Queer History

Succession

a painting of a river running through a mountainous valley. In the foreground there is a human skull, a crown, and some other artifacts. The image is overlaid with the following poem: We must own this grief we have inherited And wear the skulls of the queens that came before us as crowns Raise them high, honored, and remembered Raise them high as we must hold our own heads Raise them high- Raise Hell

We must own this grief we have inherited 

And wear the skulls of the queens that came before us as crowns

Raise them high, honored, and remembered 

Raise them high as we must hold our own heads

Raise them high- 

Raise Hell

 

I wrote this poem about a year ago.  I’m still pretty happy with it.  It’s a good segue, I think, from Pride Month into Wrath Month.  I thought it also deserved a painting, so I played with watercolor and pulled out some acrylics for the first time in a while. We can’t forget that trans women of color are the foundation of the movement, and we must honor them and the others who have fought and fallen in our community. And we can’t stop fighting.

To give credit where credit is due, the skulls as crowns line was inspired by Chrysanthemum Tran’s spoken word poem, “Vampires.” It’s heavy.

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)

Queer Visibility Through Art: Now & Then

The indifference and aversion to being gay is something that is embedded in our culture. Queer people have fought for their rights, their battle finally coming into light after the Stonewall Riots of 1969.  The LGBTQ+ community has made many accomplishments such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a ban on open transgender people serving in the military, and the passing of the Marriage Equality Act. However, our fight is far from over. Violence against queer people is magnified by intensity of our current political climate. On March 23, 2018, the White House made the announcement that “transgender persons with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria — individuals who the policies state may require substantial medical treatment, including medications and surgery — are disqualified from military service except under certain limited circumstances.” As a queer person, I have become fearful of what’s next, as if the progress made is being stifled by an oppressive regime.

Recently, the argument has been made that queerness is something that’s erupted in the past few years. The notion that being gay is trendy has recently come into the light. Janelle Harris, a mother and blogger, wrote about this subject in an article titled, “Are Straight Teens Being Influenced by LGBTQ Trendiness?” She explores this question primarily through personal experience after a preteen makes a comment about Harris’ child being gay for applying to an all girls high school. She also writes that, “I do know, however, that I’ve seen a plethora of young kids — even 12 and under — exploring same-sex lovin’. And that would be OK if I believed that they were actually gay and not just emulating folks in the streets or what they see on TV. Society’s slow-but-steady acceptance of gay and lesbian culture has made it hip to wave a rainbow flag.” On the grounds that children are more exposed to queerness in the media and in public, she is correct. Children nowadays are seeing gay people being accepted and even embraced by society, possibly being the first American generation to experience this. But does acceptance really constitute it as being trendy?

The biggest flaw in Harris’ argument is that she fails to back her claim up with anything but a single experience. She becomes very defensive when her child is perceived to be gay by another child. She simply believes she knows what is true because mother knows best. It’s natural for a mother to become defensive when untrue statements are made about her daughter. But does a mother truly know? Harris’ child is reaching the dawn of adolescence. It is rare that a 14 year old will be knowledgeable and confident in her own sexuality at only 14, let alone her mother knowing. It’s natural for people at this age to explore their sexual orientation and figure out their identity. Harris’ rejection of this curiosity stifles her daughter’s journey to self exploration, something that many queer teens experience firsthand. Bi-curiosity has a bad reputation but is, in fact, a healthy phase of adolescence.

Harris also fails to differentiate between social acceptance and what is trendy. The visibility of queer people seems to make her uncomfortable, as it does for many others. I believe this stems from homophobia so deeply ingrained into society that many often don’t even notice it. It was only three years ago that the Marriage Equality Act was passed. Queer acceptance is still a fairly new concept in America. While Harris makes the claim that being gay is “trendy”, queer teens are 120% more likely to be homeless.

    The Stonewall riots triggered a surge in the fight against homophobia and transphobia since 1969. Queer people have demanded to be seen and heard. This country has become a much safer place for some queer people. When queer people are becoming visible for the first time and yet there are still many with an outdated, prejudiced mindset, some may still view queer people as a lower status of society, something they don’t want to be associated with. These people view LGBTQ+ visibility as a phase of society because they don’t understand the difference between being seen and what is trendy. Harris feels as if too many adolescents are coming out as gay or bisexual, making the argument that this stems from a trend in society. But as she sees more and more queer people becoming visible, she is blind to the fact that the emergence of more queer people coming out stems from the shift in society’s values on queer people. As a result, she comes to the conclusion that being queer is a trend of the future because she hasn’t seen it in the past.

Despite the fact that Harris and many others view being gay as trendy, queer people have been fighting for visibility for years but have been left in the dark. However, queer people have possessed many high power positions and made wonderful contributions to culture. Art has reflected same-sex unions and gender-nonconformity for centuries. Art has served as a platform for expression of queerness throughout history. The notion that being gay is trendy, however, seems to be a new idea.

Gender-nonconformity is often interpreted as a new concept that emerged in the newer generation. However, the fluidity of gender has been reflected in art as early as the 1600’s. Ermafradito (1652) by Matteo Bonuccelli portrays Aphrodite’s and Hermes’ child, who once joined with a nymph to emerge as one being but with both genders. This interpretation of mythology indicates a curiosity in the bending of gender roles for a long period of time. Gender-nonconformity has been prevalent among many groups of people, such as the Greeks and Spanish, throughout the world and is hardly something that is new. While many make the claim that the queerness is something that emerged from the younger generation, it has been expressed through art for centuries.

Another example of gender-nonconformity found in art and culture is a piece by Gauguin titled Marquesan Man in the Red Cape. Gauguin traveled from France to the Polynesian islands, believing that the natives would be free of European influence. What he found was a culture whose gender roles were vastly different than those of Europe. In this piece, Gauguin portrays a native whose gender would now be referred to as nonbinary. This individual was Mahu from Hiva Oa that identified as a third gender. They took on both male and female roles and ways of presenting themselves. Mahu natives of the third gender often had an elevated position in Mahu spirituality. They were often considered healers. Jade Snow, a writer for Yes! Magazine, interviewed a Mahu teacher named Hina who states that, ““A mahu is an individual that straddles somewhere in the middle of the male and female binary. It does not define their sexual preference or gender expression because gender roles, gender expressions, and sexual relationships have all been severely influenced by the changing times. It is dynamic. It is like life.” Colonization and the arrival of European missionaries resulted in the enforcement of Christian values on the Hawaiian people, imposing their strict views on gender and sexuality. While gender-nonconforming individuals have existed in Hawaiian culture for centuries, the influx of Western culture repressed their fluid ideas of gender.

While the oppressiveness of Western culture forced gender and sexuality into strict roles of what should and shouldn’t be, some defied social standards and persisted in proving who they were. Frida Kahlo, a highly regarded Mexican artist of the 1920’s and 30’s, identified as a bisexual women who had sexual and romantic relations with both men and women. She explored her sexuality through her artwork. One piece, titled Two Nudes in the Forest, also known as The Earth itself, portrayed Kahlo’s affection for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress of the 1920s. In this piece, Kahlo is holding Dolores Del Rio, appearing to comfort her. In the background, a monkey sits, watching. Monkeys are a traditional symbol of sin and mischief. This juxtaposition of love and sin mirrors the duality of Kahlo’s sexuality and her refusal to conform to traditional standards of love and sexuality.

Art serves as both an expression of the artist and as a piece of history. Queer art has always embraced the ambiguity of gender and sexuality. It seems as if queer people have always existed and that colonization and oppressive Christian ideals are what is fairly new. Homophobia evolved from the stifling gender binary. Queer people existed, despite this, but became invisible to society. In the recent decades, the LGBTQ+ community has demanded recognition, and for the first time in American history, are receiving it. Those who argue that being queer is something of the newer generation simply seem to be unable to adapt to the shift in social standards.

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.