Friday, May 27, 2011

Notes On "A Single Man"

Portrait of Christopher Isherwood
Don Bachardy
Acrylic on paper
29 7/8 x 22 3/8 inches
courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

That man of funky letters, John Waters, once wrote that Tennessee Williams saved his life—in the public library. For me, it was Christopher Isherwood that saved mine. A perceptive high school teacher gave me a copy of A Meeting By the River. I was a sophomore or junior, so what could be better than a novel about being gay and spiritual? Isherwood soon became my patron saint of the fulfilled queer life.

Of all his writings, A Single Man (1964) was said to have been Isherwood’s personal favorite, according to his lover, the painter Don Bachardy. We rented the 2009 movie adaptation the other night and I can’t get it out of my mind. Director, writer, and producer Tom Ford has claimed that it isn’t a gay film, and weirdly enough, after thinking about what defines a queer film, I think he’s right. So, what constitutes a queer film?

Perhaps the first feature-length queer film I ever saw (albeit inadvertently) was Cabaret (1972), based on Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. In the edited-for-TV version, Michael York, as Isherwood’s Brian Roberts, has his queer line deleted, but if you were a hip high schooler, you understood Brian’s bisexuality anyway. Despite the film’s lack of overt queerness, Isherwood’s pre-WWII experience of Berlin came through. Of course, it also featured Joel Grey at his queerest best.

There was no pretending that the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1972) was anything but queer. In a very underground ‘70s way, the open sexuality and pot smoking in public was all part of the movie-going experience. We thought ourselves so brave to be attending the midnight show on Powell Street, where we smoked joints in the theater. We were suburban teenagers committing a revolutionary cultural act.

Clearly, 1972 was a big year for queer-oriented films. There was the made-for-TV movie, That Certain Summer, with Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook. I have always loved Martin Sheen for taking on that role when he was so young and vulnerable. And he ends up becoming President! But it was still too early for an out-and-out queer love story in mainstream movie houses. Ten years later there was a mediocre film, Making Love (1982) that played in theaters all across the country. I admit my pride (and pleasure) in seeing Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin in bed together even if that Angel, Kate Jackson, was awful. When I saw Philadelphia (1993) in downtown Berkeley (of all places), the crowd gasped when Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas kissed. The progress during the two decades from my early adolescence to adulthood seemed slow indeed. But things sped up after that, in part because of TV sitcoms like Ellen and Will & Grace. It is hard to admit that sometimes liberation has popular culture to thank.

Despite this long relationship with cinema, I am still one of those people who would rather read the novel than see the movie. Isherwood, of all people, understood that whenever a novel is adapted for the screen, a lot gets changed. But although it has been thirty years since I read A Single Man, Tom Ford’s adaptation, with its lushness and beautiful quotes from the novel sent me back to the book, and back to Isherwood’s life. He wrote the novel after a trial separation from his partner Bachardy provoked fears about being left alone. Yet they reconciled and lived together in a cocoon overlooking the Pacific until 1986, when Isherwood died at age 81.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968
acrylic on canvas,  83 1/2 x 119 1/2 in.

In the novel, fifty-eight year old George Falconer lives in a small modest hillside home, not unlike Isherwood and Don Bachardy’s own home in Santa Monica. The literary George is not as debonair or wealthy as his film counterpart. Despite Tom Ford’s incredibly good taste in architecture (early Lautner, natch), d├ęcor, clothes, and cars, something gets lost in the film translation. It is not only that George lives in modernist architectural splendor and his gal pal Charlotte’s home recalls Ted Graber’s Beverly Hills, instead of the rickety canyon bohemia of Isherwood’s novel. Tom Ford operates in what some call a “post-gay” world: everybody knows someone gay, and if you live on the coast, you act like half the world is queer.

Santa Monica Canyon

Ford’s introduction of the suicide theme is akin to modern gratuitous violence. If there isn’t a revolver somewhere, we don’t feel alive enough. Of course, Isherwood didn’t need a gun; his text carried the urgency and the radical rage of the voice within, something he was always working with by removing some layers and not others. In the film, a potential suicide stands in for the rage—a sad and angry gay man would be too subtle without a pistol in today’s contemporary world.

A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company
A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company
A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company

Ford takes the most beautiful scene in the novel—a swim in the ocean—and turns it into the visual leitmotif for the film. After his lover dies, George is always suspended in a kind of non-reality, turned upside down and sideways, but not quite drowning.

In 1964, few stories were as bold and took such a strong stance against the heterosexist hegemony as A Single Man did. Even today, save for some minor details, Isherwood’s novel could stand in as a contemporary indictment of the repressive right wing. But in Ford’s hands it feels like a nostalgic and luxurious film about an era when gay partners weren’t invited to the funerals but could still live very comfortable and tasteful lives together. Indeed, the thrill of the secrecy from the pre-Stonewall era has been replaced by Southern California movie affluence. Tom Ford can afford to make a film that floats beautifully above most of the world’s repressive queer reality.

In one of the film’s earliest scenes, adapted slightly from the novel, a child beats a bathroom scale with a hammer. This is the kind of fury that is just beneath the (proper British) surface of the novel, but for the most part it is lost in this all too pretty film. I wouldn’t mind the fabulous Lautner house or the vintage Mercedes, but I would have left the pistol in the drawer.

A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Gay Uncle in the Mist

David Kerr knew his Uncle Chuck was different when he would come visiting. David grew up in the suburbs of Austin, Texas and his uncle lived at the Y in mysterious Manhattan, doing odd design jobs and living a bohemian life. His parents worried that they would have to care for Uncle Chuck in his old age because he would have no resources. By the time he was a teenager David knew that his uncle was gay, but that didn’t mean he felt close to him. Chuck worked just enough to travel to Turkey, which he would visit repeatedly. Although he accumulated piles and piles of business cards in Turkey no clear business purpose was revealed.

He rarely saw his uncle as an adult, but out of a sense of loyalty, familiarity, and a regard for the other, David sent his uncle postcards, holiday cards, and letters. In December 2008 David received a phone call from the New Orleans coroner. They had found his uncle’s body when he hadn’t been seen for a few days. He was 77. In his apartment in the French Quarter the officials found notes on the desk and guessed who was next of kin. I thought it would be interesting to talk to David about the process of knowing an unknowable gay uncle who lived as a gay man long before Stonewall. They shared a middle name, but not much else.

Charles Allen Siegman - "Uncle Chuck"

Interviewer: What did you call your uncle? His name was Allen but you called him Chuck?

David Kerr: We just called him Uncle Chuck. Charles Allen Sigmund was his full name. Charles was his father’s name too. All of his friends in New Orleans knew him as Allen. So I guess as an adult he’d gone by Allen, which is my middle name. It’s a family name. My grandmother’s maiden name. But my Mother had called him Chuck since they were kids.

Interviewer: When did you first become aware that your uncle was gay?

David Kerr: When I was very young I knew my uncle was from another planet. He carried all his things in a little European net shopping bag. And he wore this Lyrca, speedo-like bathing suit. He had long hair and long fingernails. He was bohemian — like nothing that any of us had ever seen in Austin.

Interviewer: Did he come at regular times of the year?

David Kerr: He traveled a lot. He would show up on his way to his travels. My parents were always sure that he was going to spend all his money. There was always a lot of chatter and worry about him. Even if they hadn’t said anything, I would’ve known that he wasn’t like anybody else. As a kid I was too young to know that he was gay. But I just knew he was other, something different.

C Allen Siegman passports from 70s, late 50s

Interviewer: Did you know what he did for a living?

David Kerr: Well, he didn’t do anything. That was the other thing about his bohemian-ness. He didn’t seem to really have a job. He went to art school and he had been a painter, he had worked for a textile company. I had these curtains in my bedroom that he had designed, this wonderful cheesy western scene.

He did store window design in New York. But when my grandfather died, which was when I was five or six, he and my mother each got a very small windfall. He only worked enough to have money to travel. So, when he got that windfall, he didn’t work for many years after that. He just was very, very frugal. He was a lifelong vegetarian. He only ate off wood, chopsticks. I remember once we were having dinner and he said, “I forget how food tastes on metal utensils.” He didn’t believe in metal. He just seemed like a kook, and had this smell — patchouli and something else. He mixed his own fragrances.

I never saw where he lived while he was alive. But when he died I went to New Orleans and saw his apartment. He mixed his own cologne. He had all these little vials of patchouli oil and all these little spicy, scenty oils. The place had a very exotic look and very exotic smell.

Interviewer: So as you got older, did he seem to settle into a career?

David Kerr: Not really. In New Orleans he worked for a little tchotchke art shop, antiquey kind of place in the French Quarter. And his best friend there owned this shop.

Interviewer: How did your mother describe him?

David Kerr: My parents weren’t judgmental. It’s not like she came out and said, “This is the way not to live, or this is the way not to spend your money.” But it was clear that she was worried about him blowing all this money and not having a real job or career. That it just wouldn’t end well. And I’m sure more than once she told me that she knew that she and dad were going to end up responsible for him. But they didn’t.

Then a little later, when I was going through puberty — I guess I must’ve been 12 or so. And my dad had the talk, that horrifying talk. He took me to the church. Not because of the religious overtones, because they weren’t religious, but just to get some quiet. And so he talked about that it’s not abnormal to feel like you’re going through a phase where you’re gay. And he said that I shouldn’t tell my mother that I knew this but that my uncle was gay. He told me that it had been a big rupture in the family and that my grandfather had kicked him out of the house for a time. I never heard the full story because I wasn’t supposed to ask my mother about it.

By the time I was 12, I knew. Back then he used to spend a long time in Yugoslavia when I was a kid. I guess you could stretch your dollar further there.

Interviewer: Where did he and your mother grow up?

David Kerr: They grew up in Rocky River, which is just outside of Cleveland, Ohio.

Chuck Allen Siegman, center, with his sister Ruth (David's mom) at their Grandmother's birthday in 1939, Cleveland Ohio.

Interviewer: He goes to art school. He becomes a window dresser and bohemian and then travels when he has enough money, and —

David Kerr: He goes to New York and lives in the YMCA for years. That was his address. When he moved to New Orleans he moved to the Y. I don’t know if he moved to New Orleans because it was less expensive. I suspect that as New York got sort of gayer and more post-Stonewall, it wasn’t really a good fit for him.

Uncle Chuck's apartment in New Orleans.
Interviewer: As you get older, do you lose contact with him?

David Kerr: We never had much contact with him. In the Y, you don’t have your own phone, right? There’s a phone in the hall. So he never really had a phone. In college, when I came out, I came out to him in a letter. I sent him postcards. When I got a boyfriend, I would send him news. And very, very rarely would I hear from him. I can think of two postcards I got from him, and maybe two phone calls with him my entire adult life. I think it was more about his being sort of a monastic.

He didn’t like the phone. His friends told me that he believed if it was important it could wait until the next time he saw you. The woman who owned the store where he worked said, “You know, he’s probably my closest friend. But when he goes to Turkey, he’s gone, you won’t hear from him — you’re lucky if you get a postcard. And he’s not going to think about you for four months until he shows up. And then he’s back. And here he is.” He didn’t really connect with people over distance.

But what was interesting is, after he died, I realized I’d been one of his most frequent correspondents. He kept all the stuff I sent him. He had every postcard, every note, every Christmas card. It was all there.

And so that’s why I was the first person who was notified. One of my cards was on his desk. The coroner called me when they were looking for the next of kin.

Interviewer: Tell me how this all unraveled.

David Kerr: I get a call from the New Orleans coroner. At first, I thought, I’ve got to get my dad involved. My dad has to deal with this. But I kind of realized that it was a turning point in my relationship with my father. I could tell he was completely overwhelmed. And I didn’t realize until after it happened that there’s this point where it changes. I just said, “Dad, I’m going to go take care of this.” And he said, “Okay.” I mean, he was just like a kid. It changed my dynamic with my father. And I think because my uncle was gay, and because he was a connection to my mother, who’s been gone for 20 years, it just felt like something I wanted to do.

I flew out there and it was a mess. He hadn’t left any sort of will and had all this not-very-valuable jewelry in a safe deposit box. He’s of that generation of people who have safe deposit boxes and things stashed away in there. So it was quite a process because nobody had legal right to go in there.

Interviewer: Who decides you have the legal right, then?

David Kerr: I’m the next of kin. My brother and I were his last living blood relatives. We had to sign papers and do stuff with the bank. I went alone on the first trip and my brother came on the second. This was around the same time his friends held a small memorial for him at the shop where he worked. I got to meet his circle.

Interviewer: Tell me about that.

David Kerr: He lived downstairs from and was friends with the landlord and his partner. His apartment was just a mess. Bowls and scents and bottles and all kinds of stuff. Every piece of paper he’d ever had, it seems. All these little statues and screens, and all these jade bowls. I mean, that must’ve been 10 jade bowls, and all these brass cups, I think from Turkey.

Brass cups, statue, etc.

Jade bowls, and bowls, and bowls...

Interviewer: Did he fix things?

David Kerr: He did repair on old things for a few antique shops.

Interviewer: Do you know how long he worked in this antique shop?

David Kerr: He worked for a couple different ones but probably, you know, 13 or 14 years, so for a long time. And bags! He knit bags. There were probably 60 bags in his apartment.100 bags? These knit string bags.

Interviewer: What’d you do with all that?

David Kerr: I have a few of them, but we gave many away at his memorial.

Interviewer: At the memorial, what sense did you get of him?

David Kerr: People really loved him. But he had a certain kind of formality. There was a religious order that he knew. I think they were Catholics. And he befriended one of them. And so he was kind of a fixture over there. But he didn’t have a cell phone until after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. So for most of the time he lived there, he would just show up.

There was this artist he was close to and I was looking for her. All I knew was that she showed her art on a certain square certain days. I wandered around asking the artists if they had heard of this person. And I didn’t find her there. But she came to the memorial. And she just loved him. She had a picture of him walking in this sort of caftan — he must’ve either made them or gotten them in Turkey. There is the great photo of him walking away. But she said he would just arrive. He would show up at his regular places everyday.

They found him because he didn’t show up at the shop or the square for a few days, and that was really unusual. He made jewelry, too. Here’s a ring that he made. It looks very 70s. Here’s Margaret, who owned the shop. Margaret thought of Uncle Chuck as a member of her family.

Memorial for Allen Siegman, New Orleans, January 2009.

Interviewer: He minded the shop and did some repairs?

David Kerr: If she wasn’t there, he would hold down the fort. They came to know each other when she broke her foot and just couldn’t get around. So she needed help in the shop to do things. That’s when they became friends.

Interviewer: What happened when Katrina hit?

David Kerr: He and his landlord, who had by this time lost his partner, decided to stay. They were fine through the storm. They had some very low flooding, but not very bad. The problem was there were no services, no electricity, no food. After close to a week, it was clear nobody was going to come back. They got on one of the planes that flew out.

This was a time when you just got on a plane and they just flew you to wherever the plane was going. They ended up in Arizona or something and made their way to Austin on a bus. He stayed with my dad and stepmom in the RV for a month.

Interviewer: So, you have no idea really what he was doing in Turkey.

David Kerr: No. There were thousands of business cards but I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. I’m sure he had friends there, but you couldn’t tell if the cards were just a rug place where he shopped, or someone he knew very well. I did find out he had been learning Kurdish—a bookseller in New Orleans told me he’d gone to great lengths to get a Kurdish language study book.

But Uncle Chuck was very enigmatic. I think this was probably his being from the pre-Stonewall era. If he any kind of intimate relationships there was nothing about them.

Interviewer: No evidence?

David Kerr: Either he didn’t have “gentlemen callers” or he hid it. His gay landlords upstairs had no sense that he ever had a visitor. So he was either really monastic, or his sexual life was hidden. But I felt like I got to know him, by seeing his stuff and seeing how he lived. I just never realized that not everybody is on this planet to connect with people. At first I thought it seemed so sad how solitary he was, but now I don’t think that was his project. I think he was very in his mind. He was on a different program, you know?

Interviewer: Did you keep some of the stuff?

David Kerr: I’ve got a bracelet. And I kept a bowl. I kept this brass sea serpent. That was amazing. My therapist had been telling me about this Jungian archetype serpent/gremlin, which represents however much you plan or get ready, something can throw a wrench into the works. He pulled a book off his shelf and showed me a drawing. And then between that session and the next time I see him, I got the call about my uncle. I went to New Orleans. I went through all of his stuff. And I found this little brass statue, exactly the same as the drawing that he’d been showing me. It was just like a little wrench in my life, unplanned. But a gift too. I wish I could remember the name of this figure. [He later remembered it was Mercurious]

Brass figure Mercurious.
Interviewer: So have you thought some about how it fit, how your uncle’s story fits into your story?

David Kerr: We were both gay men. But we were on different planets. I am grateful to have learned more about him and to be connected with him after his death. Coming out and being gay was a big part of my identity as a young adult. If we had been in touch, I suspect he wouldn’t have had any idea what to make of that. But while he was a loner, he was independent. Nobody had to take care of him. He lived by himself until the end and died in his bed and did exactly what he wanted to do. There is something amazing about that. It felt like this wonderful gift, you know, to be able to drop in. I never gave up on keeping in touch with him, even though I probably didn’t give it much conscious thought. But the gesture was received and, in some way, treasured. Whatever it was we did have this relationship, this bond. I don’t know why I kept writing him all those years and rarely getting anything back. But it felt really good to know that we’d connected in some way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The GLBT History Museum

Photo by Daniel Nicoletta
The GLBT History Museum opened January 13, 2011, near 18th and Castro Streets in San Francisco. My friend Steve Const, who was the architectural designer for the museum (with Kuth Ranieri Architects), invited me to the opening. Mayor Ed Lee was there, as was former District 8 supervisor Bevan Dufty, current District 8 supervisor Scott Wiener, and a lot of people who were part of the history being shown, including Phyllis Lyon, Cleve Jones, Daniel Nicoletta, and Armistead Maupin.

As I walked around the exhibit, I heard people telling stories of their own histories. I heard laughter and tears. Although the space is relatively small, it was designed and curated to a high standard. It is a storefront museum in that it is right on the street near several watering holes, but it feels like a museum, a grassroots kind of museum. This is due to the diverse leadership, but also to the fact that a lot of the beautifully crafted exhibit cases came from the de Young Museum. I thought it would be interesting to ask a few people who I either met or knew what the new museum means to them.

Daniel Nicoletta working at Castro Camera.
Photo by Harvey Milk.  Circa late summer/early fall 1976.
Courtesy of the Harvey Milk/Scott Smith Collection
at the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Studies Center, San Francisco Library.

Dan Nicoletta
Photographer, San Francisco

I was really excited to be invited. My friend Deborah St. John, who is a fellow photographer, was my date. She has been covering the queer scene for many years as well. We were both very excited. It was a low-key evening full of poignant speeches. I thought they did a marvelous job and it came off without a hitch except for the little leak in the ceiling. I looked at all of those exhibits and thought, “God that’s my life.” There is always some little quirk that is a message of some sort.

I am a huge supporter of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. They will be able to show my work beyond my life on the planet. I am constantly using the organization for my own research and creative work.

In the vitrine in the middle of the room was a handmade binder which held tributes to Shanti project clients. They elected to open to a page about Leland Toy. I have been looking for Leland Toy for many many years because he is the creator of the image of the human billboard, which was Harvey’s strategy. Stand on Market Street and wave to commuter traffic. This picture was in Harvey’s negatives. Years later when I was printing images for dissemination, I tried to find Leland Toy, but I couldn’t find him. So we were doing the research for the Milk film. There is this amazing iconic image out there. But we couldn’t find the creator. Of course, I would credit him, but I would have my heart in my mouth because I couldn’t find him. Sure enough, he did pass away from AIDS. It was a complete circle to know who he was. And then in the middle of this opening show I find a full-page description about what kind of life he led.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
Photo by Daniel Nicoletta.

Steve Const
Principal, DOES Architecture, San Francisco

I was brought into the project by Bob Michitarian, who helped negotiate the lease and improvements with Walgreens, and then began working with Paul Boneberg, the Historical Society's executive director. In developing the architecture of the space, our goal was to foreground the collection and the exhibits. When you have a very modest budget, sometimes it makes sense to use the architecture in less obvious ways. The focus of the design was on the presentation of information. We didn’t want the design to overshadow what was said by the institution or any single exhibition. The design does not shout. I think there is a balance there. For example, we needed to sequence the entry experience past the all-important gift shop, yet make places for people to pause and converse or reflect.

Even with input, the design process is fairly insular. We have been kind of buried in the archive. Then suddenly the diversity and beauty of the LGBT community is revealed and played out in space, not as an abstract idea. People from all walks of life, from 20-year-olds to legendary pioneers, were mingling. I met the folks who keep the LGBT Historical Society functioning, from administrators to curators and donors. And I met members of the larger community that I had never known.

I have to admit, it was great to be recognized by politicians like Mayor Lee, former supervisor Bevan Dufty, and current supervisor Tim Wiener. That means that what we are doing is not going unnoticed. I hope it is not too grand to say that we felt unified.

Harvey Milk and Denton Smith
Photo by Daniel Nicoletta.

James Mowdy
Americas Travel Manager, Ten Group USA, San Francisco

As a native San Franciscan now in my 40s, I was impressed by how important each of us is in terms of our shared history. It was thrilling to celebrate GLBT San Francisco's gateway to a history that's still being written.

My involvement has been mostly as an observer thus far, but I am working to change that with a few projects I’ll hopefully be helping Paul and the board with over the next several months.

My partner Peter, on the other hand, has a much more involved role, over several years, and so he will have a different take on things. Many of my memories are from growing up here.

I was a huge fan of the Chronicle and Tales of the City, which I used to read every day (weird kid)! I also remember ABC KGO News with Van Amburg, and so I think these were the places that I’d see reports in real time on Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, and what was happening in the Castro or related to the gay community (before I was an out adult and in the milieu).

I remember that as soon as Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk were shot, it was announced over the intercom at school. Many of us kids (all in the 6th grade) were crying. I was so shocked and a bit scared. I knew of both figures since I followed the local news. The most tangible experience on this front was walking on the steps of the State Building across the street from City Hall just a couple of days after the White Night Riots. I was with my mother, oddly enough. The State Building steps were still spray painted with lots of graffiti from the protestors, and I remember seeing City Hall totally shut down, with all the broken glass windows.

Living in the Castro in the early and mid-1990s was a scary introduction to AIDS, having friends and coworkers succumb to it. But it was also a great time.

My favorite exhibit? Definitely Mary Ann Singleton’s dress from Tales and the City, donated by Laura Linney to Armistead Maupin.

Harvey Milk victory
Photo by Daniel Nicoletta.

Peter Lundberg
Chief Financial Officer, Community Housing Opportunities Corporation, Davis, California

I was introduced to the GLBT Historical Society in 1998 with a tour of the archives by Gerard Koskovich, when it was located in the mid-Market area. Susan Stryker was the executive director at the time. I was blown away. I had never thought about gay history and historical societies. Sounded dusty and old. I was stunned by the realization that who I COULD BE TODAY was the residual effect of so many people over periods of many lifetimes, many of whom we would never know about because they were ordinary people, like myself, going through daily struggles of life, just wanting to love, be loved, and be happy. (Over the years, I saw this same reaction in the eyes of hundreds of people who visited exhibit openings and events at the archive offices on Mission Street).

I asked how I could become involved and was invited to join the board. Well, after nine years on the board (eight as president), I saw the organization grow from a budget of $100,000 to more than $500,000, triple the space, mount exhibits in the archive space on Mission, and finally open of the current full-fledged museum in the Castro—our dream come true. However, the real strength of the organization (and coming from a corporate background, I did not really understand the importance of this) is the involvement of the community. The board is dynamic in its diversity—cultural, social, gender, and professional. Corporate (like myself), academic, archivist, activist, transgender, ethnic.

And there is one common element in the continued success and growth of the society. This is an extraordinary high level of passion for the mission of the Historical Society. This also makes for interesting and challenging discussions in the board and community. Board members are super volunteers and argue their points of view passionately. The result is actions, policies, and directions that go beyond what any one person could have ever imagined. The GLBT Historical Society and Museum is truly an organization that holds, preserves, and tells ALL our stories. It deserves and must be supported by every GLBT person with financial donations, large and small. Every dollar is significant.

The line of people, going around the corner, waiting to get into the museum, on opening night brought tears to my eyes. Chatting with people who have made the museum happen—volunteers, politicians, donors, celebrities—reminded me how important this museum and the Historical Society is to so many people.

My favorite exhibit was in 2004, “Sporting Life,” which explored the growth of gay and lesbian sports groups, Gay Games, and the impact this movement has had on the self esteem and outside image of gay people.

I talk endlessly about the society and museum to friends and take them all to the archives and museum when they are visiting. It will be the Castro’s next international attraction.

White Night Riots - May 21, 1978
Photo by Daniel Nicoletta.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Faith & Joy

Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price
Courtesy of Duke University

One of the few people who could reach me on the topic of faith was the novelist Reynolds Price. He died January 20 in Durham, North Carolina. In his memoir of surviving spinal cancer, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, he wrote about a vision of Jesus pouring water over his back. Despite this suggestion of healing, he went forward with radiation treatment, which left him a paraplegic. He suffered for the rest of his life from pain and disability—but he lived. And wrote several more books. His various memoirs mention faith, but not in a doctrinaire way. Indeed, he referred to himself as an “outlaw Christian.”

Growing up gay in North Carolina must have been difficult. His first serious affair took place in Oxford when he attended the university as a Rhodes Scholar. But he didn’t discuss this widely until he published his third memoir, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, in 2009. Price wanted to be called an American writer, and begrudgingly accepted the term “Southern writer.” Like that phrase, “queer writer” would have been too narrow. On Charlie Rose and elsewhere, he said he didn’t think Americans were that interested in queer relationships, so he didn’t write about them. When Rose brought up Brokeback Mountain, Price responded that the short story made a great movie, but it didn’t win a Oscar for best movie or screenplay but for best director. At his military physical, he declared himself homosexual and didn’t serve. He wasn’t in the closet, yet he didn’t write much about his personal affections. He left scholars 38 books to look into for clues.

This novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

This was my introduction to Price's fiction.  It is one long letter.

The novels contain entire worlds of families and individuals left adrift and searching for mercy. He could write in male or female voices, rich or poor. I think that his otherness gave him the perceptiveness to travel around all kinds of lives.

He was best known for fiction, but his second memoir, about his illness, brought him a whole new readership. I went to many readings, and the audiences seemed to be split between literary fans and fans of healing. They didn’t cross over except perhaps in sharing the quest for mercy themselves.

He had a rich deep voice that could read anything. I would have traveled far to hear him if he hadn’t come to the Bay Area so often because his writing and his person conveyed compassion. Readings often bring out predictable questions, but he did not condescend and answered each question with compassion. Compassion because the person was unique even if the question was not. Compassion because every human being suffers some kind of pain.

When Terry Gross asked him if life would be unbearable without faith, he replied, “I’ve never thought of that.” Later in the interview, he said, “I am a great believer in joy.” I never spoke to him, but I loved him.

These are Price's three memoirs.  I only wish there were going to be more.

Here are a few videos worth watching.

Terry Gross’s interviews can be found on