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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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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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A Happy Birthday for Gay Liberation

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

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

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

“Ho—Ho—Homosexual!”

“Out of the closets and into the streets!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equality PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Stonewall 25: Miss Attitude 1994 Is Over You

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

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

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

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

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

“See what better?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Realness delivers a withering look to the audience.

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

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Realness wags her extended index finger at the audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONTESTANT 1: Well you would know, bitch.

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

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

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Equality PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Full Moon Over the Stonewall

View from Inside: Full Moon Over the Stonewall
July 3, 1969

During the “gay power” riots at the Stonewall last Friday night I found myself on what seemed to me the wrong side of the blue line. Very scary. Very enlightening.

I had struck up a spontaneous relationship with Deputy Inspector Pine, who had marshalled the raid, and was following him closely, listening to all the little dialogues and plans and police inflections. Things were already pretty tense: the gay customers freshly ejected from their hangout, prancing high and jubilant in the street, had been joined by quantities of Friday night tourists hawking around for Village-type excitement. The cops had considerable trouble arresting the few people they wanted to take in for further questioning. A strange mood was in the crowd — I noticed the full moon. Loud defiances mixed with skittish hilarity made for a more dangerous stage of protest; they were feeling their impunity. This kind of crowd freaks easily.

The turning point came when the police had difficulty keeping a dyke in a patrol car. Three times she slid out and tried to walk away. The last time a cop bodily heaved her in. The crowd shrieked, “Police brutality!” “Pigs!” A few coins sailed through the air. I covered my face. Pine ordered the three cars and paddy wagon to leave with the prisoners before the crowd became more of a mob. “Hurry back,” he added, realizing he and his force of eight detectives, two of them women, would be easily overwhelmed if the temper broker. “Just drop them at the Sixth Precinct and hurry back.”

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The sirened caravan pushed through the gauntlet, pummeled and buffeted until it managed to escape. “Pigs!” “Gaggot cops!” Pennies and dimes flew. I stood against the door. The detectives held at most a 10-foot clearing. Escalate to nickels and quarters. A bottle. Another bottle. Pine says, “Let’s get inside. Lock ourselves inside, it’s safer.”

“You want to come in?” he asks me. “You’re probably safer,” with a paternal tone. Two flashes: if they go in and I stay out, will the mob know that the blue plastic thing hanging from my shirt is a press card, or by now will they assume I’m a cop too? On the other hand, it might be interesting to be locked in with a few cops, just rapping and reviewing how they work.

In goes me. We bolt the heavy door. The front of the Stonewall is mostly brick except for the windows, which are boarded within by plywood. Inside we hear the shattering of windows, followed by what we imagine to be bricks pounding on the door, voices yelling. The floor shudders at each blow. “Aren’t you guys scared?” I say.

“No.” But they look at least uneasy.

The door crashes open, beer cans and bottles hurl in. Pine and his troop rush to shut it. At that point the only uniformed cop among them gets hit with something under his eye. He hollers, and his hand comes away scarlet. It looks a lot more serious than it really is. They are all suddenly furious. Three run out in front to see if they can scare the mob from the door. A hail of coins. A beer can glances off Deputy Inspector Smyth’s head.

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Pine, a man of about 40 and smallish build, gathers himself, leaps out into the melee, and grabs someone around the waist, pulling him downward and back into the doorway. They fall. Pine regains hold and drags the elected protester inside by the hair. The door slams again. Angry cops converge on the guy, releasing their anger on this sample from the mob. Pine is saying, “I saw him throwing somethin,” and the guy unfortunately is giving some sass, snidely admits to throwing “only a few coins.” The cop who was cut is incensed, yells something like, “So you’re the one who hit me!” And while the other cops help, he slaps the prisoner five or six times very hard and finishes with a punch to the mouth. They handcuff the guy as he almost passes out. “All right,” Pine announces, “we book him for assault.” The door is smashed open again. More objects are thrown in. The detectives locate a fire hose, the idea being to ward off the madding crowd until reinforcements arrive. They can’t see where to aim it, wedging the hose in a crack in the door. It sends out a weak stream. We all start to slip on water and Pine says to stop.

By now the mind’s eye has forgotten the character of the mob; the sound filtering in doesn’t suggest dancing faggots any more. It sounds like a powerful rage bent on vendetta. That way why Pine’s singling out the guy I knew later to be Dan Van Ronk was important. The little force of detectives was beginning to feel fear, and Pine’s action clinched their morale again.

A door over to the side almost gives. One cop shouts, “Get away from there or I’ll shoot!” It stops shaking. The front door is completely open. One of the big plywood windows gives, and it seems inevitable that the mob will pour in. A kind of tribal adrenaline rush bolsters all of us; they all take out and check pistols. I see both policewomen busy doing the same, and the danger becomes even more real. I find a big wrench behind the bar, jam it into my belt like a scimitar. Hindsight: my fear on the verge of being trampled by a mob fills the same dimension as my fear on the verge of being clubbed by the TPF.

Pine places a few men on each side of the corridor leading away from the entrance. They aim unwavering at the door. One detective arms himself in addition with a sawed-off baseball bat he has found. I hear, “We’ll shoot the first motherfucker that comes through the door.”

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Pine glances over toward me. “Are you all right, Howard?” I can’t believe what I’m saying: “I’d feel a lot better with a gun.”

I can only see the arm at the window. It squirts a liquid into the room, and a flaring match follows. Pine is not more than 10 feet away. He aims his gun at the figures.

He doesn’t fire. The sound of sirens coincides with the whoosh of flames where the lighter fluid was thrown. Later, Pine tells me he didn’t shoot because he had heard the sirens in time and felt no need to kill someone if help was arriving. That was close.

While the squads of uniforms disperse the mob out front, inside we are checking to see if each of us all right. For a few minutes we get the post-tension giggles, but as they subside I start scribbling notes to catch up, and the people around me change back to cops. They begin examining the place.

It had lasted 45 minutes. Just before and after the siege I picked up some more detached information. According to the police, they are not picking on homosexuals. On these raids they almost never arrest customers, only people working there. As of June 1, the State Liquor Authority said that all unlicensed places were eligible to apply for licenses. The police are scrutinizing all unlicensed places, and most of the bars that are in that category happen to cater to homosexuals. The Stonewall is an unlicensed private club. The raid was made with a warrant, after undercover agents inside observed illegal sale of alcohol. To make certain the raid plans did not leak, it was made without notifying the Sixth Precinct until after the detectives (all from the First Division) were inside the premises. Once the bust had actually started, one of Pine’s men called the Sixth for assistance on a pay phone.

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It was explained to me that generally men dressed as men, even if wearing extensive makeup, are always released; men dressed as women are sometimes arrested; and “men” fully dressed as women, but who upon inspection by a policewoman prove to have undergone the sex-change operations, are always let go. At the Stonewall, out of the five queens checked, three were men and two were changes, even though all said they were girls. Pine released them all anyway.

As for the rough-talking owners and/or managers of the Stonewall, their riff ran something like this: we are just honest businessmen who are being harassed by the police because we cater to homosexuals, and because our names are Italian so they think we are part of something bigger. We haven’t done anything wrong and have never been convicted in no court. We have rights, and the courts should decide and not let the police do things like what happened here. When we got back in the place, all the mirrors, jukeboxes, phones, toilets, and cigarette machines were smashed. Even the sinks were stuffed and running over. And we say the police did it. The courts will say that we are innocent.

Who isn’t, I thought, as I dropped my scimitar and departed.

Categories
Equality PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square

Sheridan Square this weekend looked like something from a William Burroughs novel as the sudden specter of “gay power” erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen.

The forces of faggotry, spurred by a Friday night raid on one of the city’s largest, most popular, and longest lived gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, rallied Saturday night in an unprecedented protest against the raid and continued Sunday night to assert presence, possibility, and pride until the early hours of Monday morning. “I’m a faggot, and I’m proud of it!” “Gay Power!” “I like boys!” — these and many other slogans were heard all three nights as the show of force by the city’s finery met the force of the city’s finest. The result was a kind of liberation, as the gay brigade emerged from the bars, back rooms, and bedrooms of the Village and became street people.

Cops entered the Stonewall for the second time in a week just before midnight on Friday. It began as a small raid — only two patrolmen, two detectives, and two policewomen were involved. But as the patrons trapped inside were released one by one, a crowd started to gather on the street. It was initially a festive gathering, composed mostly of Stonewall boys who were waiting around for friends still inside or to see what was going to happen. Cheers would go up as favorites would emerge from the door, strike a pose, and swish by the detective with a “Hello there, fella.” The stars were in their element. Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic. “I gave them the gay power bit, and they loved it, girls.” “Have you seen Maxine? Where is my wife — I told her not to go far.”

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Suddenly the paddywagon arrived and the mood of the crowd changed. Three of the more blatant queens — in full drag — were loaded inside, along with the bartender and doorman, to a chorus of catcalls and boos from the crowd. A cry went up to push the paddywagon over, but it drove away before anything could happen. With its exit, the action waned momentarily. The next person to come out was a dyke, and she put up a struggle — from car to door to car again. It was at that moment that the scene became explosive. Limp wrists were forgotten. Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows, and a rain of coins descended on the cops. At the height of the action, a bearded figure was plucked from the crowd and dragged inside. It was Dave Van Ronk, who had come from the Lion’s Head to see what was going on. He was later charged with having thrown an object at the police.

Three cops were necessary to get Van Ronk away from the crowd and into the Stonewall. The exit left no cops on the street, and almost by signal the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving. The reaction was solid: they were pissed. The trashcan I was standing on was nearly yanked out from under me as a kid tried to grab it for use in the window-smashing melee. From nowhere came an uprooted parking meter — used as a battering ram on the Stonewall door. I heard several cries of “Let’s get some gas,” but the blaze of flame which soon appeared in the window of the Stonewall was still a shock. As the wood barrier behind the glass was beaten open, the cops inside turned a firehose on the crowd. Several kids took the opportunity to cavort in the spray, and their momentary glee served to stave off what was rapidly becoming a full-scale attack. By the time the fags were able to regroup forces and come up with another assault, several carloads of police reinforcements had arrived, and in minutes the streets were clear.

A visit to the Sixth Precinct revealed the fact that 13 persons had been arrested on charges which ranged from Van Ronk’s felonious assault of a police officer to the owners’ illegal sale and storage of alcoholic beverages without a license. Two police officers had been injured in the battle with the crowd. By the time the last cop was off the street Saturday morning, a sign was going up announcing that the Stonewall would reopen that night. It did.

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Protest set the tone for “gay power” activities on Saturday. The afternoon was spent boarding up the windows of the Stonewall and chalking them with signs of the new revolution: “We Are Open,” “There is all college boys and girls in here,” “Support Gay Power — C’mon in, girls,” “Insp. Smyth looted our: money, jukebox, cigarette mach[ine], telephones, safe, cash register, and the boys tips.” Among the slogans were two carefully clipped and bordered copies of the Daily News story about the previous night’s events, which was anything but kind to the gay cause.

The real action Saturday was that night in the street. Friday night’s crowd had returned and was being led in “gay power” cheers by a group of gay cheerleaders. “We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We have no underwear/ We show our pubic hairs!” The crowd was gathered across the street from the Stonewall and was growing with additions of onlookers, Eastsiders, and rough street people who saw a chance for a little action. Though dress had changed from Friday night’s gayery to Saturday night street clothes, the scene was a command performance for queers. If Friday night had been pick-up night, Saturday was date night. Hand-holding, kissing, and posing accented each of the cheers with a homosexual liberation that had appeared only fleetingly on the street before. One-liners were as practiced as if they had been used for years. “I just want you all to know,” quipped a platinum blond with obvious glee, “that sometimes being homosexual is a big pain in the ass.” Another allowed as how he had become a “left-deviationist.” And on and on.

The quasi-political tone of the street scene was looked upon with disdain by some, for radio news announcements about the previous night’s “gay power” chaos had brought half of Fire Island’s Cherry Grove running back to home base to see what they had left behind. The generation gap existed even here. Older boys had strained looks on their faces and talked in concerned whispers as they watched the up-and-coming generation take being gay and flaunt it before the masses.

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As the “gay power” chants on the street rose in frequency and volume, the crowd grew restless. The front of the Stonewall was losing its attraction, despite efforts by the owners to talk the crowd back into the club. “C’mon in and see what da pigs done to us,” they growled. “We’re honest businessmen here. There ain’t nuttin bein’ done wrong in dis place. Everybody come and see.”

The people on the street were not to be coerced. “Let’s go down the street and see what’s happening, girls,” someone yelled. And down the street went the crowd, smack into the Tactical Patrol Force, who had been called earlier to disperse the crowd and were walking west on Christopher from Sixth Avenue. Formed in a line, the TPF swept the crowd back to the corner of Waverly Place, where they stopped. A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay powerites down Christopher to Seventh Avenue. The street and park were then held from both ends, and no one was allowed to enter — naturally causing a fall-off in normal Saturday night business, even at the straight Lion’s Head and 55. The TPF positions in and around the square were held with only minor incident — one busted head and a number of scattered arrests — while the cops amused themselves by arbitrarily breaking up small groups of people up and down the avenue. The crowd finally dispersed around 3.30 a.m. The TPF had come and they had conquered, but Sunday was already there, and it was to be another story.

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Sunday night was a time for watching and rapping. Gone were the “gay power” chants of Saturday, but not the new and open brand of exhibitionism. Steps, curbs, and the park provided props for what amounted to the Sunday fag follies as returning stars from the previous night’s performances stopped by to close the show for the weekend.

It was slow going. Around 1 a.m. a non-helmeted version of the TPF arrived and made a controlled and very cool sweep of the area, getting everyone moving and out of the park. That put a damper on posing and primping, and as the last buses were leaving Jerseyward, the crowd grew thin. Allen Ginsberg and Taylor Mead walked by to see what was happening and were filled in on the previous evenings’ activities by some of the gay activists. “Gay power! Isn’t that great!” Allen said. “We’re one of the largest minorities in the country — 10 percent, you know. It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.”

Ginsberg expressed a desire to visit the Stonewall — “You know, I’ve never been in there” — and ambled on down the street, flashing peace signs and helloing the TPF. It was a relief and a kind of joy to see him on the street. He lent an extra umbrella of serenity of the scene with his laughter and quiet commentary on consciousness, “gay power” as a new movement, and the various implications of what had happened. I followed him into the Stonewall, where rock music blared from speakers all around a room that might have come right from a Hollywood set of a gay bar. He was immediately bouncing and dancing wherever he moved.

He left, and I walked east with him. Along the way, he described how things used to be. “You know, the guys there were so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” It was the first time I had heard that crowd described as beautiful.

We reached Cooper Square, and as Ginsberg turned to head toward home, he waved and yelled, “Defend the fairies!” and bounced on across the square. He enjoyed the prospect of “gay power” and is probably working on a manifesto for the movement right now. Watch out. The liberation is under way.

Categories
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
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Pazz & Jop: Fighting a Sense of Stuckness

Early on Twin Fantasy, the most recent album from the Seattle rock band Car Seat Headrest, singer Will Toledo recalls the time he came out to his friends. He then immediately contradicts himself: “I never came out to my friends.” Later in the same song, the thirteen-minute “Beach Life-in-Death,” he continues: “It’s been a year since we first met/I don’t know if we’re boyfriends yet.” He sings the lines nonchalantly, like he doesn’t know how upset he’s supposed to be over the ambiguity of his romantic attachment, like he’s afraid of giving too much away.

The song is the second track on the second version of Twin Fantasy Toledo has released as Car Seat Headrest. The first came out seven years beforehand, a sketchy home recording thick with tape hiss. Toledo recut the whole thing, keeping each song’s structure intact but polishing up the production values. Paying such a visit to old material seems like an almost unbearable kindness to a former self. Instead of burying his teenage squalls, Toledo re-enacts them. The two versions of Twin Fantasy came out with the same cover art and the same track list, lending the effect of time folding in on itself, an illusion that suits the record’s recurring themes of queer anguish and adolescent frustration. Then there’s one of the several refrains running through “Beach Life-in-Death”: “We said we hated humans/We wanted to be humans.” The wanting suggests a passage into the future, toward an unclaimed goal; the hating cuts off that trajectory. Toledo moves forward and gets stuck, moves forward and gets stuck, over and over.

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If Twin Fantasy articulates the stifling conundrum of being nineteen, miserable, and queer, it also speaks to a larger sense of stuckness among LGBTQ Americans as a whole. Toledo’s refurbished blast from the past joined a host of records last year that promised hope while granting space to the sinking feeling around this country’s uncertain future. In 2018, the United States moved both backward and forward on its muddied track to queer liberation. The Trump administration made motions to effectively outlaw trans people by fixing the sex on one’s birth certificate as an irrefutable legal fact. At the same time, a handful of states began issuing driver’s licenses with an “X” printed in the sex field, as opposed to M or F. Gavin Grimm, the trans high school student who had been fighting for the right to use the boy’s bathroom since he was fifteen, saw a district court rule in his favor, a development that will likely make life easier for trans kids in years to come. We saw progress, and we saw its opposite; we saw a way forward, and we saw it barred by malicious actors.

In music, we heard queer artists dare to shoot for the moon with their boots stuck in the mud. Sophie, the experimental electronic producer known for snappy singles built on rubbery sounds synthesized from scratch, released her debut full-length LP, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (tied for 33 on the Pazz & Jop albums list). It boasted some of her tightest and most aggressive work to date, while hinting at an extended narrative through the murk and uncertainty of transition — from one’s assigned gender to one’s true gender, from hesitation to action, from silence to scream. The record moves from a chain of singles — “It’s Okay to Cry,” “Ponyboy,” “Faceshopping” — into an impressionistic reverie. It feels as if we have been submerged, and then, with the utopian climax of the album’s closing tracks, like we’ve come up for air. Choruses of voices demand a “whole new world,” declare themselves “immaterial girls” and “immaterial boys,” a nod to Madonna that cries out against the gender-determinist fantasy of materiality-as-destiny, marrying transgender experience to transhumanist ethos.

Janelle Monáe, with Dirty Computer (number two album), similarly adopts the language and imagery of science fiction to trace a vision of queer survival. She sets the musical film in a bleak future where androids must maintain untarnished fealty to their corporate creators. Any androids that abandon their servile post to, say, form a queer biker gang in the outskirts of town are recaptured, their memories wiped. Monáe plays one of these “dirty computers,” and each song’s music video is a memory, or a dream, that the corporation must delete. Its standout clip, for the single “Pynk,” includes a dance routine performed by women wearing bright-pink “pussy pants,” and served as a kind of preemptive coming-out party for Monáe, who told Rolling Stone she identifies as pansexual two weeks after the video’s release. In the album’s larger narrative, Monáe’s character is restored to factory conditions, having forgotten her girlfriend and the group of outlaws she calls friends. Only she hasn’t; somehow, Monáe and her girlfriend evade the digital lobotomy, and together with a fellow rebel, they escape the processing compound. A colorful, elastic album accompanied by playful visions of queer utopia within dystopia, Dirty Computer posits the idea that even under the most dire of circumstances, queers can find each other and make our own paradise.

Other queer and gender-nonconforming artists last year worked toward a similar vision: Elysia Crampton, the trans Aymara producer whose self-titled record unstitches colonial conceptions of time; Yves Tumor, who paired crystalline pop melodies with tumultuous noise on the stunning and thorny Safe in the Hands of Love (number 49 album); Christine and the Queens, whose drag persona Chris (tied for number 19 album) playfully dipped into gleaming masculine bravado; King Princess, whose breakthrough single “1950” (number 66 single) epitomized the uncertain territory of the lesbian crush with a wobbly electronic bassline and the ragged contours of an electric guitar. Troye Sivan, who appears on six singles that earned votes in Pazz & Jop, delivered an ode to bottoming called “Bloom” that came with a stylish video of the young gay singer adorned in lipstick and florals. Robyn, one of the gay club’s patron saints, returned with Honey (number 5 album), a simmering collection whose title track teetered on the edge of unfulfilled need and painful desire. A darkness chased all this music, and the music acknowledged the darkness, then found a way to glint all the same.

The debut EP from Boygenius (number 26 album), the indie-rock power trio of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers, encapsulated the uneasy truce that marked life in 2018. As solo artists, all three women make powerful music about deep loneliness, about navigating a world that feels like it was not made for you. As Boygenius, they sing lyrics that despair similarly to those of their solo work. “I wanna be emaciated,” goes a striking line on “Me and My Dog.” “I wanna hear one song without thinking of you/I wish I was on a spaceship/Just me and my dog and an impossible view.” They sing of an alienation so powerful it threatens to launch them into space, and yet there are three voices singing these words. A full band rings out around them. The members of Boygenius are not alone. Their lonelinesses braid together, and while they still bear that name — loneliness — their shape has suddenly changed. They are not desolate, not a cell without light, but something else.

At one point during Car Seat Headrest’s “Beach Life-in-Death,” which sounds like half a dozen songs stitched together with steel wire, bleeding at the seams, Will Toledo’s voice breaks like a fever. “It’s not enough to love the unreal,” he shrieks, “I am inseparable from the impossible.” He welds together negatives like he’s trying to disappear beneath them, like he’s trying to assert, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that he is not here, that he’s not singing this song, that the song does not and cannot exist. He sings and despairs and tantrums, and the more he vocalizes the feeling of his own absence, the more his presence is felt. “We wanted to be humans,” he sings, his voice multitracked as though there are many of him. Like Sophie, Boygenius, and Monáe, he sings in his own chorus; he is not alone.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” Spoiler: More Old Stars Were Queer Than You Thought

Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood follows Scotty Bowers, a World War II veteran (now 95) who, after he was discharged, became a sex worker and pimp. Cary Grant, Walter Pidgeon, Randolph Scott, and Tom Ewell were among the famous clients Scotty calls “tricks” in the same charmingly anachronistic way he calls everyone “baby.” Describing how he made money both from pimping out young, underemployed men and from the voyeurs who watched them, he exclaims, “That’s what you call business, baby!”

After his clients died, Scotty wrote a tell-all book, but unlike some dishy works about long-gone Hollywood sex lives, this film boasts photos and accounts from well-known queer men, like Gore Vidal, to back up its stories. The items Scotty inherited from former clients, including a house and an Oscar (!), provide further corroboration.

But Scotty offers more than just salaciousness. We see evidence of Scotty’s hoarding (he has one small house that is stuffed to the brim with old papers and memorabilia). We also come to understand that the childhood sexual abuse he survived — like many queer men of his generation, including Allen Ginsberg, he doesn’t acknowledge sexual contact he had with adult men when he was a child as abuse — and PTSD from his time in the Marines have helped shape his life and thinking. The film could use more interviews with women, like Lois, Scotty’s wife of several decades who had no idea about his past when they married. She says, “I didn’t know him as that person. Not sure I’d want to.”

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
Greenwich Films
Opens August 3, IFC Center

 

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Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Flouting Realism, Brazil’s LGBTQ Directors Establish an Exciting New Wave

LGBTQ cinema is thriving in Brazil, manifesting in movies that are playful and daring, outright denying even a modicum of conventional, naturalistic filmmaking. Of course, in the past, there’s been the work of the late Argentine-born Brazilian director Hector Babenco, who populated his notable films with gay characters (1981’s Pixote, 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman). But the current wave of LGBTQ-themed and -made cinema is a recent and distinct phenomenon, having taken off well into the twenty-first century with adventurous films by the likes of Karim Aïnouz, Daniel Ribeiro, and others.

That these contemporary LGBTQ movies were made in Brazil is timely and of the utmost importance. Although the gay community has great visibility there, and gay marriage enjoys legal status, the country has recently experienced “an all-time high” of “victims of homophobia” (including murders and suicides). The opposition to alternative lifestyles, perspectives, and identities is only getting worse under the conservative government currently in power. Just last year, a far-right libertarian group, Movimento Brasil Livre, shut down the first major exhibition dedicated to queer art in Brazil — nearly a month before it was scheduled to end. In this context, the Museum of the Moving Image’s two-day series “LGBTQ Brazil” — curated by Ela Bittencourt (a Voice contributor) and co-presented by Cinema Tropical — couldn’t be more necessary, existing amid the distressing rise of censorship in the country from which these films originate.

Camp, kitsch; sensitive, distant; introspective, detached — the short and feature films in the series represent a myriad of modes and moods, styles and genres, that reflect the inclusivity and plurality of the LGBTQ community. The selections in the program that hark back to and wrest influence from previous eras’ artists and film movements make the biggest impression, such as Carlos Nader’s Passion of JL (2015). This intimate, highly emotional film consists of archival footage, photographs documenting artwork, and, most especially, the audio diary recordings of José Leonilson. An influential artist in Eighties Brazil, Leonilson received his first solo exhibition — featuring his embroideries, drawings, and paintings — in the U.S. at the Americas Society last fall. (The show ran through February 2018.) From 1990 until 1993, the year he died of AIDS, he kept an audio diary.

Leonilson’s voice is the only one heard in Passion of JL, giving the film a sense of close proximity to the artist, as if he were resurrected and speaking directly to you. Leonilson is a lonely man (he identifies with Harry Dean Stanton while watching the famous opening of Wim Wenders’s 1984 Paris, Texas), racked by contradictory and overwhelming thoughts and feelings — which isn’t the warm vibe he gave off according to his friends, but is apparent in his close-to-the-heart art. Initially, he talks candidly about love and the lack of it; about being “needy”; about coming out to his Catholic parents, whom he loved; and about the U.S. bombing Iraq in the Nineties, which he cries over. As the film, and the tapes, go on, Leonilson slowly deteriorates, his thoughts becoming more abstract. Mirroring his decline, the hissing feedback of the cassettes on which Leonilson records his thoughts becomes steady and ever-present. The tapes are stirring; Nader’s filmmaking, not so much. His audiovisual combinations are often basic, functioning merely to underline what Leonilson is saying. That said, Passion of JL, a film made by a friend, is a work of great love at a moment when that value is not to be taken for granted.

Uirá dos Reis and Guto Parente dedicate Sweet Amianto (2013) to Leonilson, and their film, a colorful fantasia, shares with the artist’s work a voluptuous romanticism. It follows a trans woman, Amianto (Deynne Augusto), whose boyfriend leaves her, initiating an existential conundrum that involves heightened forays into nether realms and imaginative planes. Amianto simply must find a way to go on. In one scene, she locks herself inside and weeps while watching John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956) on the couch. In another, dead friend Blanche (dos Reis) — a visible, glittery apparition functioning at once as muse, godmother, and cheerleader — consoles Amianto, rousing her out of the apartment and into a bar.

Sweet Amianto drifts into numerous narrative digressions, which are bracketed either as daydreams or as part of a story-within-a-story. Blanche tells Amianto a tale (actually based on one from Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski’s collected newspaper columns) of a man waking up yellow one day, with red spots all over him. A subsequent interlude sees Amianto envisioning a blissful, idyllic life (twirling in a forest, bathing nude near a waterfall) shared with a guy she picks up at a dance club; that is, until the relationship sours, and they engage in a domestic quarrel that ends with Amianto leaving. Sweet Amianto indulges in the flights of fancy that infect a person in love, one who has caught a love sickness. Infatuation colors reality, as it does the film; reds, violets, and blues conjure delusions and fantasies, all the while opening up narrative possibilities that are broadly laid out, then abruptly finished. Sweet Amianto is a film definitely in the realm of the senses.

Tavinho Teixeira’s Sol Alegria (2018) takes the fragmentary construction of Sweet Amianto even further. It is a mishmash of pieces made up of bright colors and a love of all things artificial. It lampoons organized religion and the nuclear family while, according to Teixeira, also being about what it means to be a family. The one in the film is a ragtag bunch: a bearded father in suit and sailor cap; a gun-toting masculine mother; a feminine son with pink hair; a virginal daughter who, confoundingly, is pregnant; an impish companion in a nun’s habit. It begins with the family settling in a church, which actually is more of a haven for pansexuality than religion, and ends with each one of them giving a nocturnal carnivalesque performance.

As Bittencourt’s program notes mention, Sol Alegria draws from an assortment of landmarks in Brazilian cinema: the deliberate destruction of narrative cohesion seen in the Marginal Cinema movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies; the crass camp of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma (1969); the ghoulishness of the ultra-black “Coffin Joe” horror films, the first of which was 1963’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. Part of the pleasure of the movie is not knowing where it will go next.

“LGBTQ Brazil” showcases many other such exciting and perplexing films emerging out of the country. They practice the art of artifice, and flatly reject boring realism. The best of the bunch perform a nod to past Brazilian artists and film movements by either outright acknowledgment or by borrowing their DNA to create Day-Glo–vivid dreams (and nightmares) specific to the present moment. It all adds up to a burgeoning class of cinema marked by passion, inhibition, and sensuality.

‘LGBTQ Brazil’
Museum of the Moving Image
July 28–29