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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Frontierswomen in Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Year 2: Toward a Gay Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Happy Birthday for Gay Liberation

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

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

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

“Ho—Ho—Homosexual!”

“Out of the closets and into the streets!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sylvester: Staying Alive

In Sickness and Health, Sylvester Keeps Mighty Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE SINNER’S GOSPEL SINGER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.W.

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

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

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

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

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

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ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Howard Cruse: The Back Door of Consciousness

Last week we heard of the death of the pioneering underground cartoonist Howard Cruse. Initially known for his free-wheeling character Barefootz, who first appeared in the University of Alabama’s student newspaper in 1971, Cruse went on to found the publication Gay Comix in 1980. Over the years Cruse wrote and drew some exclusive comix for the Voice, featuring characters by turns ebullient, brainy, questing, and combative. In the story below, from June 26, 1984, specialized “gay laboratories” turn out “solar-powered oppression-sensitive subjective insight-exchange helmets.”

Cruse (born the son of a Baptist preacher in Springville, Alabama, in 1944) drew on his experiences in the South during the civil rights era for his 1995 graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, perhaps his best-known work. A decade earlier, he zeroed in on the prejudices from on high for a Voice cover looking at the state of gay life in America.

A few years later the cartoonist sat down with editor Richard Goldstein to explain why he saw comics as the perfect medium to get past some of society’s worst blind spots: “Cartooning has the advantage of being mischievous and naughty. It’s like play.”

Howard Cruse Interviewed by Richard Goldstein: The Back Door of Consciousness
June 28, 1988

WHEN THE ADVOCATE decided to resume running Wen­del, Howard Cruse’s groundbreaking gay comic strip, many of us breathed a sigh of relief. We thought we’d have to settle for Cruse in books, Gay Comix (which he founded), and the posters and pamphlets he frequently renders for AIDS education and numerous gay organizations. Cruse is as protean as he is committed. But it’s his representation of gay people, in the full flush of an innocence we all feel within but are often denied from without, that makes his work so artful — and so useful.

GOLDSTEIN: In comics, it seems, the prohibitions against showing gay are much more severe than in other media.

CRUSE: Well, there’s still a lot of pressure to view comics strictly as a children’s medium. They were at­tacked during the ’50s as being hazardous to the mental health of children, which caused mainstream comics to rule out any challenge to the standard way of looking at life. And when the underground comics rebelled against all that, many of the artists — the male artists, particu­larly — were still prisoners of their own homophobia. I remember Robert Crumb, in a piece he called “Let’s Talk Sense About This Here Modern America,” had a list of people he hated, including fags and fag-hags. It was generally considered hip to dismiss gay people, as it is today.

GOLDSTEIN: What prevents people from seeing the full humanity of gay characters?

CRUSE: A straight friend who got my book, Dancin’ Nekkid With the Angels, told me his friends had asked: “Why should I buy a book to read about gay sex?” Now the book has some explicit sexual images, but it’s not about gay sex. But the assumption is that the lives of gay people are totally about sex.

GOLDSTEIN: You’ve done a lot of safe-sex literature, very successfully, it seems to me, because it’s cartoony; it has a certain innocence, even though it’s about death and sex. To impose innocence on those subjects seems radical.

CRUSE: I think the basic shorthand of cartoon illustra­tions can make a statement. Open-faced qualities in the characters. Eyes that don’t look shifty. Smiles that are not strained. These things say to the reader that, even if the experiences being described are sexual, these are not sleazy people. This is a radical message simply because the overlay of falsehood about gay people is so strong.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you regard your comic strips as a model for your own life?

CRUSE: Cartoons are fantasy, and fantasies are often rehearsals for life. A good cartoon is shorthand for a perspective on life. It can get at the truth of experience without having to depict it literally.

GOLDSTEIN: What’s the power of exaggeration as a weapon?

CRUSE: Really, I think the power of all art is its poten­tial to save mankind from being robotized by being fed a relentless drumbeat of assumptions about life. Cartoons are wild; they bypass the rational and go straight for feelings. A feeling doesn’t require an explanation, but it sometimes suggests an explanation after the fact that can make us question our assumptions. Cartooning has the advantage of being mischievous and naughty. It’s like play.

GOLDSTEIN: Why do you think the innocence your work projects seems so empowering?

CRUSE: It’s tremendously empowering when you’re gay to realize that you’ve been doing it right, and it’s the bigots who are stumbling about in a fog about this subject. Suddenly you realize that simply accepting your own place in the world permits you to just put away all this energy you’ve been using to deal with what the Bible says or what this or that politician says.

GOLDSTEIN: Can you do that without art supporting you, without imagery and representation?

CRUSE: It’s very hard to get through the relentless propaganda: You are wrong, you are bad, you shouldn’t think this thing, you shouldn’t be doing this thing. A childlike, irreverent art like cartooning allows you to get in touch with these parts of yourself from before all of this programming happened. It wakes you up.

GOLDSTEIN: So art is a model for the process of coming out.

CRUSE: I guess it’s analogous to coming out in that it is a route for people to break through the programming. Art can go in the back door of consciousness, just by making you feel directly.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think it’s essentially the power to represent that has given the gay movement its dynamism in the last 20 years?

CRUSE: I think there is a great deal of power in being able to see yourself in art. If you pick up a book or a comic book, or see a play or a movie, suddenly you realize someone completely disassociated from you felt things you feel and made them into art. It’s very validating.

GOLDSTEIN: There’s a contradiction in the fact that you’re working in a popular form that doesn’t reach a mass audience. How do you deal with the possibility that your work might be unacknowledged, not because of its inherent limits, but because of a homophobic culture?

CRUSE: As an artist with the usual aspirations, I’ll be pissed off if that happens. I don’t want to think about being gay all the time. I want to have my life, my lover, my friends, and I don’t want to have to spend my time being scared and angry. My sexuality will always have a place in my work. It’s the energy that has to be mar­shalled to defend it that creates the distortion. I’m interested in the undercurrents of life, the ways that people relate to each other, whether they’re gay or straight; the way they love each other and betray each other. These are the things that make all narrative art resonate. I would like to create characters that will resonate a century from now, even to people who are not living in a gay subculture or under the gun of bigotry.

GOLDSTEIN: What would have to happen to make that so?

CRUSE: People would have to learn how to think for themselves.

Categories
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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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.

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I Always Cry at Weddings

I Always Cry at Weddings: After 20 Years of Waiting, City Hall
March 2, 1993

A married woman is her husband’s property, and property is theft. There was no question about this 20 years ago, at least among the crowd I ran with. Years later, as property became identity, many of my friends, women and men, told me they had misgivings about their stand, doubts centered around their children-to-be. And one or two ad­mitted that they sought the “commitment” marriage signi­fied, although they still hated the inequitable institution itself. Need I say that most of these men and women have gotten married, some married and divorced?

Me, I supported any and all of this from the sidelines: I was gay then, am gay now, and a faggot (very p.c. term at the time) could afford to be ideologically pure. But on March 1, 1993, l have the option to go to City Hall… oh, I mean we have the option, my long-suffering honey and I, to go to City Hall and register as domestic partners. Will we take it? Shall we pretend to tie some kind of knot?

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Anyone who’s read the papers knows that registered domestic partnership isn’t marriage and doesn’t confer the legal status, tax privileges, benefits, and general acclaim that marriage does. So is it ritual we want? John and I could have gotten “married” years ago, exchanging reli­gious or secular vows the way some lesbian and gay male couples have. In fact, I think my former dentist had a rabbi perform an ecumenical service in Central Park for his boyfriend and himself. That’s fine. If I had attended the ceremony, I would have cried: I always cry at weddings, any kind of wedding. But my partner and I mistrust the historical vestments of religion almost as much as we reject the deed-of-ownership certificate of marriage: this is one reason we get along.

Will good things happen when the unmarriable register at City Hall? If our partners die, we have a piece of paper to show we were family, so we won’t get thrown out of our rent-stabilized apartments. We’ll finally possess the inalien­able right to visit our loved ones in those cheerful city hospitals and prisons: gay city workers may also count on bereavement leave and unpaid family leave. Nevertheless, these workers are suing the city to have their domestic partners covered by municipal health plans, because the mayor doesn’t know how to keep a promise that has money attached. Of course, without health coverage that bereavement leave becomes increasingly pertinent.

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Money. Rights. When I came out, more than two decades ago, I found I could develop a sense of myself that allowed me to ask startlingly obvious questions, such as, why should anyone be paid less for the same work? Why can’t anyone capable adopt children? Why can’t my boyfriend (I didn’t have a boyfriend, but you know what I mean) be treated like any other spouse? Later, when I began to work at the Voice, others asked these questions with me and we won, in a 1982 union contract, the nation’s first health coverage for — lacking sweeter language — “spousal equivalents.”

I have spent more than 10 years in this ghetto of fairness, and I honestly can’t imagine private or public life any other way. The Village Voice has become a strange place to work because, gaywise, it seems like a hoped-for everywhere some number of years from now. Not wishing to be alone, my colleagues and I try to spread the practical word about our spousal equivalent coverage, knowing this is one way to make a banal son of bigotry disappear.

Is it dangerous to feel normal? There’s pleasure to be had, the kind you associate with a good dinner and warm bed. It’s seductive not to fight the world, to think about growing older able to enjoy at least a few of the promises of youth, when utopia looked merely like where you couldn’t live and what you couldn’t have. I’d get married in that utopia. They would throw rice, we would drive away.

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But this is not, definitely not, why I will be first on line on March 1. My partner and I are already committed to each other just fine, and I don’t feature monogamy as a universal recipe, anyway. Keep the rice. We are registering to cause trouble, and hope you do the same.

Our registration will goose the mayor in the right direc­tion; will provide private employers with the governmental imprimatur they seem to need to extend their benefits; and will take away the last excuse from insurers by showing that queer heads may too be counted as family. (It’s a good time to shake up insurers because, with the threat of government crackdown, they’ll do anything to survive.)

If executed with attitude and aplomb, our registration will be a ritual of equality at least and of power at best. When, in the misty future, things will have gone so far that photographers make livings from “registration albums” and bakeries offer ready stocks of “partner” cakes, then John and I will find our yellowed registration certificate, burn it like a draft card, and see what action fairness demands next. ■

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Stonewall 25: Oh My Papi

Oh My Papi
June 28, 1994

Pornography imagines an eroticized uni­verse where anything can happen, nothing is forbidden, and the unattainable is all yours — an orgiastic Eden with no threat of expulsion, or mortality. But even the porno­graphic imagination, particularly the highly profitable corner of it that latched onto the gay male libido, has its limits and conven­tions. Anything goes, perhaps, but not any-one. Like fashion models, porn actors are more form than content, and that form — ­both a mirror of and a spur to changing tastes — quickly becomes standardized. Cur­rently, the porn ideal is the same cartoon (actually, a Tom of Finland drawing) of masculinity found at most gay gyms, dance clubs, and go-go bars: He’s broad-shoul­dered and bubble-butted, with a chest like shiny armor plate and no sign of body hair; he’s clean-shaven, thick-lipped, straight-act­ing, and white. He’s the ’90s clone, and we’re over him.

Thing is, many of us were never into him in the first place. There’s no denying the attractions of the hunky whiteboy: they’re damned near unavoidable. So maybe I wouldn’t throw the boy out of bed, but I wouldn’t coax him there. He may be an icon for our times, but he’s just not part of my fantasy life. But, faced with limp indif­ference, pornography is infinitely resource­ful; like any niche marketer, it specializes.

Lately, the consensus has given way to a whole new porn multiculturalism — maga­zines and videos whose subjects are exclu­sively Asian, black, or Latin. In New York, it’s the Latin angle that seems most reso­nant. Maybe that’s because the city has a long history of cross-cultural Caribbean connections and that melting pot really boils over when sex is added to the mix. Or maybe it has something to do with the fuck-­anything-that-moves stereotype; when it comes to polymorphous perversity, Puerto Rico is definitely in the house.

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The relationship of gay white men and Latinos, whether mutual attraction or mu­tual exploitation, has its lore, its literature, and plenty of anecdotal evidence. (You could start with the personals in any gay rag, the ones that read “GWM seeks PR homeboy, 18-28, beefy, hung, uncut. Bi a plus.”) And for the past nine years it’s had its own porn auteur, the pseudonymous Brian Brennan, whose Barrio-based outfit, Latino Fan Club, has turned out 60 exhila­ratingly cheesy, way hardcore extravagan­zas. The LFC motto: “Celebrating the beau­ty of the Latin male.” Right — all nine and a half inches of it.

Latino Fan Club films — from the seminal Boys Behind Bars trilogy to the four-hour epic Spanish Harlem Knights to the insouciant Horse-Hung Hispanics (in four vol­umes), Red Hot Ricans, and Foreskin For­ever — have a raw energy due partly to their homemade, improvisational style, but most­ly to their rambunctious young stars. While most mainstream gay porn is fixated on buffed beauty — the choreographed coupling of two well-oiled machines — LFC gets off on homeboy horseplay and utterly unaffect­ed horniness. Some of this gangsta attitude is what the ball children call banji realness, a butch pose played to the hilt, but much of it is genuine. Many of LFC’s most popular “models” look like the kids who regularly show up in handcuffs on the covers of the Spanish-language tabloids: dark-eyed, tat­tooed, scarred, slightly built, haphazardly groomed, mean, cocky, wounded.

This personality profile promises a heady combination of brute domination and lost-­boy vulnerability. Over and over again, with plenty of the requisite cum shots, that’s exactly what Latino Fan Club delivers. But what animates the best LFC titles is an all­-consuming interest in the boys themselves. It’s not that these guys spill their guts out in the course of the amateurishly impro­vised dialogue, but they do emote in ways most porn would relegate to the editing floor. Since many LFC movies actually have narratives, some of the boys even get to act, or at least react.

The LFC aesthetic — though inspired by exploitation (and mock-exploitation) au­teurs like Roger Corman, John Waters, and the anonymous dirty old man behind those “solo” films from Old Reliable — owes its style to its stars. Loose, funky, playful, al­ways ready to drop real work and fool around, LFC doesn’t take itself too serious­ly. Without actually introducing a woman onscreen more than a few times, it swings both ways. Though most LFC actors come across as straight (“trade” Brennan calls them), the ruling sexuality of the films is definitely bi. “You do it even better than my wife,” one man tells another, and lots of homo sex is sparked by conversations about withholding girlfriends.

Two typical LFC models, Gustavo Viva and José Pelos, identify themselves as bisex­ual but are quick to note their hetero preferences. Pelos, an LFC office worker who says he met Brennan while hustling the peep shows on 42nd Street nearly 10 years ago, insists that “with a guy it would be a hustling thing and it would be safe; if I’m going to do something I’ll do it for the money.” Viva, a carpenter who builds some LFC sets, says, “Working with Latino Fan Club — that’s my job. I’m not going out there and harming anyone else; I’m working for what I receive. Some people may look at me as, like, he’s nothing more than a faggot or a homosexual, but I have a fiancée at home, and she says as long as you come back home to me and use a condom, she has no problem with it.” Both say Brennan doesn’t push his models beyond their limits (Pelos’s are succinct: “Won’t suck, won’t get fucked, won’t kiss”), but there’s clearly a certain flexibility. In a gay porn zone too often artificially divided between tops and bottoms, this is definitely another country.

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Charting that territory is Brennan’s forte. Forty-nine, bearded, and frankly out of shape, the Latino Fan Club founder doesn’t pretend to understand or explain the whole Latin thing. He only aims to exploit it for his pleasure and, not so inci­dentally, ours. A former Madison Avenue art department slave, Brennan was working as Blueboy’s art director when he decided to do a photo spread of his own. He chose his first subject, the half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican boy who delivered coffee to the office every morning, by following his own tastes. He’d been going to a bar near his West Village home called the Phoenix that young Latin hustlers had turned into a kind of clubhouse. Sometimes they would bring their girlfriends, sometimes they would do what Brennan calls “hiphop stripping” and jump up on a table so guys could stuff bills into their G-strings. Encouraged by the MC to videotape these spontaneous strip shows, Brennan realized that his crude tape was exactly the sort of thing he could never find at the video store, where “it was all California surfer dudes, boy-next-door stuff, or leather scenes. You’d never see a His­panic model, and I thought this might be a niche that I would enjoy doing.”

In 1985, Brennan began setting up nude photo sessions and marketing “a typical jack-off tape” of five different models called New York Street Boys. He also began run­ning an ad for what he at first called, with typically clumsy bluntness, a Fan Club for Guys Who Dig Latin Guys. “I started be­lieving in the thing about please yourself, do it as best as you can, and you’ll find all the people who are just like you,” Brennan says, sitting at a littered work table in the Latino Fan Club office/photo studio/crash pad/headquarters in East Harlem. The mail­ing list of Latinophiles he began building nearly a decade ago now includes over 7000 men, one of them the owner of this well­-secured corner property. With the excep­tion of LFC’s suite and another space with a pool deck that turns up, stocked with grinning homeboys, in LFC’s promotional newsreels, most of the building has been gutted for co-ops and remains empty.

Sade wafts in from the pool deck below, where a potential LFC star splashes under the rear windows of neighboring tenements. Under the loft bed where Spanish Harlem Knights‘s picaresque hero, Julio Nieves, snores fitfully, there are two banks of VCRs busy duplicating a tape running soundlessly on a monitor nearby. A scrawled sign reads “Say no to drugs and yes to dicks!” It’s all a cheap parody of film studio empire, fitting for a company that thrives on parody, trash, and — yes! — dicks. Though LFC’s produc­tion values have improved since Brennan shot every scene of the original Boys Be­hind Bars in the same corner of the same room in his old apartment in Forest Hills, its tapes are still deliberately unpolished. Continuity is a sometime thing; the focus fades at the most crucial moments; and there are plenty of times when you can hear Brennan’s instructions from the sidelines: “Push your pants down” or “Move your hand away.” “Do it as best as you can” seems to be the operative phrase here.

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Brennan may admire the impeccable gloss of Kristen Bjorn’s gay porn videos, but he models himself on a rougher, more marginal (and much more low-budget) style. Boyd McDonald, the horny genius behind Straight to Hell‘s collections of true homo­sexual experiences, was a kindred outlaw spirit. He once gave Brennan written per­mission to do a video version of his books, but Brennan says. “The only real way to make a Boyd McDonald movie is to have hidden cameras and stuff. I don’t think that’ll ever get made.” So he carries on in his own way, fucking with the genre when­ever he can. As if the tough mugs of his stars weren’t enough to signal viewers that they’re veering off porn’s beaten path, Brennan jokes about putting barred-circle symbols on his boxes to indicate No Butch Queens, No Designer Underwear, and No Shaving (of the depilated California proto­type, he says, “It’s almost like ‘Oh my God, hair on a male! How gross!’ ”).

Like Hitchcock, Brennan appears fully clothed on the sidelines in several of his films (he’s the shady stockbroker in Latin Sex Party, the prim painter in Spanish Har­lem Knights). In one of his many outtake reels, where the rawest material pops up, Brennan is an off-camera audience to super­star Rico Suave’s nude posing routine. “You are so fucking beautiful,” he says, while Suave stretches his long brown body like a particularly sly cat. If there’s a typical Latino Fan Club moment, it’s probably the offhand exchange (“That was great, man.” “You like that, huh?”) between two macho boys who have just had sex. But Brennan’s “You are so fucking beautiful” sums up the feeling behind the camera.

Because this comically awestruck bit of psychological fluffing comes from a white man who’s paying his Latin models between $200 and $300 a scene (the “receiver” earns more), there’s a definite whiff of colonialism in the air. Aside from some lightweight rumination about the “qualities of maleness that turn me on,” Brennan offers no deep examination of the attraction to what he calls “bad boys.” And he shrugs off the relentless characterization of his Latin stars as criminals, hustlers, addicts, or street kids as typical exploitation film fare (besides, he says, he gives guys auditioning for his prison and rehab clinic films the choice of being guards or inmates). Danger, uncomplicated sex, the exotic unknown — “I’m giving them what they want!” Brennan barks with a laugh.

According to a 1991 LFC membership poll, the number one collective fantasy involves being accosted by a gang of Latin boys, dragged into an alley, and forced (but not too violently) to go down on them. Brennan associate, and sometime film heavy, M. Vic Mann realizes this fantasy for LFC’s cute young white boy star, Eric Beatty, at the beginning of his Homeboy Hoodlums. After the rape, Beatty dumps his nagging girlfriend and turns into a major cocksucker, picking up one rough trade Rican after another until he gets around, inevitably, to his original attackers, who get their comeuppance from his Latin cop lover, but not before an orgy at gunpoint. There are some happy endings.

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Most of LFC’s cracked scenarios have this Samuel Fuller on Spanish Fly quality, so it’s hard to get exercised about their racial politics. The white wardens, doctors, and petty functionaries in LFC’s clearly makeshift institutions (you’d be surprised at how much can fit between these prison bars) are either loudmouthed, cigar-chomping creeps or venal manipulators. But they’re such corrupt buffoons that their scheming and rapaciousness is more comic than alarming, and they always end up on their knees before sneering boys who purr, “You like that big dick, don’t you doc?” The boys may not look like angels, but next to these assholes and toadies, they’re the heroes, and the camera loves them.

Other LFC films imagine a world where Latins rule (Super Barrio Brothers) or triumph through a combination of cunning and sex. In Latin Sex Party, the funniest of Brennan’s movies, a windbag “professor” runs a seminar aimed at reforming uptight white yuppies. While he’s spieling, his increasingly bored audience is seduced one by one by the Latin boys from the basement apartment who are trying to raise rent money. The seminar is such a success that the professor and the homeboys go into business together. It’s the perfect LFC fantasy: white daddies, on their knees, only too happy to receive the Latino’s sexual healing.

If this fantasy can’t entirely quell our uneasiness at the boys’ willingness to trade flesh for favors or the men’s fetishization of their undisguised contempt, one more shot of superstar Romeo Castillo’s ripe, quiver­ing ass will. These aren’t tracts or position papers, they’re Papi potboilers; order is subverted, everybody gets fucked, and if anyone comes out on top, it’s the Horse­-Hung Hispanic, waving his meat like the flag of the latest independent nation.

Waving the freak flag right along with them is Brennan, who’s fast becoming the Russ Meyer of queer porn — part crackpot, part visionary, total obsessive. “When I was a kid I was nuts about just movies, movies, movies,” he says, and now he’s making four of them simultaneously. Here’s a trailer for one called Attack of the Amazing Colossal Latino: A broad-chested B-boy looms na­ked over Times Square at night, his fat uncut dick swaying next to the Coke sign. He leans down, scowls into the haze of neon, and shouts, “Fuckin’ size queen! Is this big enough for you now?” ■

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Stonewall 25: The Media, the Message

The Media
June 28, 1994
By Martin Duberman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Message
By Allen Ginsberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To the Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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