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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: The Media, the Message

The Media
June 28, 1994
By Martin Duberman

We didn’t even get to cover our own riot. Which is no surprise. In a heterosexual universe, it had long been assumed that gay men and lesbians were not reliable witnesses of their lives (let alone anything else). Our experience had to be explained to us, the “experts” of the day insisted, for we lacked the “needed objectivity,” and our “pathology” further compromised our ability to see straight (as it were). “Surely no one would recommend that operations for cancer be performed by the afflicted patients themselves.”

And so even the countercultural Village Voice — itself at the journalistic center of ’60s protest — saw nothing out of the ordinary in allowing two heterosexual reporters to cover the outbreak of gay rioting at a Greenwich Village bar, the Stonewall Inn. The lead sentence in Lucian Truscott IV’s piece referred to the sudden “specter” of gay power having “erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen.” In his second sentence, he referred to “forces of faggotry.”

To be fair, this was 1969. Not too many gay people were using kinder, more accurate words about themselves (certainly I wasn’t: my idea of liberation in those years was to put myself in the hands of a therapist promising to free me from my “afflicted” orientation). Besides, Truscott also commented on the riots creating prospects for gays to assert “presence, possibility and pride” — a potential not widely seen at the time, though many now claim, retrospectively, to having immediately understood the significance of the riots.

Truscott also alluded to the way the riots had been covered in the Daily News as having been “anything but kind to the gay cause” — and few other straight reporters of the day would have considered the degree of kindness in an article about despised homosexuals as being a relevant gauge of the article’s journalistic  worth (unlike, say, its ability to sell newspapers). Jerry Lisker, the author of the Daily News article, may not have been responsible for its headline, HOMO NEST RAIDED, QUEEN BEES ARE STINGING MAD, but he most assuredly was for the adjectival mockery (“lisping,” “prancing,” etc.) of its prose, and it’s smug, derisive characterizations of “honeys turned Madwomen of Chaillot.”

The New York Times was above so coarse an assault. It had its own dismissive strategy, one more appropriate to its high-toned readership: avoid covering news about gays at all, or do so briefly and antiseptically in a back-page throwaway story. For its short article about the first night of the riots, the Times chose the headline, 4 POLICEMEN HURT IN VILLAGE RAID — as if the score of injured gay people was of little or no import. The Times did mention that the police had “confiscated cases of liquor from the bar,” but said not a word about the way they had wantonly smashed jukeboxes, mirrors, and cigarette machines, ripped out phones, plugged up toilets — and pocketed all the money from the cash register and safe.

The Times article reduced the rage of thousands to what it characterized as “a rampage” by “hundreds of young men.” The paper further implied that the arrest of one of the rioters had resulted from his “having thrown a heavy object at a patrolman.” In fact, police had grabbed the man in question at random out of the crowd, had dragged him by the hair back into the Stonewall Inn where they had retreated from the mob, and had proceeded to give him a severe beating. When it looked as if he was about to pass out, he had been handcuffed and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, the ranking office, had snapped, “All right, we book him for assault.”

And so the limited, distorted coverage went… The Voice’s second article, by Howard Smith, did mention police vandalism and generally was free of Truscott’s occasional homophobia — though it did include a description of the rioters “prancing high and jubilant in the street.” The New York Post — then a liberal paper — did do a follow-up piece headlined THE GAY ANGER BEHIND THE RIOTS, which responsibly discussed resentments felt over Mafia control of the Stonewall (and all other gay bars), over the huge profits that never went back into the lesbian and gay community, and the huge payoffs that went to the police. And both RAT and the East Village Other — organs of the counterculture — also carried sympathetic accounts.

But these were marginal voices in a coverage that overall reflected all too accurately the dominant bias of the culture.

Its perfect creature, Time magazine, summarized the majoritarian view when, some four months after the riots and in response to the publicity they had generated, it published a lengthy “analysis” of gay life. The article characterized “the homosexual subculture [as]… without question, shallow and unstable,” and warned its possibly wavering readership yet again that “homosexuality is a serious and sometimes crippling maladjustment.”

There we have the authentic voice of mainstream America, circa 1969. And it is a voice once more sounding loudly through the land as the legions of the religious right wing methodically prepare for battle against the “gay lifestyle” in a slew of forthcoming fall elections. It is being widely predicted that the right wing will win those elections in a landslide. If so, we might want to recall again those memorable summer nights in 1969 when we were pushed too far — and bellowed back in rage, THIS FAR AND NO FUTHER!

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The Message
By Allen Ginsberg

Think of the historic importance of coming out of the closet! Stonewall’s cry echoed round the world! Spiritual liberation meant gay liberation also, the liberation of individual veracity against hypocrisies of church, and state, and age-old social sadism. A revelation of actuality in midst of mental hallucination and emotional repression. Truth against “lies age-old, age-thick.”

What was the fix to begin with? Legendary gay bars owned by organized crime paid off the New York police, and if they didn’t they were closed down. Something went wrong with the payoffs at Stonewall Inn. So the customary repression of gay social life was motiv’d by hypercritical greed and sadism. As the sign says: GAY PROHIBITION CORRUPT$ COP$ AND FEED$ MAFIA

Who rebelled against this police fraud? We see hairy-chested guys with leather caps like cops, curbstone pixies on roller-skates applauding the parade, white-clad pure butch lesbians, poseurs mugging in front of Stonewall’s graffiti’d façade, ”Gay Cruise” billboards above Christopher Street’s classic cigar-store corner, Rock Hudson elegies & T-shirt sociologies on Keith Haring’s shop wall, a gay vet tombstone, Carmen Miranda banana hat clones, transvestite motorcyclists, brown skins dancing, AIDS die-ins, Peter Orlovsky & myself musing in bed 1959, arm in arm old lovers bald, Baldwin & marble Lincoln, Auden’s wrinkle-faced dignity, Gay Liz comix covers, thirty-something male hands sharing Affidavits of Domestic Partnership, magic homosex symbols flagged above Grove Street’s old brick roadway, a limp protestor dragged off by cops, a “Love Boys” spray-painted door, bath-house queens and bare chest youthful cuties, Priests & Amazons, campy mitered Bishops & Gay Church floats, 1973 night crowds and balloons, Stonewall Inn shut down, a sign for “Bagels And” above its old brown brick front.

These Anniversary parades and records thereof, like Fred McDarrah’s photograph (shown above), are now significant as we approach end of millennium. Think of present circumstances — recent revelation of the tortured & torturing blackmail psyche of the mad transvestite J. Edgar Hoover in the closet — the late powerful homophobe N.Y. Cardinal Francis Spellman dallying with Broadway chorus boys on the privacy of citizen Roy Cohn’s yacht! Roy Cohn, himself a tax-free anti-faggot power head queer lawyer for the N.Y. Diocese, organized crime hats, androgynous politicians & macho millionaires, gay pimp for the Director of the F.B.I. How many magic Cardinals & religious fanatic priests we see unmasked, their tenderest longings hid under the iron visage of censoriousness.

This year Cardinal Spellman’s successor Cardinal O’Connor still dares to put his Bible curse on gays, no public word whispered of his famous predecessor’s celebrated predilection for young men’s love. Thus while Catholic Ireland herself, through miraculous legislation, presently legitimizes homosexuality, the New York Cardinal scandalously prohibited Irish gay brigades from marching with the Green on St Patrick’s Day parades!

This degraded “Family Values” theopolitics has become a worldwide mask for mind control as against spiritual liberation. Hear the late Khomeini Ayatollah and his successor little Satans denounce “Spiritual Corruption,” along with Stalin, Mao & Hitler. Listen to Pat Robertson, his confrères & his guru W.A. Criswell, the fundamentalist Svengali of a “Biblical Inerrancy” cult, intolerant of any deviance from mind controlled by their interpretation of the “Good Book.”

These vicious priesthoods are allied with beer magnates and tobacco senators in hierarchies of political ambition, demagoguery, power addiction, nationalist chauvinism, military aggression, assassinations and war. Intolerant of other faiths, sexualities and folkways! Fraudulent ethical poseurs set family members against each other & oppose ancient true family values of sympathy, tolerance, forgiveness, intimacy, humor and fidelity.

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To the Days

From you I want more than I’ve ever asked,
all of it — the newscasts’ terrible stories
of life in my time, the knowing it’s worse than that,
much worse — the knowing what it means to be lied to.

Fog in the mornings, hunger for clarity,
coffee and bread with sour plum jam.
Numbness of soul in placid neighborhoods.
Lives ticking on as if.

A typewriter’s torrent, suddenly still.
Blue soaking through fog, two dragonflies wheeling.
Acceptable levels of cruelty, steadily rising.
Whatever you bring in your hands, I need to see it.

Suddenly I understand the verb without tenses.
To smell another woman’s hair, to taste her skin.
To know the bodies drifting underwater.
To be human, said Rosa — I can’t teach you that.

A cat drinks from a bowl of marigolds — his moment.
Surely the love of life is never ending,
the failure of nerve, a charred fuse?
I want more from you than I ever knew to ask.

Wild pink lilies erupting, tasseled stalks of corn
in the Mexican gardens, corn and roses.
Shortening days, strawberry fields in ferment
with tossed aside, bruised fruit.
Adrienne Rich

[“Then see to it that you stay human… Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life ‘on the scales of destiny’ when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud. Ach, I know of no formula to write you for being human…”]
— Rosa Luxemburg, 1916

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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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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 NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

“This is More Than a Bathroom Issue”: New Yorkers Rally Outside Stonewall In Support of Trans Youth

The day after the Trump administration ended a federal guideline instructing public schools to allow students to use bathrooms appropriate to their gender identity, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered last night outside the historic Stonewall Inn to rally in support of trans and gender-nonconforming youth.

Advocates contend that the shift doesn’t negate the underlying protections conferred by Title IX of the Civil Rights Act – a position that will likely soon be tested in a case brought by 17-year-old Gavin Grimm from Virginia – but they say the government’s move sends a chilling message. “It’s a direct and sweeping emotional attack on our trans youth,” Mel Wymore, the executive director of Trans PAC, told the crowd last night. “It sends a message to all youth, not just trans youth, that they cannot grow up who they are.”

“An attack on one LGBT person is an attack on the whole LGBT community,” said Tanya Walker, co-founder of the New York Trans Advocacy Group. “This is more than a bathroom issue; this is a human and civil-rights issue that needs to be addressed in our country.”

A woman who introduced herself as Mariko told the crowd she is the mother of a 17-year-old trans daughter at Harvey Milk High School. “I have never been so scared of the hate that has been given permission by this administration to exist,” she said. “Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary DeVos believe that my child’s civil rights should be left to the states. Does anyone think my child should live under Jim-Crow-type laws depending on what state she lives in?”

“This is not a choice,” said Cecilia Gentili, a trans woman and assistant director of policy at GMHC. “What they are doing is a hateful choice. They choose to do this to us. They’re choosing it. So let’s be smart, and choose them better.”

The rally was also attended by a host of politicians, including Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, City Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca and Jimmy Vacca, and Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Deborah Glick.

“This administration is a fascist regime,” Glick said. “It is carving out people, setting them aside, turning others against them. That is how it begins. We cannot allow it. We must resist every day, in every way. First it was undocumented immigrants, it’ll be documented immigrants. It’s transgender youth, it’s going to be all LGBT people…In the end, if we don’t stand together, we will hang separately.”

After more than an hour of speeches, the official rally concluded. But the throngs of people gathered outside the Stonewall Inn were still energized, and soon, the chant of “March! March! March!” began to pass through the crowd. Hundreds of them did.

Chanting “Trans rights are human rights,” they streamed north along Eighth Avenue, earning stares and applause from passersby. The marchers turned east past Penn Station, then suddenly veered into Macy’s. Commandeering the makeup section, they gave speeches about their experiences as trans people and the dangers posed by the new administration. “Macy’s!” they chanted. “Why the fuck are you still selling Trump products?”