Category Archives: Bay Area Reporter Archive (1997-2006)

What makes Heklina tick? Trannyshack!

The founding diva of Trannyshack expounds on art and life.

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Trannyshack founder and hostess Heklina
(nee Stefan Grygelko).

One sunny afternoon in the Tenderloin, Heklina gives me a walk-through tour of her teeny-tiny apartment, starting with a survey of the art on the walls:

“This is a piece by Sam Russell,” clucks the mother hen of Trannyshack, pointing to the first painting. “He helped me paint my apartment, and he gave this to me, and it hangs over my couch and I like it a lot. I don’t really know what it means. It’s kind of religious. To me it seems like an angel in the clouds.”

Moving on we come to some Walter Keene prints from the ’60s, little doll-like kids with big eyes on faded paper, which look due for an “Antiques Roadshow” assessment, and then a very early original Scooter painting from 1995. Scooter, the hip, hunky, queer Tenderloin painter/rapper/model-escort, has scooted on to New York, where he’s blazing his bold paths with his art and sex appeal.

Most jarring, in a psychic sense, is a self portrait as clown by John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, called “Patches the Clown.”

“I think it’s super creepy,” Heklina shivers. “I got it from Chocolate, who bought it at an auction of John Wayne Gacy’s artwork in Indianapolis right before he was executed.”

There’s a pillowy sculptural piece on the wall by Portia 666, one of Heklina’s favorite drag artists, who in fact did her all-time-favorite drag number at Trannyshack. It was back in the club’s “early days” – Trannyshack at seven is still going strong, belying virtually everyone’s expectations, including Heklina’s – and Portia 666 did a number to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” She dressed up as a unicorn and danced inside a huge Snow Globe made of plastic, bathed in snow-white light, tossing confetti around like snow.

After a peek inside Heklina’s surprisingly small drag closet, packed with dresses, wigs and other apparel, all neatly organized, we repair to the cozy kitchen table to talk, and the first thing she does is light up a cigarette, which she declares is the only vice she has left, along with caffeine, having dumped several others along the way.

I use the name Heklina, but of course that’s a nom de drag. Take away the drag façade, and the name no longer quite fits. Before me sits a gently unassuming guy, Stefan Grygelko, soft-spoken and oddly plain in appearance and style, who you can tell has lived awhile in the fast lane, finally to recover his bearings. The name is Polish, but Grygelko says he moved here from Reykjavik in 1991: “My mother is Islandic, so I have spent a lot of my life moving back and forth between the States and Iceland, and that’s where I was before, just living in Reykjavik and working at the art institute as a nude model and just partying.”

Grygelko was raised in the States, in Minnesota, New York state and Boston, and he’d already done a partying stint in California, in San Diego, where he spent a few years hanging out with punk rockers, transvestites and street people, surviving precariously: “I was 18, 19, 20, living on the streets, doing lots of drugs. I was pretty outlandish, pretty out there.”

Back in Iceland, Grygelko kicked the drug habit but continued to drink a lot: “It’s a very intellectual town; everybody’s really smart, so there’s a lot of art going on. But as far a the gay scene, there isn’t much of one, which is why I’d go to Europe a lot. I was kind of bored with Iceland, and never felt like I fit in with the culture there, because I was mostly American.”

He had no desire to go to California again, but changed his mind after a girlfriend came back from visiting San Francisco, raving about how great it was and insisting they move there: “So I married her – she was a lesbian – so she could get a green card, and we moved here together in ’91.”

Grygelko was immediately taken with the city’s queer arts subculture and fell in with the whole performing crowd, including the now legendary Diet Popstitute, Klubstitute and all those fun freaks. He hooked up with director/writer Tony Vaguely’s Sick and Twisted Players and felt right at home.

Grygelko “met everybody right away,” he says, “because I was dating Jason Mecier, who was half of Enrique, the performance band, and I was living in a house full of radical faeries, with Steve and Maxine and Portia Manson and Lucille and Racine. They had a big house out on 9th Ave. in the Sunset. I was just very taken with it all.”

Alas, Grygelko was not yet a performer, and at first managed to overcome stage fright by getting thoroughly drunk: “One time I did a Sick and Twisted show in a blackout. I don’t remember doing it. But that’s how it was back then, and it wasn’t too important to be sober. Now I can’t imagine doing a show fucked up.”

It was in this era that Grygelko began to dabble in drag, when he met comedian/drag artist Pippi Lovestocking (Scott Free), and when he got a job at the Stud in 1995, first working security and coat check, then bartending. Heklina and Trannyshack were born when Grygelko and Pippi persuaded the Stud’s co-owners, Michael McElheny and Fiesta, to let them do a series of benefits for Project Open Hand, called “Singing for Supper.” They would rent a karaoke machine, drag it into the Stud, and invite their friends to come and sing. Eventually it became a weekly Tuesday-night club, and they dispensed with the karaoke and made it a lip-synch/performance club for the punk/queer generation.

“I called it Trannyshack,” says Grygelko, “based on where Pippi was living at the time, with Chocolate, Ruby Tuesday and Bambi Lake under one roof, and whenever I would go over there I would say, oh, I’m going over to the tranny shack.”

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Heklina in her element at Trannyshack.

At the very first Trannyshacks, the performance line-up consisted of just Heklina, Pippi and DJ Robbie D, and maybe a couple other people. They charged only a dollar to get in. The club didn’t take off right away, and Grygelko says “Pippi kind of got bored with doing it with me, and when she left as my hostess and my sidekick, I just decided it would be fun to book different hosts each week, and to have different themes every week. And that really kind of clicked.”

For whatever reason, performers started clamoring to appear. Some carried the cachet of rock stars, including Darlin’, the Steve Lady, Peaches Christ, Portia 666, Juanita MORE!, Vinsantos, Blue Period glam rocker Adrian Roberts, real woman drag diva Trixxie Carr, and many more. As the talent blossomed, the cover charges started going up. Young, smart, sexy audiences went crazy over the punk/anarchic scene, a refreshing break from the dried-up, old-school drag of yore. At Trannyshack, irreverence reigned, and party people came in droves. Had the club been on a Friday or Saturday night, says Grygelko, “it would have died a long time ago, because it would have been so overrun with bridge-and-tunnel horrible people, you know what I mean?”

Running Trannyshack as a tight ship has forced Heklina to clean up her own act. People think Trannyshack is loud, rude and obnoxious, and they’re right, says Grygelko, but “the way it’s evolved, it’s very organized now. I don’t drink or get fucked up so I’m very controlling of how it runs, and everybody around me is kind of getting fucked up and drinking, and sometimes it feels like I’m in charge of the asylum.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, November 21, 2002

 

Whither Goeth the Rhino?

Doug Holsclaw talks of Theatre Rhinoceros

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Doug Holsclaw

On the map of gay San Francisco, Theatre Rhinoceros is a sacred community space. Five times a year in the old Redstone Building it calls home, the company mounts main-stage productions – with more shows in the downstairs Studio – and the faithful come to witness. At these times, the grizzled old gal radiates gay splendor.

For nearly 25 years, cutting-edge queer theater has found a home at Theatre Rhinoceros, beginning in times of heady optimism and fervent activism of the gay lib era, brazening through the dark years of the plague, lit by a spirit of defiance, and finally emerging again into the light of new hope. Or would that be the twilight of old hope?

This is the question of the moment as I meet with Theatre Rhinoceros Artistic Director Doug Holsclaw one recent afternoon at his Rhino turf in the Mission. We sit facing one another downstairs in the emptiness and shadows of the Studio, his chair perched on low stage platform, higher than mine, the difference in our heights emphasizing his regal nellyness. It’s just he and I, a microphone and digital device recording his every lisp, and a file-folder’s worth of images I’ve brought along, culled from a newspaper archive, documenting the many years of Theatre Rhinoceros productions. To get to the future, we’ll need to review the past.

“I don’t want to be an isolationist or separatist,” Holsclaw declares at the outset,” but I do think there is something to having our own home,” a place where queer stage artists can be themselves. He adds: “I feel like we’re not about straight approval.”

In his breathless, breathtaking way, Holsclaw justifies his theater’s existence: “If Theatre Rhinoceros didn’t exist, Barebacking wouldn’t have existed.” He adds an extra oomph: “I feel real strongly about that.”

John Fisher’s Barebacking, Holsclaw declares, “was a big production with great productions values and really controversial subject matter. Nobody else touched this show.” He beams with the pride of a proud parent, mother and father mixed in one.

He lives and breathes theater, you can tell, and the more in-your-face queer the play, the more he seems to like it: “I must say I don’t think we get a lot of credit for being as adventurous as we are.”

There’s a devilishness in him. He loves controversy. He also loves to tout the sheer variety of Rhino presentations: “We are not a theater that does just one thing,” he harrumphs, responding to invisible or imagined critics. “We just did Noel Coward, now we’re doing a women’s prison comedy, then we’re doing a gay version of Of Mice and Men. This is following Marga Gomez’s Twelve Days of Cochina, and Serina Queen of the Tango, about a drag queen tango dancer.” The last, he shakes his head, met with an unlucky fate, despite Matthew Martin delivering “the best performance he ever gave.” Alas, the play opened on September 9, 2001. It’s life was cut short by the bombing. The audience stayed home – a pity, he sighs, “because it was just wonderful!”

Doug_Holsclaw_1Continuing through the photos, Holsclaw comes upon yet another image of sexy guys baring all that counts to the Rhino audience: “This was a hot little comedy we did in the Studio,” he remarks of Out Calls Only. “When the first nudie boys shows started coming around, I said: ‘Let’s beat them at their own game. Let’s write something that’s really sexy, where sex isn’t the punch line. . . . It wasn’t like, oh, Naked Boys Singing: ‘Isn’t it funny when we wiggle our dicks?'”

Speaking of dicks brings him to Ronnie Larson, infamous director of 10 Naked Men and other controversies: “Ronnie Larson, you know, is a nut!” laughs Holsclaw, “but he’s talented, I’ve got to give it to him. I always say I’ll never work with him again, and I always do. He’s coming back next year.”

Holsclaw remains gently miffed at Larson for a nasty trick he pulled in the production of Girl Meets Girl: “He lied to me and told me it was [by] a woman playwright! It was really Ronnie using an assumed name. I took all sorts of heat. People wrote vicious things about me in the press, and I honestly got tricked!”

He recalls another play that caused a ruckus, and seems to revel in the memory, looking at the photographs: “This was Shopping & Fucking, which was one of my favorite productions ever. It caused all sorts of problems. We got hate mail. A major funder withdrew funding because the show was offensive to straight people. They said [the play presented] a very dark view of humanity.” Holsclaw sighs deeply, then replies: “Now, you step over people to come to this theater. Then you come inside and we’re supposed to be at a beach house at fire island? You know what I mean? Shouldn’t theater reflect the experience of the world?”

 

A dream come true

This place, this project, this dream called Theatre Rhinoceros, has been Holsclaw’s life and career and home for almost 20 years, almost since the time he moved to San Francisco from New York, in 1983. He never intended to become Artistic Director of a gay theater company, nor aimed for precisely the heights he’s achieved in the role, or the gravitas he carries with grace but can’t escape: “I never aspired to this, but now I’m the organizational history and memory of Theater Rhinoceros, because so many of my colleagues and dear friends before me are no longer here.”

It’s an awesome responsibility. If you want to do queer theater in San Francisco, you have a few choices: go the low-budget, anarchist/independent route, either in rental spaces or through workshopping at the Jon Sims Center and elsewhere; or plead with mainstream theaters to produce your gay-themed piece (thus currying the queer community’s gratitude); or turn to New Conservatory Theater Center or Theatre Rhinoceros, the two main homes plays and spectacles by, for and about queers.

“We recently started using Equity actors,” proclaims Holsclaw with pride. Rhino, he says, is “the first gay theater in the country to have a seasonal agreement with Equity. We pay our actors $125 a week.”

The amount is absurdly low, a mere token, and Holsclaw knows it: “Economics in the Bay Area have made it hard for young artists to live here because rents are so high. Young people are going to Portland and Seattle, not San Francisco, except the more professional ones. I don’t sense a rising class of younger artists in the volume there was when I started, because it’s a tough city to live in.”

Holsclaw describes finances at Theatre Rhinoceros as touch-and-go, but declares that thanks to his small, hard-working staff, and careful allocation of new grants, “At Rhino, you see the money on the stage.”

Just after he says this, Holsclaw drops the big news: “We’ve been in the planning process for our relocation; we’re in the process of negotiating an option to buy on a new building.”

The specific building Holsclaw has in mind for Theatre Rhinoceros is the old City Athletic Club smack dab in the center of the Castro. “If the homeless shelter moves out, it might become available,” Holsclaw says. “The location is beautiful. The idea of having a performing arts facility in the Castro would be a great thing for the community.”

Holsclaw feels the Castro location, for which they’ve already don an architectural feasibility study, would make GLBT theater accessible to a larger segment of the population: “What I hear from our audience is that while some people love the Mission District, some people don’t feel safe coming here. And people should feel safe coming to the theater. Once inside the theater, there should be an element of danger, because you don’t know what you’re going to see on stage.”

As for himself, says Holsclaw at interview’s end, “I’m not sure what the future holds, but in the next couple of years I would like to transition out of being to dog, and that will mean groom and coaching somebody.

Is anybody waiting in the wings?

“Well, that’s a top secret,” he winks, “just like my Boo Boo Bear.”

. . . . .

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

Tripping over Tricia: The Cockettes on film

San Francisco filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber restore the long-lost Cockettes film  Tricia’s Wedding.   

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Preserving cultural trivia is no easy task. Much of the fluff of life disappears without a whimper, gone before anyone notices. By the time anyone realizes a thing’s importance, it may be too late to salvage. Fortunately, the world has documentary film makers such as David Weissman and Bill Weber, two San Franciscans feverishly dedicated to preserving the legacy The Cockettes, one of the more outrageous queer hippie performance collectives of the 1970s.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

In the course of assembling their documentary, Weissman and Weber salvaged a precious piece of trivia, a campy film produced by The Cockettes, called Tricia’s Wedding, long lost and mostly forgotten, but now restored, thanks to their efforts. Scenes from that film will show up in their documentary when they complete it (in roughly a year). Meanwhile, the story of Tricia’s Wedding and its restoration deserves telling, because it says a lot about how queer culture has evolved, and what it takes to ensure that a colorful part of the past remains accessible to us at present.

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Wedding day 1971: Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon, Tricia Nixon and Edward Finch Cox.

It was 1971, and Tricia Nixon, the President’s daughter, was about to wed beneath the klieg lights of the national press corps. Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, a gaggle of wild drag performers calling themselves The Cockettes decided they wanted to celebrate the joyous occasion in their inimitable way. The manager of the flock, a fellow named Sebastian, proposed they film their own version of the wedding. They would screen it on wedding night at the Palace Theater in North Beach, where they had been holding regular Friday night “Nocturnal Dream Shows,” at which gender-bent hippies gathered to take acid, watch offbeat movies, display their feathered finery, and camp it up until dawn.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It took two days to make the movie,” says Weissman, who works out of an office in the South of Market space occupied by Frameline, the organization dedicated to promoting queer cinema. “It was made at a place called Secret Cinema on 16th Street. This was Steven Arnold’s warehouse. They put together the sets overnight, and filmed the sort-of-sober parts on Saturday, with the understanding from Sebastian that Sunday was the day they would all go completely berserk and have the post-LSD reception. There was a certain amount of consumption of substances during filming.”

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Reggie spikes the punch in a scene
from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

As Weissman describes it, the film Tricia’s Wedding is “basically is a psychedelic drag parody.” Among its huge cast of characters – all portrayed by wacky transvestites – were many of the notable political and cultural figures of the time: Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; Lady Bird Johnson; Vice President Spiro Agnew; India’s Indira Gandhi; Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general; and Mamie Eisenhower, the former president’s wife. The recently widowed Coretta Scott King was portrayed by Sylvester, whose rise to fame as a disco diva was just beginning. A Cockette named Reggie played the key role of Eartha Kitt, who spikes the wedding punch with LSD in revenge for having been blackballed from the White House, the result of criticizing the Vietnam War during an intimate performance for Lady Bird Johnson, which had caused Lady Bird to cry.

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

“It wound up being a huge, wild orgy at the end of the show,” says Weissman, describing the film’s wedding-reception scene. “Wigs and clothes come off and people flip out and have a lot of fun. Mamie Eisenhower, who was the mother of our country, has a wonderful drunken performance.” And Tricia Nixon herself was played by “the eternally hideous Goldie Glitters.” That she was marrying a man named Cox was ripe for Cockettes parody.

Weissman recalls first viewing the half-hour-long Tricia’s Wedding when he was about 20 years old, a few years after it was made: “I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but it changed my life. It really brought home to me the subversive power of comedy and particularly of drag. It was a really entertaining assault on all the norms of bourgeois American culture. It was just one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.”

For years, Weissman has wanted Tricia’s Wedding to be shown publicly by Frameline or some other group, “because I knew it was a piece of gay history.” Yet one big stumbling block prevented this: the only print anyone in existence was in the hands of Sebastian, and it was in very bad condition.

“Every time it would play,” says Weissman, “it would catch at a particular point and burn in the projector, and everyone in the audience would scream and yell.”

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A scene from ‘Tricia’s Wedding’.

Weissman knew that Sebastian, who now lives in Los Angeles, had made a video copy of it, but it was made from the one bad print, so he worried Tricia’s Wedding would be lost once this print finally shredded. But making a fresh print proved highly problematical since neither Sebastian nor Mark Lester, the film’s producer, had any idea what happened to the original materials. They assumed everything had been lost.

Undeterred, Weissman looked up the film’s cinematographer, Paul Aratow, figuring he might know which laboratory the film was done in. Through an Internet search, he found Aratow in Los Angeles, and asked him “Did you shoot Tricia’s Wedding? He laughed and said: ‘Oh my god, I haven’t thought of that in 25 years!'”

Aratow said he thought the film had been processed at a lab on Columbus Street, Monaco, which still exists. Weissman called there and asked: “What are the chances of finding a piece of film from 29 years ago in your vaults?”

The person he spoke with knew the film, but said it had been processed at Palmer’s, which had long since closed down. The inventory from Palmer’s, he later learned, had been picked up by Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and by an archive in New York City.

It was at the latter that Tricia’s Wedding turned up.

“They had no idea what it was,” says Weissman. “They had the original sound track, and the original negatives.”

Once Sebastian authorized the release of the materials to Weissman and Weber, the two were quick to turn it around: “We just now completed making a brand new, absolutely perfect print and preservation negative of Tricia’s Wedding to save for posterity,” says Weissman.

And in this way, yet another chapter of queer history gets beefed up.

For information about Tricia’s Wedding and the making of The Cockettes documentary, contact David Weissman at GranDelusion Production, 346 Ninth St., San Francisco, CA 94103. Phone (415) 703-8661.

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

 

The Sonnet Bites Back: Lord Alfred Douglas

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‘Bosie’ Author Douglas Murray
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‘Bosie,’ aka Lord Alfred Douglas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As popular imagination has it, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie, was a faggy, foppish British poet at the turn of the 20th century who suffered – and largely brought upon himself – a disastrous and highly public fling with literary giant and big queen Oscar Wilde. Bosie came to regret having been a flaming homosexual at a time of harsh Victorian prudery and persecution, and did a dramatic about-face after Wilde’s death, turning Catholic, marrying a woman and fathering a son, denying any unwholesome dalliances with Wilde, and zealously denouncing and/or litigating against anyone associated with Wilde or Wildean vices.

For this betrayal of his kind, other practicing homosexuals never forgave him. Though he enjoyed a modicum of fame during his life, he remained an odd duck in the literary world, a sonnet composer who never adapted his formalist style to the loosening poetics of the era. Bosie left but a minor literary legacy, his personal star forever attached to and outshone by Wilde’s supernova.

To British biographer Douglas Murray, Lord Alfred has been pissed on too much by an ignorant public. The social/political upheaval surrounding Bosie’s life all but guaranteed Bosie’s early, defiantly gay poetry would not receive a fair reading or assessment in his day, nor even his more mature, Catholic poems. Young Murray decided years ago to rectify that sad state of affairs, which has resulted in his captivating biography, Bosie.

“I intended originally to write a book about poetry,” says the sunny 20-year-old author, casually attired in a white linen suit over a pale button-up T-shirt as he sips a beer at the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill, fresh from a live, on-air interview at Berkeley’s KPFA Radio. “That was one of the first things that kick-started me, finding a copy of one of his poems that hadn’t been taken out of the library in 50 years, and realizing they were bloody good. I think some of them are.”

He was a mere 15 at the time, a student at Eton prep school, and little did he know that within five years he would be one of the darlings of the book-publishing world, zipping around the globe, promoting a book published by Tina Brown’s latest enterprise, Talk Miramax Books, an imprint of Hyperion Books.

“I took a year out between Eton and Oxford,” explains Murray, asked how he managed as a student to produce such a well-researched, well-written book. “In England it’s very common. I spent my time teaching. My contemporaries did as well. And in my spare time I wrote the book.”

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Douglas Murray. Photo by Marc Geller.

No doubt marketing decisions factored into Brown’s interest in Murray. He presents at media ops just the sort of sophisticated, sexy young face and engaging personality cameras and tape recorders love to record. As important, and as enticing, is the book’s literary merit, which earns high marks. Murray stubbornly set out to show Bosie wasn’t the complete villain he’s been made out to be, and that he deserves recognition for his literary accomplishments. “I think he should be regarded as a good minor poet,” declares Douglas. To convince skeptics and lure new Bosie fans, Murray traces the intricacies of the relationships among all the key players in the Bosie/Wilde saga with dispassion, thoroughly but clearly and engagingly delineating and speculating on the facts and issues, clearly siding with his principal subject, but never a died-in-the-wool Bosie apologist.

Murray describes Bosie is “an antihero, a tremendous lesson in how not to live your life. . . . The great problem with Bosie, always has been and always was, from the beginning of his life he makes a mess of enemies.”

It may be life imitating art, but Murray himself now attends Magdalen College, Oxford – the very college Bosie attended when he had his first affair with Wilde, when it was still a haven for “schoolboy business.” Clearly Bosie was happiest in life at that time, before homophobia destroyed their love.

The key incident that almost completely unhinged Bosie was Wilde’s apparent betrayal from beyond the grave, where he was untouchable. Wilde’s seeming animus toward Bosie rose up in the form of an infamous, accusatory letter addressed to Bosie, given to one Robbie Ross to deliver, but which Bosie claimed never to have received. When that letter’s contents were read aloud in court, Wilde’s hostile words stabbed him, destroying any traces of his former carefree innocence, turning him into the ogre he became until his autumnal years.

It’s almost a Romeo and Juliet affair where letters are crossing “and don’t arrive in time, absolutely,” Murray agrees. “It’s a terribly tragic story, really two. One tragedy, although it’s the short version in the book, is the tragedy of Oscar Wilde, and the other one is the tragedy of Alfred Douglas. I have in many ways so much more sympathy with Bosie in this.”

Bosie can be admired as a fighter of enormous resolve, committed to his cause, central to which is figuring out, over many years, what exactly transpired in net of his relationship with Wilde, and to seeking redress for many and varied grievous insults he felt he had endured.

When at last in his later years Bosie allowed himself to relax, reflect and find forgiveness for himself and others, he once again regained some semblance of the brave poet who so boldly penned the words, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” But in truth, that flame had long since expired, the torch taken up by others more true to their natures.

While Murray’s sympathies are with Bosie, his scholarship allows readers to make informed judgments. Admirers of the sonnet will, indeed, find much to admire in Bosie. He wasn’t half bad. Readers who find no mystery in a gay man going straight, on the other hand, will find no problem with Murray’s failing to cast a sufficiently critical eye on Bosie’s apparent transformation. Murray seems reluctant to criticize.

Given the repressive social atmosphere of his time, it’s not surprising Bosie proclaimed himself straight and allied himself with the Church. He had to survive. He was tired of insults, jails, rumors, and his status as social outcast. He wanted to be embraced, and for that he turned to his own aristocratic class for solace and comfort. He got but a modicum of it. One thing seems certain: had gay liberation occurred on his watch, you can bet Bosie would have jumped right in, conversion be damned. After all, the best times of his life were as a happy pervert. Bosie once wrote to Wilde from Biskra, North Africa, says Murray, “saying that he’d had a new lover and that they had sex once or twice a day, and that he was so young that the milk of his mother still hadn’t been wiped from his mouth. This boy was only I think 13; Bosie was 23.”

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 10, 2000

‘Out in the Castro’ — Eureka!

The old guard of San Francisco’s gay liberation movement reunite in Winston Leyland’s Out in the Castro, 2002.

 

out_in_the_castroSAN FRANCISCO: A charming reunion, fit for the history books, took place in early December, 2001, at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. An assemblage of mostly old-guard GLBT writers, politicos, activists, photographers, preachers, journalists, editors, and artists cozied up to the lectern to proudly unveil their new work, Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism (Leyland Publications, 2002; $24.95, paper). Editor Winston Leyland, the local publishing legend, was present in the flesh, presiding over his book’s contributors like a literary hen clucking over her brood.

The place was packed with spectators, old and young and in-between, all greeting one another like family. In the newly refurbished, nicely re-arranged bookstore, it felt homey – perfect for deep immersion into the rich cultural and historical life of that part of town we call Gay Central, the nexus of queer life in San Francisco, despite its increased commercialization and tourist-centered businesses, and the squeeze put on low-income residents.

For those of us who’ve lived in gay San Francisco a while, and those just joining us who want to get a sense of where we’re all coming from, Leyland has performed a great civic service. In inviting essays and art from the likes of Anne Kronenberg, Jewelle Gomez, Frank M. Robinson, Harry Britt, Susan Stryker, Jim Mitulski, Sister Dana van Iquity (aka Dennis McMillan), N.A. Diaman, Rink Foto, and many other stalwarts of the local queer scene, Leyland has rounded up a priceless bunch of colorful, inspiring characters for our boundless enjoyment. Not everything they have to say is profound or poetic – but much of it is. Not in every case were the contributors lead players in local politics and culture – but very often they have been and still are. These are the very people who have recorded and shaped our core culture for decades – not just in the Castro, but city-wide. They have been our friends and neighbors, co-workers, teachers and leaders on many fronts. To bask in their glory at a reading or through their printed words and images is to be warmly welcomed into the bosom of gay San Francisco.

In the book, when poet/essayist Justin Chin grumpily declares he’s outgrown the Castro (in “Death of the Castro”), he reflects a sentiment common to many who’ve lived to experience the neighborhood’s changes, and disapprove. Yet despite his ho-hum assessment – “The Castro has become a few blocks of expensive T-shirt and clothing shops, juice bars, yuppie eatery chains, and trendy neighborhood shopping and dining. Thrilling, huh?” – clearly the Castro has ingrained itself in his poetic psyche: he longs for the place to be the way it was in March 1990, when he alleges it still had the power to dazzle.

Since Chin is relatively young-guard, and his tattooed style at odds with the prevailing sweater/Gap esthetic in the ‘hood – and since he didn’t appear at the reading – it was left to older, not necessarily wiser heads to more generously tout the Castro’s virtues.

Former Supervisor Harry Britt, looking every bit the statesman, started off by apologizing for a less-than-stellar essay, a piece about Harvey Milk that had been written for another publication. That’s okay, Harry: you made up for it by noting that San Francisco has become (to use a phrase by writer Hakim Bey) a Temporary Autonomous Zone – a secure place where queers can enjoy a fair amount of freedom to be themselves. Some might say that’s just another term for gay ghetto, and they might be right. But as Britt noted, it was in the Castro ghetto that Harvey Milk rose to prominence, becoming a symbol of freedom for lesbians and gay men world-wide.

Solid settings for Milk’s saga are provided by historians Susan Stryker (“How the Castro Became San Francisco’s Gay Neighborhood”), and Jim Duggins (“Out in the Castro: Creating a Gay Subculture, 1947 – 1969”). They do an admirable job of tracking the evolution of Eureka Valley (aka The Castro), from its working-class Irish Catholic roots to its becoming the focal-point for a revolutionary gay-rights movement. Leyland opens the books with their pieces, giving readers ample preparation for the more personal perspectives to come.

Harvey Milk is central to Anne Kronenberg‘s recollections (“Everybody Needed Milk”), since she personally experienced the stresses, strains, triumphs and tragedy of working alongside the “Mayor of Castro Street.” So, too, was Frank M. Robinson (“Castro Street, That Great Street”) up front and center to the spectacle – and his account, among all of the contributors, is one of the richest in detail, colorfully capturing the hippy-ish flavor of the Castro in the 1970s, during the heyday of gay lib. It is from him that we learn of the large role played by hippies in the development of the Castro – that Harvey Milk was, in fact, a hippie from New York City. Robinson, who’d worked as a reporter for the underground press in the Haight Ashbury, got caught up in Milk’s campaign and the subsequent euphoria – and tragedy. His personal perspective puts us vividly up close and center in those heady, extraordinary times.

Things get even more personal in the reminiscences of Blackberri (“Andy’s – Center of the Universe”), who moved to the city from Nebraska in 1971, at age 21, and ended up working at and eventually owning Andy’s Donughts in the Castro, before going on to buy a leather bar, The Bootcamp, on Folsom Street. He was friends with Cosmic Lady (aka Janet Planet), and personally experienced the cosmic presences of the Cockettes, the Angels of Light, Divine, Sylvester and a host of other queer notables. [see correction]

Also on the scene from the late 1960s on was writer/artist N.A. Diaman (“Living in the Castro: A Gay Writer Reminisces”), who tellingly remarks that when he first moved into the Castro, the total rent for his flat was $140 per month. It’s a time long gone, but his descriptions of establishing a gay household during those days is not all that far different from today’s ordeal.

Among the young-guard contributing to the book is Katie [Zak] Szymanski, assistant news editor for the Bay Area Reporter, who profiles a member of the old-guard: her boss, Publisher Bob Ross, noting that he “anchored for good in San Francisco” in 1956, fresh out of the Navy, and joined with the throngs of gay men who would cruise his corner at 20th and Castro. The concise story of his creating this newspaper, and its 30-year history at the center of gay politics and culture, is one you won’t find anywhere else.

Photography holds a prominent place in Leyland’s Out in the Castro – with spectacular results. The images balance and illuminate the text, making the book a joy to browse or read straight through. If you’ve been here very long at all, you’ll recognize the faces, places, and events. The photographers include Rick Gerharter, Rink Foto, Freddie Niem, Greg Day, Crawford Wayne Barton, and Marc Geller, all of them first-rate and well known for being in the thick of things, capturing images that by now have become legend. Even the surprising absence of images by Daniel Nicoletta – undoubtedly the most acclaimed queer “scene” photographer in San Francisco – and Jane Philomen Cleland does not diminish this book’s powerful impact. It’s a reunion in print well worth attending.

 

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

Another Beat goes down: Philip Whalen

 

Public reading in San Francisco on Friday, August 30, 2002 to celebrate Philip Whalen

philip-whalen
Zenshin Philip Whalen

One of the nation’s leading poets, Philip Whalen, who was both a legend of the Beat era and a prominent figure for many years in the Eureka Valley/Castro neighborhood as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, will be memorialized in a public reading this Friday, August 30, to be attended by many of the most celebrated poets and writers of our time.

The free public reading by such eminences of the poetry scene as Michael McClure, Diane DiPrima, and Leslie Scalapino will take place Friday from 7 – 10 p.m. at Presentation Theater (formerly the Gershwin Theater), at 2350 Turk St. (near Masonic). Hundreds of Whalen’s friends and admirers are expected to attend.

In addition, a Zen Buddhist memorial service will be held for Zenshin Philip Whalen (his formal title as abbot) at Green Gulch Farms and Zen Center, located at 1601 Shoreline Hwy. (Highway 1), just south of Muir Beach, on Sunday, September 1 at 2:30 p.m., with Richard Baker Roshi officiating.

Whalen, who passed away on June 26, 2002 at the age of 78, was one of the original Beat poets along with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and others (he roomed with Snyder and Welch at Reed College). He was born October 20, 1923 in Portland, Oregon, and wrote more than 20 books of poetry and two novels. He was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 1973, and in 1991 he succeeded Issan Dorsey as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, a small Buddhist center in the Soto Zen tradition founded in 1981 by a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists for the neighborhood and community. The center continues to open its Zendo daily to the community for formal meditations.

In a memoriam prepared by his friends, Whalen is described as “crusty, full of contrasts, unpredictably wise. He never tried to hide himself, no matter what his mood was. He engendered trust, but not complacency. He was unconventional, but also an old school gentleman.”

“He never gay identified, but he was a mystery sexually to everybody,” said fellow poet Rick London, a member of the board of Hartford Street Zen Center, who was with Whalen when he passed on. London is helping to organize Friday’s public reading, along with the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and others.

“He was open to everybody and treated everybody the same, which is to say fairly,” added London.

In one of several websites devoted to Whalen’s memory, www.jackmagazine.com, Michael Rothenberg writes: “The degree of respect and admiration the Beats had for Whalen is remarkable. He was adored by Kerouac, who found him easy to be with and confide in. . . Ginsberg considered Whalen the only Zen Master Poet practicing in America.”

At another tribute site, www.everydayzen.org, close friend Zoketsu Norman Fischer writes: “Philip was a notorious and elegant complainer, but he bore his decline with a lot of dignity. He had no truck with the ‘death and dying’ movement. He just wanted to keep on living as long as possible with as much enjoyment as he could find in daily living – which he did do.”

For more information, visit the Hartford Street Zen Center website at www.hartfordstreetzen.com

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.

Moon Walk, Moon Talk—Michael Light’s ‘Full Moon’

“The NASA archive is a world treasure and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.” — Michael Light

 

Mike_Light_Full_Moon
Photographer Michael Light with one of his “Full Moon” images. Photo by Jane Philomen Cleland.

When NASA officials and employees held a celebration in Washington, D.C. on July 20, 1999 to mark the 30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, it was an openly gay man who commanded everyone’s attention.

As astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin looked on, along with NASA Chairman Dan Goldin, Chief Historian Roger Launius, NASA staff and reporters from around the globe, 36-year-old San Francisco-based fine-art photographer Michael Light addressed them for the bulk of an hour, running through a series of slide images from his new, phenomenally well-received “photo novel,” Full Moon, a lavish photo-art book published simultaneously in North America and Europe this fall by Knopf and Jonathan Cape. In the process, Light managed to do what no one since the golden age of the Apollo missions had achieved: to show the lunar surface in a fresh light, stirring people’s imaginations, reinvigorating even the astronauts’ sense of wonder at the alien landscape they had trod so long ago.

Just two days following his NASA engagement, Light was in London for the opening of his Full Moon exhibition at the prestigious Hayward Gallery of modern art on the South Bank of the River Thames. Many notables from the UK art world attended, as did David R. Scott, commander of the highly successful 1971 Apollo 15 moon mission. Those in attendance were agog the lunar images arrayed on the gallery walls. The Sunday London Times gave the exhibition a glowing review.

“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build.”

When Light gave a one-time-only walk-through of the show, Scott turned up in the crowd; Light, taking note of the esteemed explorer’s presence, invited Scott to participate in a conversation about the images. Thus began a crowd-mesmerizing give-and-take about the moon’s topography and exploration – an engaging off-the-cuff exchange about camera positioning, light-and-dark contrasts, soil color, temperature differences, textures, distances, heights, landforms and otherworldly aesthetics.

_______________

Full Moon emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate. “It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light.
_______________

Most remarkable in all this was the degree to which the two men, Light and Scott, saw eye to eye, despite being from different generations and vastly different backgrounds. They engaged in banter like old friends and fellow explorers. Scott clearly appreciated what Light, as an artist and outsider, not of the NASA fold, had done in revealing to the world the first-rate landscape and exploration photography produced during the NASA missions. Light had arrayed moon shots as never before, determined to tell the story of the moon’s exploration as he saw it, using the astronauts’ photographs to do so – photos that NASA and the public had long since disregarded and relegated to obscurity, unaware of their artistic value.

Displayed on the Hayward’s walls, in a series of interconnected rooms, were huge, black-metal framed, richly detailed and eerily beautiful images of the lunar landscape – all digitally reproduced from master dupes Light had spent more than four years sorting through in NASA’s vaults. There, untouched for decades, lay some 32,000 photographic images from the Apollo missions, none of them taken by landscape photographers, yet revealing landscapes in ways Ansel Adams or, more appropriately, contemporary disturbed-landscape photographer Richard Mishrach could appreciate. The Full Moon images depict what happens to a virgin terrain when men come along with their tools, prodding and poking, sifting and sorting, scarring with their tire tracks, littering with their abandoned machines.

The public at large had seen but a handful of such images, the select ones endlessly recycled in Time, Life, Newsweek and countless other mainstream publications, and many of those images were of poor quality, being third, fourth, or fifth generation duplicates, if not worse. Until Light came along and negotiated with NASA to take the master dupes off-site, no one had seen them, much less replicated them with high-resolution digital scanners. And certainly no one had thought to cull from the archival photographs a book as bold and captivating as Full Moon.

“The NASA archive is a world treasure,” declares Light, “and obviously what I’ve done is reframed that world treasure into the photo-novel I wanted to build. With 32,000 pictures, you can tell any story you want. Pictures are context dependent. So I told a tale, and I told it my way.”

Full_Moon_Michael_Light
Image from “Full Moon” by Michael Light.

Full Moon, which utilizes photographs from all of the Apollo missions to convey one archetypal journey to the moon’s surface and back, emerged from the sensibilities of a gay man enamored with but critical of frontier mythology, of wilderness landscapes sought out by explorers, primarily young men bent on testing their mettle, proving themselves in contests against raw nature, and in so doing altering irrevocably the territories they penetrate.

“It’s an arena of male bonding,” says Light, “permeated with homoeroticism, guys guaging themselves against each other.”

However, he hastens to add, “the politics of my work, and the largest issues at hand, are not particularly homo or hetero. What is part of my identity as a gay man is my whole esthetic sensibility. It’s very hard for me to describe why I’m attracted to certain textural images, like the skins of planets.”

Nonetheless, he gives it the old college try: “As an artist, I’m interested in the line between the built and the unbuilt world, the edges of civilization, the point where people begin to think about things much larger than themselves, where self-involvement and narcissism begin to fall away, where we really begin to see the sublime. Vast deserts, or outer space, or the unknown, or the ineffable, or religion, or whatever, versus the tiny human presence, continues to fascinate me.”

Light found a bit of that sublime mystery at Burning Man in Nevada last year, where far out on the desert playa, away from crowded Black Rock City (the temporary encampment of some 10,000 artists and freaks), he installed his Full Moon images for the first time publicly, arraying them end to end, face-up on the seemingly lunar landscape of dried, crusty mud, bordered in the night by tiny white lights, pointing off into infinity between two parallel mountain ridges, looking for all the world like an alien landing strip. People drawn to the lights from far away encountered a bizarre but powerful array of moon pictures, just discernable through a thin coating of playa dust. Overhead, someone had installed an eerily-lit alien spacecraft suspended from giant, nearly invisible helium balloons. When the full moon itself appeared from over a ridge, the total effect of Light’s installation was stunning, causing people to sit for long periods beside the row of photographs, meditating on their metaphysical meanings, or perhaps flying to the moon in their minds.

“My overarching desire in Full Moon was to go there as a landscape photographer,” says Light, who since graduating in the late-’80s from Amherst and then obtaining his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute has focused primarily on unusual landscape images (his earlier photo-novel Ranch, published by the renowned art-house TwelveTrees Press, depicted a working ranch in Santa Barbara belonging to the family of Edie Sedgwick, saint of the überhip Warhol coterie). “The best way I could do that, since Apollo’s not running any more and I’m not an astronaut, was via the photographs. So when I edited, I edited for a sense of immediacy. I wanted to be there, right down in the dirt. I’m trying to get as close as I can get, putting a viewer right there, straight near the crotch in that classic image of Dave Scott, tool-making, exploring man, with that looming rock-collection tong.”

When asked to hypothesize on whom, if he were able to go to the moon, he would choose to accompany him, Light pauses on only briefly before replying, in his most Hemingwayesque tone (Light grew up in Mauntauk, at the tip of Long Island, enjoying a sort of Great Gatsby meets The Old Man And The Sea lifestyle): “I would want somebody who was really, really rock solid. I would want an engineer, test pilot, unflappable all-American hero so that while I lose my mind and be all overwhelmed by the intensity of it all, somebody is there attending to whatever needs attending.”

And does he know anyone fitting this description?

“I wouldn’t mind going there with Dave Scott. That would be a dream come true, because Apollo 15 has the largest bunch of photographs in my book, and that mission was the first of the big independent scientific missions, and it remains the mission to my eyes that had the most spectacular and insanely beautiful landscapes.”

Moreover, he adds with a wink: “And Dave, you’ve got to hand it to the guy. He’s the nicest guy, for one thing, and he’s probably, what, 70 by now? He’s a really handsome 70-year-old.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter.

 

 

 

For online information about Full Moon, surf www.projectfullmoon.com

 

Tino Rodriguez —Dedicated to his Tormentors

… being a lengthy, completely superfluous, shocking profile of fabulously demented queer Latino artist Tino.
Tino_Rodriguez_Forevernever
“Forever and Ever,” oil on canvas, by Tino Rodriguez

 

Just now, Tino Rodriguez is hot. Some would say he’s always been hot, but consider his art, rather than the 32-year-old San Francisco painter’s vibrant queer sexuality. Even those who don’t regularly patronize art galleries could well run across Rodriguez’s work. Walk into a bookstore carrying gay literature, and there among the new arrivals you’ll see a paperback volume with a striking cover illustration by Rodriguez. The anthology, Virgins, Guerrillas, & Locas: Gay Latinos Writing on Love, edited by Jaime Cortez (Cleis Press; 1999) is adorned with a painting of a young Latino man with dark-shadowed, unblemished features. The youth’s huge, piercing eyes seem to gaze inward as his scarlet lower lip puffs out, as though he were about to cry; thick black eyebrows are accentuated by an ebony choker around the lad’s smooth neck. Most notable is the translucent-white wedding veil adorning the young man’s head, framing his androgynous face.

The image smacks of transgression, a Mexican artist’s slap in the face of machismo, through the somewhat heretical feminization of what ought to be, by traditional Mexican cultural standards, a thoroughly masculine visage. Is this merely a metaphorical portrayal of a virginal boy, no more offensive than a church icon? Or does this figure represent something much more revolutionary: an already thoroughly deflowered Latino youth, veiled to lure the attentions of other, predatory males – a youth who wants to be mauled for the umpteenth time, his lips pried apart and forced to wrap around someone’s monster cock? His apparent sadness, in this view, would be that of a youth torn by his queer desires and the recognition of his outcast status in Mexican society.

Tino_Rodriguez_ERASE_UNA_VEZ
“Erase una vez,” oil on canvas, by Tino Rodriguez

To puzzle out the answer to the image, one must know Tino Rodriguez and his body of work. Fortunately, opportunities to do so are near at hand, with showings of Rodriguez’s work happening first at Bucheon Gallery, located in art-trendy Hayes Valley, and shortly thereafter at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, at the prestigious biannual group exhibition, “Bay Area Now 2.”

The Bucheon exhibition, a one-man showing by Rodriguez entitled Apocalyptic Innocence, features a host of miniature paintings, all realized in the artist’s signature style, a formalist approach to bizarre and often deeply disturbing scenes. The works resemble Renaissance paintings in technique and presentation, yet a close glance reveals twisted themes of decapitation, bloodletting, cock sucking, ass play, boys and adults flaunting their penises, rabbits and fairies at play, and demonic creatures with human torsos, erect, lustful, and sadistic – all rendered as in fairy tales.

“It’s a formal style, yes,” responds Rodriguez when asked about his approach, which he developed mostly on his own, albeit with some training at the San Francisco Art Institute and elsewhere. “I’m painting in a very traditional way a very non-traditional subject matter. Like, one has someone sucking cock, and in another one someone’s sticking his finger up someone’s ass – in a beautiful Renaissance style. This kind of painting wasn’t even done in the Renaissance, and if it was, we’ll never see any of it, because they were burned by that guy Savonarola.”

In one of Rodriguez’s miniatures, “Forever and Ever,” a fanged monkey leers at a genteel, almond-eyed woman adorned in Elizabethan finery. The grotesque creature seems drawn not only to the woman’s body, but to her bodace. Behind the two stretches a hazy, verdant landscape, a sort of dreamscape.

“We have a saying in Mexico,” says Rodriguez, who was born in Guadalajara and moved to the United States at age 12: “When you’re a monkey, even if you wear the fanciest clothing, you won’t stop being a monkey. Meaning people are what they are, regardless of what they wear or how much money they have. I think this [“Forever and Ever”] is a take on that.”

His parents were not artistic, and had little education. The first art that captured his imagination, says Rodriguez, were the religious images adorning old churches in his native country: “paintings, murals, retablos, all the statues with glass eyes. I think all these images are somehow a part of my childhood – a lot of blood, a lot of suffering. But there’s a lot of magic too, all those cherubs and little kids.”

Cherubs, kids, blood, erections, and magic gardens are all reoccurring themes in Rodriguez’s work. One of his signature pieces in the “Apocalyptic Innocence” exhibit, “The Golden Age,” a 10″ x 14″ oil on wood painting, depicts all of these elements. It could be a fairy tale rendered in Renaissance style, but Rodriguez says it was based on no story, but simply emerged from his imagination without connection to any particular story (Rodriguez devours darkly poetic writings by Rimbaud, Genet, Bataille, Blake, and the like). A trio of rabbits dances in the scene’s foreground, their shadows visible against the mysterious metallic ball behind them on the parquet floor, a manicured garden observable through the open-curtained window in the background.

Why the inclusion of rabbits in this and so many other of his paintings, Rodriguez is asked. He replies in typical blunt, forthright style: “I like them because they’re horny.”

Rodriguez places a huge emphasis on sexuality both in his imagery and in his personal life. When he isn’t painting – and it’s rare that he isn’t, because he makes his living solely through his art, which requires enormous discipline and working late into the evenings as exhibitions loom – he fully enjoys the boisterous company of fellow young artists and gay revelers. He’s a dancing fiend, particularly enamored of techno-trance music, and on his nights out at house parties, art openings, bars and clubs, he exudes boundless energy, enthusiasm, and lust. His laughter, rich and full, fills any room he occupies; in conversation, he displays a gentlelness that seems at times at odds with his chosen themes, so often dark and disturbing. Yet that gentleness can be seen in the faces he paints – so often modeled on his own handsome features. His subjects rarely smile, however; most often they betray an odd passivity, whether they’re experiencing orgasm or being beheaded, or they grimace in the throes of unspeakable terrors.

Why, he’s asked, is blood evident in so many of his paintings? “Well, I’m Mexican, hello? I still have the pagan in me. It hasn’t been that far away, the sacrifices in the 16th century.”

But one can’t help think Rodriguez is working through some very personal issues in his chosen subject matter, a fact he confirms in explaining the subject of a self portrait entitled “Broken,” part of the Bucheon Gallery exhibit: “That’s me after being slapped.”

And who slapped him? “Oh, fuck, life. Actually, I was hoping to dedicate ‘Apocalyptic Innocence’ to everyone who had hurt me, which is really kind of cool, because everybody else dedicates shows to people they love, their mom, dad, boyfriends, girlfriends, families, things like that. And I’m like, why can’t I just fuckin’ dedicate this to everybody who’s hurt me?”

 

The opening reception for “Apocalyptic Innocence” took place at Bucheon Gallery (540 Hayes St.) on Friday, October 29, 1999. The opening reception for “Bay Area Now 2” took place in the Grand Lobby of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission St.) on Friday, November 19, 1999.

This article originally appeared in the October 28, 1999 Bay Area Reporter.

It’s a raver’s life

In 1998 Aaron Schirmer attributed his having lived and thrived for 13 years with HIV — without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications — in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

Aaron_Schirmer
Rave promoter and long-term HIV survivor Aaron Schirmer.
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller.

 

IT’S AROUND 5:30 A.M. SUNDAY, July 26, near sunrise in San Francisco’s South of Market district, and Freaky Chakra is going wild. His stand-up mop of black curls thrashes to the thundrous beat he’s creating. His fingers move deftly across synthesizer panels and mixing boards. He pops a sampler button and tweaks a knob and suddenly the bass plummets an octive, high notes go shrieking everywhere, and the floor seems to drop out of the room. Everyone dancing feels under the influence, their minds zooming off into space.

Chakra’s pure dope. Everybody at Vibrator gets high off him, especially the guy dancing directly in front of the right speaker, facing the sound. He’s Aaron Schirmer, 28, promoter and mastermind of Vibrator, who persuaded techno-master Chakra to do his first-ever live sunrise set, tailored for Vibrator, the already legendary rave born a mere five years ago in San Diego.

Even more dope is Mark E. Quark, Schirmer’s friend and the DJ whose early morning vinyl spinning set Vibrator ablaze. Everybody felt the energy, deep down and all around. Quark’s mixes went over the top, magnetically drawing people to the speakers and turntable setup. Schirmer’s core group of friends moved close en masse, swept into the groove. Quark was setting loose the incendiary progressive house sounds that most signify what Schirmer wants Vibrator to be all about: a spiritual healing place, where the mind and body can repair themselves.

Some people find spirituality in nature, others in monasteries and ashrams. Schirmer finds his path to expanded consciousness – even the key to sustaining his life – right in front of the speaker, his whole being saturated with noise, as he dances ecstatically among the members of his tribe, flailing his arms and swaying trance-like to rapid-fire electronic rhythms and sound samples.“Vibrator is where I can free my mind and let go of my life’s problems and just be in that realm of beauty, just be out there, dancing and raving, separated from AIDS, from all the problems that come with living on this planet, everything. I just dance and let my body move and the music take me.”

 

New religion

If Vibrator is Schirmer’s church, raves are his religion. Indeed, raves are where a host of Bay Area youth – gays and straights, women and men together – go these days to transcend themselves and, very likely, partake of the sacraments: acid, ecstasy, and other mood-altering, mind-opening substances (crystal meth is virtually absent at the smaller, better raves. Ditto alcohol).

On this weekend alone, Vibrator is just one (and, with only a few hundred select participants, by far the smallest) of at least three raves taking place in the city, all of which are attended mainly by hard-core ravers who learn of the events through word-of-mouth.

But Vibrator, as all its attendees know or soon discover, is a rave with a difference. Few coming to it fresh would likely be able to pinpoint its source of singularity, but those fully in tune with its vibe understand its creative twist: not only is its promoter, Schirmer, an authentic raver, fully of the fold since his teenage years; not only is he cute and queer; not only is he sweet natured, loving, and open with all kinds of people; he’s also a long-term survivor hell bent on staying alive.

Schirmer attributes his having lived and thrived for13 years with HIV, without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications (though he was diagnosed as having AIDS more than a year ago when his t-cell count briefly dropped below 200) in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

“I don’t know how to explain it, really, in words,” he says. “It’s just this feeling I get when I go dancing sometimes, especially at outdoor parties where there’s a sunrise, and there’s this sense of tribalness. That’s when I start to think I have a key. Like, hey, I know exactly what I’m doing now, and I’m able to access this kind of energy that heals me. It makes me feel, like, shhhh, craazy girl! There’s nothing like it.”

Schirmer’s ex-boyfriend and current roommate Josh, 25 (they and Vibrator DJ Kevin West recently turned a former punk-rock venue on Valencia Street, the Def Club, into a live-rave space), shares the attitude: “I can have all this stuff in my head, day to day crap that stresses me out, and then go to a party like Vibrator and it won’t matter any more. It’ll be wiped away. I consider it a spiritual healing. It’s my form of meditation.”

Another close friend, Anna, who has traveled from San Diego to attend her fourth Vibrator party (though she insists she’s not part of the rave scene), says she’s not sure how motivated Schirmer is by having had a death threat hanging over him all his adult life, but “I’ve often heard Aaron say things like, ‘I need to go out and dance. I need to go hear some music.’ I think there’s a restlessness that comes from the distraction of HIV, and the dancing and the music are partly an escape. But it’s bigger than that, and it’s bigger than HIV. Like any non-HIV person at a rave, he’s having a really good time. But he feels the music more than most people. It’s very healing to him.”

 

Holistic response

Aaron_Schirmer_1
Aaron Schirmer
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller

While he fully accepts the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS, Schirmer remains deeply ambivalent about the pharmaceuticals now being widely prescribed to keep the virus in check. On the one hand, he recognizes their potential to keep AIDS patients alive, at least for a while, and he understands they have dramatically reduced AIDS-related deaths. Still, in large part because he’s done so well without them, he can’t help wondering if others with asymptomatic HIV wouldn’t do better pursuing alternative therapies.

“My doctor feels that whatever I’m doing is working,” says Schirmer, “so to stick with it. And that means making decisions like not taking the drugs right now. He said that if you get a gut feeling that you should be on these medications, then go with it. But if you’re getting a gut feeling that now is not the right time, go with it. So that’s where I’m at as far as deciding when to take medications.”

Schirmer’s twin brother, Mike, who’s also gay, HIV-positive (for 12 years), and a raver (or, rather, “former club kid,” as he puts it), went ahead with the coctail therapy after he came down with crypto and was told he had only a 20-percent chance of recovery. The drugs worked, and he’s in decent health, dancing with abandon at Vibrator, his hair the brightest Day-Glo orange in the room.

Unfortunately, Mike Schirmer couldn’t adhere to the drug regimen, so recently gave up trying – a decision most medical experts warn is fraught with risk.

“Going on medications is a huge decision,” says Tim Teeter, RN, a treatment support services specialist at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “All of the medications have side effects. You have to believe that what you’re doing is something you can stick with. At this point, that means for the rest of your life.”

“A wrong take on the situation,” cautions Project Inform’s Brenda Lien, “is, look, this guy [Aaron Schirmer] is living a long time without drugs, so drugs must be bad for you.

A possible explanation for Schirmer’s longevity, Lien offers, quite apart from his raving, is that “some people, for whatever reason, have immune systems better able to function [with HIV].” Moreover, the younger a person is when they’re infected, the better situated they are to fend off the virus. Schirmer was only 16 when he got the virus from his first sex partner.

Statistically speaking, Lien adds, Schirmer is only slightly beyond the normal survival curve: “Before combination antiviral therapies, the average time from initial HIV infection to death ranged from 10-12 years. At 13 years, Aaron’s clearly falling outside the norm, but only slightly.”

Still, Lien acknowledges, “Aaron’s system has clearly been able to control the disease. He’s probably a living example that one of the most potent antivirals is the immune system itself.”

 

Positive state

Keeping one’s immune system intact, in Schirmer’s view, is best achieved through a positive state of mind, which is why music and dancing help. He refuses to be a victim, instead concentrating on healing energies within himself (which has not prevented him from smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and indulging in recreational drugs, though he wants to cut back on those habits).

Later this month, Schirmer will travel with his lover Christian, a former punk-rock devoteé who’s not into raves but is way into body piercing and tattoos, to Borneo, a journey he hopes will introduce him to tribal people who, for the most part, never lost their connection with native spirituality (and who have their own style of raving).

“If you’re able to find an outlet,” says Schirmer in his gentle, boyish voice, gazing pensively into the near distance, “to seriously get down to the nitty gritty in your spiritual world and understand why you’re here, what matters, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel more connected to your spirit than anything, you have a much better chance of survival, or at least accepting that you may die.”

A big part of what keeps Schirmer going, according to his friend Sarah (who is attending her first Vibrator), are the people he chooses to have around him: “He’s very emotional, and very open, and he needs people a lot, but it’s selective. His friends are his family. They’re a support group for him that he doesn’t really have from his natural family.”

What draws people to him, Sarah adds, and what makes them want to be with him at his parties, is that “he’s a big dreamer, which I love. There’s a sense of escapism with him. It’s an attractive thing to be around. This person has a depth of feeling and wants to share that.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 6, 1998

Opera goes activist: Carla Lucero’s ‘Wuornos’

WuornosSuddenly opera is enjoying a Renaissance among young composers and audiences. Once the art form seemed nearly moribund, an anachronistic form of musical theater in which bloated singers sang bloated roles in overworked, worn-out old warhorses. Now, in a daring departure from the stodgy past, composer and librettist Carla Lucero – one of the very few women composers in the history of opera – has created the politically and socially charged opera Wuornos – a full-scale opera to be premiered Friday at Yerba Buena Center as part of the National Queer Arts Festival. The ambitious production tackles head-on the issue of men committing violence against women in America. It zeros in on one particular woman – convicted serial murderer Eileen Wuornos, a prostitute who worked along Florida highways and who now awaits her fate on death row – who her defenders say was provoked to the point of striking back hard, not just once, but seven times.

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Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.
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This is not the usual stuff of opera. Think of Verdi’s Aïda, with its splendid setting in ancient Egypt and plot involving an Ethiopian slave and the commander of the Egyptian army; or Bizet’s Carmen, which occurs in Spain of yore, entangling a gypsy cigarette girl with a corporal and a handsome matador; or Puccini’s Tosca, in which a devout Italian girl crosses paths with an escaped political prisoner and a savage police chief, and ends up dispatching the cop with a knife. Again and again around the world, these magnificent museum pieces have played to audiences that, far from welcoming innovation, insist upon upholding tradition.

This is the modern age, however, and the operatic nerve seems to have been struck in a number of young composers who insist on taking liberties that shock the blue bloods but warm the cockles of New Music enthusiasts. The results, so far, are encouraging: witness the recent smash success of Erling Wold’s Queer, a chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel.

Carla_Lucero
Carla Lucero

Now comes Carla Lucero, a lesbian forging new ground in an artistic territory heretofore dominated by men. Before she relocated to the Bay Area, where she had the good fortune to become AIRspace artist-in-residence at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts (then under the direction of Lauren Hewitt, now the producer of Wuornos), Lucero lived and composed in L.A., working with Collage Dance Theater, scoring for films and videos, and studying Music Composition at the California Institute of the Arts. She’s young, and hugely ambitious, and hugely talented, and a host of equally talented, ambitious people have lined up to support her in her endeavor, including acclaimed soprano Kristin Norderval in the lead role as Wuornos, musical director Mary Chun, who conducts the Opera Ensemble of SF, and director Joseph Graves, a veteran of more than 36 shows in this country and in Great Britain.

Hooking up with the Jon Sims Center changed Lucero’s life, and will likely have ripple effects in the opera world for some time to come. Her opera could even make waves, but whether that happens depends on how many people are willing to give her a chance to present her case, and what kind of mood they’re in. One thing is certain: the opera must fly on its artistic merits. If it relies too heavily on its social message to make an impact, it may be doomed to early retirement. The balance to be struck is one of high-minded social activism versus art for its own sake. In today’s capitalist world, art with a conscience doesn’t sell particularly well. The right balance can be achieved, but it will take uncommon effort – the kind that comes from the will of a woman determined to use opera to tell a tragic story.

In the Wuornos prologue, Aileen Wuornos (Norderval) retrieves a gun from its hiding place and says: “If I am damned, who is forgiven?”

The question is one Lucero has pondered and seems to want to answer, and the result, judging from the opera’s synopsis (www.wuornos.org/synopsis1.html), is something of a morality play, with Wuornos as the tragic innocent.

As the curtain opens on Act I, Wuornos stands upon a balcony, watching a media circus take place as reporters talk excitedly among themselves about murdered men found in the woods off a Florida highway. She taunts them, though they can’t hear her, then recalls her horrible childhood:

“A flashback reveals Aileen’s teenage mother and abusive father in their home. Her mother is desperate. She makes the decision to escape, fleeing to the home of her parents (Aileen’s grandparents). Aileen’s grandmother is an alcoholic and her grandfather is disturbingly distant. Aileen’s mother convinces her reluctant parents to take the baby Aileen.”

Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.

aileen_wuornos
Aileen Wuornos

Who, in fact, is Aileen Wuornos? Some of the answer can be found in the many newspaper accounts of Wuornos’ crime spree and subsequent trial and imprisonment. The most visual/visceral way to get into the heart of the story is to view Nick Broomfield’s fascinating, well-made but hopelessly biased 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Looking at the wild array of loony characters in Wuornos’ life – including the lesbian lover who betrayed her, the hippie lawyer who prodded her to plead guilty, and the “nice” Christian lady who adopted the imprisoned Wuornos – you can’t help but feel sympathy for the Aileen, and see your way to forgiving her for doing in seven tricks who done her wrong. Clearly she was hanging with a wacky and dangerous crowd, in the context of which her own murderous instincts seem forgivable. After all, she didn’t choose her rotten life, it was chosen for her.

In the build-up for Wuornos, including well-received sneak-peaks during the past year, many lesbians in San Francisco have begun discussing Wuornos, both the woman and the political and social issues underlying the opera.

In one meeting at the Women’s Building, two or three dozen women viewed the Broomfield documentary, then formed a circle with their chairs to speak their minds.

Soon they were discussing the merits of using “psychodrama” as a way for women inmates to tell their stories as a way of saving their own lives. Medea Project director and talented performer Rhodessa Jones was there. So was Norma Hotaling, founder and director of SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a nonprofit organization in San Francisco which helps ex-prostitutes heal traumas and live healthy lives. The moderator put out questions about Wuornos, and the women responded with enormous passion and compassion for the woman’s suffering, and anger at those who forced her hand.

At the same time, they raised questions about the opera – not about its quality, which received wildly enthusiastic raves from those who had seen it in previews, but about its authenticity.

Whose story is it? Is it the true story of Aileen Wuornos, or Lucero’s conception of Wuornos.

Of course it’s the latter, and Lucero has put together a compelling libretto that promises a great operatic opening night. But does the real Aileen Wuornos, in her cell on death row, even know the opera is taking place?

Lucero replies she wrote twice asking Wuornos’ blessing, but received no response. Instead, she relied for her impressions in large part on personal letters from Wuornos that came into her possession from an intermediary.

“What struck me was the child-like innocence,” Lucero told the women in the circle, adding that the eventual hardness in Wuornos took over as a protective measure.

“I’ve been more than responsible with the story,” said Lucero, then reiterated, just for good measure: “Having the letters confirmed my perception of her character, her child-like innocence.”

And that, dear opera lovers, is how larger-than-life characters are born.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter’s special Pride issue, June 21, 2001.