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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.

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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.

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Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Harvey Milk: Homophobic Homicide

“We know what killed Harvey Milk,” said a young man in a bomber jacket at 18th and Castro, the center of gay San Francisco. “It was just plain, old-fashioned homophobia.”

That was the feeling in the gay community when it learned that the nation’s only openly gay city official had been shot dead, allegedly by the city’s most anti-gay official.

Harvey Milk was no ordinary supervisor to his constituents in the Castro area. During his years as a camera shop owner on Castro Street, the democrat from Woodmere, Long Island, became known as the gay communi­ty’s unofficial mayor. Early races for supervi­sor in 1973 and 1975 proved unsuccessful, but Milk gathered strong grass-roots support among unionists and other minority group members to win a landslide victory last year.

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He was an outspoken leader of the Board of Supervisors’ most liberal members. That made him the political nemesis of the board’s most outspoken conservative, Dan White. Milk was a Jewish, former Wall Street broker, fond of describing himself as a “left winger, a street person.” White represented a heavily blue-collar district and was proud of his background as a member of the San Francisco police and fire departments. In March, White was the only member of the Board of Supervisors to vote against the city’s broad gay civil rights ordinance. In October, he cast the only vote against closing Polk Street for the city’s annual Halloween party.

San Francisco’s gays shed few tears when White resigned from the board for financial reasons on November 10. When he decided to withdraw his resignation days later, Milk was among many liberals who successfully urged Mayor Moscone not to re-appoint White to the seat. Moscone was to announce the new supervisor just minutes after his final meeting with White. After allegedly shooting Moscone in his office, White went to the supervisors’ offices, where he allegedly shot Milk.

Though the acting mayor, Diane Fein­stein, will undoubtedly appoint another gay supervisor from the Castro area, it will be hard to find a politico with the substantial support outside the gay community that Milk had cultivated. Knots of stunned and somber people gathered around sold-out newsstands to look at the extra editions that described the shootings. Said one young man bitterly, “You just can’t do a thing like this without somebody doing something back.” ■

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Stonewall 25: Miss Attitude 1994 Is Over You

Got to Be Realness: Miss Attitude Is Over You
June 28, 1994

They keep assuring us she’s on her way. Her assistants buzz around us. “Girl­friend’s always late. She on C.P. time.” “The Devil gonna be selling Sno-Kones ’fore that bitch get here.” Finally, a bespec­tacled, porcine androgyne with a pungent jheri curl even in his beard emerges from the entourage and laughs at my complaints. “She waited long enough for your asses, now it’s your turn,” he says, snapping his fingers directly in front of my nose, in delib­erate violation of my personal space.

MC: The International Center for Fabulous­ness is proud to introduce our next guest. She will be giving one of her legendary lectures as the keynote address of our annu­al three-day conference/drag ball. You’ll note that the speech is listed in the program under the title, “Git Out My Face, Bitch: A Black Gay Queen Reads Your Ass.” One of only three nominees for Miss Attitude, she’s regarded by those who don’t know better as the authority on black gay life, and was recently appointed the James Baldwin Professor of African American Effeminacy at Harvard. Her book, Don’t Play Me, Play Lotto, You Might Win, has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for over 50 weeks and has millions of white suburban teenagers who once idolized Chuck D snapping their fingers and walking around with their hands on their hips. Ladies and gentlemen, gentlemen dressed as ladies, and women dressed as wimmin, a queen who needs no introduction. Please admit that it’s all about Miss Banji Realness.

Applause. Whistling. That Arsenio dog­barking noise. Banji takes her time ap­proaching the podium, the usual combina­tion of overness and scorn hanging fashionably from her face. She’s a very tall, light-skinned man with finger waves and beaucoup-de-silver jewelry complementing her ribbed black turtleneck bodysuit. She takes a sip of the Cosmopolitan provided for in her contract. Her bracelets jangle like wind chimes as she shuffles her notes on the lectern.

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BANJI: A few weeks ago, this very sweet white girl — as opposed to the obnoxious ones who try to tell you what black people are like, meanwhile they never even watched Good Times to find out what FAKE Negroes look like — this very sweet white girl asks me, “So, Miss Realness, you’re gay and black … what’s that like?” I was actu­ally relieved to hear this question phrased so innocently, I’ve heard it alluded to indeli­cately so often. I rather cryptically said, “You can see better.” Naturally, she wasn’t satisfied.

“See what better?” she asked.

Miss Realness, hand on hip, smirks and looks at the ceiling.

Now any gay person can see the homo­phobia in heterosexuals, but Miss Thing and her ilk have firsthand experience seeing homophobia and shadism from African Americans, racism and homophobia from gays, homophobia, racism, shadism, and a side of cole slaw from other black gay men. You can even see the misogyny that holds it all together.

She ain’t had no clue. “What do you mean, homophobia in the gay community?”

“Come on, Twinkletoes. Do flaming queens get your dick hard?”

“Umm … I generally like straight-acting guys …”

“I hope they don’t act straight when you get them in bed, honey.”

You could’ve heard a mosquito fart. Then she changes the subject. “What was that about misogyny?”

Miss Realness delivers a withering look to the audience.

I told her, it’s all about penetration, dar­ling. In this messiness we call society, the penetrators think they’re superior to the penetratees. They believe desire for men, inseparable from desire for penetration, is an exclusively female and therefore inferior trait. All these motherfuckers walking around think they’re real men ’cause they don’t get fucked and they don’t ack like no queen. Honey, you ain’t even thought about what it means to be a real man till you’ve bled all over the sidewalk ’cause some fool hit you with a baseball bat. Gonna tell me you’re a real man when you ain’t questioned the definition of masculin­ity that gets handed down from absent fa­ther to future wife abuser to noncommuni­cative couch potato? Na-aah, honey, homo don’t play that.

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Realness wags her extended index finger at the audience.

I just don’t have no patience for arrogant motherfuckers who don’t appreciate what it is to risk death to love as they please. After that one, Goldilocks’s jaw dropped.

“You seem to have a lot of anger,” she whined.

I rolled my eyes and replied, “When your white gay brothers shun your ass for being black and your black brothers shun your ass for being gay, there’s a certain point where you just stop taking shit. It can take a long time, though. Some people I know are eating three meals a day in a restaurant called Chez Shit. Waiters of all denomina­tions come up one after the other saying, ‘My name is whatever, I’ll be giving you shit today. Our specials are Shit With Mush­rooms in a Tomato Cream Sauce, Shit Flor­entine Sautéed in Garlic, Grilled Shit With Ricotta Cheese and Pesto Spread on Toast­ed Sourdough …” They throw so many fancy ingredients on top of their shit that it starts sounding good, and then you’re, like, sauntering down the line at life’s buffet thinking: ‘Lobster Thermidor? Nah. Filet mignon? No. Hey! Could I get some of that Bowel Movement Au Jus?’

Luckily for me, I could never hide in no damn closet. I can’t hide my black ass and as soon as I open my mouth, I’m a faggot. So I have to defend myself, and if it can’t be with fists it’ll be words. I don’t need people who be igging my ass dictating my values. And that goes for straight-acting homosex­uals, too. I make up my own values, and you know Girlfriend values her makeup.

“I must say you come on pretty strong. Why do you think you have such a loyal following?” she axed me, as if there were a need to axe. By now I’m about to rip her head off. “’Cause I tell the truth,” I said. “And deep down, people need to hear the truth, and not some half-truth that makes them feel safe. They need to hear the truth that wrecks them, that makes them run home screamin’ to they Mama. And when you tell the no-frills truth, they have to respect it. My girl Essex Hemphill calls it ‘the ass-splitting truth.’ So go ahead, bitch. Split my butt open with that truth dildo.”

Then she in my face going, “Well, truth is not inherently male.” I told her, “Honey, anyone can own a dildo.”

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Held behind the velvet ropes during Realness’s previous appearance as a nomi­nee, I was determined to get on the list to see her at the awards ceremony. The buzz was that she was a shoo-in. After bribing the publicist and the thin party promoters in crushed-velvet shirts who function as her security guards, I squeezed into the back of’ the auditorium.

HOST: Welcome to the fifth annual Miss Attitude Awards. I’m Marcal D’Johnson. Each year, SNAP, the Society of Nubian American Pansies, doles out another award to the Queen of Queens, she who most exemplifies the giving of face. The winner must have poise, grace, dignity, and a fierce look. We’re not talking about a certain rough ’ho who will remain nameless even though her name is Devonell Williams who we had to disqualify for working at a certain store that will remain nameless although it is called Woolworth’s.

CONTESTANT 1: Would you just shut up and give me the goddamn award so I can make my 1 a.m. appointment?

D’JOHNSON: (To Contestant #1) So they have a curfew at your welfare hotel now?

CONTESTANT 1: (Doing side-to-side head moves) Like I give a shit about winning your two-dollar plaque. I could go down to K mart and buy one myself.

CONTESTANT 2: You forgot, the Kmart don’t take food stamps.

CONTESTANT 1: Well you would know, bitch.

D’JOHNSON: And now the moment you’ve been waiting for. The envelope, please. And the winner is … Miss Banji Realness! (Ap­plause. Pause.) Miss Realness couldn’t be with us this evening, because, as her per­sonal assistant’s personal assistant tells us, she had “better things to do.” She did, however, send us this videotaped accep­tance speech. A video monitor springs to life, and we see Banji talking on the phone. After a few minutes she looks at the camera contemp­tuously, and sucks her teeth.

BANJI: I don’t need your stupid-ass award. ■

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

Stonewall 25: Daddy Is a Dyke

Forbidden Games: Daddy Is a Dyke
June 25, 1994

“Can’t we please go see The Flintstones??!!”

“Only if you’re good.”

“I’ve been good! I’ve been good!” The speaker, a twentysomething lesbian who at the moment is being an eight-year-old boy, chants. “Want to see The Flintstones, want to see The Flintstones!” None of this elicits the reaction she wants, so she begins to dance around her companion, singing: “Flintstones! Meet the Flintstones! They’re the modern Stone Age family!”

She’s only gotten to the third verse by the time Daddy — another lesbian — hauls the boy into the bedroom by his ear. “You’re going to make Daddy very angry,” she says in a menacing tone that barely masks a strong undercurrent of glee and lust.

Fifteen years ago, lesbians might have been thrown out of their collectives for even thinking about sex games like this. Lesbians eroticizing Daddy is about as taboo as straight men declaring that they want to be sodomized by Tinkerbell — it doesn’t mesh with the image we struggle to maintain. But in the past few years, Daddy/boy (or girl) erotic role-playing has emerged in the lesbian community — even among women who don’t normally walk on the wild side.

For three years, an annual Dyke Daddy contest in San Francisco has drawn crowds of women — “and not just leather women,” says the 1993 titleholder, Skeeter. A recent London émigré, she says Daddyplay has become popular among U.K. dykes as well.

In New York, a sexual backwater by Bay Area standards, an audience of primarily vanilla dykes erupted with lust and empathy when Peggy Shaw flaunted her identification with all things Dad-like in a one-woman theater piece, You’re Just Like My Father. Shaw’s character lost no opportunity to attach herself to maleness — binding her breasts, lathering her face, and scraping a razor across her hairless skin. (I, too, attempted to shave as a child.)

If there’s a presence that’s been repressed in feminism — the womb of lesbian culture after Stonewall — it’s the father as erotic object or, even more troubling, as a source of love. “This is dedicated to our mothers,” wrote the collective that produced a lesbi­an separatist issue of Yale’s feminist magazine Aurora in 1982, “not to our donors.” In the lesbian imagination, the symbol of selfishness, domination, and even violence has been Dad.

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Yet a whole set of emotions has been repressed in the rush to resist the Law of Father. For many of us, there was a longing for connection mixed in with the fear and anger. Even more forbidden for lesbians in the age of feminism is hatred for the mother, whose status as the ultimate source of sustenance can arouse conflicting feeling in any child. Furthermore, mom’s overwhelming power in the home is directly proportional to her lack of power in the world. For some lesbians, even the remoteness of the father is preferable to that. “Being a lesbian can be seen as voting for Dad,” observes writer Pat Califia, who is editing a porn anthology called Doing It for Daddy. “It can be read as saying, ‘My life is going to be more like my Dad’s, I’m not gonna stay home and be taken care of.’ ”

Like the lesbian who plays Daddy/girl games in one of Califia’s recent stories, Peggy Shaw is repulsed by her mother’s unbounded nurturing, which becomes flirtatious and suffocating — almost a form of sexual abuse. Shaw flees to Dad for safety, not just love and power. Even his sexism and occasional smacks are preferable to Mom’s slavish devotions. Shaw appropriates his arched white shirts and summer ties, not just to access Dad’s power but to luxuriate in his way of life. Almost as if she could touch his skin beneath the clothing, she dresses herself in masculine finery: boxer shorts, an army uniform, and that ultimate patriarchy garment, a suit. She finally croons James Brown’s hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” in a voice that seethes with bitter irony longing and love.

Shaw’s reversal of traditional feminist economies is one of many torch songs to the father that lesbian culture has belted out this year. When Fatale Video, the only major lesbian-owned porn producer in the U.S., released a video called Dress Up for Daddy, you could practically see Adrienne Rich’s theory of the lesbian continuum spinning in it’s grave. According to this idea — which became a cornerstone of lesbian feminist politics when it was published in 1978 — lesbianism is a natural identity for women, and heterosexuality a false one, because all true erotic urges stem from a desire for union with the mother. In Rich’s schema, no one — not even gay men — could ever really want to unit with the father, understood as a withholding, punitive, and therefore unequivocally unattractive figure.

The open longing for women who evoke Daddy might appear to be a mere expression of the growing acceptance and erotic validation of butches in the lesbian community. But even a cursory scratch beneath Daddy’s false whiskers shows it’s much more than that. Women who go for butches can tell themselves they like masculine women, and that’s all. But looking for Daddy in another woman means explicitly acknowledging the erotic appeal of men. It means acknowledging something erotic — if only on a phantasmic level — about a population we frequently hate and fear. For many lesbians, the erotic appeal of men stems precisely from contempt — a sexual strategy not unlike some drag queens’ eroticization of a femininity they find contemptible. When Phranc impersonated Neil Diamond last year for an audience of wildly enthusiastic lesbians, half the kudos she got were for portraying Diamond’s offensive sense of male entitlement, and half were for how sexy the audience found that persona to be.

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Admitting a fetish for Daddy means eroticizing patriarchy — literally. In this masquerade, Daddy means much more than our individual fathers and the roles they have played, for good or ill, in our own lives Daddy in the lesbian bedroom is an icon of male power and privilege in all its social vastness. “Daddy is King Shit,” says Lily Burana, editor of Future Sex. He represents the force on whose behalf dykes are derided and attacked all our lives, because we have refused the role assigned us in relation to it.

To many lesbians, the idea that any woman would fetishize sexism is as shocking as a rape fantasy can be. But it shouldn’t be surprising that a persona we resist at great cost, and from whom the threat of violence never completely abates, should provoke such intensely erotic feelings in us. “A typical scene would be me in a pretty white pinafore, and ‘Daddy’ brushing my hair with this total letch vibe,” says Burana.

Daddy-play is not always idyllic. How could it be, and still be true to the origins of the fantasy? “You’d like to suck my cock, wouldn’t you?” a dyke Daddy asks her lover in the Califia story. “You’ll get it later, little-girl whore.” Elsewhere, “Daddy” tells her” “This is my pussy. I made it. So it’s mine. I can do anything I want to it. Including fuck it. Or hurt it.” The words are so repulsive because they are the true life litany of rapists, bashers, and abusive fathers. Why would lesbians ever want to hear this in bed? Explains Califia, “People want to rub their secret private places on this horrible awful thing and get off on it.”

Anger and fear are not the only feeling aroused in lesbians by the sundry ways men dominate women. Envy is another. “When I’m Daddy, I’m a hot, mature, hairy, male, well-hung person,” says “Marc,” a Bay Area lesbian. A lot of what’s hot about Daddy play is that it makes room for a vicarious participation in the sleaziest and least defensible forms of sexism — in a community that makes a fetish of interpersonal ethics. Instead, these women are making a fetish of the indefensible, in order to manage it through arousal. Explains Dyke Daddy Jo Leroux, “For the majority of us, a male figure conjures up some type of abuse — emotional, sexual, or physical. For me, the word Daddy was a nightmare until I became one.”

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My own father hardly ever took me in his arms the way most lesbian Daddies do. After a brief honeymoon before I’d reached the age of five, he almost never showed me tenderness. The last time I saw him was the only time I ever saw him cry. I was boarding an Amtrak train back to college and my father was dying of cancer. It’s one of the happiest memories I have of him, because it’s the only time he expressed grief at losing me.

All my life, it was impossible to reconcile the fantastic man who’d whirled me around in the air as a three-year-old with the father of self-loathing who replaced him. The Dad my father became could find no other way of touching me except with the back of his hand. This Dad was always defeated, smarting, worthless in his own eyes. He knew he deserved every belittlement he got. And I hated him so intensely for so long that I’ve only recently discovered that I wanted his love as much as he wanted mine. When I think tender thoughts about my father these days, I usually imagine him not as the Daddy who scared me, but as the scared, sweet little boy I would have liked to know.

“Good boy,” I say, stroking the hair of someone I want to shelter and keep watch on all night long. “What a beautiful boy you are.” The woman resting her head on my lap and her knees on the floor shivers when I say this. She presses her buzz cut even more fully into my hands, and I begin to melt.

Historians of queer sex say dyke Daddies emerged from a fetish promulgated by gay men in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when it was hyped by the s/m magazine Drummer. According to gay culture critic Michael Bronski, Drummer used Daddy stories as a way of broadening its appeal. “It filled a void for men who liked butch men, older men, tough men,” Bronski remembers. “All the guys in Blueboy, Honcho, and Playguy were not only vanilla, but slim and hairless.” In 1989, Daddy, and entire gay magazine devoted to this fetish, was founded. Soon, there were daddy porn films. A crossover fantasy had emerged.

In dyke hands, the fetish changed significantly, centering less on body type than on the combination of dominion and tenderness that the idea of Daddy was beginning to evoke in the lesbian psyche. This figure caught the interest of dykes outside the leather community last year, at the same time when lesbian chic became a hot topic in the mainstream media, Bronski has a theory about why: “In the late ’70s, gay men understood themselves to have more social power than ever.” Daddy fantasies became “a way for them to negotiate” anxieties about their own advancement. “No one is quite comfortable having it,” Bronski explains, “so you trade it back and forth. For lesbians in the ’90s, he proposes, “it’s the same thing, 15 years later.”

Any newly empowered social group might feel ambivalent about its prerogatives, but American lesbians are notorious worry-warts about power. Suspicious of social hi­erarchies, focused to the point of obsessive­ness on our responsibility not to misuse whatever influence we have, lesbians have begun to register queasiness about the mainstream culture’s tentative outreach to us. Lesbian-chic cover stories generate great anxiety within the community be­cause they raise the disturbing possibility of lesbian clout.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715684″ /]

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s protagonist Mo speaks for every lesbian when she in­dulges her famous fears about the political ramifications of the most trivial decisions — like selecting a breakfast cereal at the su­permarket. The bravado of the Lesbian Avengers, who speak of “fighting fire with fire”and prohibit all discussions of theory at their meetings, is the other side of this coin. The prospect of power makes lesbians so frantic that we typically face its contra­dictions either too attentively, or not at all.

The moral question for anyone who wants to wield power is how to manage its opposing faces: nurturance and chastisement, the willingness to defend and destroy. The character of Daddy encompasses both poles of this dialectic. It’s one of the few personae in lesbian culture that does.

Some lesbians want their Daddy’s affect to be brutal and heartless, others seek a gushy Dad who’ll cluck over their scraped knees. Most dyke Daddies combine the two. Their play usually involves some form of consensual physical discipline — a taboo in lesbian sex, and one that is symbolic of overarching lesbian fears about the corrup­tions attendant on power. It’s no accident that the sex-play lesbians are using to re­connect with an authority they have long mistrusted should often include spanking, a handy way to experiment with power and manage one’s ambivalence about it.

“When the rage rises from my gut,” says the autobiographical narrator of a Daddy story by Wickie Stamps, ”I know I am my father’s child.” A scene between Stamps’s narrator and her lover goes like this: “ ‘Daddy, please don’t hurt me,’ she says, and I do. ‘Daddy, please don’t fuck me.’ And I do.”

I never showed my father how angry I was at his violence. But I needed so badly to embrace the angry, sadistic Dad that still lives in me. All my tenderness was secreted behind a brutality I was too scared to touch. I couldn’t love a woman until I had made room for the part of myself that’s burning to correct a certain misbehaving boychik born in 1932.

As a lesbian Daddy, I can be the nastiest old man in the world and still keep my little lambkin safe — and loved — enough to want to see The Flintstones from the shelter of my arms. ■

Research assistance: Mocha Jean Herrup

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Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stonewall 25: Gay Rites

Gay Rites: A Wedding in Denmark, a Ceremony in New York
June 25, 1994

Sometimes you stay around long enough to see things you missed. Whole decades come back, and this is actually the most orienting thing that can happen in New York, a city that’s so utterly about people and time and the prestige certain individuals continually resonate. Jill Johnston, 64, and Ingrid Nyeboe, 46, are beaming, walk­ing up the stairs with a shower of confetti falling down on them. This is all taking place on one of several monitors in a large apartment in Soho one night last fall. For those new in town, Johnston is the author of the anarchic masterpiece of ’70s femi­nism, Lesbian Nation. She was also a leg­endary Voice columnist who made a career of being there and writing about it.

The event being communicated to us is their wedding, last June 27, in Odense, Denmark. Odense was the home of Hans Christian Andersen, author of The Emper­or’s New Clothes, who was gay, I’ve been told. The tape plays on and we see a Flux procession — two blue men carrying flowers. One is Geoff Hendricks, with his pants fall­ing down. There’s a batch of strangers in the ensuing crowd, a Great Dane, someone carrying a little red chair aloft, and soon we see the two women in white sitting down in front of some kind of civil servant. Jill says (I think) “I am” and nods. Ingrid says something in Danish. Later they’re in an art museum, and the happy couple sit in a blue Volkswagen that looks like it’s going no­where. They do look happy sitting there, waving and waving,

What’s going on? The party called “Wed­ding Party” in Soho was, like I said, one of those nights you’re glad you stayed here for. People kept walking in, Beth the young video artist and Lauren her sculptor ex­-lover (what are they doing together here?); there was Pauline Oliveros, Andrea Dwor­kin (omygod!), and numerous people from every walk (mostly art world) who qualified in some way as Fluxfriends or FOJs (Friends of Jill). An ex-lover of Ingrid’s spoke up too as the evening swept us along through recordings of bells from Riverside Church and poet-conceptual artist Alison Knowles did something with bread. Geoff Hendricks, Flux-meister (still blue), had a star shaved in the back of his head (“Stars for Jill and Ingrid”), and Jill got up and read a piece (“Deep Tapioca”) that reminded me of the public secrecy of her Voice columns but glimmered also with a confirmed poetry as solid as stone. Then all of us got up one by one and had a Polaroid taken of ourselves standing with a really silly knit hat on in front of a picture of a statue of Psyche. We handed over our wishes on pale green index cards that were then pinned over the classical image of love, and it was a confus­ing and sweet and inclusive-feeling night in New York.

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The domestic partnership announce­ments had been beaming into my mailbox all fall — Laura and Elizabeth’s full-color snapshot, Cydney and Val’s black on-beige-card stock. Over at Carmelita Tropicana’s, I saw Peggy and Lisa’s stuck on the refrigera­tor. How do you feel about lesbian mar­riage? I asked her. She gave me a long rambling speech about “rights” and then interrupted herself. “Look, I’m trying to date, honey.” In general, “marriage” is not a lesbian thing. Of the 11 couples who got hitched on October 1, 1989, the day mar­riage (or partnership) was legalized for ho­mosexuals in Denmark, all of the takers were men. Else Slange, head of Denmark’s gay organization, says she “has a personal ideological opposition” to marriage. And it’s not so much different here. The Mattachine Society had marriage on its agenda from the get-go; the Daughters of Bilitis were only just deciding to “come out” in the ’50s. You could say dykes are slow, but I think it’s more than that.

Today Tom Stoddard, lawyer and direc­tor of Lambda Legal Defense and Educa­tion Fund, who spoke at Ingrid and Jill’s wedding party, is at the helm of pushing marriage to the front of a national gay agenda. But Paula Ettelbrick, policy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, expresses a fear that a progressive agenda would be lost if marriage became “the” gay issue and suggests that “those who are most acceptable to the mainstream because of race, gender, and economic sta­tus are the most likely to want the right to marry.”

Her language begins to make marriage kind of heinous, referring to it as an “im­penetrable institution [that] gives those who marry an insider status of the most powerful kind” — which does ring true, not just in terms of my married friends’ hetero­sexuality, but how they get kind of close­-mouthed about things after they tie the knot. One feels a little out forevermore, at least until they part ways. Despite our sor­did reputation for moving in after the first date, lesbians are cultural loners, flinging ourselves into relationships because we know all too well how it feels to be the ”odd man out.” In general, lesbians often identify with (or are) economic outsiders, who would have little to gain from entering into this venerable institution, and many lesbi­ans are simply suspicious of a society that protects couples.

Denmark, according to Ingrid and Jill, protects every citizen.”I did it for the bene­fits,” laughed Jill, one Saturday when I visited the two. “I could go there and be a baby.” As a spouse of a Danish citizen, Johnston immediately qualified for a slew of benefits including a medical card, which in a socialist economy means a lot. The coun­try longest occupied by Germany during World War II, Denmark managed to save 80 per cent of its Jewry. The famous gesture of the Danish king putting on a yellow star is part of the national psychology, I’m told. Though it had colonies into the 20th centu­ry, Denmark’s moment as a true empire was over by 800. Today it’s a Lutheran country with a long tradition of compassion and caretaking. “Standing out is not good,” says Ingrid, who came to New York at 21, on the heels of her gay brother, to study theater. ‘”If you do something great, you are congratulated but also reminded that you are still one of us.” Appreciation of this flip­-flopped status resounds through Jill’s wed­ding poem: ‘The [Danish] queen must be a little like the Japanese emperor — a man with no family name and no passport who can’t vote or run for office. The people in these places have all the privileges.”

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Ingrid’s brother died of AIDS in 1989. Then Jill urged her to go back to Denmark where she hadn’t been for 10 years, her parents having both died in 1976. AIDS is cited again and again as the contributing factor in gay marriage, both in relation to inheritance, visiting rights, and leases, as well as being part of a larger emotive move in the gay community toward forming more permanent relationships — getting familial. ”As soon as I got involved with Ingrid I became a better mother,” says Jill of the new friendship that’s developed with her now adult children from a marriage in the ’5os. And Ingrid had been married too, back in the ’60s.

I went to a dinner party last weekend with seven lesbians, our ages ranging from late twenties to mid sixties, and six out of the seven had been married. To help some­one get a green card (maybe even making some money along the way), or for conven­tional reasons, whether seriously embarked upon or vaguely considered. Marriage, the institution, as it sits pretty in so many wom­en’s pasts, is almost the polar opposite of coming out, which is still so much about pushing away from the walls of the, okay, I’ll say it, Patriarchy.

“Women in prison, that’s who like to get married,” says Carmelita. What do you mean? “Women marrying women. It’s very popular in jail.” For months I’ve been poll­ing friends and acquaintances, dykes. What do you think of lesbian marriage? “It’s an oxymoron,” said Patty White. “Why can’t we just make our vows to the rocks and trees,” shrugged Nicole Eisenman, “why the State?” “So we can stop having sex, like them?” said Sarah Schulman. “Every­one knows that’s what happens to people who get married.” “Or live together,” I added. “Right, that’s why I never live with my girlfriends.” “You’d think they’d encourage us to get married just to stop us from having sex,” I suggested, and we both laughed and got off the phone.

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Hawaii is not that different from Den­mark. Now there’s a ludicrous statement. But let me keep going, okay? There are only minorities there (in Hawaii), no real major­ity, so their democratic tradition is structur­al. When Jerry Falwell came to town, they formed the Moral Majority of Hawaii with progressive goals and tried to sue him when he arrived for using their name. Sound familiar? It’s very much like putting on a star. In Hawaii the question is being framed in relation to gender rather than homosexual­ity — if a man can marry a woman, why can’t a woman? The state court will have to have a good answer for that.

According to Jill, the gates were wide open in the early ’70s and thousands of women were rushing through, coming out, and then they closed up by ’76 or so. I like her kind of history. The sweeping lives of individuals shine like symbols — “they appointed certain people,” she explains. Later, when I sat with her and Ingrid and watched their wedding on the monitor again, I suppose it was like sitting with any couple over their album. Then we’re looking at a map of Denmark, and it’s explained to me that Ingrid’s family drove five hours, from here to here — she points on these fish-­shaped slices of land that mean “nation”­ — and I’m shocked, I suppose, that cultures are so different that one country in the world, and then one state, could open the gates to such a basic human privilege, the ceremony of belonging (or owning), wheth­er we want it or not.

Meanwhile, at least one of the new do­mestic partnerships is making plans for a more formal ceremony. Cydney Wilkes (of Cydney and Val), a choreographer, wants to “score” her wedding, with lots of women kissing on cue and several other mass ges­tures, just across the river in Brooklyn, an event rivaling Ingrid and Jill’s Fluxus pa­rade. And me — I’ve gone around since the end of last year asking every lesbian I know if she wants to get married and of course it’s been a confusing proposal.

Categories
Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stonewall 25: The Coming Crisis of Gay Rights

June 28, 1994
By Richard Goldstein

I

YOU HAVE TO HAND IT to the homos: We know how to gather.

We traverse continents, ford oceans, and endure Greyhound cavalcades just to be with each other in undeniable numbers. Sex has little to do with it. These queer congre­gations are, first of all, a way to keep the bashers at bay. But there’s another reason why we flock. In a society so dedicated to our disappearance, bringing vast numbers of lesbians and gay men together reconsti­tutes the world, turning parade routes and rally sites, whole downtown areas, into an image of the future that no longer forces us to keep our feelings so painfully confined. That exhilaration we feel in each other’s company is the buzz of redemption. So Stonewall 25, which promises to be the biggest gay gathering ever, is not just a commemoration, not just a party, not just a demand for civil rights. It’s a healing cere­mony. A queer tikkun.

But there’s a morning after. You wake up, turn on the tube, and devour the 52 seconds of coverage (followed by equal time for the tiny band of fundamentalists that always rains on our parade). Next day, you pick up the tabs, snicker at the inevitable photo of men in gowns, and go into work vowing to wear that pink triangle like a crucifix. And you do, for about two days, until the subtle distance between you and the guys at the watercooler becomes a pal­pable tightening of lips. You realize you can only show queer when a critical mass is achieved. Rest of the time, there are table manners to be observed, and the napkins are made of Brillo pads.

Twenty-five years of homo holidays haven’t erased the stigma that haunts us. The dominant culture continues to regard our attempts to heal the world as a threat. And our enemies prey on our visibility. The middle-class face we present enables the right to organize where it’s never been welcome before: among Hispanics and Afri­can Americans. Hate jocks mock us. Preachers imprecate us. Our legislation re­mains stalled, our entreaties to the military are rebuffed, our need to create a climate of tolerance in the schools is dismissed. And we are left with a sense of collective isolation that parallels the watercooler quarantine. The personal is political: For us, that axiom is a sentence carved into our backs.

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This is the paradox of Stonewall 25. At. the very moment when our pride is at its peak, our political agenda is in jeopardy. We face the gravest threat to gay rights since the election of Ronald Reagan, in the form of ballot initiatives denying us basic protections against discrimination. In Con­gress, the situation is no less ominous. As the right rolls over the Republican party, and Democrats scramble to hold the center, our freedom is on the line.

Our foes are as formidable today as they were on that weekend in 1969 when the fair­ies fought back. The gains we’ve made since then are fragile, because they aren’t backed up by constitutional guarantees. This is the major difference between other civil rights movements and our own. It makes gays vulnerable to the whims of politics. And decades of conservative dominance have produced a judiciary loath to confer “new rights,” especially on the loathed.

Some time soon, the Supreme Court is likely to take up the matter of gays in the military. At stake is the Clinton administration’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which, in its tortuous attempt to codify discrimina­tion, has the potential to wreak havoc on gays even outside the military. Remember that, in all but eight states, it’s perfectly legal to fire a queer. Now factor in the military’s “new” standard: There’s no prob­lem as long as homosexuality remains in­visible; it’s only when someone asserts a gay identity (by making a public declaration or expressing same-sex affection) that the apparatus of expulsion is brought into play. If the justices uphold this strategy, it may well be because they frequently allow the military to set special standards. But those standards are often the basis of civilian poli­cy. If the gay ban stands, it could well become a model for employers worried about the public relations implications of having openly gay workers. The result: In much of America, coming out would once again become an extremely risky act.

As if that weren’t ominous enough, the Supreme Court could soon rule on the con­stitutionality of antigay ballot initiatives. So far, lower courts in Ohio and Colorado have kept those measures from becoming law, but this fall, voters may get to consider similar provisions in Oregon, Washington, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, Michigan, Mon­tana, Idaho, and Arizona. These measures typically override gay rights laws, as well as forbidding public agencies, schools, universities, and libraries from “advocating” homosexuality. In effect, these laws ratify discrimination and censorship, and the fact that they usually pass by wide margins is an ominous sign of how formidable the resis­tance to gay rights remains.

Just this week, a Time poll found that 62 per cent of Americans favor the passage of laws to protect gays against job discrimina­tion. Yet, when antigay initiatives are on the ballot, about the same percentage vote to keep such discrimination legal. One rea­son why is the right wing claim that gays are asking for “special rights.” It’s a handy smoke screen, allowing voters to evade a hostility they’re ashamed to openly admit. But in fact, most Americans are profoundly torn about gay rights. On the one hand, we are all members of a secular culture that enshrines the ideal of equality in the consti­tution; on the other hand, we are products of a homophobic tradition with its roots in religion. Indeed, many gay theorists would argue that this homophobic “faith” is es­sential to the organization of heterosexual­ity as we know it.

That’s essentially what the Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Hardwick deci­sion of 1986, when a slim majority found that the constitutional right to privacy did not apply to sodomy. More precisely, the court left open the possibility that laws against oral and anal sex might be unconsti­tutional when applied to heterosexuals, but not when it comes to homosexual acts. The decision itself was riddled with invective rarely heard in regard to questions of personal morality. Chief Justice Warren Burger quoted English criminal statutes describing homosexuality as an offense of “deeper ma­lignity” than rape; he cited penalties against sodomy “throughout the history of Western Civilization,” since Roman times.

The Supreme Court would never have applied such reasoning to the long tradition of anti-Semitism or the venerable structure of slavery. But gay rights is distinct from these struggles because it involves the orga­nization of sexual identity, and that issue is ultimately more central than even racism to Western religious belief. Blacks had to deal with the Curse of Ham, and Jews had to contend with the charge of deicide. But queers are up against something even more tenacious: a relationship between the sexes that calls itself natural law.

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Given this dogma, and the willingness of secular authorities to defer to it, no wonder the Supreme Court allowed sodomy laws to remain on the books in 21 states. Though these provisions are no longer used to jail violators, they allow the state to conceive of homosexuals as members of a criminal class. On those grounds, antigay discrimi­nation is held to be rational. What if the Supreme Court were asked to decide whether voters could ratify such discrimina­tion? It may happen, as right wingers ap­peal lower-court rulings throwing out such ballot initiatives on constitutional grounds.

It is possible, of course, that the current crop of justices will affirm these lower-court rulings. Justices Souter and Ginsberg are said to look more kindly on gay rights than their predecessors did. Had these two voted on the Hardwick case, the decision might have gone differently. But even liberal ju­rists fall back on standing law. Having al­ready decided that states may pass laws against homosexuality, would the court for­bid voters from effectively doing the same, by nullifying laws that protect this “criminal class”? It might, but don’t bet on it.

If the court upholds some form of these initiatives, they will spread like wildfire, from region to region, effectively stopping gay rights legislation in most states. Gay studies courses at public universities might also be threatened, as would public funding for gay-themed works of art, and even gay books in public libraries. Though it seems impossible that such sweeping changes could occur in America today, laws that apply only to state institutions can easily exert a chilling effect. Even the explosion of interest in queer culture could be stifled if the right wing, fueled by the success of ballot initiatives, makes it risky to produce gay films and plays, advertise in gay-friendly publications, or sponsor TV shows with gay characters.

This retrenchment is already evident in the medium most vulnerable to backlash: public television. Fundamentalist objections to the airing of Tales of the City, a gay-­friendly adaptation of the book by Armis­tead Maupin, led PBS to back away from sponsoring a sequel. Just last week, my colleague Ellen Cohn reports, the local PBS affiliate, WNET, decided it would be wrong to mention the word pride in ads for its gay-­oriented programming. Pride connotes pro­motion, something WNET cannot counte­nance, even as it pitches product to a gay audience.

American culture is a sturdy beast, but never underestimate the power of politics to tame it. Queers are always poised upon the slippery slope to oblivion. When it comes to representing our relationships, regulating our discourse, and repressing our expres­sions of affection, we are all vulnerable to the Clintonism “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

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It must seem to our enemies that gay rights is sweeping the land, but in fact, our victories so far have been provisional. Gay rights laws can and have been repealed; bold initiatives, like the original Clinton plan to end discrimination in the military, can and have been overturned. Our history in the West has been written in fits and starts. The Weimar years, perhaps the gold­en age of gay culture in modern Europe, were followed by the holocaust. The Russian revolution, which did away with laws against homosexuality, was followed by Sta­linism, which made them more severe.

Looking further back, one discovers peri­ods when homosexuality was tacitly tolerated in Europe and times when it was brutally suppressed. The scholar John Boswell has unearthed dozens of same-sex union cere­monies, dating from the 8th to the 16th centuries, when they were endorsed by the same church that now opposes gay relation­ships. My point is that sexual identities are fixed neither within the individual nor in history. The fascination and denial, empa­thy and revulsion, with which the world regards homosexuality may correspond to some internal process of personality forma­tion, or it may relate to larger historical currents that shape human sexuality. In any event, this ambivalent embrace means that gay people can never count on being safe. The cultures we create are always in danger of being obliterated.

Consider New York during the Jazz Age, when, according to historian George Chauncey, an elaborate and highly public gay milieu was part of the city’s life. It came complete with bars, bathhouses, and drag balls. It was openly represented in the theater and widely covered in the press. How could it all have disappeared? Chauncey’s book, Gay New York, reveals that a series of laws passed during the Great Depression made it illegal to represent homosexuality, to operate an establishment that catered to queers, or even to serve them drinks. It was this legal structure that drove gay culture underground, where it remained (in the clutches of the Mafia) until Stonewall. Are we so certain of our place in the present that we cannot imagine such a thing hap­pening again?

Even as we convene for the greatest gay show on earth, the right wing has taken over the Republican party in Texas and Virginia. Nothing new here, except the pos­sibility that the Democrats, uncertain about how to keep the right in check, will throw us to the holies as a bone. If that becomes the strategy of the midterm elections, mod­erates who support us more from conve­nience than commitment could defect. It would take only a few purges of gay-friendly incumbents (such as Virginia senator Charles Robb) to assure a deafening silence in the halls of Congress, not to mention most statehouses. If the Republicans win control of the Senate and continue to rack up victories in the cities, we could wind up cast as the wicked witch of American poli­tics, writhing as our power (which was real­ly never that great) melts away.

Not in New York, you might think; it can’t happen here. But, to some extent, it already is. Faring badly in a poll against Republican candidate George Pataki, Gov­ernor Cuomo has begun to waffle on the bias-crimes bill, a controversial measure largely because it includes homosexuals. At a press conference last week, Cuomo shocked gay activists by predicting the bill would die in the Republican-dominated state senate, effectively sealing its fate.

Meanwhile, Mayor Giuliani walks the line between welcoming the Gay Games to his town and welcoming homophobes to his administration (as long as their hate is a tenet of faith). Progressives who would court the constituency that elected Giuliani are tempted to follow his lead. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, a support­er of gay rights, has been rubbing elbows with some notable homophobes since he decided to run for state attorney general. In a recent column in the Jewish Press, Hynes described the anti-bias bill as protecting people against crimes directed at their “race, creed, national origin, sex, disability, or age, etc.” Queers are the etcetera that dare not speak its name.

As Americans, gays proclaim that we alone create our destiny. We convince our­selves that, simply by coming together and making a joyful (or angry) sound, we can will society to make a place for us, on our terms. But freedom is never simply the result of individual agency. The Stonewall riot was a significant event because society as a whole was ready for the change those queens ushered in. It takes no credit away from them to say that they were a product of their time, nor does it cast blame on today’s out-and-proud legions to suggest that all our passion and pride may not be enough to stem the conservative tide.

Even as we march and celebrate, we need to assess the shifting political winds. If the right-wing resurgence goes unchecked, new laws may be passed against which not even Roseanne can protect us. We need to imag­ine what life would be like under novel forms of repression, designed to jam us back into the closet. We need to hear that slamming door, if only to wedge it open.

But pessimism is not my purpose, and nothing I’ve described is inevitable. The premise of democracy is that ordinary peo­ple, acting together, can shape politics. That concept applies with special urgency to queers. The denizens of Jazz Age gaydom never took to the streets when laws were passed transforming them into second-class citizens, and the result was 40 years of silence. But the denizens of Stonewall did, and the result was freedom.

How we act in the face of the present danger will be a crucial component of our own future, as it has been throughout the AIDS crisis, when solidarity and resistance kept the worst instincts of a polarized soci­ety at bay. But in a sense, civil rights is a more difficult struggle than the fight against a deadly disease, because it entails nothing less than the renegotiation of power and privilege. Dominance, after all, is what hides behind the mask of social necessity. And the preservation of dominance (racial, sexual, global) is precisely what gives the right such power in our time. These are the storm troopers of the order.

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II

BUT WHAT ABOUT our own right wing: that cadre of queer conservatives, so refreshing on Charlie Rose. What Larry Kramer was to the ’80s, Andrew Sullivan is to the ’90s. This openly gay editor of The New Republic is not only thoughtful and sincere, he’s ef­fective enough to be attacked by bigots, attractive enough to appear in a Gap ad, and possibly the most influential gay intel­lectual in America. He’s written briefs on behalf of gay marriage, but he’s against Roe v.Wade. That distinction is not incidental to the politics of gayocons.

But hold on — how can there be a gay right? The answer is, how can there not be after a generation of conservative hegemony? Of course, most gayocons would prefer to be called libertarians. Their politics re­semble those of William Weld, the Republi­can governor of Massachusetts. Weld is not averse to cutting services to the poor, but he’s all for gay rights. So is Marvin Lieb­man, though that didn’t stop him from be­ing a Friend of Bill (Buckley, that is), a confidant of Ron and Nancy, or a closet­-mate of Roy Cohn. As penance for his at­traction to Very Important Homophobes, Liebman is currently campaigning for gay rights within the Republican party. That, and only that, is what separates him from other conservatives.

Nor do the progressive social impulses of gayocons usually extend to matters of race. Nearly all the members of this fraternity are white. And male. They act like it. New York Native columnist Stephen H. Miller moni­tors “male bashing” by the women’s move­ment, and regularly rails against the “femi­nist-directed ‘lesbigay’ amalgamation” of gay life. He’s every bit as bitchy as Howard Stern when it comes to identity politics, but every bit as fervent as Tony Kushner when it comes to gay rights — and every bit as out.

Is there a contradiction here? Yes and no. Visibility may seem like the signature of gay liberation, but it’s merely a product of the larger social critique that emerged from Stonewall. Who better than drag queens (many of them black) to enlighten us about the hierarchies of race, class, and sex? The gay right removes homophobia from this radical analysis. Theirs is a movement to sever our movement from liberation ideology.

Take Bruce Bawer, whose book, A Place at the Table, is the volume of choice for straights who sympathize with gay rights but not gay rites. Bawer’s thesis is that reconciliation between homosexuals and society is possible, if only queers would act like they belong. Part of doing that, Bawer insists, is abandoning the gay movement’s affection for the politics of alienation. In shuffling off that coil, he argues, the conventionality of most gays would become evi­dent. And seeing these shining happy faces, America would open its ample arms.

What follows is a Family Channel version of the story of the Prodigal Son, complete with marriage, migration to the suburbs, and a two-car, two-dog family. It’s a tempt­ing fantasy, at least for well-off white males. And it may be that, in America today, class is a more significant marker of social status than sexuality. But it also may be that, as the Jews of Europe learned, when a vehe­ment right-wing movement succeeds in mo­bilizing society against those it deems devi­ant, there is no safety in the camouflage of convention.

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There are several reasons why our move­ment is situated on the left. For one thing, gay liberation, like feminism, has been part of democratic socialism since the 19th cen­tury. For another, gays and progs share a sense of standing apart from the dominant culture. Yet, what ultimately ties us to the left is our ethic of individualism. For con­servatives, selfhood is the mark of an elite; those who have it show it, by rising to the top. But for progs, individuality is every­where. It’s the arbiter of knowledge, the seat of identity, and— as Walt Whitman pro­claims — the ecstatic engine of democracy.

Of course, there’s another tradition on the left, the Marxist-Leninist one, which regards individualism as a contemptible bourgeois tendency. Marx himself was a homophobe (not above distinguishing be­tween “men of the front and men of the rear” when referring to himself and his ri­vals on the democratic left), as is Castro. Mao suppressed homosexuality when he came to power, unleashing what is thought to be one of the century’s most brutal anti­gay pogroms in Shanghai.

Though overt opposition to gay rights has all but disappeared from progressive dis­course, it persists in a tendency among left­ists to regard all claims of oppression as suspect unless they are grounded in race or class. This assumption accounts for the fail­ure of the left to address homophobia — as well as sexism — in black arid working-class cultures. It surfaced during the debate over the Rainbow Curriculum, when many progs fell silent rather than offend minority par­ents enraged that their children were being taught to respect homosexuals.

The ideology of class struggle allows left­ists to deny their own homophobia. But that’s just part of the puritanism gay libera­tion struggles against and, as anyone who’s been thrown out of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival can attest, it’s hardly limited to straights. Nor is puritanism anywhere near as prevalent on the left as on the right, where the individual is only to be trusted when tightly bound by family and faith. This is the signal irony in gay conservatism. Their lust for acceptance leads these homo-­normalists to valorize a system whose very rigidities deny us a place at the table, unless we cease to be ourselves.

The biggest blunder of gay conservatives is to ignore the most important alliance gay people can make. That is the bond between queers and feminists. It’s no surprise that the gay right overlooks this possibility. Their frat is not just male, but masculinist. Though they’d never be caught in leather, gayocons worship the sexual hierarchy that affirms male power. That’s the real differ­ence between gays of the left and right. Radical queers struggle against sexism; theirs is a movement in which women and men tangle, for better or worse. On the gay right, such rituals of parity are ridiculed as politically correct. This jargon, appropriated from male chauvinists, is revealing. It sug­gests that the appeal of the right to some gay men may stem not just from class and race, but from a profound attraction to mas­culine authority.

It’s not necessary to eroticize men in or­der to worship their power. The same en­chantment can apply to heterosexuals. It is the primal meaning of Rudy Giuliani’s ob­servation that deference to authority is the essence of freedom. But for gay people, whose desires are straight men’s epithets, there is a special danger in building a poli­tics on the yearning for male dominance.

This veneration of male authority has al­ways existed in gay culture, along with its androgynous obverse, and it has always stood in counterpoint to our openness to feminism. In Weimar Germany, the issue of male supremacy caused a split in the fledg­ling gay rights movement, which came to a head when the Nazis first appeared. Some gay publications featured square-jawed Horst Wessel types on their covers. In these circles, feminism was blamed for the decline of great societies. It’s important to revisit this moment in light of the present danger. We will need to choose our friends careful­ly, examining our impulses lest they lead us astray. The worship of male power is a dead end for queers, as gay Germans who pur­sued that fantasy learned when they joined the Nazi movement. They achieved a place at the table — until the night of the long knives.

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There is an alternative to promoting male power. There is a politics founded on the enduring bond between women and queers. And this alliance, forged in the simi­larities between sexism and homophobia, and validated by a shared respect for the individual, has the potential to see us through the coming crisis of gay rights.

What is homophobia? As its victims, we ask this question with a special urgency, but our answers don’t always point to root causes. We blame our parents, teachers, preachers, politicians, and celebrities. We direct our demands to institutions — to churches and schools, the military and the movies — as if they represent discreet realms of social reality. We are eager to blame the hate that deranges us on Amerikkka, or the Judea-Christian tradition, as if, in some oth­er civilization, some other era, there’s a place for us. But, Stephen Sondheim’s lyric notwithstanding, there is no society — Hel­lenic or Amazonian — where gay men and lesbians, as we currently conceive of our­selves, are freer or safer. There is no place for us except the one we create today.

What if homophobia is not simply an arti­fact of culture and religion, but a central component in heterosexuality? The question immediately begs to be expanded: What if hatred of homosexuals springs from fear of femininity, and both come with the development of masculinity? What if rejecting the female within — which is also to say, the homosexual — makes straight men what they are today?

There is plenty of evidence to support this claim. You don’t have to be a Freudian to understand why a sitcom audience roars with laughter at the macho hero who enters a gay bar by mistake. You don’t have to be a follower of Robert Bly to understand why this hero struggles to smile politely while lunging for the door. The comedy here is in his attempt to be civilized amid the instinct to flee, and you don’t have to be an activist to grasp why this conflict leads to murder­ous rage.

Surely there are straight men who con­sort with the female within. And straight men who don’t fear homosexuals, because they feel comfortable with their own homo­erotic fantasies. My hunch is that such men make the best lovers of women. But they rarely rise in male societies, and they don’t dominate the culture. Those who do emerge, as warriors, leaders, heroes, and even mystics, are nearly always the other kind of male, whose butch demeanor is the product of an endless struggle against femi­ninity, and whose hatred of homosexuals is an emblem of that psychic split.

Think of the rappers who advertise their hatred of “faggots, they living in the Village like meat on maggots.” Think of Howard Stern, Eddie Murphy, that bad-assed “Dice­man,” the insouciant Axl Rose, the rude­-boys of reggae, those devilish Dire Straits. The rise of an overtly homophobic and sex­ist pop culture is part of the perception that women and queers are not just gaining power, but battering down the iron doors of the male psyche. It may well be that many men are learning to enjoy an imagination that can encompass the femme and the queer, but in the heroic contours of their culture, those boundaries must be heavily policed. Think of the number of male heroes who have expressed their empathy for ho­mosexuals. Now think of the number of female heroes who have. There’s no male Madonna. See what I mean?

Homophobia would not be so dangerous if it were simply a product of straight male identity. The rest of us could simply stay out of the way. But the problem is that these men make the laws, they run religion, they direct media empires, and until recent­ly, they determined how society should be organized.

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Consider the closet. Where did the idea that queers are tolerable as long as they’re invisible come from? Odd how it corre­sponds to the strategies of denial heterosex­ual men use to regulate their homosexual impulses. For queers, the closet is a cham­ber of horrors, but for most straights, it’s a gallery of shadows, intriguing as long as it’s shrouded in secrecy and contempt. Imagine what happens when one of these “closet cases” spots a flaunting faggot, a preening pansy, a strutting fudgepacker? He’s put up against the return of the repressed.

The closet was at the heart of resistance to gays in the military. The shower-room fantasy was more than these fighting men could bear. But if their fear was being sub­jected to the gaze of other men (and there­by transformed into “women”), how would the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prevent that? Obviously, privacy wasn’t the point. The resolution, hammered out by an all­-male committee of senators, was designed to preserve the integrity of the straight male libido, by acknowledging the possibility of homosexuality but not the reality. That same strategy informs the new antigay ini­tiatives, which is why they have been so wildly successful. These laws deny protec­tion for the open expression of a gay identi­ty. You can be fired when you come out. There is no way that sort of discrimination can seem rational unless you consider the real intention: to restore the closet. That is, to make the world reflect the minds of straight men.

It’s significant that few women in the military expressed qualms about sharing the shower room with lesbians. Polls of the civilian population showed a similar split: Most women favored gays in ,the military, while most men opposed it. Women have their own closet, and many cling to it as a mark of their receptiveness to men, but they do not require homophobia in order to maintain their female identity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t homophobic women, but it does mean that gays are more likely to bond with women than with straight men.

A line of greeting cards meant to be sent by heterosexuals to their gay friends is be­ing test-marketed in the Midwest. There are cards from parents to their gay sons, from siblings to their lesbian sisters, from straight women to their homosexual friends. But a straight man looking to send a card to a queer buddy won’t find any. The manufacturer is convinced there’s no mar­ket for that sentiment.

It won’t be easy to convince gay men to open their hearts to feminism, any more than it’s been easy to convince straight men of that. And queers may not be entirely welcome in a women’s movement that has its own anxieties about what Betty Friedan once called “the lavender menace.” Puri­tanism has its feminist version, as is evident in the crusade against pornography. But what holds this authoritarian impulse in check is the gut instinct that freedom is inexorably bound up with choice. Like gay liberation, feminism is a movement that honors the individual. It struggles for self­hood and against the sexual order.

There are important lessons here for gay politics, especially as we face an enemy whose appeal is based on the preservation of male dominance. Our struggle must be not to build a queer nation, but a world where both sexes have an equal impact on the formation of values. Such a culture would produce ceremonies and laws very different from the ones we have today. It would not produce fewer heterosexuals, but it would mean fewer homophobes. And it just might liberate queers.

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I glimpsed this future, ironically enough, at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1991, when we marched past 2 million bottle-throwing, curse-hurling, God-fearing folks. It was a spectacle of hate the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the early days of the civil rights movement, as David Dinkins would later observe. But there was some­thing else going on in that parade, some­thing the media missed, possibly because you had to be queer to notice it.

Every few blocks, we’d pass a contingent of Catholic school girls. Their response was very different from that of their elder broth­ers. They leapt and shrieked, their faces filled with joy barely held in check. Why joy, I wondered? What was it about flaunt­ing fairies that brought out the ecstasy in these girls? It set me thinking of a line from an old blues song, and I sang it to myself as I marched through that mob: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”

There’s something in that lyric about the persistence of individuality in those too young to have mastered the rules of male supremacy. And those too queer. Stonewall, that emblematic moment in the struggle against unjust authority, was also an invita­tion to find the joy in selfhood. Let Stone­wall 25 be a testament to this power. Let it be a fierce party, a clamorous protest, and a vast singing of the body electric. Let free­dom ring! ■

Research: Michael Miller 

Categories
Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stonewall 1979: This Thing Called…

This Thing Called…
June 25, 1979

I am a Christian, Lord,
but I’m a woman too.
— Tammy Wynette, singing “Womanhood”

When I was still living in New York, I gave a party to watch Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth on television. I thought this gathering would be just the right combination of sophisticated and weird; my friends and I would smoke dope, drink wine, and be smartly detached from an old story. I like trashy epics, from The Poseidon Ad­venture to The Ten Commandments, and I like retellings, maybe because as a child was taken to see Gone With the Wind six times. Anyway, whatever else you might say about Jesus, he was an interesting man, and he’s at least as important as Einstein.

My, friends thought such a party was sophisticated and weird. However, they did not realize, until the show actually started, that I intended to watch every minute of it. All three hours of it. During the Resurrection I was sitting by myself in a cloud of reefer. Most of my friends had gone home. A few remained in the kitchen, drinking wine and talking. It was better that I was alone because I was not acting smartly detached. Instead I kept laughing and crying. This behavior did not seem sophisticated and weird, merely weird. David, who used to be my editor, was the last to leave. “It’s all right,” he said, holding my hand. “I like Jesus too.” David is one of the few people I know to whom I’d apply the abused word brilliant. He is not a happy man. “Southerners,” he added, “are so Southern.”

I am living in my hometown now, where I do not hang out with brilliant, ironic friends. Instead I spend lazy days with a group of people who cultivate their pleas­ures as meticulously as they cultivate their summer vegetable gardens. I find my new friends’ lifestyles as exotic as they find my ambitiousness. “Why do you work so hard?” one of them asked me. “I don’t know,” I said, and stopped. For a while I let my days evolve into explorations of how tanned I could get, and my evenings into bouts of pinball and pool and disco dancing. If I get any more laidback, I told my new friends, I’ll have to be mounted on rollers.

But when Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth played on television again, I didn’t give another party to watch it. The rerun was an expanded eight-hour version, offered as a mini-series. I cleared my social schedule, stocked my refrigerator, rolled a tiny mountain of joints, and settled in for a week of psychodrama with Jesus. This time I would laugh and cry in private. A number of things happened to me watching Jesus, but the relevant one for this essay is that during the second installment, while Jesus talked tenderly to his disciple Thomas, I found myself jerk­ing off. Jesus, I realized, reminded me of a woman I used to be in love with. According to Zeffirelli, Jesus didn’t blink. This woman, whose name was Deborah, never seemed to blink either. Looking at her eyes, I often had the sensation I was falling into them. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, Deborah’s could have flown in or out easily. She made me feel forgiven.

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I was in love with Deborah eight years ago, and I’m no longer sure what it was I needed to be forgiven about. I do know that I’m 33 this year, which is as far as Jesus made it. This is the year, I tell myself, when I hang it up about Western guilt.

Rebirth is currently a fashionable no­tion, so my timing feels right. According to Rolling Stone, even Bob Dylan is taking Bible classes with some saved friends. I can’t think of any other concept that could unite Dylan, Jimmy Carter, and Larry Flynt. My own concept of rebirth seems to be more modest than this unusual trinity’s. I am not particularly interested in rededicating my life to Christ, but I am interested in returning to my sources here at home. For instance, I spend a lot of time with my mother and sister. Recently, my mother gave me a book I’d cared about as a child. I spent several hours reexamining If Jesus Came to My House. I like the pictures and the rhymes and the unselfish message, and I like Jesus’s little halo. When I look at Jesus’s halo, I think about the rosy nimbus that settled inex­orably around each of my lovers.

Counting Deborah, I’ve been in love six times. The first time I felt a tremendous innocence. I even felt cleansed. I was more sexually aroused than I’d ever been, and I spent several weeks wandering through an erotic haze. I remember walking back to my apartment in Boston early one February morning feeling quite dizzy with elation. The snow on the brick street in Back Bay was pocked and gritty, and the garbage can at my front door had spilled. The label from a can of green beans blew against my leg. I looked at the trashy street and saw it transformed: The green beans label against my leg was utterly beautiful. I remember thinking I’ve never been this happy. I also remember thinking this must have a price. A few months later, when I was drinking myself dumb and mumbling I can’t live without her, I paid my debts. Not only were my emotions clichéd, they were overwhelming. I felt dreadful, but I felt trivialized as well.

The second time I fell in love I was braced for it. Like the flu, I knew I’d catch it again. This time I moved through my lines with graceful detachment. Not sur­prisingly, the affair didn’t last long.

Then I met another woman I couldn’t live without. Sex with her felt holy. She left her husband, I left my girlfriend, and we moved in together. My sense of magic receded, and I tried frantically to retrieve it. Within a few months I began to stutter. I began to whisper. I had trouble finishing sentences. One day I started to cry in the Post Office. When this woman left me I took one hundred and five aspirins to soothe my headache, but after I was released from the hospital she hadn’t changed her mind.

I recovered.

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As the years passed, I met a couple of other women I couldn’t live without. With one of them I lived happily for a long time. I’ll never leave you, I kept telling her. Now I know that when I say forever, I mean about five years. My breakup with R. was extremely painful, but I was not suicidal. After all, I wrote to a former professor, how many names can you cry in the night?

R. and I separated a year ago. At first I concentrated on what I called the Lamaze method of emotional survival: If I could breathe evenly enough, pain was just another interesting experience. My libido felt like a marble rattling around in a box. I had a few crazed sexual reactions, but I didn’t fall in love. Slowly, I realized that one reason I resisted ending my relationship with R. was that I simply couldn’t fool myself into running the same patterns again. Leaving R. would involve the death of something larger than that relationship.

And where would I be without passion? How would I organize my time? I know what I’ll do, I announced to anyone who would listen. I’ll go back to Charleston. I called my mother, from whom I’d been estranged. Come on home, she said. After all, tomorrow is another day.

So I came home, to puzzle over old plantations tucked among housing de­velopments, tunnel-like highways with mossy oaks arched over them, pungent cascades of flowers, antebellum neighbor­hoods — the whole culture of antiques. I sat on the Battery, where the Civil War began. I wore a T-shirt that says CHARLESTON, CHARLESTON, CHARLESTON, CHARLESTON. I am so glad to be home that twice I’ve lain down on the ground and hugged it. My love for Charleston has provided me with a respite from more painful passions. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened in my life.

The word passion originally meant suf­fering, agony, as of a martyr. The passion of Christ and all that. No wonder being in love made me feel out of control.

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Love is an altered state; it changes our vision. I remember the first moment I saw R. transformed. We were sitting on a hillside in Vermont, admiring the land­scape. I thought R. was nice-looking, and that she was pleasant in bed; I didn’t really think beyond that. But while we sat on that hillside, she took on a certain glow. Light settled around her, and she became larger than the natural view. I could see gold flecks inside her brown eyes. The freckles on her shoulders looked like gold dust that had scattered from her hair. In that moment R. became numinous for me, and I fell in love.

Looking back, I can see how it was inevitable that the magical qualities I had experienced with R. should reverse them­selves. If sexual magnetism had brought us together, while we were disentangling our lives the magnets had reversed. One night I saw R. on the street with a man she briefly married. Her grin seemed to stretch from ear to ear, her jaw thrust harshly forward; and her eyes were too close together. She looked demonic.

Recently, I spoke to a woman. with whom I had become friends after R. and I separated. Linda told me she’d met R. at a party. I was intensely curious. Linda hedged. “It’s always odd to meet someone else’s obsession.” I prodded her. “She was good-looking.” I prodded her again. “Okay, she seemed like a nice girl from New York to me.”

I laughed sporadically for hours. R.’s magical qualities and her monstrous ones were both largely the result of projection; that is, they were qualities of vision I brought to our relationship. I have always understood this about my friends’ pas­sions, but not about my own.

Years ago, my brilliant friend David met a European model on Christopher Street. They tricked, and David fell in love. The model returned to Europe. LOVE REAL, the telegram David sent insisted. PLEASE RETURN. He did return, but promptly fell in love with someone else. “You’re having a hallucination,” I told David. “This love is not real.” But when I consider the length of time David’s attraction to this man has troubled him, I’m not so sure. David’s anguish has grown skin over it, that’s all.

It is dangerous to push metaphor too far, as a story I heard about Bruno Bettelheim illustrates. According to this (probably) apocryphal tale, Bettelheim be­came irritated with a middle-aged woman who was knitting in the front row while he lectured. Madam, Bettelheim is sup­posed to have said, Did you know knitting is a substitute for masturbation? The woman did not cease. When I knit, she replied, I knit, and when I masturbate, I masturbate.

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It is dangerous to push metaphor too far, but I do think that falling in love is the only religious experience our culture legitimizes. We cannot talk about magic, or seeing God, or believing in astrology without seeming a bit silly. Even those of us who still read the I Ching do so surreptitiously. But falling in love is as democratic as puberty: it happens to almost all of us if we live long enough. We can talk about falling in love as seriously as we talk about quantum physics, astronomy, Idi Amin, or nuclear power. Romantic love is the only mumbo-jumbo we all still agree about.

Before the 20th century, a lot of songs used to be about God. The chief theme of popular music is love, whether we are listening to “Gloria,” hearing how Layla got somebody on his knees, or hanging out at Kingdom Hall. The Ramones insist they only want to be sedated, but Dee Dee Ramone just got married, which is at least as touching an act as taking Bible classes . In our music, the passion of Christ has been replaced by more carnal trials.

I don’t know whether I’ll fall in love again or not. Right now, I’m trying to be reborn. My shrink once told me that people who commit suicide by jumping out of windows or off buildings are trying for rebirth symbolically. I don’t know if she was right or not, but I’m extremely suggestible. My notion of rebirth is more eccentric than I like to admit, and since I’ve come home, I’ve become a skydiver.

After 11 seconds of freefall, a skydiver reaches what is called terminal velocity. One’s rate of descent increases for the first 10 or 11 seconds. Then the body’s re­sistance to the air stabilizes the rate of falling, at about 120 miles an hour. In terms of my capacity for passion, I hope I’ve achieved terminal velocity. In mid­air, I feel only my own weight. Einstein once wrote, “There came to me the happiest thought of my life… If one con­­siders an observer in freefall… there exists for him during his fall no grav­itational field — at least in his immediate vicinity.” I don’t think we’re emotionally constructed to endure the earth moving a half-dozen times. Back when covered wag­ons were fashionable, I suspect people didn’t fall in love repeatedly. Repetition has destroyed my sense of gravity.

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Once I went with a woman to see a movie called Marjoe. Marjoe chronicled the life of a faith healer who had been trained while still a child for religious exploitation. As an adult, he cynically continued to manipulate people’s religious needs. Then he let some hip filmmakers document the fraudulence behind his min­istry and the sincerity of his victims. I knew at the time that l would much prefer to be one of those folks twitching ecstat­ically on the floor to being one of the filmmakers, or the faith healer. This was not a moral position; the people trans­ported by swatches of blessed bandana laid across their foreheads were having a better time.

So when I find myself meditating on the honorable history of the cliché, I think, Oh Jesus, I bet I’m going to run this whole trip again. Luckily, Christ is locked firmly into my numinosity slot. It is the past that glows for me now, in a light I can’t quite interpret.

Last week, my mother gave me a photograph of her, taken when she was 16. This photograph made me cry. I cried because my mother was once 16 years old, and her mouth was tenderly painted on, and she had signed this repossessed gift to a boyfriend, “With all my love, Elaine.”

Passion. I interpret passion according to the Big Bang theory of human relationships. If astronomy is metaphorical, we are all traveling away from each other at tremendous speeds.

Blanche Boyd’s last novel was Mourning the Death of Magic.

Categories
Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Stonewall 1979: The Drag of Politics

“Gay people aren’t fighting anymore,” drawled Marsha P. Johnson, 34. “They don’t care as long as they have a bar to go to. You know that, darling. But when I came down here 10 years ago, I caught the drift the minute I walked into Sher­idan Square. I said, ‘It’s about time, honey.’ ”

We were sitting in the Bagel And, originally the Stonewall bar, where re­sistance to police raids started gay liber­ation 10 years ago. This evening the space around us aspired to sleek wholesomeness instead of the warm sleaze of an un­marked, underlit gay bar — hanging plants instead of go-go boys. But despite the changes over 10 years, Marsha looks the same, still in his drag that is vibrantly out of tune with the times. When Marsha saunters up Christopher Street, a younger generation of ersatz cowboys and truckers looks at him as a plumed curiosity: why would anyone want to do that?

Marsha’s drag the night we talked was merely a “‘functional layering of coat over sweatsuit over a florid blouse; it had been a rainy day on the streets. But no weather could keep costume-jewelry earrings from Marsha’s hair, nor the red plastic high heels from coming out of his bag once we were away from the puddles. Marsha patted a dab of rouge on his brown cheeks, added a scent of faded cologne, focused on me, on the potato salad, on the air, and continued on in his lazily singsong voice. “I was in lots of raids before. All the street queens were. The paddy wagon was a regular routine. We used to sit in our little 42nd Street hotel rooms — ‘hot spring hotels,’ they used to call them — and party and get high and think about walking down the street someday and not worry about getting busted by the police. That was a dream we all had, sitting in those hotel rooms or in the queens’ tanks of the jails. So, honey, when it came that night, I was ready to tip a few cars for a dream. It was that year — 1969 — when I finally went out in the street in drag full-time. I just said, ‘I don’t give a shit,’ and I’ve been in drag most of the time since.”

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As gay liberation changed from a resistance against police raids into a full-fledged movement, Marsha and fellow street transvestite Sylvia Rivera organized their people. Sylvia and Marsha knew each other from days of waiting tables at Child’s Restaurant. They were a tough duo. The street transvestites became the vanguard of the movement: S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). By 1971, they had their own communal house on 15th Street. It had only four rooms, and the landlord had turned the electricity off, but it became a home for a floating population of 20 street queens, living by candlelight, sleeping everywhere, including the bathtub. Marsha became the mother of the S.T.A.R. house, and for a year and a half those four rooms were a warm respite from the streets.

It didn’t last long. Nothing could stave off the problem of rent. By July 1971, the house had closed and the street transvestites lost favor in gay liberation. S.T.A.R. dispersed. Some overdosed, some were stabbed by johns. Sylvia Rivera retired to a domestic life upstate as a food preparer. Looking back, Marsha merely says, “You know how people are. They’re very close at one time and after a while they just go away.” Marsha is one the few who remained — a walking relic of a half-dead movement.

Marsha’s position on Christopher Street is double-edged. A martyr of gay liberation, he is denied entrance to many bars. Andy Warhol silkscreens of Marsha sell for $1400 in a Christopher Street gallery while Marsha walks the sidewalk outside, broke.

Marsha recently appeared in a Hot Peaches show celebrating the Pope’s death. In honor of the occasion, Marsha was a nun for a night in a white habit and green-glittered eyes. He pulled out a crumpled paper and sang from it: “Climb Every Mountain,” every verse, his voice wandering a capella up and down the scale. The audience, stoned and silent, hardly breathed, and then rose at once in honor. Marsha’s power with his followers is hard to describe, but it is undeniable. When friends describe him, they invariably use words like “saint,” “charismatic queen,” and “myth.” In fact, Marsha was formally canonized years ago in a ceremony conducted by the Angels of Light and the Hot Peaches.

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Some of Marsha’s charisma is simply due to his survival power. His past life would have destroyed many: several attempts on his life by johns, eight nervous breakdowns (by Marsha’s count); more than 100 arrests (Marsha doesn’t count anymore). A revolving door life, from the streets to Riker’s Island to Bellevue to Central Islip Hospital to the Tombs.

But to his admirers Marsha represents more than streetwise survival. He can turn conventional values on their head, publicly affirming his differentness, making beauty from the most unlikely materials. Marsha’s camp-garbage aesthetic is shared by many street transvestites — affordable, democratic taste — but Marsha is an acknowledged leader. “Marsha caught on like wildfire,” Bob (formerly Flash) Storm remembers, “and set all these new trends in dressing. She was the abundance and beauty of the street trash. And flowers, always flowers. Going after this sky-high energy with extreme makeup and colored wigs and pins and jewelry. She looked like an ornament when she was done.” Marsha’s transformation defies masculinity, but he is still a far cry from feminine — his out-sized features protruding beneath the makeup, flamboyant clothes set on a six-foot body, muscled arms and legs. Marsha eludes gender and ends up a countercultural saint of transformation.

His plumed saintliness is volatile, how­ever; two weeks after his night as a nun, Marsha was in Riker’s Island again after striking a Ty’s bartender who had refused his patronage. It was not an isolated incident. One Christopher Street shop manager called Marsha a “bully under­neath that soft sweet manner.” Others have cited Marsha’s toughness, and Sylvia Rivera recalls he first met Marsha in a drag-out fight with a street queen who had pulled Marsha’s Halloween wig from his head. Aggression has been a necessary part of Marsha’s life. It doesn’t make friends on Christopher Street.

“This last breakdown, I was fighting with everyone. I don’t like getting in those fights, but when they say you can’t stay and you don’t know why… When I’m having a breakdown it seems like I meet all these weird people, all these strangers who don’t understand gay people coming around. I know something is coming on and I light my candles and incense and pray to my saints. Sometimes I have visions. In one of them, there were 10 suns shining in the sky, gorgeous and freaked out, like the end of the world. I love my saints, darling, but sometimes the visions can be scary.”

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Marsha wasn’t always a mythic figure, of course. He was once Malcolm Michaels, a church boy from Elizabeth, New Jersey. “I went every Sunday, honey, because I wanted to learn about Jesus. I always thought gayness was some sort of dream, something people talked about but never did. So I remained asexual for 17 years, until I left New Jersey and came to New York. It didn’t look too gay, until I saw all these nellie things hustling near the Howard Johnson’s at 6th Avenue and 8th Street.” Malcolm Michaels soon put on a blond wig and became Marsha P. (for “Pay it no mind”) Johnson.

“For the last 17 years,” Marsha said, “my life has been built around sex and gay liberation, being a drag queen and dating all the time. It can get very boring you know, darling, all these men. Some­times they hassle me if they thought I was a woman when they picked me up. I just say: ‘Honey, this is like Macy’s Depart­ment Store. If you like the merchandise, you take it. If you don’t, I got to go.’ I’d like to stop hustling and have a regular husband. It’s easy to get a husband, but it’s not easy to get them to, support me, or pay the bills, or give up sex. Because, honey, gay men don’t give up sex for anything. My best husband — I met him dating — was a junkie and he got shot in a robbery. He wasn’t a very good man, but he used to give me everything. I’ve had eight husbands and eight separations and none of them have given me a white house and picket fence.”

Marsha’s residence is spread out. “I’ve been 86ed from a lot of places — Ty’s, Boots and Saddles, the Ramrod, the Silver Dollar, G.G. Knickerbockers, Keller’s, the Limelight — so I spend most of my time on Christopher Street or under the West Side Highway.” Marsha sleeps at the Beacon Baths ($7 a night), keeps his wardrobe in a Port Authority locker, makes up at department store sample counters (this morning it was Lord and Taylor, but the regular rotation includes Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman). “It’s hard work, being beautiful, when you don’t have a place. I do my best though,” Marsha drawled, putting another earring in his hair and spearing another piece of potato salad. “I’m trying to get my own place so I can have my wardrobe and I can set up my candles to the saints, my own altar. I haven’t had my own alter in a long time. Maybe by the time of the gay pride parade I will have an apartment so I can invite my friends up for cocktails.” Later, talking with Marsha’s friends, I find that Marsha is always looking for apartments; he rarely gets one.

Marsha will carry a GAY LOVE banner in this year’s parade, his ninth. “When I started I carried the S.T.A.R. banner, and then it became the GAY POOR PEOPLE banner and it’s been GAY LOVE for the last couple years. I think that says everything. All the gay love party will do is give gay birthday parties. I’d like to give birthday parties for Charles Ludlam, Jackie Curtis, Harry Koutoukas, Bob Kohler, Sylvia Rivera, Bambi L’Amour, Bob Storm, Holly Woodlawn, John John, and the Hot Peaches. I think that’s the “best organization for now.”

Marsha finished his bowl of potato salad, knocked back the last drop of a soda, shook the earrings in his hair, and walked into Sheridan Square. “It’s changed, honey, this street is a different place. But when it gets down to it, it’s money that rules the world, and Lucifer is coming. Yes he is. In the meantime, spare change for a dying queen, darling?”

Steve Watson is the author of Minette: Recollections of a Part-Time Lady.

Categories
Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stonewall 1979: Gay Life, Present at the Creation

Present at the Creation
June 25, 1979

The lives of great cities are ordinarily organized by the imperatives of class, race, religion, and authority. The temper of Boston is Brahmin and Celtic; the tone of Dallas is Baptist and nouveau riche; the mood of Chicago is bourgeois and bossy. The texture of New York is woven of all cults, castes, and nationalities, but now there is another, wholly new strand in the social fabric: affection. For the first time in history an affectional community — comprising a million or more homosexuals — occupies a territorial base, and it has begun to promote its power and assert its attitudes in ways that are rarely recog­nized and little understood.

New York has become a gay place. The material of the new homosexual culture pervades its life, from lowbrow to high­brow, on the streets and in the shops, the theatre, the cafes, and the apartments of at least a dozen neighborhoods. What is startling about this cultural explosion (the city has seen many others) is that it flows from a source of sexual identity, just as the stuff of ethnic and religious communities grew from their more familiar roots. We know about Polish peasants, African slaves, Prussian burghers, Can­tonese coolies, Latins, Litvaks, and Levantines. We can trace their influence in our politics, our literature, music, busi­ness, language, dress, cuisine, morality, and everyday attitudes. We speak of the Jewish novel, black jazz, Calvinist work ethic, Latin rhythm, Oriental patience, Irish politics, Italian filmmaking. We may relish, detest, or simply describe the re­gional flavors that blend in the melting pot, but their origins are hardly mys­terious anymore.

But there are no evident precedents (in this civilization, at least) for the development of an “ethnic” culture based on sexuality and centered in a single geo­graphical district. Scholars may fetch far for parallels in the myths of Amazon woman-nations or the tales of Greek homoerotic cults; but there are no ready records of self-conscious communities formed around a shared, exclusive sexual trait — masculinity, femininity, homosexuality, transvestitism, or whatever — to compare with the extensive gay society that has developed in the American metropolis in the few short years since its birth in 1969 in Sheridan Square, in the battle of the Stonewall bar. It is no exaggeration to say that we are present at the creation of a stage of society and a style of life that is unique in the world we inhabit.

Two important distinctions should be set down. First, the new gay city includes both men and women, of course, but for many reasons (not least of which is plain sexism) the gay male elements are more noticeable than the lesbian ones; and, many of the descriptions used to charac­terize the common culture come out of the male experience. Patterns of lesbian cul­ture are often included in the larger category of feminism — for which there is no gay male analogue. Second, the development of a visible gay community in New York — in Manhattan, most of all — is replicated by similar developments in other cities around the country. The birth of the various gay communities is really a vast “invasion,” a migration that is both external (from the hinterlands to regional centers and then to the largest cities) and internal (from the closets into the sunlight and moonglow). Gay life elsewhere may be more intense or per­fected; but nowhere is it as much of a model, on a scale so mass, as in Manhattan.

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The elements of gay style are both banal and extraordinary, as unimportant as the short cut of men’s hair and as weighty as the invention of pop art, as trendy as the redevelopment of Columbus Avenue and as serious as the emergence of gay psychiatric and medical services. Gay sensibility can be sordid — the dives along the Hudson River way after midnight; or elegant — the ballet, the musical theatre, the opera; or glitzy — Studio 54, Saturday afternoon “tea” in the Pines on Fire Island, a roomful of Art Deco chatzkas; or angry — a march through the Village after a homophobic incident, or a flood of letters to the Post after a know-nothing column by Harriet Van Horne.

All told, there are as many separate — and often contradictory — styles as there are homosexuals, and the assertion of any of them, or of any set or system, may provoke vehement attacks and vigorous exceptions from those who do not feel themselves included. No heterosexual is as bothered by the bars and baths as are gays who do not frequent them; no Brooks-Brothered straight man will rail against the leather look as furiously as a preppy partisan of Shetland sweaters and penny-loafers in an East Side gay garden; no one hates gay disco more than a gay punk.

For like the other evolving, expanding ethnic sectors in New York — black and Latin, for instance — the gay community is fragmented, disparate, and heterogeneous while it is profoundly self-conscious. Differences in class, gender, age, race, ideology, and psychology give the culture its many-sided surface: it can be as radical, reactionary, racist, tolerant, snobbish, or democratic as any other social grouping in these times. But what unites homosexuals on a deeper level are the common condition of oppression, the shared history of liberation, and the sense of permanent separation from the prevailing social definition of normality. We may be teased, tolerated, or loved; we must always be different. From such differences comes a unity in spite of ourselves, a sense of pride as well as fear, struggle as well as acceptance, superiority as well as vulnerability.

Straight society sees homosexuals (the flamboyant few), but it does not readily recognize the presence of a gay culture. Last winter, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on the city’s “renaissance,” replete with color photographs of all the fashionable features of born-again Gotham: discos, musical comedies, Bloomingdale’s, rehabbed brownstones, warehouse neighborhoods, Deco restaurants, designed boutiques, gourmet kitchens. There was hardly an item on the list that was not tinged with gay sensibility — or created by it. And yet the influence of the new sexual community on the revitalized city was never once mentioned — not even in the coy euphemisms (“neighborhoods of single adults”) that the genteel press prefers. Gays who read the Times were astounded by the omission. It was as if a newspaper had described the New South without mentioning the blacks of Atlanta or Birmingham, or had recalled pre-war Vienna without admitting the existence of its Jews. The oppression of gays takes many forms — from brutal discrimination on employment to psychological submission in the family — but the most devastating of all is the cloak of invisibility imposed by the straight powers that be.

It is hardly surprising that gays themselves often participate in the unorganized conspiracy of silence about the very existence of gay culture. Gays are all still in the closet to some degree, the militant no less than the mouse. Invisibility may be frustrating and stifling, but it is also protective. Homosexuals who are entirely comfortable in an all-gay environment often find it difficult or disturbing to communicate the quality of that experience to their straight friends, no matter how approving the straights may be: “they don’t understand”; “they have no idea what goes on in our lives”; “they don’t think like us.” Every gay person knows that the mood of a roomful of homosexuals is abruptly and irreversibly changed when straights enter.

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The straight world is what is; to be gay is to be aware of a special reality. Depending on how a particular homosexual may feel about himself or herself at a given moment, that reality may be glorious or ghastly, enlivening or deadening. But gay reality stands out against ordinary life in sharp relief. There are neighborhoods and gay neighborhoods, newspapers and gay newspapers, resorts and gay resorts, bars and gay bars, doctors and gay doctors, dinner parties and gay dinner parties (compare: judges and lady judges, or theatre and black theatre). The very awareness of a distinction constitutes the primary closet, whether gays are conversa­tionally open about their sexuality or not. For liberation, after all, is both a personal and a social process. Heterosexual con­sciousness imposed closets on gays in the first instance, through religion, the ideol­ogy of family life, machismo, puritanism and gentility. Gays cannot fully escape without changing the greater world as well as their own smaller selves.

From the moment gays begin to test their identities against straight “norms,” they learn to pretend: to hide behind straight masks, to perform straight parts in straight plays, to divide gay selves from straight roles. Only the eyes betray the truth: gay men check out everyone within eyeshot for the sly glance, the subtle mannerism, the hidden smile, the meas­ured gait, the clothes, the posture — all to find fellow members of the tribe and announce their own “ethnicity,” in ways so covert that outsiders (those whom other tribes may call strangers, barbarians, ofays or goyim) seldom catch the ex­changes. It happens all the time: on the subway, in an office, on a movie line, in all-night banking centers, airport lounges. The universal gay check-out glance may be a kind of “cruising,” but its basis is survival and support more often than sex. Until recently, a gay grew up believing he was the only queer in the world; the search for others is essentially a means of reassur­ing himself that he will never again be alone.

There were millions of homosexuals before Stonewall, of course, but there was no coherent, self-aware gay community. There were bohemian elites and quiet cliques of closeted homosexuals, but no gay culture, no visible gay presence on the street except for the odd “queen.” For the most part, homosexuals were allowed to express their identity in purely sexual terms (hence the clinical, Latinate name homosexual), and only after dark, in bars and in bed. Homosexuals had straight jobs, socialized with straight friends within a strictly heterosexual culture, participated in straight politics, talked straight talk. Homosexuals bought records of straight popular music, whose lyrics told of guys and their dolls. The straight theatre consisted of plays based on the formula: boy meets girl, etc.

Only after the straights dropped of fatigue or boredom could homosexuals “go out” — that is, present themselves in a gay setting. But the night trips of that era were always furtive, dangerous and often hu­miliating. What gay culture existed before 1970 was preeminently a culture of oppression, in which homosexuals conformed to the perverse and prejudiced definitions of sexual “deviation” dreamed in the worst heterosexual nightmares. Gays were sissies, tramps, sadists, drunks, neurotics, hysterics. All expectations were con­firmed, all prophecies fulfilled.

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The few homosexuals honored in the heterosexual world were forgiven their bad habits if they did not flaunt them, or if they made a valuable contribution to straight culture. Tennessee Williams was lionized as long as he kept the sexuality of his dramatic characters properly am­biguous and his own predilections nicely sublimated. What Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears did after the opera was their own business. Similar rules held in other oppressed cultures: Ralph Bunche did not flaunt his blackness and Margaret Chase Smith did not trumpet feminism; the occasional homosexual celebrity was ex­pected to keep his or her own quirk hidden as well.

Looking back, the world seemed positively medieval; in these post-liber­ation years, gays have been able to inte­grate their lives with the facts of their sexual identity to a degree considered impossible a short time ago. In New York now, gays may live in supportive surroun­dings, in heavily gay districts, within a social and economic infrastructure shot through with aspects of gay culture. Gays may work in gay-run businesses catering to a gay clientele, or they can get jobs through the gay network in larger estab­lishments, such as department stores, where gays occupy top managerial posi­tions. They eat in gay restaurants, shop on gay avenues in gay boutiques, listen to gay-oriented music, share gay living-quar­ters, dance in gay discos, vacation in gay garden spots, worship in gay churches, read gay magazines and gay novels, snack on gay pizza and gay burgers, see tele­vision programs with gay characters and movies by gay directors featuring gay actors and actresses, play softball in gay leagues and hope for victory in the Gay World Series, sail on gay cruises, get high on gay drugs pushed by gay dealers, and spend all their social hours with gay friends.

Both straights and gays debate the value of gay exclusivity, but the trend appears to be firmly established. The need for it is evident beyond argument: gay culture strengthens the fragile self-image of homosexuals, and the more complete the community, the stronger the image. The development of a more or less total gay culture is analogous to the experience of other ethnic minorities at similar mo­ments in the history of their liberation movements: read Miami Beach for Fire Island or 125th Street for Christopher Street, and gay exclusivity does not seem so strange. Many homosexuals will con­tinue to spend their hours in heterosexual culture, too; there is no one empowered to demand affiliation in one or another social set. But the developing gay com­munity in New York will certainly set the terms for the next phases in all of gay life: there is power, energy, and innovation in the creation of a separate gay society, and it has already had an enormous impact on the lives of all New Yorkers.

What makes a hamburger gay? Cer­tainly it is not a genital attribute. What counts is the context: like the space “around the fish” in Klee’s famous paint­ing, the surroundings of the ordinary burger on the bun give it a cultural meaning. Walk into Pershing’s on Colum­bus Avenue or Clyde’s on Bleecker Street: the sound is disco, the texture is grainy, the pitch is high. A youngish man with a dark mustache, short dark hair, and a tight T-shirt and jeans approaches with a certain smile. He nods in a familiar manner and recites the list of burger possibilities (cheddar, “blue cheese,” bacon) in a litany laced with a little lilt. Almost everyone in the room seems to be a male homosexual. Even the plants are well hung; and so a neuter burger becomes recognizably gay.

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Sometimes the defining characteristic of the new gay institution is the specific makeup of its clientele: the sheer size and aggressive good taste of Bloomingdale’s gay trade makes the store a center of the New York gay marketplace. Often, gayness is a matter of attitude or emotion: gay disco music is apt to be rhapsodic or sentimental rather than driving and raw — Candi Staton rather than Instant Funk. Or, that certain veneer of camp irony may characterize a gay neighborhood: Columbus Avenue — the main street of the “Swiss Alps” — is lined by shops with such names as The Sensuous Bean (coffee), Kiss and Make Up (Cosmetics), Le Yogurt (yogurt), the Cultured Seed (flowers). Decoration of course, is also telling: the To Boot cowboy boot story on West 72nd Street — “Queens Boulevard” — features “situation windows” that suggest the presence of odd couples rather than the conventional kind. In one display, two pairs of empty boots are placed in a room from which the occupants have hastily abandoned an elaborate Sunday brunch. One can only imagine what is happening “offstage.”

Bars are still at the core of gay social life (there are more than 70 in Manhattan), and the baths, backrooms, and warehouse barracks were sex is easily and anonymously available remain popular from that earlier era when they were, in a sense, pressed on the gay population by the straight definition of homosexual encounters as strictly zip-fuck meetings. While many gays deplore the exploitation of affection which bar life entails, the priapal palaces still serve a social and emotional purpose that will last until the next level of ascent to a more sincere and non-sexist society is reached. But while gays attack “cock culture” from the inside, there is something disingenuous about straight criticism of gay social institutions from the outside — as if masters condemned servants for participating in the culture of servitude.

The specific vision, manners, protocols, and imagination of gay culture were first forged in response to the prevailing definition of homosexuals as “different” in their sexual affections from ordinary people. Those who are called different and treated as such, will naturally develop different ways of life. At bottom, it matters little what the original difference was thought to be: Jewish culture began many millennia ago as a function of the oppression of Jews for their monotheism or their curious tribal rituals. But theology is not primarily what concerns that culture today. Blacks were oppressed because of the amount of melanin in their skin and because of their African habits of life; but black culture in America is more than a color code or a continental curiosity.

And yet many heterosexuals still admit the existence of only sexual differences between themselves and homosexuals. Jeff Greenfield, for instance, charged in this paper last year that gay rights are unworthy of liberal support because they involve mere methods of copulation, not community demands or cultural needs. For such heterosexual critics (and there are homosexuals still stuck in their closets who want desperately to agree) there is no gay culture, no gay lifestyle, no gay consciousness — just isolated units of homosexuals doing their thing in the sack.

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Such denials of a gay sensibility lead to bizarre lapses of comprehension. For example, Time and Newsweek have both published long cover articles on the masters of pop art, which detail every conceivable influence brought to bear on the works of these artists — except the overwhelming fact of homosexual culture to which they belong. Reading such analyses, we learn about the importance of the artist’s regional background, his relationship to city and country, his favorite ancestors in art history — about everything except the one influence which was most responsible for the creation of the artistic genre: the gay aesthetic vision. The pop artists and their followers attacked the analytic traditions of modernism that held sway for 50 years, and promoted instead a romantic “camp” attitude that profoundly changed American tastes in art, performance, and design. It is impossible to understand these breaks in cultural continuity without accepting the reality of a gay aesthetic — and yet it seldom appears in straight art criticism. Only when artists paint homosexual pornography, or when writers describe sexual acts, is their own sexual “preference” considered relevant.

The struggle for visibility — that is, for social acceptance of a gay identity beyond mere sexual practice — is long and tedious, with lags and leaps at unexpected times and in improbable places. Failures in the political forum — such as the repeated refusal by the City Council to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance — may turn out to be less significant than success in community development. For the most important changes in the lives of gay people since Stonewall have come from the creation of the new ecology of gay institutions — commercial, cultural, political, and intellectual — which provide the material basis to protect and extend the community.

The gay “movement” after Stonewall was largely radical in its analysis of sexist society and militant in its practice of confrontation with the straight male “ruling class.” It had personal and ideological ties to the equally radical and militant antiwar, civil rights, and socialist movements of the era. There was a moderate wing as well, but it too was part of a movement of structured organizations — even if the total effort often seemed disorganized and the relationships were usually strained.

Only in the loosest sense does a definable gay political movement still exist in New York: rather, there is a social earthquake, without significant, representative organization or clear direction. If there is a discernible theme to this enormous event it is, simply, change: very little that can be seen in metropolitan gay culture today will last the year, perhaps not even the week.

For example, the macho styles of dress and attitude so much in vogue in Village gay life in recent times seem to have lost their power and punch. While the “look” is still prevalent, it is no longer on the front edge of historical necessity. Gay macho (which was really never macho at all, if the truth is told: under those leather jackets lurked a lot of pussycats) ex­pressed and exaggerated the suppressed masculinity of gay men, now made legit­imate by the ideology of liberation. In the old days, homosexuals were “nellies” and “femmes.” Suddenly, it was possible for homosexual men to be men, and they clutched at society’s symbols to validate that difficult definition. Some gays with a well-developed radical approach were able to avoid the butch look and the violent symbols. But macho had to work itself out. As macho naturally followed sissy, its own negation will arrive when the time is ripe — probably soon, from the look of things.

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One clue to the new shape of-things could be found at the annual Black party held last month at the Flamingo disco, attended by several thousand of the most self-conscious gay circuit riders in the city. The 1978 Black Party had crackled with leather and rattled with chains; its domi­nant style was s&m. This year, the hard core softened: costumes were fanciful and ethereal rather than heavy-metal — head­-dresses of silver-tipped black feathers replaced executioners’ hoods of leather. Moreover, the mood of the party shifted from sinister to rollicking, from heavy duty to good fun.

Flamingo is an extreme example in all respects — many gays find it intimidating because of the emphasis its members place on brawn and bodies and disco madness. But the same kinds of changes evident at the Black Party there will be found in other gathering places which cater to gays of milder temperaments.

If one factor in the change of attitude is the passage of time, another is the arrival of the second post-liberation gener­ation to positions of status in the gay community. Homosexuals who came out — that is, affirmed their sexual identity to themselves and those around them — when they were already adults will never lose their closet consciousness as thoroughly as young gays who come out now, in a vastly changed social universe, during adolescence or before. The latecomers see the issues in their own way, conditioned by the pain and confusion of years of real repression. The task of self-definition as gays was arduous and confused; the ways were uncharted.

Younger gays today are relieved of some (although not all) of the problems which plagued the first generation. While there is more open “fag-baiting” and less genteel obliviousness found in many areas of the city, the psychological security of a vast, visible gay world is drawing out people who would have been intractably closeted in the ’60s. At least there are available models now by which young gays can begin to define themselves. And those who will come out in future years into a much more supportive and well-posted gay community will have a still clearer sense of who they are. How that will affect their behavior in the full society is im­possible to predict with any certainty. But it is clear that homosexual life 10 years from now will present scenes as different from those visible today as our own pic­tures are rearranged from the pre­-Stonewall era.

Take one example: there is a group of men in New York these days that one writer I know describes as the “killer fruits.” They are rich, powerful, and ma­nipulative businessmen, lawyers and de­signers who hold court in East Side duplexes, chic discos, and the Hamptons with a retinue of young “twinkies”­ — attractive boys who are kept amused, kept busy, and simply kept by their older protectors. Competition among the “killers” is fierce, pressures are intense, and humane values are held in abeyance as the men jockey for position, status, and the favors of their followers. The “killers” are only partly out of their closets; they gain power by keeping their sexual identity ambiguous to the straight world in which they operate. But they are of a certain age and history which suggest that they will soon vanish as a breed. The closet that produces them will cease to be so attractive as the gay community widens and its opportunities for a fulfilling life improve. Closets are places of personal as well as social oppression: they torment their inhabitants and diminish their func­tional capabilities. The end of the closet — as a concept of mind — is the essential goal of gay liberation.

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Because there is no politburo, legisla­ture, or gay town meeting to establish priorities and set goals for the gay com­munity, the scene in New York is every-­homosexual-for-himself. Contradictions tumble over one another: for instance, every phase of liberation becomes a base for commercialization — which in a certain sense replaces one form of oppression with another. The demands of vanguard capitalism on the consciousness of the gay community are in some ways as strong as the strictures of puritanical heterosexuality. Gays have more disposable income these days than their straight counterparts in class and age — these are few, if any, children to educate, families to support, heirs to provide for. Gays may be easily led into traps of conspicuous consumption.

There is a final contradiction in the construction of a complete gay society, which may prove to be the most difficult to resolve: the backlash of heterosexuals against the accumulation of power, privi­lege, and status by gays. The difficulties here will not arise primarily from the Anita Bryant end of the right wing, nor from the traditional homophobic centers in orthodox religion. The more serious problem will come from the majority of straight men who find their own emotional mobility and social comfort circumscribed by the growing influence of gays — in business, entertainment, and everyday life. Heterosexual men used to take their privi­leged positions for granted, but all at once it seems, they are threatened by the success of gay liberation and feminism. It is not impossible to conceive a scenario for severe backlash. In a time of economic hardship, straight men may come to be­lieve that gays have the good jobs, the most spending money, the least responsi­bilities — and the most fun. Gays could be seen not only as “different,” but also as threatening. At that point, the gay “ethnic” community could be a target as easily as other groups served as scapegoats for mass social failure in the past.

Gays will be vulnerable for years to come — as far into the future as we can see. But gay liberation and feminism are allied in function as well as form, and together they infiltrate so much of the majority society that it would be hard to re-isolate and destroy them. The gay ghetto is primarily a function of consciousness, not class or race. Gays are, literally, everywhere — in every family, every business. The backlash seeks to re-closet gays, but before it can succeed, it must erase the liberating experiences of millions of men and women. It would be a cruel endeavor indeed, and also self-defeating. Gays have valuable lessons to teach the world — about freedom from roles, the importance of emotion, the varieties of sexuality — and if given the chance, people will learn what is best for them.