Category Archives: LGBT History

Garrin Benfield: This Side of Nowhere

“It could be that the nowhere place is the brighter place.” — Garrin Benfield.
Photo by Mark Mardon
Garrin Benfield. Photo by Mark Mardon

“There have been times in the last couple of years,” says Garrin Benfield, the bluesy young San Francisco singer/songwriter, “when I’ve felt like there couldn’t be one more thing that was up in the air that was ambiguous, that was undecided or ungrounded. I was just floating around in all of these elements.”

It’s a classic blues sentiment, and goes a long way toward explaining the dark beauty of Benfield’s bitter-sweet new album, Nowhere is Brighter (Eighth Note Records), a semi-thematic work born out of the tensions of love and life in the urban gay world. Benfield gives vent to a lot of the hard knots of being in a relationship where boundaries are ever dissolving and reforming.

“I’ll be really angry, really dark,” Benfield says in anticipation of his CD release concert at the Great American Music Hall on Thursday, May 9. “That’s generally the space I’m in when I’m writing.” He hopes the end product doesn’t come across as bitter or jaded, “but that’s sort of what inspires me to create, getting into those spaces.”

When he stops writing and starts playing, it’s a whole different tune. To hear Benfield play live is to rise above petty cares, to float dreamily on the waves of his voice, sweetly seductive even as it cries of loneliness. That voice’s distinctive, plaintive quality is what draws people into Benfield’s musical world of introspective pop songs and urban folk narratives.

NowhereIsBrighterThe collected songs are masterfully performed by Benfield and his core band members, Ricky Fataar on drums and James “Hutch” Hutchison on bass, along with a star-studded line-up of contributing musicians, including Benfield’s famous pal Boz Scaggs on guitar, and long-time collaborator Michael Rodriguez on keyboards, plus Julie Wolf of Ani DiFranco fame on B-3 Organ and vocals, Bonnie Rait collaborator John Cleary on honky-tonk piano, and Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows on B-3 Organ, among others. The results are seamlessly presented in an album of great stylistic variety, with zero glitches either in artistry or engineering, demonstrating the truth of the old adage that the best art is created not in times of contentment or elation, but in the down times.

“I just feel so much I’ve lost my sense of you,” Benfield sings in “Lonely Journey,” a lush, bassy, guitar-driven lament at not being able to extract from love all its possibilities. Benfield’s voice sweeps across plains like the wind rolling tumbleweeds. “Won’t you take me away from here,” he pleads, and when the voice rises into a peak of country-western wailing, in the distance you can almost hear coyotes howling.

The album, engineered and mixed by Rodriguez, takes Benfield’s bluesy vocals and masterful guitar playing, adds a country twang, brightens it all up with infectious pop melodies, gives it extra oomph with the classy line-up of collaborating musicians, and sends it cascading one glorious song after another down a waterfall of deep soulful regrets.

“Nothing that I saw on your face/Told me which way to go,” Benfield sings in “To Know,” the inscrutability of his lover gnawing at him, driving him crazy. But the beat and catchy tune, plus the vocal harmonies with Wolf, give the song a happy-go-lucky air. If love gets you down, sing a happy tune and all is well, at least on the outside.

In “I Swear,” Benfield says he’s looking for “the kind of love that dares speak my name.” This snappy Beatles-esque number, which employs Charlie Gillingham on B-3 Organ, fades out gracefully, leaving us pondering a key phrase: “What I’m looking for/Is someone to receive me.”

In “The Sense That I Get,” a straight-up blues number, Benfield employs both acoustic and electric guitar riffs to urge his indecisive lover to “hurry up and make up your mind/Before the door closes on us both.” Boz Scaggs sits in on this one, playing a mean second guitar solo.

What most distinguishes “Home” – another of Benfield’s wind-swept songs, evoking rocky shores far, far from home – is its resonating percussion, a deeply reverberating drone, like rumbling thunder. “When we recorded it, we set up a timed delay,” says Benfield, so that drummer Ricky Fataar “is actually hitting one note and it’s reverberating.”

The saddest-sounding, most gorgeous song on the album is also the simplest: “Nowhere,” the title song, the lyrics of which consist of only those few words: “Nowhere is brighter,” hauntingly sung to the strains of Benfield’s mesmerizing fingerpicking. What he likes about the song is its darkness and lightness colliding: “It could be,” he says, that “the nowhere place is the brighter place, and that’s sort of where I choose to reside.”

Some of the fairy-tale glow that has enveloped Benfield’s life and career up to now – scores of friends and fans have taken inspiration from Benfield’s long-term relationship with photo-artist Joshua Smith, because flowers seem to spring up everywhere the couple steps – some of that brightness has given way to a less carefree, more guarded spirit. While lovers’ bliss was the hallmark of Benfield’s debut album, Living A Dream, with Nowhere is Brighter, you get more of the struggle and estrangement. The overall impact is positive: The blush of innocent youth has faded, leaving a more confident, subtly expressive artist.

“I don’t really have a sense of who my audience is,” says Benfield, but clearly he’s touching a universal chord. On tour with blues-master Scaggs last fall, playing to large crowds at Napa Valley wineries, Benfield found much appreciation from members of the gray-haired set, but he finds just as much enthusiasm from college and nightclub crowds, either on tour or here at home. Certainly he’s popular in San Francisco among fellow gay and lesbian singer/songwriters, as he’s had a slew of artists play at the “GLBT Songwriters Series” he hosts monthly at Bazaar Cafe, a bastion of folk music in the Richmond District.

garrininmarin7-1“Before I die,” says Benfield, having just come from a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert at the giant Compaq Center in San Jose, “I want the experience of playing to 30,000 people.” As he stood in the midst of the audience, he kept looking at the stage and saying to himself, “I could do that.”

Indeed he could, as anyone who has experienced Benfield in concert understands. He’s a shoe-in for the big time. And who does he most want to play with before those 30,000 people?

“Well,” Benfield replies in a blink, “I’m just looking forward to playing with the guys on this record, you know, because that’d be great. With these guys I know we’re going to get out there and it’s going to totally be good.”

 

For more information, visit www.garrin.com.

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, May 2, 2002

Outsider moves

FreshMeat_Outsider Moves_Cinderbutte
Sean Dorsey and Mair Culbreth in “The OutsiderChronicles.” Photo: Max Ferman.

When a dance production comes along that involves beauty and imagination to the nth degree, and I’m lucky enough to be there to witness it, I feel incalculably grateful. In the midst of fractured times, for a choreographer/dancer to pull together a full-length evening of flawless dance and story telling is immeasurably wonderful and healing. The boundlessly gifted Sean Dorsey and his Fresh Meat crew performed perfectly this past Friday, November 18, at that jewel of a dance space, ODC Theater, and when it was over, a packed house gave the dancers, musicians and tech crew a much deserved, prolonged standing ovation. No one wanted to leave. Everyone was smitten.

“The Outsider Chronicles”, billed as “a dance theater journey into the world of the gender outsider,” stripped off layers of confusion surrounding the transgender experience, baring a simple, spare, sublime representation of otherness, while retaining that certain mysteriousness that makes transgendered people so alluring. Five dances encompassed a lifetime of experience, mostly told in duets with super handsome Sean and exquisitely beautiful Mair Culbreth, or by Sean solo. In the opening piece “Second Kiss,” Sean and Mair represented two school girls, nine year olds, exploring romance and reeling from confusion. Mair was the cute, pushy girly girl who wanted her first taste of boy lips. She looked over her options, and mistaking Sean for a boy, chose him. Sean, realizing he’d be taking part in a deception, dragged Mair away from his playmates, who knew his true gender, to indulge in the desire he and Mair both shared, albeit with different levels of awareness. They kissed, just once, and rolled around, and found their limbs entwined, then they were lying side by side, breathless. Her passion aroused, Mair then wanted to have a look “down there,” and Sean knew the gig was up. “Oh gross!” reeled Mair, confronted with the evidence. She fled, but soon edged back, taking Sean’s hand. There would be no second kiss. The first kiss, however, was unforgettable.

By the second dance, Sean was all man, androgynous to be sure, but male without a doubt. There was no question he had transitioned. “Red Tie, Red Lipstick” opened with him dressing at a sink, fixing his pressed, starched white shirt and dark suit jacket, arranging his red tie, as Mair, the seductive woman in a red dress, circled slowly around him, dancing to sophisticated electronic lounge music, closing in on her man, the two of them preparing to embark on a night on the town. In a voice-over by hip hop poet/writer Marcus Van, we heard of the couple’s brutal queer-bashing by thugs posing as cops. It was a gritty, gut-wrenching urban tale. The faux-cops spat out the word lesbian as a slur, and dragged the one with the red dress and red lipstick into the shadows. Sean and Mair, danced exquisitely, reflecting all the punches and insults, even as the red dress became irreparably soiled. The dance continued after the physical violence was over, but clearly the saga of the red dress would always be with them.

The other dances were equally affecting, “Six Hours” involved a road trip by car to meet Sean’s dad, who didn’t know Sean now identifies as a man. Mair and Sean in the car bickered endlessly, employing passive aggression and other tricks to work out some of their relationship kinks. In “Creative,” Sean solo danced a hilarious piece about a teenager in school sent to a Guidance Counselor to discuss gender inappropriateness. That piece was about courage, how a teenager wants it and needs it, and how it can fail at crucial times.

Still Haunting After All These Years: Arthur Evans

It’s Witchcraft!

Arthur_Evans
Arthur Evans

“My goal in writing Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture was to create a better society,” says activist, historian, and philosopher Arthur Evans of the radical gay history published 20 years ago by Fag Rag Books and still in print today. “Every sentence in the book has a political edge to it. Some people view that as a weakness; I view it as a great strength.”

Evans’ tone on this recent afternoon in his tidy Upper Haight Street apartment, where he has lived since the mid-’70s, is one of both aggressive pride and bold defiance. No doubt he has his critics in mind when he touts his own work’s determined bias and intentional lack of neutral “objectivity.”

Though the first and undoubtedly most famous and influential of Evans’ three books to date (the others being The God of Ecstasy in 1988 and Critique of Patriarchal Reason in 1997), Witchcraft, which painstakingly documents centuries of persecution of gay and lesbian pagans by Christians and others, has never been regarded seriously by mainstream scholars, not even by those who are gay or lesbian.

Not that Evans has ever sought mainstream recognition or praise. On the contrary, he has always relished working outside academia. But operating in near isolation can be a lonely endeavor, bound at times to rankle even the most stalwart misanthrope.

Never has Evans harbored any great love for mankind. Which is not to say that, as an openly gay man, he hasn’t loved specific men, and maybe even certain classes of men (likely those who live up to his rigorous ethical standards, or whose marginalized existence as victims of persecution exempts them from critique). But for men in general, Evans holds a great contempt.

The males of our species, Evans has averred both in his writings and in numerous conversations with this writer over the years, are responsible for most of the ills of this world. The term he utters repeatedly with special contempt is “patriarchy,” generally coupled with industrialism, militarism, and organized religion, especially Christianity.

When such man-made institutions “were used to suppress what was called witchcraft and heresy” in Medieval Europe, insists Evans, they “actually created the grounds for reinforcing misogyny and homophobia in the modern world.

Midnight hags

Arthur_Evans_Witchcraft
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A powerfully influential book in the gay counterculture of faeries, pagans, witches, and rebels.

Those who have delved into Evans’ Witchcraft understand very well that the image of “midnight hags” hunched over stew pots, muttering “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble,” is not merely Shakespearean artistic license. Rather, that sort of prejudiced characterization stems directly from the relentless campaign by Christians over the course of centuries to wipe paganism off the face of the earth.

The people who came to be called witches in Medieval Europe were believers in pagan gods. They practiced ancient agrarian rituals and celebrated human sexuality, including homosexuality. For this affront to the monolithic, sexphobic, and harshly intolerant Christian church, according to Evans, they paid a dear price.

“The term ‘witchcraft,'” says Evans, “originally derived from ‘wicca,’ a word that meant knowledge of craft or skill. A witch was a woman, or sometimes a man, who was skilled in the craft of communicating with the powers of nature, of conjuring them up. This could be good or evil, depending on the intentions of the practitioner. However, from the Christian point of view, it was all evil. They viewed it as a form of heresy, the hankering after false gods.”

_______________

“Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality.”

________________

Particularly repugnant to the Christians was homosexuality, adds Evans: “A lot of the people accused of heresy were accused because of their sexual practices, not primarily because they were advocating heretical dogmas.”

In a time when conservative gay Catholics like Andrew Sullivan hold sway in the gay community, preaching the gospel of assimilation while an adoring gay choir sings the virtues of Puritanism, writing about witches in relation to queer people still sounds, well, radical, and radicals these days are an endangered breed of political animal.

Yet, a surprisingly large number of queer people have not only read Evans’ book, but taken to heart many of its historical lessons. So profound has been the volume’s influence over the years, Witchcraft has assumed a place of primary importance in the annals of gay and lesbian history.

By the time Evans started work on Witchcraft during his first years in San Francisco, he had already established his radical gay credentials as an activist in New York City. He joined the radical Gay Liberation Front soon after the Stonewall uprising, where he and friends formed the Radical Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and homophobia.

“We didn’t have queer theory in those days,” says Evans. “We had something better: gay activism. I’m not a queer theorist, I’m a gay activist, and proud of it!”

Soon after, Evans and others founded the militant Gay Activists Alliance, where they engaged “zaps”- non-violent, face-to-face confrontations with homophobes in positions of authority.

 

 Sodom and SF

Eventually Evans wearied of urban life and politics, so he and his second lover, Jacob Schraeter, left New York in 1972 to live in a small wooded settlement outside Seattle that they named New Sodom. After two years in the commune, Evans and Schraeter moved to San Francisco, where Evans was to make his most lasting contributions to gay culture.

“In 1975 I helped create a group in this room called the Faery Circle of San Francisco,” says Evans. “We held rituals, trying to evoke the pagan sensibility of nature and sex.”

As he soon discovered, similar gatherings were taking place – by coincidence – across the country, with queer pagan groups in New Mexico, Washington state, and Texas.

“For the most part we were independent flowers popping out of the soil,” Evans laughs. “It was a really wonderful spontaneous outburst.”

Participants in the Faery Circle were the first to buy and read Witchcraft when it was published in 1978. The book got a further boost after 1979, when Harry Hay and friends formed “a gathering of radical faeries.” Soon, large regional faery gatherings were taking place around the country, with Evans’ book being widely read by the participants.

“The book reaches far beyond faeriedom,” says Evans, “either my early vision of it, or Harry Hay’s. The central theme of the book, and one that I think makes it relevant to every generation of lesbian and gay men, is its insistence that being gay is not just an isolated fact hanging in the air. Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality. That is the cornerstone of everything I’ve ever written.”

***

A celebration of the 20th anniversary of Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture took place at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 24, 1998 at A Different Light Bookstore, 489 Castro St. in San Francisco. Evans encouraged those interested in queer history to first read The God of Ecstasy, a re-working of Euripides’ The Bacchai, which details the persecution of gays and lesbians in ancient Greece and Rome.

 

Arthur Evans died Sept. 13, 2011 at the age of 69 in his apartment in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. 

Quentin Crisp Quips

 The old queen speaks out on his nearly 90 years of camp.

 

crisp copyA long time ago, according to 88-year-old raconteur Quentin Crisp—one of the English-speaking world’s most visible homosexuals and a man renowned for rarely turning down party invitations—people had a lot more time for fun.

“In Edwardian times, things were fun,” he declares.

“Then, there was more idleness, more time to flirt with everybody, to hold conversations, have great dinners and all that.” Now, he laments, “everybody’s in a great hurry.”

“Fun” is the topic of the moment as Crisp fields questions, and he comments on it with special authority, given that fame is Crisp’s pastime and having fun his life’s work. He hobnobs with stars, appears in films and television commercials, commands stages in speaking engagements throughout the United States, cheerfully gives countless magazine and television interviews, poses endlessly for photographs and makes himself readily available for almost any social occasion in which his ready wit and striking appearance will lend extra cachet.

As he listens politely to an interviewer’s questions and responds with alacrity—all part of his job as someone “in the smiling and nodding business”—he sits in his cramped quarters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, nursing a bad cough.

He’s lived happily in the same cheap rooming house, on the same block inhabited by a band of Hell’s Angels and their Harleys, since moving to New York City from London 15 years ago. That’s when he undertook, improbably but successfully, to remake his life in the United States at the age of 74.

“I was English before,” says Crisp in a raspy voice, articulating his words as precisely and majestically as a prime minister addressing Parliament, or perhaps a Shakespearean actor delivering a soliloquy, “and there’s no fun in England.

“I should explain,” he adds after a heartbeat, “that England is a vast, rain-swept Alcatraz. But America is fun because everybody is your friend.”

Well, almost everybody. Certainly he’s looking forward to his trip to San Francisco this month, during which he’ll promote his latest book, Resident Alien: the New York Diaries, yet Crisp is unsure how he’ll be received there, or how much fun the trip will be. San Francisco, he observes dryly, is the only city where critics ever gave his public talks bad reviews.

The gay population of San Francisco, writes Crisp in Resident Alien, “cannot understand my refusal to be an apologist, much less an evangelist, for homosexuality.”

“Gays have less hold on reality [than straights],” he says. “Homosexuals are people standing on the bank, watching other people swim.”

One can only imagine the reception he’ll receive this time, in light of a recent interview with The Times of London, in which he was quoted as saying he’d support an expectant mother’s decision to abort a fetus if she knew it was genetically predisposed to homosexuality.

“Homosexual life is horrible !” he says when asked about the statement, which he stands by. “All homosexual men spend all their days in public lavatories, and all their nights in dimly lit back rooms behind questionable bars. Do you think you want that to happen?”

Is this a form of Crispian humor? Or does Crisp truly feel this applies to all homosexuals?

“Well, not to lesbians,” he answers, “because they manage to conduct their lives in a more graceful way.”

Such statements may come as a shock to gays and lesbians who became acquainted with Crisp from his landmark 1968 autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant—or who saw the television film adapted from the book—and who prefer to see him as a model crusader, holding steadfast as an effeminate homosexual facing relentless persecution and fierce condemnation from society at large.

As British pop-music celebrity Boy George recently wrote in his review of Resident Alien for the London Daily Express, the Crisp of yore was “a queer Jesus for the 20th century, his cross was pink and massive, and he suffered persecution on a daily basis.”

It was in 1908, near the end of Edward VII’s peaceable, decade-long British reign, that Crisp was born and named Denis (a moniker that proved far too colorless for his liking). So, of course, while everyone in England was having such a jolly good time, he was a mere infant, not yet making the dinner rounds.

But never mind that: Soon enough, as he grew up to be the dandy he was and still is, he began applying makeup and lipstick, coloring his hair, painting his fingernails, outfitting himself in the dandiest garb he could scrounge up, and bopping about the streets of London for all the world to see.

Unfortunately, during the increasingly stuffy and tense Georgian times of his youth, England’s general populace found Crisp’s manner and deportment not only un-amusing, but reprehensible. He got a strong sense that life wasn’t very fun at all—though it had its moments. He resolved never to hide his identity even from harshly disapproving critics, who were legion in Britain at the time.
Crisp came of age in a time and place where to be homosexual was to experience extreme isolation. “Long before homosexuality was ever heard of,” he says, “I was swarming around the house saying, ‘Today I am a beautiful princess.'”

He felt himself to be “the one among the many,” and developed the notion that all heterosexuals were his “betters.” Taunts, jeers and threats of bodily harm followed him wherever he went, but he deflected these by erecting a sturdy defense of gentle wit, gracious manners and elaborate deference to almost everybody. He became, as he often said, “one of the great stately homos of England.”

Over time, Crisp became accepted, even coddled, by the mainstream. His style became fashionable. He now feels most at home among heterosexuals and conservative or apolitical homosexuals (he rarely uses the term gay, and then only with some discomfort). His acceptance by society at large has led Crisp to distance himself from his youthful, angry, rebellious persona. He now seeks only to amuse himself and others, not change the world. As he writes in Resident Alien: “I am concerned with the high gloss on society, not with its inner machinery. I am a freeloader, a dilettante, a butterfly on the wheel.”

Politics, Crisp says, is boring, the antithesis of fun. He’s never been political, merely demonstrative. He deplores the way everything nowadays has become politicized, especially the gay movement with its insistence on gaining rights. As he wrote in How to Become a Virgin, the sequel to Civil Servant, “Anyone who demands acceptance places himself in the same position as a girl who asks, ‘Do you really love me?’ Every mature woman knows where that gets her.”

Even now, despite all his protestations to the contrary, Crisp is a de-facto political figure, representing gays and lesbians who seek assimilation into the heterosexual mainstream. He’s an anti-role-model for activists and separatists, a pacifist and the darling of apolitical dilettantes. He merely wants to enjoy life and be friends with everybody.

In this regard, usually even die-hard politicos are willing to cut the funny old gent some slack. After all, this ostentatiously nellie fellow has stood up for himself—and, by default if not by intention, for all queer people—through a global depression, numerous queer bashings, two world wars and the continuing AIDS crisis. Who can blame him, then, if his wit has lost its former bite and relevance: He’s a long-term survivor, entitled to indulge in life’s frivolities.
Crisp very deliberately presents himself as shallow, as a product packaged to please others. He obediently goes where his handlers tell him to go, does what they want him to do. He has shaped his image to be passive and flaunts that passivity daily. When he leaves the house, he says, he empties his mind of any serious thoughts, making himself into a great wide-open vessel into which people feel they can pour anything.

“You know,” he says, “when someone asked Garbo what she was doing before her close-up, she said, ‘I’m emptying my mind.’ That’s what you have to do.”

As far as personal relationships go, he’s thoroughly democratic, opening himself to everyone and giving to everyone in exactly equal measure.

Has he had a significant romance?

“Oh, no,” he replies. “No, I couldn’t cope with that!”
But doesn’t he see relationships as a source of happiness?

“Oh, no,” he exclaims again. “I don’t think a relationship has anything to do with happiness. They nag you all the time! They say, ‘You’re not going to sit around looking like that all day, are you?’ And so you find yourself combing your hair for somebody you already know! It’s absurd!”

Then who are the people closest to him?

“I don’t think anyone is close to me. I spread my love over the whole human race. It’s threadbare, because I spread it horizontally, not in depth. I don’t love some one person more than all others.”

Does he feel that emotion called love?

“I don’t know what it means.”

Eschewing politics, avoiding emotional attachments, emptying the mind, being eager to please, dabbling in pop culture, letting one’s self be steered by others: All these traits characterize art in the postmodern age. Did Crisp deliberately set out to create such an artful effect? He doesn’t say directly, but probably he did, after a fashion. Like Warhol—in fact, long before the artist came along and created his Factory—Crisp set about methodically creating his own persona. He constructed himself from head to toe, and presented to the world an original, initially disorienting, but undeniably interesting and fun figure.

As Crisp wrote on the final page of Civil Servant, as a result of the “wall-to-wall puritanism” of his early years, he felt victimized and “constantly at the mercy of others.” This left him “crushed and seething with a lust for tyranny.”

His real power, he discovered, the weapon with which he fought back against his persecutors, was precisely his flamboyant sense of style, his willingness (to use a contemporary expression) to get in people’s faces.

With his appearance and mannerisms hypervisible and hyper-real, and his social patter spectacularly witty yet artificial, Crisp has turned himself into a walking challenge to notions of masculinity. He has come to embody the height of camp, with its stylized mannerisms and anti-butch, pro-feminine stance.

By caricaturing himself, Crisp makes both an artistic and social statement. As Richard Dyer observed in Only Entertainment:

“You’ve only got to think of the impact of Quentin Crisp’s high camp on the straight world he came up against, to see that camp has a radical/progressive potential: scaring muggers who know that all this butch male bit is not really them, but who feel they have to act as if it is.”

And what does he think of models of masculinity in today’s gay community?

“There was a gay restaurant in New York,” Crisp replies archly, by way of anecdote, “and if you went into it, the only reason you knew you hadn’t strayed by accident into a construction canteen was because all the men looked so clean. But they’d all got pre-ruined jeans on, tractor boots, kitchen-tablecloth shirts, and some of them even had tin hats—though they’ve never done any construction the whole of their lives!”

 

Quentin Crisp died in Manchester, England on November 21, 1999, at age 90

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This article originally appeared in San Francisco Frontiers newsmagazine in 1997.

Winds of Peace

How do you measure Gay Pride? Its power, poetry, song, and spirituality? How it affects not only those of us who dwell in this grand Gay capital, but the masses beyond these isolated peninsula shores, to the far reaches of the globe? How is our collective spirit, so intensely concentrated during Pride Weekend, affecting the larger universe?

A sage whispers in my ear: We’re changing the planet, for good, and none too soon. Our Pride, with all its multitudinous forms densely concentrated into a mass of hopes and dreams, is a force capable of shaping human destiny, something we’re only now beginning to comprehend, much less guide wisely. All of us – questioning, transgender, bisexual, gay and lesbian – are deeply concerned about Destiny, since it seems not so far off anymore. We have to wonder where we’re going not just as as participants in a movement, or residents of a city, or citizens of a nation, but as members of a species. Fate has been looking iffy lately, and Prozac more attractive than ever, so why don’t we just shrug and go belly up to the bar? Do you ever wonder why so many queens dance on ecstasy? It’s not to reach accord with the Republicans by suddenly making them feel all lovey dovey. It’s more like trying to find a safe place in the wilderness where ordinary cares can be shed, allowing for revelations to seep in. The problem is, in that ecstatic rush of intoxicating compassion and brotherly/sisterly love, a lot of guys lose contact with something basic. All the dancing and hugging in the world won’t win us peace here and now if it doesn’t have a direction, and a solid foundation. For flighty love to work earthly miracles, it needs community support and guidance, which means everyone in the community looks out for and respects everyone else, not just those with similar hair cuts and cars.

The way of savoring the heights of gay love, or any love, is the way of savoring a fine wine – knowing it intimately, breathing it in with complete clarity, pausing to reflect on its aroma, remembering where it comes from – the kegs, the vines, the earth. What makes a peaceful bouquet? A cornucopia of Pride mixed with sweat, tears, and soil.

Imagine. Peace. Last year at this time I dared to imagine peace was at hand, but in the yin/yang way of the world, my illusion was soon to be shattered. Global turmoil has reached proportions my boomer generation always feared, but never really expected to have to witness and bear. But why sweat the End of the World? My parents went through hell and back with the Great Depression and World War II, and somehow kept dignity intact. Can’t I do as well?

As a boy, I imagined peace my whole life. I don’t know why. My family fought. It was a blue-collar household in the old Southwest. My dad was a liquor salesman, and my mom the prettiest nurse in the the territory. Dad was always jealous. Imagine. Not peace.

Love, respect, dignity – these are qualities Arthur Anderson couldn’t balance in a ledger book even if they tried honestly. Why then am I always wanting to save the whole cruel world, and not just my own sorry ass?

Because I’m gay! There’s just something about it, when your focus is not on conceiving new life, but on nurturing the life that already exists, you discover inwardly what’s needed to help the species survive outwardly. Maybe it’s in the genetics of being gay. I can’t allege it with any scientific certainty, but I feel it. It’s a poet thing. To contemplate peace is poetry, and no one is in a better position to do the task than queers, who are forever thinking outside and all around boxes. Maybe we were born to be peacemakers.

____________________

This essay appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter on July 4, 2002, following the LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration in San Francisco.

Brian Epstein and the Beatles: All he needed was love

How Brian Epstein’s passion for the Beatles
shaped world history.

 

 

epstein copy
Brian Epstein

No figure in rock ‘n’ roll history did more to trailblaze the road for future band managers – defining the path to success for all great bands – than Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles, boldly shaping their ascent from Liverpool obscurity to global superstardom. Elvis may have had Colonel Parker, but compared to Epstein, Parker was a mere carnival barker. In marketing the Fab Four to the world and setting countless precedents in doing so, Epstein set in motion cultural forces that irrevocably changed not just the music industry, but global society. What motivated him therefore becomes a question of significance not just to Beatles fans, but to those who want to understand Western Civilization in the late 20th century.

Epstein had the bad luck to be gay in Britain at a time when that country’s criminal penalties for homosexuality were particularly harsh. The fact of Epstein’s gayness, however closeted he may have been out of necessity (his homosexuality was well known to and accepted by those close to him, just not talked about publicly), figures hugely not just in his own life, but in the Beatles’ vast legacy. Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great. The decisions Epstein made in orchestrating the Beatles’ meteoric rise were both revolutionary and hugely informed by his being gay.

____________________

Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great.

____________________

Whether these statements accurately reflect the historical record, or exaggerate for the sake of erecting yet another icon in the pantheon of manmade deities, they are impressions inescapably drawn from viewing Arena: The Brian Epstein Story, a documentary film by British television and film producer and director Anthony Wall, to be screened at this year’s San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

“He was one of the great original tragic stories of the new rock era,” Wall told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent visit to San Francisco, “a kind of person that changed the world. He died in 1967, four years after he was running a record shop in Liverpool, absolutely unknown to the world. Then he managed to become one of the most famous people on earth.”

 

Brian and ‘the boys’

Wall’s documentary, produced in cooperation with Paul McCartney and many others close to Epstein, benefits enormously from having first-hand access to archival footage of Epstein and his “boys,” as he was forever calling the Beatles. We get to see intimate views of John, Paul, George and Ringo, often together with Epstein, learn about their party habits, meet their friends and colleagues of yore, hear them as they rehearse and perform, and relate to them on a profoundly human level, rather than at the level of untouchable superstars.

The striking thing in the film is the contrast starkly revealed between the rough-and-ready boys, with their working-class accents and manners, and the refined, impeccably tailored, elegant Epstein, whose personal style masked his attraction to “rough trade,” as made clear from interviews with those close to him. Though Wall steers away from delving into the details of Epstein’s love life, he in no way shies from conveying the nature of Epstein’s desires. The film revels in telling the story of Epstein’s gayness, in many ways emphasizing that being gay determined the course of his life. In particular, especially in a contemporary interview with an affable and articulate Paul McCartney, it seems clear that the question of whether Epstein’s well-known love for John Lennon remained unrequited or not becomes central to almost everything else in assessing the man’s life and tragic death.

Did he or did he not have a one-time fling with Lennon in the south of Spain, just a week after Julian Lennon was born? Did he or did he not commit suicide over the hopelessness of his love, or was his death accidental, as officially ruled?

“The trouble is, the only two people who really know are dead,” says Wall, who nimbly raises the issues in the film, delicately balancing points of view and, perhaps, softening the edges of the controversy. Moreover, he adds, “Lennon would certainly not have been above saying one thing to this person and another thing to that person.”

The film’s US producer, Debbie Geller, joins with Wall in explaining that “one of the evergreen and reductionist views of the Beatles and Brian Epstein was that Epstein was in love with John Lennon, and that was really his only interest in the group, and that had he not had that hangdog, unrequited love – which only came true in that one little instance in Barcelona – then the Beatles never would have happened.” This view, she insists, does “a real disservice to Brian Epstein.”

 

Lennon the tease

Geller does feel that Lennon most likely teased Epstein about being gay, maybe even manipulated his attraction “as a way of maintaining power over him.” From the outset, Epstein’s gayness was known to the Beatles and completely accepted. But a bit of perversity in the relationship seemed inevitable.

“Brian liked a bit of punishment,” says Wall. “So Lennon – that was his stock in trade, dishing out, taking people to the end of their tether, seeing how far he could push them. And they were all very amusing, witty, but Lennon had that sort of ambitiousness about it, seeing what he could do next.”

In the film, McCartney addresses the question of whether Epstein and Lennon ever had sex, and considers the possibility unlikely but not impossible. Even if something did happen between them, though, he believes the matter relatively insignificant.

McCartney’s obvious eagerness to address the question on screen is remarkable. Geller explains that during the interview, McCartney said: “Are you going to ask about his being gay? No one ever asks me about that.” Considering the extent to which the Beatles’ lives and careers have been put under a microscope, this omission in the record seems astounding, but it helps explain McCartney’s readiness to take part in the film project. Says Wall: “He didn’t need any persuasion, because he himself had come to this point where he thought it was time to tell the story. He was quite clear that he wanted to do it because it was time the record was set straight, and that Epstein had been largely forgotten and hadn’t been given his due.”

The portrait of Epstein that emerges is one of a fantastically ambitious, driven, fastidious and brilliantly passionate man, handsome yet woefully unlucky in love, who repeatedly put himself in harm’s way because of his secret desires.

Apart from his obvious (and necessarily platonic) love for his “boys,” Epstein was never able to establish a lasting love relationship. One California lad, Diz Gillespie, whom some characterize as a hustler, for a time seemed to be working out for Epstein. But the relationship turned sour.

“Everybody’s down on Diz,” says Wall. “But Epstein seemed to find some kind of consolation in Diz, although Diz fucked him around knowingly.”

And thus was gay life in Britain, even for the man who helped move his once bombed-out, burned-out country back into modernity and renewed prestige on the world stage.

 

The Brian Epstein Story screened at the Castro Theatre on Monday, June 19, 2000 at 12:30 p.m.


This could happen here

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-45”

On
June 28,
2005, in the
San Francisco Main
Library’s packed Koret
Auditorium, Edward (Ted) J.
Phillips, Deputy Director of Exhi-
bitions of the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org), spoke of
putting together “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals
1933-1945,” the exhibition on display in the Skylight Gallery.

 

Pink+Triangle
Gay men in Nazi concentration camps were identified by pink triangles sewn on their prison garb.

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” is a must-see, real-life horror story with reverberations up to the present day. The exhibit at the San Francisco Main Library, organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, conveys the horror of that era primarily through a series of illustrated narrative panels that describe what happened to gays in one of history’s darkest eras.  Selected rare publications from the Gerard Koskovich collection are also on display, devoted to medical doctor and social reformer Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935).

To walk among the panels and experience the grim reality of that time is to experience intense emotions. To be immersed in such material full time in the course of research must be heartbreaking. At one point toward the end of curator Ted Phillips’ powerful, important, moving lecture on the exhibit, his voice started to crack.

“I started this project in 2000,” Phillips told the rapt audience in the Koret Auditorium. “It opened at the museum in 2002. It was probably one of the most difficult two years of my life. It’s not a project one just sort of takes up and works on 40 hours a week. Everything about this history I lived with 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My friends got a little bit tired of hearing about nightmare stories of the Nazi regime, because it’s all I could think about.”

The historian, himself a gay man, had to sift through, untangle, and organize a coherent picture of what was happening to Germany’s gay population during their deliberate persecution by the Nazi regime. Their tale, though vastly overshadowed by the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the perpetrators, is an example of the Nazi regime’s attempts to eliminate entire other classes of people including the handicapped, the Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Poles, and of course homosexuals.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were targeted because they refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Nazi regime; the handicapped were “the first group of people targeted for state-sponsored murder beginning almost within weeks of the outbreak of the war in 1939,” said Phillips. During the war the Nazis took aim at the non-Jewish Polish population, and ultimately struck at Soviet POWs, “some three million of whom perished in concentration camps set up by the Germans.” But also from the beginning, the Nazis deliberately targeted homosexuals.

A year after its opening in 1994, said Phillips, the Holocaust Museum began putting together a series of publications to look at these non-Jewish groups targeted by the Nazis, and in 1996, after the museum had been up and running successfully for three years, getting extraordinary visitation, the museum decided to turn the information into a series of traveling exhibition. The first out was going to be on the persecution of homosexuals.

“I was given the opportunity to take on that task probably for a variety of reasons,” said Phillips, a professional historian with a Ph.D. in Russian History who already had a couple of exhibitions under his belt working with his colleagues at the museum, “so I kind of had a sense of how to put together an exhibition.” But also, he said, “I think it was because I arrived at the museum as an out gay man. I never made any bones about it and they didn’t pay any attention to it either. I think it was the opportunity as a gay man to be kind of comfortable with what I’d have to be reading about. Not too many straight people are often interested in knowing about the history of gay people. They may find in fact the contents difficult to work with. That wasn’t going to be a problem for me.”

The plan was to put together a narrative of the history of the persecution of gay people and find things to illustrate that history. The challenge was coming up with material to tell a visual story about the persecution of homosexuals.

“Homosexuals as victims did not come forward after the war to tell their stories,” said Phillips. “Jews did. It took them a while, because they were shocked and horrified by what they had been through, but in the months and years after the war the Jews were coming forward and telling what happened to them, those who had survived, who were looking for their families who had perished. Homosexuals did not come forward following the persecution during the war, because they were still criminals in Germany.”

Phillips explained that the law that the law the Nazis wrote in 1935, the infamous criminal law section §175 (“Paragraph 175”), expanded opportunities for the Nazi regime to persecute gays, “and remained on the books as an active law in Western Germany until 1969. Other laws that were put in place during the Nazi years have been eradicated because they were deemed as Nazi, but §175 as written by the Nazis was not identified as being a Nazi-specific law, but was a perfectly acceptable moral law and left in place.”

The result, he said, was that “individuals who had come through the persecution, who may have actually had personal items that would help them be identified as homosexuals, likely destroyed that information because they would have been linked to being homosexuals and therefore could continue to be persecuted in the post-war period.”

 

Denunciations

Just as Phillips was setting out on his research, a museum in Berlin, the Schwules Museum — schwule is German for gay — opened an exhibition on the persecution of homosexual men in Berlin, 1933-1945, so Phillips and a team from the Holocaust Museum hopped a plane and spent two weeks in Berlin, working with that museum’s small team of young, dedicated archivists and researchers who, while basically living on unemployment insurance in order to pursue their research, had uncovered a “remarkable treasure trove” of materials. The Schwules Museum made the material available to Phillips and his team, which helped steamroll the Holocaust Museum’s project. Now could be included such heartbreaking finds as a December 1934 New York World Telegram newspaper article: “Hitler Jails 500 in Morals Drive”.

“They threw into jail between 500 and 700 men accused of perversion,” Phillips said as he projected the image. “This was a particular raid in a particular month in the early months of the Nazi regime. Foretelling is that the invasion of the gay bars and restaurants and other gathering places of gay men was against a class described by Herr Hitler as a menace to the race.”

Among the documents supporting the exhibition are transcripts of Gestapo “denunciations,” said Phillips, “denunciations by people about gay men, turned into the Gestapo to be arrested and dealt with by the police.” He showed one from 1938 “denouncing somebody for accused sexual activities from two years earlier,” and another denunciation of a man by the man’s partner’s mother.

Between 1933 and 1945, said Phillips, “100,000 men in Germany were arrested for violating §175. Roughly half of those ended up in prison.” Seventy-eight percent of the convictions occurred between 1936 and 1939, the outbreak of World War II. In the city of Berlin alone, 112 homosexuals were arrested in the month of June 1937, Phillips added. “By my calculation there’s something like 500 gay men who were arrested just in this one month across Germany.”

In the Q&A after the speech, Phillips addressed several interesting questions, including the difference between the yellow stars the Jews were forced to wear and the the pink triangles used to identify homosexuals. Phillips said that “the only place that gays were marked with pink triangles was in concentration camps. That’s very different from the Jewish experience, where Jews were in ghettos, and even before ghettos existed had to just wear it in public as a yellow star.”

As to the infamous book “The Hidden Hitler” by German researcher/scholar Lother Machtan, exploring the idea that Hitler and some of his milieu were gay, Phillips said tartly: “As a historian I find the book just despicable. Not because of what he is attempting to argue, by his misuse of the sources. My favorite example of how he tries to prove his case: Hitler and his friend in Austria loved the opera. Magnus Hirschfeld in his research indicated that some gay men had some particular interest in opera. Therefore, aha! Guess who’s gay! Give me a break. I’m gay and I hate opera!”

More to the point, Phillips added somberly, is what former Holocaust Museum Director Walter Reich said in his comment on the book, which was basically, “so what? He still did what he did. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust and millions of others perished at the hands of his regime. Whether he was gay or not makes no difference; he was still a nightmare.”

“Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945” is on display in the Main Library’s Skylight Gallery from June 18–Aug. 18, 2005. Info: sfpl.lib.ca.us/news/exhibitions.htm

Climbing as if there were no tomorrow

This essay originally appeared in Climbing magazine, February/March, 1991. It has been slightly revised.

Carl Henderson

It was during a torrential downpour nearly two years ago that I got the notion to climb with Carl Henderson. I was helping my friend move from one San Francisco flat to another when we were forced by the storm to take cover inside a rented moving van; that’s when I noticed, on top of one of his boxes, a coiled climbing rope and a pair of old E.B.s.

When I suggested doing a route together Carl was ambivalent. He hadn’t climbed in years, and the rop0e and shoes had been gathering dust in closets since he moved to the Bay Area in 1980. He let the offer pass with a shrug and a “maybe.”

Two months later, however, he gave me a call; he wanted to get back on the rocks. Little did I realize I’d soon be struggling, and eventually failing, to keep up with him as he pursued climbing zealously, like a man possessed.

At first I didn’t recognize the source of his devotion; after all, many people climb as though their lives depend on it. But now I think Carl drives himself so fiercely because he clearly sees his life’s horizon, even if he’s not at all convinced the sun will dip below it anytime soon.

In action, Carl is neither the most graceful of climbers, nor by any means the strongest. He’ll tell you that more important than strength on most climbs is balance. His main climbing exercise is something he calls “centering,” which I take it involves grabbing hold of wildly flung emotions and bringing them under control, to attain that crucial balance, not just on the rock, but in life generally.

I think I understand what he’s talking about, though I suspect his effort in bringing his emotions under control is stronger than mine. I do not have AIDS. Carl does.

Carl is also gay; we both are, which makes us anomalies in the largely heterosexual, male-dominated world of climbing. I presume most people know that being gay is in no way a precondition for having AIDS — that while the disease in the United States has hit the gay population the hardest, in other parts of the world it has stricken primarily heterosexuals. I hope most climbers also understand that AIDS is communicable only by the exchange of body fluids, primarily blood and semen. So climbing with a person with AIDS poses little risk of infection.

Some prejudices about gays die hard, of course. A few rude boys still deride other climbers as “homos.” They do so with a tiresome regularity and a carelessness born, I suppose, of outmoded habits or sheer rotten natures. And homophobia, if not rampant in our sport’s literature, is at least common; for example, a well-known guidebook to the Bay Area warns that while climbing at Beaver Street Wall, located in San Francisco’s most gay district, “you don’t want to walk around in your lycras …”

Experience tells me, though, that the climbing world is for the most part a remarkably open-minded, non-bogoted society. On a one-to-one basis, neither Carl, nor I, nor any other gay climbers I know has experienced homophobia among the straight climbers we hang out with. Not only are we open to them about our sexuality, but we mix freely in their social lives, and they in ours.

As it happens, I climb mostly with straight partners. It strikes me as odd to find myself explaining such a thing, because to me the issue of my partner’s sexuality is incidental. Cimbing itself is the goal.

But if I didn’t already have gay climbing friends, and wanted to make some, I’d have little difficuty in doing so. A nationwide network of gay, lesbian, and bisexual climbers exists, founded in Boston by Mark Mueller. Stonewall Climbers, as the group is called, takes its name from a Greenwich Villiage bar where patrons resisting police harassment in 1969 gave impetus to the modern gay-liberation movement.

Yet homosexuality is nothing new among climbers. The name John Menlove Edwards is familiar to only a few, but to his biographer, Jim Perrin, Edwards was the greatest British rock climber of the 1930s, the “father and prophet to the modern sport, one of its greatest innovators.” Perrin also describes Edwards as a “homosexual who preached openness and tolerance at a time when the laws against deviation from the sexual norm were harshly punitive.”

For those reasons, Edwards is a hero to me; I try to honor his spirit when I climb. In that same spirit, I hope, openly gay climbers will emerge at the forefront of the sport. But I also hope that climbers of all persuasions wioll take inspiration from Edwards, to continue striving to overcome barriers, to push to new levels of accomplishment, all the while reveling in the freedom that climbing brings, and appreciating the diversity of its practitioners.

I don’t know if straight climbers everywhere are accepting of gays among them. I’ve climbed in relatively few places, and with a limited number of people, mostly in the Andes and in California. My experience can hardly be considered representative of all climbers.

Instinct tells me, though, that I’d find a comfortable home among climbers in just about any place I decide to visit. In part that’s because climbing is such an anarchic scene, an ongoing rebellion against social strictures. Its practitioners seek solace in the liberating wilds from encroaching, smothering civilization. They’ve had enough containment; they want to use their muscles and wits to climb away from the stiff collars, the stuffed shirts, the passive beasts of burden who daily crowd in and try to mold them into one of their kind.

Few people living in cities and holding regular jobs keep more rigorous climbing schedules than Carl Henderson does, now that he is back at it. On most weekends, even on the coldest, most blustery days, he can be found at one of the local crags, setting up one toprope climb after another, chatting endlessly with other climbers, behaving professorially with first-timers by telling them where they’ll find their next fingerhold, or how they should turn out their toes in order to make it through the next, seemingly impossible move. Carl knows what he is talking about, having studied ballet for 12 years.

He was 19 when he moved from the washington, D.C., area to San Francisco with his first lover. Their relationship lasted a year and a half. In the early 1980s, Carl says, “I was a hippie after hippies were dead,” a classical-music freak who listened mostly to Bartok and string quartets, and whose favorite composition was Mozart’s Requiem. He lived in a group house in the middle of San Francisco’s gay ghetto, the Castro, slept on the floor, worked in fast-food restaurants, too computer-programming classes, and was always broke.

One day on Castro Street in 1981, he saw an article clipped from The New York Times and taped to the window of Cliff’s Variety Store. It had something to do with the discovery of a “gay cancer” that was killing people and had no known cure.

“People I knew started dying,” he says. “They would get sick, go in their houses, and close the door. Six months later, you’d hear they were dead.”

He went for his first AIDS test in 1987, and the result was positive: he had HIV, the virus that eventually leads to full-blown AIDS, in his bloodstream.

“I was disturbed, but not shocked,” he says. “I had been sexually active for 14 years, and only two of those were safe.”

Now he’s nearly 30, and though he foresees a cure being found for AIDS, the disease makes him live differently.

“There is no tomorrow,” Carl says. “I live for today.”

He still plans for the future — “I’d like to go traveling,” he says wistfuly — though not without some inconvenience, like having to take regular doses of the drug AZT, which interrupt the life cycle of the AIDS virus, and causes him extreme nausea in the process. Only by smoking marijuana can he ease the drug’s side effect and not continually feel sick to his stomach.

Fortunately, when all about him people are losing their heads over the tragedy that surrounds them, Carl keeps his by climbing.

“It’s a way of relieving stress,” he says. “It teaches me to overcome pain, physical limitations; to be calm, precise, accurate; to go through extreme motions when my brain is telling me, ‘People don’t do this sort of thing.’ Climbing is more than fun. It’s a necessity.”

Not long ago, four of us reached the top of Tuolumne Meadows’ Fairview Dome late in the day after a tiring climb. Trying to descend in the moonless night, we lost our way and had to downclimb exposed granite slabs in the dark. The long night ended with a stumbling thrash through the woods to camp. One of thoughts coursing through my mind during our ordeal was that the strain of our endeavor would weaken Carl’s already compromised immune system. It might even send him back to the hospital, where only a few months before he had struggled to overcome a bout of pneumocystis pneumonia he had contracted — rather foolishly, he admits — by running barefoot through the snow in Yosemite.

My fear then reflected how much I still have to learn about AIDS. Carl bounded back as quickly as any of us, and later we arranged for a November climbing trip to Joshua Tree: a sure sign that he has little intention of letting AIDS interrupt his plans.

. . . . .

 

Carl Henderson finally succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Shortly before his death, he wrote the following verse:

 

Nothing More

 

Masses of air on all sides

What a sight to see

It glides to and fro

With the wind

But it is just a cloud

Noting more

 

So lovely a shape

I have never seen

Smooth on all sides

Round and perfect

Light strikes it

And it dazzles my eyes

But it is only a stone

Nothing more

 

Placidity

No worries left

No pain to feel

An existence of

Tranquility

This is death and

Nothing more

 

— Carl E. Henderson

Get wicked!

pinheadHear ye! Hear ye! Lads and lasses, ladies and gents, men lovers, women lovers, bi lovers, tranny lovers, leather lovers, fetish lovers and all you lovers of adult sex and relationships in all their glorious forms: Halloween is our holiday, our holy night, the night for everyone to celebrate queerness. Every culture tangles with ghosts in one way or another, and most of the world’s peoples dedicate rites and holidays to venerating or combatting demons. On this eve we queer folk, demonized by the forces of darkness the rest of the year, receive our just adoration. Everyone, even our straight sisters and brothers, agrees on this night to be queer, which is not just to be gay, it’s to be different.

But beware – bashers also take to the streets this night. We are not totally free to be ourselves, if that means to be careless. If our perceived otherness diminishes on this night, our perceived vulnerability increases. We prance in the spotlight. Nearly everyone gawks and points fingers at us, laughs uproariously with us, dances among us, swings on our arms and takes part in our sexy public frolicks, but unnatural enemies lurk in the crowds. Some truly ugly monsters may shadow us happy witches and freaks, and they may want to see real blood, our blood. We know this, because we’ve experienced it before. We’ve seen the packs of maurauding thugs sweep through the Castro on Halloween, wielding sticks and other objects to inflict real wounds. We’ve heard ourselves demonized on this night, not in fun but in all seriousness, and we’ve had to learn to defend ourselves. We’ve erected barriers, put police and crowd monitors in place, prohibited potentially harmful props from being carried about, and agreed to blow whistles at the first sign of trouble. Halloween is scary.

Get_Wicked!_B&W

So let us sally forth into the night, boldly wicked in our regalia, take part in this parade of the damned, and drink champagne as blood. Let us remember that this rite we’re taking part in evolved out of ancient agrarian rituals, and that our open queerness is a slap in the face at those who long tried, with tragic effect over centuries, to wipe out our kind. Our persecutors may roam yet among us, but most know better than to attack us, because we are strong in numbers, and we know how to fight back.

. . . . .

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, October 23, 1999.

What makes Heklina tick? Trannyshack!

The founding diva of Trannyshack expounds on art and life.

Heklina&Crackers
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.”

Heklina&men
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