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Stonewall 1979: This Thing Called…

This Thing Called…
June 25, 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recovered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stonewall 1979: Gays in Hollywood

The Closet Syndrome: Gays in Hollywood
June 25, 1979

In January 1969, Variety screeched: HOMO N’ LESBO FILMS AT PEAK — DEVIATE THEME NOW BOX OFFICE. It was the year of The Boys in the Band, the culmination of a decade in which Hollywood seized upon homosexuality as a seamier side of the American dream. In one year, 1968, there were more films dealing with homosexuality than in the three decades since the coming of sound. Lesbians and gay men in the movies were pathological, predatory, and dangerous; we were villains and fools, but never heroes. It was side­show time.

In The Legend of Lylah Clare, Rosella Falk played a cobra-eyed, dope-addicted dyke with the hots for Kim Novak. In Petulia, Richard Chamberlain was the wife-beater with a lech for young boys. Rod Steiger blew his brains out after kissing John Philip Law in The Sergeant. Sandy Dennis died when a tree fell be­tween her legs in The Fox. Homosexuals were prime suspects in The Boston Strangler, rapists in Riot, and hairdressers or queens in No Way to Treat a Lady and Valley of the Dolls. Fear, hiding, and self-destruction — the closet syndrome — were implicit in all these films. Homosexuality was the dirty secret in the last real.

The mechanism of the closet is exposed in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George in which the alternative to in­visibility is assimilation. Beryl Reid’s George is “killed” by the safely closeted BBC exec Coral Browne, who uses sex as power to take away her lover and her career. The crime of fat, drunken, tweedy old George is not that she’s a lesbian, but that she’s so repugnantly butch. She is ruined for not “passing.” The ethic of the closet is also advanced in The Boys in the Band, which coincided neatly with the birth of the activist gay movement in America. “If we could just not hate ourselves so much.” Mart Crowley’s pas­sion play was a catharsis. The ’60s had pried open the closet door.

Ten years later, the gay audience has been courted by almost every medium, even when it has not been openly acknowl­edged. Plays, books, magazines, and even television shows have presented a steady stream of real and fictional gay situations. But at the movies, very little has changed. During the ’70s, gays died violent deaths in Diamonds Are Forever, The Day of the Jackal, Freebie and the Bean, The Eiger Sanction, Swashbuckler and even Truf­faut’s Day for Night. We were psychotic killers and tearoom cruisers in The Laugh­ing Policeman and Busting. Fags and dykes were evil white slavers in Drum and Mandingo, gang leaders and dope pushers in Cleopatra Jones. We were “cured” in M*A*S*H and Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon, and committed suicide in Ode to Billy Joe, Play It As It Lays and The Betsy. Another decade of villains and fools. But still no heroes.

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American screen heroes have changed very little since 1945 when Billy Wilder directed Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend for Paramount. In Jackson’s novel the hero’s alcoholism is the result of a father fixation aggravated by false accusation of homosexuality. Onscreen, he is driven to drink by writer’s cramp. The film’s producer best articulated the reason for this change. “If the drunk isn’t an extremely attractive fellow, who apart from being a drunk could be a hell of a nice guy, the audiences won’t go for it.” The hero can’t be queer.

In 1961 Dwight Macdonald reported in Esquire that screenwriter George Axelrod had “straightened out” the Truman Capote character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for George Peppard. In 1965, references to the unorthodox sexuality of Clyde Barrow were trimmed from the original script for Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty could play an impotent killer, but not a queer. In 1975, Billy Joe McAllister took his secret to a watery grave in Ode to Billy Joe. “He’s on his way to becoming a legend around here,” says his girlfriend. “Can’t have people thinking he killed himself because of a man.” When Alan Parker directed Billy Hayes’s Midnight Express in 1979, it happened again. The consummation of a homosexual affair which Hayes describes in his book is halted in the film by a gentle but manly rejection. “I made that decision,” says Parker, “because I couldn’t afford to have my audience think my hero was a homosexual.”

Gay fiction is big business, but not one homosexual hero has reached the screen. Film projects based on the life story of tennis star Bill Tilden and James Kirkwood’s Good Times/Bad Times were repeatedly announced in the trade press, but never materialized. According to An­drew Sarris, the Tilden project was dropped because of “nervousness about its unsavory nature.” Producers Ira Yerkes and Amie Reisman told the Los Angeles Times in April 1978 that “Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle will be made into a film even if we have to go kicking and screaming into the next decade with it.” Their option recently expired and there are no new offers. Ray Agayhari tried for three years to get a film version of Laura Z. Robson’s Consenting Adult off the ground. The story of a mother who must come to terms with her son’s homosexuality “was turned down by all the major studios with enormous promptness,” according to the author. Hobson could sell Jews to Hollywood in 1947 when she wrote Gentleman’s Agreement, but she couldn’t sell them gays in 1979. “They’re scared to death of this one,” she says. Now the story has been optioned for the New York stage.

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The most celebrated failure to produce a film from gay fiction involves Patricia Nell Warren’s bestseller, The Front Runner. Originally optioned by Paul Newman, it was finally dropped when problems arose in obtaining an acceptable screenplay. “I’m not ready for a cop-out,” said Newman in a Blueboy interview. “I won’t tolerate this project being turned into a watered-down love story or substituting a female for Billy, as has been suggested by people who should know better.”

All proposed versions of The Front Runner have included sex between the Olympic runner and his coach, which is the reason it’s been so difficult to cast. “I was willing to do it,” said Richard Thomas, approached to play opposite Newman, “but a lot of key people are afraid.” Most actors are as reluctant as ever to play homosexuals for fear that the audience will confuse them with their roles. When Perry King was about to accept the role of a gay man in A Different Story, he was warned by his friend Sylvester Stallone, “Don’t play no faggots.” Michael Winner’s The Mechanic was originally a story about the love between two professional killers, but Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent agreed to do it only after explicit sex scenes had been deleted from the script.

To do otherwise might have doomed the film. John Schlesinger had the effrontery to show Peter Finch and Murray Head kissing on the lips in Sunday Bloody Sunday and people stayed away in droves. Al Pacino carried Dog Day Afternoon, but Sidney Lumet was careful to wait until halfway through the film before letting his audience know the bank robber’s sexuality. And in most local theaters the reaction was a chorus of catcalls and boos. As Pacino says in the film when John Cazale complains that the TV is calling him a homosexual, “It doesn’t matter, Sal. It’s only a freak show to them.”

What has changed is the heterosexual hero. “Men never used to be able to have emotional lives on film; now they do,” says Ron Gold, media adviser for the National Gay Task Force. “Look at Coming HomeThe Deerhunter, and even Saturday Night Fever. As we move into a redefinition of roles in the movies, gayness will become more acceptable.”

Yet, the fact that heterosexuals are more vulnerable on the screen has produced a hesitancy about homosexuality. There is a defensiveness in the way audiences cheer all the violence in Midnight Express and yell “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” when the gay scene comes on. A musical number like “White Boys” can serve as delightful burlesque in a film like Hair, but when Woof is asked if he’s homosexual, the answer is a resounding no. He wouldn’t throw Mick Jagger out of bed, but he’s not queer. John Travolta can dance up a storm in Saturday Night Fever, and even be the kind of hero who refuses to taunt a local faggot on the street. But in Moment by Moment, he goes too far. His “passive” role drew critical wrath clearly aimed at the abdication of his masculinity. David Denby termed him “Jane Russell with a hairy chest — a bimbo.” Stewart Klein chided director Jane Wagner for “knowing nothing about heterosexual relations.” More recently, Klein attacked the French film, La Cage Aux Folles, by implying that only a gay critic could find its role reversal jokes funny.

The waters are being continuously tested. When Casablanca Filmworks re­cently pre-tested its disco film, Thank God It’s Friday, in the Midwest, producer Kenny Freidman studied the reaction of audiences to a scene of two gay men dancing together amid a sea of heter­osexual couples. He found that the gays in the audience “got it” and the straights “never saw a thing.” Which is exactly what he wanted. If there had been any negative reaction, the scene would have been dropped.

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Deletions have been common in other films. The lover relationship between Wil­liam Devane and Roy Scheider in Mara­thon Man was simply not retained. An Unmarried Woman lost a sequence which made concrete the lesbianism of Jill Clay­burgh’s therapist. According to screenwriter Arthur Laurents, a subplot in The Turning Point involving a long-term gay relationship was excised by nervous Herb Ross, a director whose work, The Owl and the Pussycat, Funny Lady, and The Goodbye Girl, has been consistently homophobic. “It wasn’t even a question of saying anything in The Turning Point, ” says Laurents. “It was just my feeling that it was dishonest and lacking in texture to do a movie about the ballet world and not have homosexuals.”

One reason gays haven’t fared well in films, says John Watson of the Los An­geles Times, is that “closeted homosexuals working within the industry obstruct projects that have positive gay themes.” After several attempts to interview gay people at various film companies, I asked a woman in charge of advertising and promotion for the Robert Stigwood Or­ganization (Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, Moment by Moment) if there were any openly gay people in the film industry. She was incredulous. “But nobody is openly anything!” she said.

Recent announcements in the Holly­wood trade press that Grease impresario Alan Carr was planning a “gay-themed” film about the rise of The Village People drew swift demands for a retraction. Dis­coland: Where the Music Never Stops, which begins shooting on Fire Island on August 1, will chronicle the rise of The Village People against the backdrop of a love affair between Bruce Jenner and Valerie Perrine. Bruce Vilanch, co-author of the screenplay, has written for Bette Midler and Peter Allen, and is responsible for an album of gay humor called Out of the Closets. He confirms what I was told on the telephone: “Discoland was never conceived as a gay project. The few gay characters in the film will not appear in any sexual situation unless it’s a heter­osexual one. We had to absolutely steer away from that. Trying to have a gay hero is the easiest way to write yourself a flop.”

But what about gays who are victims of their own villainy? William Friedkin, who directed The Boys in the Band 10 years ago, is scheduled to begin shooting Gerald Walker’s 1970 novel, Cruising, in New York this summer. Friedkin has been scouring New York’s gay ghetto, scouting locations like The Mine Shaft, The Anvil, and the waterfront as background for the story of a psychotic killer who murders gay men. Since Friedkin has written the screenplay himself and reportedly thrown out the entire book with the exception of the three main characters, nobody is sure how Cruising will turn out. Author Gerald Walker hasn’t seen the screenplay and knows only what he reads in the papers. “It’s a novel about homophobia,” he says, “about how we hate and fear and try to destroy in others what we hate and fear in ourselves.” But one studio executive speculated that Cruising would be a “cross between The French Connection and The Boys in the Band.”

Meanwhile, the New York gay community seems to be going out of its way to be cooperative. It’s reported that Friedkin even got permission to shoot in The Mine Shaft, usually very touchy about privacy. A few weeks ago, a casting call went out for over 200 extras. Word was that they were looking for costume types — clones, leathermen, and handkerchiefed street cruisers — and that extras were being given 15-minute interviews, unheard of in casting circles. One actor who showed for an audition reported that two employees of The Mine Shaft were present in full dress leather. The casting woman remarked at one point that they would probably have to make a deal with the Screen Actor’s Guild because “SAG extras don’t want to do what’s required.”

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So far, no actor has been signed to play the murderer who spends his time looking at old movies with submerged gay themes — like Strangers on a Train — before going out to kill. Al Pacino has accepted the role of the detective (described in the book as “a hater” of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals). After being rejected at Fox,Warners, and Paramount, the film will now be released by U.A.’s Lorimar Productions. Friedkin is said to have changed the basic plot so that events in his film will recall actual incidents of violence in waterfront sex hangouts. “They’re going for the out front sex-for-sex-sake aspect of the gay community,” says playwright Doric Wilson, “and that’s certainly there — it’s not a lie. Are we supposed to expect that as we become more visible, people won’t film this? If the film shows that gays can be the principal enemies of gays, then that’s a valuable thing to say.”

Cruising won’t be alone in its explora­tion of violence by and against gays. Paramount will release the film version of Lucien Truscott, IV’s Dress Gray, which has at its center the West Point cover­up of a homosexual murder. French director Jacques Scandalari’s New York After Midnight, scripted by Louisa Rose (Sisters) tells the story of a woman who discovers that her husband is gay. Her psychotic tendencies are triggered, causing her to murder five — or seven — gay men. The editing isn’t complete yet. Jacques Morali will do the score and his group, The Village People, will sing a song in the film.

This may be the inevitable breakthrough of the “gay film market” everyone predicts. Frank Perry (David and LisaDiary of a Mad Housewife) has announced that he has an acceptable script (but no stars) and plans to begin shooting The Front Runner this summer. The dread Herb Ross is busy filming the life story Nijinsky before Ken Russell gets hold of it. Arthur Laurents is set to direct his own screenplay of a film called After Love, which examines the breakup of a heterosexual marriage. “The wife in the film has a brother who is gay and who has been with his lover for longer than she’s been married. It makes a statement about gay relationships.”

Dozens of film people were eager to talk off the record about gay actors who have won Oscars, gay pop stars who cruise Santa Monica Boulevard, performers who use their academy awards as dildoes, and other fascinating ephemera. But when I ask about openly gay people in tinseltown who might risk getting involved in the production of films which explore gay life, there is silence.

One young Hollywood producer wouldn’t even give me the names of people to interview at his production company. “It’s not time yet,” he said. “But it’s bound to happen soon. Someone will make the one blockbuster that proves you can make a million dollars on this market and then everyone will get into the act. It’s just a matter of time.”

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Some of My Best Friends Make Movies

Throughout the ’70s, lesbians and gay men with little money and no power in the film business have persistently attempted to capture their own truth about the gay experience on film. In 1971, Melvin Nelson’s Some of My Best Friends Are… was the Grand Hotel of ghetto drama. Boasting cameo performances by Peg Murray, Rue McLanahan, Carleton Carpenter, Gary Sandy, and Fannie Flagg, and a tour de force by the late Candy Darling, the film gained a cult following, but has been buried by American Interna­tional Pictures.

Slices of gay life outside the U.S. have fared better in recent years. Richard Ben­ner’s Outrageous! was made in Canada for $160,000, financed largely by the Canadi­an film Development Corporation, a gov­ernment agency. Money doesn’t come as easily to gay directors in America. Peter Adair and five other filmmakers spent four years trying to raise the money to complete Word Is Out. Finally, WNET put up $50,000 for the chance to air it on Channel 13 soon after its release. Ron Peck and Paul Hallam spent five years in London trying to finance what Variety called “a gay version of Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” Their film, Nighthawk, is about a gay teacher who is caught up in the bar syndrome; it follows his nightly cruising ritual with uncanny perception. The climax is a classroom sequence during which his young students suddenly ask if it’s true that he’s queer. Nighthawk was well-received in Europe and was screened this year at Cannes, but it hasn’t found a a U.S. distributor.

In 1969, Paramount shelved a film called As Pretty Does, the story of a hustler who moves in with a drag queen. The two fall in love, but the hustler, under pressure from his straight friends, finally beats his lover and leaves. The drag queen sings a torch song. Paramount may have missed the boat on that one. Ten years later, Harvey Fierstein’s autobiographical International Stud covered similar ground and became an enormous hit.

Andre Brassard’s Once Upon a Time in the East, a compelling film about gay life in the East End of Montreal, had never had a commercial run in America. Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing met with such advertising and distribution problems that its director was cowed into silence and disillusionment. “It just isn’t worth it,” he told the L.A. Times last year. “The only way to do it is if you’re risking someone else’s money and then you have to find some pretty naive people or some awfully good friends.”

Yet, with a little help from their friends, gay filmmakers in the last few years have produced scores of movies on all aspects of gay life: Jan Oxenburg’s A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts, Michael McNeill’s I Love His Legs, and Harvey Mark’s I’m Not From Here. TRUXX documents a recent police raid on a Montreal gay bar and Paul/David: High School is a film about two teenage lovers. Tomas Gaspar has even parodied a series of Oil of Olay commercials, using gay men as ethnic models from all over the world.

There may never be a Hollywood market for this kind of exploration on film. Gays who are seeking a radical celluloid vision of their lifestyle must look to independents. The Grease audience may not be interested, but if we continue to look to Hollywood for a validation of ourselves we’ll all be swallowed up like poor old Sister George, whose only crime was her refusal to be a fake.

Vito Russo is completing a book about lesbians and gay men in American film, entitled The Celluloid Closet, to be published soon by Harper & Row.

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Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Stonewall 1979: The Drag of Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stonewall 1979: The Politics of Drag

Most people feel awkward around drags — uneasy, even frightened. So many of our social responses are dictated by our recognition of someone’s gender, which we generally assume coincides with his or her sex. Confronting a man dressed as a woman jams our social signals and frustrates our habitual social responses. If we can be temporarily alarmed by a foreigner who swoops down to kiss our hand or who ceremoniously makes a rude noise to indicate his appreciation of dinner, then small wonder we are even more dismayed by someone whom we don’t know whether to call “he” or “she.”

But mere social discomfort is the least of our problems. Far more significant is the threat posed by the drag queen to our sense of identity. It has become fashionable to say that a man secure in his masculinity will not object to transvestism, but even that hypothetical creature may find drag queens unnerving. The sources of this queasiness, I’d submit, are historical and cognitive. Historically, gay men have been branded as effeminate. Since 1969 and the birth of gay liberation, however, homosexual men have rigorously rejected the effeminate label — and, if seen in the correct light, this redefinition can only be commended. Social labels have a nasty way of defining behavior, and homosexuals, like other minority groups that have had a taste of freedom and self-respect, have rejected the demeaning stereotypes imposed on them. Gay men today are assuming the most blatant badges of manliness, which in America is always associated with the working class.

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The drag queen appears all the more isolated and fragile among so many burly men. I am not referring to heterosexual transvestites, since their fear of being unmasked usually makes them inconspicuous, even invisible. I am speaking of gays, whether they be show drags (those who dress up only to perform in clubs or at contests) or street drags (those who live their whole lives in women’s clothes). The gay drag is also more despised than ever because she reminds the new macho gays of what they once were, or might have been. At the very time when many homosexual men are learning that they can be both gay and butch, along comes this bizarre specter, teetering on spike heels under pounds of lacquered hair, her face painted and powdered above her prominent Adam’s apple, her clothes a fantasy of outdated frills and finery.

Historically, then, the drag queen stands as a unpleasant reminder of discarded effeminacy. But I have also said that she makes us uneasy on a cognitive level. Cognitive psychologists would say that, despite surface variations, there appear to be abiding categories of thought wired into our brains. For instance, there seems to be a basic human urge to analyze experience through pairs of opposites. The exact contents of the categories may differ, but the drive to make such distinctions prevails. Some that spring to mind are pure and defiled, ours and theirs, taboo and permitted. Surely one of the most universal of these dichotomies is male and female — or rather, since we are speaking of gender rather than sex, masculine and feminine. In almost every group of people, a great deal of effort is expended to make these distinctions as sharp as possible — differences in dress, vocabulary, manners, attitudes. Since gender differences are also reinforced by economics — the sexual division of labor — they are all the more difficult to eradicate.

Even when gender is systematically de-emphasized, the separation between masculine and feminine continues: for example, a group of feminist teachers worked with kindergartners in an environment where boys and girls were encouraged to dress, speak, and play alike and where all gender differences were discouraged. Despite such efforts, the children remained acutely aware of gender distinctions and could be overheard saying, “Boys don’t to that,” or “That’s only for girls,” and so on. These mental habits persisted even when the gender-identified behavior was precisely the opposite of what society at large regards as proper masculine and feminine behavior. Thus a boy might be heard saying to a girl, “Don’t touch my doll. Dolls are for boys, not girls.” These ideas are discussed more fully in Psychology of Sex Differences by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin.

In studying other cultures, anthropologists have found that people tend to be suspicious of anything that falls between two categories. The Hebrew taboo against eating lobsters, for instance, may arise from the fact that they are interstitial animals. Sea-dwelling animals, fish, have flippers and swim; land-dwelling animals have legs and walk. The lobster, however, inhabits the sea but has legs. It falls between two categories and is therefore taboo.

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Not surprisingly, the drag queen, occupying the interstice between masculine and feminine, is troublesome. Interstitial entities are usually handled in one of two ways — they are either despised or revered. Interestingly, there are many cases, especially among black Americans, of drags being revered. When I was in my teens the Prophet Jones in Detroit was the leader of a popular religious cult; he wore make-up, articles of feminine attire and a full ermine coat, presented to him by his devotees. Little Richard, with his lipstick, high heels, satins, and bouffant hairdo was another such shaman. But if a misfit is not revered he is despised, and this is the position of the drag queen in both homosexual and heterosexual white society in America.

In recent years the drag queen has been attacked by another group — lesbian feminists. Some Lesbians perceive drags as mocking women, all the more so because the drags so often get themselves up in the very guises that liberated women have been at such pains to discard — show girls, sex kittens, fashion models. As far as I can make out, lesbian feminists think that drags (1) mock women by imitating them and (2) doubly insult them by imitating unliberated women.

Not all feminists have subscribed to this view. As long ago as 1970, Kate Millett in Sexual Politics saw the drag as a useful subversion: “…as she minces along a street in the Village, the storm of outrage an insouciant queen drag may call down is due to the fact that she is both masculine and feminine at once — or male, but feminine. She has made gender identity more than frighteningly easy to lose; she has questioned its reality at a time when it has attained the status of a moral absolute and a social imperative. She has defied it and actually suggested its negation. She has dared obloquy, and in doing so has challenged more than the taboo on homosexuality, she has uncovered what the source of this contempt implies — the fact that sex role is sex rank.”

I think the feminists’ discussion of drag has been muddied by a failure to distinguish between the intentions of the queen and the effects of her behavior on others. Many of the drags I have interviewed across the country seem to have rather modest ambitions — to be “glamorous,” to be “stars,” to amuse audiences and to convince unsuspecting straights that they are “real women.” They generally look confused and bewildered when they are accused of mocking women; quite the contrary, many of them wish to be women. The effect of their behavior can be diverse — lesbian feminists consider it offensive; straight audiences at a nightclub find it entertaining; many gay men find it threatening.

Disdain for drag is, I would contend, often concealed snobbism. Most gay transvestites especially street drags, are from the working class and many drags are either black or Puerto Rican. Discrimination against them may be both elitist and racist. The greatest irony, of course, is that the Stonewall Resistance itself and many of the other early gay street actions were led by transvestites.

As for why drag queens have singled out prostitutes and show girls to imitate, the explanation may be at least partially historical. Certainly gay men have seldom impersonated middle-class housewives or aristocratic hostesses. The gay hissing and bitch sessions, the vulgar put-downs and the half-funny, half-serious rivalries parallel the catty remarks of whores and chorus-line gypsies. In Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History one discovers several clues. A cited article published in 1896 about the “faeries” of New York states: “They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian requiring the dressing in female attire, and singing in imitation of a female voice, in which they often excel.” Testimony given to the New York police in 1899 has this to say of male prostitutes: “These men that conduct themselves there — well, they act effeminately; most of them are painted and powdered; they are called Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro, and get up and sing as women, and dance; ape the female character; call each other sisters and take people out for immoral purposes.” In 1893 a medical journal published a note about a black drag ball in Washington, D.C.: “In this sable performance of sexual perversion all of these men are lasciviously dressed in womanly attire, short sleeves, low-necked dresses and the usual ballroom decorations and ornaments of women, feathered and ribboned head-dresses, garters, frills, flowers, ruffles, etc., and deport themselves as women.”

Obviously, then, many of the early drag queens actually were prostitutes. Others, such as the black queens in Washington, may have found that the worlds of the theatre and prostitution were the only ones where overt homosexuals were welcome. Most likely is the hypothesis that homosexuality in all its forms was so forbidden that only in the permissive world of prostitution could it be mentioned at all. Closeted homosexuals were speechless; only those who had entered a milieu of prostitution and show biz could discuss their sexuality. As a result, even today a small but essential gay male vocabulary can be traced back to whores’ slang, including trick, box, trade, number, hustle, score, and so on. Modern homosexuality arises with the growth of industry and big cities; once men could become self-sufficient (if alienated) laborers, they could reject family life and live as bachelors. But even so, only the most oppressed outcasts of gay life — the drag queens — dared to speak openly of their sexuality. Contemporary drag is a reminder of our beginnings.

I have tried to touch upon the most confusing and complex issues that swirl around the question of drag. But I would be evading my responsibilities if I did not state that I believe transvestites have been treated very unfairly by lesbians and gay men and that they must be fully accepted into our ranks (scattered and in disarray as those ranks may be). Recently, some gay strategists have taken a stand against all forms of eccentricity in gays, and especially against transvestitism, on the grounds that unusual dress and behavior can only hurt the cause of homosexuals in general. As long as drags, leather men, radicals and “media freaks” are un­muzzled and conspicuous, or so the theory goes, then straight society will continue to frown on all gays and deny us our rights.

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Interestingly, the National Organization of Women was faced with an analogous problem a few years ago — whether to accept or reject its lesbian contingent. Those feminists who opposed the lesbians did so because they feared that if NOW were linked to lesbianism in the public mind, then the entire organization would be branded and dismissed as suspect by non-lesbian women. Those who endorsed the lesbians argued that if lesbians have traditionally been singled out as scapegoats, then they can just as easily serve as leaders and symbols of feminist solidarity. The decision to stand behind lesbians won out.

I think that lesbians and gays should take a similar stand on drags. To accept transvestites is not only humane but also tactically wise. All of the objections that straights and gays might have to drags are merely condensed and heightened objec­tions to male homosexuality. A survey of straights published in the Journal of Homosexuality revealed that most straight people do not object to sex be­tween two adult men. What they dislike is self-definition as homosexual. Coming out of the closet is what riles straight people; you will recall that even Anita Bryant does not object to teachers being gay, she simply does not want them to announce they are gay. Once someone comes out of the closet, once a gay man defines himself socially as gay, then he becomes disturbing. Avowedly gay men, as the survey revealed, are perceived by straight society as women. The anger against gay men (and it is much stronger than that against gay women) arises from the fact that gay men are seen as de­liberately and perversely renouncing their prerogatives as men and accepting the lower status of women. Because gay men are perceived as choosing to be women — that is, inferior — they arouse scorn, fear, and confusion.

These are the same feelings that drags awaken in everyone, of course. Drags have become the new “queers” of gay life. For that reason, our reactions to them are a sure index of our own homophobia. By embracing drags, lesbians, and especially gay men will take a step towards self-­acceptance. By placing drags in a re­spected position within the movement, gays will have elevated and defended what straight society most despises in all homosexuals. ■

Edmund White’s next book will be States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. He has written two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturne for the King of Naples. He authored The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein.

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Stonewall 1979: Gay Life, Present at the Creation

Present at the Creation
June 25, 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Equality From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Allen Ginsberg on the Meaning of Stonewall, Plus Latino Studs, Dyke Daddies, and Gay Weddings

Whether advocating for gay-marriage rights, reviewing gay porn, or celebrating two young men attending a high school prom together almost a quarter-century later on — “We’re not paid actors. We are real homosexuals” — Voice writers have long been at the forefront of LGBTQ coverage.

We begin with Howard Cruse’s cartoon The Gay in the Street, from June 28, 1984, an issue devoted to “The Future of Gay Life.” Cruse had made a name for himself in the 1970s and ’80s as an underground cartoonist and as editor of the straightforwardly titled anthology Gay Comix. On the Voice pages he envisions a young man telling a television reporter, “Lesbian nuptials will be incorporated subtly into Cagney and Lacey plots!”

In 1993, longtime Voice editor (and food critic) Jeff Weinstein noted, “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?” Under an X-Acto knife collage that portrayed Jeff as both bride and groom, he went on to point out an important piece of Village Voice history: “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.’ ”

Another instance of the Voice getting the progressive word out before anyone else.

In 1994 the Voice ran a special section, “Stonewall 25,” and invited the likes of Allen Ginsberg to contribute. The Beat icon enthused, “Stonewall’s cry echoed round the world!” and went on to note, “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 hypocritical greed & sadism. As the sign says: GAY PROHIBITION CORRUPTS COP$ AND FEED$ MAFIA.”

On the same page, CUNY professor Martin Duberman covered the various ways the press had reported on Stonewall more than two decades earlier: “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).… 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.’ ”

A few pages on, arts editor and photo critic Vince Aletti deconstructed gay porn: “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.”

Another entry in that issue’s “Forbidden Games” section was Donna Minkowitz’s essay on the transgressions of “Dyke Daddy” play: “Lesbians eroticizing Daddy is about as taboo as straight men declaring they want to be sodomized by Tinkerbell — it doesn’t mesh with the image we struggle to maintain. But in the past few years, Daddy/boy (or girl) erotic role-playing has emerged in the lesbian community — even among women who don’t normally walk on the wild side.”

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

An apt description, not only of Johnston but of many other Voice writers on the LBGTQ beat — past, present, and future.

Categories
COMEDY ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Lea DeLaria on 47 ‘Dykes,’ ‘Fags,’ and ‘Queers’

Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Lea DeLaria became the first openly gay comic to perform on late-night television, when she did a stand-up set on The Arsenio Hall Show. “It’s the Nineties and it’s hip to be queer and I’m a biiiiig dyke!” DeLaria famously declared. The set catapulted the comic to a new level of mainstream fame, and she’s used that platform to loudly stump for the LGBTQ cause ever since.

The Voice spoke to the Orange Is the New Black star about her landmark appearance, concerns about the corporate takeover of Pride, and TV’s “fake lesbian” problem.

It’s been 25 years since you became the first openly queer comic to perform on broadcast TV, on The Arsenio Hall Show. What do you remember of that experience?

I remember everything. Every second of it. It was huge!

Were you approached to perform on his show?

I was in San Francisco performing a two-week run. I was about to go to Highways, in Los Angeles, which is a performing arts venue. The L.A. Times wanted to do an interview with me because of my run at Highways. This was when people actually read the paper. The interview went incredibly well — it ended up below the fold on the cover of the weekend edition’s entertainment section. The show sold out, we had to add shows, and suddenly all these agents and managers and people were calling and calling.

I was completely out of my league — I was a fucking queer performer, you know what I mean? Luckily I had known Melissa Etheridge for a really long time, so I called her and she gave me a whole lot of really good advice. I hung up the phone and I got a phone call from the people at The Arsenio Hall Show. The reason Arsenio Hall called was because, I believe it was in the first paragraph of the article — “Lea DeLaria, you may not know her, they won’t let her do the Tonight Show.” So the bookers from Arsenio called and said, “Well, if they won’t let you do the Tonight Show, I think it’s a no-brainer that you do this.”

What was it like when you showed up to do your set?

I had never met Arsenio, and when I got onto the set, he walked out of his dressing room, grabbed me by the hand, and walked me to my dressing room and sat and talked to me for, like, ten minutes to tell me how excited he was that I was there. He was absolutely lovely. He said, “I’ve heard of you for years, but your comedy is so blue and so outrageous I didn’t think we could ever get a four-minute set from you.” Which is really funny, and true! My comedy was not the sort of thing you saw on TV.

Did you talk with him or any producers about what your set would be like? Was there anything you were told not to say?

No. When you do a late-night set, you go through it with the person who books you. So they knew everything I was gonna say. They didn’t have any objections to anything. I came out, I did my four minutes of stand-up, and I did five minutes on the couch, and I think it was the Advocate that wrote that I was on for nine and a half minutes and I said the word dyke, fag, or queer something like 47 times.

But here’s what people don’t know: After I did that set, the lawyer came down and said, “I don’t think we can air this because she says dyke, fag, and queer.” Arsenio went and fought for me. He said, “If she’s gonna call herself a dyke or a fag or queer, who are we to tell her she can’t?” He really fought for it so that it would go out in its entirety, and it did.

How do you feel about how the representation of queer people on TV has changed over the years? In some ways I feel we’ve come so far, but then you see these GLAAD reports and the numbers still aren’t great, particularly for gay women.

Lesbian representation on television generally isn’t even written by lesbians. Let’s start there. Television is without a doubt filled with fake lesbians. It happens to us all the time, especially butch lesbians.

Right, which is partly why when Orange Is the New Black first came out, I was so blown away by the diversity of women on that show — the variety of body types, sexualities, personalities, ethnicities. It was like, oh yeah, we don’t usually see this.

You have to remember, when I first encountered the script, Big Boo wasn’t in the script. They wrote that part for me. So even in that show they didn’t have butch representation. And by the way, the real Alex [Vause] — not that she’s a friend of mine, I don’t know her from Adam — but the real Alex looks like me. She’s a butch dyke, being portrayed by Laura Prepon with long hair and lipstick.

Do you argue with the writers about things like that? Do you have any input?

When they were doing Big Boo’s backstory, I had a lot of input in that because it was a butch story and I’m a butch dyke, and the person who wrote it was not a butch dyke. There were two things I talked to them about: an attire question and the strap-on. Lauren Morelli wrote this [episode], and when I was handed the script I called her and I was crying — I said, “It’s like you’ve read my diary.” It was taking place in 1997 in the Midwest in a gay bar, and there was something they wanted me to wear, and I was like, yeah, this wouldn’t happen. And the strap-on — they wanted me to wear the strap-on over the boxers. And I said, no butch in their right mind — no, no. It kills the fantasy! I will not put it on over my boxers. So the boxers were laid by the bed and I had to wear what they call a modesty patch.

I will tell you what the problem is that I see: It’s in the writer’s room. They do not hire lesbians. They do not let us write for ourselves. It’s infuriating to me. I don’t know why it’s always acceptable, especially for straight men, to write stories about lesbians. They write it, and then they don’t cast us in the roles! They cast fake lesbians. Most of the cast of Orange is fake lesbians. There’s actual lesbians out there that would love to work, and we’re good!

It’s funny, I talked to Scott Thompson a little while ago.

My buddy Scott!

He was saying, at least in the context of comedy, that he thinks things are harder for gay men because a woman who is interested in other women moves up in power, whereas for a man to be interested in men, you lose power.

Scott and I have had this argument. We’re friends, but we talk about this all the time. Scott, you’re so wrong about this. Because they’re sexualizing us — they don’t think of us as thinking human beings. And as I’ve said to him many times, “Scott, do you think I had it easy in comedy clubs? Look at me, son!” But he is correct in that in the comedy clubs it’s still OK to pick on gay men.

Or I often see a male comic pick on a woman in the audience, in a sexual way, because it’s an easy way to get a laugh.

Well, I do that [laughs]. But I do that to make a point, because first of all, I’m a lesbian. That’s still frowned upon by society. And also I’m a woman, and we’re supposed to be pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen. So I do that as a very feminist, political statement.

You’ve written about how Pride events in the late 1970s and early 1980s were more like angry protests than parades.

They were protest marches. They were about defiance.

Do you feel Pride parades today should have more of that angry protest spirit? It’s amazing to see Pride become this global series of events, but then you’ll see a TD Bank float and it’s like, huh?

I hate the corporatefication of anything. I think the corporatefication of Broadway destroyed Broadway. Thank god for Hamilton and, before that, Fun Home. Thank god for the Public Theater, which still is trying to bring us engaging shows and not just whatever the masses want to see — yet another revival of Carousel. Who wants to see a dream ballet in 2018? We don’t need corporations to make this parade. We don’t need that money. Unless the Citibank float is doing something specifically for queer people other than just being in this parade, then fuck Citibank.

What could they do to make their presence more meaningful, in your mind?

I think if they had a big sign on their float that said, “Fuck Trump,” I’d be OK with them being in the parade.

 

 

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Equality PRIDE ARCHIVES show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

How I Broke, and Botched, the Brandon Teena Story

On December 31, 1993, a 21-year-old trans man named Brandon Teena was shot and stabbed to death near Falls City, Nebraska, by two other young men because he was trans. A week earlier, they had raped and brutally battered him.

I wrote about it at the time in a long, reported feature for the Voice that introduced Brandon Teena’s story to a broad audience, and helped to galvanize the cultural conversation about trans people. After moving to Falls City from his hometown of Lincoln, Brandon met a 19-year-old woman named Lana Tisdel and swept her off her feet. But a week after he was arrested on a check-forging charge, local police revealed his birth gender in the newspaper. A few days later, Tisdel’s friends John Lotter (Tisdel’s ex-boyfriend) and Tom Nissen forcibly stripped Brandon and forced Tisdel to look at his genitals; then they kidnapped, raped, and beat him, and subsequently killed him.

Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce told me in a recent interview that my article had been the major inspiration for her film about Brandon’s life and murder: “Your article was on fire. I read it and I fell in love with Brandon. It made me love his vulnerability, his daring, his innocence, the way that he gave pleasure sexually. I was in love with this person who had shaped himself.”

It also proved to be the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written.

For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing. Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated “her” body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. (One of Brandon’s acquaintances had told me he’d said he was “disgusted by lesbians,” and several friends said Brandon had said, “I can’t be with a woman as a woman. That’s gross.”) I saw this youngster’s decision to lead a life as a straight man as incredibly bold — but also assumed it was a choice made in fear, motivated by internalized homophobia.

At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead “easier,” more conventional heterosexual lives.

Even in New York City, someone like me, a journalist who considered myself very involved in queer radical politics, could be massively ignorant about what it meant to be transgender. In particular, I conjectured that Brandon’s long-term sexual abuse by an uncle and a rape in high school had led him to abjure his “female” genitals and breasts. It’s the aspect of my article that makes me cringe the most today.

Twenty-five years later, we are in a time of enormous cruelty in the body politic, a time when rebuilding solidarity is the most precious task we have. I hope this article can be my way of making amends by revisiting Brandon’s life and murder — along with those of his companions Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine, who were slain in the same moments by Nissen and Lotter. Their deaths became a touchstone for the then-nascent trans movement, and, perhaps more than any other single event, have shaped how Americans view transgender people.

***

Brandon Teena was born into a conservative, patriarchal, poor white family that lived in a trailer park in Lincoln, Nebraska. Irish American, he’d gone to Catholic school and been supported by a single mother who’d had him as a teenager and worked in retail. His father had died at age 19 in an alcohol-related car accident when Brandon’s mother was still pregnant with him.

There was almost no awareness about trans or any kind of gender-variant people in his Nebraska city at the time Brandon was alive (1972–1993), especially in Brandon’s family and friendship networks. A bare whisper of a word, transsexual existed in a cyclone of psychological, medical, moral, and even legal judgment — when Brandon was raped, Falls City sheriff Charles Laux refused to arrest the men who had committed the crime on the grounds that, as Laux told me at the time, “What kind of a person was she? The first few times we arrested her she was putting herself off as a guy.” In the wrongful death suit Brandon’s mother later filed against the sheriff, the Nebraska Supreme Court found that Laux’s refusal to arrest Lotter and Nissen was what left them free to murder Brandon.

This is how I first found out about this beautiful, funny, ill-fated, imperfect young man: One morning in January 1994 I read, amazed, an AP wire story in the New York Times that began: “A woman who had posed as a man and dated women was found shot to death on Friday, two weeks after residents of this rural area learned her true identity, the authorities said today.”

An article in the Chicago Tribune made the slain youngster sound particularly compelling: “Brandon was like a breath of fresh air, to hear the girls of Falls City tell it…blue-eyed, clean-cut and handsome-cute. ‘He was the talk of the town,’ said Michelle Travis.… ‘He was one of the nicest boys I ever met,’ said Lana, 19, who recalls Brandon as ‘a good kisser.’ ” Apparently, the young women of several municipalities in the heartland had seen him as far more appealing than the other available male talent.

I was electrified by the story — which, as I say, I assumed was about a lesbian. Lesbians had been talking for years about playing with gender, taking on different gender identities, and using and even eroticizing male signifiers and roles to take back power from a world that continually disparaged us as barely worthy of notice and boringly powerless. The conversation about genderplay among lesbians had started in the Eighties, when many of us had begun speaking once again about sexual role-playing, dildos, and other ways of freeing our sexualities from the vanilla, non-phallic, and non-penetrative limits the leaders of 1970s feminism had unwittingly placed on it.

But it wasn’t just a matter of taking on male signifiers in the bedroom. The rich, creative conversation going on in the early Nineties in the lesbian community was also about feeling free to “be” male, to some extent, in the psychic fantasy arenas of our own minds, and out in the world. As in: the boy in all fantasy stories, the one who can make his way through adventures, and, at the end of the story, grow into the kingship. I and a number of other lesbians saw ourselves in Brandon Teena, someone born with the same chromosomes as us who had determined to live as a boy, to woo women with a vengeance, to (as we saw it) walk in freedom upon the world.

Also, lesbians and straight men had been in a kind of cultural competition for decades over who truly made the better lovers for women. I believe this is one reason for the fury some straight men have been directing at me since I began cutting my hair butch and short at 18. The screams of “fuckin’ dyke” with which large, hulking men have frightened me for years stemmed from their fear that I could take something away from them. Therefore, the idea that we — any and all lesbians, or any and all women, really — might be able to go out into the world and “become” men galvanized many of the lesbians who first heard about the Brandon Teena story in early 1994.

My gay male editor at the Voice, Richard Goldstein, was excited by the story, too, and sent me out to cover the murder in March of that year.

***

Because I don’t drive — surely an irony for someone who wants to be the king in her own story — I went to Nebraska with another young lesbian, a filmmaker named Susan Muska who at the time was filing freelance reports for Dyke TV. The Voice agreed to pay for most of Muska’s travel, and in return she drove me and amassed research for a project that would eventually become The Brandon Teena Story, the extraordinary documentary she put out in 1998 with her partner in love and art, Greta Olafsdottir. (Full disclosure: Muska and Olafsdottir are friends of mine.)

Being with Susan doubled my reporting prowess; it was like having not just another set of eyes and ears, but a second brain to assess all the information and a second mouth with which to persuade sources. Susan was more dogged a reporter than me, and perhaps a more diplomatic one. Together, we first interviewed JoAnn Brandon, Brandon’s sad, pissed-off, asthmatic, conservative mom, still shell-shocked after his death.

It’s amazing looking over my reporting notes from 1994, seeing what I chose to emphasize, what I left out and forgot, what never registered. At the time, as a callow 28-year-old myself, I principally saw JoAnn as a homophobic parent, because she told us, “I don’t feel you walk up to someone and tell them what your sexual preference is.” She also said that when girls would call asking for Brandon by the male name he initially adopted, Billy, she would tell them, “We don’t have a Billy.” As JoAnn explained to Susan and me, “That’s when [Brandon] moved [out], because she knew I wouldn’t play the game. I wouldn’t refer to her as something she wasn’t.”

Seeing JoAnn’s conservatism, I somehow failed to see that she was grieving when she railed against Lana, who she thought had betrayed Brandon to his death by telling the killers where he was hiding out. (I have seen no evidence that she did so.) As I failed to hear her grief when she griped, “I still don’t know how I’m going to pay for the funeral.” I missed the note of sadness and horror in her voice when she said, “For my daughter to be that scared…,” referring to Brandon’s frightened phone call to her the night after he was raped. I missed the devastation in her voice when she said: “When I touched her head” — Brandon’s head, at his funeral — “I couldn’t touch her head anywhere there wasn’t a bump on it.”

Hearing a mother’s discomfort with the precepts of gay pride, and her refusal to facilitate Brandon’s male identity, I somehow declined to hear these things she also said: “I think [the police] are bigots. They were referring to her as ‘thing’ in jail. [Nissen and Lotter] should have been arrested the first time she reported [the rape].” And: “I just told her I wanted her to be happy. Whether she was or wasn’t [LGBT], she was still my daughter. She was the most lovable person.”

I also never registered JoAnn telling me that Brandon had wanted to be a commercial artist, or that he was “really outspoken” in high school. (“If the priest at Pius X would say one thing, she’d be sure to say the opposite.”) For decades, I have regretted that I couldn’t learn much about what Brandon had been like as a person, but I ignored the one time anyone ever told me what he might have liked to have done when he grew up.

***

An even more surprising thing in my notes was an interview I had done before my trip to Nebraska with Leslie Feinberg, the late brilliant writer and activist who called herself both FTM “transsexual” and stone butch lesbian and who had painted an incendiary portrait of the crossover FTM/stone experience in her novel Stone Butch Blues.

For decades, I have remembered vividly how Feinberg screamed at me without respite in the Voice editorial offices when trans activists protested after my article came out. But I never remembered having interviewed her about Brandon for the piece. We’d been friendly years before when we’d often attended protests against anti-queer police brutality together. But at one of them, which Feinberg had organized with the Workers World Party, I had felt terrified and betrayed by her and the other leaders when they’d encouraged us to run into the street on the West Side Highway without attempting to block the traffic from hitting us. No car struck me, but a cop did hit me on the forearm with his nightstick.

So, beyond my defensiveness about my article — which was powerful — I’m sure I brought some baggage to both our phone interview and our encounter at the Voice that may have made it hard for me to listen to what she was actually saying.

What was she saying?

“It’s not so much how I see Brandon Teena, as how Brandon Teena saw himself. I use the pronoun ‘he’ because a), it’s the pronoun Brandon Teena chose, but b), it’s ultimately what he died for.”

She was right. I was apoplectic with Feinberg for decades because she’d publicly called my article “sleazy, salacious psychosexual babble,” and falsely claimed the “article [let] the cops off the hook for their culpability in instigating the violence against Teena in the first place.” But in many of her criticisms, Feinberg was correct. I shouldn’t ever have suggested that Brandon wanted to be a man because he was sexually abused, and I should have listened to his own wishes as reflected in the memories of his survivors, and called him trans.

***

The second most surprising thing I found in my notes was the first draft of my article, where I openly acknowledged that lesbians and trans activists were even at that moment sparring over who got to claim Brandon:

Ironically, though, the murder has sparked the greatest controversy among people who agree it was a hate crime.… Transsexual activists [what trans folks called themselves at the time] claim Brandon as a preoperative, female-to-male transsexual, a straight man who had unremarkable, hetero urges for girls but the misfortune of being born in the “wrong” body. Lesbians, on the other hand, celebrate Brandon as a dyke who usurped male prerogatives and very nearly got away with it.… Brandon, who splashed on Preferred Stock aftershave every morning…told many different stories about her own physical sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

That much is true, although I would have used a different pronoun today. Scholar Susan Stryker, who might be called the dean of trans studies, recently told me by email, “One of the things that made the murder so tragic is that Brandon was so young, still figuring himself out, and we will never know what path his future would have taken. The violence, in many ways, was against Brandon as the bearer of a youthful fluidity of gender possibilities being brutally foreclosed.”

Brandon did, years before he came to Falls City, variously tell several family members, friends, and apparently, psychological counselors that he thought he might be “gay” — i.e., a gay woman. To various girlfriends, he said at various times, “I was born with both parts, but I’m nothing but a man now. I had the operation done in eighth grade”; “Some part of the operation…remains to be done”; “I’m a hermaphrodite”; “[My breasts] are a deformation from birth”; “I was born a girl, I am a girl, but I have all the feelings and intentions of a man.”

Both Brandon’s focus in his self-descriptions on whether he had had “the operation” — of course, that term has always phallocentrically stood for more than one potential operation — and my own focus on the matter reflect a belief of the early Nineties: that trans meant (solely) “surgically altering your body to align with your gender identity.” Both society at large and many leading trans activists of the time saw trans as a matter of being transsexual, i.e. surgically transitioning to “the” other gender, not today’s activists’ wider definition that seeks to embrace all who experience misalignment between their gendered bodies and their felt gender identities.

Of course, a gorgeous plethora of felt gender identities have emerged in the years since — genderqueer, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, bigender, agender — that were unavailable to Brandon. Where I went wrong was to deny transness as a real possibility for who Brandon would have become — and, in fact, the possibility he mentioned most often in the later years of his life, and the way in which he most consistently told his intimates he wanted to be seen.

***

One aspect of my piece that greatly angered both trans men and stone butches was my claim that Brandon experienced enormous sexual “frustration,” or a terrible diminishment of pleasure, because, as reported by his lovers, he chose never to be touched on his vagina or his breasts.

Why did I assume this, besides transphobic ignorance? In brief, I was projecting. Reader, I was sexually abused as a child, and I at certain points in my life have identified with stone butches because the intensity of genital sensations was too painfully overwhelming for me to want or be able to continue to experience genital touching. For a chunk of my life, I was greatly frustrated, I was resentful about what I experienced as diminished pleasure, and I projected this frustration and resentment onto Brandon.

Obviously, I also projected my own experience of sexual abuse onto his, and used it to concoct my own biased theory of trans origins.

(In fairness, Brandon did “give without getting” in myriad ways, insisting on doing every single bit of housework for his girlfriends and showering them and his friends and family with extravagant and expensive gifts he could not actually afford. There does seem to have been some resentment — or at least ambivalence — operating in the fact that he often paid for these presents by fraudulently charging them to the recipients’ own credit cards, or by forging their checks. Brandon, who had charmed Lana by giving her a stuffed black bear, once asked that she hand over her family’s rent money to pay bail for him. But I did not have any grounds in my reporting to apply this to his sexual practice and experience, nor is there any evidence that trans men as a group feel resentful about the kinds of sex they have.)

Where this matter comes most importantly into play is in the piece’s ending. How it originally ended was bad enough:

Brandon had to go to Humboldt because everyone who loved her in Lincoln was finally too infuriated with her, whether she’d stolen their love or taken the money that they needed to live. The frustration she had felt for so long had finally frustrated others, and the fury she could not express was ultimately expressed on her.

Enter a man (a cis one). My editor, Richard, had encouraged the development of my “frustration theory” by suggesting (according to my notes from an editing session) that what I should emphasize in the story was that “everything she did to protect herself put her in more danger.” I came to agree — though I now think that that theory was bogus as well. The terribly mistaken idea operating here was that living as a man was something that Brandon did to protect himself from the “danger” of living as a lesbian — not something he did because he was a man.

But now Richard wanted me to add two final words to the piece: “By men.” That is, the piece would now end on the declaration that the fury “she” could not express was ultimately expressed on “her” by men. By implication, by real men.

I didn’t like adding “By men,” and I opposed the victim-bashing addition as long as I could, but Richard insisted. I have to take responsibility for the words because I did in the end allow them to appear under my own name, but they are what I hate most in the piece, even today.

Asked to comment, Richard said he did not remember the article, or working on it with me. He did say: “Whatever suggestions I may or may not have made, the final decisions about wording rested with the author, and the piece would have appeared even if the writer rejected my ideas.”

In fairness, from my memories of working with Richard for six years, I think he identified with Brandon as much as I did, and that’s why he wanted to put the “By men” in there. I don’t think he wanted to gratuitously hurt him with a verbal dollop of “real” men’s violence at the end, but to bear notice to himself that as a gay man he, like Brandon, was always going to be in social danger from the world of those more powerful. 

***

All stories are about more than one thing, and Brandon’s was also the story of a young white woman and young disabled black man who was gunned down by Lotter and Nissen along with Brandon in the early hours of December 31, 1993.

As far as I can tell, none of the journalistic reports for the first few months after the murder mentioned that Philip Devine was a black man visiting an all-white town. Mine mentioned that, as well as the fact that Phillip had come to Falls City to romance a white woman, Lana’s sister, Leslie, and that there was considerable public racism in the town, including the bald denial of service to African Americans at the town’s fast-food restaurant. But neither my article nor any of the other major media representations of this case has seriously examined the possibility that race may have played a role in his death.

In the mid Aughts, trans scholars began to argue that we need to do just that. Several, like the Africana and gender studies specialist C. Riley Snorton, have recently begun to suggest that the de-emphasis of DeVine’s story, from accounts of the Brandon case like mine, Boys Don’t Cry, and others, contributes to the systematic, omnipresent devaluation of black lives.

I have begun to agree.

While so far, the record seems to buttress that Nissen and Lotter went to that Humboldt farmhouse explicitly to silence Brandon — his mother says, “Teena said [after the rape] that these guys told her to keep her mouth shut or they’d permanently shut it for her” — the record is also clear that Nissen, at least, is or at least was an open, virulent racist. (Writing from jail to the late New Yorker writer John Gregory Dunne, Nissen referred to O.J. Simpson after his acquittal as “one lucky rich nig,” and he apparently once belonged to a white supremacist organization called the White American Group for White America.) Susan Muska says that according to her research, Falls City had previously been a “sundown town” where African Americans who stayed past twilight were at risk of being killed.

Of course, Nissen and Lotter had previously hung out with DeVine socially at the Tisdel’s house, where the family was raising Leslie’s biracial child — and Brandon was the only one who was stabbed as well as shot. It’s hard to know without further research whether they killed DeVine primarily as a witness to the attack on Brandon, or out of anti-black animus — but not hard to guess that his race made him easier for Nissen to kill. And Lisa Lambert, too, may have been murdered not just because she was a witness, but because she, like their friend Lana, was a woman who had dared to have sex with the hated trans man.

As poet and activist Carolyn Forché has written, “Go after that which is lost/and all the mass graves of the century’s dead/will open into your early waking hours.” All stories are partial, but the deaths go on in their fullness.

Donna Minkowitz is author of “Love Hurts,” which ran in the April 19, 1994, issue of the Village Voice, and which is reproduced below.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Vivek Shraya’s “Trisha” Blurs the Past and the Present

Vivek Shraya created her latest project, Trisha, after she found a trove of photos of her mother from the 1970s. The project pairs scans of the 4-by-6-inch originals with corresponding matching 36-by-48-inch digital images Shraya and her collaborators have remade. In the original photos, Shraya’s mother is settling into a life of Canadian domesticity after having recently immigrated from India. In the contemporary images, Shraya re-creates poses in which her mother wades into a body of water, cuts into a cake, looks glamorous as she talks on the phone, and clutches a stuffed animal in her robe, glaring into the camera’s lens.

“She is the source that has led me to light, femininity, and feminine energy,” Shraya gushes about her mother.

Trisha, which debuted online in April 2016 and has since been exhibited in galleries across Canada, makes its U.S. debut this summer at the Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan, curated by John Chaich. Much of the attention around Trisha thus far has focused on Shraya’s status as a transwoman, and her poignant use of visual re-creation. Chaich says he was drawn in by how the photos blur binary ideas of the past and the present. Shraya, Chaich says, is queering ideas of time by creating “a dialogue across time, genealogy and gender.”

Sheila Cavanagh, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, says she is interested in how Shraya’s project advances conversations. Cavanagh recently gave a lecture on Trisha at the University of Buffalo, where she noted how, rather than engaging in definitions of what is a man and a woman, Shraya introduces the viewer to “many ways of being a woman and how these ways of being are shaped by age, time, culture, generation, migration, marriage, and so many other things.”

One of Shraya’s favorite pair of images from Trisha pictures her and her mother each tucked into the corner of a brown couch, with their hands, decorated with gold and silver rings, resting on their sari-covered abdomens. Online, where the images are most often shown at equal size, the audience sees two sets of beguiling dark eyes, lidded by makeup and intensity. Shraya tells me she likes this photo of her mother because of the “seductive look” she is giving to the camera, which Shraya emulates in the reproduction.

In a gallery, the dimensions of the photos matter. The older, much smaller photograph recedes in prominence, becoming better understood as source material for the larger image. Seen in this context, Trisha becomes less about reproduction. Instead, it is a retracing and dragging forward of the past to illuminate the present.

Shraya, currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary, was born in Edmonton and moved to Toronto in the early Aughts to pursue a musical career. In Toronto, she became a self-made, multidisciplinary, creative force. Since 2002, Shraya has self-released ten solo EPs and full-length albums (along with several singles and collaborations); produced and directed five short films; and written seven books. She has toured internationally with the Canadian indie pop band Tegan and Sara, and last year won the prestigious Publishing Triangle Award for Trans and Gender-Variant Literature for her poetry book, even this page is white. In 2017, she launched her own imprint, VS., with Arsenal Pulp Press.

A public reckoning of identity is a common theme in Shraya’s work, with a focus on being seen on one’s own terms. Shraya’s first foray into film, Seeking Single White Male (2010), was a revisitation of her twink phase, a period in which she rocked blue-eye contacts and a mop of short blond hair in an effort to become visiblewithin the limits of the white gay male gaze. Her latest film, I want to kill myself (2017), is a cinéma vérité-style slideshow of her domestic life, photographed by Zachary Ayotte, over which she narrates how naming her suicidal ideation helps conjure a will to live.

To announce her use of she/her pronouns, Shraya dropped the single “Girl It’s Your Time,” featuring a cover photograph of herself by Alejandro Santiago in which she wore a lace tutu and nath (nose ring). Later this year Penguin Canada will publish I’m Afraid of Men, her treatise on the imposition of masculinity in her life.

Beyond her mother, Shraya cites Beyoncé’s ability to blend politics and entertainment across mediums as a major influence. Shraya approaches most of her work with what she calls “a political agenda.” But with Trisha, it was different. She was motivated first by curiosity. While on tour, Shraya started projecting the vintage photos of her mom onto the stage. One night, touring mate Casey Mecija from the band Ohbijou mentioned to Shraya the cross-generational resemblance. As a result, Shraya was inspired to follow through with the idea to re-create the images.

A group of Shraya’s friends helped make it happen. Artist Karen Campos Castillo, who like Shraya (and myself) grew up in Edmonton, was chosen to be the photographer. The two are close and have worked together on many projects, including the blog Heartbeats. Adam Holman, Shemeena Shraya, Alanna Chelmick, M. Orbe, and Fabio Persico (a group that includes Shraya’s current boyfriend and one beloved ex) were the team who helped make the sets and outfits, ensured the hair and makeup were right, and provided emotional and technical support.

Shraya believed it was important to have loved ones working behind the scenes. She wanted to create the level of intimacy present in the originals, something that could only come with the help of her friends. (Shraya assumes her father took the original photos of her mother, but has been unable to confirm that.) Conversations about Trisha with her parents have been limited. Shraya says the issue is not about her being trans. Rather, it’s a creative difference about the personal nature of the work. Shraya’s mother, who prefers her name not being used, is hesitant to engage with Trisha. She says she’s not sure what to make of a project rooted in memory, interpretation, and creativity that is both about and not about her life. Shraya’s mother understands that the photos are being seen, but does not wish to know more.

With Trisha, Shraya joins a long tradition of artists who have been inspired by their mothers. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1871 painting, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother; the inclusion of fashion model Sandra Bush in the artworks of her daughter Mickalene Thomas; Marilyn Minter’s 1969 Coral Ridge Towers series of photographs; and Oli Rodriguez’s film, The Baseball Project, which was narrated by the director’s mother, all carry a maternal theme. In these works mothers are muses, collaborators, stand-ins, and more. They establish the artist as a witness and subject, with origin stories and influences. One could argue that these works are not about the mothers, but about the artists themselves.

In some cases, though, they are not about either person, but about picturing something made new. In an image from her Momme Portrait Series, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier poses behind her mother as the two create a self-portrait. They stand in front of a mattress they have turned upright and covered with a blanket. But they are not alone. A third figure is in the frame, as the title suggests: Shadow. Similarly, as much as Shraya’s project is about bringing together photos of her mother and herself, the title highlights another’s presence. Trisha, as Shraya writes in the exhibition essay, was the name her parents would have given a daughter, if they had one. Trisha lives through this work.

‘Vivek Shraya: Trisha’
Curated by John Chaich
July 12–August 31
The Gallery at Ace Hotel New York
20 West 29th Street

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality MUSIC ARCHIVES PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Sons of an Illustrious Father’s Family Affair

Like moths to a flame, there is a mysterious, magnetic energy that seems to attract Josh Aubin, Lilah Larson, and Ezra Miller, the trio that make up Sons of an Illustrious Father. When we sit down to talk in the atrium of the Ludlow Hotel, they snuggle up to one another on the weathered brown chesterfield sofa. Theirs is a natural, unaffected closeness built over the course of a decade, all affection and tenderness. As they discuss the band’s debut album, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, the late spring sun bleeds through the skylights, the delicate clink of porcelain cups hitting porcelain saucers.

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Miller, 25, and Larson, 27, met in middle school in New Jersey, where, as Miller put it, they “were lonely, isolated individuals who sought shelter amongst each other.” The pair bonded over a love of Bikini Kill and Patti Smith and Nirvana, and eventually started playing music together. Today, fans may recognize Miller as the Flash from 2017’s Justice League, or Credence Barebone from 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He is — or will be very soon — a bona fide movie star, and you can already hear the Hollywood image management machine whir into life. But back in 2010, when Aubin joined the band on bass, Miller was just a confused teenager trying to figure out his place in the world.

Those early years were rocky, with many rehearsal sessions devolving into alcohol-fueled arguments. Miller has admitted to having struggled with mental health issues during the formative years of the band, something he now knows he wasn’t addressing with the appropriate weight or urgency. His newfound ability to see his psychic struggles as part and parcel of who he is — rather than compartmentalizing them or allowing them to deny his emotional agency — has heartened his bandmates. This is where he belongs.

As calm as the trio seem, their tenderness belies a focused intensity and a clear-eyed recognition of the winding roads they all took to get here. All three are outspoken activists, and discuss gentrification, U.S. foreign policy, and the treatment of marginalized communities in America with equal energy and intelligence. The band first made waves with “U.S. Gay,” a triumphant anthem written in the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando in June 2016, where a gunman opened fire in the queer-friendly club and killed 49 people. It’s a song that forges purpose from its lyrics as well as its rhythm. When Miller croons, “I want us murdered, martyred, mutilated/Matthew Sheparded to the calm/To sprout wings as we fall/Don’t want my friends dead at all,” I’m not sure whether to weep or dance.

“I think for all of us it’s really important to be creating a space and sending a message that everyone is beautiful and amazing as they are, and there’s room for all of our strangeness here,” says Larson. “We want to create the music and the world that we wanted and needed as kids.”

Nonconformity extends to the band’s sound as well. They’ve called themselves “genre queer,” an impish and accurate description of a group that can combine new wave synthesizers with muddy grunge chords and come out with something that defies characterization. The effect is similar to the 1975 at their most experimental, or David Lynch’s work in Twin Peaks, where styles, tropes, and classifications were thrown into a blender with spellbinding results. There are times on Deus Sex Machina (“Crystal Tomes,” “Unarmed”) when Miller’s voice shifts from plaintive to fierce and back again. Album closer “Samscars” is stunningly unorthodox, both emotionally charged ballad and soaring stadium rock anthem, bridged by a layered instrumental section that wouldn’t be out of place on an Explosions in the Sky record.

“Extraordinary Rendition,” another track from Deus Sex Machina, is a spiritual follow-up to “U.S. Gay,” which opens the album. The song’s title refers to a particularly sinister abduction tactic used by the CIA, where the spy agency captures foreign nationals and transfers them to the custody of cooperative foreign governments, where they are held at “black site” prisons. The song slithers and booms, diving into a crash of heavy kick drums and cymbals before cutting to the moody strum of a single guitar and Miller’s haunted voice. The song “was an observation of the ceaseless crisis of our country and our world throughout our entire lives,” Miller says. It’s a portrait of an America rotten at its core, narrated by three artists who have made activism a core part of their collective identity.

For his part, Miller doesn’t believe that being queer compels him to activism, but he does think it grants a certain nuanced perspective on strife. “I think being alive obligates you to activism,” he says. “And I think being queer has the potential to free one from the uncertainty of identity that can hold one back from engaging in activism in the world.” Activating that activism in people who don’t find themselves under the thumb of the culture at large is a whole other question, of course, a topic that Larson broaches soon after. “Very rarely, I feel like, does a straight, cis, white man come to realizations about oppression without other people informing him,” she says.

“I think that’s one of the basic aspects of privilege, right?” Miller adds. “It’s that it’s the privilege to have the option to engage with the pain and horror of hegemony in the world because you benefit from its structure, whereas people who are victimized by those same structures don’t have that choice. They engage as a result of their existence. They’re already engaged.”

Sons of an Illustrious Father

The band developed this inclination to tilt at privilege playing at DIY spaces like 285 Kent and Silent Barn, two now-defunct venues they have a special affection for. “The culture that created open alternative space in New York was a very persistent, extremely active combative culture of claiming and appropriating space,” says Miller. “They practically fought wars in the Lower East Side and throughout New York to hold and protect and to claim that space that we knew growing up.”

“We’re trying to find ways, spaces that are accessible to people, particularly youth, can be adopted and adapted for safety and expression and sites for the growth of community,” adds Larson. “What are we doing if we’re not serving that population that is literally the future?”

Miller cites the story of ABC No Rio, the legendary Lower East Side cultural space that withstood the twin forces of gentrification and City Hall for 36 years before the wrecking ball finally came. “Look at how hard people really had to fight to keep that space open to folks,” Miller says. “We definitely have a long way to go, I think, in this generation to have that sort of commitment and devotion and readiness to really fight.”

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The band’s members do see hope in reaching a new generation, though, and they’re dedicated to developing a space for kids who may feel out of place or isolated to discover that there’s joy in living life outside the boundaries. They’re currently on a whirlwind tour, including a show in Brooklyn at Elsewhere on June 12 and a gig in Cleveland that is under-21 only, with those older needing to be accompanied by a minor to gain entry. “We’re trying to find ways and to find spaces that are accessible to people, particularly youth, can be adopted and adapted for safety and expression,” says Larson, who credits music with capsizing her perspective on gender. “As I got older and more aware of society — and therefore more aware of my failure to conform to gender norms — I wanted to feel like I could make sense of and justify myself within the world,” she continues. “Playing music became a way of achieving that justification, as it clearly was for people like Little Richard and David Bowie and Patti Smith.”

It’s that fearlessness, that devotion to coloring outside the lines, that has driven Sons of an Illustrious Father in their music and their advocacy. They are here to make the world better for everyone, and they want you to join them in the fight.

Sons of an Illustrious Father play Elsewhere in New York on June 12.