Prouder Than a Tumescent Pubescent

I once toyed with becoming a Country Music songwriter. Listen to the lyrics, how hard could it be.

It’s the only art form that openly celebrates ignorance. Being the village idiot is worn as a badge of honor. When couched in a down-home, aw-shucks delivery, the singer’s lovability goes through the roof. The perfect country hit would be titled “Gosh, We’re Stupid.”

Another one could be a ballad, “Swallow My Pride.” Couple destined for eternal bliss, she suddenly bolts for another man. Blindsided, he does the manly thing, swallows his pride and gets on with life. She eventually comes back for forgiveness. He says under one condition: it’s now her turn to swallow his pride. Corny gimmickry, petty vengeance coupled with sexually combative undertones–this is what will make America great again.

I’ve had an issue with pride all of my life. I’m uncomfortable with the emotion and distrust others who express it in me. I blame my Calvinist upbringing. It forced me to bury my ego in a reserved and self-effacing manner and to not draw attention to myself. Some lessons were learned better than others.

With Dale in DC 1974. Discussing the Houdin Show at the National Gallery.

The term Gay Pride specifically has caused me problems. Living through its inception I understood the need for being open and unashamed. Which I was. But pride has such a defensive quality. It was a reaction to society’s hatred. The idea was to not buy into it,  feel good about yourself instead. It was a nice starting off point but somehow it stuck.

In life’s third act I’ve had to let go of many issues from my youth. Like this one. I doubt the name “Accepted Gay Parade” will ever catch on anyway.

Given Dale’s disdain for pets we were all praying for that cat. Provincetown, 1972.

With this reservoir of conflicted feelings, I digested the announcement this week that my friend Dale will be Grand Marshal of Boston’s 2019 Gay Pride Parade. We attended Indiana University together where he was active in student politics and participated in founding the national Gay Liberation Movement. He then moved to Boston and has spent his life working on LGBT issues. In recent years he’s gained recognition for raising the visibility of older LGBT adults.

Dale was at my first Gay Lib meeting in 1971. It was a dreary, procedural affair until this cute blonde hippie in tank top and denim cutoffs appeared enveloped by his entourage and a cloying cloud of patchouli oil. He spoke about feminism and how we should be allied with their movement. Of writers we should read and the destructive role of sexual stereotypes in our patriarchal society. Convincing and articulate, I felt this gay thing was going to be easy: they all think like me.

I soon discovered our ideas were in the minority. But Dale and a few other kindred spirits became good friends then and have remained so throughout my life.

In solidarity with Jackie at the eternal flame.

People from that era don’t buy the softer, wiser version of me I peddle today. They want in your face,  kill ’em if they don’t fight back attitudes from the Bloomington years.

When I called to congratulate Dale yesterday he was uneasy with my sincerity. Sometimes it’s just better to give the audience what they want. So I let the other penny drop with a profound thunder.

Since this honor was the result of an election, I seriously questioned its validity. Dale hung out with some radical people in college, this title reeks of his Russian Commie friends doing a “Hillary” on Gay Boston’s ass.

We talked of updating his look for the parade and bringing leftist imagery into the 21st Century. Obviously his model should be Kim Jong-un. What could be hotter than a shirtless 70 year-old in a cheap, bowl cut-gone-wrong toupee?

Then I got down to brass tacks. I wasn’t hearing “me” in any of this, what’s my role? Dale was not forthcoming. I volunteered if there was a building along the parade route resembling the Texas School Book Depository, I’d do a piece of performance art the town will never forget. He was reticent until I assured him I won’t use live ammo. (As if I could tell the difference.)

Dale laughed at our exchange and knows I’m happy for him. And proud of him too. If we add the Prince of Wales qualifier, whatever “proud”  means.

In Provincetown, later that same decade.

Mama Was a Rollin’ Stone, Part Three

Pat Henderson House. This was home to the foresisters of the gay liberation movement. It was the official gay headquarters for IU students and was known around the country as an openly gay collective. At the time most of the nation’s homosexuals, including Harvey Milk, chose to remain in the closet. To have a house labeled as gay, with five occupants who identified as gay men, was a very bold move.

There were growing pains, however. When a supposed lesbian started making out with a straight guy at one of the parties, there was an uproar from the purists. The offenders were thrown out and given a lifetime suspension.  (Tolerance had yet to be incorporated into the philosophy.)

Dale was instrumental in organizing the household as well as the movement on campus. He ran for the Student Senate on the Gay Revolutionary Party ticket and won.

As Daniel Webster was the Lion of the U.S. Senate, Dale was the Persian Cat of our student forum. He found the sessions monotonous and ineffective so he stopped attending. When the august body moved to expel him, Kitten reared, bared his claws and threatened a discrimination lawsuit against that farce of a litter box.

It’s how the Revolution was won: one heart, one mind at a time.

402 N. Park Street. This house felt like one of Jackie’s Georgetown homes. How a bunch of Speed Queens got their names on the lease is still a mystery.

For six weeks I lived with some hard core drag queens. I was fascinated by the non-stop camp, their obscure lingo, and the way they would riff on these complicated personalities they’d invented. It was so much fun until it dawned on me: it’s not a game, they really believe this shit. Although I remained friends with them, I got out quickly.

333 S. Lincoln. Today’s  Fox Hole was once the home to Bloomington’s legendary A-Hole. Little Miss Amanda Jones ran the last fun house of my college career in 1972. Amanda later shortened his name to the more arty, and more provocative, A-Hole.

I stayed in school as a means of supporting myself. By registering I remained eligible for grants, student loans and work-study jobs. Little effort went into academics, life was a constant stream of F’s and Incompletes.  The interminable senior year tolled on and on.

I earned at least three credits that fall semester because I was in a modern dance class with Dale and A-Hole. My attendance was perfect for this class because it was more about building friendships than schoolwork. As our final project we were asked to choreograph and then perform a dance involving negative space.

We chose the The Ikettes’s I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song). To that gutsy blues beat we did a series of geometric shapes without touching and unified movements without being connected. The sight of three men in black tights doing an incongruous dance to a song no one had ever heard had our classmates laughing throughout. We received a hearty round of applause at the end and it taught me a valuable lesson: the more seriously I take things, the more thought I put into them, the funnier it will be.

After Christmas break my friends started leaving town. I followed a few weeks later.

 

401 E. Second Street. In the fall of 1973 I went back to IU to get the last six credits for my degree. I rented a basement apartment from this crabby woman who had carved her house into four units to gouge students. She came by everyday, ostensibly to vacuum the hall but really to snoop around. When I signed the lease she told me, “I know what goes on in this town and I won’t stand for half of it.” I was the perfect fit.

Mr. Sarah was my only friend left. He had recently been gifted a slightly used Ford Galaxy by his brother. It was as big as a barge but to have any vehicle was a luxury. We called it Cougar.

The Coug had a couple of problems. Like no brakes. Mr. Sarah rarely would go over 30 because he couldn’t make sudden stops. If he saw a sign or light ahead, the deceleration process would start half a block away. If he still was moving when he reached the intersection he would hit the emergency brake.

In the winter, having no heater made it very uncomfortable. Having no defroster made it very unsafe. But The Coug had a wide dashboard so Mr. Sarah would light a series of votive candles to take care of the windows. Like a lugubrious, holy flotilla on the Ganges, the candlelit Cougar slowly wended its way through the streets of the 47401.

My friend Tokyo (aka Ruth Roman, aka The Biblical Ruth) had grown up in Bloomington. He was away doing an internship but I knew his Mother and Aunt who lived close to campus. After I was hospitalized with my second case of hepatitis in two years, Peggy and Sissy started mothering me.

They invited me over for dinner once a week, told me stories and then sent me back with leftovers. They could have cared less that I was the town’s most notorious wild child. The sisters were thrilled to have someone to dote on.

Peggy was the firebrand and ringleader. Sissy was the Ethel Mertz. They’d lived in the area their whole lives and pronounced it “exparred” like the waitress at the motel. Peggy’s expression of incredulity was always “Well shit-fart.”

For years she had operated her own beauty shop. Peggy told of the time one of the town strumpets, who’d dyed her hair every color under the sun, came in and said she wanted to go back to her natural hue. “We had to take her in the back room and pull down her panties to see what her real color was.”

She still practiced her art by styling wigs for herself and Sissy. On the living room floor behind the plastic covered sofa flanked by the plastic covered table lamps, were about 15 head forms with freshly styled wigs ready to go. As a cultural reference to the Whirly Bird, a popular child’s helicopter toy, they proudly showed me the most recent addition to their collection: The Curly Bird. Those two women had no qualms about leaving work one day as a sensible brunette then coming back the next as a sultry red head.

Peggy worked in the University Registrar’s Office. At one dinner she told me she’d overheard a professor and staff member reviewing a student’s transcript. The professor remarked the student had been doing so well but that something had obviously happened in their life to cause them to suddenly do very poorly. After they put the folder in the stack to refile, Peggy took a look. “It was your file, doll-baby.”

By the skin of my teeth I graduated. When I told the landlady I was leaving mid-year she was furious. She yelled I was in violation of my lease, she was going to sue, she would see to it that I could never rent an apartment in Bloomington again. I handed her the keys.

A month later I was up late in San Francisco talking to Wena. I told him about the cranky landlady. He said she’d probably enjoy hearing from me so we placed a collect call from John Wilkes Booth. As we held the receiver to our ears we heard a resounding “NO!”

Wena then tried Pope John XXIII. Same result.

I tried one last time. The operator asked, “I have a collect call from Judas Iscariot, will you accept the charges?”The landlady screamed, “Operator! You should know better than to put a fucking call like that through!”

My college days were over.

 

 

Mama Was a Rollin’ Stone, Part Two

207 E. Second Street. My first apartment was in this duplex in the Fall of 1970. The following Spring I decided to throw a party here.

The few gay parties I’d attended seem to be divided by sect. The older, draggier queens threw the biggest parties and played nothing but the Supremes. With a dash of Freda Payne’s Band of Gold every now and then.

The younger, druggier gay parties were smaller with less drinking and more counter-culture. The older queens were not necessarily made to feel welcome at these affairs and didn’t attend.

In the middle were the bourgeois gays who were too closeted to ever throw their own parties. But they were are at every other party they could get into.

Mine would be open to everyone and only have dance music. I especially wanted the more radical element there and knew if I could get Dale to come the rest would follow.

I first saw him at a Gay Liberation meeting in April. It was a procedural bore until he spoke. Out of the blue he talked about the necessity of educating ourselves on feminist issues and how the same sexual stereotypes and prejudices that oppressed women also oppressed gays. Our objectives might be different but his point was any gay political movement should have a feminist perspective as well.

Most faces at the meeting had a rather glazed look on them, wondering what time to head to the bar. But Dale had my rapt attention. The authors he mentioned I’d read and his conclusions were ones I had arrived at on my own. I felt validated. I was not alone. I was determined to make this person my friend and, 46 years later, I’m still working on it.

Dale had been out longer than me and was more seasoned. He took me aside at one party and explained what dingleberries were. He was always calling me tart (which I took to mean sharp-tongued) but in an admiring way. As we fantasized about our drag myths he advised me never to admit I worked for Paramount, MGM was the only game in town.

He’d lived in Manhattan in a run down apartment where a rat once popped through the floor boards. There were also Lou Reed sightings when he came to see his boyfriend who lived in the same building.

Dale was at the Stonewall riots in 1969. He said the only violence or looting was when the drag queens broke the window of a wig shop and stole all the Eva Gabors.  Alice put an end to that (Alice was Manhattan camp for the cops.)

Dale showed up for my event with his entourage. The rest is history.

The Stones’ new single, Brown Sugar, was released the day before. I had the only copy in town. It was played repeatedly. The drunken choruses of “yeah, yeah, yeah, whew!” echoed into the night as the hardwood floor sprung like a trampoline. When the police came and told us to turn it down, I planted my 118 pound frame squarely in the front yard and went mano a mano. I assured them everything was under control.

My name was made that night. In the wee hours as he left, Dale stopped to thank me and gave me his blessing: “It’s the sign of a good party if Alice comes.”

330 South Dunn. My first drag was here in the summer of 1971. Mr. Sarah pin curled my hair then teased it out into a huge blonde afro. The silk voile 1930s dress I wore was almost transparent. Underneath were nude panties that concealed nothing. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone. I was trying to look good.

In my maiden excitement I was ready hours before the party started. With nothing to do I volunteered to go with others on a beer run. As we walked into the liquor store I wondered what kind of act or affectation to assume. Since I couldn’t really see myself and since nothing had changed inside me, I decided it was an issue for others not for me. I acted the way I normally would. It was just this androgynous thing with a basso profundo voice buying a couple cases of quarts.

On the ride back it felt like just another trip to the store. Except there was an additional sense of relief that I hadn’t been beaten to a pulp.

Islands in the stream, uhn-huh. In front of the Dunn Street house was the split between Dunn and Atwater Streets. It was a major thoroughfare, especially busy at rush hour. Larry Borders and I would drop acid then sit in the point watching the cars whiz by. They had to veer one way or the other. One hoped.