CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Death of John/Diane

Talking Heads

Resting their minds from the Palestin­ian slaughter and the killing of the economy, some New Yorkers turned their at­tention last week to a diverting little crime, the murder of Diane Delia.

A dark pouting model, Diane Delia was the apex of a love triangle at whose base were her accused killers Robert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold. The murder itself, which took place in a Yonkers wood last October, was accomplished with four straightforward shots to the head, two, the prosecutor alleges, fired by each of the accused. The cause of death is one of the few details of the Delia case that is a certainty, that and the obsession the ac­cused killers had for the victim. Both Rob­ert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold were emotionally entangled with Diane Delia — Ferrara married her, Arnold was in love with her — and both date their involvement to the days before her operation, when Diane Delia was still John Delia, a man.

The Transsexual Love Triangle, as the tabloids call it, was being played out in high colors against the grim backdrop of the criminal court building on Centre Street. In a ninth-floor courtroom the dev­otees gathered, toothless trial junkies, a woman who follows the trials in police costume, the Super-8 filmmaker Eric Mitchell, reporters, parents of the accused, and friends of the deceased. Pastel chalk squeaked as the television news artist sketched the witnesses, while they, in turn, painted a picture for the jury of John/Diane, as the victim, for convenience, was called.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722865″ /]

A medium-height man from a middle-­class family, John Delia was dark-skinned and slight. His body and face were so smooth that, when at 16 he first began dressing in women’s clothes, there was never any stubble to betray him. His drag impersonations, lip synching to Diana Ross records, were so convincing he made an act of them, performing first at local clubs, later in Manhattan, billed as an impersonator of women even after this was no longer the case. Miss D., as his friends called him, had small hands, a naturally feminine voice, beautiful legs, and a reck­less humor. He was compulsive, rude, and funny. He was casually immoral, and loyal. He had big feet and a taste for cheap clothes. The boaty pumps that are pivotal evidence in the prosecutor’s case rested on the courtroom table — weird icons. Like ev­erything else in the John/Diane story, they’re purple.

Robyn Arnold, the surgeon’s daughter and accused murderess, met John Delia at the Playroom bar in the late ’70s. They became lovers. She offered him money and her complete attention. Friends say that as many as 40 framed snapshots of John De­lia litter Robyn Arnold’s bookshelves. Sev­eral large blowups of Diane Delia decorate her wall. It was Arnold who paid for Delia’s sex change, when, several years into their relationship, he met and fell in love with Robert Ferrara, a bartender from New Hope, Pennsylvania. It was Arnold who paid for surgery to prettify Delia’s nose and heighten his cheekbones. Hard but not unpretty, Robyn Arnold hid behind a fringe of hair in court, as witnesses de­scribed for Judge Rothwax, the press, and the jury, her aggressive, manipulative sex­uality and her emotional enslavement to Delia. Sitting beside her, Robert Ferrara listened as the prosecutor mounted his case.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719984″ /]

When Delia became enamored of Fer­rara they began to live together. Arnold continued to pay the bills. Claiming that Ferrara could not accept himself living in a homosexual relationship, Delia planned and Arnold engineered the sex change: the two were married. Delia was as proud of his new anatomy as a child with a toy and made a party trick of showing the altered parts. Neither Diane Delia nor Robert Ferrara saw marriage as a binding proposition, though, and both had affairs. In 1980 Delia left Yonkers for Montreal, where she was hired by a modeling agency for her “Latin look” and shot an Avon ad for a Foxfire robe (“Wrap yourself in luxury.”). She took a lover there. In her absence Robyn Arnold and Robert Ferrara cemented their friendship. Piqued by this, Delia returned to New York and the three were reunited, after a fashion. Delia’s nature was com­pulsive, sexually and emotionally. Her extramarital affairs with men were expected, but when she started to sleep with women, the climate changed — this betrayal was the final straw.

In the prosecutor’s scenario, Delia’s husband and friend arranged on the night of Wednesday, October 7, to pick her up in Arnold’s Cadillac Seville to go dancing. They drove her instead to a wood and shot her, leaving the body for some days before returning to dispose of it in the Hudson River. It washed up three weeks later. The prosecutor’s case is circumstantial and tri­angular: it hangs on the motives of the accused, on Diane Delia’s shoes, which were later found by a friend in Robyn Arnold’s possession, and on the yellow acrylic blanket in which the body was un­luxuriously wrapped. Witnesses claim the blanket came from Miss Arnold’s bed. At presstime, none of this had been proven.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719427″ /]

The courtroom has been tickled when suited men take the stand to identify evidence: “Of course, I know those pumps,” said one. “I used to wear them.” It has been shocked by the excessive violence of the shooting. The first bullet killed Delia; the others blew out her eyes. It has been chilled by the sight of Delia’s death outfit, once lavender, now mottled river-green. It has been amused by the courtroom antics of Arnold’s lawyer, a silver-haired ham given to improvised outbursts. And it has been bemused by the image of the two accused killers. Silent, drab, impassive at their table, they are diminished even after her death by the late John/Diane, whose flamboyance was seductive and whose seductions proved fatal. The received wis­dom about transsexuals suggest they are born imprisoned in bodies of the wrong sex. For John/Diane Delia this seems inac­curate. In her desire to please and be ac­cepted, she treated all sex as the right sex. As a man and as a woman she accom­modated both men and women lustily, equally. It may be that her democratic nature was the end of her. ❖


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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715286″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715273″ /]

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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

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.

Equality From The Archives From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715273″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715433″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715288″ /]


The Life And Death Of Kenneth Bostick

Kenneth Bostick, a transgender person killed in Chelsea this month, was a quiet and unassuming presence with a penchant for Wayfarer sunglasses and wool beanies, no matter the weather, those who knew him said. And the 59-year-old’s death on May 7 has sparked an outpouring of grief and outrage from transgender rights groups.

Bostick was struck in the head with a metal object, in a seemingly unprovoked attack, on April 25, according to descriptions offered by prosecutors. After the attack, the Daily News reported, the suspect “walked away but turned back a second later and shouted, ‘Someone stole my bag.’ Bostick stumbled for a block before losing consciousness.”

Bostick reportedly lay on a sidewalk for nearly thirty minutes before help arrived. He was alive when he was taken to Bellevue Hospital but succumbed to his injuries twelve days later, prosecutors said.

The suspect held in Bostick’s death, Joseph Griffin, 26, is also homeless, according to the Daily News. He was charged with manslaughter and criminal mischief on May 19, at a court hearing where he “appeared nervous” and was “rocking from side to side.” Law enforcement officials described the attack as spontaneous. “There is no evidence to support the fact that the victim had stolen the defendant’s backpack,” a prosecutor said, according to the paper. Reached by phone, Griffin’s public defender, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, declined to comment.

According to the National Center for Trans Equality, “one in five transgender individuals have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives,” and transgender people account for up to 40 percent of homeless youth according to the group’s statistics. Widespread discrimination in housing accommodation contributes to those realities, the group says, with more than a tenth of transgender people having been evicted because of their gender identity.

While the NYPD says they don’t believe bias was a motive in the attack, advocates say that Bostick, as a black transgender person struggling with mental illness, was a member of some of the most marginalized communities in society. He is at least the eleventh trans person killed in the U.S. in 2017, according to GLAAD.

“It breaks my heart that anyone would try to hurt him,” a social worker who grew close to Bostick told the Voice. “I cared about him very deeply…and I’m deeply saddened that this was the end of his story.”

It’s hard to say, though, where Bostick’s story began.

Mourners gather in Chelsea on May 12 at a vigil in Bosick’s honor.

(In initial media accounts Bostick was widely identified as Brenda, and since then, some advocacy groups have chosen to identify him with they/them pronouns. Because no next of kin could be reached, the Voice is opting to use he/him pronouns when referring to Bostick, based on interviews with people who knew him, including social workers and residents at the shelter where he stayed, who said these were his preferred pronouns.)

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Bostick was raised mostly by his grandparents, both of whom have passed away. He was homeless for much of the past decade, though he lived for long stretches at Penn Station and was in and out of a shelter on 25th Street for at least the past seven years.

Facing homelessness can pose unique challenges for gender nonconforming people, says Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the executive director of TransWomen of Color Collective. She noted that it’s not uncommon for gender nonconforming people to switch between gender expressions depending on the situation, in order to navigate a shelter system that can sometimes be hostile to them. Because of that reality, Hunter says, and because of some personal information her group has received, they want to hold open the possibility that Bostick may have had a more fluid relationship with gender. It was something Hunter confronted as a trans woman facing homelessness herself more than a decade ago.

“There was a time when I put on a suit and a tie, to navigate the system and get what I needed to get,” Hunter remembers. “That did not take away from my identity as a trans woman, but I needed to navigate a system with the least amount of harm, and that was the best way for me to do it.”

Bostick’s mental illness made it difficult for him to make strong personal connections. But when he did open up, a social worker who grew close to him recalled, he was warm and gentle, with a quirky sense of humor. “He used to say to me, ‘Slow down. Don’t work so hard. Act like you’ve had some tequila,’ ” she remembered, laughing. “He wanted everyone to just slow down.” She described Bostick as highly observant, brilliant, and more likely to take in the world than to comment on it. He could often be spotted walking the streets wearing dark sunglasses and carrying a handheld radio — cutting a “Dylan-esque” figure, in her description — with a distinctive walk and an air of measured cool about him, he could be playful when he opened up to talk.

“He was just filled with aphorisms,” she said. “Every time I would leave him, he’d say, ‘Well, thanks for stopping by,’ like we’d had tea on the porch.”

Bostick preferred to keep to himself, the social worker said. But he occasionally opened up and talked about what he saw for his future. He used to muse about taking a vacation to some faraway island, and lying out on a beach with a tropical umbrella drink.

Bostick also used to talk about finding permanent housing, and he had plans for that, too. “He wanted a big apartment,” the social worker said, and when he got it someday, his plan was to have a dinner party. He’d invite a bunch of friends and serve them a big catered spread. “But then he’d make people believe that he cooked the food himself. He laughed when he said that. He knew it was a little rascally.”

Jason Rozycki, 31, a dormmate of Bostick’s at the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC) shelter in recent months, said he was well liked and friendly, but again, not frequently social. “Really quiet but super nice, very kind to everyone,” Rozycki said. “Never did anyone any wrong. Never bothered anybody. Just a really nice person.”

At the vigil in Chelsea Friday, May 12, more than fifty people marked Bostick’s life with tearful speeches and a measure of anger. Elizabeth Marie Rivera, a trans activist who helped organize the vigil, told the crowd that Bostick deserved better. “The fact that Bostick lay here, and people walked past them. And paid no attention to them,” Rivera said, her voice breaking. “That is deplorable. It is unacceptable. It is inhumane. And it should not have happened.”

Some of the residents at the BRC shelter felt protective when they heard Bostick was attacked, they told the Voice. They wanted to go out and find the culprit, Rozycki said. “No one deserves that,” he added.

The social worker who was close to Bostick still has trouble believing he’s dead. “I see him on a beach somewhere,” she said, “with his umbrella drink.”


NYC’s Transgender Youth Have A Message For Donald Trump

On Wednesday, the Trump administration took its latest step to reverse an Obama-era push for the civil rights of transgender students. The next day, transgender students pushed back.

A rally last night outside the Stonewall Inn featured activists, students, politicians, and parents, followed by an impromptu march up Eighth Avenue. As the issue heads to the Supreme Court, New York City transgender youth opened up about why using bathrooms and facilities that match their gender identity is so important.

“I just want to pee in peace!” Spencer Washington, 18, told the Voice. “In middle school, I was kicked out of the boys’ bathroom because I wasn’t passable, quote-unquote, and when I tried to use the girls’ bathroom, I wasn’t allowed in there, either.”

“I was forced to use the female bathroom. I was physically abused. I was pushed to the floor. I was cornered into a stall and then groups of girls would hold the door shut,” said Rocky Sanabria, 18, remembering his time as a student at P.S. 58 in Queens. “It scared them that there was a boy in the girls’ bathroom. And it scared me, as well.”

“I felt like I didn’t really have a place,” Washington said of his time at the Middle School of Marketing and Legal Studies in Brooklyn. “I felt really isolated.”

Deborah Parada
Deborah Parada

The Trump administration’s actions mean trans students are likely to feel even more isolated. The day after Senator Jeff Sessions was sworn in as attorney general, the Justice Department told a federal appeals court that it would be stepping back from transgender rights cases.

Then on Wednesday, the Trump administration withdrew pro-transgender guidance the Obama administration issued last May, which told schools and colleges that, as far as the White House was concerned, transgender people are protected under Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in schools.

With this week’s reversal, Donald Trump’s position is official: trans people have no place under Title IX, and the rights of transgender students are a state matter.

“The rights of anyone do not vary from state to state,” openly gay Bronx Councilmember James Vacca told the crowd last night. “We are not a state-to-state issue.”

“Being trans is not a choice; it’s something that you’re born as,” Matt Pasini, 19, told the Voice. “It’s not something that people should have their rights taken away for.”

Pasini began transitioning as a sophomore at Maspeth High School. “My school didn’t really know how to handle that,” he said. “Everything was really awkward. I was not allowed to use the boys’ restroom at first, but I kind of ignored that and did it anyway.”

His classmates were supportive, and school administrators came around pretty quickly, but Pasini remains skittish. “I’m still really anxious about public bathrooms,” he said. “There have been moments outside of my high school when I got harassed in bathrooms, especially when I wasn’t ‘passing’ well.” One time, he says, a few men yelled at him in a Manhattan Barnes & Noble restroom about having a vagina.

“I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this whole bathroom issue, honestly,” said Deborah Parada, 21, of Sunset Park. She makes “a subconscious effort” to avoid public restrooms, she said, and sometimes even uses the men’s room because she is wary of attracting attention in the women’s room, which she prefers to use.

“I really don’t know what to do,” Parada said. “I’m very afraid.”

While the federal government is retreating on transgender rights, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio issued statements reminding New Yorkers of state and city regulations allowing trans people, particularly trans students, to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity.

Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels
Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels

Gender identity was added to the city’s Human Rights Law in 2002, prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, such as restrooms. In 2014, the city Department of Education issued guidelines for accommodating transgender students, including in bathroom and changing facilities.

At the state level, things look a little different. While the Dignity for All Students Act has provided school protections for the state’s trans youth since 2012, the Republican-controlled Senate has repeatedly blocked a broader transgender non-discrimination bill.

Cuomo, despite his often-cozy relationship with the Senate GOP, issued an executive order in 2015 to enact many of the transgender protections that have long stalled in the Senate.

Advocates, fearing that the executive order could be undone in the future, want the regulations enshrined in state law. “The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act must come up for a vote on the floor of the Senate,” Mel Wymore, executive director of TransPAC, said at last night’s rally. “This must not stand.”

The patchwork of laws and regulations around the nation, and even within New York state, have left people confused.

“Every city and every state has their own rules,” said Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels, 23, a genderqueer Brooklyn College student who lives on the Lower East Side. “There should just be a map that shows you, in this state and that city, you can use the bathroom.”

Even when the laws protect them, gender nonconforming people face problems. Last year, someone called security guards after seeing Daniels exit the women’s room at a City University of New York building in Midtown. “I was really angry,” said Daniels, who only used the women’s room because there was no gender-neutral bathroom available. “I can’t imagine how much worse it is in the rest of the country.”

“I have a friend in Georgia right now and they are super anxious,” Pasini, the former Maspeth High student, said of Trump’s decision. “They called me up… having a panic attack, venting to me about how they’re just so concerned with all the transphobia this might bring about in their hometown, making things so much worse.”

Matt Pasini
Matt Pasini

For three years, Sanabria, the former P.S. 58 student, has been mentoring a 10-year-old boy in North Carolina after their parents connected on a Facebook group for people with transgender children. “I think about him constantly when this stuff comes up,” Sanabria said. “Things are going to get really dangerous for transgender people. We were just given something that makes total sense, and now it’s been stripped away from us.”

With or without the White House’s support, the question of whether transgender students are protected under Title IX is on the Supreme Court’s radar. The high court is scheduled to hear arguments next month in the case of Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old whose Virginia school board prohibited him from using the boys’ bathroom.

Like Grimm, Sanabria was able to change his birth certificate to reflect his gender. “My birth certificate says ‘male,’” Sanabria said. “That’s not something everybody has.” In a state like North Carolina, he would be required to use the male bathroom, while someone who wasn’t able to get the document change would be forced into a restroom that doesn’t match their gender identity.

While the courts wrestle with the nation’s confusing jumble of regulations telling transgender people where they can and cannot pee, New York City’s trans youth have some words for the president.

During the campaign, Trump said people should “use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate” and that he would allow trans celebrity Caitlyn Jenner to use whatever bathroom she wanted at Trump Tower. Since then, Mike Pence has become vice president, Sessions has become attorney general, and Trump’s position has become less sympathetic to transgender people.

“I would want to ask him if he’s ever sat down and spoken with a transgender child. I would really love to know how many transgender children he knows,” Sanabria said. “If you’re someone who doesn’t know anybody who is transgender, or you aren’t transgender yourself, you don’t need to question it because it’s not relevant.”

Daniels was doubtful Trump would even listen, but had a message for cisgender people: “What would it be like for you if you were uncomfortable every time in the bathroom? Or if you were discriminated against in any number of states?”

Spencer Washington had a more defiant message for Trump: “If you think that your little law-reversing is going to prevent us from using a bathroom,” he said, “think again.”