. These pulp stories are simply amazing reads — engaging, sexy, and unexpectedly il­luminating. It is almost impossible to believe they were written when they were because there was — and is — so little like them. Ban­non took the soft-porn/illicit-love genre and, without denying the reader’s expectation of simplistic, unlikely plot and routinely pas­sionate characters, opened up the form to allow a serious study of three women corning to grips with their attraction to women.

Why did Bannon write potboilers and not “serious” novels? Her pulps were read, passed around, but no library carried them, and they dropped out of sight. (A few years ago, the Arno Press “Homosexuality” series, edited by Jonathan Katz, reissued four; now Tallahassee’s Naiad Press has reprinted five, leaving out the one called Marriage.) A couple of books from the same period used similar “coming out” lesbian themes — The Price of Salt by “Claire Morgan” (Patricia Highsmith) and the moving Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule — but these are straight­forward novels, somewhat quiet in tone if you ignore the shock of their woman-loving protagonists. Although Highsmith and Rule were brave, Ann Bannon “got away” with much more rafter-shaking woman-chasing because potboilers aren’t subject to system­atic cultural censorship. Highsmith’s and Rule’s novels lack the protective subterfuge of genre conventions. The potboiler ploy was Bannon’s strategy. Her problem was to sneak guilt-free prolesbian values past the genre’s sniggering or unsuspecting reader: to find her audience within an audience, or to create it.

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Cultural values are found under any rock the culture has produced. Gemstone or flagstone, the various culture-worms are un­derneath. This is not to say that each rock covers the same ground. In the late 1950s, in these United States, the values most often affirmed in novels, TV shows, advertising, you name it, were the goodness of America, the benefits of progress, and the inalienable right to a home, car, and wife. Of course, these assumptions as well as others — like the status quo of blacks — were openly and covertly challenged, for that’s the way values are defined.

Yet in the late ’50s, some worms still dared not speak their name. Both “high” and popular culture evaluated homosex­uality by denying it. A few exceptions were allowed: complete repression (to invoke the psychoanalytic trope) gives the repressed thing totemic power, and we certainly don’t want that. High culture managed this dif­ficulty through a medical paradigm, defining same-sex inclination as deformity, neurosis, illness, or whatever the culture needed to contain the worm and consolidate control over it. When high culture broached the topic outside the hospital, it did so at its own peril. The spate of novels and stories about male-male love that appeared, logically, just after World War II (Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, John Horne Burns’s The Gallery, Ward Thomas’s Stranger in the Land) were pulled off the market, to live on only as dog-eared documents of a sub­cultural underground — at least until they could be revived in more temperate com­mercial times. In the ’50s, if a novel was “gay,” it was not really a Novel. In this way the forbidden subject of homosex was forced to cancel out the high-cultural ambitions of its vehicle.

Popular and ethnic culture, on the other hand, gave homosexuality some living room in jokes, jazz songs, vaudeville, drag shows, pornography, and pulp lit. Homosex was allowed here, but acknowledgment is not the same as acceptance or, heaven forbid, celebration. Although it must have been pleas­antly surprising to hear any mention of the guy with the pink necktie or the horsey butch with the close-cropped hair at a time when isolation and invisibility were major methods of containment, such pigeonholing was not always accurate. More important, it was rarely humane. And culture is never passive; when provided with only these exag­gerated and derided models, the unformed male-loving male or woman-loving woman may feel obliged to conform to them. It’s true that once a woman-loving woman sees the butch-femme possibilities she can get away with, she will take the roles into her own hands: outsiders make tools of their chains. But lesbian inventiveness, lesbian reality, never floated to the surface. Popular culture admitted a tiny “gay culture,” but one over which those we now call lesbians and gay men had little control.

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Control over culture. Attempting to con­trol one’s culture is not as foolhardy as it sounds; culture is neither “natural” nor nec­essarily handed down by one’s betters. Indi­viduals and groups can be destroyed by cer­tain cultural values, just as we can be in vigorated and empowered by others. How does anyone gain entrance into culture? Storming Random House (why bother?) or zapping The Village Voice (as in the ’70s) may simply allow the cunningly compliant target more accurate knowledge of you. On­going pressure — cultural, electoral, eco­nomic, in the streets — is needed. But during the ’50s, when little or nothing honest about gay male and lesbian lives was available culturally, how could a truth teller grab a niche? Others had learned the lesson: not through high culture. So Bannon stormed the low.

College freshman Laura Landon meets junior Beth Cullison in Odd Girl Out, and after reticent testing of emotional waters, Laura falls in love and makes love with the dominant, flirtatious, but possibly nongay Beth. The risks are made clear not only through the lovers’ sensible caution, but through a subplot in which roommate Emmy is thrown out of sorority and school because she is caught making love — with a man. Bannon’s obvious lesson is that women, one way or another, have little power over their loves and lives unless they somehow take control of them. But this is a trash novel! Laura loses Beth to Charlie, though she has loved and been loved by a woman.

In I Am a Woman, the same Laura Landon leaves her cold, violent father — he never forgave her for dropping out of college so suddenly — and travels to New York, where she gets a job and falls passionately in love with Marcie, who flirts, cries, and ma­nipulates but is just not “that way.” Laura also meets Jack Mann, the gay male deus ex machina of the series. He’s sympathetic and intelligent, yet because he falls in love with young, handsome men who don’t always fall in love back, he has a few troubles of his own. Laura matches up with the colorful, free­-drinking Beebo — don’t ask — Brinker, five-­ten in sneakers and pants. In the throes of passion she refers to Beebo as “Beth.” Laura finally faces her cruel father, tells him her secret, and discovers his. She knocks him out with an ashtray.

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In Women in the Shadows, Laura­ — who’s been with Beebo for two years — can’t stand her anymore. She falls for the first woman who crosses her path. After great difficulty and indecision, she agrees to marry Jack Mann and have his baby by artificial insemination. But she is still not happy. Journey to a Woman reintroduces Beth, who married Charlie and had two kids. Beth hates her life. She has an affair with a neurotic alcoholic model named Vega, then leaves for New York to find … Laura, whom she hasn’t seen since college. She tracks down her spurned love, but after a sexual interlude and much interesting dialogue, Beth and Laura understand that they can’t go home again. Beebo, who hated Beth even before she met her, now makes a play for her. Beth, by the way, is introduced to the New York lesbian scene by Nina, a worldly writer of lesbian novels, which Beth read hungrily while trapped in her suburban home.

The final book, Beebo Brinker, is a ram­bunctious prequel that charts the moves of the 17-year-old Wisconsin farm girl after she was virtually kicked out of town for wearing drag at the State Fair. Beebo Brinker is the most ridiculously plotted of the five. It in­cludes a vengeful Beat-looking lesbian named (you guessed it) Mona, a straight but lesbian-attracted overgrown hood named Pete Pasquini who, with his French wife Marie, runs an Italian takeout restaurant on Carmine Street, through which their deliv­ery “boy” Beebo meets (and falls for) post-­Monroe movie queen Venus Bogardus, who falls for her. Toss in a Beverly Hills mansion, the star’s unhappy teenaged son, a well­-timed epileptic fit, and you’ve got the most unlikely vehicle for straight-faced lesbian commentary imaginable.

Yet all these books, however silly they sound, grab you and don’t let go. Imagine them as maps, with all the plot-quirks and dialogue as cities. As you read, the maps seem directionless, but pull up to an over­view and some of the city-dots — forceful conversations, arguments, emotions — just glow by themselves, ready to be connected. Which scenes stand out? Those that reso­nate with shared gay experience: Laura’s slow and steely resistance to Beth’s unknow­ingly sadistic flirting; Jack’s ambivalence about working as a closeted draughtsman in an office of “virile engineers”; and most touching, young Beebo, uncomfortable in a skirt, wandering the streets of downtown Manhattan with only a yellow “Guide to Greenwich Village” to help her.

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I’m not sure Laura, Jack, or Beebo are there to “like.” Laura’s too hot-cold, Jack’s too selfish, and Beebo’s too … well, too stubborn to be easily sympathetic. Yet the emotion a reader can feel for them is strong, and it results from possible identification with their lot. This identification isn’t lim­ited to gay readers — a measure of Bannon’s skill. “Identify” is an unpopular literary verb, but in this case the “I’ve been there” response overwhelms more sensible distanc­ing. These characters are historical victims in the process of becoming fighters.

Bannon’s pulp world for homosexuals is not an easy one. Everyone drinks too much — alcohol is a common medicine to treat unhappiness. These lesbians, gay men, and nongay characters also drink to keep alive dying passions, drink to keep up with a lover on the gay-bar prowl, or drink to lose their dead-end childhood and become mem­bers of the adult, urban world: for coming out is, in Bannon’s terms, growing up. Her characters fly from family tradition but fear its loss as well. This ambivalence shows itself in odd ways. While family people, real peo­ple, have dinner, Bannon’s lesbians eat sandwiches, which can be ordered from around the corner. The books are full of sandwiches. Jack and Laura get married to insulate themselves from the evanescent gay world of the martini and the sandwich. You can almost hear, in Jack’s nightmare, Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away.”

Bannon’s permanent home for lesbian impermanence is Greenwich Village. Most pre-Stonewall lesbians and gay men will know what I mean when I say that the Village is really Bannon’s main character. In the Village the fringe is central, even though Jack Mann, the Village Virgil, notes in pass­ing that the neighborhood is “filled, too, with ambitious businessmen with wives and families, who play hob with the local bohemia. A rash of raids is in progress on the homosexual bar hangouts at the moment, with cops rousting respectable beard-and-­sandals off their favorite park benches; hustling old dykes who were Village fixtures for eons, off the streets so they wouldn’t offend the deodorized young middle-class wives.”

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What’s new and heartening about Ban­non’s sometimes self-pitying Village is that the fear of impermanence, fear of an anchor-­less life that haunts her more cynical charac­ters, is assumed not to be their fault. Rather, it’s the product partly of an ignorant, puritanical, sometimes bigoted world. Ban­non has few scenes of confrontation between lesbian-hater and lesbian because she is more interested in solutions to self-hatred and in the interaction of lesbian characters themselves. But the outside (non-Village) world’s disgust is the foundation on which these lesbians must build their loves. An ­argument between Laura and Milo, a nongay black man married to a black lesbian trying to pass as Indian, is remarkable for its just-short-of-liberation militance and political connection between sexual and racial oppression:

“What makes you queer, Laura? You tell me.”

“What makes you normal, Milo?”

“I was born that way. Don’t tell me you were born queer! Ha!” And he was sarcastic now. 

“I was made that way,” she said calmly.

“By who?” he asked skeptically.

“A lot of people. My father. A girl named Beth. Myself. Fate.”

He snorted. “Why don’t you give up women?”  

“Why don’t you?” she flashed. 

He blinked at her, beginning to feel her stormy intensity. “Is it that bad?” he asked.

“Sure, it’s that bad! Do you think I live this way because I like it? Would you live like you do if you could live like a white man?”

After a moment he shook his head, look­ing curiously at her.

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Fear of impermanent relationships also arises from another given in Bannon’s les­bian world: passion. Physical attraction and love may merge, but lust can happily flower without — and in spite of — love. Passion is part and parcel of the potboiler, to be sure, but where before had anyone seen such firm, promiscuous, demanding, heartfelt lust orig­inating from women, lesbian or not? In the past, sexually active lesbians were in­troduced to the culture as vampires, sucking the life from innocent girls. Bannon sex­ualizes but defangs her lesbian characters, and by doing so helps to create a new lesbian public image: lustful as well as loving. To manage such multidirected passion requires arcane logistics, and much of the trouble Bannon’s heroines face results from their sleeping with one woman while being in love with another: surely a difficulty not un­known in heterosexual climes. The unhappi­ness — and happiness — that results is the human lot, not the lesbian one. Nowhere does Bannon put an old pulp convention, constant sex, to more liberating use.

Her writing style does the job and no more. Sex scenes manage to be erotic, in the tradition of pre-’60s potboilers, without be­ing organ-specific or obscene. Most of the books’ language is the language of melodrama — love, love, love, hate, hate, hate — but once in a while the result is ab­surd and almost poetic: “In the pale radi­ance of the dashboard they gazed at each other.” Typically, after a character’s ex­clamation of why she did this or that, Ban­non the narrator repeats the same informa­tion: Laura did it because of her father, etc. This framing is wooden, of course, but an odd protective tone hangs on, as if the au­thor is afraid to exhibit her people without herself as buffer. Bannon employs little irony — irony could destroy a potboiler, rais­ing it to camp — and except in Beebo Brinker, she uses few exact historical details. The lesbian-bar jukebox plays, but what song? The lovers shop for a dress, but what style? There may be a reason for this. When Los Angeles movie-star details are dragged out for Beebo Brinker, they detract from the impetus of the book: which is to define the nature of love, lesbian love. To accomplish this, everything is pared down to plot, sex, and frequent tearful discussion.

Potboilers use simple exaggeration to ac­complish their tasks, but when Bannon ex­ploits melodramatic conventions something unusual happens: they become realistic. The only explanation I have is that her lesbian and gay characters are influenced by the melodramatic conventions of the culture that excludes them. As Beebo tells Laura, “That’s all the Village is, honey, just one crazy little soap opera after another.” Beebo and her friends were raised on the primacy of family and the sanctity of love, and though they understand the falsity of these better than most, they still carry around and mouth the trappings. I can’t say that melodrama-as-life is realistic pre-Stonewall behavior, though camp with its selective ex­aggerations has for years been used by gay people as a mode of self-definition and self­-defense. I can say that melodrama does throw its arms around the arenas of daily ’50s gay struggle: not the courts or battlefields, but the dormitories, apartments, and bars. No high-cultural language existed to play out “lesbian heartbreak” so truthfully. Through melodrama, Bannon has backed into a kind of gay realism of her time.

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The lesbians I’ve met who chanced to read Bannon’s potboilers in their first in­carnation remember them as special and very important. “I thought no one else knew about these,” one said, with the assumption that something lesbian and valuable was also, in the past, necessarily secret. It is not hard to imagine what lesbian and gay male readers thought about these books when they first appeared — if they saw them. Ban­non’s work creates a community larger than the Village; anyone, anywhere, who reads “her own” story is connected to the others who read it. Even pulp writing is powerful when it vanquishes isolation.

But what about the nongay reader? Did Odd Girl Out or Journey to a Woman cross the border from titillation, fulfilling its genre promise, to become something more? Would he (or she) skip the plot and gab to get to the you-know-what? Didn’t lesbians do you-know-what all the time? Bannon’s books must have worked as regular pulp, and I can’t guess if a straight audience would have seen through the hot stuff to its mean­ing, or to one of Laura’s short, passionate assertions of self-respect:

“No, I’m facing it,” Laura said. “I know what I am, and I can be honest with myself now. I’ll live my life as honestly as I can, without ruining it.”

Are reprinted potboilers still potboilers? Naiad’s jacket notes call these novels “les­bian classics,” and whatever their initial genre strategy, they have become something more than train-station propaganda. Pas­sage of time, and liberating action — for which Bannon may have planted some of the seeds — have pushed Odd Girl Out and the others into history, gay and lesbian history. These stories were brave, original, and sly. They still are. Readers will recognize the ghost of the old potboiler, but the books have won another life. ■

ODD GIRL OUT; I AM A WOMAN; WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS; JOURNEY TO A WOMAN; BEEBO BRINKER
By Ann Bannon, Naiad Press, $3.95 each, paper

Categories
Equality From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

From Liberty in Miss. To Justice in D.C.

The Gap Between

LIBERTY, MISSISSIPPI — In the mythology of the Movement, Amite County is synonymous with the Ninth Circle of Hell.

It was to this impoverished, re­mote area of southwest Missis­sippi, on the border of Louisiana, that Bob Parris (Bob Moses) came in August of 1961 to at­tempt SNCC’s first voter regis­tration campaign. Beaten twice and jailed three times, Parris left for Jackson four months later.

It was in Amite County that Herbert Lee, a 52-year-old father of nine, was shot to death on September 25, 1961, by a member of the Mississippi state legisla­ture, E. H. Hurst. Lee had been one of the few local Negroes to attend Farris’s voter-registration school.

It was in Amite County that Louis Allen, a witness to Lee’s slaying, was shotgunned to death in his home on January 31, 1964, after he had made contact with the Justice Department. Amite County Sheriff Daniel Jones, six-­foot-five, is the son of Brian Jones, who reportedly leads the Klan in the area.

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It was Amite County that, be­cause of its history of lawless­ness, saw not a single volunteer during the 1964 summer project. It was Amite County that, until six months ago, had only one registered Negro voter, despite the fact that Negroes make up a majority of the county’s population. It is Amite County that today remains totally segregated, and has never experienced a civil-­rights picket line or a direct-ac­tion demonstration.

Amite County is rural, red-­clay country outside the flow of history — but not just in terms of civil rights. It has missed the in­dustrial revolution as well. Amite is only 80 miles south of Miss­issippi’s capital, Jackson. Its county seat is called — for some reason buried in history — Liber­ty, population 650.

Great numbers of teen-aged Negroes escape to Baton Rouge and Chicago each year because of the unyielding poverty of the county. Experts estimate that the out-migration from Mississ­ippi, in general, has been four Negroes in ten.

Many Negroes in primitive Amite own their own farms, which makes them less vulnerable to economic reprisal by whites than their urban brothers.

This independence, however, probably accounts, at least in part, for the extraordinary record of physical violence in the county.

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Marginal Farms

Most of the Negro farms are marginal enterprises. Attendance at the all-Negro Central High School during November dropped to 50 per cent because so many children were needed to chop cane and pick cotton on the farms. There is only one brick Negro home in the whole county and that one was financed by an FHA loan. More than 90 per cent of the Negro homes have no in­door toilet. Fewer than one in five have telephones. Almost all depend on wells, dug by hand, for water. Food must be pur­chased in Liberty, where Negroes can still be beaten up at random in the street, sometimes by other Negroes paid to do the deed. No white man has ever gone on trial in Amite County for violence against a Negro.

A week in Amite is a bruising experience. Negroes lie to civil­-rights workers and invent ail­ments rather than face the reg­istrar in Liberty. A meeting in a wooden shack called a church approaches Gandhian “agape” with the singing of hymns and preachments of love thy enemy. A 60-year-old farmer tells how his cousin was castrated in 1962 and asks whether there is “any place on earth where colored folks are treated meaner than in Amite County.”

The Movement in Amite, aborted in 1961 by the killing of Lee and the repeated jailing of Parris, was resurrected 11 months ago. At that time, 22-year-old Marshall Gans, a rabbi’s son from California, came to live on the farm of E. W. Step­toe. At the point he began can­vassing the community there was only one registered Negro in the whole county. The man, notorious in the area for being an Uncle Tom, was actually escorted to the courthouse by E. H. Hurst, the man responsible for Lee’s death.

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On Staff

Steptoe, 56, with a face tramp­led by time, is a legendary fig­ure in the county. He first tried to register in 1953. In 1954 he founded a local chapter of NAACP, but saw its first meet­ing broken up by the Klan and the county sheriff with a gun. In 1964 Steptoe was the only Negro in the county willing to shelter white volunteers. Now he is on the SNCC staff.

There have been no flashy Freedom Days in Amite. No dra­matic marches on the  courthouse. No inspirational rallies with big names. Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer have never set foot in this isolated community. There have just been long hot days dur­ing which a couple of  SNCC workers and a couple of local Negroes walked the gravel roads talking with terrified, barely literate Negroes.

In June of this year Carol Ro­goff of Brooklyn and Hazel Lee of Panola County, Mississippi, joined Gans and Steptoe in the tedious, repetitive drudgery of organizing. Finally, on June 14, 1965, 22 Negroes went to the courthouse and were registered.

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High Point

By November several hundred Negroes had their names put down on the registry books, but that was the high point. The rest are still frightened, and only fed­eral registrars can induce them to risk the fate of Herbert Lee.

Fear and Love. These are the polarities on which the embry­onic movement in Amite rests. In most other parts of Missis­sippi the civil-rights movement is in disarray. Activists who have been in the state for a year or more are burned out.

On the other hand, the govern­ment’s million-dollar Headstart program is siphoning off young militants who might otherwise have become the Movement’s second generation. The newly formed, integrated, and moderate Mississippi Democratic Council is challenging the radical prophets of the Mississippi Free­dom Democratic Party for the tiny Negro vote. Many of the best SNCC organizers have moved on to Alabama’s black-­belt counties.

Mississippi is no longer a bloody frontier. Bureaucracy is making the rigors of saintliness obsolete.

Amite County is even a generation behind cities like Jackson and Greenville. Eleven years af­ter the Supreme Court decision, not a single Negro in the county attends an integrated school. Seventeen months after the sign­ing of the 1964 civil rights act, not a single public accommoda­tion is desegregated. Three months after signing of the 1965 voting-rights bill, no federal regis­trar has yet appeared in Amite County (Goldwater took 93 per cent of the vote in 1964).

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Special Dignity

The Movement in Amite is in an earlier period than anywhere else in the country. It is pure and religious, uncontaminated by organizational in-fighting and hy­per-militancy. It is just two soli­tary organizers and a handful of local Negroes. The constituency is farmers, who have the special dignity of people who work a meager soil.

But there is also deeply rooted fear and submissiveness.

Five murders of Negroes, including Lee and Allen, since 1961 remain unsolved and unin­vestigated. A few months ago, for the first time in history, a local Negro dared to file a charge against a white who beat him up on the street in Liberty. The charge was thrown out of court.

“Negroes feel,” said Carol Rogoff, “that the courthouse in Liberty is owned by white folks. They remember how Lee was shot right next to the court­house.” She admits that many Negroes remain afraid to be seen with her in public. Even the most rebellious local Negroes think a demonstration in Liberty must wait for another age.

An incident that happened in Amite dramatized the total vulnerability of Negroes to random violence. Four of us — Miss Rogoff, Miss Lee, a local woman named Juanita Griffin, and myself — were putting up posters for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service election. A man in a pick-up truck without a license saw us and began to chase us in his truck by driving up a narrow gravel road. The driver let out a woman, a child, and a Negro who were riding with him. He made three passes; the last time, driving at us head on, he forced us into a ditch. Cursing, he followed us until we reached the main road.

The following day we spoke to the FBI, who claimed “no Jurisdiction.” “File a complaint with Sheriff Jones,” the agent said. The Negro riding with the driver would not talk to us, and cer­tainly not with the FBI.

Yet, the fledgling movement here is characterized by a kind of love. Most Negroes in Amite are deeply religious. Meetings are usually held in churches. There is no tradition of freedom singing. Instead, meetings are begun with Baptist hymns like “Jesus, Hold My Hand While I Run This Race” and “Lord, Come By Here.” Nobody knows “We Shall Overcome.”

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Four Meetings

I attended four meetings dur­ing a week here. The first was held in the Mount Pilgrim Church on Steptoe’s land. It was here that Parris conducted his voter-registration classes in 1961. Herbert Lee is buried in the churchyard and his 15-year-old son was among the 75 people who filled the 10 wooden benches.

Reverend Curtis Dawson, who first tried to register in 1961, spoke to the meeting.

“We must love everyone,” he began, as amens welled up from the benches.

“White people from the North care more about us than we care about ourselves.”

“Yes, Lord, say it, brother.”

“They do everything for us. They go farther with us than we go with ourselves, but we have to redish (register) for ourselves. We can do that for them.”

“Right. Amen.”

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At another meeting the Rev­erend explained the right to vote in a Biblical analogy.

“God told Moses,” he began, “to pick up a stick. But Moses said it was a snake. But the Lord insisted he pick it up, and when Moses did, it turned out to be a sword. And that’s how go­ing to the courthouse in Liberty seems. Right now it looks like picking up a snake, but once you pick it up, it will becomes the sword of freedom.”

Unfortunately, most of the Negroes of Amite do not have the inner certainty of Moses. Until the federal government con­vinces them that going to regis­ter is not like picking up a snake, Amite Negroes will not register in numbers large enough to di­lute the terror, much less alter their condition.

“Lord, Come By Here. Federal Registrars, Come By Here.” ♦

Categories
Equality From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Marching to Montgomery: The Cradle Did Rock

It was the Ecumenical Council, a hootenanny, a happening, and a revolution all rolled into one. And it happened in Montgomery, “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

A broken-down hipster, the Realist sticking out of his dungarees, marched alongside an Episcopal bishop clutching the Holy Bible. There were the kamikazes of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — in their blue-denim overalls, mud-caked boots, and rash helmets, next to middle-class housewives who won’t ride the subways after dark. There were nuns in flowing black habits arm in arm with jowly labor leaders who discriminate in their unions.

There were rabbis, junkies, schoolboys, actors, sharecroppers, intellectuals, maids, novelists, folk-singers, and politicians — 40,000 motives and 40,0000 people marching to Montgomery behind James Forman who hates the oppressor and Martin Luther King who loves the oppressed.

March on Washington

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New Generation

There were hundreds of high school and college youngsters — that new breed of revolutionary that has somehow grown up inside the bowels of prosperous America. There were kids who rioted against HUAC, vigiled against the Bomb, invaded Mississippi last summer, and turned Berkeley upside down. They are a new generation of insurgents, nourished not by Marx or Trotsky, but by Camus, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and SNCC. Their revolution is not against capitalism, but against what they deem to be the values of an enlightened America — Brotherhood Weeks, factories called colleges, desperation called success, and sex twice a week.

And there were thousands of clergymen symbolizing the revolution within a revolution — the nun with suntan cream on her face who marched all the way from Selma, priests, ministers, rabbis with yarmulkes. There was a huge sign: “Lutherans are Here Because Christ Cared.” Another read: “Kansas Mennonites Support Civil Rights.” And another: “SMU Marches for Freedom.”

On the streets of the Confederacy’s cradle that “coalition of conscience” Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington have tried to will into existence materialized spontaneously. A line of marchers, strung out as far as the eye could see, sang “America the Beautiful” and made it sound like a revolutionary anthem.

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Sleepy Beginning

The day that was to end in triumph and tragedy began in sleepy whimsy at 4 a.m. last Thursday for the 104 participants in the Village Independent Democrats’ “Fly-In” as they pulled out of the West Side Airlines Terminal singing ironic songs about their pilgrimage.

They sang in spirited atonality that quickly disintegrated into anarchy songs like “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “I’m Alabamy Bound” and “Swanee” and “Dixie.”

“Al-a-bam-a, here I come,” roared Bill Tatum, “VIDers, don’t be late, open up that capitol gate. Alabama, here I come, right back where I started from … “

The “Welcome to Montgomery” sign at Dannelly Airport reinforced the ironic mood of the pilgrims, especially for those who noticed that billboard just outside the airport that read: “Get the U. S. out of the U. N. or get the U. N. out of the U. S.”

Within 20 minutes the small airport lounge became congested as flights from Boston and St. Louis also landed, disgorging eager, smiling, scrubbed middle-class faces, some on top of clerical collars.

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Minister’s Greeting

A white minister from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) greeted new arrivals, urged them to leave the city “as soon as the rally is over because it will be dangerous,” and directed them to shuttle buses to the City of St. Jude, a Roman Catholic complex where the marchers had camped the night before. On the SCLC minister’s lapel was a button that said “GROW.” He explained it stood for “Get Rid of Wallace.”

At St. Jude the predominant mood was gaiety, as thousands upon thousands of visitors swelled the great serpentine line of march that coiled around the vast, muddy athletic field.

Small clusters sang freedom songs during the two hours it took for the whole line to unwind onto the streets towards the capitol, four miles away. The visitors sang off-key versions of better-known freedom songs, while local Negroes, led by either SNCC or SCLC staff members, sang raucous, sassy, taunting songs that came out of the Movement in Alabama’s Black Belt. A group of about 500 from St. Louis stood in a large circle, one small, Negro woman calling out chorus after chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”

Other demonstrators milled around the staging area like conventioneers, wearing name tags and introducing themselves to strangers, pronouncing their home towns with accents of pride — Montreal, Berkeley, Boston, Detroit — and their association with equal pride — ADA, the United Auto Workers, NAACP, the University of Virginia, the American Legion (Gramercy Park chapter).

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To the Capitol

At noon, under one of the day’s brief showers, the procession began to move out, with the bloody-shoed 300 who had marched all the way in the vanguard. With them were barefoot Joan Baez; James Baldwin, nervously smiling, just back from Scandinavia; the angelic looking Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks, who ignited the mythic bus boycott a decade ago; and SNCC’s John Lewis, who walked the whole way from Selma and who had suffered head injuries on “Bloody Sunday” at the Alabama River Bridge. And there was Martin Luther King, to whom Negroes of the Black Belt now sing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and then kiss his hand.

The streets in the Negro slums of Montgomery were of mud and clay. There were row upon row of run-down shacks, with the very old, the very young, the unemployed sitting on porches.

The First Time

At first the non-marchers were timid and shy. It was as if shame made them look down rather than at the masses that surged past them. But slowly, they looked up, to wave, and when the marchers began to shout, “Join us, come on,” many accepted the invitation and probably protested their plight for the first time in their lives. Marching through the slums was like taking LSD for the soul.

One bent old woman ran off her porch and kissed a white marcher. Children, dirty and scrawny, ran alongside, singing the songs and chanting the slogans of freedom. A very old man, his cane resting between his legs, sat on his porch steps and wept.

About a mile from the capitol we reached the downtown section of Montgomery, with its banks, hotels, movies, stores, office buildings and clean asphalt streets. The sidewalks were almost deserted except for a sprinkling of hecklers and the federal troops at each intersection, standing at attention, their rifles at their sides.

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Traditional Gesture

But against the windows of the office buildings were pressed the white faces of the South. Some shook their heads “no” or gave the thumbs-down sign when the marchers waved at them. A beautiful woman of about 25 stood on the balcony of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, and when the demonstrators waved at her, this flower of Southern womanhood made the traditional obscene gesture of one finger up.

On the lawn of an elegant home a hunched, elderly maid stood in the midst of her sullen employers. She was smiling and waving a white handkerchief at the procession. One wonders what was happening in the minds of her employers at that moment.

Remarked Edward Koch, the Village Democratic leader: “Walking through the Negro section made me feel like I was walking through Paris again with the liberation army. The white section was what it must have been like marching through Germany.”

From the window of the Alabama Bible Society Building hung a blow up of the picture Senator Eastland introduced into the Congressional Record prior to the March on Washington to prove Martin Luther King was “part of the Communist conspiracy.” The photograph shows King at a rally in 1957 at the now-defunct leftist Highlander Folk School, which was burned by segregationists several years ago.

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Turns the Corner

Dexter Avenue is the eight-lane street that leads into the white stone capitol building. As the procession turned the corner of that final leg of the journey the marchers suddenly broke into “America the Beautiful” and sang it with a passion normally associated in the Movement with “We Shall Overcome.”

“America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” they sang. Hundreds of school children waving little American flag. Ahead loomed the dome of the capitol with its Alabama and Confederate flags blowing in the breeze.”By 2 p.m. all 40,000 marchers, including about 10,000 whites, arrived at the foot of the capitol and stretched out several blocks down Dexter Avenue. The symbolism of the scene was inescapable. At the spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated, where George Wallace shouted in his inaugural in 1961, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” the largest civil-rights demonstration in the history of the South sang “We Shall Overcome” — black and white, together — “We are not afraid today.”

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Ten Years Later

In the shadow of the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, from whose pulpit Martin Luther King led the bus boycott 10 years earlier, the huge rally was turning into a kind of coronation of the 37-year old minister as spiritual leader of the nation.

“Who is your leader?” the Reverend Ralph Abernathy asked the throng. The answer swelled up. “Martin Luther King!” The only exceptions were veterans of SNCC, who yelled, “De Lawd of Slick.”But even that invidious distortion of SCLC was probably shouted as much in respect as in cynicism.

(The bitterness lurking in the background was based on the fact that SNCC, which had been alone in Dallas County since late 1962, had great difficulty working in harness with King after SCLC took over the Selma campaign in January. There had been serious disputes over strategy and tactics, since King’s basic goal is integration and SNCC’s is a revolution.)

After two hours of speeches by every major leader of the civil-rights movement, King was finally introduced to the crowd. Like the multitude in Washington in 1963, they had become fatigued and restless; many had been awake as long as 20 hours. Overhead, a helicopter and a Piper Cub circled noisily. Behind the platform two dozen green-helmeted Alabama conservation police guarded the steps of the capitol building. Behind them stood a number of members of the Alabama legislature.

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Then King began, his resonant voice and preacher’s alliterative rhythm slowly rousing the audience from boredom. From behind him on the platform came counterpoints of “Amen” and “Tell it, Brother” from other ministers.

In Washington he invoked the phrase, “I have a dream,” the way a blues singer repeats a key phrase. In Montgomery, facing the capitol, it was, “We are on the move now,” that became the launching pad for a series of crescendo-like thrusts.

“We are on the move now,” he said. “The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now.”

Now the throng responded with shouts of “Yes, Lord,” and “Amen.”

“The beating of our clergymen will not divert us. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move now, and no wave of racism can stop us.”

King climaxed his speech by repeating four times with rising fervor, “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” And then the cooks, maids, and janitors were crying and cheering at the same time.

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Postlude

There were supposed to be 26 shuttle buses waiting after the rally to ferry demonstrators from the capitol to the airport five miles away. But 21 of the drivers called in sick, and for two hours thousands milled around in a muddy lot a block behind the capitol while fives buses tried to do all the work. There was pushing, shoving, and maneuvering each time a bus pulled in. Finally an SNCC worker with a walkie-talkie told the crowd, “Come on, you’re acting like kids. This ain’t the New York subway.”

By dusk, the troops had disappeared and the last handful, waiting unprotected in the lot, feeling fear for the first time during the day.

Chaos reigned at the airport. Hundreds sprawled on the lawn, picnicking, sleeping and singing. Huge lines pointed to the lavatories and phones; there were no snack counters. All outgoing flights were late.

After an hour’s delay on the VID flight was ready to be boarded, except that there was no ladder available. So for another hour, the 104 weary passengers stood in a cramped line, 20 yards away from the plane, while a ladder was searched – or, as some suspected, hidden.

Meanwhile, a few yards away, the dean of all civil rights leaders, 77-year old Asa Philip Randolph, had collapsed from exhaustion and Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington tended him while dispatching friends to find a doctor. The Montgomery police seemed uninterested.

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“It’s my fault,” Rustin mumbled. “I never should have gotten him up at 2 a.m. and he never should have walked those four miles.”

At 10:45 New York time, the VID flight left the cradle of the Confederacy amid complaints to the Civil Aeronautics Board about the delay and caustic reflections on “Southern hospitality.” There was no singing on the flight back. Most of the passengers slept. A few talked about the future of the civil rights movement, agreeing at the outset that Montgomery was just a skirmish in a long war whose end still lies beyond the rim of history.

Steve Berger, an aide to reform Congressman Jonathan Bingham, said the new voting rights bill was “pretty bad and very poorly drawn.” Others, activists of the movement, thought no legislation could possibly deal with the specter of firing, beating, and murder that faces any Negro who tries to register in the Black Belt. Other militants spoke eagerly of the next battle – the continuing attempt to unseat the five Congressmen from Mississippi by the Freedom Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Sutherland, who works for SNCC in New York, sat reading a private legal memorandum on the proposed voting bill, pointing out all its flaws and loopholes. “I just hope the registrars don’t get their hands on this memo,” she said.

And there was speculation about what would happen in the Black Belt now that the “civil rights tourists,” Dr. King, the federal troops, and the outside journalists were leaving and the Negroes were left alone to confront the Jim Clarks, the racist registrars, and those terrible faces that looked down from those windows.

When the plane landed at Kennedy Airport, its passengers were told it had already happened – murder. Nobody said anything memorable or poetic. They just cursed. ♦

Categories
Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Gay Rights: Forget It

I go through life’s little traumas. My book isn’t in Brentano’s window, so I get de­pressed. A playwright I met in San Francisco uses me, but can’t stay the night. Copy is cut, so that the original point of my story is lost. I don’t know whether or not to tell someone I love that I love him. Then Guyana happens. Then Moscone and Harvey Milk are assas­sinated. Then the gay-rights bill fails again at City Council. And everything that’s big seems inconsequential. I go to glamorous parties and wonder why I’m there. I taxi to a screening of The Deer Hunter and walk out when a deer is shot. I make a fish stew and can’t eat it. The avocado I bought last week is rotting in the fruit bowl. This month life is frightening, and death too real. Here are some thoughts on gay rights, politics, and life.

There was yet another City Council hear­ing November 29. The idea this time was to get the full council to decide whether it should vote as a body on Intro 384, the bill which would legally protect gays from being discriminated against in employment, public accommodations, and housing. On Novem­ber 8, Intro 384 lost in the General Welfare Committee by a vote of 6 to 3.

Little advance notice of the hearing had been given. The night before, the Daily News ran a short story in which gay lobbyist Allen Roskoff stated that he was certain of 18 discharge votes and “quite hopeful” that four more would be secured. “Quite hopeful” in city council jargon means “forget it.”

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Hopelessness permeated the air even be­ifore the hearings began. The usual rah-rah gay-rights supporters were missing. No more than 15 (the tiniest number ever) cluttered the balcony, while about 30 assorted “normal” types were there to applaud the opposition.

Key sponsor Carol Bellamy overlorded the proceedings. Clearly playing favorites, Coun­cil President Bellamy pounded her gravel, made final crisp judgments, and jutted her jaw in the best Smiling Jack tradition whenever the minority seemed most out of favor. She ran a tight, mean show.

Challenge time began when a councilman spotted a photographer in the hearing room and demanded that he be thrown out. Bella­my didn’t buy. Then Michael DeMarco of the Bronx told her that she was ruling against the house protocol. Bellamy ordered him to shut up. “If you persist, I’ll have a sergeant-­at-arms remove you from the chamber,” she hissed. House majority leader, Tom Cuite (long the leading opponent of gay rights) en­tered the picture and recited parliamentary procedure. It was clear to the blind what was taking place: the debate was not about cam­eras, but old thinking versus new, censorship versus opennness, anti-gay forces versus pro­-gay. Censorship won: 28 votes to toss the photographer out, 12 to allow him to stay.

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Councilman Leon Katz of Brooklyn, with no understanding of the gay-rights issue, claimed that “we can’t enact legislature ad­vocating homosexual conduct as acceptable and as the desirable correct way.” Katz­ — along with many of his colleagues — was un­able to differentiate between doing it and be­ing it. The act defined the issue.

Throughout the endless debate that fol­lowed, mini-melodramas took place offstage. Tom Cuite put his arm around Councilman Fred Samuel, and led him, buddy-like, out of the chamber. Later, when it came time to vote, Samuel, a sponsor of the bill, voted no. What was said — or offered to Samuel — is a mystery that undoubtedly will be solved in the weeks to come. Also a mystery: why Koch wasn’t there to lead a few councilmen to his inner office for a game of friendly per­suasion. Instead, an aide distributed paper­back copies of Laura Z. Hobson’s Consenting Adults as a meaningful gift from the mayor to the council. He’d have done better with Scru­ples.

In all fairness, several 384 supporters spoke quite elegantly. Manhattan Council­man-at-large Henry Stern claimed that if the bill was to be voted down, City Hall would be in backwater, that the private sector was ahead of the public sector. He added that a “no” vote would be a reflection on the city council. Brooklyn Councilman-at-large Rob­ert Steingut offered that he was not con­cerned with millions, but with a handful of people who have no redress to a legislative body. Manhattan Councilwoman Jane Trichter hit the nail on the head when she claimed that “what is operating here is a fear of that which is different.”

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That which is always the same, was pro­vided by Bronx Councilwoman Aileen Ryan, whom Murray Kempton called “a most un­movable, hard, dumb woman.”

Ryan wailed, “I am proud that the General Welfare Committee has bent over backwards to give fair hearings … In the name of family and stability, defeat this motion to dis­charge.”

Vincent Riccio of Brooklyn offered good cause for the city to do away with the council completely. “I was told City Council was an easy job,” he complained, “but I spend all my days going to committee meetings.” He proceded to attack the gay community with a viciousness indigenous to tyrants who build support out of hate. From the balcony came hissing, but the sound was like rhumba mu­sic to Riccio’s ears. He took little square steps with his feet when the hissings broke into boos.

“I believe New York should have a refe­rendum,” he continued. “If this bill passes, I shall make such a move.” Apparently he was unaware that a different kind of referendum is being discussed in top gay political circles. One which would allow the voters next year to decide whether the City Council should be abolished. Only 50,000 signatures are needed to get it going.

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Riccio concluded his tirade by noting that he had received letters calling him dirty names “because I represent family and reli­gion.” Since reporter feedback was prohibit­ed, I could not tell the councilman that he does not represent my own father and mother, who are originally from Brooklyn, or Morty Manford’s father and mother from Queens, or Vito Russo’s parents from Man­hattan. The Bells, the Manfords, and the Russos happen to love their children. They also happen to be supportive of their beliefs.

But it wouldn’t have mattered if Oscar Wilde’s mother served as the councilwoman from Staten Island. The bill was doomed. Fi­nal vote: 16 for, 26 against — the most re­sounding defeat for gay rights in New York since the bill was first introduced in 1971, approximately seven hearings ago.

The brainchildren who decided to rehash the vote this time are as much to blame as the councilpeople who voted against it. They include members of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and the New York Political Action Council (NYPAC), who met with In­tro 384 supporters, such as Bellamy, Jane Trichter, Tony Olivieri, Carol Greitzer, and Henry Stern. All of them knew it would lose, for not only were they dealing with the bill, they were suggesting a change in council procedure. Change is the last thing the mori­bund council would consider. The gay-rights politicos, then, are to be faulted for inflicting further psychological damage to the collec­tive gay psyche. According to NYPAC’s Nick Bollman, “We did it to get the votes on record. The major defeat was when Intro 384 went down a couple of weeks before.”

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So now we have a record, and what are we to do with it? Send Kool-Aid popsicles to Ai­leen Ryan and Vincent Riccio? And petunias to Henry Stern?

Threatening, boycotting, educating is not the way to get power from political assholes. Money and favors are. If offered a house in Quogue or a judgeship in Queens, there is no doubt in my mind that several zealot anti-gay gnomes would suddenly open their hearts, if not their homes, and allow the gay vote to tiptoe in.

The morning after Proposition 6 was de­feated — a victory that was more a vote against witchhunts than one for gay rights — I appeared on the Mid-Morning Show in L.A. John Briggs called the TV station. The sena­tor, in the best Douglas MacArthur tradi­tion, swore he and his forces would return. He attributed his loss to the fact that the pro-­gay forces had a million-dollar kitty for ad­vertising while the Briggs guys had a small fraction of that amount. The host asked him if politics was a matter of money, and, in his roundabout way, Briggs admitted it was.

Why gay people insist on being part of this corruption is something I just have come to analyze. Why should our anger erupt because of a defeat that came about through lack of funds or poor advertising or dumb planning? None of this has anything to do with who we are.

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The gay-rights bill should be a matter of common decency, not one of political ma­neuverings — from either side.

In Manhattan, Koch doesn’t have the clout to buy off the handful of bigots who claim to represent their constituents, while those gay millionaires and denizens of fashion and high society who own sage brush homes in the Pines wouldn’t think of contributing to “the cause.” I no longer blame them. Gay politics is not the way.

Perhaps it once was. Once there was hope. Once gay power was a joyous cry in this town. Then the thrust toward radicalism died. The stuffed-shirt gay politico appeared. Lethargy set in. Anger followed the Bryant defeat. Sorrow follows Milk.

For gay people the war is on, but the way to fight is not through politics. The way is through pleasure. So when things get tough, my advice to readers is don’t run to the Task Force. Forget about City Hall. Go to Christo­pher Street. And handle matters your own way. ♦

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March for Mass

About 250 women and men congregat­ed at Sheridan Square in the rain last Sunday night to form a candlelight procession mourning the death of Harvey Milk. They marched through the West Village to Metropolitan Duane Metho­dist Church, punctuating the quiet night with shouts of “enough shit,” the new gay slogan.

In many ways, the march was similar to the candlelight vigil that followed the Snake Pit raid in March 1970. At that time, a young immigrant, Diego Vinales, fearful of deportation, jumped from a po­lice station window, only to be impaled on a picket fence. Many of the same acti­vists who anended the Vinales vigil were present at the Milk procession, including Jim Owles, first president of the Gay Ac­tivists Alliance, and Craig Rodwell, own­er of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Book­shop.

Rodwell, who knew Milk from the ear­ly ’60s, spoke at the church. He said, “Harvey was an atheist, and I also think he will forgive us for meeting here tonight.” Rodwell suggested that gun con­trol be added to the list of gay issues. Trish Williams, a lesbian folksinger, sang, “You’ve pushed us back/you’ve pushed us back/but you will push us back no more.” The congregation sang along with Williams, as if it were a hymn.

— A.B.

Categories
Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Year 2: Toward a Gay Community

Happy birthday, gay liberation, happy birthday to you! The baby is two years old and the song is sung by Martha Shelley and Allen Young and Judy from New York’s defunct Gay Liberation Front, under a Christopher Street banner, a stone’s throw from the old Stonewall Inn, so long ago and far away. Helping along with the cel­ebration are about 6000 birthday guests. They’ve come from Toronto and Washington and Hartford and Columbus and Amherst and all five boroughs and flood Christopher Street from Sheridan Square almost to the river, Sunday under a cloudless pansexual sky. Early gay libera­tion faces — Jerry Hooze and Craig Rodwell and Marty Nixon­ — have come out for the celebration. Young serious politicos. wearing granny glasses and toting knapsacks, buss the likes of Eben Clark and Jean De Vente. “Happy birthday. Isn’t it beautiful?” “Beautiful, just beautiful.” Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.

Sylvia of STAR is there — and Marsha and Bebe and Natasha. Yellow balloons on long strings are printed GAY and tied to wrists and headbands. Oc­casionally one breaks away and flies up, up, over, liberated, free, and gone. Jill Johnston is there. She gives me a bear hug and says “Sometimes I wish I were a male homosexual,” as Pete Fisher and Marc Rubin pass by, arm in arm, caressing. Kate Millett arrives. “This is a very beautiful day,” she says. “A very important day. It’s fantastic, this whole sense of freedom and euphoria. I feel a sense of common identity with ev­eryone here. It’s a strong feeling and happy and fine.”

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Media, media everywhere. Global Village with a crew of four, and the Life and Newsweek re­porters who’ve been following us around these many weeks, and radio and TV networks, and amateur camera buffs shooting away at the crowd and at each other. Out of the closets, into the media, and into your living room. America, beware!

The big parade starts. A marshal shouts, “Keep behind the Christopher Street Liberation sign!” Somewhere back there, a contingent from Perth Amboy totes a sheet spray-painted and stenciled: “A dream is a dream, reality is real, open the door, to the way that we feel.” I see a Gay Jewish Revolution banner and the Gay Activists Alliance lambda and all those lambda shirts.

As the march progresses up Sixth Avenue, past Foam Rubber City, past the flower and plant block, the up-front banners move farther behind and the three city blocks of marchers become nine city blocks. By 34th Street, we’re up to 15. There are no incidents. Some sidewalk observers heed the call and join us. At a 42nd Street construction site, three hardhats make ha-ha gestures. At 45th Street, an observer remarks, “I’m getting to feel like a real creep here with my husband and baby. I’m getting to feel abnormal.” Near the Statler Hilton a group of young women sing “I enjoy being a dyke.” “Join us, join us,” shout the marchers to the bellhops and hotel guests. “Beyond the moon is Lesbos,” says a frizzle-haired woman to a passing hooker. “This is a flex­atone — the first gay musical in­strument,” says a flexatonist striking his pocket-sized in­strument. Two, four, six, eight, organize and liberate.

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The parade enters Central Park. Michael, in a Billie Burke-Wizard of Oz outfit with additional silver cardboard wings, tells the cameramen, “I’m just showing the straight people what a good fairy is.” Miss Philadelphia does a belly dance near the zoo en­trance. “I’m here because it’s my day,” she says, “and I want to be beautiful” and the beads and tassles shake, and click, click go the cameras.

We enter Sheep Meadow. An army of 200 or 300 more gay peo­ple enter from another pathway. We climb a hill. From a vantage point I see hundreds upon hundreds of shirtless men, braless women, give me a G, give me an A, give me a Y. They float, they dance, arms interwoven with arms, fists in the air. The Chris­topher Street banner lies limp on the grass. No one walks over it. The man next to me is crying.

Small vignettes are played on the grass. The woman with daisies in her hair is plucking out a baroque something on a guitar. An Indian headband falls off someone’s head and a stranger picks it up and gets a kiss in re­turn. Five naked men pass by and one says. “Why don’t you take off your shorts? Don’t be embar­rassed, don’t be shy.” Tarot cards are read. And Jim Owles says, “I’ve never seen so many beauti­ful faces in my life.”

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***

Three days prior to the march, I spotted Bob Kohler in front of The Voice office. Kohler is one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front. He’s quieted down lately, seldom seen at marches, no longer a fixture outside the late Women’s House of Detention with bis dog and his pamphlets. He’s kvetching less and looking better.

“I lived, ate, slept, shit gay lib­eration for two years,” he said. “I was leading a closed, incestuous existence. A few months ago, I just dropped out. Now I’m getting myself back into the mainstream and putting my body where my mouth was. You can talk gay lib forever and picket until you’re blue in the face, but the time has come for me to relate to the department store clerks, the sani­tation people, the workers of the world who don’t know ‘move­ment,’ to try to raise their con­sciousness.

“I no longer feel the need for an organization as a crutch. Gay Lib­eration Front in New York, as it had been set up, is no longer in ex­istence. It was used as a spring­board from which other organizations and collectives were formed. We have a Gay Activists Alliance now, but for anyone to hang on to an organization is wrong. I’d like to see the move­ment use its sixth sense like an animal and kick its young out when they’re ready and push them into something better. Encourage people to leave the great father and go into the world and relate.”

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Gay Activists Alliance, with its constitution and its structure and its committees that range from Theatre to Municipal Govern­ment, is about the most popular of the gay groups in New York. Orig­inally set up as an activist organi­zation, it still specializes in politi­cal zaps, but has lately broadened its scope to encompass the social and sociological aspects of gay liberation. Its members are pri­marily white, young, middle-class males, gung ho enthusiasts, politi­cally middle to radical middle. GAA is into reform within the system, fuck the slow motion methods, it’s been too long, we’ve had it already, gay power, gay identity, now.

Far more conservative are the Mattachine Society and West Side Discussion Groups, both pri­marily male, both “service” organizations. There are campus groups, like Gay People of Columbia, and spin-off groups, like Gay Youth, for the under-21s, and the Beyond family, a con­sciousness-raising group made up of a dozen past and present GAA members. There are radical groups like STAR (the Street Transvestites Action Revolu­tionaries) and the Gay Revolution Party, which believes that the root of oppression is in the struc­ture of sexual castes — the domi­nant male and the woman his pos­session — and that liberation depends on the breaking down of the caste system and the smashing of sexism.

Gay women’s groups span the political spectrum. Gay Women’s Liberation Front believes the gay revolution is part of the revolution of all oppressed people. The key to Radical Lesbians is living new radical life styles and finding new ways to relating to women. Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) func­tions as an umbrella organization. It recently had two palace revolu­tions. It’s re-inventing itself in an effort to end a hierarchy of power and is now made up of a series or nine or 10 collectives with two coordinators.

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The DOB Center on Prince Street is now called the Lesbian Center and serves the entire les­bian political structure. The center has a lesbian school where courses are given by members of all three groups on carpentry and creative writing and collective theatre and dog training, among other things.

Sidney Abbott, writer, active in the gay women’s movement, says that as a result of the re-struc­turing “young women who were conservative are relating to the radical women and loosening up and getting more progressive. For instance, some radical les­bian women at recent dances stripped from the waist up and danced around in a circle hora style. The purpose of this was to affirm the beauty of being lesbian women. It’s a profound statement about feelings about self, if you take into mind that all women basically don’t like their bodies — ­their bodies are supposed to be dirty and objects of comments by men. It’s doubly true to lesbians. Even beautiful lesbians find their bodies too fat, too thin, ugly. The positive dance statement was un­derstood by the older women. Last Saturday some of them took off their bras too and joined in. It’s a whole new spirit. The joke going around now is that we think we’re so great we may want to reproduce. GAA may have to start a sperm bank for the women so that we groovy people can make even groovier people.”

The feeling of pride, the methods and means of achieving it, the development of a gay iden­tity, varies from group to group, from individual to individual. Many of the older professionals who regularly attend the West Side Discussion Group’s Wednes­day meetings feel a camaraderie exchanging pleasantries at the social hour that follows the dis­cussion. There’s an x-ray am­bience over coffee and fig newtons generally missing at the “sex object” haunts, the bars, the baths, the dark corners. The coffee klatsch exchanges about “taste” during the gay pride march and poor Lawrence of Arabia would send a gay activist screaming to his nearest fire­house. But to the doctor and law­yer who are not yet ready to risk a TV close-up with a picket sign, West Side is a push out of the clos­et, a step from consciousness zero to consciousness one.

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The consciousness of homo­sexuals into a pre-Vietnam war life style could be further height­ened by the passage of the fair employment bill sponsored by City Councilmen Burden and Clingan and Scholnick and Weiss, supporting the right of fair employment and fair housing for New York’s estimated 800,000 homosexuals. Discrimination on the basis of one’s private consensual sexual orientation would be illegal. The bill has recently been supported by John Lindsay; it’s also supported by Percy Sutton and Bella Abzug and a strong ma­jority of city councilmen and by a number of important citizens and organizations. But it’s been stag­nating in the General Welfare Committee since January­ — Thomas J. Cuite, vice-chairman and majority leader of the City Council, will not allow the bill to be released.

Richie Amato, head of Gay Ac­tivists Alliance Fair Employment Committee (he was Richie X until yesterday — he came out on television in celebration of Gay Pride Week), claims “Cuite promised that if we’d get councilmen outside of Manhattan to support the bill, it would be voted on. We did, and nothlng happened. He said we needed support from each borough. We got the support. Still nothing. Cuite’s decided single-handedly to block the bill. As far as I’m concerned, the democratic process is a fraud, and I’m speaking as a Democratic com­mitteeman.”

All of this past week there’s been pamphleting in the City Hall area to bring attention to the bill. On Thursday night there was a silent candlelight march from the Lesbian and GAA centers to City Hall. On Friday there was more pamphleting, more picketing. At 2 p. m. that day several GAA members tried to enter City Hall to lobby. They were stopped. A melee followed. There was push­ing and shoving and the police set up a barrier at the top of the front door steps. There were gay power and justice chants and nine arrests were made. Almost methodically, and perhaps more than coinci­dentally, four of the nine arrested from a crowd of approximately 80 protesters were four of the five elected GAA officers. Jim Owles, president, was the first pulled in. He had a 3:30 appointment with the Knapp Commission, where he was to report on rumored raids of gay bars scheduled for the week­end. He couldn’t keep the appoint­ment, since he was handcuffed to a chair. Arnie Kantowitz, vice-­president, and Steve Krotz, secre­tary, two of the less vociferous demonstrators, were picked from the crowd. Arthur Evans, the new delegate at large, and five other people were also arrested, all for disorderly conduct. They were taken to a room in the basement of City Hall, kept there for an hour, then transferred to the Fifth Precinct, and four hours later released on vera summonses. Cuite wasn’t around for any of this, nor was the Mayor. I talked to Michael Dontzin, the Mayor’s counsel, however, who assured me that the Mayor urged the pas­sage of the bill but has no control over the calendar of the legisla­ture and suggested that GAA work more on the Council to get the bill passed. Head against a stone wall time. One can only wonder again how much further we have to go to push past the trumped-up excuses — and cant.

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Straight-jacket laws, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” (the boys in the band in jail), and staggered con­sciousness degrees notwithstanding, there’s a hell of a lot going for the homosexual this year, year 2, going on year 3, Stonewall A. D. The rather recently rented GAA Firehouse is a gay community center from which a gay community and a gay culture are quickly developing. It’s a four-story late 1800s job, located on Wooster Street in the SoHo district. In addition to the general meetings that drag out every Thursday evening, there’s committee work done throughout the week, symposiums, sensitiv­ity workshops, and the Saturday night liberation dances, a heaven cross between Woodstock Nation and Dante’s Inferno.

At the Saturday dance a week before Gay Pride Week, the joint was jumping with some women and hundreds and hundreds of men, swaying their bodies, stamping their feet, spouting movement talk and little nothings that could hardly be heard over the amplifying system that blared acid rock. Four floors of new free. The main dance takes place on the ground floor. In the basement, the air is cooler, the place less packed, the dancing less intensified. Tins of beer in iced gar­bage cans stand free form, and lambda-shirted attendants beckon one and all to help them­selves free of charge. The second floor is laid out with bridge tables and chairs and there’s a coffee nook at the side of the room, a “collapse” area away from the dance floor, a place to chat and dig. On the third floor, a video tape indoctrines a spellbound au­dience with a showing of the March to Albany for Fair Em­ployment.

Outside the Firehouse, there’s a line from here to Radio City. Two attendants at the door are not allowing anyone in because no one is coming out. Kissing is hello at the Firehouse, a handshake taboo, dancing the liberation con­nection. The firehouse dance that evening bit into the take of two of the three Village bars I visited. A bartender at Danny’s said their business was down 75 per cent from normal on Saturdays since the GAA dances began. An assis­tant manager at the Stud said their business was off 20 to 40 per cent. A bartender at the Triangle said “we don’t get the crowd that goes to those dances. The dances don’t affect us. Nothing GAA does affects us.” None of these bars, incidentally, are dance bars.

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A fashion show took place at the Firehouse during Gay Pride Week. It was put together by Ron Diamond who emceed in a top hat with pink plumes, sequined butterflies, open white fluff shirt, and shorts. Ron’s message, repeated over and over by the men and women models who paraded down the Firehouse steps and posed on a makeshift stage in rhumba outfits and bird of paradise feathers and leather and chiffon and satin and lace, is that gay people are now expressing their inner feelings in costumes that are an extension of the inner self. We are no longer hiding behind the jackets and ties and prissy dresses of the ’50s. If we care to be outrageous in our unisex clothes, in our role reversal outfits, in our see-through caftans and little foxes, right on. If bat­tery-lighted earrings are what we like, flash those lights. If a batman cape from the Pampas suits our fancy, spread those wings. If studs and leather are our scene, flaunt our scene. Ron claims it’s too bad we have to wear clothes at all, we’re beauti­ful without them. But since we wear them, wear what we feel. What we feel is what we are.

This week also included a drama titled “Requiem” put on by the Theatre Group. It had to do with the crucifixion of Christ and it was performed earnestly and some good wine and cookies were served as part of the pro­ceedings and it ended with a gay power chant that spelled out JESUS (give me a J, give me an E … ).

“What, if anything, can the arts do for gay liberation?” was the question posed by the moderator at a roundtable rap attended by Jill Johnston and Stuart Byron and yours truly from The Voice and Merle Miller who confessed in the Times and Jean-Claude van Itallie who wrote “America, Hurrah!” and Charles Ludlam, Jeff Duncan, Gordon Merrick, and John Button. The answer was bounced around a dozen different ways and the discussion frag­mented into a dozen different dis­cussions. When a homosexual ar­tist makes it big in a heterosexual society, he makes it big as a he­terosexual. Why the camouflage? Merle Miller said, “It would have been an immense help to me as a kid to know that Tchaikovsky was gay. Had I known that, it could conceivably have changed my life.” Out of the closets and into the arts. Charles Ludlam said “homosexuals have a responsi­bility to sabotage seriousness,” and shortly after disrobed, and he might as well have lighted a ciga­rette since no one paid any mind to the action. Jon-Jon, a move­ment staple, zapped the sym­posium for saying too many words and said the demon­strations as art forms are beauti­ful and that the transvestites and the street people are the real gay artists. Jeff Duncan said, “I can’t come out in my heart until the social structure is broadened.” Miller said, “The reason for coming out is essentially per­sonal. To me, it’s leading your life fully so your art can be full.” The moderator said, “We’re degen­erating,” and Ludlam said, “If we don’t degenerate, who will?”

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The man who heads the Culture Committee said, “Building a gay community is important. We dis­cover as we do it that the guilt has been lifted, and we find loneliness there. The loneliness will disap­pear when we finally become a community.”

The community will come. It will spring forth from the Lesbian Center and from the Firehouse and from the dozens of parlor dis­cussions and coffee klatsches and tete-a-tetes on park benches and shout-outs at committee meet­ings. The community will ema­nate self-respect and self-pride, those little things we want from gay liberation which ultimately come from ourselves.

Coming out is a beginning. Changing straight-jacket laws is a beginning. Zapping is a begin­ning. Marching to Sheep Meadow is a beginning. Dancing our way to liberation is a beginning. But only a part of it. Consciousness-­raising is another part. The day is coming when all of the parts will fit together and our history and experiences will be different from what they are now. Soon? Maybe. There are a hell of a lot of us working on it.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

March on Washington: The View from the Front of the Bus

“There’s no place for Uncle Tom on this bus, man.” The voice of the Negro echoed down the neon bathed Harlem street as he mounted the steps of Bus 10 ready to start for Washington.

It was 2 a. m. on the morning of August 28. Anticipation hovered quietly over the 24 buses that lined both sides of 125th Street. Cars and cabs stopped more and more frequently to pour forth bundle-laden, sleepy Marchers. Black, white, old, young zigzagged back and forth across the street trying to find their assigned buses. Bus cap­tains marked by yellow ribbons and rumpled passenger lists stood guard at the bus doors. Small groups huddled around them.

Voices arose above the general din.

“You’ve got to switch me to Bus 10. It’s a swingin’ bus. There’s nothin’ but old ladies on this crate.”

“Hey, is this bus air-condi­tioned?”

“Where can I get seat reservations?”

“Hey, chick, are you on this bus?”

“Yeah.”

“Is your husband on this bus?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s all right. I’ll make love to both of you. I’m com­patible.”

“Who the hell is on this bus?” cried George Johnson, the exasperated 30-year-old Negro captain of Bus 10 and organizer of New York CORE’s 24-bus caravan. “People shouldn’t be swapping buses, especially CORE members. It only adds to the confusion. Now everybody get in a seat and stay there. You can’t save seats. This isn’t a cocktail party.”

The reaction to George’s gruffness was a tongue-in-cheek par­ody of the Mr. Charlie routine. “Yassir, anything you say, sir.”

“Don’t you fret now, Mr. George.” “Don’t you go upsetting yourself, boss.” “You knows I always listen to you captain sir.”

There was a general shuffling of bundles on the bus. Index cards with emergency Washington phone numbers were filled out and kept by everyone. “Sit-In Song Books” were passed back.

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Symptomatic Ode   

Outside the window of Bus 10 an old Negro was standing with outstretched arms reciting an impromptu ode to the Black Woman. “Black Woman, you are the queen of the universe. I would give my life for you.” This was less comic than symp­tomatic. It was just one of many signs of the racial pride which is now surging through the Ne­gro people.

A young Negro in the seat behind me, when asked why he was going on this March, re­plied, “Because it’s like your sweater. It’s Black. It’s for the cause. If my people are in it, I am going to be in it fighting, even if I get killed.”

Outside the window of Bus 10 was also a more extreme reminder of this racial pride. Young members of the Black Muslims, neatly dressed in suits and ties, were hawking copies of Muhammad Speaks. This paper is the official statement of the Black Muslim philosophy: Black is beautiful; Black is best; Black must be separate from white.

I swing off the bus to ask the young Muslim if he was going to Washington. With a faint trace of a smile on his lips, he an­swered, “No, ma’am. I have to sell papers. You people go to Washington.” The implication was clear: he was too busy working for his own cause — sep­aration — to be bothered working for integration.

An older man, converted to a Muslim later in life, was not so emotionally untouched by the March and what it stood for. When I asked him why the Muslims were not participating in the March, he gave all the prop­er answers. He said: “The Messenger has not spoke. If he says nothing, we sit still. If he says go, we go.” But then, asked if as an individual rather than a Muslim he would have gone, he replied: “I would have gone.”

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‘A Mockery’

Moving through the crowd, I encountered a Negro I knew to be a fence-sitter between the Muslim and integrationist philosophies. I asked him why he had decided to come on the March. He said, “It’s like St. Patrick’s Day to the Irish. I came out of respect for what my people are doing, not because I believe it will do any good. I thought it would do some good at the beginning, but when the March started to get all the of the official approval from Mastah Kennedy, Mastah Wagner, and Mastah Spellman, and they started setting limits on how we had to march peacefully, I knew that the March was going to be a mockery. That they were giving us something again. They were letting the niggers have their day to get all this nonsense out of their system, and then planning to go back to things usual. Well, if the white man continues to sleep, continues to ignore the intensity of the black man’s feelings and desires, all hell is going to break loose.”

Moving back toward the bus I almost crashed into George Johnson. With a certain Hollywood director flourish, he was telling the driver to rev up the engine. George was being interviewed for radio, and they wanted the sound of departure. Followed by interviewers trailing microphone wires, George shouted, “I feel good because the Negroes are on the march and nothing is going to stop us.” With that, he boarded the bus, signaled the driver, and we began to move. It was 3:40 a. m.

The 49 passengers on Bus 10 settled back. Among them were 10 CORE members, including Omar Ahmed and Wayne Kinsler, both typical of Harlem’s Angry Young Men. Present also were 10 unemployed workers sent to Washington on money raised by CORE to protest the lack of jobs. Also among the pas­sengers were Jim Peck, author of the book “The Freedom Riders,” who took a severe beat­ing on one of the first freedom rides into the Deep South; six members of the Peace Corps who were scheduled to leave for Nigeria; three interviewers from French television, with cameras and sound equipment; and a slightly jaded reporter and a cameraman from the Herald Tribune, both of whom had seen too many Clark Gable reporter movies.

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People began to talk and to question one another. Sue Brook­way, a white member of the Peace Corps, was standing in the aisle speaking to George Johnson. She said, “I think the biggest influence of the March will be to create a greater na­tional awareness of the issue and get more people to make a commitment to the cause. Although I agreed with CORE’s goals, it never occurred to me to become active before this. But now I would join if I weren’t going to Nigeria.”

Omar Ahmed, who had overheard the word Nigeria, turned around in his seat and said, “The Negro on this March has to be very glad of the existence of the Soviet Union. This govern­ment is so worried about wooing the African and Asian mind that it may even give the Negro what he wants.”

“I don’t think the Civil Rights Bill will get through,” commented George Johnson from his seat across the aisle. “I have no faith in the white man. Even Kennedy & Kennedy Inc. isn’t doing this for humanitarian reasons but for political ones.”

After a moment he continued: “CORE has been criticized for its new tactics of civil disobedience. Well, as far as I’m concerned, anything done to get our rights is O.K. It’s remark­able that the Negro has taken it this long.”

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‘A New Negro’

The whites in the group were startled at the vehemence in George’s statement. Omar, not­ing their expressions, attempted to explain. “The white power structure has bred a New Negro,” he said, “and he is angry and impatient. It’s not just the Black Muslims. It’s the man on the street. Come down to Har­lem some night and listen to what’s being said on the street corners. The cops go through and you can see fear on their faces. This isn’t Birmingham. If anyone starts anything, we won’t be passive.”

The kids in the four adjacent seats were twisted around in their chairs listening. Heads pressed together, they formed a roundtable, minus the table. Into this group came Wayne Kins­ler, a 19-year-old Negro. He perched on one of the seat arms. Some crumbled cookies and overripe fruit were passed around.

The discussion turned to the Peace Corps. Frank Harman was asked why, since he was white, he wanted to go to Nigeria. He replied, “I want to go to help these people because they are human beings.”

Suddenly Wayne shouted, “If this thing comes to violence, your’s will be the first throat we slit. We don’t need your kind. Get out of our organization.”

Completely baffled by the outburst, Frank kept repeating the questions, “What’s he talking about? What did I say?”

Wayne, straining forward tensely, screamed, “We don’t need any white liberals to patronize us!”

Other Negroes joined in. “We don’t trust you.” “We don’t believe you’re sincere.” “You’ll have to prove yourself.”

Frank shouted back, ”I don’t have to prove myself to anyone except myself.”

“We’ve been stabbed in the back too many times.”

“The reason white girls come down to civil rights meetings is because they’ve heard of the black man’s reputation of sex.”

“The reason white guys come down is because they want to rebel against their parents.”

“I’ll tell you this, proving that he is sincere when he is working in the civil rights groups is the last chance the white man has got to keep this thing from exploding.”

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Little Comprehension

The other passengers were urging us to stop the argument. Eventually we did. In the lull that followed, the reactions of the whites were mixed. The most widespread one was complete lack of understanding as to why this had all started. There was little comprehension of the effect words like “help you” or “work for you,” with all their connotations of the Great-White-Father attitude, could have on the bristling black pride. Another attitude was one of revul­sion at the ugliness which had been exhibited. Still others saw the argument as a sign that the walls between the races were beginning to come down, that people were really beginning to communicate instead of hiding behind masks of politeness. They felt that with a greater knowl­edge of one another’s sensitivities, lack of understanding, and desires, it would be easier for the white liberal and the black man to work together.

People began to relax and joke again. Gradually they drifted off into an exhausted sleep. Bus 10 rolled on in silence.

With the coming of dawn, the French TV men started blinding everyone with their lights and interviewing those people who could speak French. Being Gal­lic, they made sure to get shots of the romantic duos pillowed against one another. Not to be left out, the Herald Tribune‘s cameraman picked up his light meter and cord and started doing a mock interview of the interviewers.

Someone cheerfully yelled, “Everybody sing.”

He was quickly put down by a voice from the lower depths: “You’re nuts! At seven o’clock sane people don’t even talk.”

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On we went. Sleeping, talking, anticipating. We passed other buses full of heads covered with caps printed with their organizations’ names. On our right was a beat-up old cab with six peo­ple in it and March on Washing­ton posters plastered on all its doors.

At 10:30 — Washington. The city seemed strangely quiet and de­serted except for a few groups of Negro children on corners. They stared curiously at the unending caravan of buses. Police and MPs were everywhere. Traffic moved swiftly. We parked at 117th and Independ­ence, and the people of Bus 10 merged with the crowd moving up the street. The March was on.

The day was full of TV cam­eras, spontaneous singing, speeches, clapping, the green and white striped news tent, the P. A. system blasting “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the ominous Red Cross symbol on a medical tent, March marshals with bright yellow arm bands and little white Nehru hats, the Freedom Walkers in faded blue overalls, Catholic priests in solemn black, posters proclaiming Freedom Now, feet soaking in the reflecting pool, portable drinking fountains, varicolored pennants and hats, warm Pepsi-Cola, the blanket of humanity sprawled in undignified dignity, a Nigerian student with his head bent in prayer, and the echo of Martin Luther King’s phrase: “I have a dream … ”

It was over. The bus moved out slowly. This time there were Negroes on every doorstep. As we passed, they raised their fingers in the victory sign. They clasped their hands over their heads in the prizefighter’s traditional gesture. They clapped. They cheered. They smiled and the smile was reflected back from the buses. On bus 10 there was no one sitting at the back of the bus. All the seats were in the front.

“We’ll be back,” said George Johnson. “If this doesn’t work, we’ll bring 500,000. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll bring all 20 million.”

SEPT_05_1963_VILLAGE VOICE article about THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR CIVIL RIGHTS by Marlene Nadle

SEPT_05_1963_VILLAGE VOICE article about THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR CIVIL RIGHTS by Marlene Nadle

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

A Happy Birthday for Gay Liberation

They stretched in a line, from Gimbels to Times Square, thousands and thousands and thousands, chanting, waving, screaming — the outrageous and the outraged, splendid in their flaming colors, splendid in their delirious up-front birthday celebration of liberation:

“Say it clear, say it loud; gay is good, gay is proud!”

“Two-four-six-eight; gay is just as good as straight!”

“Ho—Ho—Homosexual!”

“Out of the closets and into the streets!”

They swept up Sixth Avenue, from Sheridan Square to Central Park, astonishing everything in their way. No one could quite believe it, eyes rolled back in heads, Sunday tourists traded incredulous looks, wondrous faces poked out of air-conditioned cars. My God, are those really homosexuals? Marching? Up Sixth Avenue?

And they were. From New York and Philadelphia and Washington and Baltimore. From  Rutgers and Yale (Yale) and NYU. From staid old-line chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, to Gay Activists, to the political radicals of Gay Liberation Front and the radical lesbians from the Lavender Menace. “Together,” they shouted, “together! G-a-y P-o-w-e-r. What does it spell? Gay Power! Again Louder! GAY POWER!”

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It was an event, the first mass coordinated event of the gay liberation movement. One year old this week. One year since the Sixth Precinct raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, and those insane, freaked-out, sexed-up drag queens went berserk and clawed back, actually fought with police in the streets and rioted, sent cops to the hospital, overturned cars, lit fires, and showed all the closet timmies that enough was enough, that the growing harassment and repression and terror was much too much. Too much bullshit from bar owners and Mafia and police and all the rest of pious straight society that thought gay was simply a huge giggle.

And here they were. Out in the streets again. Not the precious birthday party queers or “Boys in the Band,” not the limp-wristed, pinky-ringed, sad-eyed faggots of uptown chic, but shouting men and women with locked arms and raised fists.

Gay Pride Week began a bit more quietly, with a Wednesday sit-in action at Republican State Committee headquarters by Gay Activists Alliance. GAA is an activist offshoot of GLF, but confines its focus to homosexual questions, equality, and civil rights. It split from GLF when GLF became involved in Black Panther demonstrations. GAA is more militant than Mattachine and more sedate than GLF, which identifies with all oppressed groups, and is somewhat anarchic-freak in style and structure. GAA has worked to put pressure on elected officials to end job discrimination and sodomy laws, and says it might have provided the margin of victory for Bella Abzug, who got a rousing reception at a GAA meeting she addressed.

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Seven members of GAA sat in at the Committee’s 12th floor offices on 56th Street, demanding a public response from Governor Rockefeller, while a picket line of several dozen paraded outside  to the bewilderment of  East Side passersby. There was no satisfactory answer from Rockefeller’s office however — the only Republican official present was a woman, and as a Committee spokesman explained, “I really don’t think this is a … uh … subject that a lady would find … uh … palatable.” That pretty much ended any possibility of dialogue, and the first seven sit-ins of the gay movement were quietly arrested when the Committee’s office closed.

Much of the week’s activity swirled around the Washington Square Methodist Church on West 4th Street, where gay groups provided booths, information desks, first aid, free food, housing, and the opportunity to chat. Signs outside read “Gay Liberarion Front, Come In and Come Out,” and were an obvious treat for Village sightseers who littered and snapped away with their instamatics. (Across the way, however, 4th Street’s sedentary gypsies hardly batted an eye, deeply embroiled in games of chess, goh, and their bustling lampshade commerce.) There were also several dances throughout the city, workshops of Alternate U., and a well-attended Lesbian Center restricted to women.

The friendly church was unfortunately open game for hungry winos, who put something of a strain on the kitchen staff, and a strain on everyone when they muttered “faggot” on a free full stomach. “Even the Sabrett man on the corner came in and left with two plates of food,” complained one chef. But there were also straights who dropped by just to find out what was going on, and at one point a mass of Tennessee high school students poured downstairs from a church program to hear about gay liberation from a GLF member. “The reason we’re despised as homosexuals,” the GLFer explained, “is because we’re supposed to be effeminate and sissy and weak. We’re supposed to be womanish, and there’s supposed to be something wrong with being womanish. But I’ve been in the navy three years,­ I’ve played football and been a lifeguard, I’ve done all the John Wayne things society says men are supposed to do, and I’m still a fag. Well, Sunday we’re going to march up Sixth Avenue and you can stare and take pictures and scream fag all you want, and we’ll just say ‘fuck you.’ Because we don’t care any more. We don’t want anybody’s acceptance. We’ve begun to stand up by ourselves.”

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And the students looked at the man from GLF, and somehow he didn’t look queer. And they looked around, and there were all these men who really didn’t seem to have anything in common except they must be queer or else why would they be there? Still, it was strange, so many different kinds of queers, even some older men in business suits, men who talked in deep voices, men who looked as tough as anyone regular, men who were smooth and men who were hairy, and when you thought about it, they, the high school students, looked a whole lot more alike than the … what did he say? … the gay people. They’d have to think about that.

On Saturday, a number of gays donned giant sandwich boards reading “I am a homosexual,” and marched around the Village, trying to convince some straights to lend a gay hand and experience a little oppression first-hand. A street action by the Gay Guerrilla Theatre pictured a drag queen in front of a gay bar. The queen gave a $5 bill to the bar owner who gave it to the State Liquor Authority who gave it to the Mafia who gave it to a policeman who clobbered the queen with his nightstick.

Mafia control of gay bars is a continuing source of oppression of homosexuals. Many gays complain of exorbitant cover charges, watered drinks, overcrowding, and the constant threat of raids, terror, and embarrassment. Even the location of gay bars is oppressive, with many tucked in underground haunts and others located in the raunchy Siberia of Leather Land, under the shadow of parked trucks and the West Side Highway. Few gays offer any specifics about Mafia control, but gang influence seems pervasive, with a little help from the SLA, police, and public morality that condemns gays to a forbidden zone.

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Sometimes oppression is not so covert. Friday night, four gay men were walking along 14th Street at University Place when they were jumped by four straights from a car. Why? Because they were holding hands. The sin of sins. One of the gays was immediately knocked to the street unconscious — he needed 14 stitches in his head. Another lost two teeth. Three of the four went to the hospital. At the Sixth Precinct, police told the gays that if they wanted to file charges of assault, they would be arrested and counter-charged with harassment. No charges were filed.

And not all oppression is at the hands of the Silent Majority. Friends in the radical movement itself have sometimes turned up less than friendly. One of the first events or Gay Pride Week was a midnight benefit at the Elgin Cinema in support of the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, the group that organized the week. After the Elgin booked the gay benefit, however, it proceeded to schedule a benefit for the Venceremos Brigade on the same night. The Brigade apparently learned of the prior booking, but went ahead anyway. Thursday night, however, members of GLF showed up at the Elgin, switched off the projector, turned on the lights, and demanded that the Brigade hold its benefit some other night. The Brigade suggested the gays choose some other night, then suggested splitting receipts, both of which GLF rejected. After all, it was Gay Pride Week, not just any Thursday. And as things got tense, reports GLF, the Brigade called the gays faggots and threatened to rape them. Right now, the two groups are trying to work it all out. GLF has demanded that five of 20 persons sent to Cuba be gay. GLF has expressed its political communion with the Cuban revolution on a number of levels, but it refuses to tolerate anyone’s inhumanity toward homosexuals. “Members of the Brigade have the nerve to show us pictures of concentration camps for homosexuals — camps they never saw,” said one GLFer, “and tell us they were just nice health camps, that they were places where homosexuals were being helped to get their thing together. Goddammit, we don’t need to get anything together! They do.”

Even at Sunday’s march, there was a mini-confrontation when an 8th Street Black Panther paper-hawker called out “Get the Panther paper and stop all this foolishness.” Several gays pounced out of the line of march with angry cries of “listen, brother, cut that shit out!” It all ended peaceably with some tense shouts of “Right On!” and “Power to the People!” but it is clear that the radical movement is going to have some of the same problems with gay liberation that it has been having with women’s liberation.

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Just as many movement radicals are more readily attuned to racism than sexism, more willing to preach black liberation than cope with their own male chauvinism, so the gay movement has added a whole other dimension to the struggle, for some the logical extension of women’s lib. Women’s lib has begun to expose the plastic role mitosis of our society, the diseased polarities of male and female. More and more that analysis has led into an exploration of homosexuality as a realm where traditional sex roles are more easily jettisoned. (“Women’s liberation is a lesbian plot!” announced the Lavender Menace.) Many women have found it impossible to relate to men in a non-sexist manner, and have begun to re-discover their identity and sensuality through sisterhood. (There is nothing sacred about homosexuality, of course, male or female. Many gays play the same butch-femme role-games with the same arbitrary sex coordinates.)

For men, of course, radical brotherhood is with other peoples, Third World peoples, blacks, chicanos. We, as men, objectify our brotherhood because we can’t hug and kiss in the streets, because we are taught that sex is male and affection is female, and to be affectionate with another man is womanish. (One man alone is a man, but two men together equals a woman.) So we slap each other on the back and jab at each other’s shoulders — don’t touch too long.

The black experience is safely compartmentalized; we’re not about to change color or culture. But there is nothing stopping the heterosexual going gay. Who is a latent homosexual? That is the threat posed by gay liberation. It is a challenge to all our macho chauvinism, a challenge to shed our protective skin and open up ail the insides. The implications of gay liberation are not that everyone is gay, or that everyone should be gay (“you can’t knit a homosexual,” said one GLFer), or even that everyone must have a gay experience. The implications are that we must begin to cope with our own non-sexist loves and affections, and not let our sexual preferences distort and color our entire emotional life. To that extent gay liberation is not a problem, but perhaps the most profoundly revolutionary movement we are in touch with.

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Ideally, bisexuality is the pot of gold. But practically, there appear to be few honest bisexuals. Many male homosexuals who do have affairs with women, or are married and have affairs with men, often are simply clinging to the respectability and rewards of the heterosexual life, unwilling to accept the full impact of being gay. For straights, it is tempting to use bisexuality as a prophylactic in confronting the threat of the gay movement. Exclusive homosexuality, after all, is just as repressive and dehumanizing as exclusive heterosexuality. Even if there is some significant biological reality to bisexuality, however, it is clear that politically that logic belongs to an era when integration was the yellow brick road. As long as gays are oppressed, as long as they are beaten on 14th Street and quarantined in underground bars, as long as they are told they are less than complete, less than normal, less than human, then the first step in gay liberation must follow that of black liberation: black is beautiful, gay is good. And maybe when we can see through the screens of our own fears and frailties, maybe then we can begin to talk about integration and bisexuality.

Certainly Sunday’s march was a monumental step. Not everyone was quite ready for it. As the crowds began to swell around Sheridan Square, one man was pacing back and forth and muttering, “It’s too soon, it’s soon.” A Christopher Street resident told an interviewer, “Mankind is falling apart. It’s like the Roman era. Everything is decadent.” An irate older woman was having a fit because the assemblage was disrupting her 1 o’clock mass. Startled onlookers were doing triple takes at the spectacle, men kissing men in the street, women kissing women, everyone holding hands, and the crayoned signs of the Lavender Menace reading “We are the dykes your mother warned you about,” “Sappho was a right-on woman,” “Everything you think we are, WE ARE!”

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Among the marchers themselves, the majority were young, political, and freak. It was clear that the quiet West Enders still wanted to keep their homosexuality private, still saw their sex life non-politically, and were hesitant to share it with the cameras, tourists, employers, and families.

For sheer power of analysis, however, the day’s award must go to a burly-looking straight with a football helmet and letter jersey, interviewed for TV in Sheep Meadow. “What do you make of all this?” he was asked. “Well, I’m from Alabama,” he explained, “and at home you back into ’em everywhere. But it sure is something to see ’em all united. Hell, it sure is something.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Sylvester: Staying Alive

In Sickness and Health, Sylvester Keeps Mighty Real

TWO IMAGES OF SYLVESTER:
It’s 1978, and disco rules. Donna Summer may be acknowledged as one Queen of Disco, but for gay men, Sylvester is the Other Queen. The falsetto singer has suddenly gone from drag infamy to hit records without giving up the gowns. “Dance (Disco Heat)” is hustling up the pop charts, and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” isn’t far behind. Sylvester and his background singers the Two Tons o’ Fun are whipping up audiences of every race and sexual persuasion with spiritual voices and sinful rhythms. Whirling and twirling and shrieking out gospel-inflected dancefloor exhortations like Little Richard’s kid sister, this San Franciscan man in glittering couture looks and sings as if he’s just seen God … boogie.

Now it’s 1988, and Sylvester has AIDS. He’s joined the People With AIDS group of the San Francisco Gay Pride March in a wheelchair. Although he’s just 40 years old, his thinning gray hair, sunken features, and frail body make him look 25 years older. This is Sylvester’s first public acknowledgment of his illness, and the transition from glamour maven to out-patient has made him almost unrecognizable. The few who spot him cry, or gasp in shock, or applaud his bravery. For almost 20 years, Sylvester has been an icon of San Francisco nightlife: outrageous, bold, proud. Today, Sylvester is a symbol of a totally different San Fran­cisco — a gay man struggling to stay alive.

“Sylvester is as he was then,” says San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin, “one of the few gay celebrities who never renounced his gayness along the ladder of success. He’s allowing us to celebrate his life before his death, and I don’t know a single star who has the integrity to do that. In sickness and in health, Sylvester has carried on with the identical spirit.”

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LIKE SO MANY BLACK SINGERS, Sylvester learned how to sing in church, at the Palm Lane Church of God and Christ in South Los Angeles. But from the very beginning, there were factors that made this familiar rite of passage unusual. Sylvester’s mother, Letha Hurd, introduced the young Sylvester James to a minister, Jerry Jordan. Under Jordan’s guidance, Sylvester performed at gospel conventions around California. His showstopper was his interpretation of “Never Grow Old,” the first record by the woman who has remained Sylvester’s idol and major influence, Aretha Franklin. Already, Sylvester was being groomed for divadom.

“Sylvester was so small,” recalls his mother, “he used to stand on a milk box while he sang. He would tear up the church, people would be screaming and hollering, and then he’d go play in the parking lot.”

The Pentacostal church was also where Sylvester had his first homosexual experience. “I was abused by an evangelist,” says Sylvester, “when I was seven, eight, and nine! He really did a number on me, but it never made me crazy. But you see, I was a queen even back then, so it didn’t bother me. I rather liked it.”

“I wanted to take a shotgun to that evangelist,” says Sylvester’s mom.

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Sylvester’s precociousness made him a difficult child. His father didn’t like him, and he fought constantly with his mother. After living awhile with his wealthier grandma, Sylvester ran away to live with friends while still in junior high. He did finish school, and two years at the Lamert Beauty College in L.A., where he studied interior decorating. It was then in 1970, that the 20-year-old Sylvester was invited to San Francisco to teach the Cockettes how to sing gospel.

“What we did came out of smoking pot, dropping LSD, and watching old movies on TV,” recalls Kreema Ritz, one of the original dozen drag queens that made up the Cockettes.

The Cockettes grew out of a group of hippies who belonged to the Food Con­spiracy food co-ops. George Harris, son of an off-Broadway actor, took his new moniker, Hibiscus, in 1969, when he was picking drag out of dumpsters and mak­ing food deliveries to hippies in the com­munes. Hibiscus was invited by filmmak­er Steven Arnold and Bill Graham’s accountant Sebastian to appear with her friends at a special New Year’s Eve edi­tion of the Nocturnal Dream shows at the Palace Theater, a deco building that showed Chinese movies by day. To ring in the new decade, the Cockettes danced the cancan to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” The crowd approved, and the Cockettes became a regular Palace attraction.

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“The term gender-fuck was coined to describe the Cockettes,” says Martin Worman, a/k/a Philthee Ritz. This for­mer drag queen is now an NYU perfor­mance art doctoral student writing a dis­sertation on his Cockette past. “We were a bunch of hippie radicals. We’d wear our trashy drag in long hair and beards and sprinkle glitter everywhere. Rather than trying to reproduce an image of women, we’d do our take on the image. You must remember that we didn’t have the money to do faithful reproductions. We did our drag on welfare and food stamps.”

Sylvester made his Cockette debut in 1970 as an island mammy in Hollywood Babylon wearing a ’30s bias-cut dress and singing “Big City Blues.” For the next year, Sylvester played crucial roles in ever more elaborate and deranged Cock­ette stage shows. Opening for the Cock­ettes’ New York debut in 1971 was Syl­vester and the Hot Band, a white guitar group fronted by the singer in a new glitter incarnation. It was about this Cockettes performance that Gore Vidal made the often-quoted statement, “Hav­ing no talent is no longer enough.”

In early ’70s San Francisco, it was hip to be a homo, and if you couldn’t be it, you approved. “That whole peace and love thing sounds so corny now, but it really happened,” says Worman. “The hippie atmosphere bred tolerance for ev­erybody, and being gay meant an explora­tion and a celebration. Even the earliest bathhouses were playful. People hadn’t yet compartmentalized their sexuality.”

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The Cockettes’ influence blossomed. When David Bowie’s San Francisco de­but failed to sell out, he explained, “They don’t need me — they have Sylvester.” Ken Russell saw the Cockettes and bor­rowed their imagery for The Boyfriend. Future mainstreamers like the Manhat­tan Transfer, Bette Midler, and the Pointer Sisters — soon to become Sylves­ter’s backup singers — all followed in their high-heeled footsteps.

The Cockettes bridged the gap between hippies and glam-rockers, between dirty denim and gold lamé. Sylvester and the Hot Band, which included future Oingo Boingo bassist Kerry Hatch and future Santana/Journey guitarist Neil Schon, garnered more attention from Sylvester’s glitter drag than the backup band’s bland boogie. Their two 1973 LPs flopped. Syl­vester skipped town, hung out in London and Amsterdam with Bowie and Elton John, and marked time until returning in ’75.

During this period the influx of gays into San Francisco began, and the num­ber of gay establishments boomed. Syl­vester would now have a larger audience to draw on, and more clubs in which to stage his comeback. The hippie do-your-­own-thing philosophy was gradually re­placed by a kind of conformity — and sep­aratism — introduced by people from small towns.

“I moved to Florida in the winter of ’74-’75,” remembers Kreema Ritz, “and when I returned, the second half of the decade had begun — grocery stores had turned into bars and bathhouses. Then I noticed all these men with mustaches, and I thought, where are these people coming from?”

THE POST-STONEWALL GAY MAN want­ed heroes he could call his own. In the absence of other role models, gays have traditionally taken to singers like Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich because they embody conflicts similar to their own — these women take male songwrit­ers’ fantasies of feminine passivity and sing them against the grain, in anger. For the generation of young men who grew up with the Supremes and discovered gay lib, r&b singers became the new divas of choice. Early ’70s soul sisters had one major thing in common with gay men­ — their suppression exploded in a torrent of sensuality. These aggressive black women provided the nighttime dancing sound­track while they captured both the alien­ation and the fervor that gay men understood.

The female singers in Ecstasy, Passion and Pain, and in Faith, Hope and Charity (the names say it all), Lyn Collins, and Patti Jo were among the women to make their mark in gay clubs without ap­proaching the pop charts. Before disco reached the masses, gays asserted their identity in the marketplace as consumers of black dance music — if few gay people were allowed to declare their sexuality on record, then records would become gay when enough gay people bought and sold them. For both blacks and gays, the new nightlife was a frontier where identity and sexuality could be explored within a protective arena. But for straight white America, which already had such institu­tions, disco translated into mainstream escapist entertainment: a barely sublimated outlet to experience the sexual rev­olution without actually living it. Before white-picket-fence America was ready to listen to homosexuals, they learned how to shop and dance like them.

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SYLVESTER’S DISCOIZATION came in time for the genre’s commercial peak in 1979; according to Sylvester, “the year when queens ran the music business.” The disco department of Casablanca Rec­ords, the hugely successful independent label behind Donna Summer and the Vil­lage People, was run by many gay men like Marc Paul Simon, who died earlier this year from AIDS. The most famous disco promoter, Warner Bros.’s Ray Ca­viano, was also among the most open about being gay, and every major compa­ny had their own gay-dominated disco departments. The world wanted to party, and no one knew how like gay men.

But not for long. San Francisco super­visor Harvey Milk was assassinated in ’78, and the mood of gay San Francisco shifted. Anita Bryant’s campaign to re­peal gay rights ordinances had already brought the cult of respectability into gay politics — no one wanted to look or carry on as if they might be taken for a queen. Gay sexuality fragmented. It wasn’t enough to try everything: you had to de­clare yourself into leather, Levis, cow­boys, or chicken, or something.

Then the media announced that “disco sucks,” a catchphrase that attacked the music scene while making a homophobic slur. The record business was only too happy to give up on what they couldn’t control. Disco departments turned into dance departments, or were phased out altogether. As far as Sylvester was con­cerned, there wasn’t a reason for alarm. Unlike many disco artists, the singer had an identity that could transcend trends. People would continue to like Sylvester for reasons that went beyond the beat.

BEFORE HE MADE HIS DISCO MOVE, Syl­vester himself was no fan of the music. Harvey Fuqua, veteran Motown producer and former lead singer of the Moonglows, had signed Sylvester to Fantasy, a jazz­ oriented label. Sylvester, in 1977, present­ed a far more conventional soul singer, and by that time, he had acquired his background weapons, Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, the Two Tons o’ Fun. “I was just not into those skinny black girl singers who would ‘oooooh’ and ‘aaaaah,’ ” Sylvester recalls. “I wanted some big bitches who could wail.”

But there was still something missing in Sylvester’s new r&b approach. He got what he needed from Patrick Cowley, lighting man at the City disco, the Bay Area’s largest and most important gay venue. Cowley had kept his songwriting and synthesizer experiments secret until his homemade remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” became the local rage. Im­pressed, Sylvester asked Cowley if he wouldn’t mind making similar synth ad­ditions to what was originally a ballad, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and another uptempo cut, “Dance (Disco Heat).” The two songs became top forty singles and turned the next album, Step II, into gold. Sylvester had finally arrived in the lap of mainstream America, stilet­to heels and all.

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But when the disco market crashed, Fantasy Records panicked. They wanted to force him in the direction of black male vocalists like Teddy Pendergrass. First to go was Cowley’s synthesized Eu­ropean (which in clubs means gay white) influence. As time went on, Sylvester had used more and more of Cowley’s input — ­both his synthesizers and his songs — un­til Fuqua barred Cowley from recording sessions.

The resulting Cowley-less LPs, 1980’s Sell My Soul and ’81’s Too Hot To Sleep, were blacker and straighter — they sound­ed more like the kind of r&b played on black radio and less like the disco heard in gay clubs — but didn’t do well in either format. “I told them, ‘You can change my image, but I ain’t changin’ shit!’ ” says Sylvester. “So I went to the office in a negligee and a blond wig and ran up and down the halls. Then I terrorized their studio until they had to give up.”

Fantasy did relent, but only after pre­venting Sylvester from recording until his contract expired in 1982. By then, two things had happened to Cowley. Since he could no longer play with Sylvester, Cow­ley started his own recording career in ’81. His first single, “Menergy,” alluded to street cruising and backroom sex. Nev­ertheless, it became a No. 1 dance record in America, a pop hit internationally, and defined the future sound of gay clubs­ — hi-NRG. But before all that, Cowley started falling ill to unexplained things.

“We had gone on a tour of South America around 1979 or ’80,” Sylvester recalls, “and during the tour, Patrick got sick. We all thought it was the food. When we got back, he never could get completely well again. Soon he was com­ing down with everything you could imagine, and no one knew why.”

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Some assumed that Cowley’s illness was a psychosomatic fear of success. In truth, the possibility of never recovering drove Cowley to produce more. But he kept getting sicker, and eventually plead­ed with Sylvester to unplug his life-support machines. To give him something to live for, Sylvester told Cowley that he had to recover so they could record to­gether again. Miraculously, Cowley pulled through, and for $500, the pair made “Do You Wanna Funk?”

Shortly after “Do You Wanna Funk?” became one of the biggest dance hits of ’82 and gave Sylvester the needed career boost, Cowley’s death became one of the first publicized as resulting from AIDS. “At the end, he really got bitter,” Sylvester says. “The doctors didn’t know any­thing —  he died of some kind of pneumonia.”

After losing his friend, Sylvester kept his musical collaborations to a minimum. He helped write, produce, and mix three albums for Megatone, the local disco in­die, and because they were recorded cheaply, all turned a profit. The Two Tons o’ Fun went solo, became the Weather Girls, and scored big with “It’s Raining Men.” In 1986, Warner Bros. li­censed Mutual Attraction, which includ­ed the black radio and club hit “Someone Like You,” and then signed the singer. A hacking cough cut recording sessions for the next album short. Sylvester was hos­pitalized with pneumonia, and diagnosed with AIDS.

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SYLVESTER LIVES IN A MODEST apart­ment in San Francisco’s still tangibly gay Castro district. Aside from a few gold records on the wall, there’s nothing in his home that registers more than middle-­class opulence; a big bed, a big TV. A few things do clue you in on its owner’s per­sonality — a framed collection of gloves, Aunt Jemima pepper shakers, a giant Free South Africa poster hanging above the bed.

Sylvester and his manager Tim Mc­Kenna greet me. McKenna looks like most people’s idea of a San Franciscan gay man  — blond, mustachioed, trim. Only he looks a little too trim, and his eyes seem a bit sunken. I think, “Another sick person.” (McKenna, I find out later, does have AIDS, and has already lost his boy­friend to the disease.) Sylvester has the nurse pull out a portable TV, and asks if we wouldn’t mind watching it for a few minutes. Drag queens are on Donahue.

I ask all the difficult questions first. November of last year, the fevers began. He started taking aeresolized pentama­dine, a drug prescribed to prevent people at high risk from coming down with pneumocystis pneumonia, the most life-threatening disease associated with AIDS. But Sylvester had missed his treatment while on tour near the end of the year. On December 4, the last show of the tour, Sylvester appeared at a Philadelphia AIDS benefit. Once he got offstage, he couldn’t catch his breath. That night marked the end of his performing days and the beginning of trouble.

“When I came home from the hospital, I weighed 140 pounds,” says Sylvester. “Now I’m at 167, but my normal weight was 190 to 200 pounds. Thank God I always had a great fashion sense and I knew how to make myself look thinner. I was always on a diet. This wasn’t quite the way I wanted to do it.”

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AIDS once again hit too close with the loss of Sylvester’s lover Rick Cramner, an architect with whom he lived for two years. As with Cowley, Cramner’s illness was shrouded in mystery.

“Rick never told me he was sick — his pride wouldn’t allow him to ask for help. He was here one moment and gone the next. He went and died on me after promising he would never leave me. He promised me this. There were many things that only Rick knew. They’re gone now. I’ll never know them unless I see him someplace.

“It was two days before my 40th birth­day, and we had to turn off his machine. He was gonna die that weekend anyway. But if he had died on my birthday, honey, ooh, what a mess I would’ve been for the rest of my life. I need a boyfriend so bad. I’ve been in mourning for a year now and haven’t had sex for longer than that. It would be so nice to have somebody to wake up to in the morning. But where am I gonna find a boyfriend, hobblin’ around and lookin’ strange? I guess I’m destined not to have one again, and that saddens me. I really believed that Rick and I were gonna be together in sickness and in health. We were, weren’t we?”

Sylvester’s fame alone can’t pay the doctor’s bills. Although he says his insur­ance covers most medical expenses, he needs more than the revenue from back catalogue royalties. McKenna says the singer has virtually run out of money.

“A lot of people wanted us to put out a greatest-hits LP,” says McKenna. “I’ve been resistant because those albums can be so tasteless. But we had to put out something, because Sylvester has nothing to live on. (Megatone will release 12 by 12: Sylvester’s Greatest Mixes.) Right now I’m planning a benefit for him sponsored by the National Gay Rights Advo­cates that Warner Bros. is underwriting. There were times when I thought I could bring a mobile recording studio to his home, but I realized that was just me trying to continue like nothing has changed. It’s hard to let go sometimes.

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“Everywhere I go, I run into people who want to know how Sylvester is. I get a little crazy sometimes because it’s the only thing I’m allowed to talk about. And there’s the impending void that I still don’t know how to deal with.”

True to his exceptional self, Sylvester has the traits of many who live years beyond their diagnosis: he has a fighting spirit, he refuses to see himself as help­less, and he can talk openly about his illness. But AIDS is a great leveler, and like his music, he sometimes leaps from hope to despair.

“Who was I gonna hide the disease from?” says Sylvester. “I’m gonna die from it — if indeed that’s what will hap­pen. If I kept it a secret, what good would that do? I’ve been doing AIDS benefits for many, many years, long before it be­came fashionable. It would be ridiculous to be secretive about it now.”

But get him on a topic that spurs his feisty sense of humor, and he’ll straighten his back and make a little effort to lean forward. His hands will start dancing in the air, and expressions like “honey,” “child,” and “Miss Thing” will slip into the conversation. His eyes will light up, and then you can get a glimpse of the disco diva that lies behind the mask of illness.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to think the worst,” says Sylvester, “because I’ve been a queen long enough. I’ve been gay for 41 years — I’m 41 years old. I didn’t need to take the AIDS antibody test. I know what I’ve done. Why would I waste those $90 when I could go shopping?”

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SYLVESTER HAPPENED AT A TIME when disco had gotten too plastic,” says An­drew Holleran, author of Dancer From the Dance, the classic novel about the early gay days of disco. “But he mixed celebration and sadness in a way that I felt hadn’t been done in years. I hate to use the ‘f’ word, but Sylvester was fabulous.”

Disco is often remembered as a wild­ly — and sometimes annoyingly — upbeat music. But during its early formulative years in the gay clubs, disco encompassed everything from joy to pain, often in the same song. The disco classics that under­ground DJs now reach for in the early morning after a night of acid house or Latin hiphop are most often those rec­ords that took the bittersweet approach. Because his past encompassed both the emotional lows of blues and the spiritual highs of gospel, Sylvester became a major part of that melancholy party tradition.

The ultimate meaning of Sylvester’s voice lies in its ability to convey both the joy of the party and the horror that lies behind it. With the same phrase, Sylves­ter could evoke the delirious escape the party gave you, and the fear of what you’re partying to avoid. For gay people, the party began at that moment after Stonewall when they refused to hide anymore — it was both a celebration and a defiance. Through his voice and his suc­cess as an openly gay man, Sylvester em­bodied both of these things. That he could pull it off was understood by his audience as a harbinger of greater triumphs to come. For if he could be that wild, glittery, unreal thing up there, you could simply be you.

Just as his recording of “Do You Wanna Funk?” with Cowley was an at­tempt to give his dying friend the courage to stay alive, the second wave of success Sylvester had from that song was a sym­bol of the struggle to keep the party alive despite AIDS. And for awhile, the politics of dancing shifted from moving ahead to holding onto the small freedoms of pleasure. Now the party lives on in picket lines, in benefits, and in rallies to keep those like Sylvester alive. ❖

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THE SINNER’S GOSPEL SINGER

He didn’t learn to sing like that,” says Gladys Knight. “His talent was a gift. I am very critical, but my mom is even more critical than me, and she was the one who insisted I listen to him. She used to play his records all the time.”

When Sylvester took on disco, he found the music that his voice was made for. Disco grew out of multitrack record­ing technology, which allowed for a greater amount of instrumentation to be heard more distinctly. The classic Mo­town Sound was meant to be heard as one sound. Disco, on the other hand, was a structure of interlocking parts. The new way of making music brought out new elements of style — the hissing high hat, the guitar that scratched and plucked, the bass drum on every beat, the Barry White strings that would go up, up, up. Vocals, too, had to be ap­proached as another component in the mix.

Contrary to myth, disco generated more than its share of great singers. Disco was all about excess; with all the instrumentation going on around them, singers had little room left for subtlety. Since most disco was speedy, the singer often sang twice as slow as the beat, and therefore needed the breath control to sustain long notes or complete a lengthy phrase without coming up for air. And because the average disco song was low on lyrical content, a singer had to com­municate through the voice what the lyricist didn’t have the words to say.

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Good disco singers navigated all the changes in the musical structure and created some of their own. Not only did disco require singing about sex, one had to simulate it. The singer took an audi­ence through a musical climax, and the task called for technique and control, as well as total abandon. The best parts of disco records are often in the final mo­ments, when the singer vamps up a tor­rent of screams, swoops, and shouts to squeeze out every last drop of feeling before the DJ cues up the next record. To be remembered after a night of mul­tiple musical orgasms, a disco singer has to get under your skin, as well as in your pants.

Disco’s magnitude of sound demanded two approaches to singing. Either the vocalist was just another element in the mix — the passive, anonymous, breathy tones of Silver Convention and early Donna Summer — or one had to soar above it all — the aggressive, almost op­eratic assault of Loleatta Holloway and First Choice. Much of the Philly soul featured smooth, high-pitched male vo­cals, and the Bee Gees turned into pale falsetto imitations. When Blondie went disco, Debbie Harry mimicked Sum­mer’s confrontational pillow talk. Just as many disco songwriters avoided gender­-specific nouns so as to appeal to both straight and gay audiences, the disco singer often embraced androgyny or its opposite, an exaggerated and traditional sexual identity. Both tacks were central to the gay aesthetic.

It was Sylvester who brought the pas­sive/aggressive vocal approaches togeth­er in one voice. Like Luther Vandross, another singer Fantasy wanted to model Sylvester after, Sylvester worships Queen Aretha. But whereas Vandross sings in a manly register and reaches for Franklin’s sweetness, Sylvester assumes a heavenly tone while expressing it with Lady Soul’s hellfire ferocity. Through his falsetto, Sylvester became simmering blues diva, wailing gospel mama.

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“I thought that we were really the same person,” says Patti LaBelle. “We perform alike. We look alike. We even sound alike. I really like me — I like the way I sound. But I feel exactly the same about him.”

Disco was the gospel music of sinners. What Sylvester could convey better than any other male singer of the late ’70s were the final moments of sex — the ec­stasy, the release, the explosion. Rather than reminding you of the body, Sylves­ter’s music captured that instant when your soul jumps out of its skin. When Sylvester describes a lover’s caress, it’s as if he’s feeling the mighty surreal touch of God. There are two poles of Sylvester’s world — the disco and the church — but unlike Little Richard, Al Green, and Prince, Sylvester doesn’t see the pleasures of the body and the spirit as opposing forces, like sin and redemp­tion. For Sylvester, God is on the dance­-floor as He is in Heaven.

B.W.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz. The quick brown fox doesn't know what he's doing. Neither does the sphinx of black quartz.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Juneteenth, the Day the Last Ones Heard

Skin Trade: Forty Acres
July 14, 1992

There are three legends that are told of how enslaved Africans in the Texan territory came to know of their freedom, and why the word didn’t get to them until two months after the civil war ended, which was a good two and half years after Lin­coln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Or, to make it plain, rather late. One legend says the messenger, a black Union soldier, was murdered. Another says he arrived, but was delayed by mule travel. (A variation on this is he stopped to get married.) The third and favored is that the news was withheld by white landowners so they could bleed one last crop from slave labor. What is held as fact is that June 19 — the day that federal troops rode into Galveston with orders to release those kept as slaves — has been celebrated, in Texas and beyond, for 127 years, as Emancipation Day, as Jubilation Day, as Juneteenth. The day the last ones heard.

Juneteenth, the name, is one of those fab African Americanisms, functional, rhythmic, at once concise and not too concise. It fuses the month of June with the number 19, and eludes that the holiday was held in adjoining states on different days of the month as folks got the word. Early emanci­pation rituals were not exclusive to Texas or these territories (South Carolina and Mississippi’s fall in May), or to the South. What may have been the first emancipation ceremony was held in New York as early as 1808 to mark the legal cessation of the slave trade.

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No state comes close to Juneteenth in Texas, the black folks’ Fourth parades, feasting, pageants, and preachifying. Eman­cipation-day organizations in Texas date back to the turn of the century. The most powerful image from the early days must have been the former slaves themselves, who, according to tradition, marched to­gether at the end of the parade lines. By the 1950s, Juneteenth Day came to be linked with freedom not from slavery, but from segregation. Texas’s Jim Crow cities would allow blacks to be citizens for 12 hours a year by granting them entry into whites­-only parks and zoos. With the passage of the civil rights bill in the ’60s, refined black Texans abandoned Juneteenth to their country cousins and took to celebrating in­dependence day in July along with their majority brethren. A Juneteenth renais­sance has been gathering steam since the mid ’80s, spurred by the latest wave of the Afrocentricity crusade. It’s become in re­cent years not just a hootenanny for black Texas (to use the condescending folksy por­trait favored by the local press), but a holi­day eagerly adopted nationwide by African Americans in search of cultural signposts. Not to mention one that offers a dramatic, tube-and-T-shirt-friendly soundbite of black history.

The J-Day momentum is due in large part to the efforts of a man who could be called Daddy Juneteenth, state representa­tive Al Edwards from Houston. Edwards sponsored the bill that made Juneteenth an official Texas holiday 13 years ago, no small feat in a state that still closes banks for Confederate Heroes Day. Juneteenth U.S.A., Edwards’s organization, is tracking J. Day rites across the country and raising funds for a national educational headquar­ters. To Edwards the holiday has tremen­dous secular and sacred promise. He sees it as an economic vehicle for African Ameri­cans, as well as a day that should be ob­served of almost holy remembrance. “The Jews say if they ever forget their history, may their tongues cleave to the roof of their mouth … Let the same happen to us,” he cautions.

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You can find Juneteenth rituals in all regions of the country now. States like Cali­fornia where Texans migrated en masse have held Juneteenth festivities for de­cades. The New York area’s largest is in Buffalo, tapping into upstate’s rich history of antislavery activity. Wisconsin counts at least five, including Milwaukee’s, where Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1971 and is the best-attended single-day cultural event in the state. Far from being family picnics, these festivals sometimes last for days, made possible by the legwork of com­munity groups, city cooperation, and pri­vate sector donations. Often old world knocks against new-world when Miss June­teenth pageants (inherited from towns like Brenham, Texas, which crowns a “Goddess of Liberty”) share the stage with Afrochic street fairs ablaze in faux kente.

Juneteenth in Minneapolis, now in its seventh year, is becoming known as one of the most progressive and trendsetting J­-Day celebrations in the Texas diaspora. What began as a poetry reading in a church basement is now two weeks of program­ming including a film festival and an Un­derground Railroad reenactment.

There are those who think Juneteenth is an embarrassment. That the holiday tells more of our ignorance and subjugation than of an inheritance that predates slavery in the Americas. Or that it’s “too black,” and promotes a separate but not equal Fourth of July, or “not black enough” be­cause it’s funded by white purses. And, of course, that it’s far too symbolic and doesn’t solve anything. What does a June­teenth celebration mean anyway when the Freeman’s Bureau never gave us our 40 acres? (Not thrilled about news of the state holiday, one former Texas legislator had this to say: “Dancing up and down the streets, drinking red soda water, eating watermelons … I grew out of that.”) But Juneteenth critics are few, and what they have to say hasn’t put a dent in the holi­day’s grassroots popularity.

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Buried in their shopping ethos, we tend to forget holidays were once holy days that defined us in more profound ways than what Nintendo jumbo pack we got for Christmas. Michael Chaney, an arts activist in Minneapolis, believes that Juneteenth rituals could be more than acts of racial communion but could have a role in rede­fining America: “We have to realize our own role as historians. We need to ascribe our treasures and offer them to the world. Juneteenth should be a day for all Ameri­cans to get in touch with the Africanism in them.”

Juneteenth does have great possibilities as a new American holiday. The families that emancipated slaves made were com­plex: they weren’t just about blood type but about family beyond kin, family as commu­nity. In this tradition, modern Juneteenth doesn’t circumscribe any Dick-and-Jane paean to the nuclear family. You can be a single parent, gay, from D.C. or Ann Arbor; it’s a history that includes you. You can read the Emancipation Proclamation out loud or drink some red soda water if you damn well please. Or just take a moment out of your day to think about all the folks that laid down nothing less than their lives so that you could see the 20th century.

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