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In Praise of Pulps

Bannon’s Lusty Lesbian’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes you normal, Milo?”

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

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

“By who?” he asked skeptically.

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

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

“Why don’t you?” she flashed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Frontierswomen in Love

“Patience and Sarah,” the story of women in love — with each other — in America early last cen­tury, is a novel with a past. Unable to find a publisher for the book when it was completed in 1968, the author published it herself as “A Place for Us” in a “Bleecker Street Press” edition and sold 1000 copies out of a shop­ping bag. Last year the American Library Association honored it with the First Annual Gay Book of the Year Award. I understand that it has been an underground classic in the Women’s Movement and that many young gay women cherish and find support in it. Its surfacing in bookstores now is welcome because the book was doubtless intended to move and delight a more general audience as well — and I am sure it will.

The novel was inspired by a few facts about the life of Mary Ann Willson, an American primitive painter of the early 1800s, who settled with a “devoted female companion” in Greene County, New York. Miss Miller writes in her afterword: “We know about their ‘romantic attachment’ to each other, their quiet peaceful life, the respect and help of their neighbors, and their dooryard full of flowers, their plowing and haying, their cow, the improvised paints — berries and brick dust­ — the paintings sold for 25 cents to neighbors who carried them all over eastern North America, from Canada to Mobile. We are provoked to tender dreams by a hint. Any stone frorm their hill is a crystal ball.”

Although we learn little of Patience’s paintings, the idea of them infects and unifies this remarkably original book. The writing has the directness and whimsicality of primitive paintings — it is like spiked ginger­bread or surprising samplers. The tone is sweetly bold. And the tale evokes many kinds of frontier at once. Although the women live in a churchly community in Connecticut where they feel restrictions, it also feels like the frontier. And their dream is to go west to York State and the wild, authentic fron­tier. It is refreshing and wonder­fully suggestive for a new women’s love literature to be an­nounced from the pole of civilized history opposite decadence. And it is a witty pleasure to read a frontier tale where the explorers, the pathfinders, the hunters, the new builders are there, but meta­phorically — as gay women!

As in other frontier stories, ev­erything between these pioneer lovers is improvised and fluid. Experience is sometimes so new it precedes language — in loving, their bodies tell them what to do and they invent names for their sensations. And social custom is so young that public censure is fumbling. Patience decides their first kisses will not show: “Her face showed glory so bright I might have worried except that I was sure no one else had any basis in experience for recog­nizing it.” Though Patience’s fa­ther beats her painfully when he knows, her mother and many sisters are moved by their love. Martha — caught in a marriage of murder by pregnancy to Pa­tience’s brother Edward — dis­covers the unlaced lovers, wonders and envies a sweetness and eros she never knew. And their heat sometimes makes even righteous Edward glow.

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All this makes me muse on Leslie Fiedler who, beginning with his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” argued that men in the crucial 19th centu­ry American literature turned from heterosexuality toward each other to know their deepest selves. So here do women turn. But if those American writers were able to imagine only sexless idealized women, Isabel Miller re­troactively gives them the lie and creates women so strong and juicy no men or marriage will answer.

The love between the two women here would be mythic were it not for the reality of the lovers. As in a myth, Sarah’s first kiss brings immediate recognition to Patience: “I knew why she’d been afraid and wondered why I hadn’t been, why I had lured this mighty mystery and astonish­ment into the room, into our lives. I turned my head to save my life.” Then she turns it back, thinking, “Whatever this was, I would live it.”

True, there are retreats. There are moments of confusion as love defines itself. There are alternat­ing initiatives — they take turns getting lost in the present, leaving the burden of their future to the other. Sarah, 21, raised by her fa­ther as a boy, is all honest im­pulse; she first wants to rush with her love to the wilderness, then seeing something of the world’s complexity, would drug herself with a life of secret Sundays in Patience’s room. Patience, 27, is intuitive and in many ways artful; she first fails her love in boldness, refusing her flight, then insists on it, arranging it so her brother will finance it. Strategic retreats, but no doubt about the love, after that first moment no fear of its nature, no pain given or got in it, no en­during loss felt for the exile it causes, almost no cost. Not mythic, it is love in its pastoral phase. The reader doesn’t really want it different, because the book has authority on its own terms, as does the wrought love of the women.

Some of the best adventures in the book yield bemusing commentary on women. When Patience’s nerve fails her, Sarah tries to go west alone, cutting her hair and calling herself Sam. But when her lack of beard makes people stop her for a runaway apprentice, Sarah concludes, “I began to see how boys aren’t much better off than women. Men are the ones who get their way and run the world.”

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She takes refuge in the wagon of an itinerant bookseller. A New York family man, a restless intellectual, the defrocked Parson Peel shares his dreams, his learning, his curiosity, his alphabet with Sarah. Believing her to be a boy, he eventually touches I her knee, assuring her that “men have loved and embraced each other since the beginning of time.” With her unmasking he drops his pursuit and “differences came creeping in, like Parson started helping with the book boxes, and he never said another cuss word in my hearing, and I think a little at a time he stopped educating me. I mean, he seemed to stop saying whatever came into his head. There’d be little waits, it seemed to me, while he thought out what it was fitting or useful for a woman to know.”

Patience had been educated and finished and knew the secret merits of these things. When Sarah was being beaten by her father for trying to see her lover, Patience thought, “It is a sin to raise a girl to be a man believing in strength and courage and candor. We can’t prevail that way.” When they are finally trav­eling together and a man accosts Sarah on a Hudson steamer because of her frank smile, Pa­tience regretfully gives her lessons in being a lady. It’s not that Sarah hadn’t learned holds and throws when she was Sam on the road. But she can’t prevail that way and has to learn to gaze idly into space and not to hear men’s remarks. Patience sums up her method: “You are a very rich, very ill-tempered 50-year-­old lady who has always had her ­own way in everything. You do as you please, and you walk like a lord, and you are deaf.”

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It is the 19th century, after all, and ladies’ accomplishments were still more appropriate than karate. When she was born, Patience’s father, “wondering how someone with all that go could stand to be a woman,” said “he’d half hoped naming me Patience would help a little.” It did. One wonders what helped Isabel Mill­er and other writers like her stand the arcane, early American taboos of the publishing industry so long. Well now the territory is opened, and we can watch the settlers fill up the frontier.

***

An afterthought — two tests for the uncertain buyer. (1) If you like the cover, the primitivesque rendering of Sarah and Patience in formal marital embrace, you’ll like the book, because it fits. (2) Did you like Charles Portis’s “True Grit”? Some of the droll ingenuousness when Sarah speaks is like that. Better buy it — this is not so likely to be made into movie. For one thing, there’s no part for John Wayne. ❖

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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.

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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 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.

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Gay People Drink and Dine Better Than Straight People

According to a infographic by Target 10, a gay-focused agency for top-tier consumer brands, gay people drink, dine out, and party more. The survey was based on a Experian Simmons data set with about 33,000 people polled. Not only are gays and lesbians more likely to consumer certain alcohol, but they’re also more likely to consumer larger volumes of alcohol.

In terms of food, they’re more open to trying new eats compared to their straight counterparts. The data shows that 68 percent of gay men enjoy eating foreign foods. Lesbians are at 52 percent, straight men are at 43 percent, and straight women are at 46 percent.

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Gay men also love gin more, lesbians like tequila, and both gays and lesbians consume large amounts of vodka.