Katherine Rose Turbes

Theatre Kid / Actor / Playwright / Cabaret Performer / Dramaturg / Feminist / Playbill Rescuer / Queer / Nonbinary (They/Them Pronouns, Please)

Me & Mr. Jones

(Trigger Warnings: Addiction, Disordered Eating, Pedophilia)

Countless articles have been written about David Bowie’s influence, especially as it relates to queer culture. I never had the opportunity to see him perform while he was alive, yet fate had it that the day after he died I saw a brilliant performer named Raquel Cion cover his songs in a tribute show already scheduled to celebrate his 69th birthday.

It felt cosmic since I wholeheartedly believe that seeing Raquel Cion perform Bowie’s songs is truly the next best thing and the closest one can now come to experiencing Bowie’s musical artistry alive and in person.

Photo by Roque Nonini

Cion is one of the most diehard Bowie superfans this world has ever known and a brilliant singer and performer in her own right. Her show Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie seems an inevitable conduit for her idol’s spirit while wholeheartedly imbuing every song she covers with her own radiance.

As Raquel entered through the audience singing Moonage Daydream bedecked in her glam rock glory, I found myself weeping. Her sultry jazz voice paired with rockstar bravado was as undeniably captivating as her storytelling.

Photo by Roque Nonini

She spoke of how she spent her teenage years skipping school to avoid her classmates who yelled slurs at David Bowie’s visage painted on the back of her leather jacket and instead found refuge in back-alleys and bars amongst the sort of queer people her classmates antagonized.

Raquel tells the story of seeing her principal cruising for sex, and in her full Nina Hagen-styled punk getup waved hello to him. Yet what stayed with her most from that exchange was the young hustler she witnessed climbing into her principal’s car. She describes the boy in a way that conjured the Peter Hujar photograph Christopher Street Pier #2 (Crossed Legs).

Photo by Peter Hujar

“I do wonder if that feathered blond boy survived. I doubt he did. I hope he did. I doubt he did.”

As she spoke mournfully of this stranger, representative of an entire lost generation, and sang Teenage Wildlife medleyed with Heroes, illustrating the danger and precariousness of growing up at that time.

Photo by Kevin W. Condon

Much of the show was devoted to the concept of Limbic Resonance, the scientifically proven chemical reaction in the brain which can be triggered by music, resulting in the feelings of love, euphoria and feeling understood. Raquel reflects on how the concept relates to her relationship with “her david” as she calls him, and how experiencing David Bowie’s music to her is love. His is the voice that scores her life and that she has heard more than any friend, lover or even her own.

She sang Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me, colored by that feeling of limbic resonance and connection to David Bowie, resulting in the most heartfelt and relatable sort of love song I’ve ever heard.

Throughout the show Raquel reflected on instances of being told she cared too much about her David, feeling genuine concern whenever he seemed frail or in danger. She focused on his physicality in the film Cracked Actor and his antics on Dick Cavett show, gnawing on his cane. Cion spoke of how drugs endangered her David just as they affected her then lover, and although her and her lover parted ways, she watched as Bowie recovered and got clean.

Raquel hypothesized that in spite of David’s constant shapeshifting, the fact that he never legally changed his name from David Robert Jones kept him grounded enough to pull himself out of holes such as addiction. “I think that’s what saved him.”, Cion said.

Photo by Roque Nonini

As she continued, telling both David’s story and her own, Raquel spoke of how, when photos from the rehearsal room of the New York Theatre Workshop production of Lazarus surfaced that same dread and sense of concern once again arose. Much like his days of living on milk, red peppers, and cocaine, David was far too thin.

Raquel spoke of how she knew. Between the pictures and the cryptic messages woven into Blackstar, she knew before it happened.

Photo by Michele Camardella

As she elegized her David, singing Dollar Days she exited through the audience. When she left the space the feeling of losing David was palpable, both David Bowie, the monumental figure, and David Robert Jones, the constant cosmic companion in Raquel’s life.

Raquel returned without her rockstar armor- small and vulnerable, and spoke of her own Cancer diagnosis not long after David’s death. Her level of openness and resilience as she bared the truth of her chemo treatment and grief, antithetical to the bombast she began the show with, felt just as compelling and breathtaking.

Raquel spoke of how, even after death, Bowie’s spirit sustained her and kept her going through the David Bowie Is exhibit. She synthesized her continuous “soul love” with David with the song Days, singing:

“In red-eyed pain I’m knocking on your door again, my crazy brain in tangles pleading for your gentle voice. Those storms keep pounding through my head and heart I pray you’ll soothe my sorry soul. All the days of my life, all the days of my life- all the days I owe you.”

Photo by Kevin W Condon

Since seeing this iteration of Me & Mr. Jones, I keep thinking back to what Raquel said of the rehearsal room of Lazarus during David’s final days. “If I was somebody I’d be in that room.” It breaks my heart that Raquel and her David never were able to collaborate since I truly believe that no other performer in this world is more worthy of being considered his progeny. She truly embodies the full scope of David Robert Jones’ legacy and then some!

I vehemently urge anyone with even a passing interest in David Bowie and his music to witness Raquel’s spellbinding love-letter when Me & Mr. Jones returns to Pangea this winter: December 15th and January 8th (David Bowie’s Birthday)

The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton

Nath Ann Carrera delves deep into Dolly Parton’s darker side

(Trigger Warning: Child Death, Drug Addiction, Abuse, Incest)

For many, including myself until recently, the mention of Dolly Parton often elicits thoughts of hokey country-fried love songs, and Dolly’s own ostensibly chipper yet cheeky country girl demeanor. Yet through their captivating cabaret I Don’t Want To Throw Rice, I Want To Throw Rocks: The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton, Nath Ann Carrera explores Dolly’s Hidden depths while contextualizing the darker, oft forgotten part of her repertoire.

The Official Poster (Collage by Nath Ann Carrera)

By my count, Nath Ann Carrera has performed over a hundred times at Joe’s Pub, yet it wasn’t until this month that the legendary cabaret venue hosted one of their solo shows. Their encyclopedic knowledge about the lives of musicians, which often is drawn upon and highlighted by those they collaborate with, such as Justin Vivian Bond, this time took the spotlight, along with fascinating tales of their upbringing they regaled the audience with.

Carrera wove together accounts of growing up in Gilroy, California, a place touted, among other things as the garlic capital of the world, the teen pregnancy capital of the world, the cite of the biggest meth bust, and most of all a place irreconcilably linked to intense metaphysical horror. Nath Ann used their hometown’s claims to fame to draw parallels between their life and the contexts that led Dolly Parton to write the sorts of songs that Nath Ann found most compelling.

These songs, all written within a prolific four year time-frame resulting in seven albums, consisted of such light-hearted topics as: “Class-Conscious Incest! Teen Delinquent Anti-Authoritarian Murder! Mental Institution Imprisonment! Speed-Addicted Swingers! Anti-Marriage Retaliation! Stillborn Suicide! Children Bursting Into Flames While Their Parents Tell Dirty Jokes! And BEYOND!” as Nath Ann puts it.

The first of these songs Nath Ann performed was Mendy Never Sleeps which, alongside Robert, a song about avoiding incest, led to Nath Ann talking about Dolly Parton’s interpretation of sexuality formed around her discovery of a swinger’s sanctuary in an abandoned church. This interestingly intersects with queer and radical faerie notions of community formed around public sex and the combination of spirituality and sexuality, which Dolly attested for her were one in the same.

Nath Ann then went on to mention Dolly’s “traveling companion” and “closest confidant” Judy with whom Dolly yet again embraces the confluence of spirituality and sexuality by going for naked full-moon jogs on her property. As if the “gal-pal” implications weren’t yet clear, Nath Ann added with a smirk the crucial sapphic detail that both Dolly and Judy were on drumline in high school.

A Scan From Dolly Parton’s Autobiography

This led Nath Ann to talk of their own high school experience, a highlight of which was a particular career day in which they signed up to learn to be a mortician, already keenly familiar with the graveyard they’d picnic in. They spoke of an ineffectively informative VHS tape consisting solely of the same seven melodramatically posed stock-photo tableaus of grieving families on a loop, and being able to lie in the soft dirt of a grave soon to be filled and feeling comfortable lying there after enthusiastically volunteered to do so.

They then sang one of Dolly’s most popular dead baby songs, Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark, which features the lyrics:

“One day in the summer, we took some flowers to place on some old family graves. Jeannie said, “Mommy, ain’t it dark in the ground? Oh, Daddy, I’d be so afraid” Then she looked up at her daddy and me and said somethin’ that broke both our hearts. She said, “When I die, please don’t bury me ‘cause Jeannie’s afraid of the dark”

The song goes on to a monologue originally performed by Dolly’s performing partner Porter Wagoner, speaking of how Jeannie was “destined to die” but that they put an eternal flame on Jeannie’s grave so there’ll always be a light for her, to which Nath Ann added: “Nothing like parents to go against their child’s dying wish!

Photo by Justin Vivian Bond

Nath Ann then delved into talking about “the invention of hysteria”, their favorite artistic movement alongside art nouveau. They spoke of hysteria as a safe space for queer and female sexuality and the guise of demonic possession as an environment where “you could really be yourself”. They used the true story of a lesbianic nunnery excusing their overt sexuality by cooking up a demonic possession scandal which inspired the Vanessa Redgrave movie The Devils. Nath Ann went on to explain that “hysteria” was an equal opportunity empowerment tactic that informed many Joan Crawford monologues railing against the rich.

Photo by Joy Episalla

This led to Nath Ann really flexing their dramaturgical chops relating to the 1930’s actress Frances Farmer, yet another lesbian and a profoundly fascinating character, simultaneously absurd, tragic, and inspiring, much in the vein of Judee Sill (another person Nath Ann is prone to tell many information-packed stories about) or Bambi Lake, and similarly also struggled with mental health issues.

In talking of how Farmer had to rely on her parents, who instead of taking care of her deceived her into thinking her personhood was revoked long beyond when it was restored in order to manipulate and keep her within their walls. This set up the song Daddy Come Get Me in which a woman is imprisoned by a man who sees her as a threat and must rely on her father to free her or else be held captive in a mental institution indefinitely.

Photo by Joy Episalla

The remainder of the show was devoted to songs that follow the “Children Murdered by God” cautionary tale formula, of which there are many songs, to the point where Nath Ann had to list a few who didn’t make the final cut of the show, yet the death-toll of in-show songs was high nonetheless!

Dolly fans and dark-humored souls were clearly delighted, since due to the first night being such an unbridled success, a second show was promptly added.

Although the later show touched on very similar points, one difference stood out: that being the inclusion of backstory prefacing the song Down From Dover in which Nath Ann spoke about Dolly’s brother Larry.

Nath Ann spoke of how Dolly grew up with her mother constantly having more children, “always one in her and one on her” as Dolly herself phrased it. Thus when a child who Dolly’s mother had told her would be hers to look after died in the womb Dolly was devastated. She grieved profoundly and included a close up photo of his body in the coffin in her memoir, and always lists his name alongside her other siblings in family photos with the caption (not pictured: Larry).

Larry’s Grave

The inclusion of this detail thus further contextualized Dolly’s dead baby songs as something deeply personal and stemming from Dolly’s psyche as opposed to something penned to solely be provocative or edgy. Nath Ann lamented that she did eventually choose a more straight-laced and successful path for her career after Porter Wagoner convinced her that her morose story-songs alienated many audiences, yet whenever she can Dolly returns to her roots, as evident in certain songs Nath Ann namechecked such as These Old Bones.

I Don’t Want To Throw Rice, I Want To Throw Rocks: The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton is truly a profoundly masterful piece, integrating stranger-than-fiction tidbits of personal narrative, a vast breadth of knowledge, and brilliant interpretations of Dolly Parton’s music, thus introducing her lesser known songs to a wider audience. Nath Ann Carrera is truly phenomenal performer whose solo work deserves to grace the stage of Joe’s Pub forevermore.

Justin Sayre Makes The Case For America

(Trigger Warning: Rape)

The Official Poster

It’s far from breaking news to say that America’s current political climate is objectively devastating, yet this version of America is still what we have to work with. In Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s most recent Joe’s Pub show: Justin Sayre Makes The Case For America, the performer makes a profoundly persuasive case for how and why America can still be saved.

They modeled the night off their tradition of getting “bonkers stoned”, cooking fried chicken and thinking through their sadness, in this case, their sadness at the state of our country. The stage of Joe’s Pub was fashioned to look like Sayre’s apartment in California, complete with a couch, throw-pillows, a table, framed photographs and an ensemble of tchotchkes played by members of the audience. Around the time the show was set to begin, Sayre entered nonchalantly, and walked across the stage and into the house to cast audience members as ceramic figurines. The cast included a trio of dogs named after the Bronte sisters, Lord Byron, a bearded Jesus (to bless the fruit), Little Edie, and Saint Maria Goretti.

Sayre with their Tchotchkes (Photo by SmithByMatt on Instagram)

Saint Maria Goretti was an especially fitting patron for the experience, given that all proceeds from ticket sales went directly to the Me Too Movement. Sayre provided context to the lesser known saint, explaining that Saint Maria Goretti was a young girl who had a vision of being raped. Thus when a man broke into her house in an attempt to rape her, she preemptively told him not to, because God was watching. So instead of sexually assaulting her, the man murdered her. After her death Maria Goretti was canonized as a saint, while the man who attempted to rape her became a celebrated priest. Justin Sayre concluded that this story is indicative of why the Catholic church is the way it is.

Je Suis Dorkus

Justin Vivian Bond celebrates the stars of their youth

 

Poster by Christina D’Angelo

Reflecting upon celebrity is a topic that permeates Justin Vivian Bond’s work. From their Kiki and Herb monologue Show-Business Martyrs, to their essay, art installations and cabaret devoted to their idolization of Karen Graham, to their many shows reflecting on The Carpenters, much of Mx.Viv’s work actively pays homage to those Mx.Viv looks up to.

Often, when talking about such idols, the thesis Justin Vivian Bond conveys is “celebrities are human too; allow me to count the ways in which I see myself in these people”. Thus I suspected the stories and monologue portions of their most recent show at Joe’s Pub, A Star Is Borned: The New Adventures of Chipra, to be Mx.Viv to drawing parallels between themself and the three divas to embody the role of the titular star, Judy, Barbra, and Gaga.

Photo by Russell Wagner

Instead, A Star Is Borned felt more akin to something Mx.Viv said when speaking at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. In introducing their song Stars, Mx.Viv talks about how, when people, especially queer people, are young and/or “struggling through hard times”, a strategy that makes things easier for many is to latch onto what is seen as extraordinary in our idols and use that to try to be extraordinary ourselves as a way to survive. “But it’s not important to be special, it’s important to be happy.” 

Angels Have No Gender

Prior Walter may like his angels best when they’re statuary, but I love them when they’re flesh and blood and gender-nonconforming!

Trigger Warning: BDSM, Cutting

Mural by Kelsey Montague

Last July, before its run ended, I had the privilege of seeing The National Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America on Broadway. Although every aspect of both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika left me absolutely astonished, I was fittingly most in awe of the titular angels. The Angel, masterfully played by Beth Malone and an ensemble of “Angel Shadows” takes the form of a dilapidated birdlike creature. Unlike many previous iterations of the character, this production depicts the angel as inhuman-looking, primal, and entirely detached from notions of gender, apropos given the text.

In Act 1 Scene 2 of Perestroika, the angel is described as having eight vaginas and being “Hermaphroditically equipped as well with a Bouquet of Phalli” as well as being the manifestation of the female energy that Prior Walter, her cis male chosen prophet, possesses. The angel goes on to speak of humanity with disdain saying that God split the world in two “Human beings. Uni-genitalled: Female. Male.” She expresses her disgust for biological binary and thus paints a picture of angels as intersex and gender-nonconforming and humans as “uni-genitalled” and delegated to adhere to roles of male and female.

Photo by Brinkhoff & Mogenburg

There are clearly inaccuracies in the angel’s worldview, since many humans are intersex and many humans exist beyond the binary of male and female. Yet the notion of gender-nonconformity as angelic is both widespread and empowering.

In spite of attending Catholic school for a decade, I was first exposed to the concept of angels being genderless during my sophomore year of college. My art history professor, Jason Rosenfeld, who was both irreverent and informative in his sparknotes-style explanations in order to provide context to the paintings we viewed, commented that angels are genderless, lest students get caught up attempting to analyze whether angels were male or female. Inspired by this newfound knowledge of angels being genderless, I recall myself reveling in my fledgeling nonbinary identity, drawing self portraits in my sketchbook with halo of glitter nail-polish and the words “Angels have no gender and so I am an angel.”

My sketchbook was stolen so that drawing was lost to the ages, but here’s this photo of me posing with angel wings

Multiple scenes in Angels in America, most notably the final scene of Perestroika, take place at Bethesda Fountain, a place whose angelic imagery is inherently linked with gender nonconforming queerness. The sculptor of The Angel of the Waters, Emma Stebbins, modeled the angel’s appearance after her lover Charlotte Cushman who successfully made a living playing male roles in Shakespearean plays. When The Angel of the Waters was unveiled Stebbins received bad press due to the angel being viewed as inadequately feminine and “large bodied”. An art critic wrote, “the angel who sat for the model of the buxom deity on top of the concern must have been brought up on pork and hominy”. (Merrill, 202)

The Angel of the Waters

Ethyl Eichelberger, an assigned male at birth drag performer who explored womanhood, got a giant tattoo of an angel on her back. Ethyl often worked a way to display her tattoo to the audience into the choreography of her shows, in spite of the historically evocative costumes she wore. Although the tattoo artist describes the image, a drawing by Ken Tisa, as a nameless dancer given wings, many who knew Eichelberger, as well as many queer scholars, in retrospect see the beautiful angel on Ethyl’s back as a manifestation of her idealized self. Many who remember Ethyl Eichelberger refer to her as their angel.

Photo by Stanley Stellar

Kate Bornstein a self-proclaimed “gender outlaw”, like Eichelberger, has a back adorned with angel wings, albeit not in the form of a tattoo. Bornstein’s angelicness, beyond gender nonconformity, aligns with the angels in Angels In America due to its connection to ecstatic sexuality. In order to elaborate, I must divulge details of BDSM and cutting. Please stop reading if such topics trigger you.

The Knife Cuts Both Ways

“If you’re going to open space for me to tell a story, let me tell my fucking story.”
Photo by Serena Jara

Since becoming aware of her work through the 2017 Live Ideas: Mx’d Messages Festival, I have been an avid admirer of Cecilia Gentili. The Mx’d Messages festival, which explored “the idea of a world without binaries–across gender, politics, theology, sensory perception and race”, included a panel on trans visibility. Ms.Gentili spoke about how the narrative of her life as a trans person rarely aligns with what is seen as respectable for trans people, due to her citizenship status and proud career as a sex worker, and thus her identity is under scrutiny.

She elaborated, saying that when she is given a platform as a trans storyteller it’s often under the condition that she tell the sort of stories the dominant culture wants to hear, as opposed to them accepting the truth of her experience.

“People want to learn about the pain of being trans… You’re not gonna hear it from me… If you’re looking for that story where I’m like “oh she suffers a lot but then she puts in some effort and conquers the world” that’s not interesting to me to say, and if you’re going to open space for me to tell a story, let me tell my fucking story.”

(Cecilia Gentili speaking on the panel at the 2017 Live Ideas: Mx’d Messages Festival)

Thankfully through her show The Knife Cuts Both Ways (produced as part of Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival) her “fucking story” could be told and received by adoring audiences ready to listen without respectability policing.

The common thread Cecilia wove throughout her stories were the recollections of her grandmother, an eccentric supportive maternal figure who encouraged her to risk ridicule and shame in order to live the best possible life. The first story was about how Cecilia was taken to the principal’s office to be reprimanded for using the girl’s bathroom. She didn’t understand their problem, so the principal and teachers showed a six-year-old photographs of genitals and insisted she describe which genitals correlated with male and which with female.

Since Cecilia knew she was a female with a penis, and due to the commonplace nature of UFO sightings Cecilia figured she must be an alien from a planet where women are the ones with penises. Thus when Cecilia told her grandma, her grandmother didn’t question it and instead took her out to the field and waited with her for her alien family to come pick her up. When no one came, Cecilia’s grandma assured her, “Don’t worry, someday you’ll find your people!”

Photo by Serena Jara

Another story Cecilia told of her grandma assuring her that it’s worth the danger to live truthfully as a woman was when Cecilia was assigned New York as a place to do a presentation on for a show-and-tell talent show at her school. Cecilia’s grandmother utilized the opportunity to help Cecilia break into her aunt’s closet and steal clothes and wigs for Cecilia to dance in. Cecilia was faced with so many wigs she didn’t know how to choose which one, so Cecilia’s grandmother said to go for the one that speaks to you. She picked up a Farrah Fawcett style blonde wig and put it on her head saying, “Grandma, it’s beautiful” “Yes, you are” her grandmother replied.

Photo by Serena Jara

On the eve of the talent show, Cecilia expressed fear to her grandma saying that the other kids will surely laugh at her. Cecilia’s grandma didn’t attempt to convince her otherwise, and instead encouraged Cecilia to do it anyways, saying, “someday you’ll be in New York doing this and laughing at those who judged you”.

While looks of horror and disgust spread across the faces in the audience, Cecilia’s grandma cheered praise and looked on with love as Cecilia did the provocative disco choreography in an outfit they created complete with earrings hanging from a bra like nipple tassels.

Photo by Serena Jara

Cecilia spoke of how, as soon as she could, she made a pilgrimage to the closest gay bar she knew of in order to find her people. There she found a trans woman she looked up to and aspired to be like, and immediately latched onto her in a frenzied plea of “Help! How do I be like you? I want to be a woman too!” to which the trans elder insisted Cecilia calm down and replied something to the effect of, “If you choose this life, I can assure you three things: You will do drugs. You will turn tricks. And you will die young. Do you still want to do this?” Cecilia responded first with fear, but then returned to her trans mother with determination, that even if it means dying young, she would prefer a shorter life as herself than a long life of hiding her truth.

Photo by Serena Jara

This interaction is especially indicative of how the story of Cecilia’s life differs from the narrative dominant culture demands of trans people. Instead of responding to this warning with an empowering speech about how things shouldn’t have to be this way, and that she is determined to defy her fate, Cecilia instead spoke of her actual reaction, and the sacrifice she’d be willing to make in order to be herself.

Yet Cecilia never dwelled on the tragedy of her transness as she would have to do in order to tell her stories in dominant cultural spaces or to be taken serious in legal settings. Between stories Cecilia projected the image of her appeal for citizenship and pre-recorded audio narrating the traumatic stories of being a trans person in Argentina. As the hints of abuses and horrors she dealt with were brought into the space, they were drowned out with the audio of the song Gloria by Laura Branigan, which she danced to, as the documents were overtaken by projected images from glamorous photoshoots Cecilia modeled for.

Photo by Serena Jara

The final story Cecilia tells is that of moving to New York City to be a porn star, buying glamorous clothes, falling in love and calling up her family back in Argentina, to tell them of her new life. Her grandma clarified, “You’re living in New York and you’re with your people and you’re living as a woman?” “Yes grandma!” “See?” said Cecilia’s grandmother, “ I’m always right!”

Photo by Serena Jara

As Cecilia took her bows after the final scene-breaker of her reading the document awarding her citizenship, she immediately welcomed to the stage her collaborators. Cecilia utilized the telling of her story to champion other trans artists, namely photographer Serena Jara and fashion designer Gogo Graham. Their art is an intrinsic part of the staging of the show, and was displayed in the gallery of the venue leading up to the performance space. Their symbiotic work can be seen also through the companion piece zine which tells additional stories from the show ( http://docdro.id/y0gFVJm ).

Thus The Knife Cuts Both Ways serves to further prove what Cecilia and most other trans people know, that the stories that best represent us are often the same stories the dominant culture attempts to silence. Truth is always more valuable than adhering to others’ notions of respectability, and oftentimes the best way to tell such truthful stories is by making work both with and for other trans people.

Photo by Serena Jara 

Justin Vivian Bond’s Pride Show “For The Children”

Justin Vivian Bond showed what Pride truly means amidst the Trump Presidency

From the moment I first saw Justin Vivian Bond perform live, I’ve taken up the mantle of being v’s groupie, and thankfully v hasn’t shooed me away. Needless to say, when Mx. Bond performed twice at (le) Poisson Rouge during Pride weekend I was in attendance for both shows.

The Poster for v’s 2018 Pride Show

Justin Vivian Bond’s work is always inexorably political, for instance a central topic in v’s last Christmas show was the condemnation of rape culture, thus utilizing the platform to shine light on pertinent social issues. Mx. Bond continued this tradition by highlighting radical empathy. V asserted the imperative that queer people must do everything in their power to support other marginalized groups that the Trump administration is dead set on dehumanizing, particularly immigrants, refugees, people of color, and sex-workers.

V began the show with an invocation to those we have to thank for our existence in the here and now, both calling out to trancestors who paved the way for us as Queer people, and the indigenous people and people of color who were brutalized and died in order for “America” to exist. As the band began to play Nocturn by Kate Bush v took out v’s phone and read The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Photo by Jill H Casid

V then devoted much of the show to sex work in solidarity to those affected by SESTA/FOSTA legislation. The first song v sang was Viking Dan, sweet wholesome song about queer love between sex workers written by the brilliant transgender songwriter Bambi Lake. The song begins, “Viking Dan was occasionally arrested for soliciting on market street” thus setting up the danger inherent in the profession due to inane criminalization laws that put people at risk. Viking Dan continues with the speaker of the song extolling her love for the titular character and her own transition. If this world were fair, not only would sex work be safe and legal, but Bambi Lake would be recognized as one of the most skillful lyricists ever, but thankfully v recognizes her as a national treasure and works to amplify her voice and broaden her audience.

Photo by Kristina Feliciano

During the second show, v told the story of an interaction v had with a transphobe at the supermarket. This person kept sizing v up and down, ostensibly attempting to decipher v’s anatomy, and then purposely left his cart in the checkout line blockading v and the other grocery-store patrons. Mx. Bond’s response was to forcibly make eye contact with the transphobe and slam v’s cart into the one he left, clearing the way for other customers while making a point to the transphobe that v is a force to be reckoned with. To me, that incident is indicative of Justin Vivian Bond’s method of activism; brazen and confrontational to those who attempt to oppress, while using v’s power to metaphorically clean up after others and make things better for everyone. The same aggressive bravado was present in v’s portrayal of the American Music Club song Patriot’s Heart, which has been in v’s repertoire for over a decade.

The song about a nihilistic stripper is dark and melancholy, written about the Reagan administration amidst the AIDS epidemic, thus to feel this song resonate so thoroughly in our current political climate is far from comforting. V leaned in to this collective cultural anxiety that queer people have due to echoes of Reagan’s presidency seen in Trump’s behavior. V got in the audience’s face, snarling and seducing all within the same breath, “give me all your money but don’t tell me what you’re thinking / I’m the past you wasted, I’m the future you’re obliterating / Oh, c’mon grandpa, remind me what you’re celebrating / That your heart finally dried up, or that it finally stopped working?” V casts the audience (often a cis white man) as the politicians deserving of scorn and strikes with tenacity and fervor until the last note of the song.

In v’s own words, the show was meant to celebrate “the outsider children [Judy Garland’s] legacy has come to represent- immigrants, sex workers, witches, and queers.” V spoke of how mythologizing the Stonewall Riot as a result of Judy Garland’s death erases the trans people of color who were instrumental in the uprising at Stonewall. Nevertheless, v embraced Judy Garland as a symbol to speak about the desire for belonging that binds marginalized peoples.

A running concept throughout the show was dedicating songs to the children: those who had been separated from their families, subjugated, locked in cages, and conveniently misplaced by the US government. V spoke of these children and their families striving for a better place where they can be free. Justin Vivian Bond drew parallels to LGBTQ+ people migrating from unsafe living situations to cities and communities where they can strive towards a life they want to live, made up of people who love them. After v illustrated the similarities, v spoke of The Wizard of Oz and how the crux of Somewhere Over The Rainbow applies to immigrants and refugees as much as it applies to the LGBTQ+ community, v sang the legendary song with the utmost sincerity dedicated to the children who deserve so much better.

Photo by Kristina Feliciano

The final, most poignant song of the show was v’s cover of the David Bowie song Rock n Roll Suicide. V admitted that this song was v’s outlet to work through v’s own sadness and anger and it showed. V imbued it with both desperation and empowerment, crying out for connection, fearlessly and shamelessly crying onstage as v pleaded to the audience with arms outstretched, “Give me your hands”.

This conclusion mirrors how the show began and synthesizes what Pride means in this tumultuous political storm, calling to the suffering and subjugated and welcoming them in as our family.

“I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain- You’re not alone!”

In Memoriam: Dick Leitsch

On June 22, 2018, the eve of NYC Pride, we lost an LGBTQ+ rights pioneer, Dick Leitsch, who led the 1966 ‘Sip-In’. Before homosexuality was decriminalized in the US, homosexuals were banned from entering bars, refused service, and often arrested during raids such as the one which took place at Stonewall sparking the riot. Inspired by the lunch-counter sit-ins, where black activists went to segregated restaurants and refused to leave until they were served, Dick and his friends did the same at Julius Bar, stating “We are homosexuals.” The Mattachine society took the case to court and won. Julius Bar has since become a gay bar and was Dick Leitsch’s most beloved hangout.

(Photo of the historic Sip-In at Julius by Fred McDarrah)

I was lucky enough to know Dick through Julius Bar’s monthly Mattachine Parties. I always visited him at his usual table, where he held court with his mentees, to say hello and give him my love! In my time knowing Dick, I was privileged to introduce many friends to the legendary activist who was always eager to meet new people and interact with my generation of queer people! Even as his health declined, his spunky sense of humor never faltered, for instance when I gave him a birthday card he immediately asked “is it obscene?”, I told him “no”, “Then I don’t want it!” he laughed, and playfully tossed it across the table, only to graciously take it back and read it in spite of its egregious lack of filth!

(Dick at Julius Bar with Ricardo Guadarrama and Paul Havern)

The last interaction I had with him held such weight- it was at April’s Mattachine celebration. I was informed of Dick’s worsening condition in March but hadn’t heard any updates, so when my friend Ricardo informed me that Dick was present I got verklempt and rushed over to his table to be certain to give him my love as usual. He said “Hello you!” and when I told him I wanted to be sure to talk to him, he responded “I’m so glad you did” and then kissed my hand, saying I looked “very glamorous”, a phrase he repeated no less than five times about an outfit I’d never describe as such, yet it felt like truth coming from him. I didn’t know Dick as well as many of my Mattachine friends did, but the encounters I had with him mean a great deal to me and I feel truly honored that I was able to befriend him to the extent I did.

(A selfie I took with Dick the first time I met him)

Dick Leitsch was a forefather of the LGBTQ+ rights movement and a vital figure in queer history who deserves to be remembered. I’ll miss him and will forevermore toast to him at every Mattachine.

“If you’ve had a drink in a bar in New York City without fear of being refused service for being gay, or of being arrested or caught up in a raid, raise a glass to to Dick Leitsch. And remember where we came from.”- Matthew Riemer

(Memorial Shrine set up at Julius Bar)

The Virtue Of Queer Ridiculousness

The Queer Community is the ridiculousness to the Trump Administration’s wickedness

Amidst the Trump administration this Moliere quote comes to mind: “People have no objection to being considered wicked, but they are not willing to be considered ridiculous”.

The POTUS constantly tweets about his reputation, defending in particular his masculinity and intelligence in a desperate attempt to distance himself from all ridicule, while actively refusing to deny his cruelty or offer apology for copious instances of sexual assault, racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. Trump’s commitment to preserving his ego paired with his lack of empathy, particularly towards marginalized groups is indicative of toxic masculinity.

Amidst this political climate I’ve found myself reflecting on the virtue of queer ridiculousness. I used to view the word “ridiculous” as a pejorative adjective since it is human nature to avoid becoming a laughingstock, yet as I grew more aware of LGBTQ+ history and culture, I discovered multitudes of individuals who embraced eccentricities as a means for queer self-expression.

A Long Way Yet To Go

The Town Hall’s Promotional Poster

On May 10th 2018 The Town Hall hosted a showing of the 1968 film The Queen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the pre-Stonewall “Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant” hosted by widely beloved transcestor Mother Flawless Sabrina (AKA Jack Doroshow) as a celebration of her life and legacy. This triumphant gathering of community centered Queer history while encouraging future generations to go forth reveling in their queerness. In her introduction Zackary Drucker commended Mother Flawless Sabrina for her fearlessness and work towards queer visibility while speaking truthfully about how the LGBTQ+ community still “has a long way yet to go”.

My introduction to Mother Flawless Sabrina was not that of the grand dame impresario portrayed in the film, but as a patron saint of the ridiculous, so to see her depicted, as Drucker commented, as a “no-nonsense businessman” painted a fuller portrait of the person whose legacy I personally celebrated by repping her iconic sharpied-on poinsettia red lips. In this way The Queen illustrated the sort of relativism one of Mother Flawless Sabrina’s proteges Taylor Mac often highlights in judy’s work.

The Queen 1968 film poster

Much of Mother Flawless Sabrina’s presence in the film portrays her as micromanaging, her mothering less soft and nurturing and more strict and assertive. One scene shows Doroshow militantly commanding the ensemble by shouting choreography above the blaring patriotic red-white-and-blue fanfare.

Although Flawless Sabrina, then only 24 years old, is surely a formidable figure, the main focus of the film is on the pageant contestants and the lead up to the announcement of the winner.

Audiences laughed and applauded the events on screen that occurred on the stage before us while seated where the likes of Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol sat. Yet unfortunately included in these intergenerational echoes were still-pervasive issues of racism, colorism, and body-shaming.

One contestant, a plus size-queen with commendable musical theatre chops is given screen-time shown rehearsing their brilliant rendition of the song ‘Honey Bun’ from South Pacific, yet when revealed that they’re uncomfortable competing in the swimsuit portion of the competition it’s framed as if they never stood a chance against the others in spite of their talent.

That moment goes by quickly and doesn’t take much to miss, but the scene that went down in infamy and represents a more brazen form injustice is the way in which Crystal Labeija’s objection to the pageant winner is portrayed.

The aforementioned “long way yet to go” was addressed directly by the words and performance of The House of Labeija. They objected to the racism seen in how Crystal was dismissed and framed as overly dramatic and confrontational for confronting discrimination, while the crowned winning queen, Harlow, a blonde bambi-eyed ingenue spent much of the film crying and framed as a victim to Crystal’s alleged aggression.

The House Of Lebeija Reenacting Crystal’s Rant (Photo by Tracy Ketcher)

Crystal Labeija spent her life under scrutiny of white gaze, often facing unforgivable racism from pageant judges, yet her tirade, although framed as mean-spirited and bitter in the film, actively acknowledges that Harlow is merely a product of a system of beauty standards that prioritizes whiteness and is not inherently cruel herself, albeit unequivocally undeserving.

Crystal Lebeija Responding To Harlow

As the performers of The House of Labeija spoke up about how they agreed that Mother Flawless Sabrina rigged the pageant, I could hear murmurs from people around me, uncomfortable that anyone would speak ill of the dead, as if snidely laughing at Crystal’s anger wasn’t equally disrespectful to groundbreaking queer ancestor deserving of honor.

There is still a long way yet to go.