Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Church on Birmingham Sunday

Sunday was the 50th anniversary of Birmingham Sunday. On September 15, 1963, white terrorists killed four African American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a turning point in the civil rights movement and began the long slow demise of the Klu Klux Klan.

This last Sunday, September 15, my friends David Kerr and Jay Stowsky celebrated their marriage and adoption of two children in Berkeley. Although the civil rights struggle for women, people of color, and queer people continues, we have made progress since that awful day half a century ago. People of different races can now marry in every state, and people of the same gender can marry in several states. Queer people can now adopt children (including children of all races).

Standing in the sunny little park in Berkeley, I wondered about the link between the two Sundays across these many years, in two very different places. And I return to a familiar refrain. In the face of adversity, personal and political, the one deep source of change lies in the power of individual love. It is amazing that Birmingham did not erupt into violence (although whites did kill a number of other innocent African Americans shortly after the bombing). This was because the leaders of the civil rights movement advocated nonviolence, forgiveness, and yes, love. Who was one of the key philosophers who converted Dr. King to this idea of nonviolence? One brilliant eccentric African American queer organizer named Bayard Rustin. We have been preaching love for a long, long time.

I first met my friend David Kerr 25 years ago when he was going out with my next-door neighbor. I knocked on the door and this tall young man with a big smile greeted me. He was wearing a light blue sweater. I thought two things:
  1. Is he 18?
  2. He exuded more kindness than anyone I could ever remember meeting.
On the first point, I was mistaken. He was in his mid-20s and was already finished with graduate school. Yet even now, he does not look his age. On the second point, my judgment was correct. His gentle generosity became a model for me.

A few years ago, I met Jay Stowsky. I confess I thought he had some of the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. They were nearly the color of David’s sweater that I first saw all those years ago. He exuded the same deep kindness as David—you could say a slightly saltier sweetness. But he seemed a perfect complement to David.

After a few years together, they took their kindness and extended it into the world by adopting two children, Shayla and Jaden. It has been one of the most profound joys of my adult life to be included in this circle of love. I have learned once again that love is exponential.

Perhaps the only evidence of God is love. The love I feel with Jay, David, Shayla, and Jaden, and the love I felt yesterday in that oak-filled park, was holy. It was my kind of church. Open to the sky with boundless love. This is what allows us to forgive the killers of those four little girls a half century ago, allows us to heal ourselves of hatred towards others and towards ourselves, and allows us to save the world, wherever we are.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Postcard from Cherry Grove

Arriving in Cherry Grove

This year we went out to Fire Island and stayed in Cherry Grove instead of the Pines because we were only coming for a few days and accommodations were somewhat less expensive there. Both communities have reputations as being gay, very gay. Historically, the Pines appealed to men and Cherry Grove to women. But while the Pines seems to still be largely a bastion of affluent gay men, Cherry Grove doesn’t fit a stereotype. It is much more democratic. As one of our friends from the Pines says, “honky-tonk.” Both communities were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, but somehow Cherry Grove, with its slapdash bohemian air, was already on the edge of disrepair. You feel like many of the wood structures are just one good wind away from blowing over. The Pines, on the other hand, with its manicured modernist homes, shows every scratch. The boardwalks in Cherry Grove are warped and uneven, and nobody seems to care. In the Pines, you know they are using a level.

Downtown Cherry Grove

An abandoned cabin in Cherry Grove

Honky Tonk retail
Our ramshackle guesthouse

Between the two communities lies a patch of national park commonly called the “Meat Rack.” The hostess at our guesthouse (hotel would be too generous) told us a story of two of her guests, a straight couple, wandering in there at night not knowing its reputation and the husband being chased by a man. “Who would chase after my husband?” the pregnant wife said. Which reminds you that there is somebody for everybody. The couple scared off their mistaken predator with the bright flashlight attached to the room key. We got lost in this stretch of nature during the daytime and got a nasty reprimand from a park policewoman for being in the wrong area. She was, like most police I’ve encountered, very mean. She certainly didn’t make us feel welcome, nor was she eager to help us find our way. I think she exists to intimidate gay folk, or like the NSA, all folk. It was like a return to the bad old days when the police would raid the Meat Rack. But as I told our friends over lunch, “Leave it to me to nearly get arrested for not having sex.” Paul didn’t find the humor in this, but he did use his British accent and innocent blue eyes to get us out of the jam. Like so many people in front of the police (especially marginalized folks), we just kept saying “I’m sorry.”

The (in)famous Belvedere Guest House
Houses inspired by the Belvedere's questionable architecture

Besides a few famous cruising spots, the Pines has a concentrated entertainment district around the harbor. Noted New York architecture firm HWKN has built a new Pines Pavilion to replace one that burned to the ground. Although not quite finished, it opened for business earlier this summer. The form and material seem to take some inspiration from Horace Gifford’s work, but updated in terms of structure and size. While Gifford’s work was drawn from Kahn, this is a modernist interpretation of Venturi’s “duck.” There is really one elevation that matters.

The view from the deck in Cherry Grove
View towards The Pines from Cherry Grove
Tasteful private pool in The Pines
New Pines Pavilion

In the Pines, people go to the beach, go to “tea,” and entertain at home. In Cherry Grove, it feels more like Carnaval at the Seashore. The houses and accommodations are generally much smaller and denser. Since folks in the Pines eat in more, the best restaurant we found was in Cherry Grove. But of course, the market in the Pines is far superior. Politically, I am more drawn to Cherry Grove, with its eclectic mix of incomes, gender preferences, short-short gold lamé shorts, tall-tall blonde wigs, and excessive tattoos. Aesthetically, I am drawn to the clean modern lines and private pools of the Pines. Different locale. Same old conflicts.

View from the dock at Cherry Grove

Friday, June 28, 2013

Radical Love

Celebration after the decisions in the Castro, San Francisco
photo: Daniel Garcia

I did not go out and take the bus to San Francisco and witness the celebration in the Castro after the Supreme Court rulings. Mind you, I love a good demonstration, but since a friend asked me to march in the Pride Parade on Sunday, I thought one mob scene was enough for the week. Facebook went all rainbow yesterday with many messages from straight friends. While I feel the love, I don’t really feel the euphoria. Perhaps this is because the day before, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to eviscerate the voting rights act. Eventually we will win on that front, because, as I have written before, the numbers are on our side. The White Empire will go away.

Fran Lebowitz
photo: wikipedia

Recently we went to see Fran Lebowitz speak at City Arts and Lectures, and then we watched her film Public Speaking. As she points out so succinctly, why do we as gay people want membership in two of the most subjugating and hateful institutions invented by man, the military and marriage? Indeed. Kate Kendall brought up that very point about marriage in her speech at the recent National Center for Lesbian Rights dinner in San Francisco. We want the choice, she said. The late Allan Bérubé, author of Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, which contributed enormously to changing "Don’t ask, don’t tell," told me sometime in the 1980s that after that military exclusion was defeated, it would be far easier to obtain other civil rights. He was prescient. I wish that he had lived to see these victories. I remember his intensity—his mixture of seriousness and humor. I think he fought with love, radical love, to borrow a phrase from Dorothy Day.

My Desire for History
Allan Bérubé

Most of my extracurricular thoughts these past few weeks have been about Edward Snowden and what he has revealed to all of us. His video interview with Glenn Greenwald is nothing short of spellbinding, in part because he is so straightforward, so rational. I think he is going to turn out to be a great hero (or an incredible double agent!). In future posts, I will talk about other aspects of this story, but here I want to pick up on how Snowden said that he knew he would give up a comfortable life by revealing this information. My fear is that now, as barriers for LGBT people come down, we as gay people may opt for an isolated comfortable life, not the radical life.

It is no mistake that some of America’s largest corporations led the way in terms of benefits, recognition, and nondiscrimination policies. It was not altruism, it was profit. After drag queens and radicals locked the cops inside the Stonewall Inn on the night of Judy Garland’s death, the Gay Liberation Front and early advocates for queer civil rights were often made up of a ragtag group of marginalized people. Over time, as lawyers broke down barriers, it was safe for corporations to openly hire queer people. Younger corporate leaders realized that most gay folks did not have families (at that time anyway!) and were creative, well educated, and motivated to excel (for a bevy of complex emotional reasons that are explored in every gay writer’s memoir). In other words, they made productive employees. If it hadn’t been for AIDS and the need to organize to get the homophobic Reagan Republicans to wake up, we might have lost any commitment to radical action. The hateful nature of the enemy kept us from being co-opted by our growing bourgeois lifestyle. Of course, that was because many of us lost those very comforts as we took ill. ACT UP saved lives as well as our radical spirit.

AIDSGATE poster, 1987
photo: www.spd.org
Harry Hay poster
photo: www.americanswhotellthetruth.org

This radical focus was what Harry Hay talked about when I saw him speak at the opening of the documentary Hope Along the Wind: A Life of Harry Hay shortly before he died. He told the audience that to be gay was to be radical and that we must not lose our outsider status. I think of him again today. This is why we shouldn’t dance too wildly while the Supreme Court takes away the rights of voters and the U.S. government tries to take away our rights through the promotion of the corporate warfare state. Let us use our history as subjugated people to keep advocating for freedom and democracy. Let our love keep us radical.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Never Trust A Man in a Bowtie!

I don’t want to suggest that I am one of the only prescient queer men in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. But I did fall in love with modernism in Palm Springs in the 1980s, when you could get a sweet Alexander for well under a hundred grand.

In 2000, when I moved to downtown Oakland, people thought I was mad. Now Oakland is the new Brooklyn. (Maybe the real estate prices will catch up with our vision by the time we retire!)

And then there are the bowties. I started wearing these in high school. During my college years, my pal Michael Ray Nelson advised me to stay away from them, saying, “No one trusts a man in a bowtie.” I tried a few straight ties, but they were, well, too straight. “Don’t trust me” became my motto.

In those days, it was hard to find bowties. I don’t mean pre-tied bowties. Those are just fake. I taught myself how to tie them around my leg just above the knee, where the thigh is about as thick as the neck. That way, you are facing the right direction. An hour invested will result in a lifetime of sartorial pleasure.

Bowties are somewhat easier to find these days, especially with entire websites devoted to them. But if you’re in downtown San Francisco looking for a last-minute birthday present with only a half hour to shop, they are not quite as common as you might imagine. Brooks Brothers still has some. They have supplied old architects for decades. But many of their ties are dull, the rep tie version of a butterfly.

However, they have a few with two kinds of fabrics that are quite sporty. Bought a few of those. Over the years, I have found an occasional one at Hermès, but no luck last week. Headed over to that hippest of haberdashers, Paul Smith, thinking they must have some, but they said, “We haven’t got our shipment.” Almost bought myself a striped Mini Cooper toy but had to keep going. Since I was on my way to the AIA, I remembered the Hound downstairs in the Hallidie Building. It’s the kind of store people forget about. This one-off men’s store that caters to the independent and slightly anglophile man saved the day with a large collection of beautifully made ties, often paired with pocket squares. Pay dirt.

If you have remembered your partner’s birthday and have time to shop online, check out the gorgeous ties at http://www.etsy.com/shop/thishumbleabode. Our pal Yosh found these. Not cheap, but exquisite fabrics.

Our pal Jill Pilaroscia discovered an unusual shop in Manhattan called Seigo, where they make ties from Japanese fabrics. Although I have never visited the shop on Madison Avenue, I have a wonderful collection courtesy of Jill. Finally they got a web presence at http://seigoneckwear.blogspot.com.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson

If you don’t want to spend $60 to $120 on a funny-shaped piece of fabric, there are other options! And you can support social justice at the same time! Bowties are not necessarily queer, but they are not for the fashion fearful. Now the very adorable Jesse Tyler Ferguson from the hit TV show “Modern Family” has started a bowtie enterprise where proceeds support repealing that idiotic DOMA. His ties cost $25.00. You can watch him not teaching how to tie a bowtie, along with other entertainments, at www.tietheknot.org. What could be better? Buying affordable bowties from an adorable actor while supporting a good cause!

Now, go tie one on!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Valentine for Richard Blanco

Four Hearts, 1969
artist: Jim Dine
courtesy tate.org.uk

One of our tribe is named inaugural poet. Richard Blanco. This is the closest I have come to feeling patriotic since I was a child and the government lied to us about the Vietnam War and almost everything else.

A gay Cuban born in Spain and living in Maine is on the steps of the Capitol reading his creation in front of war lords, greedy capitalists, power hungry politicians, and maybe, just maybe, a few compassionate souls. I hope they all hear him.

courtesy nbcbayarea.com

I order some of his books, find Youtube clips and watch him deliver his poem, which was not universally well received by the critics – whoever the poetry critics are these days. And I love him. I love him because he has heavy lidded eyes and eyebrows with a life of their own. I love him not just because he sounds so beautiful and looks so beautiful, but because even though he followed the practical career of being an engineer he didn’t give up on the crazy one of being a poet. How beautiful is that? A poet and an engineer! Precise and transcendent.

The photo on his second book of poetry makes him look barely an adult. Moody, and yes, so seductive. He is a man-boy. But when he reads that poem on Inauguration Day he is man-man who has not forgotten a boy’s love.

courtesy poetryfoundation.org

Monday, January 28, 2013

Love is Liberation

Volume Three of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries

Courtesy Random House

The writer Christopher Isherwood was born in 1904 into an upper class British family. Like many boys of the period he lost his father in World War I. And like most men of this time and place he sought a long-term relationship, someone to mentor, father, and follow. And he identified with a religion that offered comfort and guidance. It’s just that the script that was laid out for him didn’t fit. So he ventured to Berlin before the Second World War to explore his sexuality and afterwards, moved to the US and became a Conscientious Objector. He settled in Los Angeles to write for the studios, fell under the sway of Vedanta and became lovers with a man 30 years his junior, a relationship that would last over three decades. And he wrote and wrote.

In an earlier post I said that Christopher Isherwood helped save my life. I think it was because he tried to be as honest as possible about his life and that he sought all those unusual avenues for fulfillment. Of course that would get him in trouble with whoever appeared to be in “authority.” The central fact of his life was his homosexuality and the rebellion that resulted. This led him to escape his homeland, and also led him to his guru, Swami Prabhavananda. Swami did not judge him for being queer or anything else for that matter. And for the most part, neither did Los Angeles. He would end up in a house overlooking the vast Pacific. This was a man who moved to the youngest big city in the youngest big country. He didn’t want to be hemmed in.

Most of Isherwood’s literary work grew out of his life. Sometimes he took on a character, even a character named Chris. But as he got older he wrote more directly about his life and loves. By the time he was in his mid-sixties both he and the society had liberalized enough that he was out of the closet in every aspect of his life. This is one reason the third volume of his diaries is entitled “Liberation.” For much of the volume he copes with his own impending demise, writing and worrying about a variety of health issues, some significant. But when he enters his final illness he doesn’t appear so obsessive. Soon enough eventually he stops keeping the diary altogether. During years of worrying and resisting death he works at accepting death, the final liberation. Isherwood trusted the long arc of his life. He must have known that the narrative would eventually coalesce.

Bachardy paints Isherwood in the 1980s
Courtesy Syndey Morning Herald

Katherine Bucknell did a fine job editing the book even though so much of that work is unseen. The introduction provides a good context whether one is new to Isherwood or a scholar. Her footnotes are instructive, but not pedantic. She relegates much information to the glossary of terms and people at the rear, which is like a who’s who of the literary, entertainment, and gay worlds of the 20th century.

As Edmund White notes in the preface a lot of gay men have wanted to place Isherwood in the role of saint. It is easy to forget that this isn’t possible for any human. In his public appearances he was gentle, kind, witty. But in his diaries he could be dismissive and bitchy and, as has been noted in most reviews of the diaries, anti-Semitic. He even insults guests at dinner parties if he perceives them as lording their background over him. Some reviewers have dismissed him because of these lapses that are hard to reconcile with an otherwise sweet person – or at least someone who cultivated a sweet persona.

Isherwood personally witnessed the rise of Nazism and he had no sympathy. His boyfriend, Heinz, was arrested and made to serve in the Germany army. When Isherwood arrives in Los Angeles he falls in with the Jewish film community, most of them émigrés from a devolving Europe, and they became close lifelong friends.

White tries to tackle the unsaintly aspects of Isherwood’s personality directly in his essay. He doesn’t forgive Isherwood because anti-Semitism was typical of a man of his time and social standing. Nor does he suggest that Isherwood thought that these diaries would be private. And he brings up his sexist remarks, and excessive drinking, and other failings.

Don Bachardy
Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

Don Bachardy
Courtesy Cheim & Read, New Yorkn

Don Bachardy
Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

It is possible that Isherwood knew these private musing would be made public because his literary writing was so deeply personal and he was so ambitious. Over his life he felt that he had been judged harshly for being gay, for his Hindu faith, for moving to the States during the war, and for taking up with someone so much younger. In these diaries he is rebelling and experimenting. I think that likelier explanation for his prejudices is that they are those of a child being told what to do by an authoritarian figure, be it England or his mother. For Isherwood the diary was the tool to be mined for fiction or memoir. What is so amazing is that Bachardy, his executor, did not censor the editor, but agreed to let the whole man, not a myth, be revealed in the pages. It takes a while to resolve the charming with the cranky, the champion of pacifism with the anti-Semitic and sexist asides. The diaries may help us admit to our own contradictions and prejudices although thankfully most of ours will not be shared in public.

What comes through so clearly in 688 pages is Isherwood’s devotion to Don Bachardy and Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood’s love for them is the true liberation. And ultimately, inseparable.

In April 1982 towards the end of his diary he writes, “Religion is about nothing but love---I know this more and more.”

Don Bachardy; Christopher Isherwood
by David Hockney
Courtesy npg.org.uk