Bua uuh Guul

Back in the disco days when we encountered a person of undecipherable gender, we would turn to each other and ask “bua uuh guul?” The phrase became part of our vocabulary when someone overheard a pimp on the sidewalk approach a potential customer and offer him his choice of gender in a playmate. Not only was the john’s predilection unclear, what was available was pretty murky too.

Gender confusion and challenging sex role stereotypes has always been a preoccupation of mine. As documented in a recently published book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating.

When I first saw the words “ethics” and “curators” together I thought “not another rehash of the frolicking I did back in 1973.” Those allegations involving The Detroit Institute of Art staff have been laid to rest years ago.

Then I realized it was referring to the Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art show held in Manhattan in 1982. My friend Charley Brown did a series of paintings of me in the early 80’s, a couple of which were in that New Museum show.

The portrait included in the book is one of my favorites because of Charley’s use of found materials: layers of cardboard glued together, appliqued toothpicks adding dimension to Brian’s sequined top. There’s gutter in that glamour.

The timing of that show coincided with my waning interest in drag. The derring-do and shock of what I’d done before was no longer there and my falling out with Jim had left me without focus. Plus, RuPaul was on the ascendant and about to change the drag landscape completely. I like to think I helped make the world safe for Ru. Then I think what a miserable failure I’ve been. No one’s safe from that bitch.

My friend Charley did a series of B paintings, a couple were in this show

On my trip to Indiana this month I reunited with Susan in Bloomington who I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. One of the things we reminisced about was the evening she gave me makeup lessons. As we listened to Ike & Tina records in her apartment that night, she went over the basics of eye makeup. And told me my practice of the art was particularly abysmal.

On our recent visit I tried to convince her that precision wasn’t nearly as important back in those days as how I presented myself. She would have none of it. She chided that anything worth doing was worth doing well. Then, out of the blue, she asked whether I identified as a woman or a man.

The question is an obvious one and the way the discussion seems to be framed these days. But it caught me completely off guard. The essence of my being never entered into my thinking when I did drag. It was all about what I could get away with. And looking good while I did it.

I told Susan the only thing I’ve ever identified as was a troublemaker.



The November 22, 1976 Edition
The November 22, 1976 Edition

A week ago I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and my landline rang. No one ever calls me on that phone, it’s almost always robo-calls or marketers. I’ve kept it because it was tied to the front door entry system. Since that no longer works I probably should get rid of it.

I answered it that evening because the caller id was a cell number. A man asked for me, I asked who was calling. He gave a name that was common enough to have been a made-up marketer but it was also one of someone I’d known in the 70’s.  That’s who it turned it out to be.

We had completely fallen out of touch and none of our mutual friends seemed to know anything about him. It turns out he’s lived in New York the last 35 years and worked in the publishing business. He told me he was surprised my number still worked and that my voice sounded the same. I assured him that nothing else had changed either.

He said he still enjoyed his copies of White Arms Magazine and googled the title recently. His search led him to my blog which he was reading.

We talked about people we knew in common and I got him caught up on any news I had. Many of them had died which he knew nothing about. When I asked if he remembered Jim who I collaborated with on the magazine he said, “oh yeah, he died in an automobile accident didn’t he?” I laughed.

In one of the White Arms issues Jim decided he wanted a more affected, pretentious nom de plume. So he wrote that Jim had died in a car crash and that Rene White would be taking over as editor.

At the time some of my more political friends thought the term “White Arms” could be construed as pretext for something racial. But Jim said the name came from the sheaths of blank paper that made up the magazine. And how they would circle the world in an unpredictable way.

When we were putting it together I was always questioning what we were doing, wondering what the benefit would be. Jim told me not to worry about results, to concentrate on being creative and doing things. The consequences would take care of themselves.

Jim would have been thrilled that his car crash story had legs. And that White Arms still has reach.

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com


The Story of Jim

Life, Afterlife and Lowlife

Gravesite Photo Shoot

In 1976 Jim published the final edition of White Arms Magazine devoted completely to me. It was called the B-Centennial Issue.

We decided it needed some photos featuring gravesite drama so I packed up a bunch of friends and we headed to this fabulous cemetery in Oakland. An afternoon of bereavement hilarity followed.

Grandmother used to take me to antique auctions when I was a kid and at one there was this beautiful 19th Century silk crepe widow’s veil. I asked her to buy it for me because it reminded me of the assassination. During the photo shoot I held it in place with a black beret–just like Jackie.




The Jackie Obsession


Life at Home, Alone: Special Halloween Edition of Nude Leaked Photos!

I’d like to write a story about these pictures I found but I don’t even remember them being taken. Just a quite evening at home with my best friend, the bottle, circa 1977.

One of my all time favorite spins on a celebrity PR crisis was when nude photos leaked of Vanessa Williams and she lost her Miss America crown. Her defense was she thought they were “only shooting silhouettes.”

I never liked wearing wigs and, as you can see, they were often treated as an afterthought.

Next: The Curse
Previous: Life of Brian
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Life in Print

A fairly recent book, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, contains a shout out to B on page 205. It’s published by Oxford University Press so it is my fervent hope that future Rhodes Scholars will be studying B along side peeps like Milton, Tennyson and Pepys.

White Arms Magazine was Jim’s brainchild and I his willing accomplice in dreaming up ideas for publication.  The fun part of the voyage was in getting there. When Anna Banana accepted Jim’s article “B and Me” for VILE we thought we’d really made it. We didn’t publish another issue after that.


The Story of Jim

Graceless Lady

Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore
Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore

After we left Bloomington, Jim immersed himself in Zine culture. He was most influenced by VILE and Egozine. And by the Dadaists through his correspondence with people like Anna Banana, Ray Johnson and Lazy Nickles. He decided he wanted his own magazine.

He called it White Arms. The title represented the sheaths of paper that made up the magazine and the unpredictable reach they would have around the world.

His first edition combined local Fort Wayne art, poetry and prose. He also published my journal of a cross country trip I’d taken in a Lincoln Mark IV. Future editions evolved from including me to being solely about me.

One of the high points of  life in my early San Francisco days was the mail. Every couple of weeks I would get a package from Jim containing long letters, stories, magazines, cassette tapes or photos. I sent the same back to him. He said he waited for the mail “like some wait for god.”

White Arms was primitive and raw. Our primary pre-computer age tool was the xerox machine which we used whenever we could scrounge up enough dimes. If we had a really good idea and could come up with more money, we’d do something on a high speed press. Otherwise it was pretty low grade.

When we were together in Fort Wayne, we used the time to strategize at Henry’s, do photos, or make guerilla theatre appearances that could be turned into material for the magazine. Our stories were based on truths, half-truths, and untruths. If it fit the image we printed it.

The November 22, 1976 Edition
The November 22, 1976 Edition

My drag name was B. I was so famous they named the second letter of the alphabet after me.

Whenever I made an appearance or was photographed I could come across as soigne or remote. But get me involved in a conversation and the crude mannerisms mixed with the mouth of a Longshoreman quickly destroyed the image. I loved to keep people guessing.

Unlike some drag queens I had no desire to be a woman. I just wanted to capitalize on the fact that I could look like one. I was young, androgynous, skinny but fine boned, and had good skin. It did not take much in those days to get me looking good. But I had no falsetto and no act. A friend’s six year old daughter once told her, “when guys get in drag they start acting funny and silly. But when B gets in drag he doesn’t change.”

It took a couple years of coaxing but I finally convinced Jim to visit me in San Francisco. Rather than a brief vacation he turned it into a major expedition. Greyhound offered a 30 day Kennel Club Pass that allowed unlimited bus travel. He took his time traveling via Austin, Taos, and Santa Barbara, stopping to see his new Zine friends who he hoped to interview.

When he got to San Francisco we did all the sightseeing basics. Things you only needed to do once in your life, like Fisherman’s Wharf, and those you had to do habitually like Castro Street

Hanging at the Hound with Tacky Jackie
Hanging at the Hound with Tacky Jackie

The night we went to North Beach we drank French 75s at the Savoy Tivoli. Afterwards we walked the flatter streets back to the Financial District. Muni was on strike, there were no buses and I wasn’t going to climb that hill.

At the base of California Street I stuck out my thumb. A black stretch limo pulled up and asked where we were headed. “Just to the top of the hill.” They said hop in.

Our host was Mayor Alioto.  He talked about all the headaches he was having with Muni and the fits the dig on Market Street was causing him. I was usually confrontational with authority in those days but Jim said I remained the model of decorum telling him, “these things take time. It will all work out in the end.” In my own humble, megalomaniac way I may have saved BART.

Jim stayed with me a couple of weeks then headed off to Guerneville and Santa Cruz. He returned to the City then it was time to go home to Indiana. He bought another Kennel Pass and made plans to travel via Oregon, Boulder, and Iowa.

On the day he left we had an awkward face off. We stood for a moment struggling to say goodbye. Then KSAN played Wild Horses. We looked at each other and laughed. He took off.


The Story of Jim

Life on Pretty Lake

Jim and me on Pretty Lake one summer in the early 70’s. Or maybe it was Center Lake. Or possibly it could have been Big Crooked or Little Crooked, Big Long or Little Long. At any rate, it was one of northeastern Indiana’s picturesque but ineptly named lakes.


The Story of Jim

Sensitivity Training


Such sweet facades masking such depraved minds. With Jim and Marilyn on campus.
Such sweet facades masking such depraved minds. With Jim and Marilyn on campus.

In my Margaret Mead mode I remained obsessed with the queenie old school claque. I even moved in with them for about a month. Then, one day I realized “it’s not a game, they really believe this shit.” As funny as they were, they were really quite offensive. There was a heavy strain of misogyny in their humor, like the buffoonery of breasts, that I didn’t like.  So I backed off but remained friendly with them.  I needed good turn-outs for my parties, after all.

What intrigued me more than their acts were the superficial accoutrements they thought made you a woman: hair, makeup, fabric selection. It made no sense that genitalia dictated whether you could wear eyeliner or not. It either looked good or it didn’t. Being young and androgynous, I made a spectacle of myself. Everyone loved it. And once I had an audience there was no stopping me.

Jim and I hooked up daily, usually in the evening in Dunn Meadow with a bottle of Boones Farm.  He tried to nurture my appreciation for poetry but it was like jazz, I just didn’t get it. So he brought me along slowly with things like Bird on a Wire. I got that.

In turn I offered up the Stone’s latest single Wild Horses. He agreed that it was a beautiful song and reluctantly conceded it had “a certain” poetry to it. The Stones were more commercial than Leonard Cohen so we would hear Wild Horses on jukeboxes, on the radio, wafting from stereos out of open windows. It became the backdrop for the summer.

There was a sexual tension in our relationship that both of us were too naive and too shy to act upon. It was strange having such a strong infatuation that was never consummated. He later had an affair with a kid he fell for on the first night. What sealed the deal was when they woke up in the morning and he saw my name tattooed on the guy’s arm. Our relationship was kind of sick. And not in the fun way the kids use that word today.

He was working on a novella about me called “Image of Veta.” He insisted that I was going to become a star. I asked, “doing what?” I couldn’t sing, couldn’t act, I didn’t think I had any talent.

He replied, “your talent is being yourself. Become famous and the rest will follow.”  It was a formula used successfully by Madonna 10 years later.

Where Fort Wayne's elite meet
Where Fort Wayne’s elite meet

Jim left Bloomington for Fort Wayne. I moved to San Francisco. We hadn’t known each other growing up but Fort Wayne was my home too. We would see each other whenever I was there.

When he needed money Jim would tap into his local funeral home connection. The director loved his poems so Jim would dumb it down and churn out pap like  “autumn’s road to winter’s stillness.” Even I knew it was bad. We would take his earnings and the latest edition of Funeral Memories down to our favorite bar, Henrys. Sitting in the mahogany booth we drank and laughed as we read the poems to each other.

Jim was feeling the limitations of poetry. We both wanted more.


The Story of Jim